The Bible has over 40 authors who were divinely inspired to write the Scriptures. Not only are the Scriptures themselves God-breathed, but we can see that God led the process by which the books were chosen. Knowing how the Bible came together offers beautiful evidence that God wants His people to know about His love, and He communicated His message of love through the Holy Scriptures.
Of course volumes could be written on the history of this amazing book, but in this blog we will deal specifically with the accuracy of the Old Testament manuscripts. We’ll look at the New Testament in the next few weeks as we continue this series on “How Did We Get the Bible”. One word we need to understand before we begin is the word canon which comes from a Greek word meaning “measuring stick” or “reed.” In other words, a canon was a measuring rod. The word eventually came to refer to those books that were “measured” and hence recognized as being God’s Word and part of the Holy Scriptures.
The Hebrew Scriptures (which we know as the Old Testament), were written from approximately 1400 BC to 400 BC. Most of the Old Testament was recorded in the Hebrew language (with several passages in Aramaic) and was passed down by the Jewish people from generation to generation. From the time of their writing, the Jewish people accepted them as the authentic, inspired Word of God. From 400 BC to Christ’s birth, several other books made their way into the popular culture of the Jewish people. These are known as the Apocrypha.[i] While most of the Jewish scholars did not accept the Apocrypha as Holy Scriptures, they valued them as good literature and as sources of history and spiritual insight. Some Roman Catholic Bibles still contain the writings of the Apocrypha.
Moses, the prophets, and the other Old Testament writers were recognized by the Jewish people as God’s messengers and accepted their work as inspired of God. The Old Testament canon was essentially established by the time of Jesus’ birth. Around 90 AD, Jewish elders met together at what is known as the council at Jamnia, and confirmed the Hebrew canon while rejecting the books of the Apocrypha.
Several years later, a Jewish historian and priest named Flavius Josephus recognized the Hebrew canon as the books that we now have in the Old Testament. Jesus quoted passages from the Old Testament, including Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah, knowing His listeners recognized these books as Scripture. By the mid-third century, the church was in almost complete agreement about the Hebrew canon of Scripture.
Skeptics often criticize the Bible, saying that a book claiming to be thousands of years old certainly has inaccuracies or errors, but recent archaeological evidence again and again supports that what we have today is reliable and accurate. Looking back at the Old Testament we know that the Israelites kept the copy of the Book of the Law (the first five books of the Old Testament written by Moses) inside the ark of the covenant, stored in the temple. Despite the fact that the Babylonians destroyed the temple, the Scriptures were preserved. While in Babylonian captivity certain Levites (members of the priestly tribe of Levi) began copying the Scriptures and circulating them to other Israelites in captivity.
These Levites became known as scribes, and were respected for their attention to the Scripture and their accuracy in copying them. The scribes painstakingly transcribed each copy of the Law and developed a meticulous process to copying the manuscripts by hand, in order to prevent any errors. The scribes recognized that they were handling the very Word of God and wanted to handle each word, each letter with the utmost care. Some of the rules they followed were:
- Parchments and all materials had to be made according to strict specifications and could only come from the skins of clean (kosher) animals.
- The quills had to come from clean birds and the black ink had to be prepared to scribal specifications.
- Even if the scribe had memorized it, no word or letter could be written from memory. The scribe was required to copy every word from an authentic copy of Scripture.
- Before writing the name of God, a scribe was required to reverently wipe his pen and say, “I am writing the name of God for the holiness of His name.”
- Each letter had to have space around it. If one letter even touched another or if a letter was not written correctly or defective due to a hole, a tear, or a smudge causing it not to be read easily, the scroll was invalidated.
- Within 30 days of completion, the manuscript would be reviewed by an editor who counted every letter and every word as a way of checking. The editor even made sure that the middle word of the copy matched the middle word of the original.
- Up to three mistakes on any page could be corrected within 30 days, but if more mistakes were found or if they were not fixed in 30 days, the entire manuscript had to be buried (manuscripts containing the name of God could not be destroyed). If a single letter was added or left off, the manuscript had to be fixed or buried.[ii]
This careful and detailed process of copying the Hebrew Scriptures in ancient times is what has led to the accuracy of our Old Testament today.
Join me next week as we look at the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls in confirming the accuracy of the Old Testament.
This series is an excerpt from my book, Becoming a Woman of the Word – Knowing, Loving and Living the Bible. For the next few weeks I am offering the book as our $5 special for the month. Click Here for more details.
[i] The books in the Apocrypha include 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees.
[ii] Larry Stone, The Story of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010), p. 21.