Category Archives: Common Questions

Is the Bible (Veda Pusthakan) Textually reliable?

The Bible imparts spiritual truth by recording how God has acted in history. It starts at the beginning when God created mankind in His image and then confronted the first humans and spoke of a specific ‘he’ who was to come and be sacrificed. This was followed up by the specific event of the sacrifice of a ram in place of Rsi Abraham’s son and the historical event of Passover. This parallels the ancient Rg Vedas where sacrifice for our sin is required and the promise  given that this would occur with the sacrifice of the Purusa.  These promises were fulfilled in the life, teachings, death & resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (Yeshu Satsang).  But the promises and their fulfillments are historical.  Therefore, for the Bible to be trustworthy in imparting spiritual truth it must also be historically reliable. This leads us to our question: Is the Bible historically reliable? And how does someone know if it is or is not?

We start by asking  whether the text (the words) of the Bible has changed over time or not.  Known as textual reliability, the question arises because the Bible is so ancient.  There are many books which make up the Bible, and the last books were written down almost two thousand years ago.  For most of the intervening centuries there has been no printing press, photocopy machines or publishing companies. So these books were copied by hand, generation after generation, as languages died out and new ones arose, as empires changed and new powers came to be. Since the original manuscripts have long ago disappeared, how do we know that what we read today in the Bible is what the original authors actually wrote long ago?  Is there any ‘scientific’ way to know whether what we read today is different or the same from the original writings of long ago?

Principles of Textual Criticism

This question is true of any ancient writing. The figure below illustrates the process by which all writings from the ancient past are preserved over time so we can read them today. The figure shows an example of an ancient document written at 500 BC (this date being chosen solely as an example).

Example Timeline illustrate how texts go through time

Example Timeline illustrate how texts go through time

The original does not last indefinitely, so before it decays, is lost, or destroyed, a manuscript (MSS) copy of it is made (1st copy). A professional class of people called scribes did the copying work. As the years advance, copies are made of the copy (2nd copy & 3rd copy). At some point a copy is preserved that is still in existence today (3rd copy). In our example diagram this existing copy was copied in 500 AD. This means that the earliest that we can know of the state of the text of the document is only from 500 AD and later since all the earlier manuscripts have disappeared.  The 1000 year period from 500 BC to 500 AD (labeled x in the diagram) is the period where we cannot check copies since all manuscripts from this period are gone. For example, if copying errors (intentional or otherwise) were made when the 2nd copy was made from the 1st copy, we would not be able to detect them since neither of these documents are now available to compare against each other. This time period before the origin of currently existing copies (the period x) is thus the interval of textual uncertainty. Consequently, a principle that answers our question about textual reliability is that the shorter this interval x is the more confidence we can place in the accurate preservation of the document to our modern day, since the period of uncertainty is reduced.

Of course, usually more than one manuscript copy of a document is in existence today. Suppose we have two such manuscript copies and in the same section of each of them we find the following phrase (I have it in English for the sake of the example, the real manuscript would be in an ancient language like Greek, Latin or Sanskrit):

Textual Variance with few manuscripts

Textual Variance with few manuscripts

The original writing had either been writing about Joan OR about John, and the other of these manuscripts contains a copy error. The question is -Which one has the error? From the available evidence it is very difficult to determine.

Now suppose we found two more manuscript copies of the same work, as shown below:

Textual variance with several manuscripts

Textual variance with several manuscripts

Now it is easier to deduce which manuscript has the error. It is more likely that the error is made once, rather than the same error repeated three times, so it is likely that MSS #2 has the copy error, and the author was writing about Joan, not John.

This simple example illustrates a second principle we can use to test manuscript textual reliability: the more existing manuscripts that are available, the easier it is to detect & correct errors and to determine the words of the original.

Textual Criticism of Great Books of the West

We have two indicators to determine the textual reliability of the Bible:

  1. measuring the time between original composition and earliest existing manuscript copies, and
  2. counting the number of existing manuscript copies.

Since these indicators apply to any ancient writing we can proceed to apply them to both the Bible as well as other ancient writings, as done in the tables below.

