Jack L. Arnold
THE RELIABILITY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT TEXT
A. Since we do not have the original
manuscripts of the Bible, how do we know that the Bible we have today is not
perverted and filled with corruptions?
Can we be sure that, through the many translations and versions over the
centuries, the Bible we have today is not just a pale reflection of the
original? Has transmission of the text obscured the original message of the
Bible? Can we be sure we have the words of the original so we can trust our
Bibles? NOTE: Often rank infidels and prejudiced liberals will make statements
to make the common man believe that there are thousands of errors in the Bible,
and it is a totally unreliable book. However all genuine scholars agree,
whether liberal or conservative, that the Bible is a well-preserved book. The
Bible is the best documented ancient book in history.
B. The science of determining the original
text of the Bible is called lower criticism, and it should not be confused with
the science of higher criticism. Higher criticism is the Biblical
science that concerns itself with the problem of the age of Biblical books, the
sources used in the writing of the Bible, the historicity of the Bible, etc.
This is a legitimate field of study but the liberals have taken it to great excesses.
Lower criticism deals only with the text of scripture, seeking to find
the original words of the original manuscripts. NOTE: If we believe the Bible to be the Word of
God, verbally inspired, the job of establishing the text accurately is an extremely
PROBLEMS OF COPYISTS
A. Copyists: Those who were copyists in the Jewish
religion were called scribes. The
scribes were learned and religious men who gave meticulous attention in their
copying of the Old Testament. They were professionals and were convinced that
they were copying inspired scripture. Therefore, they were very accurate in the
transmission of the Hebrew text. NOTE: We have no original manuscripts of the
Old Testament. In fact, there are no complete copies of the Hebrew Old
Testament earlier than AD 900, but it seems evident that the text was preserved
very carefully and faithfully since AD 100 or 200. The preservation of the
Hebrew text is a phenomenon in itself and must fall under the heading of the
providence of God.
B. Copyist Error: In the transmission of the sacred text
of the Old Testament, we find that the same types of scribal slip have crept
into the copies of Bible books as appear in secular works. Evangelicals do
acknowledge there are errors in transmission of the text but not in the
original writings themselves. It would take nothing short of a miracle to make
possible an infallible copy of an infallible original. God has not seen fit to
perform such miracles as the scriptures have been handed down from copy to copy
between the time of the original composition and the invention of the printing
press. NOTE: Most of these errors in transmission can be eliminated by accurate
lower criticism, and the copyist errors that remain in no way affect any
doctrine of the Old Testament.
C. Types of Copyist Error
1. Substitution of a word of similar sound
for the one used in the original (e.g., “whole” for “hole” or “there” for
2. Writing the same letter twice (e.g., “and
3. Switch the order of letters (e.g.,
“seige” instead of “siege”).
4. Writing of a letter, syllable or word
only once, when it should have been written more than once (e.g., “caling”
instead of “calling.”).
5. Combining two separate words into
6. Dividing up of a single word into two
7. NOTE: The types of error which could be listed
in this connection are very numerous. They are usually detected by the
context itself, and the intelligent reader can easily tell what the copyist
really meant to write.
A. Introduction: The present Hebrew Bibles that we now
possess are from the Massoretic Text. This text dates back as far as AD 900 and
is called the Massoratic Text because it was a product of the Jewish scribes
known as the “Massoretes.” All the present copies of the Hebrew text which come from this period are in remarkable
agreement, attesting to the skill of the scribes in proofreading.
B. The Sopherim: The Sopherim represented an order of
scribes which first had their rise under Ezra, the great scribe of them all.
These scribes formed a recognized guild of Bible-text custodians in Jesus’ day.
The Sopherim’s activity extended from 400 BC to AD 200 and their great
achievement was to standardize a pure text of the Hebrew scriptures.
NOTE: The Sopherim worked only with the consonantal text, they had nothing to
do with the vowel points. Vowel points were not even invented until after AD
500. NOTE: Accuracy was essential to the Sopherim so they devised a system of
counting all the verses, words and letters of each book of the Old Testament. appending these figures at the end of the book concerned.
This would enable any checker to tell whether he had a perfect copy before him,
for he had only to count the verses, words and letters, and if they did not
number to the right total, he would know there was an error.
C. The Massoretes: The Massorets were Hebrew scholars who
between AD 500 and 950 gave the final form to the text of the Old Testament.
The massorets received the unpainted, consonantal text of the Sophorim and
inserted vowel points, which gave to each word its
exact pronunciation and grammatical form. They even engaged in a limited amount
of textual criticism. The Massoretic Text is the modern day Hebrew Bible.
TRANSMISSION OF THE HEBREW TEXT IN PRE-MASSORETIC TIMES
A. Manuscripts: While the Massoretic Text can show the
accuracy of the Old Testament as far back as AD 900, what about the
transmission of the text before this time? To determine the answer to this
question, the pre-Massoretic Hebrew manuscripts and the early versions of the
Old Testament must be studied.
1. Dead Sea Scrolls: Up until the discovery of the Dead Sea
Scrolls in 1947, there were practically no ancient Hebrew documents to make
comparisons with the Massoretic Text. NOTE: The Dead Sea Scrolls as a whole
have proven the amazing accuracy of the Massoretic Text.
