27 May 2013

Reliability of the Old Testament


WHEN we talk about credibility and reliability of the Old Testament text, what we are establishing here is the textual accuracy and the historical reliability of the Scriptures. Textual accuracy of the Old Testament text has shown in at least in four major ways:

(1)   The accuracy of the textual transmission (the accuracy of the copying process down through history).
(2)   Bibliographical evidences.
(3)   Internal evidences.
(4)   External evidences.

Historical reliability is being an accurate source for the historical events it reports. The Bible has been shown to be historically reliable and credible in at least two major ways:

(1)      Through historical and even geographical accuracy of biblical accounts (the confirmation of the Bible by hard evidences uncovered through archeology.
(2)      Through documentary evidences uncovered through archeology.

Are the Old Testament documents reliable? 

Let us now examine the evidences that prove the integrity, credibility and reliability of the Old Testament text.


The word “accuracy” means “the quality of being accurate; exactness and correctness.”1 The accuracy of the copying process of the Biblical manuscripts down through the history is clearly evident:

(1)   Through the employment of the scribes of strict rules in copying the manuscripts.
(2)   Through the manuscripts discovered from different periods of time.

The Scribes Employed Strict Rules in Copying the MSS

Immediately after the biblical books were written, the author gave the autographs to the Levites and priests, and the latter laid the books in the tabernacle (later in the Temple). The priests and Levites were the first to copied the Old Testament text (they were called the Temple scribes).

 Evidently, from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the task of copying the Biblical books was shouldered by the guild of professional scribes known as the Sopherims. The Sopherims’ works covered the period from 400 BC to 200 AD. Then, from 200 AD to 500 AD, the task of of copying shouldered by the Talmuldists. And from 500 to 950, the task was past on to the Masoretes. Our Hebrew Bible today was derived from the work of the Masoretes, especially of the Ben Asher family.

The Sopherims took great care of the copying of the Biblical books. They safeguard the purity of the manuscripts they received from the earliest scribes (probably the manuscripts made by temple scribes, those in the library that Nehemiah build, or even from Ezra or those supervised by Ezra himself).

For this purpose, safeguarding the purity of the Biblical texts, the Sopherims devised the method of counting the words, verses, and letters of every manuscript of each Biblical book they produced to know if they have made a perfect copy. If the manuscript did not conform to their statistics, they knew they committed mistakes, and the manuscript is burned.

In the first century AD, there was a strong move in Judaism to establish a model text, a textus receptus. Move by the purpose of “to safeguard the purity of the text,” they set themselves to do their best to publish a standard text.

In 100 AD, Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues published a standard text of the Hebrew Bible. From then on, the standard text published by Rabbi Akiba was used, and the other Hebrew text types ceased. It must not be mistaken that the Jewish scholars of this period created the standard text. There are scholars who believed that the standardized text prevailed, not created, after 70 AD.

The standard text produced by these Jewish scholars in 100 AD is the standard consonantal text of the Old Testament (manuscripts without vowel points). These were the manuscripts the Talmudists safeguard its purity, and that were passed on to the Masoretes. The Jewish scholars obviously relied on earlier traditions in establishing such a standard text, and from about 100 AD, the copying of the Hebrew Text was to be governed of strict regulations.

How the purity of the standard text of 100 AD was preserved in the Talmudic period? Strict regulations were employed in the Talmudic period for the transmission, or copying and producing this standard text of the Hebrew Old Testament consonantal text.

They did not only employed the method of the Sopherim of counting the verses, words and letters of each books, but also added other procedures such as the following:

(1)  Only parchment from clean animals was allowed.
(2)  Each written column of the scroll was to have no fewer than forty-eight and not more than sixty lines.
(3)  The page was first to be lined, and the letters suspended from these lines.
(4)  The ink was to be black in color, prepared according to specific recipe.
(5)  No word or letter was to be written from memory; the scribe was to pronounce the words before he wrote them down.
(6)  The scribe was to wipe his pen before writing the sacred name.
(7)  The new copy was to be revised within thirty days after completion, and if more than three errors were found on any single sheet, the roll was condemned.
(8)  Every word and letter was counted.
(9)  Strictly observed the rules on the form of the letters and the spaces between them.

These rules encourage great confidence in the accuracy of such copies. The manuscripts produced bu the Talmudists were handed down to the Masoretes. From 500 AD to 950 AD, the Masoretes labored and did their best to safeguard the purity of the Hebrew text, employing the same strict procedures in the copying of the Biblical manuscripts. The Masoretes gave us the final form of the Hebrew Bible.

