The ancient collection of books considered sacred by Jews and Christians is known by the Jews as the Hebrew Bible and by the Christians as the Old Testament. Most of the books were written in classical Hebrew, and about two-thirds are prose and one-third are poetry. The Old Testament, along with the New Testament, forms the Christian Bible, but the Jewish Bible does not add any further books. Christianity and Judaism share a majority of the books in each of their Bibles. For example, all the books in the Jewish Bible are in the Christian Old Testament. The Jewish Bible contains twenty-four books divided into the three sections of Torah (Law/Teachings), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Kethuvim (Writings). These categories only roughly describe the actual content of the books. For example, the book of Joshua, which is considered part of the Prophets section, describes the Israelites’ conquest of the land of Canaan; no prophet is mentioned. Furthermore, the book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah (and the Bible), does not contain many laws or teachings.
The Christian Old Testament appears in several forms according to varying Christian traditions. Protestants have the shortest Old Testament, corresponding with the Jewish Bible in content but not order. For example, the book of Ruth is found in the Writings section of the Jewish Bible because of its late date of composition; however, it is located after Judges in the Christian Old Testament because the story of Ruth is set during the time of the Judges. The Roman Catholic Old Testament contains several additional books such as the Tobit and Wisdom of Solomon, but Protestants consider these books nonauthoritative and label them Apocrypha (a Greek word meaning “hidden away”). The Greek Orthodox Old Testament boasts an even larger collection of books.
These varying lists of biblical books demonstrate that not all Christians—throughout history and in the modern world—consider the same books to be authoritative. In fact, during the early, formative period of Christianity, different canons, or lists of inspired books, developed. The word “canon” comes from a Greek word that means “measuring stick,” but in Christianity it took on a metaphorical definition of “boundary” or “list.” The Old Testament was canonized in stages, and the process concluded sometime around the destruction of the second Jewish temple in 70 c.e. However, Christians throughout the ages have ignored various biblical books and thereby created a canon within a canon.
The Old Testament contains numerous types and genres of literature. There are narratives such as the Joseph story in Genesis 37-50; songs like the ancient Song of the Sea in Exodus 15; poems like the love poem of the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) or the lament poems found in Lamentations; prophecy like Isaiah 11; proverbs like the book of Proverbs; short stories like the book of Ruth; genealogies like Genesis 5; and legal materials like Leviticus 12. Because most of the authors of these books share a relatively similar religious, economic, and political background, there are important themes running throughout most of the books. However, the books also display an astonishing diversity of thought. In fact, scholars have argued that some biblical books were written in response to, or in direct opposition to, other biblical books. For example, the biblical book of Job can be read as a rejoinder to the earlier book of Deuteronomy and its simple theological formula that the righteous will be blessed and the wicked will be cursed. Furthermore, different and sometimes opposing traditions—priestly, prophetic, wisdom, liturgical—exist within the Old Testament. These different strands of Israelite religion often influence each other even as they seek to differentiate themselves from each other.
Although not every book of the Old Testament tells a story, the overall history, according to the biblical writers, of the ancient Israelites can be...
(The entire section is 1,328 words.)