Hello TTP Fam!! It’s great as always to have you here with us. We’re still on our series on the Bible dubbed “HOLY WRIT”. In case you’ve missed any of the last two posts, you know what to do. ( Get caught up here). In the first post we explored the concept of inspiration and the authority of the Bible. We also stated that all 66 books of the Bible are not only inspired but connected; in that they tell a unified story leading to Jesus Christ. But how did we settle on 66 books? How did the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament make the cut into what we call the Bible today? Join us as we seek to answer this question in today’s blog post “Justify Your Inclusion”. Due to the complexity of the topic we’re going to have to break it down into two parts. So we’ll look at the Old Testament books today and the New Testament books in our subsequent post.
The average person today has a skeptical view of how the Bible was put together. We have people like Dan Brown and his best-selling book; The Davinci Code to thank for that. In it he portrays the Bible as a document put together by some sinister religio-political figures who are bent on world domination through religion. However, Dan himself asserts that his book is purely fictional. So how did we end up with the volume we know today as the Old Testament or as I prefer to refer to it the Hebrew Bible?
The Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible contains the same material we have in our English bibles. The difference however is that the Tanakh contains 27 books whereas our English Old Testament has 39. The differences in numbers can be accounted for. In the Tanakh the twelve books we call the minor prophets are grouped together as the writing of the twelve and also the historical books of 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Chronicles are put together. Also the arrangement of the books are slightly different. See the figure below for the differences.
The name Tanakh is actually an acronym for Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (The Writings). The name represents the three divisions found in the book. They were sometimes also referred to collectively as the Law, the prophets and Psalms because the psalms was the first book in the collection of the writings. To understand how these books were collected as a whole we need to take some steps back in time and explore the texts of the Bible a little more critically than we have.
A Journey in time
Prior to the invention of paper and earlier forms of writing technology, most cultures had strong oral traditions for passing down information that mattered to them. This included their genealogies, extraordinary feats they had either achieved or that which their deities had done on their behalf. The Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, were no exception. They had strong oral traditions for passing down information and training the next generation. We begin to notice this with Abraham himself when the worship of Yahweh is passed down from generation to generation. We also see an example of this phenomenon in Deuteronomy 6.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
“And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build,
As you can see from the parts that have been highlighted there was a concerted effort to pass down the feats of God and traditions of the nation orally. This gives us our first source; oral traditions.
In Exodus 17 we see the first account of the writing of the Bible within the Bible. In this portion of scripture, the children of Israel have just crossed the Red Sea and are on their way to the promised land. The Amalekites come out to wage war on this fledgling nation. God however helps the nation of Israel secure an overwhelming victory over Amalek. In verse 14 we read;
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner,
In this first account of a written record we see Moses recording for posterity the works of God in the midst of his people. This would become a feature of their journey into the promised land and even of their stay in the land. In another account of writing, God tells Moses to write down the words of the law on tablets of stone.
In the two accounts we have just looked at we see the written record of the acts of God and the commands of God. So far in our journey we have oral traditions and now written sources of God’s acts and how he expects the nation of Israel to relate with Him and with each other.
As Israel settled into the land, they recorded their conquests of the Canaanite nations, the losses they suffered as a result of their disobedience to Yahweh and the victories of their tribal leaders (Judges) and the victories their kings won in battle when the monarchy had been established. The records were put together and probably kept by the scribes of the palace court and the Levites in the temple. There is evidence that suggest the existence of such a source within the text. In 2 Chronicles when the author is giving his closing remarks on the life of King Jotham, he says; Now the rest of the acts of Jotham, and all his wars and his ways, indeed they are written in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned for sixteen years in Jerusalem. So Jotham rested with his fathers, and they buried him in the City of David. Then Ahaz his son reigned in his place ( 2 Chronicles 27:7-9).
