Befriending the Old Testament: Part 2

WelCom April 2019: Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm Last month I suggested that the Old Testament was really the story of God’s love affair with a particular group of people. This month…

WelCom April 2019:
Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm
Befriending the  Old Testament: Part 2 Archdiocese of Wellington

Elizabeth Julian RSM.

Last month I suggested that the Old Testament was really the story of God’s love affair with a particular group of people. This month we will consider the Old Testament as a library rather than a book, as well as some of the other names we use to describe it.


A library not a book

The Old Testament is more like a library than a book. The books are usually grouped into four categories.

  • Pentateuch
  • Historical Books
  • Wisdom
  • Prophets

The Old Testament comes out of a predominantly oral culture – many of the narratives show the characteristics of storytelling, for example they are repetitious. Neither a transcript nor a verbatim report but a series of religious reflections handed down from one generation to the next; the book didn’t fall from on high.

Originally written in Hebrew with a few parts in Aramaic, we only have copies today since the originals have been lost. These copies are on papyrus made from a reed-like plant, or on parchment, which were made from animal skin. At that time the usual form was the scroll but it wasn’t very user friendly, taking two hands to use it successfully, one to hold it and the other to unfurl. Then it had to be rewound. The handwritten black letters were difficult to read because there were no breaks between the letters. (As a six-year-old I had great difficulty with the word ‘nowhere’: did it mean ‘no where’ or ‘now here’ as in he was ‘nowhere’ to be found?)

Another problem was that a scroll could be very long. For example, the 66 chapters of the Book of Isaiah required a scroll of at least seven metres. This meant it was virtually impossible for the entire Old Testament to be found on one scroll. Very often a separate scroll was used for each book. The development of the codex or book format in the late first century of the Common Era (CE) made a big difference. Individual pages were bound together in a format similar to a book today.

The earliest complete copy of the Old Testament, the Leningrad Codex housed today in the national Library of Russia, is dated 1008 CE. However, in 1947 shepherds discovered scrolls in caves near the Dead Sea dating back to the first century. These were copies of the original Old Testament texts. There were more than 900 biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls. They included at least fragments from every book of the Old Testament, except perhaps for the Book of Esther.

What do we call this book?

The term ‘Old Testament’ has traditionally been used to describe this collection of books. Some Christians use the terms ‘Jewish Scriptures’ or ‘Hebrew Scriptures’ to avoid claiming that Christians have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people since Jews rejected Jesus. Both terms, however, are not strictly accurate. ‘Jewish Scriptures’ implies they belong only to the Jews. The Church rejected this claim in the second century. Referring to the Old Testament as the ‘Hebrew Bible’ is inaccurate linguistically because the Old Testament also contains books written originally in Greek and Aramaic. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t contain books in Greek. For Jews the Old Testament is not old – it’s their sacred book so some Christians refer to it as the ‘First Testament’. However, for this series we’ll continue to use ‘Old Testament’.

Another important point is because much biblical scholarship today is done by both Jews and Christians it’s becoming more common to use the terms BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) instead of the more familiar terms BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) [in the year of Our Lord]. While the two sets of terms have different meanings, they divide history the same way. However, the former terms – BCE and CE – are much more religiously inclusive than BC and AD.

So from a library to name, next month we will look at the actual number of books in the Old Testament and how that total came about.

The Old Testament for Catholics is a collection of 46 books, written over a long period of time, in many different places, by many different people.