Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament

By Dr Leong Tien Fock

The Bible has been subjected to an incredibly extensive and intensive scrutiny by critics. Yet, unless one only reads the critics' work, it has not only survived the trial but has in fact thrived in it. Christians should be familiar with a defense of the Bible even in the absence of an offense. For the intellectual and spiritual climate we live in is such that the claims of the Bible do not seem or feel real. We need to be able to consciously affirm in our heart that the Bible is reliable and trustworthy.

The reliability of the Bible is fundamental to the credibility of the Christian faith. All Christian doctrines, including the doctrine of the Bible as the Word of God, are based on the Bible. Given the often vicious and seemingly credible attacks on the Bible, a Christian who is confronted with them may find his faith shaken or even shattered. This essay is written with the conviction that it is possible for anyone who is not already prejudiced against the Bible (or who is at least willing to temporarily suspend such a bias) to see that there is a remarkably solid basis to believe in the reliability of the Bible.

We will focus only on the Old Testament and use three criteria to establish the its reliability: the bibliographical test, the internal evidence test, and the external evidence test. These common-sense tests, often used to test the reliability of the New Testament, cannot be said to be biased towards the Bible. For they are postulated by military historian C. Sanders in his 1952 book, Introduction to Research in English Literary History. The tests are most suitable for our purpose not only because they are not biased towards the Bible. Since they are employed in testing the reliability of general historical and literary documents, they are also most suitable because we are testing the reliability of the OT as a literary-historical and not as a religious document (thus its claim to divine origin will not be assumed).

Bibliographical test

Like many other ancient documents, we do not possess the original Hebrew manuscripts (handwritten copies) of the OT, which have all perished. Our printed Hebrew OT is based on a manuscript which was hand-copied from an earlier manuscript, which was itself copied form an earlier manuscript, and so on. Copying by hand introduces accidental errors or even intentional changes. How then can we be sure that after so many recopyings what we have today is a faithful reproduction of the original document?

The bibliographical test looks at (1) the number of extant (preserved) manuscripts we now have and (2) the time span between the earliest extant manuscript and the original document. A shorter time span means less recopyings between the extant copy and the original text and thus less corruptions, whether accidental or intentional, would have crept in. The larger the number of extant manuscripts the more materials there are to help eliminate the corruptions that may have crept in. In short, the larger the number of extant manuscripts and the shorter the time span, the more likely we can restore an authentic version of the document.

Since more than one set of manuscripts were copied from an existing set, and more sets were later copied from these sets, and so on, there were different “textual traditions” down the line. For the Hebrew OT, by AD 135 the text of a certain tradition was adopted as the standard. Hebrew OT manuscripts that were made after this time all came from this standardized text. The Hebrew text was then written basically without the vowels. Between about AD 500-950 scholars known as the Masoretes standardized the text further by adding the vowels to it. The result is the Masoretic Text, or in short, the MT.

The MT manuscript upon which our printed Hebrew OT is based is the Leningrad Codex, now kept at the public library in Leningrad. It contains the entire OT and is dated AD 1008. We have relatively few MT manuscripts earlier than this: two that contain most of the OT and several others that contain (substantial) parts of it. There are more than 3000 manuscripts from AD 1100 to the arrival of the printing press in AD 1450. But since these are copies of the earlier ones, they are of no help in detecting errors that have crept into the MT.

With so few manuscripts available to reconstruct the original OT, and the time span between the composition of the OT (1400-400 BC) and the earliest extant copy of the MT (about 900 AD) is a huge 1300-2300 years. So unlike the Greek NT, the Hebrew OT does not seem to pass the bibliographical test with flying colors.

But this is not the complete story. Space does not allow us to tell the whole story. We will tell enough to show that there is no reason to doubt that the OT we now have is essentially the same as the original.

MT manuscripts may lack in terms of quantity but not in terms of quality. Due to the Jewish reverence for their Scriptures (the OT), the scribes who copied the manuscripts were known to observe a very strict set of rules that ensured extreme care in avoiding errors. In fact the new copies were believed to be so accurate that the older copies that were damaged in any way were destroyed. This contributed to the lack of earlier OT manuscripts.

