Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bible Basics, Day 6: The Old Testament

Torah Reader by Irving Amen

The Old Testament

I.  Why study the Old Testament?  

     Why should we bother learning about the Old Testament?  Many Christian groups don't consider the Old Testament very important, but as Catholics we treasure these books as foundational to our  faith.  The Catechism teaches:

"...the books of the Old Testament bear witness to the whole divine pedagogy of God's saving love: these writings 'are a storehouse of sublime teaching on God and of sound wisdom on human life, as well as a wonderful treasury of prayers; in them, too, the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way.'"--CCC 122

What a wonderful meditation!  When we pray, "Dear God, come to me and hear me!  Answer my prayer and save me from my sins!", do we stop to consider that since the very foundation of the world God has already been preparing and working to answer that prayer?  Everything that happened and is recorded in the Old Testament is part of God's plan of salvation and His pedagogy, or teaching. The value of the entire body of Scripture was stated by St. Jerome  when he declared:

St. Jerome in His Study, Ghirlandaio
[I obey] the precepts of Christ who says "examine the Scriptures" (John 5:39) and "seek and you will find." (Matt 7:7) (remember here that the only "Scriptures" these listeners had were, of course, the Old Testament Scriptures!)  Let me not hear with the Jews: "you are wrong because you do not know scriptures nor the power of God." (Matt. 22:29)  For if, according to the apostle Paul, Christ is "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24) and who does not know Scripture does not know the power or the wisdom of God, then ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.(emphasis added)

A "pedagogue" was a special slave in Ancient Greece. "Pedagogue" literally means "lead the child."  He had the responsibility of escorting the young boys of the household to school and carrying their books and equipment. "Pedagogy" means "a style  or theory of teaching".  God's "style of teaching" was to prepare His people by means of all of the events and prophecies recorded in the Old Testament. 

The more we study the Scriptures, we more will learn more about Christ--who He is, why He came, how we should respond to Him.   

Another Father of the Church,  St. Augustine, said this about the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament:
St. Augustine,

The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, 
and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.

  We study the Old Testament because it is the inspired Word of God, declaring and communicating to us everything God did to prepare for the coming of His Son.  All of its prophecies, the entire law, and all of its hopes were perfected and fulfilled in the life, death, and Resurrection of Our Savior:

 Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.--Mt. 5:17

  Hidden in the Old Testament stories and words of wisdom are lessons for us on the love, faithfulness, and mercy of God.  It contains the prophecies that prove Jesus to be the Savior, the Redeemer of Israel who was to come, the Suffering Servant, the Lion of Judah,  the great offspring of David, and the King whose reign would have no end.  It helps us conform our minds to God's thoughts and to learn what are the rewards of holiness and the punishment of wickedness--indeed, even to learn what we must do (or avoid doing) to be pure and holy. It teaches us the price that must be paid for the forgiveness of sin and the need for sacrifice. Later, we will delve more deeply into some of the ways Christ is hidden in the Old Testament, especially in the prophecies and images of sacrifice and love.

Christ Crucified, Diego Velazquez

II.  The Languages of the Old Testament

      If you open your Bible in the very middle, you will most likely find yourself in the Book of Psalms.  Wasn't God so good to place this book in the center of our Bibles?  In times of trial and distress, joy and praise, we can just open right in the middle and find a Psalm that will express the joy or sorrow of our hearts. When we open to the middle of our Bible, however, it doesn't neatly divide into Old and New Testaments;  we are still in the Old Testament.  In fact, the 46 books of the Old Testament compose about 2/3 of our present Bibles.
   God used many different authors over a period of more than 2,000 years to compose the Old Testament Scriptures. Among them were Moses, David, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.   Most of these authors composed in their native Semitic language--Hebrew.  A few small sections scattered throughout were probably originally in Aramaic (a language related to Syriac which we shall discuss at greater length when we look at the New Testament). A few of the latest books (Sirach, 1 and 2 Maccabees, for example) may have been composed in Greek.  There is evidence, however, that they were originally written in Hebrew and translated into Greek almost immediately. 

 III.  The Sections of the Old Testament

      The Hebrew Scriptures were usually divided into three sections:

          Torah (the Law):  This included the first five books of the Bible, known as the "Pentateuch" (do you see the resemblance to "pentagon"?  "Penta-" means "five").  These are the foundational texts of Judaism and include the Ten Commandments, the Law of Moses, and the record of God's dealings with His people from the Creation of the world to the death of Moses just prior to their entry into the land of Canaan.  The Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers are considered "Torah".

      Naviim (the Prophets):  Here would be included the books of Samuel, the writings of the early history of Israel (such as Joshua and Judges), and the writings of major (their writings were more extensive and so the scrolls holding them were greater, or major) prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the writings of minor (short writings, smaller scrolls) prophets. The books included in  "Naviim" are: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (both combined), Kings (combined), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and The Twelve (one book which combines all twelve minor prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi).
       Kethubim (the Writings):  The Psalms are the first "writings", followed by other books of wisdom sayings and poetry (Proverbs, Song of Songs). In "Kethubim" are the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah (combined), and Chronicles (combined).

     When Jesus says in Luke 24:44, "...These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled,"  he is referring to these three traditional sections of the Old Testament.  These three sections together were known as "Tanakh", an acronym that uses the first few letters from the names of each section. 

