OUR OLD TESTAMENT
If one were to look at the table of contents of any English Old Testament he would see the order of the books of the Old Testament with which we in the English-speaking world have always been familiar.
In this order one finds first the historical books – Genesis through Esther – which tell the story of the history of Israel from the Creation up to roughly the 5th century BC and the return from the Babylonian Exile. In addition, with the exception of the book of Esther, these books are placed in chronological order.
The second section – from Job through the Song of Solomon – is variously referred to as poetry, or liturgical material, or wisdom literature or a variety of other names. Regardless of what it is called however it is to this section to which Christians and Jews have traditionally turned for comfort and edification; the historical setting of these books is not nearly so important as it is for other portions of the Old Testament.
The final section – consisting of Isaiah through the end of the Old Testament – consists of the writings of the prophets. Something needs to be said here about the title ‘prophet’. The term is often misunderstood today, being frequently used to mean a predictor of the future. While this was certainly on occasion an
essential part of the work of the prophets, it was by no means their primary task. The Hebrew title for these men was ‘nabi’, which translated means simply a speaker or spokesman. This was nearly always translated into the Greek as ‘prophetes’, which itself was derived from the preposition ‘pro’, ‘before’, and the verb ‘phemi’, ‘to declare’, and meant quite literally ‘one who foretells’. It is from the Greek that we derive the word ‘prophet’.
Thus the prophets were the preachers of God sent to preach to ancient Israel at those times in Israel’s history in which the nation was facing crisis situations. These preachers took their understanding of who God is and how he works, combined it with their knowledge of the socio-political situation of the day and the special revelations given them by God, and made known to the nation the mind of God.
This in no way means, however, that the writings of the prophets are limited in their significance to their own day. Even though the historical and political situations which the prophets addressed are not of pressing relevance to us in the 20th century, still we can read and reap spiritual benefit from these writings, just as we would from the works of Augustine, or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian
Religion, or Pilgrim’s Progrees by John Bunyan. In the case of Calvin’s Institutes, for example, fully one-third of the work addressed itself to controversies of the day involving then-current situations within the Catholic Church. That fact that those situations no longer exist does not prevent the Institutes from being
regarded yet today as as one of history’s greatest works of literature, or from being of great benefit to those who wish to study them still.
THE HEBREW OLD TESTAMENT
If we were to look instead at the table of contents of a Hebrew Old Testament we would find a quite different order for the Old Testament books. The first of the three major divisions of the Hebrew Old Testament is called the Law, or the Torah and contains those same five books that open the English Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Following the Torah in the Hebrew Old Testament is the section known as the Prophets. This section is further subdivided into two parts: the Former Prophets consist of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, while the Latter Prophets encompass the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hoseah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi. Note that
the books making up the Former Prophets comprise what we usually think of as historical books, leaving most of what we call prophetic writings for the Latter, though the book of Daniel is missing. The final twelve prophetic books – the so-called minor prophets – are often in the Hebrew Bible lumped together into one book and called simply The Book of the Twelve.
The last of the three divisions is often called the Writings, and always begins with the Psalms. It is sometimes called simply The Psalms, following an old custom which allows the first book of a section to stand for the section in its entirety.
This three-part division of the Hebrew Old Testament was already well established before the time of Christ. It was this division which both Christ and the authors of the New Testament used, and references may be found to it scattered through the New Testament. In Luke 2:44, for example, we find the risen Christ meeting with his disciples in the upper room, where he is trying to help them to an understanding of his death and resurrection. As he refers to the Old Testament prophecies he speaks of the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. ‘Thus it is written,’ he said, ‘that the Messiah must suffer, and on the third day rise from the dead.’ By making reference to this common tripartite division of the Jewish scriptures Christ is saying that the entire Old Testament, in every division, speaks of him and of his ministry.
In addition, we find in several other places throughout the New Testament various references to the Law, or the Prophets, or the Law and the Prophets, and so forth. Thus we see that this is the division which the New Testament writers themselves used. The books of the Old Testament were originally penned by a number of authors between the dates of approximately 1700 and 300 BC. The Old Testament is either the whole or a part of the sacred writings of three world religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They were
written in the Hebrew language.
