I was sitting on a cold, hard, wooden pew of a small brick and mortar baptist church, somewhere in the Midwestern United States, asking myself why the people in the choir wanted to wear funny robes and sing in unison in front of a crowd? Why did the man in charge come out and dunk someone under the water every few Sundays and pull them up gasping for breath and smiling to an applauding audience?
Indeed, I would wonder as a child why anyone would want to read the same book every Sunday in front of a mixed crowd, bow their heads and eat little chunks of bread while sipping on small plastic grape juice cups. And though those cups were collected and put to good childish use later on, these and other weekly rituals began something in me as a small child. Of course, while my family attended a number of different churches during my formative years, one thing remained the same—a growing hunger to find out what was behind all of the smiling faces, words of wisdom from a leather bound book, and weekly pep talks. I suppose you could say that the Holy Spirit put a deposit in my heart that continued to grow until one day I found myself packing up my wife and kids and heading to seminary to find out what my life and the world/cosmos/Bible/history was all about.
While my family attended a number of different churches during my formative years, one thing remained the same—a growing hunger to find out what was behind all of the smiling faces, words of wisdom from a leather bound book, and weekly pep talks.
When it comes to the Bible, the truth is, offering a simplistic statement as to why someone can have confidence in the Bible is not that easy—though I do believe it is worthy of confidence. Does that sound harsh or a little dangerous? Let me explain. For me, the confidence I have in the Bible and the God which it brings us into contact with, comes from wrestling with the text and from a history of interacting with that same God through prayer and community. My own personal view of the Bible is rather complex and I’ve come a long way in my own faith. And probably because I’ve been in and around the church since I was a kid, my view is that it is sometimes better to present the complexities as they really are, especially to new Christians, because later in life when the going gets tough, people want to cling to something that has real substance, something that has been fought for, not necessarily something that is easily packaged. When it comes to the Bible, a good foundation of its origins should not be neglected. Knowing how the Bible has come to be, especially since Christians focus much of their spirituality on this book, is an important aspect of our faith. In this article, we’ll start off with the basics of the Old Testament.
Any discussion of the Old Testament (OT) should include a short breakdown of its components. In fact this is one of the best ways to begin to talk about the OT because the divisions were not always so clear cut. The traditional three divisions of the Old Testament (also known as the “tripartite”) includes the Torah, Prophets and Writings. This three-part collection is known as the Tanakh in Jewish Tradition. A closer look at the collection of books reveals that the Torah includes the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), while the Prophets include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Prophets (many times referred to as the “minor” prophets). The Writings include Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
When speaking of the Old Testament, a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that the Torah forms the core of just about everything with regard to Judaism, the historical foundation of Christianity. When we want to know where the Old Testament came from, it is generally a good idea to start with the Torah. The “Torah” means “teaching,” “instruction,” or “Law.” The first five books of the Hebrew bible informed almost all aspects of Jewish cultural life: festivals, practices, laws, instructions, rituals, national histories, anecdotes, explanations of cosmological origins and much more. In essence, it was and is the constitutional text of the Jewish people.
The Old Testament is not just a thick section in the front of our Christian bibles with some strange and interesting stories, but really the Hebrew Bible. This is important to note because the earliest Christians were Jews and the Old Testament was the primary collection of texts which informed the early church and helped to shape its theology. In fact, one of the primary ways the Old Testament functioned in the shaping of the theology of the early church was its ability to confirm that Jesus was the Messiah. The early church pored over the Old Testament, which pointed to the validity of Jesus as the Christ. Thus, the Old Testament played a highly important role in the way the early church sought to engage their fellow Jews. This engagement depended on the early Christians finding ways to prove to their countrymen that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and they used the Old Testament as the proving ground.
While the notion of a three-part Old Testament seems familiar to most people, this was not always the case. In fact, scholars disagree on what exactly constituted the Hebrew Bible in ancient times. Like all historical studies, the Hebrew scripture presents a highly complex and long history where things are not exactly straightforward—the known threads of history are interwoven to create a complicated, rich, and intricately designed tapestry.
Origin of the term “Old Testament”
One of the first things to explore in our brief, whirlwind tour of the Old Testament and its origins is the very notion of the “Old Testament.” The term came from the early Christian era, a time known as the “Patristic” period which stretches from the late first century CE (scholars now use BCE and CE instead of BC and AD) to roughly the sixth century CE. During this period, a Bishop named Irenaeus of Lyons first coined the term “Old Testament” in reference to the Hebrew scripture.
