Signpost – Textual Reliability of the Old Testament

One of the most common objections to Christianity among academic crowd is “It doesn’t matter what the Bible says. We don’t really have any idea what the original manuscripts said anyway.” The reasoning goes something like this: The copies of the Biblical text that we have are just copies of copies and are so much newer than the originals that we can’t possibly know what the original writings actually were.

This week, we’ll address this idea by looking at how we can be reasonably certain that the Old Testament texts that we have today accurately present the content of the original manuscripts. 

Like other major texts written before 200 B.C., we do not have the original manuscripts of the Old Testament, but unlike every other available ancient text, the Hebrew scriptures were copied and preserved in such a way that we have copies available that are as close to ‘word perfect’ copies as is possible without a modern-day copy machine or scanner.

The Hebrews had a profession of scribe, whose sole duty was to study and copy the sacred texts. There were strict ceremonial and procedural rules. Some of those were:

=) Each copy of the scripture had to be copied onto a specified quality and type of scroll, and even the type and color of ink was specified.

=) The text was copied one letter at a time, and each line was compared to the original before continuing.

=) Each letter had a numerical value, and each book was counted and compared to the original when complete. In addition a word count and other checks were made.

=) Any mistakes were noted and corrected with margin notes. Any book with more than three mistakes was scrapped and the entire copy started over.

=) When a copy had started to become worn from use, it was carefully copied and then retired to a special storage box. When that box was full, it was ceremonially buried.

As a testament to the precision with which this process has preserved the Biblical text to this day, The Dead Sea Scrolls are invaluable. Prior to the discovery of these scrolls, the earliest copy of the Old Testament we had dated from medieval times. The Scrolls date from 1000 years earlier than that, and contain a nearly complete copy of the book of Isaiah. When compared to the medieval manuscript, it was 95% identical – and all of the differences were either minor spelling or grammatical errors that did not change the meaning of the passage at all.

Judging from the accuracy of the 1010 A.D. text as compared to the 100 B.C. text, it is more than reasonable to trust that the 100 B.C. text (and therefore, the 1010 A.D. text) is a faithful copy of the originals. It is also appropriate to note that no other middle eastern manuscripts have stood up to the kind of scrutiny that the Bible has been subject to and held up nearly as well in this regard.

Below are some links to expanded discussion of the textual accuracy of the Bible. Next week, we’ll look at the New Testament.


Here’s a video presentation by Josh McDowell in which he explains in detail how the scribes made their copies.

This article elaborates on the comparison of the Dead Sea Isaiah scroll and the Masoretic (medieval period) texts.

An article at Think Christianly gives a concise overview of the reliability of the Old Testament, and is rich with links to sources.

Dr. Jack L. Arnold gives a more detaild overview in this .pdf file, and comes to the following conclusion: “There are still many things we do not know about the transmission of the Old Testament but we can now see that it is reasonable to believe that our present manuscripts are very close to the originals.”

If you’re of a scholarly mind, here’s an article that examines not only the textual reliability of the Old Testament, but discusses the documentary hypothesis, form criticism, and the authorship of certain OT books.

Applied Apologetics has a very well written brief presentation about the nature and number of the variations between the OT manuscripts and fragments we have available.

J. Warner Wallace amazes me with his ability to not only pack a LOT of information in a short article, but make it easy to read and understand as well. He has a really good description of the copy process the scribes used.

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