The story of the people of Israel is based on the self-manifestation of God to a group of oppressed people who were slaves in Egypt. God’s revelation of himself made such a profound impact on the conscience of those who were witnesses to this revelation that over a thousand years they wrote many books describing their experience with God. The story of ancient Israel is related in the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.
The Nature of the Old Testament
The word Bible comes from the Greek “biblia,” a word which means “books.” The Bible is a collection of books. There are 66 books in the Bible: 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. There are 1189 chapters in the Bible, with 929 chapters in the Old Testament and 290 in the New Testament. The Greek word “Testament” translates a Hebrew word which means “covenant.” The name Old Testament reflects the Christian belief that the promise of a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
For Christians the Bible includes the Old and the New Testaments, but in Judaism, the Jewish Bible only includes what Christians call the Old Testament. Because the New Testament proclaims that Jesus Christ was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, the early Church recognized the importance of including the Old Testament with the New Testament as part of their Sacred Scriptures. Even though the Jewish people do not accept Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the messianic hope of the Old Testament, they, as well as Christians, recognize that God has personally revealed himself to the people of Israel and that the Old Testament is the written witness of that revelation.
The Bible is the Scripture that the church considers to be the Word of God and the Old Testament is in the Bible. In fact, the Old Testament has been the book of the church even before there was a New Testament. As John Bright (1967: 17) wrote, the Old Testament has been the book of the church “since the church’s canon was first formed, indeed was regarded in the church as Holy Scripture before the New Testament was written; and till this day it is bound in our printed Bibles alongside the New Testament. Nor has the mainstream of Christianity ever drawn any formal distinction in value between the Testaments but has in one way or another always declared the scriptures of both Testaments to be the Word of God and the church’s supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice.”
The Inspiration of the Old Testament
The concept of inspiration is a matter of debate among people of faith and it has produced many different proposals. Although not everyone agrees with a specific definition of inspiration, the majority of people of faith believe that the Old Testament is inspired. Many Old Testament scholars believe that the Bible is a collection of sacred literature but deny that they are inspired by God. Some believe that the Old Testament was the creation of the post exilic community in order to justify and provide an ideological foundation for the return of the Jews to their homeland after the Babylonian exile.
One good example of this minimalist view is the work of Mario Liverani who wrote a book about Israel in which he called the Old Testament “The Invented History of Israel.” In my review of the book I wrote the following:
According to Liverani, the returnees needed a legal justification to take possession of the land that belonged to the remainees. Since the remainees occupied the land, the returnees needed an authoritative tradition assigning ownership of the land of Canaan to the tribes of Israel. This tradition needed to identify the returnees as the legitimate heirs of the land and declare that the remainees should be dispossessed of their land.
Thus, according to Liverani, those Jews returning from exile rewrote the Deuteronomic history and created a set of foundational myths that legitimized the claim of the returnees as the legitimate heirs of the promises of God.
Some people say that the Old Testament was written by inspired people, in the same way that all great human literature is inspired. But divine inspiration is much more than just the human ability to relate past events or to describe contemporary events as the work of God in the world.
In the New Testament, Paul offers what Christians believe is a good understanding of inspiration. Paul wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
When these words were written, there was no New Testament yet. Thus, Paul was referring to the Hebrew Scriptures used by the Jews in the synagogue. If the words of Paul were used in a Christian, first century, context, Paul’s words would read as follows: “The Old Testament is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”
What Paul said about Scripture in general also applies to the Old Testament. Notice that Paul said “All scripture is inspired by God” but he did not say how God inspired Scriptures. Thus, a definition of inspiration is necessary to clarify what is meant by inspiration. Inspiration is the direction of the Holy Spirit acting on men and women, to write and interpret the events in the life of Israel, so that these events can be transmitted from generation to generation. Inspiration is the method of preserving divine revelation and how to provide future generations with an account of the divine work in the history of mankind.
The Concept of Revelation
The Old Testament is a book of revelation. The Old Testament preserves the personal revelation of the God who acted in the history of Israel to reveal his being and his will to the people created in his image.
Revelation is the process by which God made himself known to the people of Israel through visions, theophanies, the spoken word, and his powerful deeds in favor of his people. The Old Testament is a collection of books in which men and women gave a written testimony of those encounters with God. Most Christians believe that the biblical authors wrote under the direction of the Holy Spirit as they found God in their daily lives. They wrote letters, oracles, songs, hymns, poems, and proverbs and God used those writings to reveal himself to them and to us. The God who created the universe revealed himself personally to the humans he created. Inspiration is the work that the Holy Spirit exerts in the life of the Old Testament writers to preserve this revelation of God for future generations.
In his book Revelation and Reason, Emil Brunner said that revelation is the self-manifestation of God. According to Brunner (1946: 25), the Old Testament is concerned “with the revelation of God Himself, His nature and His will.” Brunner explains why God reveals himself to his creation:
Revelation everywhere includes within itself a negative presupposition; without it man is always in some way or other in a kind of darkness or bondage. In the Bible this darkness or bondage is always absolute, and it is always personal in character. This means that apart from revelation man does not merely feel that he lacks some knowledge which it would be useful or pleasant for him to possess. It is an absolute, desperately serious darkness. Hence it does not affect the outside of his life, but himself, in the very core of his being. He himself is dark and fettered; he “walks in darkness”; he is “lost.” This bondage is a negative personal quality, a negative relation to God; it is sin.”
Without God in their lives, human beings are empty of God, separated from him. In their rebellious attitude toward God, human beings have created a chasm between themselves and God. Turning away from God presupposes a time in the distant past when human beings lived in fellowship with God.
That is the reason God revealed himself in the history of Israel. When God made himself known to the people of Israel, that revelation was concerned not only with a specific group of people, but with humanity in general. When God manifested himself to Abraham, God said, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).
The early church made a deliberate decision to include the Old Testament as part of its Sacred Scriptures because the church recognized that the Old Testament was divine revelation which bears testimony to God’s work in the world. The church also believed that the Old Testament bears witness to Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promises of a coming Messiah.
Some Christians believe that the Old Testament belongs to a different religion, a religion that is quite different from Christianity. For this reason, they conclude that the Old Testament is not important. Some Christians believe that the Old Testament does not belong in the Christian Bible.
In the end, we must remember that the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scripture was the only Holy Scripture that Jesus and the apostles possessed. The early church was right in preserving the Old Testament as part of its Sacred Scriptures. Christians today who refuse to accept the Old Testament as an integral part of the Bible are rejecting the decision of the early Christians who accepted the Old Testament as Sacred Scripture. They did so because they recognized that the Old Testament revealed God’s work in the world and his concern to bring lost humanity unto himself.
This is the fourth post in the series “An Introduction to the Old Testament.” For other posts in this series, click on the links below.
NEXT: The Canon of the Old Testament
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on An Introduction to the Old Testament
7. The Formation of the Canon
John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967.
Emil Brunner, Reason and Revelation. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946.