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How Did We Get the Old Testament?

August 1, 2022

Christians hold the Old Testament to be part of their sacred scriptures, but where did it come from? Who wrote it? How was it all put together?

The Christian Bible is divinely inspired. It was written by God through human authors. God wrote the Bible through over 40 human authors over a period of 1,500-plus years. The Holy Spirit used the authors’ own styles, skills, and personalities to pen God’s Word. The Bible refers to itself as being God-breathed.

Unity in a Diversity of Genres and Authors

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, the language of the Jews, with small portions written in Aramaic, a language used to communicate internationally during the Persian Empire. It contains a diversity of genres (types of literature) in 39 books, including historical narrative, prophecy, poetry, sermons, and law. God used the culture and types of literature familiar to the people. The human authors God used to write down His Word were from different backgrounds and ethnicities and included prophets, kings, scholars, poets, and farmers.

  1. Moses was an Egyptian prince and shepherd who wrote large portions of the books of Law.
  2. David was a shepherd and king who wrote many of the psalms.
  3. Prophets like Isaiah shared special messages of God to His people to encourage them or warn them for disobedience.
  4. Ezra was a priest and scribe and chronicled the return of the Jews from exile.

Yet within such a diversity of genres and authors, there remains an amazing unity throughout the Bible in its message.

The Old Testament Writings Were Valued and Preserved

The books placed in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible of the Jews) are called the canon, from the Greek word kanon, which means “rod” or “measuring stick.” The word canon is used in a metaphorical sense to mean a model or standard. Canonization is the process to determine which writings should be recognized as sacred scripture. The books in the Old Testament canon are considered divinely inspired and authoritative for Jewish (and later Christian) belief and practices.

How did the Old Testament canon come to be? The Old Testament gives hints to how ancient Hebrews preserved their writings. Important stories and information would have been written down and kept in a safe place. God told Moses to write His words on a scroll so they would be remembered, and the priests kept the Book of Law beside the Ark of the Covenant in the inner room of the tabernacle. The Ten Commandments were carved on stone and stored in the Ark of the Covenant for safekeeping. In the time of Samuel and beyond, the words and writings of the prophets were written down and kept for future generations. Samuel’s message about Israel’s kings was kept in the sanctuary at Mizpeh. David most likely collected poems and hymns in the book of Psalms to use in worship, and then other authors added to this collection over the years. Hezekiah’s men copied out large numbers of proverbs.

Sources were sometimes used to compile and then edit the Bible. 1-2 Kings were used to write 1-2 Chronicles, and other sources are mentioned for which we have no copy: for example, the Book of Jashar. As His Word was being written and compiled, God ensured no error was introduced into the biblical text so that the final product was divinely inspired.

The TaNaK: The Three Divisions of the Hebrew Bible

The Jewish Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament contain the same books, but the books in the Jewish Bible are in a different order than our English Bibles. The Hebrew Bible has three divisions and is called TaNaK, an acrostic made up of the first Hebrew letters of the three divisions:

  1. Torah (also called Pentateuch or Law): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
  2. Nevi’im (also called The Prophets and further divided into the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets): Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of Twelve (the 12 minor prophets of Hosea through Malachi).
  3. Ketuvim (also called the Writings): Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Daniel.
The Old Testament Canonization

The process of canonization was gradual and extended over several generations. Jewish historical writings outside of the Old Testament mention Jewish leaders collecting books and preserving collections of scripture through the years of Israel’s history. As Israel’s history traveled through the centuries, we begin to see parts of the Old Testament treated as scripture and given authority in a Jew’s life. Generally speaking, each of the three divisions of the Jewish Bible appeared to become part of the recognized canon for the Jews as a collection. By the time of Ezra and Nehemiah c. 400 BCE, the Law (Torah) was complete and recognized as sacred scripture. The Prophets (Nevi’im) were given equal status with the Law c. 200 BCE. And we see the Writings (Ketuvim) given canonical status c. 100 BCE. By the time of Jesus Christ, all the books we currently have in our Old Testament were well known and accepted as scripture. Those books given scriptural status were not chosen by any person but recognized as God’s divine Word across time.

The Strongest Evidence for the Scriptural Authority of the Old Testament

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the scriptural authority of the Old Testament is the New Testament. The New Testament writers referred to the Old Testament as “scripture,” “sacred writings,” and the “law” (a term sometimes used to refer to the entire Old Testament). Josephus, a famous Jewish historian who lived c. 100 CE, wrote about the Jewish scriptures, discussing the three divisions and giving the number of the books, which corresponds to the books of our own Old Testament. Jesus affirmed each section of the Old Testament, naming the three divisions of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (sometimes referred to as the Psalms). He called it God’s Word and quoted portions as authoritative scripture when He taught. By the first century, our Old Testament canon was in place and considered sacred scripture.

Click below to learn more about how we got the Bible, who wrote it, and how it was put together.

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