The Old Testament is the first, longer portion of the Christian Bible. It is the term used by Christians to refer to the Jewish scriptures, or Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament is not one book written by a single author, but a collection of ancient texts written and re-written by numerous authors and editors for hundreds of years. They tell the story of the ancient Israelites, or Hebrew people, and contain the laws and rituals that comprise their religion. For Jews, the collection comprises the Torah—the law for worship and everyday living—as well as the history of God’s promise to them. For Christians, the Old Testament is also sacred, but they view its religious meaning as incomplete without the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as related in the New Testament. Muslims trace their religious roots to some of the figures in the Old Testament, although they deny the religious significance of the work as a whole. In general, the Old Testament is essential to the way Western civilization has long thought and talked about God, as well as ethics, justice, and the nature of the world.

In its current form, the collection of the Old Testament books was completed by the first century b.c. The individual books themselves, however, are much more ancient—some dating to the tenth and eleventh centuries b.c. or earlier. Because these works purport to tell the history of human origins, many of the events occur much earlier and cannot be historically verified. Later interactions between the nation of Israel and the ancient world, however, can be verified, and historians use these dates to approximate the biblical events. It is estimated that the chronology of the Old Testament covers more than 1500 years, from approximately 2000 b.c. to 400 b.c.

The setting of the Old Testament is the ancient Near East (or Middle East), extending from Mesopotamia in the northeast (modern-day Iraq) down to the Nile River in Egypt in the southwest. The majority of the events take place in Palestine, the ancient land of Canaan—the eastern Mediterranean region stretching seventy-five miles west from the sea and marked by the Jordan River Valley, which runs down the heart of the mountainous land. Situated between the sprawling Egyptian Empire to the south and the Hittite and Babylonian Empires to the north and east, the area was an important trade route in the second millennium b.c. A variety of peoples, mostly nomadic herding communities, scattered the plains. They established small fortified cities, worshipped various deities, and farmed. The inhospitable region prevented any one nation from dominating the area, but the inhabitants were generally called “Canaanite,” speaking versions of a common Semitic language, including the languages now known as Hebrew and Arabic.

Very little is known about the early existence of the Israelites outside of the biblical story. In fact, there are no references to Israel in ancient texts prior to 1200 b.c. The Old Testament explains that the Hebrew people (the term used for the Israelites by non-Israelites) were the descendants of a Semitic man named Abraham, who moved to the land of Canaan in obedience to God. Ancient references to a group of outcasts and refugees known as habiru exist, but there is little evidence to indicate that these were the Hebrew people. The biblical story tells how the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt for many years, and how they miraculously emigrated to Canaan, where they conquered the land and its people in a sweeping military campaign. If true, modern scholars believe this migration may refer to the thirteenth or twelfth century b.c., when a vast upheaval probably occurred in the urban communities of the Canaanite region. However, it is unlikely that a violent or swift conquest by the Israelites took place. Historians believe that the Israelites may have been a part of a gradual, peaceful resettlement, or even a peasant uprising.

The glory of the Israelites in the Old Testament is the vast, united kingdom of David and his son, Solomon, who established a royal capital in Jerusalem, erected a grand temple, and expanded Israel’s borders to the Euphrates River. According to the order of biblical events, David and Solomon’s kingdoms probably existed around the tenth century b.c. The historical existence of such an Israelite empire is unclear; but after this point, the nation of Israel began to surface in the events of the ancient Near East. The Old Testament describes the tragic division of Israel into two kingdoms and the litany of evil kings who eventually caused the Israelites’ demise at the hands of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. Historical evidence corroborates some of these events. The northern area of Israel was captured by the Assyrian Empire in 722–720 b.c. The southern area of Israel, called “Judah,” was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the legendary city of Jerusalem and its temple from 589–586 b.c. A large population of Israel’s upper class—including artisans, rulers, and religious leaders—were exiled and resettled in Babylonian territory.

The period of the Israelites’ exile proved extremely important to the formation of Judaism as an organized religion. The Jewish community’s need to retain its identity in a foreign land prompted great theological and literary developments. Much of the Old Testament, especially the religious laws and prophecy, was written whole-cloth or rewritten and edited at this time. The experience of the exile caused the Old Testament writers to define the Torah, or God’s laws, and to emphasize biblical themes like suffering and the reversal of fortune. When Babylon fell to the Persian Empire in 539 b.c., the Persian king Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. The biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah (neither of which are discussed in this study guide) document the return of the Jews to Jerusalem under Ezra’s leadership, sometime around 460–400 b.c. The impoverished Jews rebuilt Jerusalem and erected a second temple, identifying themselves as a religious community and following the laws of the Torah.

