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.”


Dizma said...

Nice to read you again, brother. :)

The Hedonese said...

Thanks bro - please feel free to use it if helpful :)

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