I’m doing an Intro to the OT lesson tomorrow. Below is some of the gist of what I hope to manage to get across.
Decades ago, I remember a TV commercial campaign for something called “The Book,” with Tom Landry being one of the people pushing it. The commercials were coy about what this book was, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out it was a new translation of the Bible (one which has not stood the test of time, I’m afraid). It’s common for people to think of the Bible as THE Book par excellence, a perception that is supported by the Latin word whence out “bible” derives, biblia, which was long perceived to be a feminine singular. But the source of this word is the Greek ta biblia, which is a neuter plural, meaning “the books [IE scrolls].” So we cannot think of the Bible as a single book, despite the fact that we bind it as a single codex today, but rather as a collection of books. And this collection is organized, making it a religious library.
The main division in this library is between the Old and New Testaments. The intent of the word testament (Latin testamentum) is a little bit unclear, but it appears to be used not in its normal sense of “will” but in the sense of “covenant” (= Greek diatheke). Old Testament is a Christian designation, grounded in the view that the “new covenant” described in Jeremiah 31:31-34 is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. A more neutral designation, common in contemporary scholarship, is “Hebrew Bible.”
Jews of course do not describe their scripture as the “Old Testament,” but as the Tanakh. Tanakh, like MASH (“Mobile Army Surgical Hospital”), is not a Hebrew word but rather an acronym, its three consonants standing for Torah [the Law], Nevi’im [the Prophets] and Ketuvim [the Writings]. And indeed, the Hebrew Bible consists of 24 books, organized into these three groupings. The Protestant canon of the Old Testament, which is what we follow, consists of 39 books, yet it covers the same material as the Hebrew Bible’s 24 books. How can that be?
The Old Testament was originally composed in Hebrew, with some small portions in Aramaic. Eventually these texts were translated into Greek, which had become the lingua franca of the ancient world (this translation is called the Septuagint [from Latin septuaginta "seventy," often abbreviated LXX] from a tradition that it was accomplished by 72 elders in 70 days). The Greeks favored scrolls that were smaller and thus more convenient to use than those of the Hebrews, which resulted in some of the long books being split up. So Samuel becomes 1 and 2 Samuel; same with Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. And the Hebrew Book of the 12 minor prophets was actually split up into 12 separate books. So four long books get doubled, resulting in four additional books, and one long book results in 11 additional books, and thus the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible plus these 15 additional books become the 39 books of the Protestant canon. Although these canons cover the same material, they are organized differently. The Hebrew Bible ends with Chronicles, while the Protestant OT ends with Malachi. Instead of a three-fold organization, the Protestant canon has a four-fold organization: Pentateuch (“Five Scrolls” = Torah), historical books, literary writings, and prophets.
The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons are more closely based on the Septuagint and include more books than does the Protestant canon. These extra books are called deuterocanonicals (“belonging to the second canon”), in addition to the protocanonicals (“belonging to the first canon”), reflecting the idea that they were accepted into the canon later but are no less canonical. Protestants refer to these books as the Apocrypha (see the BD s.v. “Apocrypha” and D&C 91).
In Hebrew the names of the books tend to be based on the opening words; thus Genesis is Bereshit (“In the Beginning”) and Exodus is Shemot (“Names”). Our book names are more closely based on the Greek names, which are more descriptive of the content. Thus:
Genesis = Origin
Exodus = Departure
Leviticus = Relating to the Levites
Numbers [GR arithmoi] = Censuses [referring to the wilderness wandering]
Deuteronomy = Second Law or Repetition of the Law [a mistranslation of Dt. 17:18 "a copy of this law"]
1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings in the LXX are a single book in four parts, 1-4 Of Reigns [BasileiOn]. The title pages to these books in the KJV make this clear. This is a useful trick to remembering the content of these books:
1 Kings [= 1 Sam.] deals with Saul
2 Kings [= 2 Sam.] deals with David
3 Kings [= 1 Kings] deals with Solomon (and then the pattern breaks down due to the divided kingdom).
A huge one is to use modern translations to supplement your reading of the KJV. I’m partial to the NRSV and the NET myself.
Check your footnotes; use the BD. Ideally you should get a more substantial BD than the one printed in our scriptures, like the Anchor Bible Dictionary.
Language tools. (When I’m at work, I can get access to the text and lexica using blueletterbible.org)
For context in time use the Chronology tables in the BD; in space use the atlases (or a more substantial stand-alone atlas).
If you’re really committed, it would be worthwhile to read one of the one-volume introductions to the OT; I’m partial to the one by Roland Kenneth Harrison. For LDS perspective, I recommend Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament.
I imagine that’s about as far as we’ll get. Depending on class reaction, I could see myself recommending Ben S.’s recent article on translation issues from The Religious Educator (which he blogged about at T&S), or my Dialogue article on the Documentary Hypothesis, or my Ensign article on Old Testament Poetry.