Author When Written Earliest Copy Time Span #
Caesar 50 BC 900 AD 950 10
Plato 350 BC 900 AD 1250 7
Aristotle* 300 BC 1100 AD 1400 5
Thucydides 400 BC 900 AD 1300 8
Herodotus 400 BC 900 AD 1300 8
Sophocles 400 BC 1000 AD 1400 100
Tacitus 100 AD 1100 AD 1000 20
Pliny 100 AD 850 AD 750 7

These writers represent the major classical writers of Western history – the writings that have shaped the development of Western civilization. On average, they have been passed down to us by 10-100 manuscripts that are preserved starting only about 1000 years after the original was written.

Textual Criticism of Great Books of the East

Let us now look at ancient Sanskrit epics that provide much of the understanding of philosophy and history in South Asia. Prominent among these works is the Mahabharata, which contains, among other things, the Bhagavad Gita and the account of the Kurukshetra War. Scholars assess that the Mahabharata developed into its current written form around 900 BC, but the oldest manuscript portions that still exist are dated at around 400 BC, giving an interval of about 500 years from original composition and earliest existing manuscripts (wiki reference link).  Osmania University in Hyderabad boasts that it has two manuscript copies in its library collection, but these two date from only 1700 AD and 1850 AD – thousands of years after original composition (reference link). Not only are the manuscript copies rather late, but given that the Mahabharata was a popular work that conformed to changes in language and style, there is a very high degree of textual variance between the existing manuscript copies. Scholars who assess textual variance write of the Mahabharata state:

“The national epic of India, the Mahabharata, has suffered even more corruption. It is about … 250 000 lines. Of these, some 26 000 lines are textual corruptions (10 percent)” – (Geisler, NL and WE Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Moody Press. 1968. P 367)

The other great epic, the Ramayana, is considered to have been composed around 400 BC but the earliest existing copy, from Nepal, is dated at the 11 century AD (reference link) – giving an interval from original composition to earliest existing manuscripts of about 1500 years. There are several thousand existing copies of the Ramayana. These have extensive textual variations between them, especially between those of North India and those of South India/South East Asia. Scholars have grouped the manuscripts into 300 different families based on textual variations.

Textual Criticism of the New Testament

Let us now examine the manuscript data for the Bible. The table below lists the oldest existing copies of the New Testament. Each of them has been given a name (usually from the name of the discoverer of the manuscript)

MSS When Written Date of MSS Time Span
 John Rylan 90 AD 130 AD 40 yrs
Bodmer Papyrus 90 AD 150-200 AD 110 yrs
Chester  Beatty 60 AD 200 AD 20 yrs
Codex Vaticanus 60-90 AD 325 AD 265 yrs
Codex Sinaiticus 60-90 AD 350 AD 290 yrs

The number of New Testament manuscripts is so vast that it would be impossible to list them all in a table. As one scholar who spent years studying this issue states:

“We have more than 24000 MSS copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today… No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the ILIAD by Homer is second with 643 MSS that still survive”   (McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 40)

A leading scholar at the British Museum corroborates this:

“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers … yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of MSS whereas the MSS of the N.T. are counted by … thousands”  (Kenyon, F.G. -former director of British Museum- Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts. 1941 p.23)

And a significant number of these manuscripts are extremely ancient. I own a book about the earliest New Testament documents. The Introduction starts with:

“This book provides transcriptions of 69 of the earliest New Testament manuscripts…dated from early 2nd century to beginning of the 4th (100-300AD) … containing about 2/3 of the new Testament text” (P. Comfort, “The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts”. Preface p. 17. 2001 )

This is significant since these manuscripts come from the early period when the followers of the gospel were not in power in a government, but were instead subject to intense persecution by the Roman Empire. This is the period when the gospel came to South India, to Kerala, and here too the community of gospel followers were never in a position of power through which a king could manipulate the manuscripts. The figure below illustrates the timeline of manuscripts from which the New Testament of the Bible is based.

