The Bibliography of the Old Testament

Christianity is the religious faith of the Bible. The foundation for our entire belief system is found in the Scriptures. If any idea or practice is incompatible with the Bible, then it is incompatible with the Christian faith. So, naturally the Bible is the target for much of the scrutiny of skeptics and non-Christian opponents.

Historically, most of the charges brought against the Bible have to do with its reliability. However, there are literary tests which are commonly used to determine the reliability of literary works that can be held against the Bible to determine whether it is reliable or not. One of those tests deals with the bibliography of the piece.

The bibliographical test is an examination of the textual transmission or the process by which documents reach us. This test is necessary when original documents are not available, as is the case with the Bible. Because we do not have the original documents of the Bible (commonly called autographs), we must determine how reliable the copies (commonly called manuscripts, or written as MSS) are. We can test the reliability of the text itself by examining #1 – the number of manuscripts and #2 – the time interval between the original and existing copies (referred to as extant) and #3 – the accuracy of the manuscripts.

When the Bible is tested bibliographically, it does more than pass. Simply put, it aces the tests.

Compared with the New Testament (as will be shown later), the extant manuscripts of the Old Testament are relatively few in number. This was particularly true before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Nevertheless, the reliability of the Old Testament is verified by examining the tradition of Hebrew Scribal and Dead Sea Scroll traditions.

Hebrew Scribal Tradition

Through the centuries, groups of scribes were trained from childhood for the sole purpose of cataloging Hebrew civil and canonical law. In each of these groups men gave their lives to preserving accurately the Hebrew Bible and other sacred Jewish writings. Of these groups were the Sopherim (from the Hebrew for “scribes”) between the fifth and third century BC, the Zugoth from the first and second centuries BC, the Tannaim (Hebrew for “teachers” or “repeaters”) from the first century BC to the second century AD, and the Talmudists from the first century to the fifth century AD. Among these generations of scribes, however, the most famous are the Massoretes, who generated manuscripts from the fifth century AD until the middle of the tenth century. They are the best know simply because it is their manuscripts which we possess today.

All of these scribes followed a most intricate system of transcribing and preserving synagogue scrolls. Some of the particulars for the Massoretes were as follows:

  • The roll on which the scribes wrote as well as the strings that held them together were made only from the skin and hair of animals that were “clean” as defined by Hebrew law.
  • The length of each column could not extend over less than 48 or more than 60 lines; and the breadth must consist of thirty letters exactly.
  • The ink was prepared according to a very specific recipe. All colors besides black were forbidden.
  • Nothing, not even a “yod” (the smallest character in Hebraic manuscript), was to be written from memory. The scribe was to have an approved codex before him throughout the copying process.
  • There was to be the space of a hair or thread between each letter, a space equal to nine consonants (including the hair between each) between each parashah, or section, and three lines between each book.
  • By the time the scribes got to the end of Deuteronomy (the fifth book of Moses), if every thing was measured correctly, it would have ended exactly on a line, no more, no less.
  • The personal hygiene and clothing the scribes wore while writing was regulated.
  • If a king addressed the scribe while he was writing the name of God, he was to “take no notice of him.”

Any scroll that violated any of these regulations they were to be burned, buried, or both.

Still, the question could reasonably be asked, why don’t we have more old MSS of the Old Testament? There are several reasons for relatively scarce number of early Old Testament manuscripts.

  • The first is obvious – old age. The antiquity of these manuscripts combined with the destructibility of the materials on which they were written almost guarantee that the ancient documents could not survive.
  • Also, the fact that the Israelites were repeatedly invaded and deported during the Babylonian Captivity and to foreign domination after their return to Palestine. From 1800 BC to AD 1948, Jerusalem alone was conquered 47 times.
  • Another reason, and probably the most effective, was that the sacred scribal laws demanded the burial of worn or flawed manuscripts. The fact is, Old Testament manuscripts were not allowed to age.
  • Lastly, the Massoretes are responsible for a standardized Hebrew text. They created vowels and phonetic rules to make the original language easier to learn for those ignorant of Hebrew tradition. It is believed that they systematically and completely destroyed all the manuscripts which did not agree with the phonetic rules they had created.

Nevertheless, despite the small number of extant Old Testament manuscripts, when the rules and accuracies of the copyists are considered, it only confirms the reliability of those copies that we do have. The question must still be asked, however, are the Massoretic manuscripts reliable? After all, the given date for the Old Testament books (ca 1500 BC) far outdates the earliest Massoretic texts (ca. AD 900). The testimony of the Dead Sea Scrolls answers with a resounding “yes.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of about 40,000 inscribed fragments. That was enough for some 500 books to be reconstructed. They were found at Wadi Qumran in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Among the finds at Qumran were writings such as the “Zadokite documents,” a “Rule of the Community,” and a “Manual of Discipline.” There were also a number of actual commentaries of the Old Testament.

Most importantly, however, was the discovery of a complete manuscript of the Hebrew text of Isaiah. It has been dated around 125 BC. That is more that 1,000 years older than any Old Testament manuscript previously possessed. The copy was made only 300 years after the last book of the Old Testament was written. When compared to the extant Massoretic texts, they are said to have over 95% accuracy.

The impact of this discovery is illustrated in the comparison of the Isaiah scroll with the Massoretic text of Isaiah. The consistency is incomprehensible. Isaiah chapter 53 consists of 166 Hebrew words. Of those, there are only seventeen letters in question. Ten of those are simply a spelling issue, which does nothing to affect the sense of the word. Four of the questionable letters are changes in style, like conjunctions. The last three of the seventeen letters spell the word light and is added in verse 11. Again, this does not in any imaginable way change the meaning of the verse itself. In sum, out of the 166 words of the chapter and a millennium of transmission, one word is questioned without any possibility of a changed meaning of the text.

We may conclude by these bibliographical tests that the text of the Old Testament which we posses today can be compared with the Massoretic texts as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls and be proven to be overwhelmingly reliable.

Concerning Sources:
When it comes to a topic such as this we truly stand on the shoulders of giants. There a number of definitive, reliable sourses on this topic. I relied most heavily upon these three:

  • From God To Us:How We Got Our Bible
    by Norman Geisler & William Nix
  • The Origin of the Bible
    editor – Philip W. Comfort; contributors – F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, Carl F. H. Henry, 
  • Evidence for Christianity
    by Josh McDowell
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1 comment so far

  1. absolutegrace on

    Thank you for this really well-researched and thoughtful post. I was recently asked about how I know the Bible is God’s Word, and it challenged me to look into these studies and research. I appreciate your blog and the study you’ve done. I may trackback to you in the future when questions arise again:-) Thanks! Linda


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