The Old Testament (OT) consists of a combination of writings spanning thousands of years of Jewish history. The Old Testament writings depict Jewish customs and theology that are consistent with what we know to be true. Obviously, as the self-ascribed Word of God, those writings have religious subject matter. Oddly enough, however, those religious topics are entrenched within a historical background in incredible detail, as if people were actually witnessing these events at the times and in proximity of their writings. It puts itself out there to be historically tested, which is something that not all religions can say. It also allows us to get some insight into whether or not these writings can be trusted.
The OT writings were completed by the early to mid fifth century BC. The originals obviously fell victim to decay and, as with all writings of antiquity, we rely on copies of copies to understand what the original writings would have contained. This by no means guarantees that the transmission of the text makes it to us through thousands of years unscathed and consistent throughout. It is realistic and fair to assume that those who carried out the duties of copying these writings by hand would either unintentionally make mistakes or intentionally change things for one reason or another. In fact, we can see this taking place throughout history. Take, for example, the manuscripts of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The manuscripts differ from the 18th dynasty (1550-1290 BC) to the 26th dynasty (660-550 BC). Entire blocks of writings are added and others left out, and much of the actual meaning of certain corresponding sections is altogether different.
How Can a Text Be Preserved?
Aren’t copying errors a guarantee? How can we trust the Old Testament? Inconsistencies are almost a guarantee, that is unless there is great care and organization used to make sure that manuscripts are copied accurately and without ulterior motives. This is precisely what we see with the OT, so much so that it’s more descriptive to call it obsessive diligence. The Jewish custom was to appoint a succession of scholars (Figure 1) to the duty of standardizing and preserving the biblical text to guard against errors.
Through hundreds of years, they accurately preserved the text of the OT. The guidelines of the methods they used were incredibly effective. Through the painstaking process of copying writings by hand, they made sure their work was standardized and accurate. For example, the Talmudists had extremely strict guidelines, and any copy that did not conform to those standards was either buried, burned or given away to schools for reading. They were never officially cataloged or stored. Some of these strict regulations were:
- the animal skins used for writing on were to be from “clean” animals
- every skin must contain a certain number of columns
- each column must contain a certain number of lines, no less than 48 and no more than 60
- the breadth must consist of 30 letters
- no word or letter must be written from memory
In addition to this list, there were many other very specific regulations. The care they took to make consistent copies was impressive. The scribes had built so many safeguards into the process that they could tell if one letter was missing from an entire book. They numbered the verses, words, and letters of every book. Their excessive care was due to their great respect for the sacred Scriptures. Just how good was this process in preserving the early writings? In order to understand the efficiency of the process, we need to compare relatively recent copies with those written well before them.
Skepticism of the Fidelity of Old Testament Manuscripts
Until fairly recently, the earliest Hebrew manuscripts of the OT were from AD 895 (Cairo Codex). Skepticism about their consistency with what the originals contained was understandable since such a length of time had elapsed between the copy and the presumed dates of original writing. However, a significant find in 1947 changed all of that. A shepherd boy searching for a goat in Qumran near the Dead Sea stumbled upon a cave that contained sealed jars with leather scrolls wrapped in linen cloth. Subsequently, in nearby caves, other well-preserved manuscripts and fragments were discovered. In all, there were some 40,000 inscribed fragments, 800 of which were OT manuscripts and fragments. The rest were other significant texts, including biblical commentaries, sectarian texts and other apocalyptic and ritualistic texts.
The Dead Sea Scrolls included two copies (dated 125-100 BC) of the book of Isaiah, which proved to be word for word identical to our modern day copy in more than 95% of the text, with the roughly 5% differences consisting of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling that in no way compromised the meaning. The Dead Sea Scrolls have proved to be highly significant because they confirm the accuracy of other manuscripts dated much older. In addition to the Book of Isaiah, the Dead Sea Scrolls included thousands of fragments representing all the OT books except for one (Esther). The text of the OT is also verified by the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (also known as LXX) written 285-246 BC; and by the Samaritan Pentateuch, from the fifth century BC. The OT is also verified in parts by other ancient writings such as the Aramaic Targums (paraphrases, AD 500), Mishnah (AD 200), Gemara (Palestinian: AD 200, Babylonian: AD 500), and Midrash (100 BC-AD 300), doctrinal studies of the OT writings.
So, how would someone respond to the claim that the Bible has been changed around during the course of its existence? Aside from the fact that there is no evidence to support this claim, there is ironically every bit of evidence to contradict that notion. It’s crystal clear to those who chose to weigh the facts that there has not been any substantial reworking of the Old Testament text or, for that matter that of the New Testament. Those interested in the New Testament may also want to read this: Can We Trust the Bible?
Read the Spanish translation here.