Has the Old Testament been reliably copied?

While God did inspire the original writers on what to write in the Bible, we do not have any of their original manuscripts in our possession today because the material that they wrote upon did not last. Some of these materials were: papyrus, which is split reeds laid at right angles and pressed into a paper; animal skins, often called parchment or vellum; and wax, clay, or stone tablets. Copies had to be made since the very nature of these materials would lead to their disintegration.

But this leads to another question: if we don’t have any originals around, how do we know that what we have today has been copied accurately? That’s a legitimate question!

To test the reliability of the Old and New Testament documents, researchers use what is called a bibliographical test. They are verifying the “writing of the book” by checking what we have today with what the earliest manuscripts say. For instance, some “versions” of the Old Testaments documents that researchers examine are the Septuagint (a Greek version), the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Masoretic Texts, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. An examination of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest Hebrew version of the Old Testament we have which dates back to about 100 BC, reveals astonishing accuracy. For example, the Isaiah scroll is “word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.” That is amazing! Since the writing material wouldn’t last, copyists of the text took painstaking steps to insure that what was transmitted was accurate. As a case in point, consider what strict regulations the Masoretes and others followed to avoid mistakes in copying: rules governed the kind of ink used, dictated the spacing of words, and prohibited writing anything from memory. The lines—and even the letters—were counted methodically. If a manuscript was found to contain even one mistake it was discarded and destroyed.

Imagine that—copying something and counting all the letters to make sure you copied it correctly! Now that’s dedication! But when you know it is God’s Word, you want to handle it with the utmost respect and care, since it is being passed on to future generations. In conclusion, Josh McDowell writes, “The thousands of Hebrew manuscripts, with their confirmation by the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the numerous other cross-checks from outside and inside the text provide overwhelming support for the reliability of the Old Testament text…The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.”  Now that’s reliable!

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July 23, 2012

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