How We Got the Old Testament (Part 2) — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

From the book of Joshua through the end of the Old Testament, the Bible gives readers the story of the ancient Israelites from their arrival in the land of Canaan to their return from exile in Babylon. During this period, God’s people form a nation, develop their own wisdom tradition, and tremble at the preaching of powerful prophets. Theirs is a grand epic that rivals anything produced by other cultures in antiquity.

The Historical Books

The early historical books record the settlement of Canaan and the growing pains of early Israel. They bear evidence of Egyptian influence, likely stemming from their time in Egypt. The record of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land bears similarities to how pharaoh Thutmosis III (1479-1425) recorded his military campaigns. Other sections of the Bible also demonstrate Egyptian influence, namely the practice of recording a military victory in parallel accounts with one in poetry, the other in prose. This was done most famously with Ramesses the Great’s supposed victory over the Hittites at Kadesh in 1274 BC. The same practice appears in Scripture (Ex. 14-15; Judg. 4-5).

Early Hebrew history demonstrates that the Hebrews had scribes who had the ability to record the history of their people. How the scribes were educated is unknown, but many believe they may have been trained as apprentices or in schools whose existence has not yet been discovered. Early examples of writing such as the Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription (11th century BC) and the Ketef Hinnom Inscription (7th-6th century) demonstrate a knowledge of the Mosaic Law, while other examples such as the Gezer Calendar and the Tel Zayit Abecedary (both 10th century) indicate that the Hebrew scribes were more than capable of producing literary compositions.

The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were authored by scribes with a knowledge of ancient Near Eastern scribal culture. These books have similar linguistic characteristics to the royal annals of the great kings of empires in Assyria and Babylonia. Additionally, the Bible synchronizes quite well with the historical records of larger empires, which also contain the names of biblical kings and places. The authors demonstrate an impressive knowledge of international politics and events, which is corroborated by extrabiblical texts.

The historical books were composed from other written sources, almost two dozen of which are identified. They include the Book of Jashar (Josh. 10:12-13; 2 Sam. 1:18), the Chronicles of Samuel the Seer (1 Chr. 29:29), the Annals of King David (1 Chr. 27:24), and the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel (2 Chr. 16:11). Although they are no longer extant, these books served as important sources for the ancient Hebrew authors.

Poetic and Wisdom Books

The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are among the most popular books of the Bible. They resemble other compositions in the ancient Near East, albeit with some significant differences. For instance, other wisdom texts reveal a mythological worldview, which is absent from the biblical text.

The biblical books of wisdom and poetry had many authors. The identity of Job’s author remains unknown, although evidence seems to indicate that the events took place during the patriarchal period. The book of Psalms had numerous authors, including David, Solomon, Moses, Asaph, Heman, and Ethan, along with an uncertain number of nameless writers. The book of Proverbs was composed mainly by Solomon, with additional contributions from Agur (30:1) and Lemuel (31:1). The authorship of Ecclesiastes is ascribed to the king of Jerusalem, who is also the son (or descendant) of David. Many take this as a reference to Solomon. The Song of Songs is generally not seen as a wisdom composition per se but rather contributes a beautiful exploration of marital love.

The Prophets

The biblical prophets were the last authors of Scripture before the Intertestamental Period. It is unknown how their prophecies came to be collected. Some of them seem to have been written by the prophets, and others may have been a series of prophetic utterances recorded and later published by their followers. Unfortunately, precise details about these processes remain elusive.

Critics have frequently attacked the unity of various prophetic books. The most famous example is Isaiah, which has been divided into two or three (or more) sections. The reason for dividing these books or dating sections of books very late is born from an opposition to predictive prophecy. This is why the last third of Isaiah is dated to the sixth century and later, and books like Daniel are dated as late as the second century BC. However, it is important to point out that language, vocabulary, and spelling in the prophetic books routinely support their unity rather than their disunity.

The Final Stages of the Hebrew Bible

Christians often hear the charge that the biblical canon was fluid and that many books were candidates for acceptance into a final, authoritative collection.  With the Old Testament, many believers may wonder why books such as Enoch, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and other works found in the Apocrypha never made it into the Bible.  The answer is quite simple: Jewish believers did not regard them as having the same authority as the books that now comprise our Old Testament.

Jews generally believed that the voices of the prophets had fallen silent not long after the return from Babylonian exile.  While extrabiblical books were quite popular among Jewish audiences, they were not considered inspired.  This is what gave John the Baptist such an explosive impact in the first century.  After the time of the biblical prophets, four centuries of silence was shattered by the fiery preaching of the herald of Christ.  This new Elijah — looking very much like the prophets of old — would provide a stepping stone to a new age and a better covenant.  We will discuss that newer testament and the collection of books that describe it in the next of our series of three articles.

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