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Judging the Authenticity of Biblical Literature
Nadir Aqeel


Bible should be judged on scientific grounds - grounds which are helpful in defining the authenticity of any other old document. A document is first examined internally and then externally. Internal evidence is the study of the text itself while the external evidence is the study of the historical process through which the text was transmitted to us.

Internal evidence deals with the content while the external evidence deals with the process of its transmission. If the text suffers from errors and inconsistencies, we do not need to go for the external evidence. For example if a fragment purporting to be Shakespearean in origin talks of King James, we cannot reject the fragment on this basis alone and need to look for external evidence. But if such a fragment talks of King James travelling in the Space Shuttle Columbia and using Pentium Computers, we would be obliged to reject it right there as a Shakespearean writing and would not waste time in examining external evidence. This shows that internal evidence overrides external evidence. However internal evidence alone is not sufficient to prove that a document is Shakespearean.

External evidence studies the modes of transmission and in case of Bible, asks the following relevant questions:

To which prophet or messenger was it revealed?

Was it written down during the prophet’s lifetime?

Was it written verbatim or only the sense was conveyed in the words of the scribes?

Was it written down in the prophet’s language? For if it was written down in another language, it underwent translation even before it could be preserved, which reduces the authenticity.

If it was written down after the prophet’s death, how long did it take -- one or two years or one or two centuries?

Did the prophet approve the document?

Was it preserved through oral tradition also?

After being written down, how many people received it and handed down the document to the next generation? Was there only one person, or were there two, three or four? Or were there thousands who received it from the Prophet and conveyed it to the next generations?

If there were thousands in each generation, it means that it becomes indubitable. But if there were five or six transmitters, who were they? What was their character, memory and understanding?

If there were few people transmitting it in each generation, we have to see whether they received it personally from another person of their preceding generation. If Mr A received it from Mr B, we have to see whether Mr A met Mr B or not, for if he could not meet him (because A was born after the death of B, or A lived in London and B lived in Damascus and they never travelled out of their places), then the continuity of chain is broken.

Internal Evidence

Following are a few examples of inconsistencies and errors in the Bible:

Pentateuch: It is believed that the Laws or the first five books were written by Moses (sws). But it contains the details of Moses’ death and burial. In the last book of the Pentateuch, we find the following passage: ‘And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died.’ (Deuteronomy 34:5-7). Obviously, if the Pentateuch had been authored by Moses (sws), these verses could not find way into the text. It appears that they were added later. Moreover, the phrase ‘to this day no one knows where his grave is’ shows that these additions were made quite some time after the death of Moses (sws).

The Gospel of John, it is believed, was written by John the son of Zebedee. Whereas in John we find the words: ‘This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24) This shows that John was edited by others.

It says in 2-Samuel: 24:9: ‘And Joab gave up the number of the people unto the king; and there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men.’ While in 1-Chronicles 21:5 we read: ‘And Joab gave the sum of the number of the people unto David. And all they of Israel were a thousand thousand and a hundred thousand men that drew sword; and Judah was four hundred and threescore and ten thousand that drew the sword.’ The difference is apparent and only one of the above statements can be correct.

In 2-Kings 8:26 we find that Ahaziah was twenty two years old when he began to reign, while in 2-Chronicles 22:2 we find that ‘Ahaziah was forty two years old when he began to reign’. These two statements are irreconcilable.

2-Kings 24:8 reads that Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign while 2-Chronicles 36:9 reads that he was eight years old when he began to reign. The inconsistency can only be explained by admitting that one of the texts must have been corrupted.

Genesis 6:19-20 says that God commanded Noah to carry a pair of each animal in the Ark whereas Genesis 7:2-3 shows that he was commanded to carry seven pairs of each. Again, a contradiction between two consecutive chapters of Genesis shows that even a single book was compiled by more than one hand, and also permitted later revisions and additions.

Matthew records: Jesus sent two disciples saying to them: ‘Go to the village ahead of you and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me’ (21:2). On the other hand Mark (11:2), John (12:14) and Luke (19:29) all mention only the colt.

King Abijah’s mother was Michaiah, daughter of Uriel of Gibeah (2-Chr 13:2). In 11:20 of the same book we are told that she was daughter of Absalom. Then in 2-Samuel 14:27 we learn that Absalom had only one daughter named Tamar.

The Genealogy of Jesus Christ given in Luke 3 and Matthew differs in a number of respects. Matthew reports: ‘When Jesus came to live in a town called Nazareth, in fulfillment of what was said by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene’ (2:23). It is widely accepted that the book in which this prophecy was proclaimed was lost, because no such prophecy has survived to us in the OT.

Saint Paul cites from Isaiah: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (2-Cor 2:9). Whereas in Isaiah the correct words are: ‘Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him’ (64:4). These two extracts are clearly divergent and it is difficult to decide whether Isaiah was corrupted or Paul carelessly copied from it.

