The Holy Spirit guided all the events that led to our receiving the inspired record of the Old Testament. Even though we do not have any of the original manuscripts (some were written as long ago as 1500 B.C.), we do have some copies through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and we have the Massoretic, text which was drawn from the copies available about the ninth century A.D.
We follow this history given by Merrill Unger in hisIntroductory Guide to the Old Testament. He writes on page 116:
The Old Testament being an ancient document, some parts of which were written as early as the fifteenth century B.C., naturally under went a long process of development before it attained its present form. It is not easy for us moderns, to whom writing is such a simple process, to understand this. But writing in the ancient world was far from the simple thing it is now. Not only were writing materials and implements woefully inadequate from our modern point of view, but many baffling difficulties existed of which the ancients were not even aware. That which to us seems so obvious, the necessity of separating letters into words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters for the sake of clarity, dawned upon them only gradually . . . . Imagine then, an ancient text consisting of one unbroken string of letters and to make matters worse, only consonants. Ancient Old Testament texts employed only consonants. Not a single vowel was indicated till centuries after Moses and a full system of vocalization was not devised until 600-800 A.D. Think then what the task of the reader and the copyist was!
The Hebrew Language
The Old Testament was written in the Hebrew language except for brief passages in Daniel (Dan. 2:4-7:28), Ezra (Ezra 4:8-6:18; Ezra 7:12-26), and Jeremiah (Jer. 10:11) which were written in Aramaic. Hebrew belongs to the Semitic group of languages. The differences between them were determined by their location. East Semitic included Babylonian-Assyrian, South Semitic-Arabic, and both North and Northwest Semitic-Aramaic and Hebrew.
There is no reference in the Old Testament to the Hebrew language itself. We read of the Hebrew people. Abraham was called, “The Hebrew” inGenesis 14:13. His descendants were known as Hebrews (Genesis 40:15 and Exodus 2:11). Their language was referred to as, “the language of Canaan” (Isaiah 19:18), and “the Jews’ language” (II Kings 18:26, 28and Nehemiah 13:24).
According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Hebrew in the earliest period no doubt resembled the classical Arabic of the seventh and following centuries. The variations found between the strata of the language occurring in the Old Testament are slight compared with the differences between modern and ancient Arabic. Abraham evidently spoke an Aramaic dialect while in Mesopotamia and then settled in Canaan and adapted to a local Canaanite form of language which taken together makes the Old Hebrew very close to the Phoenician language.
The Hebrew Text
All during the Old Testament period, copies of the inspired books were available. Some may have been individual books, others, especially as time went on, complete manuscripts of the entire Old Testament canon. Many copies disappeared and wore out simply because they were so fragile. Some of the oldest copies made by Moses were probably written on clay tablets, the common form of material used during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries before Christ. Later the skins of animals were used and sewn into scrolls of about seventeen inches wide by a hundred or more feet in length. Books of pages were not used until the second or third century A.D. The most common material used for writing was papyrus in the form of rolls usually about ten inches high by about thirty feet long. By pressing the pith of the papyrus into layers, sometimes as many as three layers, and using a pen fashioned from a reed and ink from soot or lampblack diluted with water, the writer was able to preserve his thoughts in written form. Even then, they usually lasted at most a century or two and then were worn out or destroyed by aging. A Biblical reference to this method of writing is given in Jeremiah 36 when Baruch wrote down the words of Jeremiah.
Whatever was available during the Old Testament period soon disappeared. The translation of the Old Testament into Greek by the seventy scholars (The Septuagint) around 350-150 B.C. was taken from such manuscripts which were available. Our Lord in all probability did not have original manuscripts of the Old Testament Hebrew. He used the Septuagint .version. All this time there were copies of manuscripts hidden away in caves and preserved by the Rabbis who continued to study them. During the years from the Septuagint to the Massoretic scholars, the manuscripts underwent some change. Probably it was divided into verses during this period (also paragraphs), chapters came much later. Some punctuation marks and editing took place. It was in the seventh century A.D. that a revival in Jewish learning took place in the Palestinian schools. Tiberias, on Lake Galilee, which was built by Herod the Tetrarch, became the center for a flourishing school of Jewish scholars. These Rabbis were called Massoretes, because they were rigid adherents of the traditional reading of the Hebrews test and compilers of the Jewish tradition (Massora) and transmitted them by writing.
