I won’t go into much detail on the writing and redaction of most of the OT books; doing so would require writing a series of books.
The OT did not spring out of nothing, no matter what the fundamentalist inspiration hypothesis (I will not dignify it with the term ‘theory’) says. Its birth is a long process of oral tradition being compiled into books which were then redacted and re-redacted. In this redactive process the new layers of tradition were added to previous ones, and this sometimes created rather curious texts. A famous example of this is Genesis, which has two distinctly separate Creation narratives – this is especially clear in the original Hebrew. The first one is Gen 1:1-2:4, where the creator is ‘Elohim and the second one is Gen 2:5-25, where the creator is Yahweh. Such contradictions in any texts are signs of redaction done – and done rather clumsily – when the redactors were interpreting and rewriting the textual traditions to make them more relevant to a changed historical situation.
The Writing of the OT
The books of the OT can be divided into three distinct groups: history books, prophets and poetical works – though this division is by no means exact. Judaism divides them into the Torah, Prophets and Writings.
The first textual evidence of any of the books of the Bible are two silver scrolls probably used as amulets found in the Ketef Hinnom archaeological site near the Old City of Jerusalem. They are dated to c. 600 BCE and contain the well-known Priestly Blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26. The next textual find is the Qumran corpus, the oldest of the scrolls being from c. 200 BCE.
The OT was written between c. 900-150 BCE, though large parts of it are clearly based on much older oral tradition. This oral tradition was largely collected and arranged systematically by c. 700 BCE, though redaction and plain rewriting continued much longer. The collection that we now think as the canonical OT was finished with the inclusion of the youngest book of the OT, the book of Daniel, which can be reliably dated to 165 BCE.
The language of the books is mostly Hebrew, though some of the younger books have Aramaic sections in them, most notably Daniel. The book of Job is especially problematic, as the language differs considerably from any other text of the OT, and given its characteristics, some scholars suspect it might be in Edomite. What is certain is that it has Aramaic, Arabian and Akkadian words in it.
The Historical Books of the OT
These books concern themselves with the history of the Israelites and God’s influence in it. The most important of these are the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible. The books are characteristically religious preaching in nature, which does not make separating the historical elements in them from the theological ones precisely easy.
The dates for these books are:
- Genesis 750 BCE (400 BCE is the date of the final redaction of the Pentateuch)
- Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy 600 BCE
- Joshua 500 BCE
- Judges c. 650-500 BCE
- Ruth 500 BCE
- 1st Samuel 500 BCE
- 2nd Samuel 500 BCE
- 1st Kings 600 BCE
- 2nd Kings 600 BCE
- 1st Chronicles 300 BCE
- 2nd Chronicles 300 BCE
- Ezra 300 BCE
- Nehemiah 300 BCE
- Esther 250 BCE.
This category contains both wisdom literature and poetic books proper. The wisdom literature in the OT has Proverbs, 350 BCE, but contains much earlier material. Ecclesiastes, likely 350 – 250 BCE, and certainly post-Exilic due to the presence of Greek and Persian loan words. Job, tentatively dated to c. 500 BCE, but this is the most difficult book of them all to date.
Psalms, Song of Songs and Lamentations are the poetic books. These books are notoriously difficult to date, since they do not contain much or any historical information, with the exception of Lamentations, which is tied to the Exile. It was probably composed soon after 586 BCE. Psalms as a collection is post-Exilic, date uncertain, but it contains much older material. It is virtually impossible to individually date most of the psalms, only those that tie to a known historical instance are datable at all.
These books are traditionally divided into major and minor prophets according to the size of the book.
Major prophets are:
- Isaiah, 650 BCE (this would be the date of the final redaction of the book, of which more later)
- Jeremiah 600 BCE
- Ezekiel 500 BCE.
Minor prophets are:
- Daniel 165 BCE
- Hosea 650 BCE
- Joel 300 BCE
- Amos 650 BCE
- Obadiah 500 BCE
- Jonah 300 BCE
- Micah 650 BCE
- Nahum 600 BCE
- Habakkuk 600 BCE
- Zephaniah 600 BCE
- Haggai 500 BCE
- Zechariah 500 BCE
- Malachi 500 BCE.
In the traditional Jewish canon Daniel is not included in Prophets but in Writings. Now let’s take a closer look at some of the texts.
