The Old Testament is the Christian term for the Hebrew Bible, a collection of religious writings by ancient Israelites that form the first section of the Christian Bible, to which were added a second collection of writings referred to as the New Testament. The books included in the Old Testament (the Old Testament canon) varies markedly between Christian denominations; Protestants accept only the official Jewish Hebrew Bible canon as their ‘Old Testament’ but divide it into 39 books, while Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian churches accept a considerably larger collection of writings in their ‘Old Testament’ canon.
The books can be broadly divided into several sections: 1) the Pentateuch (Torah), which to the Jewish people is the most important of all the books as it is believed to have been directly dictated by God to the Israelite people so he can tell humanity about himself, how he created all things, and to give the Laws he required to be followed by humans, and enumerates stories of the people God chose to be his chosen people; 2) the history books telling the history of the Israelites, from their conquest of Canaan to their defeat and exile in Babylon; 3) the poetic and “Wisdom” books dealing, in various forms, with questions of good and evil in the world; 4) and the books of the biblical prophets, warning of the consequences of turning away from God.
For the Israelites, who were the authors and followers of these writings, the writings told of the Jews’ unique relationship with God and their relationship with proselytes, but the overarching messianic nature of Christianity has led Christians from the very beginning of the faith to see the Old Testament as a preparation for the New Covenant and New Testament.
THE OLD TESTAMENT
God is consistently depicted as the one who created or put into order the world and guides its history. Although he is not consistently presented as the only god who exists, he is always depicted as the only god whom Israel is to worship, and both Jews and Christians have always interpreted the bible as an affirmation of the oneness of God.
The Old Testament stresses the special relationship between God and his chosen people, Israel, but includes instructions for proselytes as well. This relationship is expressed in the biblical covenant (contract) between the two, received by Moses. The law codes in books such as Exodus and especially Deuteronomy are the terms of the contract: Israel swears faithfulness to Yahweh, and God swears to be Israel’s special protector and supporter.
Further themes in the Old Testament include salvation, redemption, judgment, obedience and disobedience, faith and faithfulness, among others. Throughout there is a strong emphasis on ethics and ritual purity, both of which God demands, although some of the prophets and wisdom writers seem to question this, arguing that God demands social justice above purity, and perhaps does not even care about purity at all. The Old Testament’s moral code enjoins fairness, intervention on behalf of the vulnerable, and the duty of those in power to administer justice righteously. It forbids murder, bribery and corruption, deceitful trading, and many sexual misdemeanors. All morality is traced back to God, who is the source of all goodness.
The problem of evil plays a large part in the Old Testament. The problem the Old Testament authors faced was that a good God must have had just reason for bringing disaster (meaning notably, but not only, the Babylonian exile) upon his people. The theme is played out, with many variations, in books as different as the histories of Kings and Chronicles, the prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and in the wisdom books like Job and Ecclesiastes.
SOME OF THE FACTS ABOUT THE OLD TESTAMENT.
The Old Testament contains 39 (Protestant) or 46 (Catholic) or more (Orthodox and other) books, divided, very broadly, into the Pentateuch (Torah), the historical books, the “wisdom” books and the prophets.
The first five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy – comprise the Torah, the story of Israel from the Genesis creation narrative to the death of Moses. Few scholars today doubt that it reached its present form in the Persian period (538–332 BC), and that its authors were the elite of exilic returnees who controlled the Temple at that time.
The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings follow, forming a history of Israel from the Conquest of Canaan to the Siege of Jerusalem c. 587 BC. There is a broad consensus among scholars that these originated as a single work (the so-called “Deuteronomistic history”) during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC. The two Books of Chronicles cover much the same material as the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic history and probably date from the 4th century BC.
Chronicles links with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were probably finished during the 3rd century BC. Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments contain two (Catholic Old Testament) to four (Orthodox) Books of Maccabees, written in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.
The history books make up around half the total content of the Old Testament. Of the remainder, the books of the various prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and the twelve “minor prophets” – were written between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, with the exceptions of Jonah and Daniel, which were written much later. The “wisdom” and other books – Job, Proverbs and so on – date from between the 5th century BC and the 2nd or 1st BC, with the exception of some of the Psalms.
The name “Old Testament” reflects Christianity’s understanding of itself as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophesy of a New Covenant (which is similar to “testament” and often conflated) to replace the existing covenant between God and Israel (Jeremiah 31:31). The emphasis, however, has shifted from Judaism’s understanding of the covenant as an eternal contract between God and Israel to one between God and those who are “in Christ”.
1. Jones 2001, p. 215.
2. Barton 2001, p. 3.
3. Boadt 1984, pp. 11, 15–16.
4. The Apocrypha, Bridge of the Testaments (PDF), Orthodox Anglican, “Two of the hymns used in the American Prayer Book office of Morning Prayer, the Benedictus es and Benedicite, are taken from the Apocrypha. One of the offertory sentences in Holy Communion comes from an apocryphal book (Tob. 4: 8–9). Lessons from the Apocrypha are regularly appointed to be read in the daily, Sunday, and special services of Morning and Evening Prayer. There are altogether 111 such lessons in the latest revised American Prayer Book Lectionary [Books used are: II Esdras, Tobit, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Three Holy Children, and I Maccabees.]”