There are occasions when we learn that NT authors were not aware of the OT, or the OT was then different from what we have now.  For example, Paul in 1-Cor 10:8 says that let us not commit fornication as some of them committed and fell in one day 23000. Whereas in Numbers 25:9 the correct number is 24,000. Similarly, in Acts 7:14 we find that the family of Joseph when brought to Egypt consisted of 75 people. Whereas in Genesis 46:27, we find that they are only 70. The NT authors probably had a different version of OT with them.

How did Judas Iscariot die? Mathew (37:5) states that he hanged himself whereas in Acts 1:18 we learn that he fell and his abdomen burst open.

In 1-John 5:7 the statement comes quite close to the pronounced creed of Christians on Trinity: ‘For there are three that testify: the spirit the water and the blood, and the three are in agreement.’ However even the New International Version notes in a footnote: ‘These words are not found in any Greek manuscript before the sixteenth century.’ That is why they are not included in a number of other versions. Obviously they were added later to provide scriptural support to the doctrine of Holy Trinity.

Matthew records: ‘While he (Jesus Christ) was saying this, a ruler came and knelt before him and said: “My daughter has just died”’ (9:18). On the other hand Mark relates: ‘Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him: “My little daughter is dying”’ (5:23).

The Bible is replete with such discrepancies. Those quoted above only give an idea of the nature of irreconcilable inconsistencies in the biblical text. 

External Evidence

For the purpose of demonstrating the authenticity of scriptures through external evidence, we take the Gospel of John as an example.

The Gospel of John is the fourth gospel and is so different from the other three Synoptic Gospels that it is categorized distinctly from the other three. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) stand together and are in several respects different from the Fourth Gospel (according to John). They are termed Synoptic for if their contents are arranged in several columns we will get the same synopsis or conspectus. This similarity among the Synoptic Gospels is a moot question but the most widely held theory is that Matthew and Luke depend on Mark and they have also utilized another source for the sayings of Jesus Christ (sws) known as ‘Q’ (German Quelle - source). This explanation is known as the ‘Two Source Hypothesis’, and needless to say, has its problems. This also raises a further question - whether the True and Original Gospel, that consisted of sayings of the Jesus Christ (sws) and could not survive to us, could be identified with this Q? In any case, the Gospel According to John is so different in structure and contents from the Synoptic Gospels that it is said: ‘It is unique in every respect’.1  

Authorship: As regards the attribution of John’s Gospel to an Apostle of Jesus Christ (sws), we are in total darkness. It is commonly attributed to John son of Zebedee the Apostle of Christ, which makes it an eyewitness account of Christ’s life and works but there were also dissident voices. K. Luke notes:

Irenaeus mentions groups who rejected the Gospel of John. The Roman presbyter Gaius, appealing to the differences between Synoptics and Johannine Gospel, concluded that the later was the work of heresiarch Cenrinthus. Another group that repudiated the Gospel was the Alogoi. The negative position, it should be remembered never won acceptance in the early church, and any number of testimonies can be cited in support of the apostolic origin of the Gospel according to John.2

The critical position is that the existing Gospel cannot be the work of Apostle John who was an uneducated and common man (Acts 4:13); besides there are traditions that he died a martyr’s death at an early date. The testimony of Papias of Hieropolis too has been cited in support of the negative view.

I was accustomed to inquire about the sayings of the presbyters, what Andrew or what Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or Jacob, or John or Matthew, or any other of Lord’s disciples; and what Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. (Documents of the Church, ed. Henry Bettenson, [New York: Oxford University Press, 1967], p.27)

The point here is the double occurrence of the name John, and whereas the conservatives think that there is question of the same person, critics see here as two different individuals. Some scholars in order to safeguard the traditional position have suggested that John the Apostle employed a Secretary who was given the full freedom to write the Gospel as John wanted. To corroborate this thesis they point out that in antiquity there was a very broad and loose conception of authorship. This proposal invalidates the argument that a simple fisherman could not have written such a subtle theological work as the fourth Gospel - even if we ignore the fact that the subtle Hellenic references and the philosophy of Logos otherwise suggests a much later date. The style of Synoptic Gospels when compared with this highly refined philosophical inclination of Gospel of John clearly suggests a much later date of compilation. Willian M. Ramsay states:

The fourth gospel is given to us as an anonymous work. It is true that all editors now print as its heading The Gospel according to John, but this is the editor’s title, not part of the text itself. As to the identity of the writer, the Bible itself simply leaves us to guess.3

Then giving the arguments of those who think it was written by John the son of Zebedee, Ramsay repeats:

It must be repeated however that the Gospel comes to us as an anonymous book. Only very conservative scholars today are likely to ascribe it actually to the pen of the Apostle.4

The last sentences of the Gospel that introduce some anonymous editors through insertion of ‘we’ further elaborates this point. We find in the end of this Gospel the following words:

This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24)

These words clearly show that the Gospel was later edited by others. Some hold that it was a secretary who recorded what John dictated. Others say that it gradually evolved with contributions from a number of unknown people. The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism holds:

John, written in final form around A.D. 100, seems to have drawn on independent traditions.5

The words ‘final form’ show clearly that it underwent a number of stages. The editor’s note referred above leaves anybody guessing what other insertions could have occurred after the final compilation.

