Is the Text of the Old Testament Reliable?

Is the Text of the Old Testament Reliable?

No book in the literature of the world has been so often copied, printed, translated, read and studied as the Bible. It stands uniquely as the object of so much effort devoted to preserving it faithfully, to understanding it, and to making it understandable to others.1 The Bible is one of the few texts of antiquity that is still popular today. How many other books from three thousand years ago do people still read? Not many. Other books from that period are seldom held in such high esteem as the Old Testament of the Bible is. Of course, few other books claim to be the very words of God. It is because so many people consider the Old Testament to be inspired by God that people still read and study it. The Bible is not like other books. Here “flows the fountain of life, because God himself speaks in it.”2

Critics and skeptics would have us believe that the Old Testament (OT) is not trustworthy because so many years stand between us and the original writings. Dr. C. A. Briggs confidently asserted, “We will never be able to attain the sacred writings as they gladdened the eyes of those who first saw them, and rejoiced the hearts of those who first heard them. If the external words of the original were inspired, it does not profit us. We are cut off from them forever. Interposed between us and them is the tradition of centuries and even millenniums.”3 Are we truly “cut off” from the original words given by inspiration?

We must admit that none of the originals still exist; they have dissolved into the dust of the Middle East long ago. All we have are copies of copies, and many of the copies date back no earlier than the middle ages. No extant (existing) copies of the OT can be dated from before about 400 BC, and most of them are much later than that. So how can we be confident that the text of the OT is reliable? How true to the originals are the existing copies?

The study of the manuscripts (MSS) of any book in an attempt to find the original readings is called textual or lower criticism.4 This is not criticizing the text, but an effort to find the best MSS and the best readings in the MSS. No one MS perfectly preserves the entire text of the OT. Because there are multiple copies of the books of the OT, scholars seek to compare the copies to weed out scribal errors and to find the readings which are most likely original. While some people claim that the available copies no longer convey the content of the originals, there is little cause for concern that the OT is somehow no longer available in its original form. It has not been lost or so corrupted that we no longer know what the original wording was. We can be confident that we have access to the OT as it was given thousands of years ago.

Consider the following in defense of the reliability of the OT text:5

  1. Background

    1. The OT was written mostly in Hebrew and a little in Aramaic. Hebrew used to be written in all consonant without any vowels. That may seem like it would be hard to read, but those familiar with the language and the text can read Hebrew without the vowels inserted. Not until well after the time of Jesus did Jewish scribes develop a system of vowels inserted into the text that we still use today. Since the vowel “points” (many vowels look like little dots) were not original to the language, they are not of primary significance when considering the original wording.

    2. The very fact that the Hebrew Scriptures persistently survived the most deleterious conditions throughout its long history demonstrates that indefatigable scribes insisted on its preservation. The OT books were copied by hand for generations on highly perishable papyrus and animal skins in the relatively damp, hostile climate of Palestine in contrast to the dry climate of Egypt, so favorable to the preservation of these materials. Moreover, the prospects for their survival were uncertain in a land that served as a bridge for armies in unceasing contention between the continents of Africa and Asia—a land whose people were the object of plunderers in their early history and of captors in their later history. That no other writings, such as the Book of Yashar or the Diaries of the Kings, survive from this period shows the determination of the scribes to preserve the OT books. But the worst foes of Hebrew Scripture were the very heirs of its treasures, because they sought to kill many of its authors (cf. Matt 23:35) and destroy their works (cf. Jer 36). One must assume, however, that from the first the OT Scriptures captured the hearts, minds, and loyalties of some in Israel who at risk to themselves kept them safe. Such people must have insisted on the accurate transmission of the text even as those of similar persuasion insist on it today.6

    3. Until recently, very few copies of OT books from before the middle ages were available. There is a good reason for this. The Rabbis regarded their copies of the Scripture with almost superstitious veneration, and when the MSS were too old and worn for regular use, they replaced them with new copies. The old copies would often be reverently destroyed, buried or hidden. It was better, they thought, to give them an honorable burial than to run the risk that the materials might be improperly used. Synagogues would often have a special storage room, called a genizah (literally, “hiding place”), where old MSS would be stored. One such genizah was found in Cairo in 1896. The sealed, dark room in the dry Egyptian climate allowed for the preservation the documents. The rich store of linguistic works found there shed light on Hebrew grammar and lexicology.7