Our Hebrew Bible today is based on the works of the Masoretes, especially the works of the Ben Asher family. These scribes did not take liberties with the sacred text; but treated it with the greatest imaginable reverence, and devised complicated system of safeguarding against scribal errors.

“It must be thought that in their devotion to tradition interpretation these Masoretes took liberties with the sacred text. On the contrary, they treated it with the greatest imaginable reverence, and devised a complicated system of safeguards against scribal slips. They counted, for example, the number of times each letter of the alphabet occur in each book; they pointed out the middle letter of the Pentateuch and the middle letter of the Hebrew Bible, and made even more detailed calculations that these, ‘Everything countable seems to be counted’, says Dr. Wheeler Robinson; and they made up mnemonics by which the various totals might be readily remembered.”2

Based on the knowledge of the works of the Masoretes, we should accord to them the highest praise for their meticulous care in preserving so sedulously the consonantal text of the Sopherim that had been entrusted to them.

“In conclusion we should accord to the Masoretes the highest praise for their meticulous care in preserving so sedulously the consonantal text of the Sopherim which had been entrusted to them. They together with the Sopherim themselves gave the most diligent attention to accurate preservation of the Hebrew Scriptures that has ever been devoted to any ancient literature, secular or religious, in the history of human civilizations. So conscientious were they in their stewardship of the holy text that they did not even venture to make the most obvious corrections, so far as the consonants were concerned, but left their Vorlage exactly as it was handed down to them. Because of their faithfulness, we have today a form of the Hebrew text which in all essentials duplicates the recension which was considered authoritative in the days of Christ and the apostles, if not a century earlier. And this in turn, judging from Qumran evidence, goes back to an authoritative revision of the Old Testament text which was drawn up on the basis of the most reliable manuscripts available for collation from previous centuries. These bring us very close in all essentials to the original autographs themselves, and furnish us with an authentic record of God’s revelation. As W.F. Albright has 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 literature.’”3

Thus, the professional scribes did the copying of the manuscripts employing strict rules in order to maintain the purity of the text. But, how accurate the works of these scribes? Why are we certain that they copied or produce copies of the Old Testament text with accuracy? Let us examine the “physical evidences.”

Accuracy of the Masoretic Text

In 1524-1525, Jacob ben Chayim published the so-called editio princeps of the Hebrew Bible. This became the standard edition of the Masoretic text. It has great influence upon all later editions of the printed Hebrew Bible, with the exception of the third edition of Kittel’s Bible. How accurate was Jacob ben Chayim’s work compared to the tenth century Masoretic Text? The Bible scholar, Dr. Ira Maurice Price gave this answer:

“A striking illustration of the high accuracy attained by the Jewish scribes is provided by an examination of the old manuscripts of the Pentateuch preserved in the British Museum…It is believed to date from the tenth century A.D., yet its text is practically identical with that of recent printed Hebrew Bible which depend on the great rabbinic Bible of Jacob ben Chayim of 1525.”4

Comparing the Jacob ben Chayim’s work with the tenth century Masoretic Text, the two are practically identical. Thus, we can say with confident that our Hebrew Bible today is practically identical with the Masoretic Text of the tenth century.

These tenth century Hebrew manuscripts are supposed to be the preserved standard consonantal text of 100 AD. Thus the big question is, “Because the text has been copied over many times, can we trust it?” The following are witnesses on the accuracy of the tenth century Masoretic Text as representing the standard consonantal text of the 100 AD.

Mishna (200 AD)

Mishnah is one of the two divisions that consist the Talmud, containing the digest of Jewish oral laws, traditions, and explanations of Scripture. The scriptural quotations from Mishnah are very similar to Masoretic Text.

“The Scriptural quotations are very similar to the Masoretic Text and witness to its reliability.”5

Gemara (Palestianian, 200 AD; Babylonian, 500 AD)

The other division of the Talmud. Like Mishna, the Scriptural quotations from Gemara are also very similar to Masoretic Text.

“Those commentaries (written in Aramaic) that grew up around the Mishnah contribute to the textual reliability of the Masoretic Text.”6

Midrash (100 BC – 300 AD)

Midrash, came from the word daras, meaning to search or investigate, were the Jewish textual study or text interpretation that was brought together between 100 BC and 300 AD. The Scriptural quotations from Midrash are substantially Masoretic.

“Midrash (100 BC – AD 300) was made up of doctrinal studies of the Old Tetament Hebrew text. The Midrash quotations are substantially Masoretic.”7

Genizah Fragments (5th century).

The Cairo genizah contains rich supply of manuscripts and fragment which about 10,000 were said to be fragments of Biblical manuscripts, some dating back to the fifth century AD. Cairo Genizah manuscripts and fragments are of Masoretic tradition.

