Old Testament
<<Overview of the Bible

History and the Old Testament

"The Israelites certainly manifest a genius for historical construction, and the Old Testament embodies the oldest history writing extant."

The Cambridge Ancient History

      The Old Testament books were written down as the Word of God and recognized as such from the moment of their writing. Beginning with the words etched into stone by the finger of God himself, God's people recognized the Lord's writing as it came to them through their leaders and prophets. The books of Moses were recognized as scripture by Israel's earliest judges and kings, who referred to them in their writings as Scripture. From the time of Samuel, the words and writings of the prophets were kept in libraries, along with the histories. The Hebrew Bible, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament, was widely accepted and agreed upon by Jews well before Jesus' time. Thus the various councils that supposedly determined what would be Scripture actually only confirmed what was already widely accepted as the Word of God.

      The Old Testament was begun by Moses circa 1446 BC and was completed by 400 BC. (About 400 years before Christ, according to other Jewish writings, the voice of God "ceased to speak to them directly" and the prophets "had fallen asleep," thus the 400 years of scriptural silence prior to the birth of the Messiah.) The Old Testament is written almost entirely in Hebrew, with small portions of Daniel and Ezra in Aramaic.

      The Old Testament covers the history of the nation of Israel and the nations who dealt with Israel. It begins with creation and follows the Jewish people through the flood, the Exodus, the period of the judges, the reign of the kings, and finally into exile under the Babylonian Empire. They include all the laws God's people are to observe and the nation's history, as well as prophesy.

Old Testament Documentation

      Both Old and New Testament documents were copied with excruciating attention to detail. When an entire scroll had been copied by hand, one letter at a time, if one mistake was made, the scroll was destroyed. In addition, the Jewish copyists of the Hebrew Scriptures adhered to detailed requirements in copying. We looked at this list in studying New Testament documentation, but it bears a second look. (Taken from Don't Check Your Brains at the Door, Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler, and The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell):

1) Each copy had to be made on a brand new writing surface and had to be prepared in a specific way;

2) Each copy had to be written in a certain number of columns of thirty-letters width, with a certain number of lines to each column;

3) Each copy had to be written in a certain color and quality of ink;

4) Not even the tiniest letter could be written from memory, as one would glance at the word "to" and write the letters "t" and "o" before glancing back at the original, but every letter was copied singly from the original;

5) No letter could connect with or overlap another letter. The distance between each letter was measured by a single hair or thread;

6) Every letter of every page and book was counted and compared against the original. The number of times each letter of the alphabet occurred in a book was counted and compared against the original. The middle letter of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) and the middle letter of the entire Hebrew Bible were computed and indicated in the text. If one of these calculations was incorrect, the copy was discarded.

7) The Masoretes, who were responsible for copying Biblical text from AD 500 to 950, calculated everything that could be calculated. They numbered the verses, words, and letters of every book. They calculated the middle word and middle letter of each.

"These trivialities, as we may rightly consider them, had yet the effect of securing minute attention to the precise transmission of the text.; and they are but an excessive manifestation of a respect for the sacred Scriptures which in itself deserves nothing but praise. The Masoretes were indeed anxious that not one jot nor tittle, not one smallest letter nor one tiny part of a letter, of the Law should pass away or be lost."

Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts

"Jews preserved it as no other manuscript has ever been preserved ... They kept tabs on every letter, syllable, word, and paragraph. They had special classes of men within their culture whose sole duty was to preserve and transmit these documents with practically perfect fidelity-scribes, lawyers, masoretes. Who ever counted the letters and syllables and words of Plato or Aristotle? Cicero or Seneca?"

Bernard Ramm, Protestant Christian Evidences

      The Old Testament has been shown to be reliable in at least three major ways:

 1) textual transmission (the accuracy of the copying process down through history),

2) the confirmation of the Old Testament by hard evidence uncovered through archaeology, and

3) documentary evidence also uncovered through archaeology.

      Information on documentary evidence and textual transmission follow:

Masoretic Text

      The earliest Old Testament manuscript before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls dated about AD 916, called the Masoretic Text, after the Masoretes, who from about AD 500 to 950 were responsible for preserving and editing Biblical text, as well as other Jewish writings. It was been the primary Hebrew text used for translations and transcriptions until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

      The Masoretes are not the only Jewish group to have had charge of the scriptures and other Jewish writings, as the following list shows. Each represented a group of scholars whose entire lives were dedicated to preserving accurately the Hebrew Bible and sacred Jewish writings.

!    Masoretes (AD 500-950)

!    Talmudists (circa AD 100 to 500)

!    Tannaim ("teachers" or "repeaters") (100 BC to AD 200)

!    Zugoth ("pairs" of textual scholars)(first and second centuries BC)

!    Sopherim (from the Hebrew for "scribes") were the Jewish scholars and custodians of the text between the fifth and third centuries BC.

      The comparatively late date of the Masoretic Text and the lack of other preserved manuscripts is not startling, considering that earlier copies that were defective or damaged were destroyed after they were painstakingly copied. Also, repeated persecutions of the Jews resulted in the disappearance of many of their ancient manuscripts. Copyists were so accurate, and there were so many safeguards built into the copying process, that the newer document was considered as authentic as the one it was copied from. In fact, due to the fact that it was on new, undamaged materials, it was given the advantage, as the old manuscript might have become damaged or defaced. These were at once condemned.