Not too long after the reign of Solomon, the once united and thriving Kingdom of Israel split into two under the reign of his son, Rehoboam. The ten tribes to the north became the kingdom of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin and Judah became the kingdom of Judah to the south. In this period, the nations went after the idols of other nations in clear contravention of the stipulations of the Law. During this period there arose some enigmatic figures known as prophets. These were God’s spiritual watchdogs. Their main preoccupation was to call the nation to order. They did this with their poetic sermons and oracles, prophecies of doom and gloom for continued disobedience, prosperity for repentance and a return to the true God of Israel. The warnings and oracles of these prophets were also recorded. For instance in Jeremiah 36 we read;
In the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.”
Jeremiah began his ministry in the 13th year of the reign of King Josiah (Jer 1:2) so that would mean Jeremiah was going to produce a volume that contained 22 years of public preaching and prophecy. If you follow the story in Jeremiah 36, the king burnt down the first volume and Jeremiah had to produce a second volume this time containing more material. The amazing part is, years later while in exile in Babylon, Daniel makes reference to the writings of the prophet Jeremiah.
In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans— in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.
What we see here is that the writings of the prophets were considered authoritative, because they were viewed as the mouthpiece of God. Now let’s pause to take some stock. We now have a number of sources; oral traditions, the commissioned writings of Moses, the historical accounts of the tribal leaders (judges) and kings, and the writings and oracles of the prophets.
One big whole
In 586 BCE, the nation of Judah was taken captive by the Babylonian empire. Their brothers, Israel to the north, had been captured centuries earlier (722 BCE) by the Assyrians. The Israelites knew they had been sent into exile because of their continual disobedience and departure from the terms of the covenant they had with Yahweh. While in exile some priests and scribes who were faithful to Yahweh began the process of collecting and compiling these sources into one document in order to preserve the worship of Yahweh. The underlying assumption was if they were faithful to Yahweh he would bring them back from exile. After 70 years in exile, the captives of Judah returned to Jerusalem. The records of the events around their return are recorded in the works of Ezra and Nehemiah in what best reads like a memoir of Nehemiah.
This compiling work by the scribes is what accounts for “to this day” language we encounter in some portions of the Old Testament and also explains how the record of Moses’ death is found in books attributed to him. They were simply editorial inserts added by the compilers who had the oral traditions of what had taken place since.
By the year 450 BCE (during the Hasmonean dynasty) the Hebrew Bible was completed.
We need to take one more historical detour. With the return from exile, most of the returnees spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew. This explains why portions of the exiling and post-exilic books contain portions of Aramaic. Also after the rise and fall of Alexander the Great most of the nations in and around the Mediterranean spoke Koine Greek (the Greek of the common folk). At the request of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BCE), ruler of Alexandria the Tanakh was translated into Greek. This was to enable the Jews in his region to have access to their holy scriptures. He appointed 70 Jewish scribes to work independently on translating the Tanakh. They all produced almost identical copies. This Greek translation is what we call the Septuagint, which literally means the translation of the seventy.
By the time Jesus was born, these two major documents, the Tanakh and the Septuagint, were in wide circulation among the Jewish communities and was in use in the synagogues and temples. The Pharisees held it in high esteem, the Essenes, a separatist Jewish religious group also had a high regard for the Tanakh and Septuagint. Jesus Christ himself often referenced these books and saw himself as the ultimate fulfillment of the texts. In one of the post resurrection discourses Jesus had with the disciples we see him reference the Tanakh.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that 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.”
Jesus uses a popular three-fold descriptive term for the Tanakh. The Law, Prophets and Psalms.
As we have explored so far, the development of the Hebrew Bible was organic. The books were generally regarded as authoritative and inspired. Jesus viewed the books as authoritative and inspired. The apostles saw the Christian message as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophetic hopes. Other groups like the Pharisees and Essenes also viewed it as authoritative and inspired as well. The development of the books into a unified recognized canon and its use by other groups that were opposed to the Christian message rules out the whole conspiracy narrative.
In our next post we are going to explore the development and reception of the New Testament books. Until then we stay safe and God bless you.
- THE FORMATION OF THE HEBREW BIBLE – David M. Carr
- WHO WROTE THE BIBLE – Richard Elliott Freidman