The 39 books that make up the Old Testament were written approximately 3,400 to 2,400 years ago. Preserving ancient historical writings and the accuracy of the information they contain is extremely difficult, especially without mechanical aids like printing presses or computers. So, how can we be confident that the Old Testament we read today is a reliable and trustworthy copy of the original written over 2 millennia ago?
As you start to investigate the evidence and answer this question for yourself, it’s helpful to keep 3 things in mind: the archaeological record, the work of the Jewish scribes, and the fact Jesus affirmed the Old Testament as true and reliable.
1. The Archaeological Record
Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains. One aim of archaeology is to learn about ancient civilisations outside of written records; in this case, archaeology asks, is there any ancient objects or places that can be discovered and examined that corroborate the details recorded in the Old Testament?
Throughout history critics of the Bible alleged that many accounts recorded in the Old Testament were false because archaeology had not verified them. However, over the centuries various archaeological discoveries have been made which corroborate the details of the Old Testament accounts.
For example, critics of the Old Testament once rejected the claim that David and Solomon were Kings of Israel or even historical figures who actually existed. Critics contended that, if they existed at all, they were only minor tribal leaders. However, in 1994 archaeologists discovered a stone slab near Tel Dan in Northern Israel. The piece has been dated to the ninth century B.C. Archaeologists believe that the stone slab was placed in this location to celebrate the victory of the Aramean King over the armies of Israel. Significantly, the stone slab bears an inscription that refers to the “House of David”, this is good evidence that corroborates the Old Testament account that David existed, reigned as King and established a royal dynasty.
Another example is the discovery of Nehemiah’s wall. Critics once doubted the account of Nehemiah and the restoration of Jerusalem found in the Old Testament. Nehemiah lived during the period when Judah was a province of the Persian Empire. He was the Persian King’s cup-bearer and after hearing about the dire state of Jerusalem sought permission to return to the home of his ancestors to help rebuild the city’s wall. The Book of Nehemiah records the completion of this wall in just 52 days, and many historians did not believe this to be true, since the wall itself was never discovered. However, in 2007 the remnants of the wall were uncovered in an archaeological excavation in Jerusalem’s ancient City of David.
Nehemiah’s Wall and the Tel Dan Inscription are but two examples. Many other archaeological discoveries have been made that corroborate the details of various accounts contained in the Old Testament.
2. The Work of the Jewish Scribes
For centuries a particular class of Jewish scholars and scribes dedicated themselves to preserving the ancient manuscripts and producing new copies when necessary. The rules and procedures employed by these custodians of the Scriptures to ensure accuracy are astonishing.
A scribe would be trained for years. He had to use a special quill. The copy had to be made on a certain type of animal skin or parchment. He would begin his day of transcribing by ceremonially washing his entire body. He would then garb himself in full Jewish dress before sitting at a special desk. The scribes were so concerned with guaranteeing precision that they transcribed letter by letter. They were not allowed to write one letter, word or sentence from memory.
Furthermore, the scribes devised a numbering system to count everything in order to achieve near perfection in copying. They numbered the lines, verses, words, and letters of a book, and then counted them in the copy to ensure no addition or deletion had been made. If the count was wrong, they destroyed the copy and started again. But how can we be confident that these rules and procedures, even meticulously applied, resulted in accurate copies centuries later?
Until the mid-twentieth century we had no way of knowing just how amazing the preservation of the Old Testament had been. At that time the oldest complete Hebrew manuscript dated to 900 AD, over a thousand years after the Old Testament was written. However, in 1947 shepherds exploring caves on the west side of the Dead Sea found jars filled with ancient manuscripts now know as the Dead Sea Scrolls. 223 Biblical manuscripts and many more partial manuscripts and fragments were discovered. These manuscripts have been dated by palaeographers to approximately 125 B.C, over a thousand years earlier than any previously known manuscripts.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were compared with modern versions, the modern Hebrew Bible proved to be identical, word for word, in more than 95 per cent of the text. The other 5 per cent consisted mainly of spelling variations. For example, of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, only 17 letters were in question. Of those, 10 letters were a matter of spelling and 4 were stylistic changes; the remaining 3 letters comprised the word ‘light’, which was added in verse 11.
Christian apologists Josh and Sean McDowell note that, “…the greatest manuscript discovery of all time revealed that a thousand years of copying the Old Testament had produced only excruciatingly minor variations, none of which altered the clear meaning of the text or brought the manuscript’s fundamental integrity into question.”
3. The Approval of Jesus
Jesus - who is the Son of God and saviour of the world - accepted and affirmed the Old Testament. He believed it was true and reliable. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus states, “For truly I tell you until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
So, how can we be confident that the Old Testament we read today is a reliable and trustworthy copy of the original written over 2 millennia ago? Firstly, there have been many archaeological discoveries that corroborate the details of Old Testament accounts. Secondly, the accuracy of the Jewish scribes tasked with transmitting the Old Testament throughout history. Thirdly, Jesus believed the Old Testament was true and reliable.
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Further reading recommendations
'On the Reliability of the Old Testament' by K. A. Kitchen
‘Evidence That Demands a Verdict’ by Josh and Sean McDowell
'The Old Testament' by Richard S. Hess