Monday after Pentecost 5
July 2, 2012
The Lord be with you
The leader of the Bible study says, “Will everyone please look up Exodus 20,” and everyone does so without giving it any thought. Together, the class looks at the Ten Commandments. Other passages are looked up that relate and, hopefully, everyone leaves with a richer understanding of the Ten Commandments and how they relate to our lives today.
What the class almost never considers is how their particular collection of documents came to be considered inspired; the authoritative “word of God.” Why these documents and not others? I’m going to do a series of three posts considering this question, focusing on the Old Testament. (The New Testament comes with its own set of questions and considerations.)
I’m certainly not the first person to consider what documents belong in the Old Testament. Often this question is addressed from a theological point of view. Such approaches tend to revolve around the question, “How do we know that these documents are inspired?” While theological considerations are valuable, I am choosing to use an historical approach. In making such a choice, the reader should not conclude that I reject the inspiration of the Old Testament. I do hold that the “prophetic and apostolic Scriptures” are the inspired word of God.
There are two reasons for these posts. First, is to provide both Christians and non-Christians with a clearer understanding of the origin of the Old Testament. Second, is to explain why not all Christians have the same books in their Old Testament, thus making discussions between different branches of the Christian family easier. (Some Christians may be surprised that not all Christians recognized the same number of books as belonging to the Old Testament.)
First, a few basics that most everyone knows:
- What is called the Old Testament by Christians was not written by just one individual or in a single generation. Numerous authors, spanning well over a 1000 years, produced the Old Testament.
- As the Old Testament was revealed over this extended period of time, obviously not everyone in this period of time used or recognized as the word of God the entire collection of documents we call the Old Testament. For example, before David was born, no one was using any of the Psalms he wrote.
- The Old Testament was not gathered into book form until after the first century ad. Before the advent of books, the Old Testament was contained on scrolls, typically one book per scroll. A clear exception to this would be the “minor” prophets. All twelve of them fit on one scroll.
- The books contained in our Old Testament were not the only religious books written before Jesus’ day, nor were they the only ones claiming to be inspired, nor were they the only religious books written by Jews.
- The term “Old Testament” is used by Christians to refer to certain Jewish documents written before the birth of Jesus. Modern Jews do not use this term, unless they do so as a concession to Christians in order to be understood. Contemporary Jews call this collection of documents the Tanakh.
The Old Testament is basically documents used by, and produced by, Jews before the birth of Jesus. They track the history of the Jewish people and their relationship with God. All of them were not accepted by all Jews at all times (Jeremiah 36:20-26). Indeed, portions of the Old Testament were even lost, only to be found by later generations (2 Chronicles 34:15). “Lost” means sitting on some shelf gathering dust, ignored and forgotten. Even in the days of Jesus, there was a difference of opinion among Jews concerning what books should be considered the authoritative word of God. The Sadducees accepted only the first five books of the Bible. The Essenes had some books that were not recognized by any other group (like the War Scroll). There was also a difference between the Palestine Jews and the Jews of the Diaspora (which we will get to later).
From this diversity rose the Old Testament.
In the next post we will conduct a whirlwind tour of the history of the textual tradition that became the Old Testament. Until then, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
Blessings in Christ
Pastor John Rickert