Posts Tagged ‘Old Testament’

The current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review contains an article, which discusses how many characters mentioned in the Bible have been confirmed. The article lists 50 people, although the author says that list is conservative. This includes not just people we normally think of as “Bible characters,” but also ancient kings and Pharaohs which are referred to in the Bible. Actually the list is limited to people mentioned in the Old Testament; the article makes no reference to New Testament characters. Attempting to compile a complete list would be difficult, because that would involve dealing with some characters for whom the archaeological evidence is uncertain, and about which there is disagreement.  Even so, I would love to see a more complete list.

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A large number of the posts in this blog have dealt with textual variations in one form or another, especially in the text of the New Testament. I have concentrated so much on this topic, because opponents of the Bible frequently charge that the variations among the manuscripts demonstrates that the text of the Bible has become so hopelessly corrupted that we cannot know whether it reflects the documents as originally written. I have attempted to face the issues as honestly as possible.

Most recently I concluded a series of posts, concentrating on the most serious textual problems we find in the New Testament. I thought about doing one or two more, but I feel the point has been made. Some of my readers questioned my interpretation of the evidence for some of these passages, and with good reason. While a huge proportion of the variations can be determined with virtual certainty, there are passages for which the evidence is more subjective and which do make a real difference in how we read certain books. That is precisely why I chose these passages to examine. I wanted to bring out into the open the most serious textual problems we find.

I have attempted to demonstrate that the most significant textual problems we find have more to do with favorite stories than with real doctrinal or theological issues. Let me mention three that reflect what I have been trying to say.

The story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8 has no doctrinal or theological significance. Removing this story from the text may take away a favorite story (and it is one of my favorites), but it does no damage to anything taught in the New Testament.

The baptismal confession in Acts 8 describes a doctrinal practice within the heritage in which I was raised, but once again, only reflects a simple ritual that very few people would see as significant in any real sense.

Finally, the heavenly witnesses found in 1 John 5 provides a specific reference to what came to be known as the Trinity. At the same time, there are a number of other passages that teach essentially the same thing about which there is no question textually. So, once again, no theological teaching is in question.

And these passages are truly representative of the most serious kinds of textual problems we find in the New Testament. Those who suggest that the text of the Bible has become so corrupted that we cannot have any confidence in what it teaches have the burden of proof to back up such assertions. From my study there is simply no substantial evidence to support such charges. On the contrary, with over 5,800 Greek manuscripts dating back to the second and third centuries, we have a wealth of evidence that should cause us to feel confident that when we read the Bible, we are reading what the authors originally wrote. I remain convinced that is where the evidence should lead us.

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I suspect most of you have seen pictures of beautifully illuminated manuscripts. Certainly that added to the cost of producing ancient books, including the Bible; however, that is only part of the story. Sometimes the illustrations were added, because the cost of just the book itself was so great that anyone who could afford that cost could also afford the extra cost of illuminations.

Below is a link to a video showing how parchment is made and how that was used to create a book in the ancient world. We take so much for granted in our technological world. Take a few minutes and appreciate how much we owe to scribes in ancient times who spent their lives preserving the Bible, as well as other books, for us to enjoy today.

Here is the link.


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You can hardly escape watching programs or seeing in books (such as The DaVinci Code) which imply that certain books were banned from being included in the New Testament. The whole question of the formation of the canon of the New Testament is very complex and needs to be addressed carefully and methodically. With that warning I am sharing a link below to an article that discusses this question.


Actually, I found the main value in the article not in what it said about the canon, but in how it described what books churches from the second century on might have had available to them. This is found in the first half of the article, and I would encourage you to read it. It provides some good information about what early Christians may have read at a time when the canon was still being decided upon. Christians today often have difficulty understanding how different churches were in the first three centuries before Christianity became a legal religion. This article paints a word picture that simplifies that understanding.

At some point, I wish to add my own thoughts on the canon of both the Old and New Testaments, but for now I would encourage you to read this article. It has some good information.

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A previous post contained information regarding a few of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. As I said then, the few discussed were selected because they were in some ways the most significant of the earliest manuscripts. Of course, all of them contained only portions of the New Testament. A couple of the earliest were mere scraps of papyrus with a few verses, all that remained from what were originally larger manuscripts. Others, were longer, but even these did not contain the entire Bible or even the entire New Testament, partially because they come from a time when the New Testament canon was not yet finalized.

Today I want us to come forward in time to look at the earliest essentially complete Bibles. We shall see that even at this stage, nothing is cut and dry. And once again, I shall only talk about three manuscripts out of several we could consider. I have selected for consideration the three manuscripts which most scholars agree are the most important of what were originally essentially complete Bibles. There are a number of others. Books are available should you wish to do further study.

