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Are the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Manuscripts Reliable? A Blast From the Past

A reader has perspicaciously pointed out to me that a particularly relevant post from three years ago (June 7, 2013) makes an important contribution to the topic I’ve been discussing about the Pentateuch.  This post is not about whether the events described in the Hebrew Bible are accurate, but whether we have accurate manuscripts of these accounts.  I talk a lot on the blog about manuscripts of the New Testament.  What about manuscripts of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible?  My post back then was in response to a question.  Here it is in full:



Bart, these issues you’ve found in the New Testament, have you studied and found similar issues in the Old Testament?”


Yes indeed!   Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) was my secondary field in my PhD program, and I taught Introduction to Hebrew Bible at both Rutgers and UNC.   A few years ago when I decided to write my Introduction to the Bible I decided that to do it right I had to re-tool in Hebrew Bible.  I’m by no means an expert, but I have caught up on a good deal of scholarship and re-learned Hebrew (I hadn’t read it in years).  I try to read some Hebrew Bible every morning; I’m not great at it, but I can slog through with a dictionary…..

So, I think it’s fair to say that the problems that I have talked about in my publications about the New Testament are even more pronounced for the Hebrew Bible.   I think I will take three of the big issues (I’m happy to address others if there are any questions people have – that I can answer!) and devote a brief post to each one.

In this post: The textual situation.   My book Misquoting Jesus was about how we do not have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament, but only copies made later – in most cases many centuries later, so that there are some places where specialists cannot agree on what the text originally said, and there are some places where we’ll probably never know.   The situation is much worse for the Hebrew Bible.  Much much worse.

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The Emperor Constantine: Some Background
Suggestions for Further Reading on the Pentateuch



  1. Avatar
    rap2016  December 25, 2016

    I don’t know of any text or manuscript that actually mentions a “Jesus Christ”,,,,,,Anything could have been written by the second century, corrupted, altered, edited and reedited during the years.
    We all know that if there was such a person, no one, NO ONE, wrote anything down about him, by his contemporaries.
    I have this discussion with my Christian friends and I am able to show a reasonable and logical argument that such a person did not exist. There are for example many other Saviours that we know of that posses similar motifs to Jesus, like for example Horus, Krishna, Mithra in fact there were SIXTEEN of the worlds crucified Saviours read Kersay Graves of that title “The worlds sixteen cricified saviours” and Jesus is the last one.
    I would also suggest one reads “The Invention of the Jewish People” by Shlomo Sands a University lecturer in Israel, he claims there never was a Jewish people at that time. He writes that the literalisation of the bible is a Zionist propaganda campaign started by Theodor Herzl 1864 to 1937 and Nathan Burbauim 1864 to 1937 that resulted in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. There is more to this but one would have to do their own research. The truth is there if you take time to investigate.

    The true message of Christianity has been lost.

    The bible is now a political propaganda machine that creates revenue for the Catholic Church, Bible Colleges and the clergy that also draw a handsome salary and other benefits from sustaining this deception

    Do not take my word do your own research…………………………..

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      I’m not sure if you’ve ever read the book by Graves, but it is a giant mass of ignorance. He really has no clue what he’s talking about. In any event, if you are interested in an alternative view, you might see the data I amass in my book Did Jesus Exist?

  2. Avatar
    rap2016  December 27, 2016

    hello Bart
    It would be helpful if your book can be made available on Kindle, that way I can down load immediately. I am in a non speak English Country and having books delivered via the U.K. takes a long time. I have read the review and I am tempted to purchase and read your findings. However, there is not much doubt that the Bible is a wash with Astrological Motifs. You are critical of the Late Acharya S, D M Murdock, I would like to defend her. The number twelve occurs many times KJV 1611
    John 11:9 ……are there not TWELVE hours in the day…….
    John 6:13……and filled TWELVE baskets………
    Luke 2:42……..and when he was TWELVE years old
    Matthew 10:5 …….these TWELVE Jesus sent forth…..
    Revelation 21:21………and the TWELVE gates
    James 1:1……….to the TWELVE tribes………
    There are many more but here is a few, There are too many instances of the number twelve to be genuine. Real life does not happen like that.
    This is clearly an Astrological Motif to the twelve months of the year. It doesn’t stop there. The number 3 is repeated many times……
    Matthew 12:40……..Jonah was THREE days and THREE nights……
    Matthew 13:33…….and hid in THREE measures of meal………..
    Matthew 15:32……..continue with me now THREE days…..
    Matthew 17:4…….THREE tabernacles…………
    Matthew 18:20………where two or THREE are gathered together
    Matthew 27:63……….after THREE days I will rise again……
    Again too many instances to be simply coincidental. The three is a reference to the winter solstice when the Sun sets to its lowest point on the 22 of December, 23 and 24 the Sun remains low. But on the 25th December the Sun is born again because it begins to get higher in the sky hence its astrological rebirth on the 25th.
    The number THIRTY occurs 186 times in the 1611 KJV. Clearly another Astrological Motif.

    Here are other ones.
    John 9:5 …as long as I am in the world I am the light of the world…….
    Mark 13:26…….coming in the clouds……..
    Matthew 28:20 ..I am with you always to the end of AGE
    Matthew 13:39……the harvest is the end of AGE……
    Jesus is the SUN of God here, a pagan title, hijacked by early Christians and changed to Jesus is the Son of God.
    Ladies and Gentlemen please do your own research and do not take my word. There is clear Astrological similarities.

    If there was a “Jesus” then he is most certainly lost to us and nothing like that portrayed in the gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2016

      The significance of numbers in the Bible has long been known (off the top of my head I can give dozens of examples! As I’m sure can others on the blog). It has no bearing on the question of whether there was a man Jesus.

  3. Avatar
    brianmiller  December 13, 2017

    Dr Ehrman-
    On one of the Ehrman Podcasts, you recommended two books on the historicity of the OT – if I recall correctly, you were responding to a question you commonly get to recommend books that treat the OT as you do the NT. I have gone back and tried to find that nugget of info, but have thus far failed. Please, what are those two books you recommended?

    Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2017

      The two I usually recomment are Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, and Silverstein and Finkelstein, Unearthing the Bible.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 13, 2017

        Who Wrote the bible, revised edition

  4. Avatar
    Malik  January 5, 2018

    I just find it amazing that an older revelation’s complete manuscript is coming later in the 10th century while a newer revelation’s complete manuscript is in the 4th century AD. Shouldn’t it be logical and reasonable that the complete text of the Old testament come before the NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2018

      It would be, except for the fact that Jewish scribes in the middle ages destroyed the exemplars they were copying.

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