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The Old Testament

Main index Summary of the Books Apocrypha New Testament
The Law:
Historical Books: Joshua Judges Ruth 1 Samuel 2 Samuel 1 Kings 2 Kings 1 Chronicles 2 Chronicles Ezra Nehemiah Esther Job

(Job is sometimes classed as "Historical" and sometimes as "Wisdom")

Wisdom Literature: Psalms Proverbs Ecclesiastes Song of Songs
The Prophets: Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations Ezekiel Daniel Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Jonah Micah Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah Haggai Zechariah Malachi

The Old Testament comprises Hebrew scriptures from before the time of Christ. It has traditionally been seen as containing three types of material: the Law, the Prophets, and Writings. Jews refer to it collectively as Tenakh (or Tanak[14 p.3]), from the initials of the Hebrew names of those three categories: Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim[10]—​perhaps the world's oldest Three Letter Acronym (TLA)! It contains no creed, but expresses belief through stories[13 p.121].

There are two short passages which capture the central themes of the Old Testament. Proverbs 3:3–4 summarises a theme of faithfulness which is an undercurrent throughout the Old Testament. Hosea 11:8–9 shows how God's faithfulness works out in his relationship with his people. The Old Testament frequently cites the exodus as proof of God's saving power.[13 p.27]

"We are ignorant as to the actual circumstances of composition of all of the books of the Old Testament." [13 p.8] However it is clear that they are the products of the upper strata of society, to slave oewners ratther than slaves in Exodus 20:8–11.[13 p.55] Some commentators have argued that the Old Testament is based on oral traditions that were written down during the exile, on the assumption that literacy was probably rare until then. However, recent evidence shows that literacy was widespread in Judah before the exile. Clay tablets bearing ink inscriptions in Hebrew were found dating from about 600 BCE:

"The team...examined 16 ink inscriptions on ceramic shards discovered at the site of an ancient military fortress in Arad in southern Israel. The inscriptions themselves are not biblical texts. Instead, they detail troop movements and expenses for provisions, indicating that people throughout the military chain of command down to the fort's deputy quartermaster were able to write. The tone of the inscriptions, which suggest they were not written by professional scribes, combined with the fortress's remote location, indicate a wide spread of literacy at the time, according to the study." [9]

While it is accepted that the oldest parts of the Bible probably began as oral tradition, recent studies have abandoned the idea that the Old Testament dates from the exile or later. "If one was inventing something, would it really be so disordered and chaotic, so varied in genre and mixed in viewpoint?" [11]

The Pentateuch is oftern referred to as the Law of Moses (e.g. 1 Kings 2:3), but nowhere does it claim that he wrote it. Indeed Genesis 36:31 suggests that the book was written in the time of the kings.[14 p.58, 60]

The sequence of books from Genesis to 2 Kings has a common emphasis, and must predate the return from exile or they would describe it; 1 Chronicles – Nehemiah have a very different emphasis, and must be more recent since they describe the return from exile.[1 p.25] The antiquity of the books up to 2 Kings is not in doubt, since the LXX, Masoretic and Samaritan versions of them represent separate traditions each going back to at least the 3rd century BCE, and all are represented by scrolls from Qumran.[1 p.26] Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings show a striking unity of language, style and content, and are attributed to a hypothetical "Deuteronomistic Historian"[2] or "circle"[3]. (Jesus seems to support the view that Deuteronomy is a late addition to the Torah because in Mark 10:8 he gives text from Genesis priority over Deuteronomy.) Ancient tradition says that the prophet Jeremiah wrote 1 and 2 Kings. Jeremiah prophesied from 627 BCE.[8] The books of Samuel show common ancestry with them, yet signs of compilation from several sources, so perhaps Jeremiah edited the books Deuteronomy to Samuel into their present form.

2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2 (see Structure above) show a consistent style involving direct speech and well-developed secondary characters, and appear to be a complete literary unit. However, 1 Kings 1–2 go into far more detail than the earlier passages, suggesting that the author lived at that time. Overall, the books are an official version of selected events.[4 p.xxiii–xxxi]

The traditional name "Old Testament" does not derive from the Hebrew Bible itself, but from contrast with the early Christian writings which Christians understand as establishing the "New Covenant" promised in Jeremiah 31:31.[5 pp 196f] Drane describes the Old Testament as being about "the activity of God" which reveals God as "one with whom human beings can—​and do—​have personal dealings" [6 p.12]. It has been seen as a lived-out allegory[12 p84].

Hebrew has no neuter tense, so the masculine is used instead throught the Old Testament[13 p102].

There are no "goodies" or "baddies" in the Old Testament; every hero falls off their pedestal, and every tyrant has godly moments.[7]

See also Professor Walter Moberly's notes.


  1. Freedman, David Noel The Pentateuch in J Dunn and J Rogerson (eds) "Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible" (Eerdmans Pub Co 2003)
  2. Koppers, G. N. "Deuteronomistic History" in Freedman, D. N. (ed) Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible Eerdmans Pub Co 2000 p341
  3. Jones, G. "1 and 2 Samuel" in The Oxford Bible Commentary (J Barton and J Muddiman, eds) OUP 2001, pp.196f
  4. Anderson, A A 2 Samuel in the Word Biblical Commentary series (edited by D A Hubbard et al) Dallas:Word Inc., 1989
  5. McGrath, Alastair Christian Theology—​An Introduction Oxford: Blackwell, 1997 edn.
  6. Drane, John Introducing the Old Testament Oxford: Lion, 1987 & 2000
  7. Diana Lipton (King's College, London) speaking at a "Bishop's Study Day" at Southwark Cathedral on 15 November 2007
  8. Jeremiah in Brittannica Encyclopaedia Online, available from
  9. "Parts of Bible may have been written earlier than expected, archaeologists say", in The Guardian 12 April 2016, quoting Associated Press in Jerusalem. Available from: accessed 19 April 2016
  10. Koppman, Lionel Hebrew Bible, in, Gentz, W. (ed) The Dictionary of Bible and Religion (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986) p.433
  11. Katherine Dell Who needs the Old Testament? Its enduring appeal and why the New Atheists don't get it (London: Church Times, 2017) quoted by Anthony Phillips in a book review "Old prophets, new atheists" in Church Times 19 May 2017 p.26
  12. C S Lewis Reflections on the Psalms
  13. Coggins, R Introducing the Old Testament Oxford: OUP, 2001
  14. Collins, J.J., Evans, C.E., McDonald, L.M. Ancient Jewish and Christian Scriptures—​New Developments in Canon Controversy Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press 2020

© David Billin 2002–2021