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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Words of the Bible

Don Stewart :: What’s the Difference Between the History of the Text of the Old Testament and the History of the Text of the New Testament?

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What’s the Difference Between the History of the Text of the Old Testament and the History of the Text of the New Testament?

The Words of the Bible — Question 2

The goal of textual criticism is to establish the original reading of a text. It is practiced the same way on both the Old Testament and the New Testament. While the same rules are applied in both testaments, each has a different textual history. The differences can be summed up as follows:

The Two Testaments Were Written in Different Languages

To begin with, the two testaments were composed in different languages. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew with a few parts in Aramaic; a language similar to Hebrew.

The New Testament, however, was entirely composed in Greek. It is a language that bears no similarity to either Hebrew or Aramaic. Indeed, Hebrew and Aramaic were written right to left, while Greek, like English, was written left to right.

1. The Books of the Old Testament Were Written Much Earlier

The books of the Old Testament were written between 2,400 and 3,400 years ago. The first book may have been written as early as 1400 B.C. while the last book was written about 400 B.C.

2. The Old Testament Was Written Over a Longer Period of Time

The books of the Old Testament were written over a one thousand year span. In contrast, the New Testament was entirely composed within fifty years, a relatively short period of time.

During the time of the Old Testament, the Hebrew language went through a number of changes. For example, the letters in which the ancient Hebrew alphabet was written were updated about the 5th century B.C. to different looking characters.

In addition, the spelling of certain words in ancient Hebrew was updated as the years went by. This is similar to what has happened to almost every language, including English. Modern readers of English would not be able to read, or understand, the Old English of six or seven centuries ago.

There is something else which must be considered. There were changes in the names of certain biblical places. Cites that had been previously named by their inhabitants had the name changed by later inhabitants.

There was no such problem with the New Testament because of the short time frame which it was composed. There were no changes in the writing of the language or the spelling of words. Geographical references would not change within this short period of time.

3. The Earliest Copies of the New Testament Are Nearer in Time to the Original

There is another difference between the two testaments. The earliest manuscript copy of a book from the Old Testament is some three hundred years after the Old Testament was completed. With respect to the New Testament, there is a small fragment from the gospel of John that may have been copied only twenty years after the gospel was written. From the first three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Christ, some seventy different manuscripts still exist that contain part of the New Testament. In fact, these seventy manuscripts make up about two thirds of the text of the New Testament.

4. The Books of the Old Testament Were Sent to One Geographical Area

The destination of the Old Testament writings was the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. The books were all written by those individuals from the nation Israel and were sent to Israel or Judah.

However, the New Testament writings went to a large geographical area. For example, the writings of Paul went to Gentile churches in Europe and Asia. Thus, the originals of the New Testament were spread out geographically, while the writings of the Old Testament, for the most part, were limited to the geography of Israel.

5. The New Testament Books Often Circulated Individually, or in Groups

When it comes to discovering the text of the New Testament, each individual book has its own textual history. Before the fourth century, the New Testament books circulated as either individual writings, or as a smaller collection of writings such as Paul’s letters or the four gospels. The Book of Acts and the General letters were often transmitted together. The Book of Revelation was usually transmitted by itself. Therefore, many of the manuscripts that we find are part of one New Testament book, or part of a manuscript that originally contained the four gospels, Paul’s writings or Acts and the General letters.

The situation with the Old Testament was different. The sacred works were written upon scrolls and kept in the temple in Jerusalem. They did not circulate as individual writings or in groups of writings in the same way as the New Testament books.

6. Old Testament Scribes Deliberately Destroyed Their Worn Out Manuscripts

When an Old Testament manuscript began to wear out, a new manuscript was copied. The old one was then destroyed or buried. This was to protect the purity of the text. Since the new copy would be an exact representation of the older one, there was no need to keep the older manuscript.

There is no record of New Testament scribes deliberately destroying worn out manuscripts. However, it is possible that some of the first scribes, who were Jews, continued this practice.

These scribes believed that the Old Testament had been supernaturally given by God. It explained where their nation came from and the wonderful future that was promised.

7. Those Who Copied the Old Testament Text Did Their Job with Incredible Precision

From what we know about the practices of Old Testament scribes, we can conclude that they were extremely careful in their copying of Scripture. There were so many safeguards put in place in the copying of the text to insure accuracy.

At the beginning of Israel’s history, the Old Testament text was the responsibility of the priests. The Law of Moses assigned specific responsibility to various Old Testament groups and officials. To the Levites was given the custody or care of the written Scriptures. We read the following in the Book of Deuteronomy:

Moses wrote down all of these laws and teachings and gave them to the priests and the leaders of Israel. The priests were from the Levi tribe, and they carried the sacred chest that belonged to the LORD. (Deuteronomy 31:9 CEV)

As time went on, the responsibility came to a group known as the Sopherim (the counters). They worked from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 100. The Sopherim established an intricate system of safeguards to insure the text would be transmitted accurately.

Two other groups of scribes, the Tannaim and the Amoraim, continued the work of the Sopherim until about A.D. 500.

The standardization of the Hebrew text came from the Masoretes (the traditionalists). They were in charge of transmitting the text between A.D. 600 and 950. During that time the Masoretes added accents and vowel points to the text. They also devised a number of complicated safeguards for the making of copies. They counted virtually everything that could be counted with respect to the Old Testament text.

They are the ones who standardized the text to what we have today. Indeed, the standard text used for the Hebrew Bible is known as the Masoretic text.