The accuracy in the copying has been confirmed in several ways. The most important is through the comparison of the extant MT with Hebrew OT manuscripts from the famous Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), the first batch of which was discovered in 1947. These manuscripts date from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. That means they are about a thousand years older than the earliest MT manuscript we have. All the OT books except Esther are represented.

The discovery of the DSS thus drastically shortens the time span between the composition of the OT and the earliest extant OT manuscript, as well as multiplies the number of extant OT manuscripts. This alone puts the OT on a better footing than the respective History of Herodotus and Thucydides, which are attested by only 8 manuscripts and the earliest manuscript for each is over 1300 years later than the original. Yet according to respected NT scholar F. F. Bruce, “no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt” because of this.

But we are more interested in confirming the unusual accuracy in the copying of the OT manuscripts. Most of the OT manuscripts from the DSS are fragmentary but there is one complete scroll with the entire book of Isaiah intact. Like most of the other OT manuscripts the Isaiah scroll came from the same textual tradition that (centuries later) produced the MT. A comparison with the MT Isaiah shows that these two texts, which were 1000 years apart in age, are more than 95 per cent identical word-for-word. The 5 per cent variation consists mainly in obvious slips of the pen or changes in spelling. Millar Burrows of Yale University wrote, “It is a matter of wonder that through something like a thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. As I said in my first article on the scroll, ‘Herein lies its chief importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.’”

If the text changed so little in its second thousand years there is good reason to believe that it changed very little in its first thousand years. This means that the textual tradition that produced the MT has been accurately preserved. To further confirm that this tradition is faithful to the original, we will look at the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the OT made between 250-150 BC. The Samaritan Pentateuch is the Scriptures (in Hebrew) of the Samaritans, who separated from the Jews probably during the 5th or 4th century BC but many claim at the end of the 2nd century BC. It is the Samaritan version of the Jewish Pentateuch. Though most of the OT manuscripts from the DSS are from the same tradition that produced the MT, there are other DSS manuscripts that can be identified as belonging to the separate textual traditions that produced the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch respectively. So the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch can be used as independent sources to confirm the fidelity of the textual tradition behind the MT. And a comparison of the three texts shows that, though there are variations indicating different traditions, overall they are essentially the same. All the major historical facts and almost all the minor details are the same.

This is not even all the evidence. No wonder Sir Frederic Kenyon, recognized by even Islamic scholars as an authority on ancient manuscripts, could say, “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 [i.e., the Scriptures as originally penned], handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.”

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament I

Internal Evidence Test

The bibliographical test only establishes the authenticity of the OT, i.e., what we have today is a faithful reproduction of the original manuscripts. It does not tell us if the authentic contents are themselves historically reliable. In other words, given that what we have today in the OT is essentially what the authors wrote, how do we know if what they wrote was factually true in the first place?

In the internal evidence test we determine whether the contents of the document itself point towards its reliability or otherwise. According to historian and legal scholar J. W. Montgomery, “historical and literary scholarship continues to follow Aristotle’s dictum that the benefit of doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself. This means that one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.”

The OT covers a very large historical span. By necessity, we will focus on the most crucial historical events, viz., the Exodus from Egypt under Moses and the Conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Thus we will focus on the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua.

We will first use the internal evidence test to evaluate the historical reliability of these books and then use the external evidence test to confirm our evaluation.

Based on the internal claims of the OT, Jews and Christians had traditionally believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. But the modern “scientific” mindset is such that it naturally rejects the possibility of anything that science cannot explain. This includes the miracles recorded in the Bible. And the Pentateuch is full of them. If Moses wrote it, it will be very difficult to deny miracles without accusing him of telling blatant lies. For most of the miracles in the Pentateuch are said to be accomplished either through Moses himself or in his presence. The early critics, apparently recognizing Aristotle’s dictum of giving the author the benefit of the doubt, must have found it very difficult to reject Moses’ firsthand eyewitness accounts.