2. Samaritan Pentateuch: This version is in many ways a
perversion, for it is very biased towards the Samaritans as being the true
people of God rather than the Jews. This is only natural for Samaritanism was
set up as a rival religion to Judaism. The Samaritan Pentateuch tries to show
that Jehovah chose Gerizin rather that Zion. and
Shechem rather than Jerusalem. The oldest existing manuscript is around AD 1000
and there are about 6000 variants with the Massoretic Text.
1. Greek: The most prominent Greek version of the Hebrew text is the
Septuagint (LXX) and received this name because it was done
by 70 Jewish scholars in Alexandria. The LXX was completed around 200 BC
and was translated for Greek-speaking Jews who knew no Hebrew, NOTE: In places
the LXX seems to be very accurate and in other places it is almost a
paraphrase. The Greek scribes did not bind themselves to the same stringent
rules of literal and meticulous accuracy, as did the Sopherim.
2. Aramaic: During the
Babylonian Exile the Jewish people began to forsake their ancestral Hebrew for
the Aramaic tongue of the Persian people. While the Hebrew never stopped being
spoken by the learned in Palestine, the common Jews became less and less
certain of the Hebrew. Hebrew sayings and scripture were repeated in Aramaic
during religious services for those who were not skilled in the Hebrew
language. Around AD 200, these oral teachings in Aramaic were put into writing
in what is called the Aramaic Targums. Much in these targums are paraphrases
and are difficult to use for textual criticism.
3. Latin: There was the Itala Version which
was a translation from the LXX and not the Hebrew. However, around AD 400
Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate from the original Hebrew. These versions
are not too much help in textual criticism.
4. Other Versions: There is the Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic,
Arabic and Armenian versions but these were translated from the LXX rather than
the Hebrew. They are of little value in textual criticism.
C. The Dead Sea Scrolls
Probably the greatest archeological discovery of the 20th century was
the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1947, a Bedouin goat herdsman made the accidental
discovery of some scrolls in caves in the valley of the Dead Sea. This find of
ancient Hebrew manuscripts was followed by careful exploration and several
other caves containing scrolls have been located. These scrolls were stuffed in
jars and the dry climate preserved them. NOTE: It was God who actually
preserved these scrolls for us. Archeological discoveries are proving the
validity of the Bible as a reliable historical and doctrinal source.
The scrolls were put in these caves by a
group of Jews who lived at a place called Qumran from about 150 BC to AD 70.
They had a communal society operated very much like a monastery. In addition to
tilling the fields, they spent much time studying and copying the Old
Testament. They were persuaded that the Roman armies were going to invade the
land. To preserve the Old Testament for future generations, they put the
leather scrolls in jars and hid them in the caves.
2. Manuscripts: The find included a complete copy of
the Book of Isaiah and another almost complete copy of Isaiah 36-66. There are
thousands of fragments from almost every book in the Old Testament. The books
of Samuel and two complete chapters of Habakkuk were discovered. This is an
historic find, for now we have manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible that are almost
1000 years earlier then any previous Hebrew manuscripts. NOTE: By comparing the
Dead Sea Scrolls with the Massoretic Text, we would get a clear indication of
the accuracy, or lack of it, of transmission over this
one thousand years. Laird Harris
The text (of Isaiah 38-66) is extremely
close to our Massoretic text. A comparison of Isaiah 53 shows that only 17
letters differ from the Massoretic text. Ten of these are mere differences of
spelling, like our “honor” or “honour,” and produce no change in the meaning at
all. Four more are very minor differences, such as the presence of the
conjunction, which is often a matter of style. The rather three letters are the
Hebrew word for “light” which is added after “they shall see” in verse 11. Out
of 166 words in this chapter, only this one word is really in question, and it
does not at all change the sense of the passage. This is typical of the whole
manuscript. (How Reliable is the Old
Gleason Archer also makes an interesting
observation and says,
Even though the two copies of Isaiah
discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years
earlier then the oldest dated manuscript previously known (AD 980), they proved
to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95
percent of the text. The 5 percent
of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in
spelling. Even those Dead Sea fragments of Deuteronomy and Samuel
which point to a different manuscript family from that which underlies our
received Hebrew text do not indicate any differences in doctrine or
teaching. They do not affect the message of revelation in the slightest. (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction)
3. Quotes from Reputable Scholars:
W.F. Albright, who is anything but an evangelical, said,
We may rest assured that the consonantal
text of the Hebrew Bible, though not infallible, has been preserved with an accuracy perhaps unparalleled in any other Near Eastern
Laird Harris, an evangelical, says,
We can now be sure that copyists worked
with great care and accuracy on the Old Testament, even back to 225 BC At that time, there were two or three types of text available for
copying. These types differed among themselves so little, however, that we can infer that still earlier copyists had also faithfully
and carefully transmitted the Old Testament text. Indeed, it would be rash
skepticism that would now deny that we have our Old Testament in a form very
close to that used by Ezra when he taught the Law to those who had returned
from the Babylonian captivity.
A. 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. By faith, we accept some things that we do not yet understand.
However, our faith is placed in the reliability of the Old Testament
which in substantiated by solid facts.
The problem is not with the text but with man’s willingness to believe what God has said in the inspired Old Testament.