Vol. 8, No. 4
~ Page 14 ~
If we want to know anything about the Old Testament manuscripts, we must look to their keepers, the Jews. The books of Genesis through Malachi were written to the Jews and primarily for the Jews, though we find many prophecies regarding the future salvation of the Gentiles. In the most ancient of times, during the period covered by the history of the book we call Genesis, men were not divided into Jews and Gentiles for the nation of Israel, later called Jews, did not come into existence until we come to the closing chapters of that great book. Here we read of the descendants of Jacob making their way into the Land of Goshen, a portion of Egypt. In this country they remained for slightly more than four hundred years, and in that period of time the seventy-four souls who went down to Egypt grew into a mighty nation. With the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we see God calling his people out of Egypt and forming them into that nation that would capture and occupy the Land of Canaan for the better part of fifteen hundred years.
During that period of time, the Old Testament, by progressive revelation, was given to the Jews, who wrote it and became the protectors of it. Keeping manuscripts, most of which were written on velum (a writing material made from animal skins) in good condition is not an easy task, and would not be, even in our modern times. The Jews did not even try to preserve these manuscripts, the oldest of which would have been about four thousand years old. However, there developed among them a "profession" known as the scribes. These men spent their lives very carefully copying the ancient inspired writings. When a copy of a manuscript became old and worn, the Jews conducted a special ceremony, in which the old copy was ceremoniously buried. With the passing of time, the scribes "standardized" the Hebrew texts adding all the little marks that represent Hebrew vowels, which up until this time were not used in written Hebrew. This was done in the 5th century A.D., and at that time it is thought they destroyed all the other manuscripts. So, we have only a few manuscripts that date from the 10th century of the Christian age, and only one of those is complete. This text, called the Masoretic Text, was complete with marginal and endnotes, and concordance-like lists of words.
The accuracy of these texts is verified by all of the manuscripts of the Old Testament found in other places such as Syria and Egypt. They also agree with another ancient source of the Old Testament, that Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew text dating back to approximately the 3rd century B.C. Also, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written a thousand years before the Masoretic Text, there have been found both complete manuscripts of Old Testament books, such as that of Isaiah, as well as partial manuscripts of other books. When those were compared with the Masoretic, it has been discovered there is an astonishing reliability in the transmission of the text down to the 10th century. The two copies of the Book of Isaiah found in the Qumran caves, according to scholars, proved to be word for word identical with today's standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent variations are obviously slips of the pen, and variations in spelling.
The ancient Jewish scribes had a tremendous reverence for the text, having very strict "laws" for copying the text. Scribes had guidelines for the kinds of material to be used, how many columns there could be to a page, how many lines to the column. They also had a system for counting every character (letter) on a page so that it could be determined if even one letter had been missed on the page from which they copied. Any page that had even one mistake was destroyed. Hence, they guaranteed there were no substantial changes in the text of the Old Testament since before the 3rd century before Christ. Our Old Testament says what God intended for us to know!