The easier way out would be to deny that Moses ever wrote those accounts. So, beginning in the 18th century, in line with the rise of the (now outmoded) anti-supernatural modernist worldview, the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch was finally replaced by the JEDP theory in mainline academic circles.

This theory (also called the documentary hypothesis) assumes that the Pentateuch is a cut-and-paste patchwork from four different documents named J, E, D, and P, all composed long after Moses died. Suffice it here to note that this theory is not based on any objective basis and it robs the Pentateuch of the benefit of the doubt. Firstly, the existence of these four separate documents is simply assumed (no one has found them). Secondly, the “evidence” for this theory is open to opposite and better interpretations. Even the apparent contradictions can be reasonably explained but again the critics would ignore or reject them.

One of the most important “evidence” for the theory is the different divine names used in the Pentateuch. It arbitrarily rules out the possibility that Moses could have used different names to refer to God. It thus assumes that whenever the name Yahweh (or Jehovah) occurs, that portion of the text must have been a cut-and-paste from the J document. And when the name Elohim occurs, the source must be the E document. There are times when the two names occur in the very same paragraph and even same sentence, resulting in incredible dissections of the text. And the JEDP scholars disagree among themselves over where to draw the line as to which portion came from which of the four imagined documents.

It is not surprising that in more recent times, even scholars who reject Mosaic authorship have argued against the JEDP theory. But this theory is still assumed in mainline academic work. According to prominent OT scholar H. H. Rowley, “That it [the JEDP theory] is widely rejected in whole or in part is doubtless true, but there is no view to put in its place that would not be more widely and emphatically rejected.... [The theory] is only a working hypothesis, which can be abandoned with alacrity when a more satisfactory view is found, but which cannot with profit be abandoned until then.” In other words, there are critical scholars who still assume the JEDP theory in their work not because they are convinced that it is true, but only because the alternative--Mosaic authorship--is totally unacceptable (to their outmoded modernist mindset).

Furthermore, we now have an objective external framework to support Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. We will focus on the book of Deuteronomy.

It is generally agreed that Deuteronomy was structured as a treaty patterned after the treaties of the ancient biblical world. Kenneth Kitchen, a respected scholar of the ancient biblical world, has shown that the structure of the treaties changed with time. He found that Deuteronomy matches the 15th/14th century BC Hittite treaties: Title/Preamble (Deut 1:1-5); Historical Prologue (1:6-3:29); Stipulations (4-26); Deposit of Text (31:9, 24-26); Public Reading (31:10-13); Witnesses (31:16-30, 26; 32:1-47); Blessing (28:1-14); Curses (28:15-68).

Moses lived in the 15th/14th century BC. Though this does not prove that Moses wrote Deuteronomy, the incredible match gives credible support to the biblical claim that Moses wrote it. The major opposing voice is that of noted critical scholar Moshe Weinfeld. He admits that the major sections of the Hittite treaties are present in Deuteronomy but refuses to come to the most logical conclusion. Instead he insists that Deuteronomy is patterned after the 7th century BC Assyrian treaties because, unlike the short curses in the Hittite treaties, Deuteronomy and the Assyrian treaties have elaborate series of curses. But the Assyrian treaties had a different structure altogether: Title/Preamble; Witnesses; Stipulations; Curses. Entire sections were missing.

Thus the weight of evidence is stacked against Weinfeld. He tries to explain this problem away. He suggests that the Historical Prologue (which gave justifications for the demands made in the treaty) and the Blessing were missing because the Assyrian emperor was too proud and arrogant to give any justification for his demands or promise any blessing. He uses tentative language like “it seems that” and “may explain” and spells out that this is (only) an assumption. He thus argues as if the critic had the benefit of the doubt.

Another critical scholar, A. D. H. Mayes, admits that Deuteronomy most closely resembles the Hittite treaties but thinks that this was because the (15th/14th century) structure was superimposed on Deuteronomy in the 7th/6th century! This and other improbable objections betray the incredible tide of (unwarranted) prejudice against Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy.