THE SEPTUAGINT AND THE APOCRYPHA
During the period of time from 300 BC to the time of Christ many Jews found themselves living outside the boundaries of the promised land, scattered throughout the ancient world with colonies as far south as southern Egypt and north in Greece and Asia. These Jews – the Jews of the Diaspora or Scattering – came to speak other languages than Hebrew, and most especially, as the power of Rome grew, Greek.
It was during this time, from about BC 250 and onward, that the Old Testament was translated from the Hebrew into Greek for the benefit of these non-Hebrew-speaking Jews. This Greek translation came to be
known as the Septuagint – usually abbreviated ‘LXX’ – because of certain traditions which said that it was translated by 70 men working 70 days – traditions which are almost certainly not true.
The LXX differs from the Hebrew Old Testament in three ways. The first of these differences concerns the ordering of the books. As discussed above, the ordering of the books varies from the Hebrew to the English Testaments, with the English Old Testament following the order of the LXX.
The second difference concerns the contents of some of the books in the Hebrew Old Testament as opposed to their counterpart versions in the LXX. In the LXX, for example, the book of Psalms has 151 chapters, while Jeremiah is 10 chapters shorter than it is in the Hebrew. There are some additions to the book of Ruth, and a number of other minor differences as well.
The third and major difference concerns not just the content of individual books, but the number of books itself. The LXX contains a number of books which are not to found in the Hebrew Bible at all, the exact number varying from 12 to 18, depending on which list you follow. These extra books are usually referred to as ‘apocrypha’, a word which means ‘secret’, or ‘hidden’, and was intended originally to indicate the veil which hangs over their origins.
What may be said about the apocrypha? First, they were either written originally in Greek – as opposed to the Hebrew origins of the other books of the Old Testament – or exist for the most part today only in their Greek translations. They were written between about BC 400 and 70 AD, and describe the history, beliefs and activities of some Jews in the period following the close of the Old Testament. A discussion of whether these books belong in the Old Testament is outside the scope of this brief survey. It need only be said that
they have been included by Greek and Roman Catholics and by some Episcopalians, while both Jewish and Protestant canons have come to reject them.
Why have Protestants by and large repudiated the apocrypha? At the time of the Protestant Reformation, it was one of Martin Luther’s driving convictions that the Holy Scriptures be available to every man in his native tongue. To demonstrate his commitment, he undertook to translate them into his own mother tongue, German. He became convinced, however, that a proper translation would be based on the
original languages – Hebrew and Greek – rather than the Latin translation which had been the official Bible of the Catholic church for more than a thousand years.
To his great surprise, Luther discovered that there were a number of Old Testament books for which no Hebrew manuscripts existed, and that on this basis Jerome had initially resisted including them in his
Latin Vulgate translation. Further investigation revealed that during the period in which these books were written there were no authorized, recognized prophets of God in Israel, a fact which a couple of the
apocryphal writings admit explicitly. Since divine authorization for scriptures had always been associated with the presence of an authorized spokesman, neither Judaism, nor Jerome, Luther, nor Protestants have recognized the apocryphal writings as divinely inspired. Though they do contain much data of historical import, they are not regarded by these groups as suitable for deriving theological teachings.
Having said this, however, it should be noted that there is only one major – albeit controversial – doctrine taught in the apocrypha that is not abundantly confirmed elsewhere in scripture. That is the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, the basis for which may be found in the sixth chapter of First Maccabees. There is told the story of Judas Maccabeas’s order that prayers be made for soldiers of his command who had died in battle. On this passage Roman Catholicism bases its practice of prayer for the dead and has, by logical
extension, developed this into the doctrine of purgatory. All original manuscripts of the scriptures have been lost, and all we have left today are copies. Much may be – and certainly has been – said about manuscript evidence of the Bible, but at this point all that need be said is that the oldest manuscripts we currently possess date back to approximately 200 years before the birth of Christ.
A final note must be made, this time with regard to modern convenience additions to the text, specifically chapter and verse divisions. These divisions are not part of the divinely inspired text of the Bible but were added relatively recently as reference aids. Chapter divisions were added first, in 1244 AD, with verses following in 1551. Do not be bound by these artificial additions. If the earliest portions of the Old Testament were first penned around 1700 BC, it may easily be seen that the oldest portions of the Bible
existed for nearly 3000 years with no divisions.
Computers for Christ – Chicago