Nash Papyrus (Second or first century BC)

An old fragment of Biblical Hebrew that contains the Decalogue and the shema. This text is close to the Masoretic tradition. Furthermore, the discoveries of the Dead Sea scrolls further prove the accuracy of the transmission of the Biblical books.

“Before the discovery of the Qumran manuscripts Sir Frederick Kenyon asked what he called a ‘great, indeed all-important questions’ with regard to the traditional text of the Hebrew Bible. It was this: ‘Does this Hebrew text, which we call Masoretic, and which we have shown to descent from a text as originally written by the authors of the Old Testament books?’ The Qumran discoveries have enabled us to answer this question in the affirmative with much greater assurance than was possible before 1947.”8

“Does the Masoretic Text faithfully represent the Hebrew text as originally written by the authors of the Old Testament books”? The Qumran discoveries answered this “great, indeed all-important question.”

“Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest date manuscript previously known (AD 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible (no more than 95 percent of the variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling. They do not affect the message of revelation in the slightest.”9

Thus, we may rest assured that the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible has been preserved with accuracy perhaps unparalleled in any other Near Eastern literature. The Old Testament that came down to us is generally the same as of the “original manuscripts.”

On Scribal Errors

What do other people claim regarding the Bible to undermine its reliability, credibility, accuracy, and it’s being the Word of God? Those who do not accept the accuracy of the Old Testament text point to the scribal errors as proof of its inaccuracy.

At this point, let us first make a distinction. Inerrancy is applied only to autographs of the biblical books, and copies are not necessarily free from errors:

“Inerrancy (freedom from all error) is necessary only for the original manuscripts (autographs) of the biblical books. They must have been free from all mistakes, or else they could not have been truly inspired by the God of truth I whom is no darkness at all. God could never have inspired a human author of Scripture to write anything erroneous or false.”10

Only the commissioned writers were inspired, and those who made the copies do not claim inspiration:

“Still we fail to understand our Bible of today if we do not take full account of the many passages where, in spite of all the care of the scribes – rather, should we say, occasionally because of such care? – changes did find their way into the text.”11

Scribal errors crept into the text gradually and were transmitted from one manuscript to another continuously down the centuries. But, these scribal errors did not altered the doctrine within the text:

“Granted, then, that errors have crept into our texts as we now have them, how can they serve as a reliable medium for disclosing God’s will? Are we not right back with the problem of books containing both truth and error? Not at all, for there is a great difference between a document which was wrong at the start and a document which was right at the start but was miscopied. One may read a letter from his friend or relative and find in it such common slips as of for or, or and  for an, and yet by a simple process of correction in the light of the context, he may easily arrive at the true sense intended by the writer. Only if the errors which have gotten into the copies are so serious as to pervert the sense altogether does the message fail in accurate communication. But if the letter came from a correspondent who was confused, mistaken, or deceitful, then the errors and misinformation it contains are beyond remedy and the reader is injured thereby.”12

Scribal errors in the text are not that serious to alter or corrupt the whole text itself. Numerous scribal errors are errors in numbers and spelling. Numerous of the “variant reading” of different manuscripts mean differences in numbers or spellings only. As a matter of fact, these scribal errors gradually awaken the scribes to the necessity of greater care, and developed methods of insuring a higher degree of accuracy:

“In other words, the scribes gradually awoke to the necessity of greater care, and developed methods of insuring a higher degree of accuracy. One of these was the practice of counting the verses (through these did not yet bear numbers) and even the letter is in the various books, and then of making note of the middle verse, the middle word, and the middle letter of each book.”13

Even though there are scribal errors, but generally, the transmissions or the making of copies of the Biblical books is accurate. As point out earlier, comparing the Masoretic Text of the tenth century AD with the Qumran manuscripts of the second and first century BC, they proved to be word for word identical, that 95 percent of the variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in numbers and spelling.


Another proof of textual accuracy of the Old Testament is the bibliographical evidences:

“The bibliographical test is an examination of the textual transmission by which documents reach us. In other words, since we do not have the original documents, how reliable are the copies we have in regard to the number of manuscripts (MSS) and the time interval between the original and extant (currently existing) copies?”14

Let us now examine the number of Hebrew manuscripts and the time interval between the original and extant (currently existing copies).

Even though the Hebrew Old Testament does not have the same number of manuscripts and manuscript fragments as the New Testament does, but the number of its manuscripts and manuscript fragments are still significant, numbering to more than twelve thousand.

The following are list of the numbers of the Hebrew manuscripts and manuscript fragments.

·        Benjamin Kennicot lists 615 manuscripts and fragments.