All three of these manuscripts share some characteristics in common. All of them are written on vellum or parchment, which made them much more expensive to produce. They would likely have been commissioned by either a government or a wealthy church. These manuscripts come from a time not long after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, so it is possible the Roman government paid for them. All three manuscripts are written in Greek (which means the Old Testament is the Septuagint, the Greek translation discussed in an earlier post). All three are written with Greek letters called uncials. That means they are written in all capital letters, and there is no spacing between words, and they do not employ any punctuation. They do make use of something called “Nomina Sacra” which we may discuss at a later date. Finally, all three manuscripts include (or originally included) the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Apocrypha.

Codex Vaticanus — This manuscript dates from @ AD 325-350, and it gets its name because it has been in the Vatican library since at least the 1400s. The wallpaper for this blog is in fact derived from a photograph of one page of the Codex Vaticanus. Some portions are missing, so it is impossible to be certain as to what the Vaticanus originally included. Missing from the Apocrypha are the Prayer of Manasseh and the Books of Maccabees. From the New Testament, the manuscript lacks the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), Philemon, and the book of Revelation. Because the ending is missing we cannot be certain whether these books were originally included or if others were included which are now lost.

A previous post mentioned a manuscript designated as p75 which was copied @ AD 200 and contains the earliest copy of the Gospel of Luke and portions of the Gospel of John. The text of these books in the Codex Vaticanus is so similar to p75 that some scholars believe that p75 was actually the manuscript the scribe used to copy these books to the Codex Vaticanus. If so, it is also possible that p75 originally contained all four gospels and that the Vaticanus represents the text of these gospels from AD 200 as well. This would place our text of the gospels back to around 100-150 years of the originals. Of course this is only supposition, but it is intriguing to consider.

Codex Sinaiticus — This manuscript gets its name, because it was discovered in 1859 at the Monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. There is a marvelous story behind that discovery, but time does not permit. Here is a picture of the Sinaiticus.

Codex Sinaiticus
@ AD 350-375

You can see how similar it is to the Vaticanus. This is because it was written about the same time (@ AD 350-375). Apparently it originally contained all of the Old Testament, but much of it is missing. It contains the entire New Testament as well as two books that are not in our New Testament — The Epistle of Barnabas and a portion of The Shepherd of Hermas. The Sinaiticus is in the British Museum in London.

Codex Alexandrinus — Although this manuscript dates somewhat later (AD 400-450), it is still an important witness to the early text of the New Testament. It is also kept in the British Museum, and the writing is very similar to the Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus. Only 10 leaves are missing from the Old Testament, but more are missing from the New Testament.

These three manuscripts are important, because they are the earliest examples of what Christians today would call “the Bible.” The manuscripts are also important for New Testament studies, because they share textual similarities. In other words, the three oldest Bibles we have agree in many areas about which there are textual questions. This is so significant, that whenever these three manuscripts agree about a reading, scholars quite often accept their reading even if a majority of other manuscripts have different readings. That may appear strange, but when we study textual variations, I hope to demonstrate why that is an appropriate position to take.

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Possible oldest Hebrew writingThe current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review describes what may be the oldest inscription in Hebrew ever discovered. That alone would make the find important, but it is the possible message contained in the inscription which is truly significant. The possibility exists that this inscription may be contemporary confirmation of the end of the period of the Judges and the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel.

So what is so significant about this inscription? Quite simply, it is what the possible translation tells us about the establishment of the monarchy in Israel. The Old Testament describes a period in which Israel was a very loose confederation of tribes ruled by people called “judges.” These were apparently charismatic leaders who emerged, especially during times of crisis. According to 1 Samuel, the prophet Samuel’s sons were corrupt. The resulting instability, along with the need for a more powerful government, able to defend Israel against her enemies, resulted in the desire for a king. Although at first resistant, Samuel is instructed by YHWH to agree to the monarchy, and Saul is chosen to be the first king.

The inscription is referred to as the Qeiyafa Ostracon. It is written on a piece of broken pottery, a common practice in a time when writing material was expensive and precious. It was discovered in 2008 at a site which has been tentatively identified as the Biblical city of Shaarayim (Joshua 15.36; 1 Samuel 17.52). Excavations at the site indicate that it dates from the early Israelite monarchy, and the absence of pig bones suggests that the site was an Israelite, rather than a Philistine or Canaanite fortress.

