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How We Got the Old Testament

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by Dr. Lane Burgland


The Old Testament


We do not know exactly when writing was first invented. The oldest writing samples that still exist today date from around 3100 B.C. They come from Sumeria, a land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern Iraq. Egyptian writings from about the same time have also survived.


Our earliest Hebrew writing is a school boy's writing exercises from the tenth century B.C. This student used a clay tablet to list the months of the year and their agricultural significance. It was found in the town of Gezer and is known as the Gezer calenda. Several other archaeological finds have produced examples of Hebrew writing from the eighth century B.C. onwards.1


The earliest copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, was written much later. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the oldest copy of the entire Old Testament in Hebrew that survived had been produced about A.D. 1000. The Dead Sea Scrolls included a large number of Hebrew Scriptures, about 95 percent of which matched the Hebrew Old Testament as we have it today. These Hebrew Scriptures must have been written down no later than the first century A.D., getting us almost 1,000 years closer than before to the originals.


Authors and Date of Writing


The debate over who wrote the books of the Old Testament and when they were written has raged for over two centuries. While tradition plays a role in answering these questions. Scripture itself makes certain claims about authorship and date.


We will examine the first five books of the Bible, sometimes called the Pentateuch. According to several passages (Exodus 24:4; 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:22; 10:4; and others) Moses wrote at least part of the Pentateuch. Referring to Deuteronomy 24: 1-4, Jesus states that Moses wrote this section of Scripture (Mark 10:5; a parallel is Matthew 19:8). When the Sadducees refer to the levirate marriage law as having come from Moses (Mark 12:19; parallels are Matthew 22:24; Luke 20:28), Jesus does not correct them.


The internal testimony of Scripture clearly shows that Moses wrote at least some of the first five books of the Bible. Some parts may have been updated later (see Genesis 14:14; 36:31; 47:11), and the last chapter of Deuteronomy, which records Moses' death, may have been added by someone else. However, it is fair to say that as far as the record of Scripture is concerned, Moses is the author of the Pentateuch. Since the Exodus may be dated to 1446 B.C. (see 1 Kings 6: 1), this would mean the first five books of the Bible written in the last half of the 15th century it B.C.2 The events that took place prior to Moses' birth in Exodus 1 would have come down to Moses, most probably in oral form. However, some written records, especially from the time of Abraham (about 1900 B.C.), could have been part of the resources available to Moses. (At least five different writing systems were available to Abraham. He may well have been familiar with at least one of them.)


It might seem to us that oral transmission is not very reliable. However, people who cannot read or write - or who do very little reading or writing - depend on their memories much more than we do. The human mind is capable of memorizing a large amount of information without writing of any kind, as any child under the age of five demonstrates. Further, the first 11 chapters of Genesis seem to be designed to be memorized for later repetition. Certain patterns of speech, narrative organization, and even word counts can ensure that the story is remembered and passed on exactly as received. Hence, the task for Moses is very realistic, even without considering divine revelation.


Thus, Moses received both oral and written accounts of the events recorded in Genesis 1 - Exodus 1. He included these accounts in his history of the Exodus and the Sinai wanderings, writing the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. After the death of Moses, Joshua 3 (or someone else) recorded Deuteronomy 34.


Over the next one thousand years the Holy Spirit moved people to write down the history of Israel, the poetry of its musicians, the proverbs of its wise men, and the Law and Gospel of its prophets.


The Israelites divided their Bible into three sections: the Law (Torah, the five books of Moses), the Prophets, and the Writings. The Prophets were divided into history (the Former Prophets - Joshua through 2 Kings) and prophecy (the Latter Prophets - Isaiah through Malachi).The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles were included in the category "Writings." These were the last books of the Hebrew canon (the list of books that are accepted as Holy Scripture).


Some of the books of the Old Testament name their authors (e.g.. most of the prophetic books) while others are anonymous (e.g., the books of Samuel and Kings). Some books are compilations of many writers (e.g., Psalms, Proverbs) and other books name their author by a kind of "pen name" (e.g., the author of Ecclesiastes is identified as Qoheleth, "the preacher'').


Some dates are very easy to fix because of historical references contained in them (e.g., the visions of Ezekiel can usually be dated with certainty to the month, day, and year) while we cannot even determine the century in which others were written (e.g., Job). We can say, though, that over the period from the 15th century B.C. through the 4th century B.C., a variety of people wrote prose and poetry, prophecies and wisdom. God's people recognized these writings as special. They preserved them, read and studied them, and even died for them.



The Old Testament in the New Testament


Jesus held the Old Testament in very high regard. His use of it shows how highly He thought of the Hebrew Scriptures. When Jesus faced Satan in the wilderness, He used Scripture to fight him. Jesus quoted from the part of the Old Testament that records the temptations Israel faced during 40 years in the wilderness. As Jesus finished His 41 days in the wilderness, He cited Deuteronomy 8:3: 6:16, 13 (see Matthew 4:1-11; a parallel is Luke 4:1-13).


Later, in Matthew 16:4, Jesus refers to the prophet Jonah, an apparent reference to His own coming death, burial, and resurrection. In Matthew 19:3-12 He refers to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, all in reference to an issue raised by the Pharisees in light of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus cites Psalm 8:2 in defense of the children's praise at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1 6). When Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 110 during the last week of His earthly ministry (Matthew 22:44), He says the Holy Spirit inspired David to write the psalm. Even in His most extreme suffering on the cross, Jesus quotes Scripture. Both Matthew and Mark record the fact that Jesus cites Psalm 22:1, a psalm of the righteous sufferer, during the crucifixion (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).


The authors of the New Testament have the same high regard for the Old Testament as does Jesus. Even though Jesus and the New Testament writers often quote from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint), they treat these Scriptures as the authoritative, inspired Word of God.4 This is very helpful for us, because it confirms the fact that the Word of God is not bound to the original languages, but remains the Word of God even in translation.



The Old Testament Canon


As stated earlier in this chapter, the canon is the list of books that are accepted as Holy Scripture. The Old Testament canon was fairly well fixed by the time of the New Testament (the first century A.D.). The last time the Hebrew canon was discussed seems to be the Council of Jamnia (or Yavneh) in A.D. 90.


At this gathering the status of several books was discussed, including the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. These books had apparently been considered Scripture for some time, but various features about each of these works may have troubled some rabbis. Some discussion over a few books continued in Jewish tradition. It seems, though, that by the first century A.D. the 39 books of the Old Testament were well established as Holy Scripture and had been considered such for some time.



Summary and Conclusions


The writing of the Old Testament took place over about one thousand years. We cannot determine how many authors were involved. The time span covered in the Old Testament books ranges from the beginning of the world through the beginning of the fourth century B.C. As far as we know none of the originals of any of the books has survived. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain some copies of the Hebrew Scriptures that date to the first and second centuries B.C.


Jesus and the authors of the New Testament regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as God's Word and understood that these Scriptures were written for our learning (Romans 15:4). The Old Testament is much longer than the New Testament, It includes a great deal of genealogies, history, geography, and regulations about the temple and ancient Jewish worship. Yet the Old Testament continues to point to Jesus Christ (John 5:39).

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