Timeline showing that from the existing 24000 manuscript copies of the New Testament, the very earliest ones are used in modern translations (e.g. in English, Nepali or Hindi) of the Bible. These come from before the time of Constantine (325 AD) who was the first Christian Emperor of Rome

Timeline showing that from the existing 24000 manuscript copies of the New Testament, the very earliest ones are used in modern translations (e.g. in English, Nepali or Hindi) of the Bible. These come from before the time of Constantine (325 AD) who was the first Christian Emperor of Rome

The estimated textual variation among all these thousands of manuscripts is only

“400 lines out of 20000.” (Geisler, NL and WE Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Moody Press. 1968. P 366)

Thus the text is 99.5% common across these many manuscripts.

Textual Criticism of the Old Testament

It is much the same with the Old Testament. The 39 books of the Old Testament were written from between 1500 – 400 BC. This is shown in the figure below where the period when the original books were being written is shown as a bar on the timeline. We have two families of manuscripts for the Old Testament. The traditional family of manuscripts is the Masoretic texts which were copied about 900 AD. However in 1948 another family of manuscripts of the Old Testament that is much older – from 200 BC and known as the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were discovered. These two families of manuscripts are shown in the figure. What is amazing is that though separated in time by about 1000 years, the differences between them are minute. As one scholar has said about them:

‘These [DSSs] confirm the accuracy of the Masoretic Text … Except for a few instances where spelling and grammar differ between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text, the two are amazingly similar’  (M.R. Norton, Manuscripts of the Old Testament in The Origin of the Bible, 1992)

When we compare this with, for example, the textual variation in the Ramayana, the permanence of the text of the Old Testament is simply remarkable.

Timeline showing how the Old Testament manuscripts of the Bible have not changed from the Masoretic to the Dead Sea Scrolls even though these are separated by about 1000 years.

Timeline showing how the Old Testament manuscripts of the Bible have not changed from the Masoretic to the Dead Sea Scrolls even though these are separated by about 1000 years.

Conclusion: The Bible is Textually Reliable

So what can we conclude from this data? Certainly at least in what we can objectively measure (number of extant MSSs, the time spans between original and earliest existing MSS, and the degree of textual variation between the manuscripts) the Bible is verified to a much higher degree than any other ancient work. The verdict to which the evidence pushes us is best summed up by the following quote:

“To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no other documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament”  (Montgomery, History and Christianity. 1971. p.29)

What he is saying is that to be consistent, if we decide to doubt the textual reliability of the  Bible we may as well discard all that we know about history in general – and this no informed historian has ever done. We know that the Biblical texts have not been altered as eras, languages and empires have come and gone since the earliest extant MSSs pre-date these events.  The Bible is a reliable book.

How to receive the gift of cleansing from the sacrifice of Jesus?

Jesus came to give himself as a sacrifice for all peoples.  This message is foreshadowed in the hymns of the ancient Rg Vedas as well as in the promises and Festivals of the ancient Hebrew Vedas.  Jesus is the answer to the question we ask every time we recite the prayer of the Prartha Snana (or Pratasana) mantram.  How is this so?  The Bible (Veda Pusthakan) declares a Karmic Law that affects all of us:

For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23)

Below I show this karmic law through an illustration.  “Death” means separation.  When our soul separates from our body we are dead physically.  In a similar way we are separated from God spiritually.  This is true because God is Holy (sinless).

Slide1

We are separated from God by our sins like a chasm between two cliffs

We can picture ourselves as being on a cliff and God on another cliff and we are separated by this bottomless chasm of sin.

This separation causes guilt and fear.  So what we naturally try to do is build a bridge that will take us from our side (of death) to God’s side.  We offer sacrifices, perform pujas, practice asceticism, participate in festivals, go to temples, make many prayers and even try to reduce or stop our sins. This list of deeds to gain merit can be very long for some of us.  The problem is that our efforts, merits, sacrifices and ascetic practices etc., though in themselves not bad, are insufficient because the payment required (the ‘wages’) for our sins is ‘death’.  This is illustrated in the next figure.

