Was the Old Testament Transmitted Faithfully?
How do we know that the text of the Old Testament was transmitted faithfully across the centuries? Is it not possible that it was corrupted so that its form in our present Bible is drastically different from the original source?
First of all, logic argues for the faithful preservation of the Word of God. Unless one assumes a totally atheistic position, he must conclude that reasonable evidence demands the following propositions: (1) God exists. (2) Man (i.e. mankind) was specially created by Jehovah in the divine image (Genesis 1:26), hence, is an intelligent being capable of receiving communication from his Maker. (3) The Lord has “spoken” to the human family, revealing man’s accountability to divine law and detailing the appropriate response to the same (cf. Hebrews 1:1). Since man is amenable to Jehovah’s religious and moral laws as made known in the Holy Scriptures, it surely follows that a just God (Psalm 89:14) would preserve accurately such a divine document so that His rational creation might avoid the consequences of disobedience and have access to the manifold blessings that attend fidelity.
Second, the Scriptures themselves affirm their faithful perpetuity. The psalmist declared Jehovah’s “testimonies” had been “founded...forever” (Psalm 119:152; cf. 119:160). Indeed, the prophet Isaiah declared: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God shall stand forever” (40:6) —a truth echoed by an inspired apostle in the New Testament (1 Peter 1:24-25).
Third, Jesus Christ Himself endorsed the truth that the Old Testament Scriptures had been preserved faithfully when He quoted from the Hebrew Bible and affirmed it to be the Word of God. In an exchange with the Sadducees regarding the resurrection of the dead, the Lord asked: “Have you not read that which was spoken by God?” Note that what they “read” was the text of the ancient Scriptures, but Christ said that such was “spoken by God,” hence, Jehovah’s Word had been preserved faithfully in the written record. It also is interesting to note that on this occasion the Sadducees—who generally were theological liberals—did not attempt to dispute the Master’s claim for the fidelity of the Scriptures.
Fourth, there is historical and scientific evidence that the sacred Scriptures have been handed down faithfully across the ages. There are numerous references to the written Word of God in the various narratives of the Old Testament. The “book of the law” was deposited by the side of the ark of the covenant, and read publicly every seventh year (Deuteronomy 31:9ff.). A copy of the “book of the law” was preserved in the temple during the days of king Josiah (621 B.C.), thus demonstrating that Moses’ writings had been protected over a span of almost 1,000 years. [NOTE: It would be an unwarranted conclusion to assume that only one copy of the Scriptures was in existence at this time, though, in the final analysis, that would be sufficient for the transmission of the text.] Other Old Testament passages speak of the maintenance of the Holy Writings across the years (Isaiah 8:16; Jeremiah 36; Ezra 7:14; Nehemiah 8:1-18). Even during the inter-biblical period (the 400 year era between the Testaments), reference is made to the “books of the law” (note the plural; 1 Maccabees 1:56). During His personal ministry, Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue at Nazareth and called it “scripture” (Luke 4:16-21)—a technical term always employed in the Bible for a divine writing! One of the great language scholars of the Old Testament text was Dr. Robert Dick Wilson (1856-1930). A master of forty-five languages, Wilson carefully compared the text of the Old Testament with inscriptions on ancient monuments (as these two sources dealt with common material). As a result of his research, he declared that “we are scientifically certain that we have substantially the same text that was in the possession of Christ and the apostles and, so far as anybody knows, the same as that written by the original composers of the Old Testament documents” (1929, p. 8).
The accuracy of the Old Testament text was demonstrated forcefully by the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Prior to 1947, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of significant length did not date earlier than the ninth century A.D. When the Qumran scrolls were found (containing portions of all Old Testament books except Esther), this discovery pushed the record of the Old Testament text back 1,000 years. Yet, amazingly, a comparison of the standard Hebrew texts with that of the Dead Sea scrolls revealed that the two were virtually identical—word-for-word. The variations (about 5%) occurred only in minor spelling differences and minute copyist mistakes. Thus, as Paché‚ noted: “Since it can be demonstrated that the text of the old Testament was accurately transmitted for the last 2,000 years, one may reasonably suppose that it had been so transmitted from the beginning” (1971, p. 191).
In its textual fidelity across the centuries, the biblical text stands head and shoulders above the literature of its contemporaries. Corruptions in the writings of the Greek classics are both common and flagrant. This remarkable contrast led noted scholar William Henry Green to comment: “It may safely be said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted” (1899, p. 81).
Green, William Henry (1899), General Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Scribner’s Sons).
Paché, René‚ (1971), The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Wilson, Robert Dick (1929), A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament (New York: Harper Brothers).