The Bible Part 7 – The Reliability Of The Old Testament

by The Doctor

Some of the more common questions about the Bible are, “how reliable is the Old Testament that we have today?” and “how do we know that the Scriptures that we have today are what the original writers actually wrote?” While it may be true that we don’t have any perfect copies of the Bible, there are some really good reasons to believe that the Old Testament copies that we have today are totally reliable. Here’s why…

The Procedure For Copying Old Testament Scrolls

In the days before computers, copiers, and fax machines, all written communication had to be done by hand. This of course, included the writings of the Old Testament. Unlike other writings of that time however, an almost unbelievably detailed procedure was developed for copying each Old Testament book and preventing mistakes.

For example, here are some of the detailed requirements that had to be followed whenever the Old Testament was copied by hand…

  • Each page must contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the volume
  • Each column length must not extend over less than 48 or more than 60 lines
  • The breath of each column must consist of 30 letters
  • The ink should be black, prepared according to a definite recipe
  • An copy must be taken only from an authentic example, from which the transcriber ought not deviate in the least
  • No word or letter must be written from memory, the scribe not having looked at the volume before him
  • Between every consonant the space of a hair, or thread must intervene
  • Between every new section, the breadth of nine consonants
  • Between every book, three lines
  • The fifth book of Moses must terminate with an exact line, but the rest need not do so
  • The copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, wash his whole body and not begin to write the name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink
  • Should a king address him while writing that name, he must take no notice of him (1)

Now that’s dedication!

Error Detection

The Jewish scribes were the people who were mostly responsible for making copies of the Old Testament. These guys were so careful in copying the Old Testament writings that they devised a complex error detection process to help prevent mistakes.

Here’s how it worked: each letter of a book would first be counted. When the counting was completed, the location of specific letters and words would then be documented. Thereafter, if a specific word or letter showed up in a place where it didn’t belong, the scribe would immediately know that a mistake had been made.

The copy with the mistake would then be burned, buried, or used in the schools to help teach children to read. This process made it very, very difficult for errors to creep into each Old Testament copy.

The Masoretes

From 500 AD to 900 AD, a group of scribes called the Masoretes worked to preserve the Old Testament Scriptures. They sorted and compared all of the available copies and put them together into what is known today as the Masoretic Text. The Masoretes were very dedicated to the preserving the Word of God and no detail was too small to be overlooked. The Masoretes collected all of the Scriptural comments provided by the teachers from the past as well as alternative readings, pronunciation aids, and other notes. About 1,000 copies of the Masoretic text still exist today and scholars use them to help construct the Bible’s original text.

Now even though the Masoretes worked very hard to preserve the Scriptures, the fact is that the Old Testament was completed almost 1000 years before they started their work. How do we know that the ancient texts that they worked with were still accurate?

Well, we can help answer that question by telling the story of a boy and his goat -and how they helped show the accuracy of the Scriptures.

A Lost Goat And A Great Discovery

Back in the spring of 1947, a young boy named Muhammad was out looking for a lost goat in the desert of Judea- an area of the world inhabited today by the nation of Israel. As the little shepherd boy walked along the dry, craggy land, he started tossing stones into the caves that were there just 500 yards (460 meters) or so from the Dead Sea.

As he walked along, he picked up a stone and tossed it into one of the cave openings along the hillside. As the stone disappeared into the cave, he heard a noise that didn’t quite sound like a stone striking a rock. So he picked up another stone, threw it into the same cave and heard the same sound again. Muhammad decided that this was something worth checking out, so he climbed up to the opening to have a better look.

What he found was a cave about 25 feet (8 meters) long and six feet (2 meters) wide. Inside the cave were clay jars including the ones that his rocks had hit- the ones that had made the sound he heard. Some of the jars were gray, some were pinkish-white and all stood about 2 feet (61 centimeters) high. Inside these jars were rolled-up objects, wrapped in cloth and covered with a protective wax-like substance. The young boy unrolled one of the objects and found it to be a manuscript written in columns on pages that had been sewn together.

Now this is much more than just a story about a boy who found something unexpectedly. You see, what Muhammad found in the cave that day was one of the greatest archaeological finds ever made, for he stumbled upon what is known to us today as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Scrolls belonged to a group of people who lived in that area somewhere between 150 BC to 70 AD. Scholars believe that the Scrolls were placed in the caves during that time to protect them from an invasion by the Romans. With the exception of the book of Esther, parts of every Old Testament book are represented among the Scrolls. The oldest text is a fragment of Exodus that dates from about 250 BC. The scroll containing the entire book of Isaiah is thought to have been copied around 100 BC.

So why bring all this up? Well, here’s the reason: in some cases the Dead Sea Scrolls are over 1000 years older than the earliest Old Testament copies that previously existed. But when the Scrolls were checked against these later copies, it was found that they read almost entirely the same as the Old Testament that you can read today. In talking about this, one scholar-type says that…

“Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered… in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscripts previously known… they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95% of the text. The 5% of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.” (2)

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a good reason to feel confident concerning the accuracy of the Scriptures you hold in your hands today. So, when people ask you, “How do you know that the Bible we have today is the same one that was written years ago,” you can just tell them the story of a boy and a lost goat.

(1) A Look At The Book: Traveling the Original Route 66, Charles Swindoll pg.14

(2) Dr. Gleason Archer, A Survey Of The Old Testament quoted in  A Ready Defense, Josh McDowell pg. 49

Next:  The Reliability Of The New Testament