Slide2

Religious merit – good though that may be – cannot bridge the separation between us and God

Through our religious efforts we try to build a ‘bridge’ to cross the divide separating ourselves from God.  Though this is not bad, it will not solve our problem because it does not succeed in going completely over to the other side.  Our efforts are not sufficient. It is like trying to heal cancer (which results in death) by eating veg only and by wearing bandages.  Wearing bandages and eating veg is not bad – but it will not cure cancer.  For that you need a totally different treatment.  We can illustrate these efforts with a ‘bridge’ of religious merit that goes only part-way across the chasm – leaving us still separated from God.

The Karmic law is Bad News – it is so bad we often do not even want to hear it and we often fill our lives with activities and things hoping this Law will go away – until the gravity of our situation sinks into our souls.  But the Bible does not end with this Karmic Law.

For the wages of sin is death but … (Romans 6:23)

The small word ‘but’ shows that the direction of the Law is now about to go the other way, to Good News – Gospel.  It is the Karmic Law reversed to one of Moksha and Enlightenment.  So what is this Good News of Moksha?.

For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23)

The good news of the gospel is that the sacrifice of Jesus’ death is sufficient to bridge this separation between us and God.  We know this because three days after his death Jesus rose bodily, coming alive again in a physical resurrection.   Though some people today choose to disbelieve the resurrection of Jesus a very strong case can be made for it shown in this public lecture I did at a university (video link here).  The Lord Jesus entered heaven and offered himself to God.  In a sense, he performed a puja, accepted by God, by offering himself for cleansing of sin, on behalf of all people.

Jesus is the Purusa giving the perfect sacrifice.  Since he was a man he is able to be a bridge that spans the chasm and touches the human side and since he was perfect he also touches God’s side.  He is a Bridge to Life and this can be illustrated as below

Slide3

Jesus is the Bridge that spans the chasm between God and man. His sacrifice pays our sins.

Notice in this Moksha Principle how this sacrifice of Jesus is given to us.  It is given as a … ‘gift’.  Think about gifts.  No matter what the gift is, if it is really a gift it is something that you do not work for and that you do not earn by merit.  If you earned it the gift would no longer be a gift!  In the same way you cannot merit or earn the sacrifice of Jesus.  It is given to you as a gift.

And what is the gift?  It is ‘eternal life’.  This means that the sin which brought you death is now cancelled.  The sacrifice of Jesus is a bridge upon which you can cross to connect with God and receive life – that lasts forever.  This gift is given by Jesus who, by rising from the dead, shows himself to be ‘lord’.

So how do you and I ‘cross’ on this bridge of life that Jesus gives to us as a gift?  Again, think of gifts.  If someone comes and gives you a gift it is something you do not work for.  But to get any benefit from the gift you must ‘receive’ it.  Anytime a gift is offered there are two alternatives.  Either the gift is refused (“No thank you”) or it is received (“Thank you for your gift.  I will take it”).  So this gift that Jesus offers must be received.  It cannot simply be ‘believed’, studied, or understood.  This is illustrated in the next figure where we ‘walk’ on the Bridge by turning to God and receiving his gift he offers to us.

Slide4

Jesus’ sacrifice is a Gift that each of us must choose to receive

So how do we receive this gift?  The Bible says that

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:12)

Notice that this promise is for ‘everyone’.  Since he rose from the dead Jesus is alive even now and he is ‘Lord’.  So if you call on him he will hear and extend his gift of life to you.  You need to call out to him and ask him – by having a conversation with him.  Perhaps you have never done this.  Here is a guide that can help you have this conversation and prayer with him.  It is not a magic incantation.  It is not the specific words that give power.  It is the trust that we have in his ability and willingness to give us this gift.  As we trust him he will hear us and respond.  So feel free to follow this guide as you either speak out loud or in your spirit to Jesus and receive his gift.

Dear Lord Jesus.  I understand that with the sins in my life I am separated from God.  Though I can try hard, no effort and sacrifice on my part will bridge this separation.  But I understand that your death was a sacrifice to wash away all sins – even my sins.  I believe that you rose from the dead after your sacrifice so I can know that your sacrifice was sufficient.  I ask you to please cleanse me from my sins and bridge me to God so I can have eternal life.  I do not want to live a life enslaved to sin so please free me from these sins that hold me in a grip of karma.  Thank you, Lord Jesus, for doing all this for me and would you even now continue to guide me in my life so I can follow you as my Lord.

