Dear Theophilus: Is the Old Testament Trustworthy to the Original?

By Andy McClurg

Old Testament Bible on a wooden table

Dear Faculty,

Is the Old Testament trustworthy or accurate to the original?

Sincerely,

Theophilus

Dear Theophilus,

These are two very important questions. To address whether the Old Testament is trustworthy, we need to determine who wrote the Bible and whether we have trustworthy copies of what they wrote.

The Bible’s Authors

The apostles were very clear that what was written was what God wanted written. For example, Exodus 33:11 says that God spoke to Moses “face to face” as a man speaks to his friend. Moses wrote down many things that God told him personally (Exodus 24:4, Deuteronomy 31:9). All of the prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit to write down their messages. 2 Peter 1:20-21 says, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Some people might ask why the books show the distinctive personalities of their writers. One way to think about this is to use the analogy of a master musician, who can play a piano, a violin, a guitar, a flute, etc. Each instrument has its own distinct sound, but it is the same musician who is playing. Similarly, the prophets can be likened to different instruments. God spoke through individual prophets. Their messages have unique characteristics, but it is the same Master Writer speaking through them all.

The Bible’s Text

The second question is about whether the Bible we have today is an accurate reflection of what was originally written. First, we need address the process of copying manuscripts. We have evidence from comparing newer and older copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Aramaic, that the copying was extremely accurate. Scribes counted not only words, but characters in the documents they were copying, and if the numbers did not match, they would go back and recheck their work.

For a long time, the earliest copies of the Old Testament we had were from the 10th century AD, but the Dead Sea Scrolls allowed us to see manuscripts of some Old Testament books from over 1,000 years before. And the level of agreement between the manuscripts is astounding. This is evidence of how accurate the copying process was. Using the science of textual criticism, we know for certain about 99.5 percent of the original contents of the Bible in the original languages, and in the other 0.5 percent we know what the all the options are. Most of this remaining 0.5 percent deals with issues such as spelling of names (for example, Hannah versus Hanna). Most importantly, no substantive issues affecting the Christian faith are affected.

The Bible’s Translations

The second issue in determining whether we have an accurate reflection of the original Old Testament involves the translation process. After all, not everyone can be a Hebrew or Greek scholar. How do we know that our current translations are faithful to what the original authors wrote? The most important reason for confidence in the translations is that we know the contents of the original Hebrew (and in a few instances Aramaic) manuscripts. Any modern translation can be compared against the originals for accuracy. A second reason for confidence is the remarkable consistency among the modern translations. Occasionally, translations will differ in a particular place, but this is relatively rare, and this does not affect primary teachings. Today, we have a number of good English translations that allow us to get an accurate idea of what the original writers were saying.

This brings up the related question of what the best English translations are, but that is a subject for another day. In summary, the Old Testament is trustworthy and the translations we have today are an accurate reflection of the original (as is true of the New Testament for similar reasons). We can read our Bibles and be confident that we have the message God intended for us.

Have your own theology questions? Get your questions answered by emailing cotblog@gcu.edu using the subject line “Dear Theophilus.” To learn more about GCU’s College of Theology visit our website or use the request more information button at the top of the page. If you feel called to a life of ministry, visit our Theology and Ministry degree page.

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