Introduction to the Old Testament

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).

Study Tips:

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

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.


  1. Antonio Parr says:

    You are obviously not your “run of the mill” Gospel Doctrine teacher. Looks to me as if your class is in for a singular experience. Lucky for them.

  2. Good luck Kevin. Thanks for the plug.

  3. My mom read “the book”. It was not a new translation of the bible per se, but an attempted novelization of the same.

  4. K B,

    I have plans to follow suit, delivering non-denominational bible study classes weekdays in a nursing home. May I copy and save your thoughts to help me along?

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the info, Matt W. I’ve never actually seen a copy. And Dale, by all means feel free.

  6. This is very good. I delivered a similar intro. lessons a few years ago and included some of the same ideas. In addition, under study tips, I included:
    1) Don’t get too caught up in numbers. Generous embellishments were recorded by scribes throughout the ancient middle east. For example, the reigns of the first seven legendary kings of Sumer were up to 75,000 years long (Kramer). In like manner, the Israelite army in Egypt was said to have numbered 600,000. This is definitely the 1,000 lb. gorilla who could have sat anywhere he wanted. A millennia later, Alexander’s army seldom rose about 70,000, and conquered the known world.
    2) Remember that the majority of the OT books were written by unknown scribes long after the events took place, and they didn’t try to hide this fact. It is not uncommon for an event to be described, like the stones marking Joshua’s crossing, with the phrase something like “and they are there to this very day”, a bit like someone might say that the kivas at Chaco Canyon stand to this very day.
    3) At no place is there a prophet like Mormon to redact the writings through inspiration, so for the most part the books remain the writings of scribes who had their own agenda. I mentioned this because many LDS’s, even with the caveat of the “as far as it is translated correctly” clause, have a tendency to be so literal in their interpretation of scripture that it would make an evangelical Southern Baptist blush. There are some very problematic things in the OT, and I told them to rely upon the Holy Ghost for guidance, as well as looking at how God dealt with His children in other books of scripture.
    I used for example of God commanding Joshua’s army to destroy everything – women, babies, old people, livestock, kitties, puppies – as they take over people’s homes and lands. We are told that it is because they are pagans and will influence the Israelites if they are left to live. I pointed out that, well, everyone on the planet at that time was pagan except for the few souls who knew of YHWH. I also pointed out that archaeology does not support such mass destruction during this time period. But even more than this, I said to look for this type of slaughter in any other scripture. The Nephites are not commanded to slaughter the Lamanites, Jesus doesn’t command his followers to wipe out the Romans, JS is not told by God to destroy all of the Missourians so that the New Jerusalem can be built. I said that I know that you are walking on shaky ground when you pick and choose which scriptures are “true” and which aren’t, so it’s their call on accepting things in the OT that I personally am uncomfortable with.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for sharing, larryco_.

  8. >A huge one is to use modern translations to supplement your reading of the KJV.

    The summum bonum.

  9. If you want a quick overview of how the Old Testament was compiled, read the first few chapters of Karen Armstrong’s, “The Bible: A Biography.” Here insights regarding the how the two major destructions of the Jerusalem temple (6th Century BC; 1st Century AD) served as the catalyst for the OT and NT are intriguing.

    For an excellent overview of the Old Testament, check out “Introduction to the Bible,” by Christine Hayes (“Bible” in the title refers just to the OT). And if you want to get a feel for how the authors of the OT engaged in revisionist history in order to burnish the image of certain biblical figures, I recommend “The Historical David,” by Joel Baden.

    So many books, so little time …

  10. Hello Kevin, Thanks for this great article and i hope am not sounding like an Oliver Twist, but tracking down those articles you recommended is proving difficult at the moment, could you please link them up?

  11. One thing to keep in mind when reading the Old Testament (and thebNew) is the words of Augustine of Hippo “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New.”

    So for me, I read it with this in mind and it opens up so much beauty to the Scriptures.

  12. Kevin Barney says:
  13. Kevin, always enjoy drinking from your fountain of knowledge. Keep it up

  14. “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?”

    I’m not a Jew, a Christian, or even a Mormon, but this is something I’ve always wondered. Thanks for answering that question and for the rest of this post – a good intro even for people who know very little about your religion!

  15. David Elliott says:

    Popo, I have the same question. I thought the “Hebrew Bible” had 36 books. The story goes that when the Old Testament books were translated into Greek, the Greeks used smaller scrolls and had to split up Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles into two books each.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Ezra-Nehemiah also got split into two, and the Book of the Twelve Prophets got split into 12 actual books. So that’s how 24 = 39.

  17. Another resource is Robert Alter’s translations and commentary. He explains why he translates the lines as he does. Very informative.

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