The convergence of Sanskrit and Hebrew Vedas: Why?

In my last post I looked at the similarities between the account of Manu in the Sanskrit Vedas and the account of Noah in the Hebrew Vedas.  And this convergence goes beyond these flood accounts.  As we have seen, there is a similar convergence between the Promise of the sacrifice of Purusa at the dawn of time with that of the Promised offspring given in the Hebrew book of Genesis .  So why do we see these convergences?  Is it due to coincidence?  Does one account borrow or steal from the other?  Here I offer a suggestion.

Tower of Babel – The Account After the Flood

Following the account of Noah, the Veda Pusthakam (the Bible) goes on to record the descendants of his three sons and to state that “From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.” (Genesis 10:32).  The Sanskrit Vedas also declare that Manu had three sons from whom all mankind descend.  But how did this ‘spreading out’ occur?

The ancient Hebrew account goes into detail to list and name the descendants of these three sons of Noah.  You can read this complete list here.  The account then goes on to describe how these descendants disobeyed the directive of Elohim or Prajapati – the Creator, who had commanded them to ‘fill the earth’ (Genesis 9:1).  But instead these people remained together to build a tower.  You can read that account here.  This account states this was a tower ‘that reaches to the heavens’ (Genesis 11:4).  This means that these first descendants of Noah were building a tower for the purpose of worshiping stars and the sun, moon, planets etc. instead of worshiping the Creator.  It is well-known that star worship originated in Mesopotamia (where these descendants were living) and that it then spread all over the world.  A Religion Dictionary reference states that star worship:

This was certainly so in Mesopotamia in the last two millennia bce [10: i–iii ] and in Central America among the Maya [9: v ]. Star-worship probably underlies the prehistoric megalithic astronomical sites of northern Europe [9: ii–iii ; e.g. Stonehenge] and similar sites in North America [9: iv ; e.g. the Big Horn medicine wheel]. From Mesopotamia star-worship passed into Graeco-Roman culture…

So instead of worshiping the Creator, our ancestors worshiped stars.  The account then says that to frustrate this, so that the corruption of worship would not become irreversible, the Creator decided to

…confuse their language so they will not understand each other. (Genesis 11:7)

As a result of this, these first descendants of Noah could not understand each other and so in this way the Creator

scattered them from there over all the earth  (Genesis 11:8)

In other words, once these people could no longer talk to each other, they migrated away from each other, within their newly formed linguistic groups, and thus they ‘scattered’.  This explains why the different people groups of the world today speak in very different languages, as each group spread out from their original center in Mesopotamia (sometimes over many generations) to the places where they are found today.  Thus, their respective histories diverged from this point onwards.  But each language group (which formed these first nations) had a common history up to this point.   This common history included the Promise of Moksha through the sacrifice of Purusa and the flood account of Manu (Noah).  The Sanskrit rsis remembered these events through their Vedas and the Hebrews remembered these same events through their Veda (the Torah of Rsi Moses).

The Testimony of diverse Flood accounts – from around the world

This explanation does explain the convergence and similarity between these early Vedas.  But is there further evidence to support this explanation?  Interestingly, the flood account is not just remembered in the ancient Hebrew and Sanskrit Vedas.  Diverse people groups around the globe remember a great flood in their respective histories.  The following chart illustrates this.

Flood accounts from cultures around the world compared to the flood account in the Bible

Flood accounts from cultures around the world compared to the flood account in the Bible

Across the top this shows various language groups living around the world – on every continent.   The cells in the chart denote whether the particular detail of the Hebrew flood account (listed down the left of the chart) is also contained their own flood account.  Black cells indicate that this detail is in their flood account, while blank cells indicate that this detail is not in their local flood account.  You can see that almost all these groups had at least in common the ‘memory’ that the flood was a Judgment by the Creator but that some humans were saved in a huge boat.  In other words, the memory of this flood is not only found in the Sanskrit and Hebrew Vedas, but in other cultural histories around the world and continents apart.  It points to this event having happened in our distant past.