Israel’s history and geography is thus crucial to an appropriate understanding of the Old Testament. The region in which the biblical events take place was an area of constant ethnic and political change. The Old Testament depicts the Israelites as a separate and enduring entity throughout this change—a race of Hebrew people descended from one man, possessing a divine right to the land, and distinguishable from the surrounding peoples by its monotheism, or worship of one god. Whether or not these claims are true, the Israelites certainly existed as a people, and the Old Testament remains one of the most vivid pictures of the historical, religious, and literary life of the ancient Near East.

As a work of literature, the Old Testament contains many literary forms, including narrative and poetry, as well as legal material and genealogies. Critics often use terms such as epic, myth, and legend to classify the biblical stories, as well as describing the heroes, dialogue, and symbols within the text as examples of its literary qualities. Such concepts represent modern and classical ways of understanding literature and were most likely foreign to the authors of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the Old Testament itself greatly influenced the way Western civilization has thought about literature and stories. As a result, describing the biblical stories through literary terminology remains an important way of understanding the significance of the Old Testament as literature.

Structure and Composition

The Old Testament contains thirty-six books, three of which are separated into two volumes, rendering a total of thirty-nine individual books. The Hebrew Bible divides the books into three main categories: the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings. In addition to the Old Testament books accepted as scripture by Jews and Protestants, Catholics consider seven “deuterocanonical” books to be scripture. Because the authors of the Old Testament books are largely unknown, scholars believe that the final form of the books indicates the work of “redactors,” or editors, who performed a practice common in ancient near eastern literature. The redactors combined previously existing writings, oral traditions, and folktales, and added their own material, to compose the completed books. Often, the redactors attributed a book or a group of books to a significant biblical figure to add validity to their work.

The Pentateuch (Greek for “five scrolls”) comprises the first five books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The collection of books was probably in its final form by the fourth century b.c. The Pentateuch represents the most important section of biblical narrative. It explains the origins of the human race and the rise of the Israelites, including the Israelites’ miraculous emigration from Egypt. More than half of the Pentateuch is devoted to God’s laws and commandments to Israel. Jews call these books the Torah, or law, because of its religious precepts and for the model of ethical behavior that the leading characters prescribe.

Moses, the hero of the Pentateuch, was traditionally assumed to be the work’s author. However, modern scholars describe the Pentateuch as the time-worn product of four ancient writers and editors, each of whom revised and expanded existing work. Scholars label the unknown contributors “J,” “E,” “P,” and “D,” and identify “J” as the oldest writer, a scribe in King David’s court. Different parts of the narrative and laws in the Pentateuch are ascribed to each contributor based on differences in the style and theology of the text.

The second category of Old Testament books comprises the Prophets. Many of these works were composed during or after Israel’s exile in the sixth and fifth centuries b.c. The books can be divided into two further categories: the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Former Prophets are sometimes called the “Historical Books” because they continue the story of the Israelites from the death of Moses to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. The four works—Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings—follow the Pentateuch in the Christian Bible. Scholars sometimes surmise that, together, these books represent the work of a single, unknown editor labeled the “Deuteronomist,” who combined separate stories and added work of his own to form a coherent history of the Israelites. The Latter Prophets (which are not covered in this study guide) include the fifteen books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and twelve “Minor Prophets.” Written before or during the Israelites’ exile, these difficult works include sayings and oracles about Israel’s downfall, its salvation from exile, and theology.

The Writings denotes the final category of the Hebrew Bible, collected in its present form around the first century b.c. Some of these books are later works chiefly concerned with Israel’s history during and after the exile, such as Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah (most of which are not covered in this study guide). With the exception of Ruth and the two books of Chronicles, the remaining books—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon—represent the biblical books of poetry and wisdom and are placed after the Historical Books in the Christian Bible. Some are quite ancient, and many represent collections of traditional poems and sayings attributed by a later editor to King David or King Solomon.

Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox versions of the Old Testament contain an additional category of books called the “deuterocanonical writings,” or “Apocrypha”. These fifteen books were included in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures translated by scribes in Alexandria, Egypt, between the third and first centuries b.c. The Apocrypha contains additional works of poetry and wisdom and, more importantly, stories about Israel during the Greek and Roman periods. These works were not included in the Hebrew Bible, but they were included in the canon, or list, of Old Testament books accepted by the early Christian church. They were later excluded from Protestant versions of the Old Testament following the Reformation in the sixteenth century a.d., and are not included in this study guide.