The Central Phases in the Development of the Pentateuch
In its current form the Pentateuch is a result of a very complex process. It is basically compiled from four originally independent sources, known as:
- J (Yahwist) c.a. 950 BCE
- E (Elohist) c. 850 BCE
- P (Priestly) c. 600-400 BCE
- D (Deuteronomist) 650-621 BCE
These have been detected through the linguistic, stylistic and theophoric elements used in these sources. These sources were compiled from oral traditions, then redacted several times and finally incorporated into the Pentateuch. It is obvious that a work of this complexity has not been the work of one single person, and since the theological perspective varies from source to source, it’s clear that several schools of thought have worked on these.
The oldest tradition is very difficult to define and date, if not impossible. What we can tell with any certainty is that it includes both written and oral narratives, contained stories, poems, proverbs, legal sayings etc. It is very likely that short fragments of tradition have been collected into larger story clusters, for example, originally stand-alone Patriarchal narratives have been compiled into a story of a single family.
These traditions were used as the basis for the oldest sources that have been reconstructed from the text of the Pentateuch, E and J. These sources were primarily separated from each other by the usage of the God’s name, Yahweh/’Elohim, though this is by no means the sole criterion, as it would be insufficient in itself. It appears that these two sources have been compiled into a single narrative, which retained only fragments of E. During this compilation the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:19-23:33) was included into the narrative, it being a diverse collection of old legal texts.
This narrative material has gone through several redactions called Deuteronomistic. During these redactions the redactors handled the material rather freely, rewriting it according to their Deuteronomistic theology. They included a whole separate book, Deuteronomy, which includes a summary of the history of the Israelites and some instructive materials presented as the farewell speech of Moses. How Deuteronomy is dated depends on how it is seen to connect with the ‘book of law’ which played a major part in Josiah’s cult reform.
The youngest level of redaction is the so-called Priestly redaction. The P source was added to the Pentateuch in the last phase of the redactions. Its contents resemble the earlier narrative materials, but it differs stylistically from them considerably with its constant use of lists, exact measures and names and the centrality of the cultistic laws and commands. The final redactor of the Pentateuch has joined the previous redaction with P, using P as the base text. P also has its own individual history, the clearest originally independent part of it being the so-called Holiness Code at Lev 17-26, which is likely a collection of codes from the Exilic era.
The Deuteronomistic History and Its Origin and Contents
The Deuteronomistic History contains Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings. It was originally a single work, but has been divided into the separate books after a later redaction. It narrates the Israelite history from Conquest to the destruction of Israel and Judah.
This work has clearly gone through uniform redactions, and bears a strong resemblance to the teaching and the concept of history found in Deuteronomy. Very typical expressions found in this work are “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord”, accusation of breaking the Covenant and the centrality of the Temple. This work reflects the experience of the Exile and the theology it created.
The redactions were done in several stages, in addition of the basic compilation the prophetic redaction and legal redaction have been detected. The redactors have used source material which has been partially compiled in an earlier stage, including the pre-kingdom narratives of the Conquest and the era of the Judges, the tales of the kings (for example the story of David’s ascension and heirs), prophetic stories of Elijah, Elisha and Isaiah and different lists of cities and officials.
The Origin of the Prophetic Books and Their Contents
The later prophets are four: roughly equally long books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the collection of the 12 minor prophetical writings. The most central theme in the prophetic books is the preaching of disaster and the possibility of salvation, but they also contain some tales of the life of the prophet. A good example is Jeremiah, where the prophetic message is tied closely to the actions of Jeremiah. Jonah is a special case, it is very late in origin, 400-200 BCE, and is basically a parody of a prophetic book. All of these books have gone though a multi-phase and extensive redaction.
We know very little of the historical minor prophets, especially as some of the writings were originally pseudonymous. For example, the names Obadiah (‘The Servant of Yahweh’) and Malachi (‘My Messenger’) are not proper personal names.
The preaching in the prophetic books was a living tradition that was expanded and edited all the way until it finally was canonized. The texts were often based on the preaching of the historical prophet that either he himself or his disciples had written down. This material has been interpreted and reformulated through the centuries to make it fit the then-current situation. Preaching from different eras was also sometimes incorporated into one book. A prime example of this is Isaiah, where the first part is pre-Exilic, the middle part – so-called Deutero-Isaiah – is Exilic and the final part – Trito-Isaiah – is post-Exilic.
Most of the prophetic books have an eschatological formula: a disaster that usually has already happened, is proclaimed, then disasters that are to befall on foreign peoples are predicted and finally a coming age of happiness and salvation is preached. This formula is based on the experiences during the Exile and resembles apocalyptic thought closely.
What do Writings – the Youngest Part of the OT – Contain and How Are They Grouped?
