Has the Old Testament been corrupted?

by Ryan Turner

An important question raised by skeptics, Muslims, Mormons, and many others is whether the Old Testament has been corrupted. The short answer is "No." How do we know this? There are a number of ways in which we can test and see how accurately the Old Testament has been preserved including the number of manuscripts, the copying process, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the testimony of Jesus.

The Number of Old Testament Manuscripts

A helpful way to look at the Old Testament’s textual history is to compare it to other documents of antiquity. For most ancient documents, we have about a thousand year gap between the writing of the document and the first available copy that archaeologists find. For example, with a Roman historian called Tacitus, our first manuscript copy of his work comes from around 1100 A.D. and we have 20 total manuscript copies today. Interestingly, Tacitus actually wrote his works around 100 A.D. Most historians do not doubt that we have a really good idea what Tacitus actually wrote, even though we only have about 20 total partial or complete manuscripts and the earliest manuscript comes about 1,000 years after the original writing.

In comparison, our first manuscript copy of the Old Testament (dates from 250 B.C.) comes about 150 years after the original book was written (i.e. probably Malachi about 400 B.C.). Also, we actually have over 10,000 Old Testament manuscripts!

The way Ancient Texts were Copied

Ancient texts were not preserved by Xerox copy machines unfortunately. Instead, as with the Old Testament, trained Jewish scribes would copy portions of Scripture by hand on animal skins. Around 100 B.C., these scribes began to use papyrus or paper to copy the Old Testament. When these Jews copied various portions of the Bible, they took extreme care to ensure the precision of their scribal copying. In fact, in some cases, if there was one error between a copy and the original, the copy was to be burned.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Age of the Old Testament Manuscripts

Even if scribes carefully copied manuscripts and burned copies with errors in them, what evidence do we have textually that these scribes actually copied the texts correctly? In order to answer this question, we will have to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls as a test case.

Prior to 1948, some of the earliest complete manuscripts of various books of the Old Testament dated to around 900 to 1000 A.D. However, in 1947, some Bedouin shepherds were looking for some lost sheep in the hill sides surrounding the Dead Sea in Israel. One of the shepherds threw a rock into a distant cave and heard the sound of pottery shattering.

Little did he know that hurling a stone would uncover perhaps the greatest archeological discovery of modern times.1 What scholars discovered was not just one cave, but eleven caves. Instead of a few manuscripts, scholars uncovered a library of writings from the Essene community including various books from the Old Testament, commentaries on Old Testament books, and other extra-Biblical literature.

Interestingly, these writings included parts of every single book of the Old Testament minus the book of Esther. Perhaps the most interesting discovery was an almost complete Isaiah scroll. When scholars compared the Isaiah scroll to our earliest copies of Isaiah previous to then (900 to 1000 A.D.), they found that there were only about 13 textual variations. Regarding Isaiah 53, which predicts the suffering and death of Jesus, they only found one variation in the entire chapter that had any possible significance: putting "light" in Isaiah 53:11.

Jesus on the Authority of the Old Testament

Furthermore, Jesus affirmed the general authority (Mt. 4:4, 7, 10), doctrinal authority (Mt. 22:29), imperishability (Mt. 5:18), historical reliability (Mt. 12:40), scientific reliability (Mk. 13:19), truthfulness (Jn. 17:17), and the exact number of books that belonged in the Old Testament (Mt. 23:35; Lk. 24:47).2 Essentially Jesus affirmed the truthfulness and accuracy of the Old Testament in every way possible. Since we have a good idea of what the Old Testament was at the time of Jesus, Jesus affirmed the truthfulness of our Old Testament text that we have today.

Why trust Jesus?

Jesus' testimony is important due to his unique claims. Jesus based his teachings on the miracle of his resurrection (Mt. 12:39-40; Jn. 2:19-21). If Jesus rose from the dead, then His teachings are true. If He did not, then who cares what He said. Nevertheless, there is compelling historical evidence which suggests that Jesus indeed did rise from the dead including the historical fact that He was crucified, buried, the tomb was indeed empty, his subsequent resurrection appearances, the origin of the Christian faith, the transformation of the disciples from doubters to bold proclaimers, the early worship on Sunday by pious Jewish Christians, etc. All these basic historical facts deserve explanation. Since the alternative theories do not explain the above facts, Jesus' resurrection is the best explanation. Since Jesus rose from the dead, his testimony about the reliability and accuracy of the Old Testament can be believed.