The ancient manuscripts of the Old Testament are the basic working material used to seek out the original text of the Bible with as great a degree of accuracy as possible. This process is called textual criticism, sometimes designated “lower criticism” to distinguish it from “higher criticism,” which is analysis of the date, unity, and authorship of the biblical writings.

The task of the textual critic can be divided into a number of general stages: (1) the collection and collation of existing manuscripts, translations, and quotations; (2) the development of theory and methodology that will enable the critic to use the gathered information to reconstruct the most accurate text of the biblical materials; (3) the reconstruction of the history of the transmission of the text in order to identify the various influences affecting the text; (4) the evaluation of specific variant readings in light of textual evidence, theology, and history.

Both Old and New Testament textual critics undertake a similar task and face similar obstacles. They both seek to unearth a hypothetical “original” text with limited resources that are at varying degrees of deterioration. But the Old Testament textual critic faces a more complex textual history than does his New Testament counterpart. The New Testament was written primarily in the first century a.d., and complete New Testament manuscripts exist that were written only a few hundred years later. The Old Testament, however, is made up of literature written over a thousand- year period, the oldest parts dating to the twelfth century b.c., or possibly even earlier. To make matters even more difficult, until recently, the earliest known Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament were medieval. This left scholars with little witness as to the Old Testament’s textual development from ancient times to the Middle Ages, a period of over two thousand years.

Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s and 1950s, secondary Aramaic, Greek, and Latin translations served as the earliest significant witnesses to the early Hebrew Scriptures. Since these are translations, and subject to sectarian and contextual alterations and interpolations, their value to the textual critic, though significant, is limited. The recent discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other early manuscripts, however, have provided primary witnesses to the Hebrew Old Testament in earlier times. The scholarly assessment of these discoveries is, at present, far from complete, and the discipline of Old Testament textual criticism anxiously awaits a more complete assessment of their significance. In a general sense, however, the Dead Sea Scrolls have affirmed the accuracy of the Masoretic Text that we use today.

This is an excerpt from The Origin of the Bible by F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, Philip Comfort, and Carl F. H. Henry. To read more, you can purchase this book from many Christian bookstores and online retailers, including

Norton, M. R., et al. The Origin of the Bible. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2020.