The Transmission of the Old Testament

Hello Beloved,

Today, we will continue our study on the doctrine of the Bible. Our focus for this newsletter will be on the transmission of the Old Testament. We must remember that men and women during and even well after Bible times did not have the luxury of paper nor of the printing press. Books of the Bible, often in the form of scrolls, were extremely expensive, being made from papyrus and sometimes animal skins call vellum. Most individuals had to go to their local synagogue to hear the reading of the Scriptures. Certain scribes formed traditional procedures for the purpose of passing on these sacred documents. Because of the high regard for the Scriptures, the process of transmitting or copying these texts was very meticulous. Unlike many of the New Testament manuscripts, the Old Testament copies are comparably new, dating to only around 1000 A.D. (not counting the dead sea scrolls). There are also fewer Old Testament manuscripts as compared with that of the New, probably because of the methods used in copying these documents.

Jewish Scribes were perfectionists when it came to copying the Scriptures. A Jewish commentary called the Talmud helps us better understand many of the regulations imposed on these Jewish scribes who copied God’s Word. Michael Vlach states:

  • The copyist was required to sit in full Jewish dress after a complete bathing.

  • Only a certain kind of ink could be used.

  • Rules governed the spacing of words.

  • No word or letter could be written from memory.

  • Lines and letters were methodically counted.

  • If a manuscript was found to have even one error it was destroyed. (This helps explain why only a few manuscripts survived.)

Interestingly, these strict requirements were a big factor in preserving the accurate transmission of the Old Testament. Many of these manuscripts are called Massoretic texts, which comes from the scribal name of the Massoretes. These scribes copied the Old Testament from about 500 to 1000 A.D., and they were scholars of the first rate.

Some critics questioned the accuracy of the Old Testament copies since the oldest copies we possess were from around 1000 A.D., and in fact there were not very many of these manuscripts with which to compare. However, a funny thing happened around the middle of the twentieth century. A young shepherd boy stumbled on some Qumran caves in the Palestinian area, only to find old jars with scrolls inside. These scrolls contained almost the entire Old Testament, and experts dated these documents to about 150 B.C. When scholars were able to compare these much older copies of the Old Testament with the meticulous copies of the Massoretes, they found they were over 95% in agreement, which is amazing. Of course, this was a big jolt to those critical of the Massoretic texts. For those of us who know God’s Word is truth, it was just another way that God’s providential hand affirmed His message. Until next time, this is Pastor Daniel writing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”