The internal evidence that this Gospel differs substantially from other means that the authors of this Gospel were unconnected with the authors and tradition of the Synoptic Gospels. Mckenzie remarks:

Many modern scholars believe that John certainly knew Mark, probably knew Luke and probably did not know Matthew.6

He adds that the differences between John and the Synoptics are great enough to permit the question whether John is to be classified in the same literary form [genre] of gospel.7

Since the proposition that this Gospel was written by John the Apostle is difficult to establish, some modern scholars believe that the tradition of the name and the composition at Ephesus around 100 are best preserved by attributing the gospel not to the apostle but to John the Elder, mentioned by Papias. All sources agree that the Gospel of John was compiled towards the close of the first century8. An extremely hypothetical reconstruction of this person identifies him with the beloved disciple, scarcely more than a boy at the time , the son of a priestly family of Jerusalem, the eyewitness of some of the events, all at Jerusalem who lived to old age at Ephesus.9

Encyclopaedia Britannica holds:

John is the last Gospel and in many ways different from the Synoptic Gospels. . . . . Irenaues calls John the beloved disciple who wrote the gospel in Ephesus. Papias mentions John the son of Zebedee the disciple as well as another John the presbyter, who might have been at Ephesus. From internal evidence the Gospel was written by a beloved disciple whose name is unknown. Because both external and internal evidence are doubtful, a working hypothesis is that John and the Johannine letters were written and edited somewhere in the East perhaps Ephesus as the product of a school of Johannine circle at the end of the 1st century.10

Language of John: John’s Gospel was written in Greek and not in Aramaic the dialect of Jesus Christ.

Summary of the External Evidence on John: Going back to our criteria let us see as to where does the Gospel According to John stand:

1. The contents of Gospel of John were not revealed to a Prophet of God. It does not contain revealed material. It was authored by a group of people.

2. It was not written down during the life time of Jesus (sws).

3. It does not contain the words of Jesus (sws) except the red lettered verses. It does not convey the words of Jesus Christ (sws) verbatim because its statements differ from the synoptic gospels.

4. It was not even written in the language Jesus (sws) spoke.

5. It was written down around 70 years after Jesus (sws).

6. Its contents were never presented before Christ (sws) for approval. Its contents are not even consistent with the other three gospels.

7. It must have existed in the form of an oral tradition for good seventy years before it was finally written down. We are however in no position to judge the reliability of the oral tradition since we do not know the names of narrators.

8. It does not come to us through the reports of the entire generation after it was documented. Obviously, the editing, insertions and possibly deletions, that it underwent, could not have been possible if it was popularly known. It appears that even after being written down, it remained in oblivion for quite some time to allow the editors make their contributions.

9. It is not an eyewitness account because even if we accept that it was written by John the Elder in 90-100 AD, as is held by modern scholars, the author could at best have witnessed the last part of the life of Jesus (sws) and even then he would merely be a boy.

10. It was conveyed to us through people in limited numbers - we don’t even know the names and lives of the transmitters what to talk of judging their reliability.

11. There is no evidence that before being written the message was preserved orally in a reliable manner. There are only three parallel versions available which are different.

12. It was not transmitted by the entire generation. It was communicated through one or two anonymous people whom we do not know. What changes it might have undergone during this secretive transfer can be imagined.

Other Books of the Bible

This discussion does not preclude that other books of the Bible are any more strongly supported by external evidence. In fact, in many cases the evidence is even more dubious. 


The reliance on the Bible as a source of religious guidance is seriously shattered when the internal and external evidence of the biblical literature is examined. This leaves us wondering whether such a scripture is authentic enough to entrust one’s worldly life and eternal destiny to it!

Courtesy: ‘Understanding Islam’ (






1. Luke, K: Companion to the Bible vol. 2 p. 9, Theological Publications in India, Bangalore, 1988.

2.   Ibid. vol. 2, p. 42

3. Ramsay, William M.: The Westminster Guide to the Books of the Bible, p. 527, Kentucky 1994

4.   Ibid. p. 528

5. Ibid. p. 575

6. Mckenzie: Dictionary of the Bible p..448

7. Ibid p. 448

8. Douglas and Tenney: NIV Compact Dictionary of the Bible, page 310; ‘The date and place of authorship was sometime toward the close of the first century AD, Asia Minor.’

9. Ibid. p. 449

10. Encyclopedia Britannica Macropaedia 14:828

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