Why I Believe the Bible #07 (Reliability of Transmission of Old Testament)

Wayne —  September 30, 2009 — 2 Comments

BIble

Many people who try to discredit the reliability of the Bible like to throw out the argument that goes something like this:

“The Bible we have today isn’t even close to the original version!  How can you rely on it?”

The fact of the matter is, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that the Old Testament and New Testament that we have today does not differ significantly from the original manuscripts.  This week we will look at the reliability of the transmission of the Old Testament which provides evidence that the version we read today is not significantly different than the original.  Next week we will look at the bibliographic evidence for the reliability of the New Testament.

The Problem

As we discussed in the last entry in this series on the supernatural survival of the text, the Bible was recorded on a number of materials which do not have a long life span.  Those included:

  • Papyrus
  • Leather
  • Parchment
  • Clay tablets
  • Wooden tablets

These copies regularly wore out and deteriorated over time and with exposure to the elements.  However, the Bible contains the history of the nation of Israel and records that people’s interactions with their God.  It was therefore of critical importance to them as a nation and as a people.

The Solution

Due to its importance, the Israelites were very serious about preserving the text of the Old Testament.  Indeed, they viewed the Bible as the very Word of God, and as a result, not only were they very serious about preserving it, but they were also very careful about transmitting and preserving it!  So, how did the Israelites ensure that the Bible was accurately transmitted from generation to generation?

Memorization

First, they memorized large chunks of the Bible.  Many times they memorized entire books.  In order for someone to change the text of the Bible, they would have to change the memories of multitudes of Jewish boys and men who had memorized those scriptures.  Changing the Bible was not as simple as adding a couple of extra words here or losing a couple there.  A change in the Bible would require a “reprogramming” of the minds of an entire nation!

The Transmission Process

The Jewish nation was very serious about the preservation and transmission of the Bible.  Indeed, there was a whole group of individuals called scribes who were trained for years to copy to the Bible.  These scribes has a very rigorous set of routines and rules for that process.  Those rules included:

  • Only master scrolls were used for duplicating.  A copy was never made from a copy.
  • Scribes were highly and rigorously trained until they were 30 years old before they were allowed to begin copying.  Being a scribe was a highly esteemed role in the Jewish society.
  • Scribes had to wash ceremonially before working.
  • Any time name of God was written a prayer of sanctification was said.
  • The name of God was written with missing letter to avoid any possibility of using the Lord’s name in vain.  In a culture where they would not write out the full name of God, it is hard to imagine that they would change what he had to say!
  • Each letter was visually confirmed despite the fact that vast portions of scripture were memorized.
  • A thread was often placed between letters when copying to ensure accurate spacing.
  • Each letter was counted and compared to the master scroll for accuracy.
  • Each word was counted and compared to the master scroll.  In fact, the Hebrew word for scribe means “counter.”
  • The middle letter in each scroll was located and compared to the master scroll.
  • If a single mistake was made or found, the entire scroll was destroyed.
  • Master scrolls were ceremonially burned.

Given the training of the scribes, the general reverence shown to the Word of God, and the stringent rules and procedures used for copying, it is hard to imagine that the Bible could have effectively been altered even if they had desired to do so.

The Motivation of the Jews

Many argue that the Bible was intentionally changed in transmission.  The arguments presented above demonstrate that this is not accurate or plausible, but there is one more important point to consider.  The Jewish people had no reason to deceive themselves about their own God.  They had nothing to gain by altering the Bible to depict their own interpretation.  The Jews as a nation have never been evangelistic.  Their goal, throughout history, has never been to gain converts to their religion.   Consider that Israel was one of the few ancient nations to never have an Armada.

Proof of Reliability

In addition to the meticulous nature of transmission, there are additional proofs which point to the reliability of the Old Testament we have today.

Number of Copies

Despite the age of the Old Testament, there are still a large number of ancient copies of the text.  The following table indicates that number of ancient copies of each version discovered to date:

Version

# of Copies

Hebrew Manuscripts Over 3,000
Latin Vulgate 8,000
Septuagint 1,500
Syriac Peshitta 65

The Bible we have today is based on scholarship which looks at all of these discovered version and comparisons of the text to determine the most likely wording of the originals.  The scientific term for the practice is textual criticism which simply means “the science and art that seeks to determine the most reliable original wording of a text.”

The agreement between the various copies of the Old Testament which have been discovered, as well as the agreement between numerous copies discovered from various geographic areas, suggests a strong original tradition and lends credence to the fact that the Bible we read today is substantially the same as it was in its original form.

The Septuagint

The Septuagint has been a valuable tool for scholars in determining the accuracy of the Old Testament.  The Septuagint was a translation of the Old Testament Scriptures from Hebrew to Greek that was done around 280 B.C. by a team of approximately 70 scholars.   The Septuagint is the version of the Bible often used by the Apostles in quoting scripture and provides translators with a Jewish understanding of the Old Testament well prior to the birth of Jesus.  The Greek Septuagint often helps with the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament further ensuring the accuracy of the text we have today.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The single most important event of the last century in verifying the accuracy of our current Old Testament was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.  Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest complete copy of the Old Testament which had been discovered was the Masoretic text from approximately 900 A.D.  This gave rise to all kinds of claims that Christians had altered the Old Testament to fit their view of scripture.

That all changed in 1947 when 931 documents were located in series of caves outside of Jerusalem.  Those documents included portions of all of the Old Testament books (with the exception of Esther) and included a copy of the whole book of Isaiah.  The Old Testament books date to 200 B.C. well before the birth of Christ and agree virtually letter for letter with newer copies of the Old Testament like the Masoretic text.  Indeed, the degree of accuracy was amazing and deflated arguments that the text had been altered.  The book of Isaiah, which is sometimes called the fifth gospel because it includes so much information about the coming birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, matched 95% when compared to other earliest copies.  And, the 5% which did not match was determined to primarily be slips of the pen and spelling alteration which did not impact the meaning of the text!

Conclusion

The Hebrew nation went to amazing lengths to ensure the accuracy of the transmission of the Old Testament.  Furthermore, discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed the Old Testament we read today is substantially the same as the original.  All of this provides confirmation of the reliability of the Bible.  Next week we will look at the overwhelming evidence for the accuracy of the New Testament!

Return to the Why I Believe The Bible index page.

m4s0n501

2 responses to Why I Believe the Bible #07 (Reliability of Transmission of Old Testament)

  1. may I use the picture of the bible at the top of this page?
    jhoward7@butlercc.edu

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