OTB4 – Old Testament study by research experts
© Jeff Stacey | Last updated: 12 May 2020
OTB4(a) The background of OT research
Until about 1700AD the Bible was revered as the Holy Scriptures. So there was little attempt to question its origins or language. But lack of information about the historical origins of the OT also contributed to it being treated as less than actual history. Instead, it was generally interpreted allegorically and applied imaginatively, as being only illustrations or prior “types” of NT theology.
However, from about 1750 the rise of emphasis on human reason led to rational evaluations of all ancient literature including the Bible. Many theories developed about biblical sources, authorship and dates.
On the positive side this led to a vast amount of archaeological exploration, literary analysis and other research into the historical origins of the OT. Outcomes have included increased knowledge of its original historical and cultural settings, customs, languages and writing traditions. What the OT was saying to its intended original readers has been greatly illuminated.
But on the negative side, the rational analytical approach has given rise to scepticism or even cynicism as to the validity of the Bible. The trap is that reasoning tends to become relied upon as the ultimate means for discovering all truth and reality. This subjects the Bible (and God) to human judgment [see CA6(a)]. But the Bible assumes the opposite – that human reasoning is inferior to God and subject to His judgment Job 11:7-8, 21:22. This is surely obvious unless a person takes the risk of denying that God even exists 1Corinthians 1:19-20,25,27, Psalm 14:1-2.
OTB4(b) Archaeological discoveries
There have been many remarkable archaeological discoveries. Probably the most significant was “The Dead Sea Scrolls” found in 1947. Hundreds of ancient documents from the library of a Jewish religious commune (the Essenes) had been hidden in earthenware jars in caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea in about 70AD. They included part or complete copies of most OT books, dating from or after about 200BC. These manuscripts were almost 1000 years older than any previously known OT copies!
Explorations of many other Ancient Near Eastern sites, inscriptions, artifacts and documents have found references to people, places and things mentioned in the OT for the period after about 1050 BC. Yet there are still very large gaps in what is known about the Hebrews prior to then. But such external evidences as have been found concerning cultures, land-use, religions and social organization tend to harmonise rather than conflict with the OT. So a lot of support for the historical authenticity of the OT is being provided.
One important discovery was at Ras Shamra in northern Syria. It was a large number of clay tablets with cuneiform writing on them. These were from the Canaanite town of Ugarit dating from about 1400-1350BC. Their significance is in showing that forms of writing were already well developed by that time. In particular it confirms that Moses could have read and used writing Gen 5:1, Ex 17:14a, 24:4,7,12, 34:1,27,28b, 38:21, Num 21:14, 33:2, Deut 31:9,22,24. It also means that preservation of the earliest books of the OT would not initially have relied only on word-of-mouth records.
OTB4(c) Ancient manuscripts of the OT
OTB4(c)(i) The oldest surviving manuscripts
In biblical and later times the texts of the OT books had to be copied by hand (“manuscripts”) and mistakes could occur.1 By closely examining the Dead Sea Scrolls, Bible research experts could check for any errors that may have crept into later copies. But only minor variations were found between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the next oldest OT manuscripts.2
This accuracy was a consequence of the scattering of the Jewish people following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Their leaders then saw the urgent need to preserve the OT for use in the dispersed synagogues. So in about 100AD they defined which OT books were sacred and what was their “standard” text. They also set up strict rules for producing and checking hand-written copies. This is mainly why the manuscripts made over the next 800 years and after, had so few variations. Their degree of accuracy is extraordinary.
But what about the long period from perhaps 1400BC – 250BC when the OT books were originally written and copied?
OTB4(c)(ii) Prior to the oldest surviving manuscripts
What about the long period from about 1400BC to 250BC, when the OT books were originally written and copied?
There are two other ancient manuscripts of the first five OT books, dated from about 100AD. These were based on Hebrew texts from prior to the 100AD Jewish “standard” version. One is in archaic Hebrew (the “Samaritan Pentateuch”) and the other is a copy of the OT in Greek (the “Septuagint” or LXX, translated in about 250BC). Some variations in both of these are the same, yet different from the “standard” Hebrew text. This suggests that the later Hebrew text occasionally differed from the original. But biblical research experts have seen these variations to be minor and not significant.
The LXX contains all of the OT as well as the OT Apocryphal books. It varies somewhat from the later Hebrew manuscripts, mostly due to the Greek translators’ interpretations of the Hebrew.
Other than these two alternatives, there are no earlier surviving manuscripts of the OT. So any evidences of the writing and processes of compilation and transmission of the OT prior to about 200BC can only be found internally. That is, by looking within the texts as we now have them in the oldest and best surviving manuscripts. This fact has led to much analysis of the Hebrew texts and many theories about their origins.
OTB4(d) Detailed study of the biblical texts
Many aspects of the biblical texts have been massively researched to try and clarify the following:
- variations in the wording of the oldest surviving OT manuscripts
- comparisons with other then-contemporary literature, religions and customs
- the word meanings and grammar of the languages used
- processes and dates of compilation of the texts
- who the writers and compilers were, and their sources and purposes
- the literary types, forms and structures used
- the dates of biblical events
- the locations of biblical places
This research has become known as biblical “criticism”. Such a description was not meant to imply any denigration of the Bible (although at times it has had that result theologically!). Rather it is meant to refer to evaluating or “critique-ing” the biblical text, using various analytical methods based on rational assumptions.3 These studies are valuable where they have been based strictly on the surviving factual data. They can give a lot of new insights into the texts in their original settings.
1. These mistakes were due to such things as lines being accidentally left out, words badly written and later misread, sections missing or unreadable due to deterioration or loss of the papyrus or vellum on which they were written, etc. (Return to reading).
2. These were the “Masoretic Text” of the OT, dating from about 900AD. (Return to reading).
3. See G.E.Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1967) for a good general discussion of the meaning, aims and processes of biblical criticism. (Return to reading).