Is the Old Testament Reliable? (A Short Summary)

Can the Old Testament really be trusted? In light of all the recent discussion surrounding the Bible TV show on the history channel, I thought it would be good to discuss the reliability of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament (OT) was originally written in Hebrew (with a few chapters in Aramaic), and it contains thirty nine books written from about 1400 – 400 B.C. Here are some good reasons to believe we possess an accurate OT text.

First the scribes who copied and preserved the text were careful[i] and meticulous. They developed numerical systems to ensure an accurate copy. They counted the number of lines, letters, and words per page of the new copy and then checked them with count of the original. If they didn’t match up, then the copy was destroyed and they started over.[ii]

Next, archeological discoveries shed light on many of the people, places, and events recorded in the Bible. While archeology doesn’t prove that the Bible is true, it certainly does confirm the historical reliability of the text.[iii] I don’t have room to tell you about all of these exciting discoveries, but you can see pictures and descriptions of many of them in the full-color Archeological Study Bible. There is cause for continued optimism because only about 10% of the biblical sites in Israel have been excavated. Who knows what other biblical treasures lie buried in the sand?

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the reliability of the OT is the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 at Qumran. In the summer of 2006 I had the privilege of visiting the site where they were discovered and saw a copy of the famous Isaiah scroll at the Shrine of the Book in Israel. The significance of this discovery cannot be overstated. Up until that time we had known how carefully scribes had passed down the text. But critics of the Bible always claimed that if we ever found earlier documents, then they would show how much the text had been changed and corrupted. So when a shepherd boy stumbled upon pottery containing ancient texts in a cave while tending his goats; it sent shockwaves through the biblical world. 800 scrolls, containing fragments from every book of the OT except Esther, were discovered dating from 250 B.C. – A.D. 50. But most significant was that an entire manuscript of Isaiah was found dating to circa 75 B.C. Old Testament scholars were then able to compare this text of Isaiah with the earliest existing copy of Isaiah in the Masoretic text dating to 1008-9 A.D. Their conclusion? 95% word for word copying accuracy over almost 1100 years! And the 5 % of variations consisted of nothing more significant than omitted letters or misspelled words—slips of the pen[iv]. In light of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran, it is fair to say that the burden of proof is on the critic who claims that the OT has not been reliably preserved.

The oldest OT manuscript discovered so far is a fragment of the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-27 found in a silver amulet near Jerusalem dating to the 7th century B.C. (2600 years old!). Now you might be wondering why we don’t have more OT documents. Here are several reasons: 1) Old manuscripts written on papyrus or leather would age and deteriorate over time. 2) Much of Israel’s history is marked by war; Jerusalem was destroyed and burned at least twice during the time the OT was written. 3) “When manuscripts began to show signs of wear, the Jewish scribes reverently disposed of them because they bore the sacred name of God. Disposing of the manuscripts avoided defilement from pagans. Since scribes were meticulous in copying biblical manuscripts, there was little reason to keep old manuscripts. When scrolls became worn, they were placed in a storage room called a genizah…until there were enough to perform a ritual burial ceremony.”[v] Once all of these factors are considered, we shouldn’t be surprised that we have not found more.

One last question needs answering before we leave the OT, Who decided which books were part of the OT cannon? While I can’t get into all the details here, the key point to remember is that “the books did not receive their authority because they were placed into the cannon [i.e., standard]; rather, they were recognized by the nation of Israel as having divine authority and were therefore included in the cannon. These books were used to determine beliefs and conduct long before ecclesiastical councils recognized their authority (emphasis mine).[vi]

After a lifetime of studying the text of the Old Testament, Bruce Waltke concludes that “95 percent of the OT is…textually sound.”[vii] The remaining 5 % does not affect any key Christian doctrine and as more texts are discovered and existing ones translated, that percentage should continue to decrease. As strong as the case is for the reliability of the OT, the NT is even stronger! And as Darrell Bock notes “the case is strongest where it matters most—in its portrayal of Jesus.”[viii]

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[i] Every now and again a well meaning scribe would add words of clarification to the text, but these difficulties are resolved due to the large number of texts we have to compare with one another through a process called textual criticism.

[ii] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 171-75.

[iii] “Thus we have a consistent level of good, fact-based correlations right through from circa. 2000 B.C. (with earlier roots) down to 400 B.C. In terms of general reliability…the Old Testament comes out remarkably well, so long as its writings and writers are treated fairly and even handedly, in line with independent data, open to all.” From K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 500. This book contains a lot of great information and analysis, but it is challenging to read.

[iv] Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 29.

[v] Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible, 165.

[vi] Ibid., 101.

[vii] Waltke, “Old Testament Textual Criticism,” 157-58.

[viii] Bock, Can I Trust the Bible: Defending the Bible’s Reliability, 52.

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