"Thus, far from regarding an older copy of the Scriptures as more valuable, the Jewish habit has been to prefer the newer, as being the most perfect and free from damage."

Sir Frederic Kenyon, The Story of the Bible

Septuagint, or LXX

      The Septuagint is the earliest complete Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and was completed by a group of Jewish scholars around 250 BC. The group is said to have been made up of six elders from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, numbering 72, and is supposed to have been completed in the same number of days. (Hence the title, meaning "seventy," and its abbreviation, LXX, the Roman numeral for seventy.)

      The translation was necessary as the Jews, dispersed from their homeland, adopted the languages of their new lands. The Septuagint was intended for use in public services rather than for scholarly or scribal purposes, and so, though generally loyal to the original Hebrew, was somewhat liberally translated and interpreted (something like our "Good News Bible" and "Living Bible" paraphrases of today). Still, it was translated from Hebrew texts far older than our oldest manuscripts and bears witness to the accuracy of the newer translations. Also, New Testament writers at times quoted from the Septuagint. The LXX, being very close to the Masoretic text (AD 916) we have today, helps to establish the reliability of its transmission through 1,300 years.

      The Septuagint bridged the religious gap between the Hebrew- and Greek-speaking people, met the needs of the Alexandrian Jews, bridged the historical gap between the Hebrew Old Testament of the Jews and the Greek-speaking Christians who would use it with their New Testament, provided a precedent for missionaries to make translations of the Scriptures, and bridged the textual criticism gap by its substantial agreement with the Hebrew Old Testament text (Geisler, General Introduction to the Bible).

Samaritan Pentateuch

      Samaritans separated from the Jews during the fifth or fourth century BC after a long, bitter religious and cultural struggle. The Samaritans took with them the Scriptures as they then existed, and their manuscript of the five books of Moses is a manuscript of the Hebrew text. The earliest copy dates to about AD 1200. Again, its primary value lies in its confirmation of the historical accuracy of the Biblical text.

Aramaic Targums

      These were paraphrases of the Hebrew Old Testament in the Aramaic language, compiled around AD 500.

"The great utility of the earlier Targums consists in their vindicating the genuineness of the Hebrew text, by proving that it was the same at the period the Targums were made, as it exists among us at the present day."

J. Anderson, The Bible, the Word of God


      The Mishnah, AD 200, was a digest of all the oral laws from the time of Moses. It was written in Hebrew and covered traditions as well as explanations of the oral law. Scriptural quotations witness to the reliability of the Masoretic Text.

      There are other important manuscripts, but these are the most important documents relating to the historical and transcriptural accuracy of the Old Testament.

Dead Sea Scrolls

      Around 1946 to 1947, a shepherd looking for a lost goat threw a stone into a cave and heard the unlikely sound of shattering pottery. Upon further investigation, he discovered what became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls - some forty thousand scrolls and fragments. It was the library of the Jewish community at Qumran, and included fragments of all the Old Testament books except Esther. These copies were 1,000 years older than any yet discovered, dating at about 100 B.C. They demonstrated the amazing accuracy with which the Bible had been copied for centuries, the later copies having remarkably few changes.

      From these fragments more than 500 books have been reconstructed, many of which tell us about life in the community of Qumran. Others give helpful commentaries on the Scriptures. The most important documents, however, are copies of the Old Testament text dating more than a century before the birth of Christ.

      The earliest Old Testament manuscript before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls were from A.D. 900 and later. How could we be sure they were accurately transmitted from before the time of Christ? The Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the accuracy of that transmission.

      Among the fragments is a complete manuscript of the Hebrew text of Isaiah, dating to about 125 B.C.

The Isaiah copies of the Qumran community "proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling."

Gleason Archer, Survey of the Old Testament

      The Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts are highly significant because they confirm the accuracy of other manuscripts dated much later. The major conclusion from the Dead Sea Scrolls was that there was no significant difference between the scrolls found at Qumran and the Masoretic Hebrew text dated 1,000 years later. This confirms the reliability of our present Hebrew text.

"Critics of the Masoretic Text charged that the manuscripts were few and late. Through the Dead Sea Scrolls, early manuscript fragments provide a check on nearly the whole Old Testament. Those checks date about a thousand years before the Great Masoretic manuscripts of the tenth century. Before the discoveries of the ... Dead Sea caves, the Nash Papyrus (a fragment of the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy 6:4-9), dated between 150 and 100 BC, was the only known scrap of the Hebrew text dating from before the Christian era."

Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict

"We have given practical proof of our reverence for our own Scriptures. For, although such long ages have now passed, no one has ventured either to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable; and it is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of his birth, to regard them as the decrees of God, to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to die for the,. Time and again ere now the sight has been witnessed of prisoners enduring tortures and death in every form in the theatres, rather than utter a single word against the laws and the allied documents. ... What Greek would endure as much for the same cause? Even to save the entire collection of his nation's writings from destruction he would not face the smallest personal injury. For to the Greeks they are mere stories improvised according to the fancy of their authors ..."

Flavius Josephus, First Century Jewish Historian

"After trying to shatter the historicity and validity of the Scripture, I came to the conclusion that it is historically trustworthy. If one discards the Bible as being unreliable, then one must discard almost all literature of antiquity."

Josh McDowell, New Evidence that Demands a Verdict

"The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries."

Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts




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