Facts You Didn’t Know About the Accuracy of the Old Testament

by Lyn Leahz, 12/25/2012


The first 39 books of the Bible are known as the Old Testament. They were first written down in Hebrew and Aramaic, the ancient languages of the Jews. We do not have any of the original manuscripts (known as autographs) today. When the Old Testament authors finished their scrolls, they did not have modern copy machines or mechanical presses to duplicate their writings. The work of copying belonged to Jewish scribes, who would laboriously make handwritten copies of the original writings. When the documents became worn out, the scribes made new copies from the old copies. Unfortunately, many of these scrolls have not survived over time. They deteriorated in the climate of the Bible lands. As a result, today there are few surviving original copies of these early holy books, first written down about 1400 B.C.

Before 1947, the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament dated from the ninth and tenth centuries A.D. These were copies of the Pentateuch–the first five books of the Bible. In 1947, however, there was an amazing discovery. Bedouin shepherds found a priceless treasure in the caves near the Dead Sea. They discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. These second-century B.C. copies of all the books of the Old Testament (except Esther) were from the library of a Jewish religious group (called the Essenes) at Qumran who lived about the time of Jesus. This remarkable find revealed that the Old Testament text had changed very little over a thousand years. In fact, the Qumran manuscripts were so similar to the ninth-century documents, it showed that the scribes had done an outstanding job of accurately passing on the sacred writings. By this we know that the Old Testament as we now have it is probably very similar to the way it was originally written.


Jewish tradition holds that the scribe Ezra (whose story is told in the Book of Ezra) compiled the books of the Old Testament. Lacking evidence, however, we do not know for certain how the books actually came together in the collection we now have. We do know that by the time of Jesus, the Hebrew sacred writings usually comprised the 39 books we accept as the Old Testament. And Jesus himself makes it clear which books he and his apostles accepted as their “Bible.”

The Jews arranged their sacred books into three major divisions: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. When Jesus spoke to his disciples about the Old Testament, he referred to these same groupings. Besides, most of the books of our Old Testament are quoted somewhere in the New Testament. It seems, then, that Jesus and his followers were familiar with the same Old Testament we have today.

Besides the 39 Old Testament books, the Jews had other holy texts. These books and chapters are known as the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical writings, and may be found in some Bibles. In the Greek version, these writings were given the same respect as other Old Testament books. However, in the Hebrew Bible, they were not considered to have the same authority as the other books of the Bible.


One of the most important translations of the Old Testament is the Greek version known as the Septuagint. Jews who spoke Greek and many Christians of the first centuries A.D. used the Septuagint. It has been suggested that this text was put together at the request of Pharaoh Ptolemy Philadelphus, who reigned from 285-246 B.C. The Pharaoh wished to have a translation for his library to Alexandria. As Christianity spread to people of other cultures and languages, the Old Testament was translated into Latin, Syriac, and Egyptian–and eventually other languages.

Coming next: Historical Facts About the New Testament

*Bible Almanac, Publications International LTD.


This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24

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