Bibliographical Evidence

of the

Old Testament


In the case of the Old Testament we do not have the abundance of close MS authority as in the New Testament. Until the recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest extant Hebrew MS was around 900 A.D. This made a time gap of 1300 years (Hebrew O. T. completed about 400 B.C). At first sight it would appear that the O. T. is no more reliable than other ancient literature. However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a number of O. T. manuscripts have been found which scholars date before the time of Christ.

First, in order to see the uniqueness of the Scripture in its reliability, one needs to examine the extreme care in which the copyists transcribed the O. T. MSS.

THE TALMUDISTS (A. D. 100-500)

During thus period a great deal of time was spent in cataloging Hebrew civil and canonical law. The Talmudists had quite an intricate system for transcribing synagogue scrolls. Samuel Davidson in the Hebrew Text of the Old Testament, 2nd ed., p. 89, as cited in James Hastings (ed.) A Dictionary of the Bible, IV, 949.

Samuel Davidson describes some of the disciplines of the Talmudists in regard to the Scriptures. These minute regulations (numbering incorporated by Geisler and Nix) are as follows: "

  1. A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals,
  2. prepared for the particular use of the synagogue by a Jew.
  3. These must be fastened together with strings taken from clean animals.
  4. Every skin must contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the entire codex.
  5. The length of each column must not extend over less than 48 or more than 60 lines; and the breadth must consist of thirty letters.
  6. The whole copy must be first-lined; and if three words be written without a line, it is worthless.
  7. The ink should be black, neither red, green, nor any other color, and be prepared according to a definite recipe.
  8. An authentic copy must be the examplar, from which the transcriber ought not in the least deviate.
  9. No word or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory, the scribe not having looked at the codex before him …
  10. Between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene;
  11. between every new parashah, or section, the breadth of nine consonants;
  12. between every book, three lines.
  13. The fifth book of Moses must terminate exactly with a line; but the rest need not do so.
  14. Besides this, the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress,
  15. wash his whole body,
  16. not begin to write the name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink,
  17. and should a king address him while writing that name he must take no notice of him."

Davidson adds that "The rolls in which these regulations are not observed are condemned to be buried in the ground or burned; or they are banished to the schools, to be used as reading books."

Why don't we have more old MSS? The very absence of ancient MSS, when the rules and accuracies of the copyists are considered, confirms the reliability of the copies we have today. The Talmudists were so convinced that when they finished transcribing a MSS they had an exact duplicate, that they would give the new copy equal authority.

THE MASSORETIC PERIOD (A. D. 500-900)

The Massoretes (from massora, "Tradition") accepted the laborious job of editing the text and standardising it. Their headquarters was Tiberias. The text which the Massoretes concluded with is called the "Masssoretic" text. This resultant text had had vowel points added in order to insure proper pronunciation. This Massoretic text is the standard Hebrew text today.

The Massoretes were well disciplined and treated the text "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 the alphabet occurs in each book; they pointed out the middle letter of Pentateuch and the middle letter of the whole Hebrew Bible, and made even more detailed calculations than these. 'Everything countable seems to be counted,' says Wheeler Robinson [Ancient and English Versions of the Bible (1940), pg. 29] and they made up mnemonics by which the various totals might be readily remembered."

Sir Frederic Kenyon says that "Besides recording varieties of reading, tradition, or conjecture, the Massoretes undertook a number of calculations which do not enter into the ordinary sphere of textual criticism. They numbered the verses, words, and letters of every book. They calculated the middle word and middle letter of each. They enumerated verses which contained all the letters of the alphabet, or a certain number of them; and so on. These trivialities, as we may rightly consider them, had yet the effect of securing minute attention to the precise transmission of the text; and they are but an excessive manifestation of a respect for the sacred Scriptures which in itself deserves nothing but praise. The Massoretes were indeed anxious that not one jot nor tittle, not one smallest letter nor one tiny part of a letter, of the Law should pass away or be lost."

THE WITNESS OF THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS TO THE RELIABILITY OF THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES

The Scrolls are made up of some 40,000 inscribed fragments. From these fragments more than 500 books have been reconstructed. Many extra-biblical books and fragments were discovered that shed light on the religious community of Qumran.

The oldest MSS we had were from 900 A.D. on. How could we be sure of its accurate transmission since the time of Christ in 32 A.D.? Thanks to archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls we now know. One of the scrolls found was a complete MS of the Hebrew text of Isaiah. It is dated by paleographers around 125 B.C. This MS is more than 1000 years older than any MS we previously possessed.

The other biblical MSS are dated between 200 B.C. to 68 A.D.

Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix write (A General Introduction to the Bible, Chicago, Moody Press, 1968), "Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only seventeen letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The remaining three letters comprise the word 'light,' which is added in verse 11, and does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by the LXX and IQ Is. Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission-and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage."

The impact of this discovery is in the exactness of the Isaiah scroll (125 B.C.) with the Massoretic text of Isaiah (916 A.D.) 1000 years later. This demonstrates the unusual accuracy of the copyists of the Scripture over a thousand year period.

Extracted from, 'Evidence that demands a Verdict', by Josh McDowell, Campus Crusade for Christ International, California, USA, 1972.

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