The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes (Psalm 19:7,8).
Google calculates that there are almost 130 million different books (by title) in the world today.*
And yet by almost any dimension, the Bible stands alone.
Here’s an example: the Hebrew Torah, the first 5 books of Moses in the Old Testament was composed about 35 centuries ago.
To maintain its integrity as the written Word of God, throughout history Hebrew scribes employed a level of rigor and meticulous precision in hand-copying the Torah scrolls that is without rival in the history of literature.
When reviewing the content quality of historical documents, experts use what they call the biographical test. It looks at 2 key features:
• given that we don’t have the original writings of Moses – or of Homer, Plato, Julius Caesar, Tacitus, or any writer from antiquity –how much change has occurred in the transmission of a document over time? In other words, given that the printing press was not invented until the 15th century, how much has the content evolved with copying and recopying by hand? And,
• how close in time is our oldest copy to the original?
To ensure accurate Torah transmission centuries ago, the scribe’s first step was to produce the surface on which he would write, often using animal skins. Then when the scroll material and ink were prepared, he would begin the careful process of copying Genesis chapter 1, writing right to left and hanging each letter from the line – rather than left to right, and on top of the line, as we do.
This process was followed – ensuring that no letter touched the one before or after – until the almost 80,000 words of the 5 books of the Torah were penned. A single copy typically took more than a year.
But then the drama for the scribe began: the document was subjected to careful scrutiny to determine if accuracy of the highest precision had been achieved. Only then would the document be authorized.
This involved a rabbi and sometimes 2 other scribes scrupulously reviewing the 21 meter-long document, counting not words, but every one of the 304,805 letters to ensure exactness in copying!
As a cross-check in the certification procedure, scribes were known to then count words from the beginning while another started the same process from the end of the scroll – the middle word of the entire 5 books to be in Leviticus 13:33.
That reflects the incomparable level of care used by Jewish scribes throughout history, because the Torah – and the rest of the Prophets and the Writings – was so deeply revered as being God’s authoritative Word, His very voice.
But a significant discrepancy in one of the most beloved Psalms threatened to undermine that confidence.
Psalm 22 has been at the centre of a centuries-old debate about the issue of transmission due to only a single disputed phrase, which turns on a single word.
In an agonizing question written by David and echoed by the Lord Jesus while hanging on the cross a full millennium later, the psalm begins “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
The end of verse 16 in the King James Version translated in 1611 AD reads,“they pierced my hands and feet”. This follows the Greek Septuagint version rendering; almost all English Bibles convey a similar wording.
However, the Hebrew Bible reads, “like a lion on my hands and feet”(when translated to English). The issue hinges on a single term being read as a verb (“pierced”) or alternately, noun (“lion”).
So which is it? Hands and feet under the threat of a lion? Or, run through with nails in the manner of crucifixion?
Naturally, some Jews suspected the Christians of having altered the text to fit the claim that Jesus was the Christ; that this Messianic Psalm clearly pointed to Him.
And the Christians assumed that the Jewish custodians had distorted the reading to avoid the obvious implications as to Jesus of Nazareth’s identity as the predicted Messiah of Israel.
The deadlock remained unresolved – until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 11 caves in southeast Israel near Qumran, from 1946 to ’56.
Dr. Peter Flint of Trinity Western University is the Canada Research Chair in Dead Sea Scrolls Studies. He has first-hand knowledge having worked on the editing process of approximately 30 of the scrolls for publication.
He confirms that the Hebrew copy found of Psalm 22 is the oldest copy of that text ever discovered, anywhere in the world. And it’s dated to 250 years before Christ – 13 centuries earlier than the oldest previously found.
The impasse was irrefutably resolved by the Qumran scroll.
In this manuscript copied over 2 centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Hebrew text clearly indicated “they have pierced my hands and feet”.
And amazingly, throughout that period, the balance of the text of the Psalm – and the rest of the Old Testament – was intact.
Takeaway: with most works of literature in antiquity, the confidence in the reliability of the text diminishes as the centuries pass. However, the Lord has supplied an increasing catalogue of evidence for the Bible giving 21st century Christ-followers significant assurance that what we read today is what was originally written by the prophets and apostles under the direction of the Spirit of God. God’s Word is reliable. It is powerful. When God speaks, things happen!
And the accuracy of the Old Testament is critical to the zenith of God’s revelation – the Person and work of Christ: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17).
*Leonid Taycher, Google Books Library Project.
~research for this article:
God Breathed: the Undeniable Power and Reliability of Scripture, by Josh McDowell, Shiloh Run Press, 2015.
Why Trust the Bible? various authors, Rose Publishing, 2009.