Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1328
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 sketched. The opening sentences of Genesis tell the story of the creation of the world including the creation of man and woman. Next, Genesis relates how the early couple disobey God and receive a punishment that includes leaving their blissful garden home. The story continues with the first homicide and a worldwide flood that kills everyone except for the righteous Noah and his family. Next, the narrative narrows in on one particular family—that of Abraham and Sarah. This family eventually grows into a large population which first migrates to Egypt, then is enslaved there. God must liberate these enslaved people from Egypt in a long-remembered event called the Exodus.
After some initial wandering in the wilderness outside of Egypt, the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, conquer the land of Canaan and settle there. After a series of charismatic leaders called judges, the Israelites officially united under the leadership of three kings—Saul, David, and Solomon. While King David wishes to build a temple for God, it is Solomon, his son, who actually constructs the Jerusalem Temple. After Solomon, the kingdom divided into two smaller kingdoms, Israel and Judah, because of sibling royal rivalries. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital, Samaria, about 200 years later in 722 b.c.e.
Then, more than one hundred years later, the Babylonians became the major military threat in the area and conquered the southern kingdom of Judah including the major city of Jerusalem in 587 b.c.e. When the Babylonians conquered the area, they took the captives back to Babylon. So the Judeans went into exile in Babylon for about fifty years. The Persians then rose to power, conquered the Babylonians, and freed the Judeans to return back to their native land. Some chose not to return from Babylon; others joined the many who were not deported back to Judah. After some initial community strife and struggle, which included issues of identity, the population in Judah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. The Judeans were under Persian control until Alexander the Great swept through in 332 b.c.e. and conquered the land. Slowly, under Greek influence, the Jews became more like the Greeks in their culture.
The writers of the Old Testament are mostly anonymous figures. Often, the title given to an individual biblical book relates to one of the main subjects of the book (for example, Joshua, Samuel, Esther) and not to that book’s author. The authors were educated, religious, Israelite men. This rather succinct description of biblical authors reveals many further observations about ancient Israelite society. First, we cannot assume all ancient people could read and write; in fact, literacy may have been the privilege of an elite class within ancient Israel, perhaps scribes, for much of its history. Second, religion must be understood broadly as relating to a community or individual’s viewpoints of and practices concerning the supernatural because the religious authors of the Old Testament held diverse opinions concerning the seminal issues of religion. Furthermore, polytheism and monotheism existed in varying degrees throughout the ancient Near East, and they were represented by varying religious practices. Third, a major issue within Israelite culture was always self-identity. Who is a part of the community? Because of this topic’s importance, it is unlikely that foreigners could have written the biblical books. Fourth, patriarchy was the norm within ancient Israel. Although some modern scholars have suggested woman authors for biblical books (like Ruth), this is probably only wishful thinking. Finally, the authors were not historians or scientists as we conceive of them today. Therefore, their cosmology and historical analyses run counter to modern knowledge concerning science and historiography.
The earliest pieces of the Old Testament may have been written before 1000 b.c.e. Yet a majority of the words were written either during the Israelite monarchy (1000-587), the Babylonian exile (587-540), or the Persian period (539-333), although some twentieth century scholars argue for an even later dating of the texts’ composition. Whenever the books were written, it seems clear that they were given their final shape only in the Persian and Hellenistic (333-63) periods.
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