Shaping of the Old Testament

April 25, 2022
April 25, 2022 Fiona

The Shaping of the Old Testament 

My earlier articles this year on the Codex Sinaiticus and the Dead Sea Scrolls have raised the issue of when and how the Bible came together in the form that we know today. So I have decided to devote June and July to the Old and New Testaments respectively.

We tend to think of our Old Testament as being simply the Jewish or Hebrew Bible. But it isn’t quite as straightforward as that because, despite the large amounts of common ground, there are some differences in content and in the ordering of the books (which took some time to be settled in both Jewish and Christian traditions). Additionally, of course, the relative importance of the various books is different in each of the faiths and there are inevitably differences in the way they are read. Although the earliest surviving manuscript of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible is from the eleventh century, what was accepted as ‘in’ and what was regarded as ‘out’ was most likely settled by the second century CE. In Judaism, this had been arrived at by a process of gradual consensus over several centuries, not by any kind of official decision. In this, the Jewish Bible differs from the Christian which, although it also developed gradually, was ultimately validated— confirmed as a fixed canon – by conciliar decree. That, however, did not take place until the fourth century. Throughout the period we often refer to as ‘biblical times’, there was actually no Bible: it was still in formation.

So one of the reasons why there are differences between the form and content of the Jewish Bible and the Christian Old Testament is that there was some fluidity in the period when the Christian Bible was developing. There wasn’t, in other words, a defined set of texts from the time of Christ, with a fixed order, which Christianity could choose to take over, reinterpret, and rename as the Old Testament, alongside their own still evolving New Testament.

Origen (c.185-c.253) was one of the leading figures in giving theological shape to the already existing sense in Christian tradition that the various Jewish authority-texts, referred to by Jesus, Paul and the gospel-writers, indicated a divine plan, which had been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, to which the new Christian texts bore witness. Hence, from this time onwards, we have an elaborated and theologically grounded sense of a New Testament (the New Covenant) that needs to be set alongside the Jewish Covenant, as embodied in their writings. These books consequently became, in the Christian context, the Old Covenant or Old Testament, read and understood as witness to a larger plan that had been prefigured (OT) and was now fulfilled (NT).

In Judaism today the biblical books are ordered as: The Law (the Torah), The Prophets (major and minor) and The Writings (sundry works, including the Psalms). Given the new way of reading what it understood as the Old Testament, Christianity quickly began to give distinctive shape to its collection of ‘Old Testament’ books in order to support its interpretative scheme. Thus the Old Testament beings with history (as the Jewish Bible does), but ends with the prophets, so leading into the New Testament, where the prophecies find their fulfilment. The fixity of this new order was easily preserved because, exceptionally, Christian Bibles were, from the start, always written as sequential texts in books (codices), rather than as individual texts on rolls. But that’s a story for another time.

Joyce Hill

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