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What is a modern reader of the Old Testament to do with a book that teaches animal sacrifice, male circumcision, strange dietary codes, and festivals based on an agricultural cycle? Its contents appear to be so ancient and so removed from our day that some dismiss it as “primitive religion.”
Contrary to such a premature judgment, seven affirmations show that the OT is at once relevant and altogether trustworthy.
In every part of the Old Testament the writers claim the divine origin of their writings. One such inspired utterance comes from the core of the OT: the Ten Commandments. “Stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God” (Ex 31:18; Dt 5:22). More regularly, however, “the Spirit of the Lord spoke through [His prophets], His word was on [their] tongue[s]” (2 Sm 23:2). Indeed, Nathan the prophet knew that he had spoken his own words, which were not the same as the words from divine revelation. When he spoke God’s message, he prefaced it, as did the OT prophets repeatedly, with “This is what the Lord says” (2 Sm 7:5). Even in the wisdom books of the OT, Agur introduced himself as deficient and ignorant. He complained, “I am the least intelligent of men, and I lack man’s ability to understand. I have not gained wisdom, and I have no knowledge of the Holy One” (Pr 30:2–3). How, then, would he know how or what to write about God? He asked the same questions in verse 4. But by verses 5–6 he had the answer: “Every word of God is pure … Don’t add to His words, or He will rebuke you, and you will be proved a liar.” The first part of verse 5 is a quote from Psalm 18:30, while verse 6 is a quote from Deuteronomy 4:2.
The 39 books of the Old Testament were immediately received as authoritative and canonical (belonging to Scripture). One of the most popular misconceptions is that a group of scholars held a rabbinical council in Jamnia in a.d. 90 to decide which books they would regard as authoritative for composing the OT. But this is incorrect: for (1) the council’s decisions had no binding authority; (2) the discussions at that council were merely about the correct interpretations of the Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs; and (3) the list of books they regarded as canonical were already treated as the same 39 books in our current OT. Instead, the books of the OT were progressively recognized by those closest to the writers of the OT as being indeed revelation from God. Daniel, writing about 75 years after the prophet Jeremiah, regarded his prophecy about the 70-year captivity (Jr 25:11–12) as “the word of the Lord” (Dn 9:2). In fact, he placed the book of Jeremiah among “the books,” that is, in the group of books called the Scriptures.
The text of the Old Testament books was uniquely preserved when compared with other ancient writings. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, we were limited to the Greek text of the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Hebrew text of the Nash Papyrus dating from around a.d. 1000 for checking on the accuracy of the preservation of the OT text. That has all changed. In the 800 exemplars of OT biblical texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now possess texts from 250 B.C. to a.d. 50. Moreover, the earliest example of an OT text is Numbers 6:24–26 from the mid-seventh century B.C. in the Ketef Hinnom Plaques. So carefully preserved are these texts that when scholars studied the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, only three minor spelling changes (comparable to the difference between spelling “Saviour” and “Savior”) were found in a text that covers about 100 pages in many English translations. That is an outstanding record of preserving the text of the Bible, which represents over a thousand years of copying the text.
The historical chronology found in the histories of the kings of Israel and Judah is completely verified and trustworthy. If chronology is the backbone of history, then it was necessary for someone to untangle the dates and systems of correlation between the kings of northern Israel and Judah if any confidence, much less sense, was to come out of these scores of numbers in the books of Kings and Chronicles. But that is what Edwin Thiele did as his doctoral dissertation for the University of Chicago. He first established as an absolute date (on our Julian calendar) June 15, 763 B.C., from the astronomical citations on the Assyrian Eponym, or Man of the Year, lists. These annual lists also made allusions to several of the Hebrew kings, thereby providing excellent synchronisms. From there he was able to show how some 500 numbers (all except one, which was later solved) were easily reconciled and totally trustworthy in every detail.
Archaeology has helped to show that the culture, persons, and events of the Old Testament are trustworthy. Archaeology has done much to further the cause of showing the reliability of the OT. Where there were alleged missing persons mentioned in the OT, but not known from external sources, such as King Sargon in Isaiah 20:1, or Governor Sanballat of Samaria (Neh 2:10), or kings David, Ahab, Jehu, and Hezekiah, Menahem, and even a prophet, Balaam, in each case spectacular finds have vindicated the claims of the OT. In like manner, where the OT claimed there were peoples such as the Hittites or the Horites, later finds vindicated the presence of these as well as other allegedly missing peoples. A similar list of allegedly missing places could be gathered, such as the land of Ophir or the sites along the Transjordanian route of the wilderness wanderings. But once again archaeology has given great help. This is not to say that all of those people and places alleged to have been created by the OT have been fully identified. For example, we still cannot find external validation for Darius the Mede (Dn 5:31). But the success of archaeology in the twentieth century alone is startling in its extent and in the depth of its influence.
The present literary form of the books comes to us from ancient times and in the final shape in which we presently possess them. No section of the OT has received more critical dissecting than the first five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. It was alleged that the books did not come by divine inspiration to Moses around 1400 B.C. but rather came from the hands of at least four main compilers (called J, E, D, and P) ranging from the eighth century B.C., with the final hand and the final re-editing coming in 400 B.C.! At the heart of this theory was the book of Deuteronomy, which critical scholars claimed was first written in 621 B.C., when King Josiah found the Book of the Law. But Deuteronomy exhibits the literary format that is unique to the middle of the second millennium B.C. Hittite suzerainty treaties (c. 1200–1400 B.C.), the same six sections of those treaties being found in the book of Deuteronomy. Had Deuteronomy been compiled in the first millennium (621 B.C.), as the critics claim, it would resemble instead the Assyrian treaties that had by that time deleted two of the six sections. Thus, according to the literary forms and criteria of the critics themselves, the key book in the disputed first five books must be placed in the days when Moses lived (i.e., around 1400 B.C.).
The writers of the Old Testament were aware that they were writing not only for their generation but also for those who would come later. The most convenient way to demonstrate this is to go to 1 Peter 1:12, where Peter stated, “It was revealed to [the prophets of the OT] that they were not serving themselves but you [people of Peter’s generation and us].”
Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Is the Old Testament Trustworthy?,” in The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 345–347.