The Testimony of the Hindi Calendar

hindu-calendar-panchang

Hindi Calendar – the days of the month go top to bottom, but there is the 7-day week

It was when I worked and traveled in India that I became aware of another supporting testimony which I found to be rather remarkable – but only when you become aware of it.  It is peculiar enough to demand an explanation.  When working in India I saw the many Hindi calendars.  I noticed that they were different than western calendars.  The obvious difference to me was that the calendars were constructed so that the days would go down columns (top to bottom) instead of across rows (left to right), which is the universal way of demarking calendars in the West.  Some calendars had different numbers than the western ‘1, 2, 3…’ since they used the Hindi script (१, २,  ३ …).  I could understand, and even expect, such differences since there is no ‘right’ way to denote a calendar.  But it was the central convergence – in the midst of these differences – that struck me.  The Hindi calendar used the 7-day week – the same as in the Western world.  Why?  I could understand why the calendar was divided into years and months like the western one since these are based on the revolutions of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth – thus giving astronomical foundations universal to all people.  But there is no astronomical time basis for the ‘week’.  When I asked people they said it was custom and tradition that went far back in their history (how far back no one seemed to know).

… and the Buddhist Thai Calendar

thai_lunar_calendar

Thai Calendar goes left to right, but has a different year than in West – but still that 7-day week

I also had the opportunity to live and work in Thailand.  While there I would view their calendars.  Being a Buddhist country, Thais mark their years from the life of the Buddha so that their years were always 543 years greater than in the West (ie the year 2013 AD is 2556 in BE –Buddhist Era – in the Thai calendar).  But again they also used a 7-day week.  Where did they get that from?  Why are calendars that diverge in so many ways across different countries based on the 7-day week when there is no real astronomical basis for this calendar time unit?

Testimony of ancient Greeks on the week

These observations on Hindi and Thai calendars pushed me to see if the 7-day week was evident in other ancient cultures.  And it is.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived around 400 BC is considered the father of modern medicine and he wrote books, preserved to this day, recording his medical observations.  In doing so he used ‘week’ as a time unit.  Writing about the growing symptoms of a certain disease he stated:

The fourth day is indicative of the seventh; the eighth is the commencement of the second week; and hence, the eleventh being the fourth of the second week, is also indicative; and again, the seventeenth is indicative, as being the fourth from the fourteenth, and the seventh from the eleventh  (Hippocrates, Aphorisms. #24)

Aristotle, writing in the 350’s BC uses the ‘week’ regularly to demark time.  To cite one example he writes:

The majority of deaths in infancy occur before the child is a week old, hence it is customary to name the child at that age, from a belief that it has now a better chance of survival. (Aristotle, The History of Animals, Part 12, ca 350 BC)

So where did these ancient Greek writers, far removed from India and Thailand, get the idea of a ‘week’ such that they used it expecting their Greek readers to know what a ‘week’ was?  Perhaps there was an historical event which all these cultures had in their past (though they may have forgotten the event) which established the 7-day week?

The Hebrew Vedas describe just such an event – the initial creation of the world.  In that detailed and ancient account the Creator creates the world and fashions the first people in 7 days (actually 6 days with a 7th day of rest).  Because of that, the descendants of the first human pair then used that 7-day week time unit in their calendar.  When mankind was subsequently scattered by the confusion of languages these major events that preceded this ‘scattering’ were remembered in different ways by some of these different language groups, including the promise of a coming sacrifice, the account of the cataclysmic flood, as well as the 7-day week.  These memories are living artefacts of early mankind and a testament to the history of these events as recorded in these Vedas.  This explanation certainly is the cleanest and simplest way to explain the convergence of the Hebrew and Sanskrit Vedas.  Many people today dismiss these ancient writings as mere superstitious mythology but these convergences should cause us to reconsider.

So early mankind had a common history, and this history included the Promise of Moksha from the Creator.  But how would the promise be fulfilled?  We continue with the account of a holy man who lived just after the scattering caused by the confusion of languages.  We pick this up in our next article.

[For a further look at ancient memories that show similar kinds of convergences – but this time through the calligraphy in the Chinese language see my article here]