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History on Writing and Canonization of the Old Testament

Current scholarship recognizes that writing began as early as 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia, Egypt and South Asia with recorded proto-Canaanite inscriptions, a precursor to Hebrew writing, dating to at least 2500 B.C. So that means that writing was well established long before Abraham left Mesopotamia around 1800 B.C. These Semitic proto-Canaanite letter forms are phonetic (sound) rather than logographic hieroglyphs (pictures) and later developed into Canaanite, Phoenician, Hebrew, Roman and Greek letters. Some of which are still used today.

Although sometimes argued that the common man may have been illiterate, Semitic proto-Canaanite carvings on rocks at the turquoise mine at Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai from 2000 B.C. have been identified as being written by common Semite laborers or slaves. Many of the writings dealt with common household, farming or business concerns, indicating that even low ranking people were capable of at least reading and probably writing as well. Other writing fragments have been discovered on clay, rock or pottery. Some of the oldest Semitic passages ever deciphered are inscribed on the subterranean walls of the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara in Egypt, which indicated that the Egyptians often solicited outside help with some of their needs. Later surviving examples of were made on metal, parchment or papyrus rolls.

By the time Moses began penning what God had revealed to him, writing was highly developed and he most likely wrote in Hebrew, the language of the Israelites. His medium of choice was probably on a scroll made out of animal hides.

God commanded Moses to place a copy of his writings into the Ark of the Covenant and after his death, God then gave Israel's new leader Joshua instructions for the books. Joshua was to meditate on them day and night and do according to all that was written in them. Doing this would allow him to become prosperous and successful (Joshua 1:8). This is the first occurrence in Scripture of God commanding the canonization of books and considering them to be His Scripture to live by.

As history continued to unfold in the lives of the Israelites, additional books were added to the books of Moses (The Law). The Old Testament would eventually be completed with the book of Malachi in 430 B.C. But this raises a significant question, "How did they know what supposed sacred writings were to be included in the canon of Scripture and which ones were to be excluded?"

There were three widely recognized principles used to validate those writings which came as a result of divine inspiration or revelation. First, the writing had to have originated from a recognized prophet or in the case of the New Testament, an apostle as its author (or someone associated with them - e.g. Mark, Luke, Hebrews, James and Jude). Second, the writing could not disagree with or contradict previous Scripture. Third, the writings had to have general consensus by the church as an inspired book. So, when various councils met in church history to consider the canon, it was not voted on for canonicity of a book but rather recognized by what God had already written.

By the time of Christ, all of the Old Testament had been written and accepted by the Jewish community. The writings of what is called the Apocrypha (14 rogue writings that were written after Malachi and attached to the Old Testament about 200-150 B.C.) were not included and were not affirmed by Jesus as He recognized the Old Testament canon of His era (Luke 24:27, 44).

The Hebrew Language

The Hebrew alphabet is phonetic but also semantic, or meaning associated. The Hebrew language is vivid, concise and somewhat simple and it makes it difficult to translate fully. It usually takes twice as many English words to translate Hebrew. In the root structure, verbs are formed from 3-letter roots with forms developed by the change of vowels or by adding suffixes or prefixes. The root consonants give Hebrew a semantic backbone and stability uncharacteristic from Western languages. Verb usage is not characterized by a precise definition of tense but is very context dependent, which lends itself to puns and wordplay very easily.

The Scribes

How can we be sure that the Old Testament is that same today as it was when it was inspired and written down by those men moved by the Holy Spirit? There were no copy machines or printing presses to duplicate and disperse these writings to the people. The Israelites depended on scribes who patiently copied the Scriptures by hand. These scribes attempted to make exact copies of the original scrolls and the scribes that followed them did the same. They were meticulous with their task and it is evident from the manuscripts that we have today that they took great care in doing so.

The Jewish scribes used the following process for creating copies of the Torah and eventually the other books in the Tanakh (the canon of the Hebrew Bible - the Old Testament):

  1. They could only use clean animal skins, both to write on, and even to bind manuscripts.
  2. Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
  3. The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
  4. They must say each word aloud while they were writing.
  5. They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the most Holy Name of God, YHVH, every time they wrote it.
  6. There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
  7. The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.
  8. The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc.)
  9. As no document containing God's Word could be destroyed, they were stored, or buried, in a genizah (store-room in a Jewish synagogue).

The Jewish scribes were so fanatical about maintaining accuracy that the modern copy of the Jewish Tanakh is virtually identical to the copies found in the Dead Sea Scrolls from 20 centuries ago. There were only a couple of minute differences between what we have today and the Dead Sea Scrolls and those slight variations did not change the meaning of any passage.


Check the Dead Sea Scrolls and compare: http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/

Final Word...

God intended His Word to abide forever. Therefore His inspired Word was protected from error in its original writing and collected together in the canon that Jesus himself affirmed. With the wealth of biblical manuscripts in the original languages and with the discipline of textual critics to establish with almost perfect accuracy the content of His Word, any errors which have been introduced over the centuries can be identified and corrected by comparing the translation or copy with the reassembled original. God has made good on His promise through His providence that He will preserve the Scriptures. We can rest assured knowing that the translations of today are worthy of the title, The Word of God.