Can’t Touch This – Part 5

Portrait of a Scribe

Portrait of a Scribe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reliability of Old Testament Texts

The reliability of the Old Testament (OT) Texts is a quicker study. The OT texts are considered to be historically trustworthy for opposite reasons of the New Testament manuscripts. Instead of trusting the OT manuscripts because of how many there are, the OT manuscripts are trusted because of how few there are. There are fewer ancient manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the Old Testament in existence today than there are New Testament manuscripts. We don’t need to be concerned that they are inaccurate; instead, we can be encouraged of the accuracy because of scribal tradition.

Ancient Hebrew people who wrote, read, and preserved the OT, were very particular about how books of the OT were copied. Obviously they did not have electronic copying machines or the ability to save anything digitally and then print it. They had to copy the books by hand. This was an arduous process that had to be carried out by highly trained and disciplined scribes called Talmudists. Samuel Davidson, who was the chair of biblical criticism, literature, and oriental languages at the Lancashire Independent College at Manchester, wrote about the process in detail:

[1] A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals, [2] prepared for the particular use of the synagogue by a Jew. [3] These must be fastened together with strings taken from clean animals. [4] Every skin must contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the entire codex. [5] The length of each column must not extend over less than 48 or more than 60 lines; and the breadth must consist of thirty letters. [6] The whole copy must be first-lined; and if three words be written without a line, it is worthless. [7] The ink should be black, neither red, green, nor any other color, and be prepared according to a definite recipe. [8] An authentic copy must be the exemplar, from which the transcriber ought not in the least deviate. [9] No word or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory, the scribe not having looked at the codex before him … [10] Between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene; [11] between every new parashah, or section, the breadth of nine consonants; [12] between every book, three lines [13] The fifth book of Moses must terminate exactly with a line; but the rest need not do so. [14] Besides this, the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, [15] wash his whole body, [16] not begin to write the name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink, [17] and should a king address him while writing that name he must take no notice of him.[1]

The fact that Old Testament manuscripts were handled so meticulously shows why there are so few. The Jewish scribal tradition kept them from preserving a manuscript that they thought could be flawed or tampered with. A large number of manuscripts would cause scholars to question the care with which they were copied.


[1] Josh McDowell, Evidence that demands a verdict (San Bernardino, 1972), 56-57.

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