    4. Jewish scribes were very careful and meticulous in their copying duties. They had various means of making sure that their copies were accurate and not full of errors. They knew how many letters and words were supposed to be in each book. They even knew the word that should be in the middle of each copied page. Since the scribes were so careful in their duties, we can have great confidence that they did not essentially alter or corrupt the original readings. They conveyed the OT to succeeding generations as they found it. Because the scribes did such an excellent job, most of the available MSS agree very closely. Most MSS are virtually identical.8 Small differences, such as changes in the vowels or spelling changes, did occur, but most are of very little consequence. A particular group of scribes called the Masoretes did their work from about AD 500 to 1000, and the text that they produced is called the Masoretic text (MT). There were schools of Masoretes at work in both Babylonia and Palestine; the school whose method was ultimately adopted was that of Tiberias in Palestine. Most conservative scholars believe that the Masoretes and their forebears handled the MSS with such care that very few errors crept into the text. However, a great deal of copying occurred before the Masoretic scribes began their stewardship of the text, and scholars are not sure how well early scribes handled the text. Additionally, the Jews were driven out of the Holy Land in AD 70, various wars and dispersions occurred, and the Jewish religion declined considerably by AD 200. Such events could have had a negative impact on how well the text was preserved. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the pre-Masoretic scribes were very careful and diligent stewards of the MSS. That is not to claim perfection for their copying skills, because scribes could never totally eradicate slips of the pen. The following types of scribal errors produced variations in the MSS:

      1. Writing a letter once when it should have been written twice, or writing a letter once that should have been written twice

      2. Reversing the position of letters

      3. Combining separate words into one, or dividing one word into two

      4. Substitution of one homonym for another

      5. Misreading similar letters

      6. Omitting a section due to the copyist’s eye skipping from one ending to a similar ending

      7. Accidental omission of words

    5. How do scholars deal with such phenomena? Over the years, textual critics developed rules, or “canons,” that they apply to variant readings in an effort to find the right one. These rules help them determine which reading is most likely to be original. Sometimes discovery of the proper reading is easy; sometimes it is very difficult. In some instances we must admit that two or three options exist, and one of them is correct, but we are unable to tell which one it is. Do variations in the text render it unreliable? By no means. As noted above, most variants are minor and have little impact on the meaning or application of a passage. Even those variants that do affect meaning do not adversely affect the general meaning or teaching of the OT. We may not always be able to tell with absolute certainty which reading is correct, but the correct reading is available somewhere within the MS evidence.9 In most cases, the MT will retain the correct reading, and one should follow a variant only rarely and for good reasons.

  2. The Dead Sea Scrolls

    1. Archeologist W. F. Albright called the original discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.”10 These scrolls were apparently used by a Jewish sect living near the Dead Sea between about 150 BC to AD 70. Around the time the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the Jews in AD 70, the Jews in that sect sealed their sacred scrolls in clay jars and hid them in nearby caves. In 1947, a shepherd boy looking for a lost goat threw a stone into one of these caves and heard pottery shatter. He went in to investigate and found the scrolls. Within a very short time these scrolls were in the hands of biblical scholars who found some of them to be hundreds of years older than any copies then available. Because of the DSS findings, copies of OT books from before the time of Jesus are now available, so textual critics can investigate how much the text has changed through the copying process over the years.

    2. The DSS contain copies or fragments of nearly every OT book. About 40,000 MS fragments were found in the caves. One very important find was a complete copy of Isaiah from around 100 BC. A comparison of the DSS copy of Isaiah and one from AD 900 reveals very few and insignificant differences between copies separated by about a thousand years. For example, in Isaiah chapter 53, only 17 letters differ from the early copy to the later one, and of these, 10 are simply matters of spelling. Out of the 166 words in the chapter, there is only one significant difference, and it does not change the sense of the passage. In the vast majority of cases, the MSS found in the DSS materials are word-for-word identical with copies dated many centuries later. In the Habakkuk Commentary, which is dated to around 50 BC, variants are fairly numerous though minor in character, and often the obvious result of scribal error. Some of the variants found in the DSS material are helpful in providing better vocalization for some Hebrew words that are perhaps not as well preserved in the MT.11

    3. The MSS dating from the first century BC are essentially the same as those dating from a thousand years later. Comparisons of other MSS found in the DSS lead to the conclusion that the scribes of that time were fully capable of caring for the texts in their hands. The text that scribes were copying a hundred years before Jesus’ time is essentially the same text that we have today. The scribes who copied the text did a wonderful job of preserving it over the years.