To claim that Moses wrote Deuteronomy is not to say that there was no later updating of the text by others. A clear case is the account of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34. Most likely Joshua, his personal assistant and then successor, wrote it. Though not mentioned in the text Joshua was most likely with Moses just prior to his death. We have evidence that he could and would follow Moses even to places forbidden to all others (see Exod 24:13-14).

Since the book of Joshua lies within our focus, let us note that Joshua 24 contains a short supplementary covenant made through Joshua (Josh 24:25) and it is also patterned after the Hittite treaties: Title/Preamble (Josh 24:1-2); Historical Prologue (24:2-13); Stipulations (24:14-25); Deposit of Text (24:26); Public Reading (absent here); Witnesses (24:22); Blessing and Curses (24:19-20).

That means, either Joshua (traditionally believed) or someone who could have been an eyewitness must have written the book of Joshua. Under the internal evidence test, and without imposing the outmoded anti-supernatural worldview, the book must be taken seriously unless there is valid reason to doubt its reliability. Critics will point out that the accounts of the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua contradict those in the book of Judges. Joshua 9-12 gives the impression of a complete conquest while Judges 1 (as well as the later chapters of Joshua) says it was only a partial conquest.

Recently K. L. Younger’s comparison of Joshua 9-12 with other conquest accounts in the ancient biblical world has shown that the conquest accounts in Joshua followed the standard conventions in reporting conquests, including the use of hyperbole. Specifically, we can now say on objective ground that claims of absolute total conquest (as in Josh 10:40-42) are hyperbolic and not meant to be taken literally.

Thus the biblical records documenting the Exodus under Moses and the Conquest under Joshua can be trusted as eyewitness accounts. Since myths and legends take a long time to develop these records should be trusted as historically reliable.

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament II

External Evidence Test

We have observed the dictum of Aristotle that Moses and Joshua should be trusted unless there are valid reasons to doubt them. The very nature of literary and historical evidence requires this. To justify giving them this benefit of the doubt we now look at how their testimonies stand up against evidence outside the OT.

Critics claim that there is no external evidence whatsoever to support the claim that the Exodus or the Conquest took place. One piece of external evidence for each event is adequate to prove them wrong as well as meet the requirement of the external evidence test to confirm the above conclusion of the internal evidence test. And if the OT stands up to scrutiny on these two events, which are accompanied by more miracles than any other events recorded in the OT, critics will have virtually no reason to question the historical reliability of the OT as a whole. After all, the rejection of the supernatural is fundamental to the critical view of the OT.

Numbers 33:3-50 summarizes the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Jordan River. It lists the stations where they camped. Of interest here is the last six stations (Num 33:45-50): Iyyim--Dibon--Almon-diblathaim--Nebo--Abel-shittim--Jordan. Traditionally, because the account was so specific and precise in detail, Bible scholars saw it as evidence for its historical reliability.

However, what was considered as a strength became a weakness in the eyes of the modern critic. Based on archaeological work at a site believed to be where Dibon was, it was concluded that Dibon did not exist before the 9th century BC. That means Dibon did not exist during Moses’ time. This is taken as an “irrefutable evidence” that the record is unreliable. This is also one of the main reasons why critical scholars deny there was ever an Israelite conquest of Canaan.

But recently Charles Krahmalkov of the University of Michigan found Dibon mentioned in an Egyptian inscription dated to 1500-1400 BC. So the city existed during Moses’ time; archaeologists just have not identified it. Furthermore, this inscription lists some of the stations along a road leading from the southern end of the Dead Sea to the Jordan River. (Comparing this with two other similar lists shows that none of them lists all the stations along this road.) The stations listed are: Iyyin--Dibon--Abel--Jordan. A comparison with the longer list in Numbers 33:45-50 shows that this was the same road taken by the Israelites. So we have an external confirmation that the account of the route of the Exodus is historically reliable.

