Numbers 24:1-25:18; Luke 2:1-35; Psalm 59:1-17; Proverbs 11:14
I want to do something a little different today. If you read today’s reading, particularly Luke’s beautiful (and probably familiar) nativity account and were just longing for some reflections on it, then I am sorry to say I will be disappointing you.
But I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I wanted to talk about it before we got too much further into our year together. Today, I want to talk about Scripture – its preservation and transmission. I promise not to get into too many academic details, but I think this topic is important. We talk in this blog about the power of God’s word to change us and how necessary being in God’s word is, and I want to underscore that with this additional truth: Scripture is an ancient text that is well preserved and well proven.
Here’s a quick background on the Old Testament and how it came to be:
The very first form of writing begins with the Sumerians toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C. It was basically pictographic, meaning that it was all signs. From there, the Addakains took over, sometime in the middle of the third millennium B.C. They used signs as well but also adopted vowels and “open” and “closed” syllables, as well as ideograms (like how we use the $ today). The next major adopter of the written language was the Egyptians, who used hieroglyphics, though their symbols were different than the Sumerians a millennium before. The final stage in the history of writing is the development of the true alphabet – there is evidence of the Phoenicians being the ones to first adopt it, sometime around or even before the 10th century B.C. All of this predates Moses by at least 1,500 years, meaning that by the time Moses (and I use him as an example because he is the earliest writer of Scripture) began recording God’s word, it is well within reason to suppose that anyone reared in Pharaoh’s court would have known how to read and write, not only one’s native language (in Moses’ case, Hebrew) but also Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Still with me? I’m sort of excited about this topic (in the academic world, it’s called textual criticism), so my apologies if I’m geeking out too much on you guys. I’ll try to keep this brief. But I really do think it’s important to feel confident in our Scriptures and know they have been well preserved and carefully passed down!
In we go again…if we hold to the traditional view the Old Testament was produced from the time of Moses (1,400 B.C.) to Malachi (400 B.C.), that means that each book, as it was written, then had to be repeatedly copied by hand. And this hand copying continued until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Did you do the math? This means that the oldest parts of the OT were transmitted by hand copying for 3,000 years. These copies were painstakingly made, labored over and reviewed for errors. (Information gathered from Ellis Brotzman’s Old Testament Textual Criticism, a Practical Introduction.)
We actually have record of some of these ancient manuscripts. For centuries, our oldest manuscripts dated back to the 9th century (which is still pretty old!), but things changed drastically with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Found in the caves around Qumran, Israel, these scrolls produced six to eight hundred manuscripts dating back to the 3rd and even 1st century AD. There is a ton that could be said about the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I’ll just make one quick comment. On these scrolls, there are corrections in some of the margins or between the lines. Most scholars agree that these corrections indicate proofreading changes based on something else the scribe was reading, namely, an even older version of the Old Testament. Mind-blowing! (This paragraph synthesized from the work of Paul Wegner in his book, Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results.)
Well, this is getting super long and I didn’t even get started on the preservation and proof of the New Testament! I guess I’ll save that for another day. But I hope you’re encouraged and that your confidence in God’s word and its preservation throughout the years has been boosted. God gave his words to human authors, thousands of years ago, and it’s been protected and passed down all this time, so we can know God, his love for us, and his plan for the future of humanity. Take heart as you read more in the coming months!
- Esther McCurry
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