First century writer, Flavius Josephus described the care that was taken with the text:

But that our forefathers took no less, not to say even greater care than the nations. I have mentioned in the keeping of their records—a task which they assigned to their chief priests and prophets—and that down to our times these records have been, and if I may venture to say so, will continue to be, preserved with scrupulous accuracy. I will now endeavor to briefly demonstrate. (Josephus, Against Apion, 1.6)

Therefore, because of the unbroken history of Hebrew scribes copying the sacred text, we have every reason to assume that the Old Testament text of today is an accurate representation of the original.

8. Most of the Text of the New Testament Was Written While All the Authors Were Still Alive

The situation is a little different with respect to the New Testament. Since the entire New Testament was written within one generation, the authors were alive when the other books were being composed. This is in contrast to the Old Testament writers who, for the most part, did not know each other.

At the beginning, the people were more interested in hearing a live apostle relate their experiences with Jesus rather than reading about the apostle’s experiences. Once the New Testament writers began to die, there was more attention paid to the copying of their writings.

While the New Testament scribes did not employ the same type of safeguards in copying the text, we can be confident that the text has been transmitted accurately. At the beginning of the church age, some of the copies of New Testament documents were made by ordinary people rather than by professional scribes. Consequently, they would make some simple copying errors.

However, these copying errors were minor and did not alter the text or its meaning. We know this because every New Testament manuscript that has been discovered reads basically the same. Indeed, there are no great differences in the manuscripts.

There is something else. The writings of the New Testament contained authoritative teaching for the church. This fact would cause the people to be as careful as possible in copying the text. Since many of the early believers were Jews, we can be assured that they treated the writings with the same reverence as the Old Testament documents. As God’s authoritative Word, the teachings of Jesus Christ were just as authoritative as the Old Testament writings.

In addition, when the church experienced an Empire-wide persecution at the beginning of the fourth century, they undertook to hide copies of the Scripture. Rather than revealing the location of the hidden texts to the authorities, many believers paid with their lives. This gives another indication of the reverence and respect the early church had for the New Testament Scripture.

Professional scribes were eventually employed in the church. When the Roman Emperor, Constantine, became a Christian, he ordered fifty copies of the New Testament to be produced by professional scribes. From that time on, we have a more complete understanding of the history of the New Testament text.

9. Old Testament Scribes Kept Records of Variant Readings

There is another difference between the text of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament. The Old Testament scribes would make notes of different readings which were found among the manuscripts. These different readings are known as variants. While they would not change the text, they would note certain variations that were found.

However, the New Testament scribes made no record of variations in the text. They would, however, make notations and corrections in the manuscripts. Some of the more important New Testament manuscripts were proofread and corrected. For example, Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth century manuscript that contains the entire New Testament, had at least eight proofreaders and correctors.

10. There Are Fewer Old Testament Manuscripts That Still Exist

Because of the Jewish practice of destroying worn out copies, there are relatively fewer Old Testament manuscripts that exist when compared to the New Testament. However, because of their precise copying practices, we can be confident that these fewer manuscripts that still exist are faithful representatives of the original. Still, the total number of existing Old Testament manuscripts is in the thousands.

The case is different with the New Testament. The problem with almost all ancient writings is the lack of existing manuscripts to reconstruct the text. Most ancient writings have the slimmest manuscript evidence by which scholars attempt to establish the original. In the case of the New Testament, however, there is no such problem. We are not lacking manuscripts to reconstruct the text.

On the contrary, we have such an abundance of manuscripts that it makes the establishment of the text virtually certain. The total number of manuscripts of the New Testament that still exist is nearly thirty thousand.

To sum up the difference: the Old Testament was copied with more care than the New Testament and therefore has fewer variant readings. While the Old Testament was completed some four hundred years before the time of Christ, the manuscripts that still exist are generally better than those of the New Testament. When all the evidence is in, we find that there is sufficient reason to trust the text from both testaments.

Summary – Question 3
What’s the Difference Between the History of the Text of the Old Testament and the History of the Text of the New Testament?

While textual criticism needs to be practiced on both testaments, there is a big difference between the history of Old Testament textual criticism and New Testament textual criticism.

For one thing, the books of the Old Testament were written from 2,400 to 3,400 years ago while the earliest New Testament book was written less than two thousand years ago. The Old Testament was written over a span of one thousand years while the New Testament was written within fifty years.

The books of the Old Testament were written to one geographical area. However, the books of the New Testament were sent to various areas of the Roman Empire. The New Testament books circulated individually or in small groups such as Paul’s letters or the gospels. The Old Testament books were not circulated or copied in this manner.

There was also the practice among the Hebrews of destroying old or worn out copies of Scripture. There is no record of this happening among New Testament scribes. The Old Testament scribes put in place a number of safeguards to guarantee the accuracy of the text. The New Testament scribes did not resort to the same type of extraordinary measures.

All of the New Testament writers lived at the same time, while the Old Testament writers, for the most part, did not know each other. Old Testament scribes kept records of the variant readings in the text, while the New Testament scribes made corrections in existing manuscripts.

Finally, there are relatively few Hebrew manuscripts to reconstruct the Old Testament compared to the abundance of material to reconstruct the Greek New Testament. Yet, the Hebrew manuscripts still number in the thousands.

What Is Textual Criticism? Why Is the Textual Criticism of the Bible Necessary? ← Prior Section
Why Don’t We Possess Any of the Original Manuscripts of the Books of the Bible? Next Section →

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