Let’s start back at the beginning. I know the OT isn’t always everyone’s favourite, so I’m going to aim to keep the content for this post short and relevant to a general audience. (My plan is to have the first podcast episode to delve deeper into specifics – that way, it’s up to you to choose your level of interest and involvement at this stage of the discussion.)
The purpose of this post is to skim the surface of the origins of the Old Testament, following from the logic and outline of the previous post (which you can click here to view in case you missed it). But perhaps the best starting place for the discussion is for me to make a list of some things that the Old Testament isn’t, at least according to my understanding.
The Old Testament:
– Wasn’t written by one, two, or even a few authors. It is much better understood as a collection of historical scrolls, individual worship songs (i.e. Psalms), other worship and wisdom literature, and prophetic material.
– Wasn’t written at a single point in time. The oldest material in the Old Testament may date back to the 1600s BCE or even earlier. The newest (Daniel) some scholars have theorized was written, or added to, as late as the 100s BCE. For those keeping up with the math, the OT could easily have been composed over a period of 1500 years or longer!
– Wasn’t always even “written”. The book of Judges, for example, contains the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) which has often been cited as a much older song which was being sung around Israel and Judah early in their history, then was later inserted into the narrative describing the actual events of the battle (Judges 4). The early portions of Genesis (ch. 1-11) contain many scenes which originally could have developed orally, i.e. the stories were carefully memorized and recited within families or in a worship context.
– Isn’t just the irrelevant estranged cousin of the New Testament. In order for Jesus to make sense by what he said or did (notwithstanding his claims as “Son of God”), the OT must be viewed in its context as a complement and aid to understanding the NT. To take portions of the NT in isolation, without the context of the OT, is to open wide the door to misinterpretations at best, and bad theology at worst (don’t worry…we’ll talk about this, too).
So that’s what it isn’t. Here’s what it is. The OT is an edited collection of works, which span hundreds of years of the history of Israel, Judah, and the Ancient Near East (ANE). The Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Dueteronomy) contain the pre-history and early history of the nation of Israel, as well as establish Israel’s law code (modeled largely after Hittite and other ANE civilizations) and, most important theologically, establish the primacy of the worship of the deity Yahweh* as a cornerstone of Israel’s existence. The Prophets include the 12 “minor” prophets as well as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and are records of the social, religious, and economic problems facing Israel and Judah before and during their conquest by Assyria and Babylon, then their subsequent exile in Babylon. The Writings include early historical texts such as Joshua and Judges as well as the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, etc.) and the remainder of the OT books.
We don’t have the original documents for any single book of the OT.
Now, go back and read that sentence again.
Does this fact surprise you? Did you know this?
As in, the very first copy of Isaiah, or Psalm 23, or Joshua – we simply don’t have them. The original scrolls would have likely been inscribed on thin leather or papyrus, and such documents would not commonly be expected to survive over 2000 years in anything other than ideal conditions. What we have are copies of those original scrolls. Copies of the same book have been found hundreds of miles, and hundreds of years, apart from one another, and even when they appear in different languages (such as one copy in Hebrew and another in Greek) – they agree with one another in almost every way.
However, we must be honest in our assessment of what we have today. The Greek and Hebrew texts do occasionally disagree with one another. Different Hebrew texts will occasionally disagree with one another. Different Greek copies will occasionally differ with one another, and differ with a Syriac copy, or a Latin one, and so on.
[And that’s about as much as you’ll likely want to know about this field of study, which is called Textual Criticism of the Old Testament.]
More importantly, what you should know right now is that pretty much any English translation of the Old Testament is based off of what we call the Masoretic Text (MT).** Here is a portion of Judges chapter 3-4 from a common version of the MT:
All of the above discussion, as well as the substantial amount of additional discussion forthcoming on the podcast, is leading us towards our final post in this series, wherein we will ask “So what?” Is the Bible as we have it today reliable? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired by a deity?
Hopefully, though, you are already sensing the nonsensical difficulty of attempting to answer the question, “Who wrote my Bible?”
*It has long been tradition in some Jewish and Christian communities to exclude the vowels in the proper name Yahweh, thus: YHWH. You may see me during future posts reverting to this practice, but just know it’s the same as Yahweh. In the Hebrew text, the vowels were/are left off of this name out of reverence for the deity.
**I am assuming an English readership since of course this blog is written and maintained for such an audience. That said, most any modern Biblical translations apart from perhaps certain versions used in the Catholic or (esp.) Eastern Orthodox traditions will use the Masoretic Text as its foundation.