How We Got The Old Testament (Part 1) — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

The Bible is a library of many books. The process of composing the biblical documents began in the late second millennium BC and finished at the end of the first century AD, a span of roughly 1400 years. This process has been mischaracterized and misunderstood by both believers and skeptics. As such, it is worth examining how we got this marvelous book called the Bible.

The Books of the Hebrew Bible

The Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) was eventually divided into three parts: the Torah, the Prophets (Nevi’im), and the Writings (Kethuvim).  Modern Jews refer to the Hebrew Bible as the Tanak, an acronym composed from the first letter of each of its divisions. (Contrary to popular belief, the Hebrew Bible is not called the “Torah,” which refers to the books of Moses or the Pentateuch.) Jesus recognized this three-fold division when referring to Scripture as “the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

Historically, the books in the Hebrew Bible have been arranged quite differently from what believers might see in their English Bibles today, concerning both number and organization. Josephus counted 22, the book of 2 Esdras numbered 24, and modern Jewish Bibles have 36, yet all of these numbers represented the same material found in modern Bibles. For instance, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were often counted as one book, the Minor Prophets were gathered into a single collection called The Twelve, and historical books such as Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were not divided into two parts. 

It is important to emphasize the fact that the material is the same, only organized differently. Some critics enjoy pointing out that ancient sources listed different numbers of books for the Hebrew Bible. They imply that the material in the Hebrew Bible was fluid and perhaps even a bit chaotic; the truth is precisely the opposite. Evidence indicates that the Old Testament canon was firmly established long before the time of Christ.

The Apocrypha provides a special challenge. Several books were admitted into the Septuagint, leading some people today to believe that were considered inspired. In reality, most Jewish communities did not accept apocryphal books and rightly recognized them as recent, uninspired productions. Jewish believers before Christ made it clear that the prophetic voice fell silent after the ministries of the biblical prophets had concluded. This is part of what made John the Baptist such a striking figure in the New Testament. After centuries of divine silence, God now spoke through a man who looked and acted very much like the prophets of old.

The Pentateuch

The oldest section of the Bible is known variously as the Pentateuch, the Books of Moses, the Law, or the Torah (often said to mean “law” but which more accurately means “instruction”). It was accepted by all the major Jewish groups as well as the Samaritans, who had their own version that had received some editorial changes, such as renaming various mountains in the Pentateuch as Mount Gerizim (a fact that emerges in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well; cf. John 4:20).

The antiquity of this material is recognized by biblical scholars, who can detect tiny indicators of its age within Hebrew syntax and grammar. One of the indicators is the use of “vowel letters.” Hebrew, like many other languages of the ancient Near East, did not use vowels initially. Afterward, Hebrew scribes began using vowel letters to indicate which vowels should be pronounced when reading the text aloud. As time progressed, a group known as the Masoretes inserted vowels into the text to prevent the proper pronunciation from being lost. Charting these developments in the Hebrew text enables scholars to determine the age of various parts of the Hebrew Bible. Unsurprisingly, they reveal that the Pentateuch is the oldest section of the Bible.

Many scholars today—both non-believers and even some evangelicals—claim that some of the material in Genesis was written long after the time of Moses. The standard argument is that during the exile, the displaced Jewish population encountered the creation stories of the Babylonians. Realizing that they did not have one of their own, they created one. Thus, the primeval history of Genesis 1-11 was born. The problem is that the production of creation stories in the ancient Near East as a whole seems to have ceased after 1200 BC, a fact noted by eminent biblical scholar and Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen. Further, the language used in the first eleven chapters of Genesis appear quite ancient, and unlike something that Jews living during the exilic period would have composed.

The remaining material of Genesis appears to match the time and culture quite precisely.  The patriarchal narratives have a distinctly Mesopotamian feel since Abraham came from Mesopotamia and kept relatively close ties there during his lifetime.  The latter chapters are influenced by Egypt, given that Joseph spends a great deal of time there.  Scholars have long recognized that names, language, and various cultural elements fit a late-second-millennium Egyptian milieu.

The remaining books of the Pentateuch have similar features. Egyptologists have recognized that the author of the book Exodus likely had first-hand knowledge of the royal court. Archaeologist and Egyptologist James Hoffmeier has pointed out that the author of Numbers had detailed knowledge of ancient topography. The book of Deuteronomy uses a covenant structure found only in the late second millennium. All of these details—and many others that cannot be listed here in detail—point to the veracity of the biblical depiction of the patriarchs, Moses, and the Hebrew people between the exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

Understanding how the Bible came to be is an exciting and illuminating study. We will continue our study of how the rest of the Hebrew Bible appeared in the second part of this series.

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX.  He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press, the Daily Apologist, and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.

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