God used these Rabbis, for they had deep respect for the Holy Scripture as God’s Word. Their task was carefully defined so as to transmit the exact text as handed down and pass it on to the future generation. This careful use of existing manuscripts and precise writing of the correct text produced the Hebrew Bible as we know it today. During the seventh century, vowel signs were added as well as accent marks for easier reading. Careful instructions were given in how to make their copies. These were recorded in manuals or handbooks which contained detailed grammatical notes. Soon these copies followed certain approved and autographed copies of certain ones which were considered the standard of all the rest. Some of these old copies have survived (we have about 1,700 partial copies and fragments preserved). The oldest complete manuscript goes back to A.D. 1100. The most reliable text was by a Rabbi named Ben Asher which formed the basis of an edition published by Jacob Ben Chayyim at Venice in 1525-1526. This forms the “received text” as it is commonly called today.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 was noteworthy, for in that cave in Qumran near the Dead Sea was found, among other writings, a complete copy of the prophecy of Isaiah which dated back to about 125 B.C. This became the oldest copy of any manuscript of a book of the Old Testament. Its discovery has not confirmed our faith in the Bible and the reliability of the Massoretic text, for true faith in God doesn’t require such proof. Rather, we rejoice in God’s providential care for His written Word that we may be certain that what we have is in truth the Word of God!
The Higher Critics
Having set forth in our previous article the simple truth that we believe God inspired the authors to write their books, we do not intend to get into a long and technical debate with the critics who insist that the Old Testament was a composite of different documents, e.g., that the Pentateuch had at least four authors and Isaiah had two authors. According to them the authors also wrote considerably later than usually thought. These notions came about by a school of thought that rejects the evidence of the Scripture itself. Beginning already in the seventeenth century, through the influence of a Roman Catholic priest, Richard Simon, a gathering of men began to criticize the Bible because they considered the historical books as quotations from public annals. And since the text was poorly preserved, one had to judge for himself whether it agreed with church doctrine. This kind of thinking became fodder for the fire of the “Enlightenment” which followed. Since human reason became the highest standard of all truth, man had to judge for himself whether to accept the Bible or not. Out of this movement came forth the well known Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen school of Biblical criticism. It is rationalism applied to the Bible.
In our course of dealing with the Bible books, their authors, dates, etc. we will simply state in this introduction, that we reject this influence of evil upon the understanding of the Bible. We agree with Rev. G. Ophoff in his introduction to the Old Testament,
We are not going to argue with these higher critics. We are not going to carefully weigh their arguments and refute them. In the first place there is no time for that in this course. Secondly, it is a sheer waste of time. We know before hand that they can have no argument. It would be interesting to examine their arguments just to see how true it is that they have no argument. Their eyes are so completely blinded by their theory that they cannot even see to read. Life is too short to waste even one moment on these people and their theories. Let us rather spend time in discovering God’s thought in the Bible. That will pay us large dividends. Nevertheless, these critics are hailed as the scholars and all who oppose them are derided as nincompoops whose attitude is thoroughly unscientific. Let us then be nincompoops and be proud of it. Wellhausen himself admitted and even insisted that we have to choose between this theory and Christ. Says he, “We must either cast aside as worthless our dearly bought scientific method, or must forever cease to acknowledge the authority of the New Testament in the domain of exegesis of the Old.” Quoted from Keunen’s book, Prophets and Prophecy, page 487.
As we take up our study of the Old Testament, may the Holy Spirit lay upon our hearts these words, as the Word of God! Rather than setting up so-called historical evidence against the contents of the Old Testament, we will read the Old Testament for its historical and spiritual truth. Through the events in the lives of the patriarchs and the nation of Israel, God speaks to us the gospel, the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. In Christ both Jew and Gentile are one, both being the true children of Abraham by faith.