·        Giovanni de Rossi lists 731 manuscripts and fragments

·        The largest collection of Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts is the Firkowitch Collection in Leningrad, containing 1,582.

·        The Cairo Geniza preserved 10,000 are Biblical texts in Hebrew and Aramaic.

·        The Qumran Caves preserved hundreds of manuscripts (Dead Sea Scrolls) dating from third century BC to first century AD.

·        Britism Museum lists 161 manuscripts and fragments.

·        Bodleian Library (Oxford University) lists 146 manuscripts and fragments.

·        The Old Testament was also translated into Greek, Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Gothic, Arabian, and others.

Of the Hebrew manuscripts and manuscript fragments, notable are the following:

  • British Museum Codex Oriental 4445 (about 850 AD)

  • Cairo Codex (about 895 AD)

  • Aleppo Codex (c. 900 AD)

  • Codex of the Prophets of Leningrad (about 916 AD)

  • Codex Babylonicus Petropalitanus (1008 AD)

  • Leningrad MS 19A (a copy of a 980 AD MT)

Compare the existing copies of the Old Testament text with other ancient literature, there are many more early manuscripts of the Old Testament than other books of antiquity:

  • Homer’s Iliad, only 643 copies;
  • Herodotus’ History, only 8 copies;
  • Caesar’s Gallic Wars, only 10 copies;
  • Tacitus’ Annals, only 20 copies.

On the Interval between the Autographs and the Copies

The Torah

Moses wrote the Torah in c. 1447-1407 BC. After he wrote the Torah, he gave the books to the Levites and priests, and these sacred writings were stored in Israel’s sanctuary, alongside the ark of covenant (Deut. 31:9).

God also clearly commanded His servants to make copies of His written words, like when He commanded to make copies of the Law given to Moses (Deut. 17:18-19). God also commanded that His words be observed carefully and be preserved (Jos. 1:8).

The Bible also recorded in Joshua 8:30-32, that after Israel destroyed the city of Ai, Joshua copied on stones in the presence of the whole nation of Israel the Law of Moses (which Moses himself wrote). This happened only decades after Moses wrote the Torah.

After about 500 years, David admonished his son, Solomon, to adhere to the commandments of God as written in the Law of Moses. David and Solomon knew the existence and the content of those Books, evidence that in that time, there were already copies of the Book of the Law of Moses.

“Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying: ‘I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man. And keep the charge of the LORD your God: to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgments, and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.” (I Kings 2:1-3, NKJV)

This indicates that the Books of the Law of Moses (the Torah) were continually copied and taught to ancient Israelites. Another evidence that the Torah was continuously copied, was the event that in the time of Josiah (639-608 BC), king of Judah, the Book of Law was found in the house of the Lord (II Kings 22:8). Even upon the return of the Jews after the Babylonian captivity, the Scriptures were carefully preserved (Neh. 8:1).

Although, these “copies” of the Book of the Law no longer exist, probably it perished through the ages, but internal (Biblical) evidences proved that from the time the Biblical books were written, it were continuously copied.

On Other Old Testament Books

Daniel 9:2 tell us that Daniel knew the writings of Jeremiah, proving that they were copies of Scriptures brought to Babylon by exiled Jews.

Jewish traditions tell us that Nehemiah established a library, that he collected copies of the Sacred Scriptures, proving that there were copies of Scriptures even before their time.

Also, Ezra was the “greatest scribe” (scribe means “copyist”). Ezra and Nehemiah were also writers of the Biblical books, and contemporary with other prophets, such as Malachi.

Thus, we can rest assured that even other books of the Old testament were continuously copied from the time they were written.


Another strong support for the accuracy of the Old Testament text is the ancient versions.

The Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint)

The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Alexandrian Jews made the translation in Alexandria about 250-150 BC. The Septuagint is a witness to the accuracy of the Hebrew Old Testament Text (Masoretic Text).

“Although…the Septuagint text sometimes deviates from the Masoretic text and occasionally helps us to correct it, yet in general it confirms that no serious changes were introduced into the text of the Old Testament during the thousand years and more between the time when this translation was made and the time in which our chief Hebrew MSS belong.”15

The Latin Old Testament (the Vulgate)

Jerome translated the Old Testament into Latin directly from Hebrew in 400 AD. Jerome’s Vulgate is also a witness to the accuracy of the Hebrew Old Testament (Masoretic Text).

“His translation, together with references made to the original text of the Old Testament passages in some of his other writings, is thus a witness to the character of the Hebrew text 500 years before the Masoretic had concluded their work.”16

The Samaritan Pentateuch

The Samaritans preserved their own Hebrew text of the Torah or Pentateuch independently from the Jews. Thus, the Samaritan Bible is a strong witness to the Hebrew text (the Masoretic Text).

