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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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bible: The Old Testament!