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Creation 38(2):49, April 2016

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Biblical text transmitted accurately over millennia



In 1946, in one of the Qumran caves near the north-west shore of the Dead Sea in Israel, a Bedouin shepherd boy, Muhammed edh-Dhib, discovered an amazing treasure trove of ancient scrolls. Manuscripts have now been recovered from 11 caves in the area, a collection known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. More than 900 ancient documents were recovered over a ten-year period.1

Over a third of the scrolls are copies from books of the Old Testament, such as Genesis, Exodus, Kings, and Psalms. In the first cave an almost complete copy of the book of Isaiah was found, and this has been called the Great Isaiah Scroll. A replica of the scroll is on display at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Every Old Testament book, except for the Book of Esther, is represented among the scrolls.2

It is generally considered that an extinct Jewish sect called the Essenes hid the scrolls some two thousand years ago to protect them. They were stored in clay jars sealed with lids, which kept them well preserved. The scrolls were mostly made of parchment and papyrus, although a few were composed of copper.

Based on analysis of the writing, as well as the ages of coins found at the sites, and other methods, researchers consider that the scrolls date from about 300 BC to AD 100. This means that the Dead Sea Scrolls are more than 1,000 years older than the previously oldest Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament still in existence, which was dated at around AD 1000.3

Comparison of the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls with other manuscripts shows that the scribes have faithfully copied the Old Testament through the millennia. The latest scrolls bring scholars much closer to what authors first wrote in the original documents.

Although there are some slight differences from the later manuscripts, the differences are only minor. Generally they are changes in spelling or punctuation which do not affect the meaning of the original text, or even the pronunciation of words.4

These remarkable finds confirm the faithfulness of the scribal copying processes and provide confidence that the Bible that we have had for hundreds of years has been faithfully copied from the original. They confirm the extreme care that Hebrew copyists showed, compared with copyists of Greek manuscripts.5 It means that the biblical account of human history, of the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the other events in the Old Testament accurately reflects what the authors wrote in the original documents.

References and notes

  1. Wellman, J., What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? The reasons they are important, whatchristianswanttoknow.com; accessed 1 December 2015. Return to text.
  2. Masters, P., Heritage of Evidence, The Wakeman Trust, London, p. 43, 2004. Return to text.
  3. The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, Introduction; deadseascrolls.org; accessed 1 December 2015. Return to text.
  4. Hawkins, B., Why the Dead Sea Scrolls matter, Baptist Press, 27 June 2012; bpnews.net; accessed 1 December 2015. Return to text.
  5. Sarfati, J.D., The Genesis Account, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs, GA, p. 461, 2015. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Terry D P.
For me, it is inconceivable that God could create the whole universe, and number the very hairs on the heads of the several billion humans he created on earth, would actually be incapable of inspiring the written Word of God and maintaining it exactly as he wanted it to be, both in the original and all translations into different languages thereafter.
So, it is not the accuracy of the Bible that is question, but our ability to interpret it:
“BUT FIRST note this: no one can interpret any prophecy of Scripture by himself. For it was not through any human whim that men prophesied of old; men they were, but, impelled by the Holy Spirit, they spoke the words of God.” — 2 Pet 1:20-21
As 2 Pet 1:20-21 says, without God’s help in interpreting Scriptures, we will inevitably get it wrong.
Moreover, remember how God confused languages at the Tower of Babel. Not to mention the numerous false prophets, who spread fake news.
Eddie C.
This is only loosely related to this article, but I recently read an older article that was published in the Washington Post. The writer was a new atheist and was making a bold claim, we have no evidence that Jesus ever existed. His entire argument was based on the premise that we cannot trust the Bible because it is a bias source, it was written 'centuries' (according to him) after the events, and that there is not much in the way of non-biblical supporting text. The fact is there are non-biblical supporting text, but placing that aside, the manuscripts of both the Old and especially the New testament are the most abundance ancient documents in existence. They're also better preserved than any ancient text as this article points out. Also with the New Testament we may have copies of I Corinthians that might have been written in as little as 20 years after the events occurred. This is much closer to the events than other ancient literature. Suffice to say the new atheist's own professor (not a believer) who taught a course on "The Historical Jesus" excoriated the young man's piece in a follow up article. The follow up article, of course, received very little in the way of fanfare from the publisher as the original.

The Scripture, both New and Old Testaments have been preserved as God promised they would be and despite attempts by both Satan and man to destroy the Word of God, today you can get the Bible accurately translated in most languages and it has sold more copies than any book ever produced. God keeps his promises.

The question is, do you desire it more than gold? It's infinitely more valuable. Psalm 19:10
Richard F.
The article above is well-regarded but the devil is in the detail!

Before 1946 Bible translations of the OT, including the KJV, relied on the Masoretic texts of c 1000 AD. This has given us the famous rending of Isaiah 53 as a major Calvinistic plank supporting the notion of penal substitution.

In large part the Qumran scrolls and the Masoretic texts do line up, but there are key areas where they do not. In fact on some of those occasions the Qumran scrolls line up with another more mysterious version — the now lost Hebrew text which was nevertheless used for the highly-regarded Greek Septuagint. Isaiah 53 in the Septuagint does not however support penal substitution

So the devil is in the detail, and as in all things pertaining to the devil, this is a very significant detail

(There are similar points to be made about virgin/young girl)
Jonathan Sarfati
A number of evidence-free assertions above. E.g. the Penal Substitution view is hardly just a Calvinist view, and it hardly just depends on Isaiah 53. When it comes to the DSS, I've pointed out before:

Consider that wonderful chapter 53 of Isaiah, the prophecy of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection. Of the 166 words, only 17 letters are different. Ten are spelling variants, and four more are stylistic changes. The remaining three letters spell the word ‘light’ in Is. 53:11, and may make more sense that way, although it doesn’t greatly affect the meaning of the passage. So overall, the DSS increase our already high respect for the Masoretic Text.

I also fail to see how the LXX teaches anything different in Isaiah 53, whether the classic Brenton translation or the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS);
Isaiah was translated by Moisés Silva.

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