Before Irenaeus began calling it the “Old Testament,” there is evidence that the term “scripture” itself meant something like that which “defiled the hands.” The logic behind this was that if the scriptures were considered “unclean” they would be prevented from being used for common purposes. For example, if the bones of a parent were not labeled “unclean,” the bones might be in danger of being used for common utensils. This prevented important objects from being misused. If the scriptures and the bones of ancestors were considered “unclean”, they would be revered and protected over the years.
The First Five Books of the Old Testament
A brief study of the scholarly issues surrounding the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah, will reveal an area worthy of a lifetime of study. But an important starting point might be to answer the question: “Who wrote the Old Testament?” Prior to about the seventeenth century, it was simply assumed that Moses was the author of the first five books of the OT. But as with everything else that has evolved, the study of ancient text evolved as well.
As the study of ancient texts became more refined over the years, documents were more closely scrutinized based on historical and logical grounds, finding different structures and variants in the text. In the wake of a few centuries of historical critical study of the Old Testament texts, many observed that much of the Torah was completed later than once thought. In fact, although the Torah contains sections of very ancient literature (Exodus 15 for example), many came to believe that most of the collection was edited into its final form during the period of time when the Jews returned to Jerusalem from Babylon around the 520 BCE, called the “Postexilic” period.
It is thought that the editors of the final form of the Torah were Jewish leaders trying to make sense of their experiences in Babylon and therefore they needed a core set of texts by which to organize their national identity. This might have been seen as something similar to the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence, which are the core texts that the American national identity is organized around. Some scholars believe that certain political and economic circumstances that existed around the time of Josiah’s discovery of the lost “book of the Law” in the 620’s BCE, sparked a revival of Jewish national introspection. This led to a large scale editing project which aimed to create a more continuous narrative of the history of Israel juxtaposed against a unified law code.
One of the best known historical critical studies on the Old Testament was done by a man named Julius Wellhausen. What Wellhausen found after careful investigation of the Old Testament was that it looked like there were a number of different sources present in the OT text itself.
Wellhausen found “literary seams” where it appeared that different types of literature had been stitched together to form one document. In addition, Wellhausen and others proposed that Moses could not have been the author of the whole Torah because many portions of the Torah clearly spoke of events that happened after the death of Moses.
Those that maintain that Moses was the author of the Torah believe that, being a prophet, Moses had seen the future and was recounting a prophetic vision. But for Welhausen and supporters, it was clear that the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch—which stands for “five books”) contained materials from different writers and possibly different time periods and perspectives. Although Wellhasusen’s initial ideas have been largely critiqued over the years, the basic ideas that he laid out are still considered standard in most scholarship.
The main ideas proposed by Wellhasusen state that there were at least four main types of literature, or sources in the Torah. Wellhasusen defined them as the following: J (Jahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuternomistic), P (Priestly). The “JEDP” theory, or “Documentary Hypothesis,” forms the backdrop to most of the introductory literature on the Old Testament. The theory tries to make sense of the fact that, among other examples, there are two different accounts of creation in the book of Genesis.
In the past you may have read right through these two accounts without noticing, but if you were to go back and pay careful attention to Genesis 1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4b-25 you will notice that they are two different accounts. Upon paying careful attention to these two accounts, scholars like Wellhausen noticed that the first account was very orderly with a defined literary structure that contained what is called “doublets,” and concluded with an observance of the Sabbath, while the second account contained much more informal language set in a more narrative form. Based on this and other detailed analyses, the first account seemed to have been written by a Priestly source (“P” in the JEDP theory), since the author showed more concern for ritual and Sabbath observance and featured God as distant. The second account was written by a Yahwist (“J” for Jahwist) source, where the author shows God more characteristically, doing more mundane, average, indeed human things—walking in the garden, making clothes and breathing life into the man and woman.
In the end, I believe that new Christians are sometimes better served by getting a more realistic picture of what they are getting into right from the beginning. This reminds me of Christ’s notion of “counting the cost” before setting out on a lengthy endeavor. With that in mind, I urge you to spend ample time with the scriptures to understand why you can have confidence in the Bible. I truly believe that when Christ calls us to build our houses on the rock and not the sand, He does so knowing that the process is anything but simplistic and easy, however it yields eternal assurance and security.