IV.  The Old Testament Canons

     When we talk about the Hebrew Scriptures, we must first of all realize that in the early years of the first century, there was no single authoritative list of which books were considered to be Scripture.  There were multiple opinions on this matter at the time of Christ, and among the possible canons were: 

Samaritan Canon:  The Samaritans only recognized the first five books of the Bible, the Torah or books of Moses, as inspired.  The Sadducees also probably followed this canon. 

Masoretic Text:  This is the "Tanakh" referred to above, and is recognized by Jews today as the Hebrew Scriptures.  It includes 24 books which you can see listed above.  Most of our current Old Testament is included, with the exception of the seven books known as "Deuterocanonical" or "Apocrypha".We will discuss these soon. 
The Pharisees probably used this canon or a similar list.

Septuagint:  This is a Greek translation of the Hebrew works which was used by Christ and by the Apostles and Fathers of the Church. It included the seven "Deuterocanonical" books mentioned above. More on this translation to come! 

You can see that at the time of Christ, there was not a set or fixed canon.  Different books were considered Scripture by different groups.  The Jewish canon was not "closed", or definitively set, until sometime between AD 90  and AD 200.

In my next post, we will dig more deeply into the Septuagint and learn why the Church set the Old Testament canon based on this text. 

 I want to take a moment to comment here on B.C. and A.D.  This method of dating was not developed until  AD 525, and was really not used widely until the 9th century.  When it was first invented by a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus, he determined that the year of Christ's birth was 525 years prior (which it probably wasn't exactly) and it was on this date that all other dates were based..  B.C. means Before Christ, and A.D. means "Anno Domini", which is Latin for "The Year of the Lord".  Generally, we write 44 B.C., but  usually we put the "A.D." first, as in A.D. 123.    Some scholars today use "C.E."  (Common Era, that would correspond to A.D.) and "B.C.E." (Before the Common Era, which corresponds to B.C.) instead of the traditional B.C. and A.D. dates, but they are the same.  That is, A.D. 525 is the same as 525 C.E.   One other important tidbit...there is no year 0.  The calendar goes directly from 1 B.C. to AD 1!  Once our Lord was born, it WAS the Year of the Lord.  (In fact, most scholars today think Dionysius was a few years off.  Herod the Great died around 4 B.C., and we know from the Gospel of Luke that Jesus was born sometime before Herod died.)


Wow!  Sometimes the hardest part of the post is thinking of a "homework assignment"!

1.  Read I Corinthians 10:6-13.  One of the reasons the lives of so many people are recorded in the Old Testament is for our that we can take warning and avoid sin.
2.  Read Hebrews 11.  Another reason for the stories of the Old Testament is to encourage us in faith, to show us the faithfulness and perseverance of those who have trusted in God in the past, and to reveal to us the great worth and infinite preciousness of the gift of salvation which was finally accomplished by Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Main Idea:  The Old Testament Scriptures are an integral part of God's plan and Revelation.  Study of the Old Testament is important to increasing our faith and understanding. 

Next lesson: The Septuagint 

 A beautiful song that reminds me of the everlasting love of God:


  1. I am playing catch up here a little bit - I just put together all the assignments to start a journal. I'm not sure what books of the Bible you might go over in the future but I understand the "why" of the Old Testament and have found so much comfort in the Pslams, but then I go to read a book like Joshua where whole kingdoms are being destroyed including women and children....ugh...I just don't know how to relate to those events. Know what I mean?

    On another note, dh and I just watched the "The Book of Eli" - a movie about a post apocalyptic America in which a man is crossing the country to get last remaining Bible on earth to its destination - sort of a Divinely inspired mission, it seemed. It is a rated "R" movie - a bit gruesome at times. I don't want to give any spoilers but the end made me a little sad for several reasons. Just thought I would mention it - good movie to watch with a hubby - NOT a "chic flic" by any stretch of the imagination!

  2. Yes, sometimes it is hard to understand the violence of past times. I think we don't like to think about the reality of the judgement of God, but as we see in the book of Hebrews, these things happened "as a warning" to us. Pretty serious thought! When we cover Joshua and the entrance into Canaan, I'll try to remember to talk about this more, although I do not think we can ever understand it completely from our mortal perspective. We can know that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are one and the same God, both holy and merciful, and He never changes; our understanding of Him, however, may change.

  3. Caroline - reading over Hebrews 11 a couple of times actually helped a bit - especially vs. 29-39 gave a me the merest glimpse of a *bigger* picture. I have to keep giving up my ideas and trust in Him.

  4. Donna, it is hard for us to get the "eternal perspective." God sees all time, all people, the BIG picture, indeed! When we see the destruction of entire cultures in the OT, we believe (because we know that God is GOOD) that it was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the Truth so that many, many millions of people in our time could come to salvation. And eternal life is a greater and more permanent good than mere physical life. God never allows suffering unless a greater good will come from it...whether we see it or not.
    I like the analogy of the bus accident. Let us say you are watching a video that shows a man hurling himself in front of a moving bus...and he is killed by the bus. You would be horrified! What a senseless tragedy! But now let us say that what you saw at first was only a clip, and that upon seeing the video again you watch the first several minutes you had missed. Those minutes show a child, running in front of the bus. The man saved the child's life by pushing her out of the way at the cost of his own life. Now, we see a great act of sacrifice for a great good--not at all a senseless tragedy. God sees the WHOLE picture...we only see "clips".
    Hope that helps some!