Although the Samaritan Pentateuch have numerous variants with the Masoretic text, but the variations between them are quite insignificant, because these variants are regarding numbers, spelling, and Samaritan’s sectarian biases. However, generally speaking, if we are going to disregard those variants in numbers, spelling and Samaritan’s sectarian biases, it confirms the Masoretic Text.

Thus, we are confident that Old Testament text is credible and reliable. Furthermore, historical accuracy strengthens the credibility and reliability of the Old Testament text.


Before the archeological discoveries that confirm the historical accuracy of the Biblical account, many considered the Bible as myth and historical inaccurate. However, in the light of many discoveries, nothing refuted the Bible, instead, it proves the accuracy of the Bible.

How historically accurate the Bible is?

·        About a hundred years ago, people thought that Moses lived in an age of illiteracy. This was the reason why they could not accept that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, thus producing different theories regarding the origin of the Pentateuch, such as the Documentary theory. However, archeology now has shows that before the year 2,000 BC the Mesopotamians had schools where square roots and cubes roots were taught.

·        While Hittites as a people are mentioned 47 times in the Old Testament. But, before 1906, the Hittites were thought to be mythical, because no historical record ever mentioned about them, until Hugo Winkler, a German archeologist dug up the capital of the Hittite Empire at Bogazcoy, Turkey, where he also found documents and names hitherto found only in the Bible.

·        For many years, many Bible critics doubted the existence of the city of Ur (the where Abraham came from).   Then between 1922-1934, the University Museum of Pennsylvania and the British Museum excavated the ruins of Ur, including the Temple-tower known as Ziggurat. The old foundation of the temple was still standing.

·        The existence of camels in Genesis 24:11 was considered by some critics as a historical error since camels did not exist in Egypt or Canaan before Abraham’s time, until a discovery by Archeologist J.P. Free disproved this claim. Rock carvings, drawings, statuettes, figurines resembling camel have been excavated, and even camel skull and camel bones dating to as early as 3000 BC have been unearthed. All these proved the accuracy of Genesis 24:11.

·        King Belchazzar was mentioned in Daniel 5:1. For many years this was unexplainable because Nabonidas (555-538 BC) was long considered to be the last Babylonian king, and Belshazzar was not even mentioned in the Babylonian records. However, in 1853, a temple in honor of a god and built by Nabonidas in the city of Ur was unearth. In a cornerstone of the temple was found the following inscription: “May I, Nabonidas, king of Babylon, not sin against thee. And may reverence for thee dwell in the heart of Belshazzar, my first-born, a favorite son.”

·        For a long time, no one could explain why Belshazzar could offer Daniel only third place in the kingdom as mentioned in Daniel 5:16. However, archeology revealed that Belshazzar ruled as regent under his father Nabonidas, and therefore occupied number two position in the kingdom.

·        King Solomon’s stables mentioned in I King 10:26 was also thought non-existent but the Oriental Institute excavated in Megiddo, a city between Damascus and Gaza, ruins of stables. Unbelievably, even stone poles to which Solomon’s horses were tied were uncovered.

·        Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Twenty years after Nahum’s prophecy in 607 BC, Babylonia and Mede attacked Nineveh and completely destroyed the city. The sight was practically forgotten, and all traces of Nineveh were lost. However, in 1820, an Englishmen Claude James Rich started the search for the lost city. He identified mound suspected to be the Nineveh site. Among the ruins discovered was the ruin of the magnificent palace of king Sennacherib. The uncovered palace is about the size of three large city blocks. Isaiah 37:37 mention Sennacherib, king of Assyria to live in Nineveh and were later killed by his two sons.

End Notes:

1       Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus. New York: Shooting Star Press, 1995. p. 15
2       Bruce, F.F. The Books and the Parchment. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984. p. 108
3       Archer, Gleasson. Survey of Old Testament Introduction 2nd Ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1974. p. 65
4       Price, Ira Maurice. The Ancestry of Our English Bible. 3rd revised edition by William A. Irwin and Allen P. Wikgreen. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1956. p. 23
5       McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999. p. 87
6       Ibid.
7       Ibid.
8       Bruce, p.p. 114-115
9       Archer, p. 25
10    Ibid., p. 23
11    Price, p. 21
12    Archer, p. 24
13    Price, p. 23
14    McDowell, p. 33
15    Bruce, p. 113
16    Ibid., pp. 112-113

SOURCE: Lopez, E. M. The Bible: Our Sacred Scripture, A General Introduction To The Bible. Quezon City, Philippines: 2010.

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