History of the Old Testament

The Bible is divided into two major sections, the Old Testament (or OT), and the New Testament. The OT is based upon the Hebrew Bible, also called the Tanakh, which are writings by the ancient Israelites. Religious Jews and most Christians believe these to be the true Word of God. The OT covers an enormous period of time, in the beginning with the creation of the earth and ending with the Jews being expelled from Babylon.

A few historic items:

The earliest known mention of Israel is in an Egyptian writing from the 13th century BC. The earliest known mention of Yahweh, the Jewish God, is in an inscription relating to the King of Moab in the 9th century, BC. It is commonly believed that the OT began to take form around the 8th century BC with scribes beginning to record history and heroic legends. In the 6th century BC, during the reign of Josiah, the books of Deuteronomy and Judges were written and added. The Hebrew Bible in its final form was developed over the ensuing couple hundred years as the Judah was overtaken by the Persian Empire.

The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the 3rd century BC, and this Greek translation is commonly known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint was the version of the OT Bible used by the early Christians in Rome and the one quoted often in the New Testament. The Book of Daniel is thought to have been written during this period and was added to the Septuagint at the last minute.

The OT contains between 39 and 49 books, depending on which Christian denomination produced it. The Protestant canon is comprised of 39 books, the Catholic 46, and the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox have 49. The 39 common to all are the same. These are derived from the original 24 books of the Tanakh with a couple differences in the order. The reason there are more in the Christian canons is because some of the 24 Tanakh books were divided into two texts.

Some of the books that are included in the Catholic, Oriental, and Eastern Orthodox OT versions were not included in the Hebrew canon. All of these extra books are Jewish in origin and are grouped into their own section of the OT called the Apocrypha . Some of these were also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Old Testament consists of a lot of books by various authors and was produced over many centuries. Christian theology divides the OT into four distinct sections:

  1. The first five books are called the Pentateuch or Torah
  2. The books related to the history of the Israelites from Canaan all the way to their defeat in Babylon
  3. The wisdom books dealing with questions of good and evil
  4. The prophetic books which deal with right and wrong and tell of the consequences of turning away from God.

Estimates of the origination of these books are as follows.

The first five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are assumed to have reached their current form during the Persian Period ranging from about 540 to 330 BC.

The books of Judges, Joshua, Kings, and Samuel chronicle a history of Israel from their conquest of Canaan to the siege in Jerusalem in 587 BC. Most scholars believe this collection of books was originally one book written during the Babylonian exile of 6th century BC.

Interestingly, the two books of Chronicles cover a lot of the same material as the books of the prior two sections and most likely date back to 4th century BC. Chronicles and Nehemiah were finished in the 3rd century BC. The Orthodox and Catholic versions of the Old Testament contain several of the Books of Maccabees, omitted in other versions.

Of the remaining books, the books of the prophets were written mostly between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. It is believed that Daniel and Jonah were written later than this. The wisdom books, including Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Proverbs, and Psalms, were written at various times ranging from the 6th century BC all the way up to the 1st or second century BC.

A good place to look for additional history on this fascinating composition is the history.com site.