John Garstang, who excavated the site of Jericho between 1930-1936, created excitement when he concluded that “the walls fell, shaken apparently by an earthquake, and the city destroyed by fire, about 1400 BC.... The link with Joshua and the Israelites is only circumstantial but it seems to be solid without flaw.” Unfortunately, his successor Kathleen Kenyon, after reviewing his findings and then “confirming” her conclusion through further excavations, said the city was destroyed in 1550 BC, 150 years before the Conquest. That means the biblical account was unreliable.

For 25 years this view could not be challenged because she published her conclusions without supplying the detailed evidence. An independent assessment was not possible. But 12 years after her death the detailed evidence was published. When archaeologist Bryant Wood reviewed both Garstang and Kenyon’s findings, he returned to Garstang’s conclusion that Jericho was destroyed in 1400 BC.

It is not disputed that Jericho was destroyed violently. The question is the date. One reliable dating method is to look at the design of the pottery, which changed with time, much like the design of our cars. Wood, whose Ph.D. thesis was on Canaanite pottery between 1550-1200 BC, was uniquely qualified for the job. He discovered that Kenyon came to her conclusion not by looking at what she and Garstang found but what she did not find. She looked in vain for imported pottery (suggesting luxury) in an area she herself considered to be “simple villages” giving “no suggestion at all of luxury.” Wood’s conclusion is based mainly on the pottery that Garstang and Kenyon found. Although Wood’s arguments are difficult to refute, Kenyon’s conclusion is still assumed in critical circles.

The archaeological evidence confirms the account of the conquest of Jericho in the following ways: the city was strongly fortified (Josh 2:5,7,15, 6:5,20); the attack occurred just after harvest time in the spring (2:6, 3:15, 5:10); the inhabitants had no time to flee with their foodstuffs (6:1); the siege was short (6:15); the walls were leveled, possibly by an earthquake (6:20); the city was not plundered (6:17-18); the city was burned (6:24).

Dating events in the ancient biblical world is not an exact science. And the date of the destruction of Jericho will continue to be debated. But regardless of whether the date is 1550 or 1400 BC, the uncanny similarities of the unusual circumstances surrounding the fall of Jericho as revealed by archaeology with that recorded in Joshua, should caution any fair-minded person from saying, “there is still no external evidence whatsoever that the conquest took place.”

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament III


We can now conclude that, based on the results of the three tests, the OT can be accepted as historically reliable. A similar analysis would also affirm the historical reliability of the NT. We must be careful of critical arguments that seem credible only because they put the burden of proof on the Bible. It is this kind of unfair treatment of an ancient document, where there are no living witnesses to defend it, that the three tests are meant to prevent. To deny the benefit of the doubt to the Bible but not to other ancient documents is to practice double standards. To reject the Biblical account on the basis of the miracles recorded is to move the debate from history to philosophy, and presumes an outmoded philosophical view.

The Bible should all the more be deemed “innocent until proven guilty,” because this principle is used even in a court of law where living witnesses are available to defend the accused. The Bible presents historical facts to communicate a theological message. The facts and the message stand or fall together. Since the message has eternal implications, a wrong verdict on the Bible has far more serious consequences that a wrong verdict in a court of law.

The purpose of this essay is obviously not intended to be the final word on the subject, especially in regards to archaeological evidence. It is to sensitize Christians to the unfair approaches critical scholars often use to attack the historical reliability of the Bible, all in the name of “objective (read modernist) scholarship.”

Select Bibliography

Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Revised and Expanded. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.

Krahmalkov, Charles R. “Exodus Itinerary Confirmed by Egyptian Evidence.” Biblical Archaeology Review 20.5 (Sept./Oct. 1994): 54-62, 79.

McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers: 1999.

Wood, Bryant G. “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Evidence.” Biblical Archaeology Review 16.2 (Mar./Apr. 1990): 44-58.

--------. “Dating Jericho’s Destruction: Bienkowski Is Wrong on All Counts.” Biblical Archaeology Review 16.5 (Sept./Oct. 1990): 45-49, 68-69.