How We Got Our Old Testament

HOW WE GOT OUR OLD TESTAMENT

by Wayne S. Walker

     There can be no doubt that in spite of many attempts by its enemies over thousands of years to stamp it out, the Bible has survived. However, a common problem encountered by many Christians in trying to teach the gospel to the list is the person who says, "I would like to believe the Bible, but how can I know that what we have today is what was originally written?" Therefore, it is necessary for us to have a basic understanding of the means by which God’s word has reached us after it was originally recorded by inspired writers.

     Since the claim is made in the Bible that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Timothy 3:16), we must examine the reliability of both the Old and New Testaments. Most Bible students understand that the Bible is divided into these two basic sections. The basis for this division is found in Hebrews 8:13 which says, "In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." In this article, we want to begin looking at how we got our Old Testament.

     The Old Testament was written between around 1500 to 425 B.C. by some 25 to 30 different human authors, most of them living in Palestine but some in areas ranging from Egypt in the southwest to Persia in the northeast. The language in which it was written is ancient Hebrew, with the exception of some passages in Daniel, Ezra, and Jeremiah which were written in the related language of Aramaic. It purports to be a record of the creation; God’s dealings with early mankind, especially the family of Abraham, the ancestor of the Israelites, during the Patriarchal period; and the history of the Hebrew nation through which the Messiah was to come.

     Of what does the Old Testament consist? This is called the "canon." The word "canon" originally referred to a reed, rod, or bar, such as a straight line or ruler used by a mason or a carpenter. Hence, it came to mean a rule, standard, or norm by which to measure things (2 Corinthians 10:13-16, Galatians 6:16, Philippians 3:16). With reference to writings, it indicates that which has been measured and accepted and thus is to be considered genuine. For example, the "canon of Plato" refers to the list of works which are ascribed to Plato and believed to be genuinely his.

     In Romans 3:2 Paul says that the oracles of God were committed to the Jewish people. Therefore, whatever they accepted as being inspired from God, we should accept as well. So, what was the Jewish canon? Jesus explained it in Luke 24:44 when He said, "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me." These three broad categories were divided into 22 books. The Law of Moses, also called the Torah or Pentateuch, consisted of five books–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

     The Prophets were divided into two sub-categories: the former prophets, being the four books of Joshua, Judges-Ruth, Samuel, and Kings; and the latter prophets, being the four books of Isaiah, Jeremiah-Lamentations, Ezekiel, and The Twelve (the latter being what we call the "minor prophets"). The Psalms as a category generally referred to the Writings or Hagiographa which we call wisdom literature but included nine books–Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. When these 22 books were translated into Greek as the Septuagint about 280 B.C., their order and divisions were changed so that the 39 books in our English Old Testaments are identical with the 22 in the Jewish canon.

     This listing of the Jewish canon is corroborated by the Jewish historian Josephus, the Jewish Talmud, and the Latin translator Jerome. Since the Septuagint was made around 280 B.C., we can be assured that the Jewish canon was completed before that time. It was possibly collected and edited by Ezra (c. 500-450 B.C.). We would assume that he was guided by divine inspiration in so doing. Hence, by the time of Christ, it was considered settled and closed. The Jewish rabbis officially fixed it in A.D. 80 at Jamnia, but all the books which they endorsed had been commonly received for many years previous. The early church fathers accepted this listing as accurate. (—taken from With All Boldness; January, 1999; Vol. 9, No. 1; p. 19)

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