How was the Old
Testament PRESERVED?

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After centuries of making countless copies have hundreds of ERRORS crept into the text of the Old Testament? Are exact copies of the Bible possible? Did ancient Israel have a master copy of the Old Testament and, if so, WHERE did they put it? Are the sixty-six (66) books of the Bible in their CORRECT, original order? How many books were in the originally inspired Old Testament canon?

This article briefly examines how the Old Testament scriptures were preserved throughout history and whether or not we can place our trust in what we read.

The correct order

The order in which the original manuscripts of the Bible were arranged are DIFFERENT than the order we are familiar with today in translations such as the King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), New International Version (NIV), New American Standard (NASB) and others.

Research contained in a recent translation of the scriptures states the following about the origin of the order now widely used for Old Testament books.

"In all translations of the "Protestant Bible" - such as the Geneva Version, the King James Version and other versions without the Apocrypha - the first five books of the Old Testament are in the proper manuscript order.

"However, the remainder of the Old Testament books are arranged in an ECCLESIASTICAL order devised by Jerome in the fourth century A.D. when he translated the Bible into Latin . . . Jerome freely acknowledged that the original manuscript order of the Aaronic / Levitical Old Testament was composed of twenty-two (22 is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet) Hebrew books . . . (The Holy Bible in Its Original Order, Second Edition, page 1)

Jerome did not follow the inspired book order he received. Instead, he decided to mimic the order of a 3rd century B.C. Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint.

Timeline of the
Old Testament
Kings of Ancient
Israel and Judah
Map showing
location of Old
Testament Events
Preservation of the
Old Testament Timeline
Map of Palestine
at the time
of Israel's Judges
The world as
known to the Hebrews map

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,
Numbers, Deuteronomy


Former Prophets
(one book)

Joshua, Judges


Psalms, Proverbs, Job,
Song of Solomon, Ruth,
Lamentations, Ecclesiastes,
Esther, Daniel

Book of the Kingdoms
(one book)

1Samuel, 2Samuel,
1Kings, 2Kings

Ezra, Nehemiah
(one book)

1Chronicles, 2Chronicles
(one book)

The Latter or
Major Prophets

Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah

Minor Prophets
(one book)

Amos, Habakkuk, Haggai,
Hosea, Joel, Jonah, Malachi,
Micah, Nahum, Obadiah,
Zechariah, Zephaniah

No less than Jesus HIMSELF confirms that there were three main sections of the Old Testament:

"Then He said to them, 'These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the LAW of Moses and the PROPHETS and the PSALMS (or Writings) concerning Me.'" (Luke 24:44)

Major and Minor Prophets
The designation of a prophet's writings as MAJOR or MINOR is based on the length of their book in relation to other Old Testament prophetic writings.

The MAJOR prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel have sixty-six (66), fifty-two (52) and forty-eight (48) chapters, respectively. The writings of these prophets are significantly longer than those of the MINOR Prophets, whose two largest books, Hosea and Zechariah, each have only fourteen (14) chapters.

Have ERRORS crept in?

Skeptics have pointed out that the oldest extant version of the Old Testament is less than 1,500 years old. They state that, after centuries of copies, errors HAD to have crept into the original language text used to create a Bible translation.

This point is well taken. The argument reminds one of the game where about twenty children sit, in a circle. The first one whispers a sentence into the ear of the second child. The second child whispers the same message into the ear of the third child. The message is whispered all the way around the circle. By the time it reaches the ear of the last child, it is usually a totally different message than what came out of the mouth of the first child. The accurate preservation of the Bible should be a concern for all Christians.

Biblical Preservation begins

Note that the start of what we call Biblical preservation began with Moses.:

24 Moses wrote God’s Law in a book, taking care not to leave out anything. 25 When he finished, he said to the Levitical priests, who were in charge of the Lord’s Covenant Box (ark of the covenant'), 26 'Take this book of God’s Law and place it beside the Covenant Box (ark of covenant) of the Lord your God, so that it will remain there as a witness against his people. (Deuteronomy 31:24-26).

The tribe of Levi was charged to protect the Scriptures. Starting at the time of Moses Israel's religious leaders zealously preserved the writings that would become the Old Testament.

Joshua also told the children of Israel to place special emphasis on God's words (Joshua 8:34). As a side note, many people assume that Paul wrote more of the Bible than any other servant of God. Actually, Paul wrote more books than anyone else, but Moses wrote more in terms of volume. Each of Moses' five books are much longer than any of Paul's smaller books. All in all, Moses wrote about three times more raw material than Paul.

God knew that eventually the Israelites would want to be ruled by a king that was human, so he gave them instructions on what the new king should do. Any new king was required to write for himself a copy of God's law so that he could study it all his life and observe what it said (Deuteronomy 17:18-19).

Making exact copies

Israel's reverence of God's word spurred them to create a copying system which is truly amazing! They understood it would be very easy to make copying mistakes. They solved the problem of human errors creeping into the text by creating a set of copying rules, only some of which are below.

  • Completed scrolls had the words counted and compared to the original
  • Every line on a given page had to be exactly the same in number of words, etc. as the original

  • After a copy was made the total number of letters on a page were counted, then a comparison was made with the original

  • Copies had to be made letter by letter. Copying word by word or even sentence by sentence was not allowed.

  • When the copy was completed another person was required to verify the middle letter of both the original and the copy were the same.

  • A third person was also used to verify the middle word of the original and copy were exactly the same.

As if these checks were not enough, when a scroll was finished a different person would count phrases.

These men had no worry whatsoever that there might have been an error. For that reason, they felt to keep older copies.

Ancient Copiers

A copy of God's word was always kept in the temple, inside the Ark of the Covenant. It was ancient Israel's master copy of God's word.

Even after the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C. the scrolls containing God's words were preserved. While in Babylonian captivity some Levites, who would eventually take on the title of Scribe, painstakingly copied and distributed the words of God to fellow captives. During the captivity a prophet named Ezra greatly enhanced and advanced the study of the Bible. Assisted by fellow priests and Levites of the Great Assembly or Synagogue, they completed the final editing and canonization of what we call the Old Testament in the late fifth century B.C. Scribes, even after Jews returned to the land after their captivity, continued the tradition of preserving the Scriptures.

By the time Jesus was born, the Scribes had become so obsessed with counting the jots and tittles that they forgot the very messages that were in the sentences they were transcribing! Their obsession with detail caused Christ to condemn them for their over zealousness (Matthew 23:23).

Scribes continued their time-honored work even after the second temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.

The right books

To find our answer, we begin by noting that we do not have to research all the way back to the nation of Israel, the original authors, and the preservers of the text. We only have to go back to the time of Jesus.

If the Jews during the time of Christ's earthly ministry were using the wrong books, He would have mentioned it and the Gospel writers would have recorded it. But as we pointed out earlier, Luke 24:44 puts Jesus' stamp of approval on the Old Testament that was utilized by the Jews of His time.

Jesus made many references to Old Testament events. He talked about the Creation epic and the Flood. He talked about, men such as Abel, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and others. He talked about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Christ had no problem whatsoever with the Old Testament canon that existed in His time and which was continued long after his death.

In conclusion

God insured that the Old Testament would be preserved. No English translation, however, is perfect. For this reason, we should look at several translations when we have difficulty in understanding a particular verse.

Additional Study Materials
Important People
in the Old Testament
 Where was ancient
Israel taken captive?
How can you MARK your Bible
for EFFECTIVE Bible Studies?
What do King James Bible
words and phrases mean TODAY?
How many times are Old Testament scriptures quoted in the NEW? 
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