Establishing the Reliability of the Old Testament: A Trustworthy Process of Transmission
by J Warner Wallace
In Cold Case Christianity, I attempted to demonstrate the reliable, unchanging nature of the New Testament by examining the “New Testament Chain of Custody”. I think there are many good evidential reasons to trust the contents of the New Testament Gospels have not changed over time. But what about the Old Testament? While it’s nearly impossible to identify and formulate a similar chain of custody for the Old Testament authors, it is reasonable to infer we have reliable copies of the original texts for several reasons. First and foremost, we can have confidence in the reliable process of transmission employed those who copied and cared for the Old Testament documents.
Jewish believers have always guarded Scripture with extreme care and precision. From the post-exile time of Ezra (and even before), there were priests (Deut. 31:24-26) and scribes (called Sopherim) who were given the responsibility of copying and meticulously caring for the sacred text. These groups were established so Jewish believers could hand down the text accurately. To this very day, the tradition of copying and caring for the Scriptures is venerated within the orthodox Jewish religious tradition.
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Early in this millennium, scribes known as the Masoretes took over the meticulous job of copying the ancient Scriptures and transmitting them for later generations. They developed something now known as the Masoretic Text. These documents are still recognized as an incredibly trustworthy copy of the original Scriptures, and we’ve come to trust these texts based on the manner in which they were copied. To ensure the accuracy of the Masoretic copies, the Masoretes developed a number of strict measures to guarantee every new copy was a reliable reproduction of the original. They established tedious procedures to protect the text against changes:
When copies of the Scripture started to wear, they were quickly removed from the collection and placed in a receptacle (called geniza) to separate them from the other, newer scrolls.
When new copies were generated, the materials used by the Masoretes were strictly controlled, including the quality (and types) of inks and skins used to produce the scrolls. The condition of the room in which the copies were made was also tightly controlled, in addition to the cleanliness of the scribe. Only certain colors of ink were permissible…