    4. Nothing in the DSS discoveries endangers the essential reliability and authority of the MT. They do not indicate that the Septuagint is necessarily to be exalted to a more respected position than it occupied before the finding of the DSS materials, except perhaps in a few locations where the MT seems to be defective (e.g., 1 and 2 Samuel).12 Scholars believe the DSS comprise “the most phenomenal confirmation of the Hebrew text.”13 Textual critics believe that “the presence of a text type among the DSS (c. 200 B.C. to A.D. 100) identical with the one preserved by the Masoretes, whose earliest extant MS dates to c. A.D. 900, gives testimony to the unbelievable achievement of some scribes in faithfully preserving the text.”14

  3. The Septuagint and other versions

    1. Around 200 BC, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, which came to be known as the Septuagint, abbreviated LXX. This version probably owes its name to the story recounted in the pseudonymous Letter of Aristeas, according to which seventy-two scholars summoned from Jerusalem by Ptolemy Philadelphus (295-47 BC) rendered in seventy-two days a perfect Greek translation of the Pentateuch. Christian writers credited the translation of the entire Hebrew Bible to these seventy-two interpreters.15 Copies of the LXX do not go all the way back to pre-Christian times, but they do give us an idea of what the Hebrew text was like around 200 BC. The LXX differs from the MT in many places, and sometimes these differences are significant. Among the DSS fragments were found some OT MSS that seemed to coordinate better with the LXX than with the MT. Scholars believe that by about 200 BC, at least two (maybe three) families or strains of Hebrew text were in circulation. Textual scholars today can compare the various families of MSS to find the readings that have the best support. Many scholars believe that the MT generally provides the correct readings, but in a few places the LXX may retain the original. The process of finding and choosing readings is not an easy task. Unless one has a good working knowledge of both Hebrew and Greek, he would not be qualified to make such decisions. Sometimes it is impossible to be absolutely sure which reading is correct, but at least we can propose a couple of possible options, and one of them is no doubt correct.

    2. Many of the differences between the MT and the LXX are due to stylistic concerns like word choice. The LXX is rather free and paraphrastic in some places, quite literal in others. In some places the LXX is a fairly good representation of the underlying Hebrew and at other places the Greek translator evidences a lack of skill. And since the LXX itself has been copied over the years, it may not retain the original Greek readings in some places. Comparing the LXX to the MT, we find mostly small variations that make little difference, but occasionally the differences are dramatic. One place where a significant difference exists between the LXX ant the MT is in the book of Jeremiah, where the LXX lacks some sixty verses found in the MT. Nevertheless, the LXX is in good general agreement with the MT overall. For the first three centuries of the Christian church, the LXX was the only OT that most believers read. Most of the quotations in the New Testament come not from the Hebrew but from the LXX, which strongly suggests that believers around the time of Jesus held the LXX to be the authoritative Word of God, equivalent to the Hebrew. In fact, were the Hebrew Bible to mysteriously disappear from the planet, we could use the LXX without a substantial change in faith or practice. In any particular text, whether one follows the MT or the LXX, he will not go far wrong.

    3. The OT was also translated into other languages, like Aramaic, Latin and Syriac. Versions tend to be of value for interpretation rather than for textual criticism.

      1. Aramaic Targums: “Targum” means “interpretation.” During the Babylonian captivity, the Jews began losing their Hebrew language skills. Aramaic was the language of diplomacy and commerce throughout the empire, and the Jews transitioned into that language. A teacher reading the OT would have to repeat what he was teaching in Aramaic because the people no longer understood Hebrew so well. The Targum of Onkelos on the Torah (produced in the 3rd century AD) adheres very closely to the traditional MT in most cases. Some of the targums are quite paraphrastic and free in their renderings of the Hebrew.

      2. The OT was translated into Latin starting in about AD 200. Some of these came from the LXX, not the MT. Jerome’s Latin translation did come from the Hebrew and for many centuries was the official Latin translation in the Western Church.

      3. About the same time as the Aramaic Targums were being produced, Syrian Christians began to produce a translation of the Bible into their Eastern Aramaic dialect (called Syriac). The Peshitta (“simple”) Syriac OT must have been composed in the second or third century AD. It was likely originally translated from the MT but was revised over the years to reflect the LXX readings.

      4. If we somehow lost all Hebrew and Greek MSS of the OT, we could still reconstruct the essential form of the OT from the Aramaic, Latin and Syriac (and other) versions.

