The History & Authorship of the Old Testament

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  • 0:01 Significance of the…
  • 0:35 Different Parts of the…
  • 1:12 History of the Writings
  • 2:24 Traditional Views on…
  • 3:05 Modern Views on Authorship
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The ''Old Testament'' is one of the most important texts in Western history. However, there is considerable disagreement on who wrote it and when the text was written. This lesson explores those controversies.

Significance of the Old Testament

Perhaps no collection of writings in Western history have had quite the impact on humanity as the Old Testament, also known as the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible to Jews. Its stories have served as inspiration for centuries of art, while its prophesies have been used to validate the teachings of two other great religious traditions, namely Christianity and Islam. Yet how much do we really know about the Old Testament? Shockingly, for a book that everyone agrees is important, little consensus has been reached on its more mundane details, like who wrote it and when was it written.

Different Parts of the Old Testament

As a text itself, the Old Testament is not united. It is broadly divided into three smaller sub-units, each with a number of books. These divisions are important because they were roughly written about the same themes and at the same time.

The first of these, the Torah, is comprised of the first five books and is the basis for much of the Jewish religion. Telling the story of humanity until the time of the establishment of the Hebrew people, it is also a source of much Jewish law. Second is the Nevi'im, which is a selection of prophesy. Finally, the Ketuvim is made up of historical documents, especially those pertaining to the story of the Kingdom of Israel.

History of the Writings

As you might expect of a religious text, there is some difference of opinion on when the Old Testament was written. These are best explored using the divisions described above.

By far, the most contentious is the date of the Torah. This is particularly important because its writing was a central element that helped create the Jewish people as a select group. As a result, some date the Torah back more than 3,000 years to the time of the Exodus, when Jews were led by Moses out of Egypt.

The other sections of the Old Testament have a slightly less controversial period in which they were written. As a selection of prophesies and histories, the Nevi'im and Ketuvim were written after the establishment of the Israelite people. It is not just logic that leads us to this conclusion. While much of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the language of the Israelite people, parts of these later texts appear in Aramaic. Aramaic was closely related to Hebrew but was also widely spoken during the middle part of the last millennium before the Common Era. It is likely that the religious scholars picked up Aramaic in Babylon during the Babylonian captivity.

Traditional Views on Authorship

If the timing of the writings is controversial, then it is a real minefield to start asking too many questions about authorship. In this section, we'll focus more on the traditional view, while in the next we will look at what critical scholarship has said. Simply put, many of the big names of the Old Testament appear not only as characters but also as authors.

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