Decision interviewed one of the foremost experts on the Old Testament, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., about its enduring trustworthiness and historical accuracy. Kaiser is president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in South Hamilton, Mass.; a professor of Old Testament and archaeology; noted author; and former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. The following Q&A is adapted from the interview.
Q: How did your love for studying the Old Testament—and defending its reliability—begin?
A: When I was in the 10th grade at a public high school outside of Philadelphia, my biology teacher told our class, “Genesis is a myth.” I came from a very conservative, fundamental background, and I said, “I’ve never heard that before. You can’t say that.” He said he could do so scientifically, so I asked if I could write a paper for the course about creation and evolution. My teacher agreed, and the paper turned out to be 47 pages. He gave me an “A” for the course, but all he ever said about the paper was that it was very interesting.
Q: Now, many years later, how certain do you believe we can be that the Old Testament is reliable in all it teaches?
A: We can be certain because fact after fact, situation after situation, has proven its reliability to be on the money. It’s on the mark.
Q: How strong is the archaeological evidence?
A: Archaeology has been an enormous help because in case after case where scholars have said something was impossible or wrong, their positions have invariably been proven incorrect.
They questioned the existence of Sargon, king of Assyria, who’s spoken of in Isaiah 20:1. Some kings’ palaces had been dug up, but none for Sargon. Then an archaeologist got the idea to go across the Tigris River, and they found 15 acres with a palace inscribed with “I am Sargon who conquered Samaria.”
Not only have we found “missing persons” like that, proof has also been found for “missing events.” For example, we found Sodom and Gomorrah. There were gravesite charnels [burial buildings] that had been destroyed by fire burning from the top down, suggesting—as the Old Testament does—that fire and brimstone fell on them and that it wasn’t a fire that had been set below. That’s the kind of thing we’ve been running into constantly.
Q: How is the validity of the Old Testament supported by manuscripts that have been found over the centuries?
A: The Dead Sea Scrolls are a great example. The largest scroll found was a complete Isaiah scroll. One of my teachers, Harry Orlinsky, helped translate that text for the Revised Standard Version. After reviewing the scrolls, he said he found only three words that were different [comparing the Isaiah scroll with transcripts from 1,000 years later]. That’s in over 100 pages [of the Book of Isaiah] that appear in most English translations of the Bible. And the differences were akin to the English spelling of Savior from -ior to -iour. There were very minor things like that, which is remarkable considering the early scrolls were done by hand.
Q: How is the unifying message of the Old Testament significant to its reliability?
A: There is a great unifying theme that Israel is the nation that God called and gave a promise to. The New Testament uses the word promise to refer to the theology of the Old Testament. It is the word God gave ahead of time about what He said He would do. God gave a promise to Abraham about his seed, about the land and about blessing. This is emphasized throughout Scripture. God set His love on Israel, yet those people who were the most favored turned out to be resistant to Him. But His promises still held, including the promised Messiah. He’s not a God who lies. That’s what carries through the whole Old Testament.
Q: How do the Messianic prophecies, like in Isaiah 53, give evidence of the reliability of the Old Testament?
A: I count 73 direct Messianic prophecies that are straightforward. You can take it literally: He will be born in Bethlehem, He will die on a cross, they will spit on Him and mock Him and raffle His clothes. If you want to know how to interpret the Bible, look at how many times it can be interpreted literally with regard to the Messiah and that great passage in Isaiah 53. It said they would make His grave with the rich. Well, yes, Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, gave his tomb for Jesus. That chapter just goes on and on with one straightforward identification after another that you can take literally as to what would actually happen.
Q: How would you respond to someone who said, “I’ve got the Gospel, I’ve got the New Testament, so what does the Old Testament mean to me and my life?”
A: The Old Testament carries the record of the majestic works of God in which He provides proof of His character, the evidence of His love and the promise that He’s going to conclude history like He began it. The conclusion will center on the people He chose from the beginning, just to show that He is Lord and that He hasn’t squelched on the deal, gone back on it, or made up fake news. He is who He says He is.
Interviewed by Charles Chandler, assistant editor, Decision.