The Writings are a mixed group of books, and the youngest part of the OT, which was canonized last. The order of these books has varied from manuscript to manuscript. They contain several different genres: poetry and prose, historiography, wisdom literature and apocalypses. It is very difficult to categorize these books into genres, since different genres are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, Job is mainly a poetic work, but it contains also prose and its contents place it into the wisdom literature genre.
The major poetical works are Psalms, Job and Proverbs.
- Psalms consist of 150 religious poems that were used by the Jewish congregations in the post-Exilic era. Part of the collection is very old, though extremely difficult to date. They have been divided into thanksgiving psalms, personal and national lament psalms, hymns and royal psalms. In practice many of the psalms combine several of these features.
- Job is mostly a poetical collection of speeches discussing the problem of the innocent suffering. There is also a prose narrative which sets the stage for the speeches.
- Proverbs is a collection of common Ancient Near East wise sayings and closely connected to neighbouring cultures. For example, the third collection of Proverbs was lifted bodily from the Egyptian Instructions of Amenemope.
The five ‘scrolls’ are Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther. What connects this collection is that each of the books has had an important function in the Jewish festal liturgy since the Middle Ages.
Ruth and Esther are short stories set in a historical situation, Song of Songs is a collection of love poems, Ecclesiastes is a collection of aphorisms and Lamentations contain laments about the destruction of Jerusalem.
Two of these deserve closer inspection, since they have some very interesting features. The Song of Songs is a collection of ritual poetry most likely used originally in the sacred wedding rituals of Yahweh and his Asherah, is suspiciously similar to the Assyrian Wedding Hymns of Nabû and Tašmētu. Ecclesiastes has been heavily edited to make it less nihilistic than what the original must have been. The writer was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, especially the Epicurean school, as indicated by the near atheistic tone of the book. The more “godly” passages are later additions by a more orthodox editor.
Daniel, which is an apocalyptic work, and the youngest book of the OT, was not accepted into Prophets. It has undergone heavy redaction, with the seams of the original sources still visible in the text. The framework is most likely the latest one written, as it attempts to bring the separate elements into one – not very coherent – whole. Clearly distinguishable other elements include: Daniel the wise (this element is known already from the Late Bronze Ugarit texts, long before the Exile), the Adventures of the Three Young Men and the Prophecies against Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire. The writer of the framework and subsequent redactors have been sloppy in their work, and so the incorporation of these elements is somewhat disjointed.
Chronicler’s Historical Works
This is the clearest unit in the Writings, containing Ezra, Nehemiah and 1st and 2nd Chronicles. It is a prose work detailing the history of the Israelites from the Patriarchal era to the destruction of Judah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The Chronicler is very tendentious, and uses the Deuteronomistic History which he uses as his base text to portray the reign of each king as either good or evil, according to his concept of the correct form of religion.
How the OT Canon Was Formed
The division of the Jewish canon into three parts, the Torah, Prophets and Writings, illustrates the canonizing process of the OT. The Torah was finalized before 200 BCE, because it was then that the Samaritans separated themselves from the cultic community of Jerusalem and their canon contains only the Torah, no other books at all.
The Prophets was finalized before 165 BCE, because Daniel was not accepted into it.
The Writings was finalized as the last group. It is not mentioned as its own group in the NT, but Josephus and the pseudepigraphal 4th Esdras mention it at the end of the 1st century CE. This was also when the extent of the canon was set. The forming Christian writings were excluded, as were popular Jewish apocalyptic writings. There was some controversy about some books of the Writings, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Esther, but they were finally accepted into the canon.
Apocrypha consists of those extracanonical books that were included in the Septuagint, and the rest of the books are pseudepigrapha. These have been in wide use in the different Christian churches and have been preserved as translations.
Canonization meant that the text was now frozen in place. As it was considered sacred, redaction and editing were forbidden. Copying the sacred texts was undertaken by a group called the Masoretes, who also added the diacrites to the consonantal texts. This was done since Hebrew had not been a spoken language for a while, and the Masoretes wanted to ascertain that the pronouncement of the words would be preserved. They did take a few liberties, though. For example, the niqqud in the word yhwh (Yahweh) are not what they should be, but instead those of ‘dny (’ăḏōnāy, ‘lord’). This is a so-called qere perpetuum and indicates that the name must be pronounced as ’ăḏōnāy.
The books were not divided into chapters before the 15th century and the division of chapters into verses and their numbering dates from the 16th century.
- M. Coogan: The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2008)
- B. Metzger & M. Coogan (eds): The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford, 1993)
- W. Schniedewind: How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Los Angeles, 2004)
- R. Smend: Die Entstehung des Alten Testaments (Kohlhammer, 1978)