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The Bible: The Old Testament

    The Bible is a collection of books.   These  various  documents  were  written and collected over a period of  around 1600 years, from c. 1500 B.C.  to about  70 A.D.,  by about  40  different  authors from  all walks of life.  Some of these men were stately kings like David and Solomon.  Others were priests like Samuel, and yet others were simple fishermen like Peter.  Some were doctors of medicine like Luke, and others were doctors of the law like Saul of  Tarsus.  They came from such places as Egypt, Palestine and Asia minor.  They wrote history and poetry and biography and prophecy.  Some wrote  while they were in prison and captivity.  Some wrote to inform, others wrote to condemn, and still others wrote to warn.  Sometimes we find previous writings encompassed in another.  One cannot speak, then, of a single or first date of publication for the Bible because each of the books of the Bible were written by very different men under extremely different circumstances and at completely different times under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

     However, the canon of the Old Testament (Jewish “Tanakh”) was well established by the time of Christ.  Luke records Jesus speaking of the well-defined tripartite division of the Old Testament, which included the law of Moses (Torah), the Prophets (Neviim), and the Psalms (Luke 24:44).  This latter group was sometimes referred to as the writings (Ketuvim), and included the poetical works of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, song of Solomon, Job, Ruth, Esther, and Lamentations.  (The word Tanakh is actually derived from the initial letters of the three divisions (T)orah, (N)eviim, and (K)etuvim.)

How did the Old Testament come together?  In Exodus 24:4 we read:  “and Moses wrote all the words of the Lord.”  These were placed “in the side of the Ark of the covenant,” according to Deuteronomy 31:26.  Joshua later added to them; and still later Samuel “told the people the manner of the kingdom, and wrote it in a book, and laid it up before the Lord” (I Samuel 10:25).  Much later “Hilkiah the high priest said into Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord...” (II King’s 22:8).  These passages show that the records gradually grew, and were safely protected.1

    The books of the Old Testament were, for the most part, written in the Hebrew language, with a section of the book of Daniel (2:4b-7:28) and Ezra (4:8-6:18, 7:12-26) being written in Aramaic.2  During their seventy year exile from the temple of Solomon in the Babylonian captivity (c. 606 to 536 B.C.), Jews began to meet in small groups in each other’s homes for worship and instruction.  The synagogue probably began during this period and its primary function was instruction in the law.  Upon their return from Babylonian captivity, Ezra collected together the sacred Jewish works which constitute at least part of our Old Testament.3  Sopherim (scribes) began to recognize the importance of preserving the sacred writings and they were meticulously scrupulous in their copying and transmission of the text of the Old Testament.

    Ancient Hebrew scribes followed very specific rules regarding copying the ancient and holy writings.  Among the rules which they followed were the following:

1)  They could use only clean animal skins, both to write on and even to bind manuscripts.

2)   Each column of writing could have no less than 48 and no more than 60 lines.

3)  The ink must be black and composed of a special recipe.

4)  They must speak each word aloud while they were writing.

5)  They must wipe off the pen, and wash their entire bodies, before writing the word “Jehovah,” every time they wrote it.

6) There must be a “review” within 30 days, and if as many as three pages required correction, the entire document had to be redone.

7) The letters, words and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other.  The middle paragraph, word and letter must     correspond to those of the original document.

8)  All old and worn documents had to buried ceremonially.

9)   The documents could be stored only in sacred places.

10)  As no document containing God’s Word could be destroyed, they were stored, or buried, in a genizah, a Hebrew term meaning “”hiding place.”  They were usually kept in the synagogue, or sometimes in a Jewish cemetery.4

These laws can also be found concerning the Tefillin (or phylactories for the arm and head).5   

     Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have seen how well the ancient scribes performed their duties.  “The documents discovered from 1947 at Qumran, ‘the Dead Sea Scrolls’, have generally supported traditional readings.”6  Our modern Hebrew text is, on the whole, very nearly an exact duplicate of what has been found in these ancient scrolls.7  The Masoretic text is the traditional Hebrew text which underlies most all of our Old Testament scriptures and many scholars agree that it is the most reliable.8  Lampe has observed, “The speculative evidence of Qumran, albeit by implication, points to the existence in the period before Christ of a text which approximates as nearly as possible to the Masoretic text.”9  Again, he writes:

In actual fact, the Qumran biblical scrolls, mainly from caves 1, 4 and 11, range from near identity with a Masoretic text to a text form which closely approximates to the parent text of the oldest of versions, the Greek Septuagint, with instances, too, of variations between the two...But among the variety the one text form which is predominant has strong affinities and probable identity with the rabbinic text.  One of the Isaiah manuscripts...belongs to the first century A.D. and, though it is badly worn and consequently has lost a substantial amount of text, is generally regarded as practically identical in both text and orthography with the current text.  Indeed, so similar are they in so insignificant are the divergences that the scroll has hardly been given the notice it deserves from scholars.  But from a text-historian’s point of view it is just these features that make it one of the most significant of the Qumran scrolls.10

While it appears that there were variant forms of the Hebrew text (just as there are variant forms today), the point to be gleaned here is that the traditional text form existed in the Qumran community from the first century and possibly beyond.  This establishes an antiquity for the traditional text of the Old Testament which we use today.

    Besides the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, there is also the additional evidence available to us in the form of ancient Old Testament translations. There were some very early attempts to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek.  There are a number of references to such attempts in 1) the letter of Pseudo-Aristeas, who describes the attempt as careless and inadequate,  2) Aristobulus of Paneaus (as quoted by Eusebius),  who said that Plato had access to the Old Testament, and 3) in the Masseketh Sopherim (“tractate of the scribes”).11  These are important witnesses to pre-Septuagint attempts at translating the Old Testament Hebrew into Greek.  

     The Septuagint is an important version of the Old Testament.   Tradition has it that it was translated during the second or third centuries B.C. by 72 Hebrew and Greek scholars, hence, it’s name.  “Although the LXX does not measure up to the excellence of the Hebrew Old Testament text, it does indicate the purity of the Hebrew text.”12 Both Philo and Josephus attribute to the Septuagint divine inspiration, and there are  instances in the New Testament where it appears that the Septuagint is quoted.  It is believed by many that the Septuagint would have been the standard version available during the first century.  --ELP


1.   Kenneth W. Connolly.  The Indestructible Book, the Bible, its Translators, and Their Sacrifices.  Baker books, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1996.  p. 14.

2.   Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible. Moody Press: Chicago 1986. p. 209.

3.   Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, with Commentary and Critical Notes, Vol. II, N. Bangs & J. Emory: NY, 1825, p. 610.

4.   Kenneth W. Connolly. p.15,16.

5.   Torah,org.  Project Genesis, Inc.  (C) 1995-2007. http://www.torah.org/advanced/mishna-berura/S32.html.

6.  David Daniel.  The Bible in English.  Yale University Press, New Haven 2003. p. 3.

7.   G. W. H. Lampe. The Cambridge History of the Bible the West from the Fathers to the Reformation.  Volume 2 Cambridge University Press.  1969. p. 3.

8.   F. F. Bruce. The Canon of Scripture.  Intervasity Press, Downers Grove, IL: 1988. p. 284.

9.   Lampe. p.4.

10. Lampe. p. 3.

11. Roland H. Worth, Jr. Bible Translations: a History Through Source Documents. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. Inc., publishers 1992.  Pages 1 -5.

12. Geisler and Nix.  p. 504.

Copyright Eric L. Padgett  03-30-2012
Christian Apologist