  4. Other factors supporting the faithful transmission of the OT

    1. Much archaeological evidence supports the general outlines of history as recorded in the OT as well as minute details that could easily have been corrupted over the years. The names of kings of Israel and of the surrounding regions, both great and small, are preserved with remarkable accuracy. The Bible accurately records the names associated with certain regions. The Bible accurately describes various officers serving in foreign courts. One scholar asserted that archaeological discoveries have, “shown that not only the main substance of what has been written but even the words, aside from minor variations, have been transmitted with remarkable fidelity, so that there need be no doubt whatever regarding the teaching conveyed by them.”16

    2. Sometimes the OT records the same information in more than one location. Some of the Psalms are duplicated in other books. Isaiah records the same information as is found in parts of 2 Kings. Samuel, Kings and Chronicles record some of the same information. Although a study of the parallel passages will find some differences, they are generally minor and may be traceable to other factors than scribal error. The accuracy of parallel passages implies that scribes faithfully copied the MSS over the centuries.

    3. A comparison of other works of antiquity shows that ancient scribes in general were quite skilled in their duties. Ages before the advent of mechanical and electrical devices, scribes were well able to maintain the accuracy of copied MSS across vast periods. Scribal practices throughout the ancient Near East reflect a conservative attitude that preserved the text. “The prolonged and intimate study of the many scores of thousands of pertinent documents from the ancient Near East proves that sacred and profane documents were copied with greater care than is true of scribal copying in Graeco-Roman times.”17

Conclusion: The evidence points to the fact that the text of the OT is reliable. There is no reason to think that the OT is essentially corrupted or lost. Variations do exist among the copies, but most differences are trivial in nature and not one of them substantially affects doctrine or practice. For all intents and purposes, and especially for the layman, the OT is a reliable document that accurately and essentially conveys the original readings to modern readers. As W. F. Albright noted, “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 literature.”18 As Skilton cogently observes, “[W]e must maintain that the God who gave the Scriptures, who works all things after the counsel of his will, has exercised a remarkable care over his Word, has preserved it in all ages in a state of essential purity, and has enabled it to accomplish the purpose for which he gave it. It is inconceivable that the sovereign God who was pleased to give his Word as a vital and necessary instrument in the salvation of his people would permit his Word to become completely marred in its transmission and unable to accomplish its ordained end. Rather, as surely as that he is God, we would expect to find him exercising a singular care in the preservation of his written revelation. That God has preserved the Scriptures in such a condition of essential purity as we would expect is manifestly the case. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament has survived the millenniums in a substantially and remarkably pure form.”19

1 Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, p. 121.

2 Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, p. 121.

3 C. A. Briggs, “Critical Theories of the Sacred Scriptures in Relation to their Inspiration,” The Presbyterian Review, II (1881), 573f., quoted in John H. Skilton, “The Transmission of the Hebrew Text” in The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, edited by N.B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, revised ed. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967).

4 Gordon Fee defines textual criticism as “the science that compares all known manuscripts of a given work in an effort to trace the history of variations within the text so as to discover its original form.” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 1.

5 Some of this material is from R. Laird Harris, “How Reliable is the Old Testament Text?” Covenant Seminary Review 81.

6 Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 1.


8 Many scholars believe that the consistency reflected in the MT is evidence of an official editorial process (a recension) done between 100 BC and AD 100 that produced a standardized text. Jewish scribes likely consulted their best MSS, produced an official text, and discarded those MSS that did not fit with their work. The Masoretes inherited this standardized text and conveyed it with little variation throughout the centuries.

9 In a very small number of cases, the MS evidence for a reading is so problematic that some scholars think the original reading is no longer available. In such cases, scholars attempt to restore what they think was the probable original reading.

10 Biblical Archeologist, 11:3:55, September, 1948, quoted in Bibliotheca Sacra (Vol. 113, Page 117).

11 Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 33.

12 Archer, p. 36.

13 Normal Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 465.

14 Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 1.

15 Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 1.

16 Millar Burrows, What Mean These Stones? American Schools of Oriental Research, New Haven, 1941, p. 42, quoted in Arnold C. Schultz, “The Old Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Vol. 9, Page 65). Evangelical Theological Society. (1966; 2002).

17 W.F. Albright, quoted in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 1.

18 Quoted in Archer, Old Testament Introduction, p. 58.

19 John H. Skilton, “The Transmission of the Scriptures”

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