The same issue of Biblical Archaeology Review contains another article, describing four inscriptions which different scholars consider the oldest Hebrew writing, so we cannot be sure that this inscription is the oldest. It is, however, very ancient, dating to the traditional end of the period of the judges and the beginning of the Israelite monarchy.

As strange as it may appear, scholars apparently cannot be sure that the inscription is Hebrew. Hebrew script would not branch off from Phoenician script until the ninth century BC. We are dealing with a very ancient language that is difficult to pin down. One interesting characteristic is that the inscription is read from left to right, just as English. The Hebrew we know (like most Semitic languages) normally was written from right to left.

The inscription is obviously incomplete and certain of the letters are illegible, so any translation must be considered tentative. At the same time, what has been deciphered is intriguing about what it suggests. Here is the proposed translation given in the article.

“Do not oppress, and serve God …

despoiled him/her

The judge and the widow wept;

He had the power

over the resident alien and the child, he

eliminated them together

The men and the chiefs/officers have

established a king

He marked 60 [?] servants among the


Obviously this translation shows a lot of gaps and problems with the language, so there is much we cannot know about this inscription. But it includes several aspects that correspond to what is recorded in 1 Samuel.

  1.  It seems to describe a new king and was apparently written before the reign of David.
  2. The writing seems to refer to a transition from the judge (to which it refers) to a king.
  3. The message seems intended to be for a governor or tribal leader, explaining that the previous political situation has changed, a new king has been installed, and that the new laws and political reality are expected to be followed.
  4. The inscription also specifically refers to injustices under the judges, especially toward widows, children (perhaps orphans), and resident aliens.  It would appear the new king intended to address these situations specifically.

Obviously, there is more than one possible interpretation of the Qeiyafa Ostracon. But a legitimate case can be made that this is perhaps the earliest Hebrew writing we have and that it is a contemporary reference to the installation of Saul as the first king of Israel. Some Biblical scholars question the very existence of Saul and David, suggesting that they were mythological kings, created by later writers to glorify Israel’s beginnings. This small piece of pottery could provide contemporary evidence that Saul did actually exist and that the Biblical account of the beginning of the Israelite monarchy has some basis in history.

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I said last week that  we were leaving the Old Testament for a while. After today we will. However, I felt it might be interesting to take this week to talk about the oldest fragment we have of the Hebrew Bible. Next week I plan to talk about the oldest manuscript we have of the New Testament. I hope you will find both of these to be interesting.

If you remember previous posts, you know that our present Old Testament is based on the Masoretic Text which was standardized @ AD 500. Until recently, our oldest manuscript of the Old Testament was from the 10th century AD.

All that changed with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which included portions of the Hebrew Bible that date from the 2nd century BC. Most scholars thought we could not get anything older than that and for good reason. Papyrus and even parchment will not last much longer than that, so even if scrolls existed, it was thought they would have been lost or destroyed long ago.

Then in 1979 two small rolled pieces of silver were discovered in a burial cave in Jerusalem.

Silver Scroll, 600 BC

When the scrolls were unrolled, they were found to contain writing in a very ancient Hebrew script. The writing was from the priestly benediction in Numbers 6. Based on the form of the letters used, most scholars accept a date of approximately 600 BC for these amulets, although initially there were some who felt they came from the Intertestamental Period. This was partially due to the fact that the forms of the letters (which scholars use to date the writing) were in some places unclear. The amulets are so small and the letters difficult to read using the photography which was available at the time. In 1994 tests were conducted at NASA laboratories, using high-resolution digital images. These revised images cleared up a number of questions that had been raised. While a minority of scholars still hold with a later date for these amulets, from what I have read, the consensus still favors dating these fragments to approximately 600 BC. In other words, these scrolls go back to a time when the original Temple of Solomon was still standing!

These scrolls hold potential significance for the dating of the Pentateuch, or at least part of it. While tradition holds that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, a large number of modern scholars believe that the Pentateuch developed over a period of many years much later than the time of Moses. Some would even claim that it was compiled during or even shortly after the Babylonian Exile (586 – 515 BC). While this little scroll cannot by itself  settle the issue, it would seem to provide evidence that such a late dating for the Pentateuch (or at least for the book of Numbers) is unlikely. This does not necessarily translate into Mosaic authorship. It does, however, indicate that perhaps the Pentateuch (or portions of it) is older than has previously been argued.

So, we are left with these small silver amulets, apparently from a time when Solomon’s Temple still stood, and they can still speak to us today. What better way to close than by an English translation of the actual words they contain. It is my wish for everyone who reads this post.

May YHWH bless you and keep you;
May YHWH cause his face to
Shine upon you and grant you

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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