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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Old Testament

John Rogerson

How, when, and why was the Old Testament written? The obvious place to look for an answer to these questions is in the texts themselves; if this is done, some answers are forthcoming. Exodus 24: 7 refers to ‘the book of the covenant’ which Moses read to the people at Mt Sinai, while Exodus 34: 27 reports that Moses wrote ‘the words of the covenant, the ten commandments’ on the stone tablets according to God's instructions. Many of the regulations concerning priesthood and sacrifice in Leviticus and Numbers begin with the formulas ‘the Lord said/spoke to Moses/Aaron’, implying their divine origin mediated through Moses and Aaron. Deuteronomy is an address by Moses to the Israelites gathered in the plains of Moab. In 1 Samuel 10: 25 Samuel writes in a book ‘the rights and duties of the kingship’, while 1 Kings 4: 32 attributes 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs to Solomon. The prophet Isaiah is told to seal the testimony and the teaching (i.e. to write them down) among his disciples, while Jeremiah dictates two sets of prophecies to Baruch, the first of which is destroyed by King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36 ).

Out of the hints found in the Old Testament a view of its authorship emerged as early probably as the second century CE, and is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud Baba Bathra 14b–15a. This attributed ‘his book’ (almost all of Genesis to Deuteronomy) and Job to Moses; the book of Joshua and eight verses of the Torah (presumably Deut. 34: 5–12 recording the death of Moses) to Joshua; the books of Judges, Ruth, and 1 and 2 Samuel to Samuel; and the Psalms to David assisted by ten elders, including the first Adam, Melchisedek, and Abraham. Jeremiah was credited with 1 and 2 Kings, Jeremiah, and Lamentations, and Hezekiah and his helpers (cf. Prov. 25: 1 ) with Isaiah, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. The remainder were attributed to the ‘Men of the Great Synagogue’ and Ezra.

Courtesy Professor J. W. Rogerson.

Views similar to, but not identical with, these were to establish themselves in Christian scholarship and to last into the nineteenth century. They can still be found in the young churches of the developing world which are innocent of biblical criticism, and in a modified form in Western conservative churches. The conservative Study Bible based on the New International Version, first published in 1985, ascribes the ‘bulk of the Pentateuch’ to Moses, assigns a prominent role to Solomon in composing the book of Proverbs, and defends the unity of Isaiah (i.e. Isaiah wrote all 66 chapters) and the authorship of the book of Daniel by Daniel in the sixth century BCE.

The traditional views of authorship had two strengths. First, they provided a clear account of the origin of the faith of Israel. It was divine revelation communicated directly to individuals such as Moses. Secondly, if the authors of Old Testament books were known, it became possible to regard them as writers inspired by God. The seemingly neutral question ‘who wrote a particular book?’ became closely tied up with theories about the authority and inspiration of the Old Testament such that to question traditional views of the authorship of a book could be regarded as an attack on that book's status as inspired scripture. This is a difficulty still felt by Christians who are not necessarily ‘fundamentalists.’

This is not the place to describe how and why the traditional views of authorship were abandoned from the late eighteenth century onwards in academic scholarship. This abandonment did, however, have serious consequences for the study of the Old Testament. The traditional views accounted for the origin of the faith of Israel. Where, however, did this faith come from if it was no longer possible to accept at face value statements such as ‘the Lord spoke to Moses, saying…’? If, as is often maintained, much of the priestly and sacrificial legislation in Leviticus and Numbers is a development dating from the sixth century BCE rather than something revealed to Israel at the outset, how is the history of Israel's faith to be reconstructed?

This question must now be addressed, because it is fundamental to any attempt to sketch the origin and formation of the traditions and books that make up the Old Testament; and it has to be said at the outset that only some broad indications can be given. As a first step, several attempts to account for the origin of the faith of Israel and the traditions witnessing to it will be considered. Some or all of them may be familiar to readers, and their strengths and weaknesses are informative.

A consensus that emerged in academic scholarship in the latter part of the nineteenth century was that the prophets of Israel, especially those of the eighth century (Isaiah of Jerusalem, Hosea, Amos, and Micah) were the main force behind the formation of Israel's faith. Reacting against Canaanite fertility cults and despotic rulers, the prophets proclaimed ethical monotheism and social justice, and challenged Israel to look beyond its national interests to God's universal rule. Failure to respond to these challenges would bring divine punishment upon the people, who had been chosen by God for responsibilities and not for complacency. The sixth-century prophets (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the author of Isaiah 40–55 usually known as Deutero-Isaiah) enabled Judah to survive the Babylonian exile by proclaiming that it was divine punishment for Israel's unfaithfulness. As a result, new and deeper lessons about sin, punishment, and vicarious suffering were learnt. Some of these insights were consolidated into the developing sacrificial ritual of the post-exilic Jerusalem temple with its emphasis on atonement. At the same time, personal piety found expression in the composition and use of the psalms, while contact with Hellenism from the late fourth century resulted in the Old Testament ‘wisdom’ traditions (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes).

This consensus was set in the context of various developmental and evolutionary schemes. One approach, influential in Britain, traced in the Old Testament a progressive development of religious belief, from animism, polytheism, and henotheism (belief that the God of Israel was supreme among gods) to monotheism (belief that the God of Israel was the only God). It was also held that Israel had experienced a progressive moral and ethical development. The Old Testament thus became the record of a progressive revelation or education. Other approaches focused upon Israel's social development: from a ‘nomadic’ people to one surrounded by fertility cults in a settled land; from a loose association of ‘tribes’ to a dynastic state ruling other small states. A popular source for Israel's faith was the supposed clarity and purity of the desert in which there were no shades of grey, and where God's moral being and ethical demands could be more readily apprehended than elsewhere.

Courtesy Professor R. Smend.

A major factor highlighted by this consensus was that if appeal was no longer made to a divine revelation communicated to known authors of biblical writings as the origin of the faith of Israel, substitute theories had to be found; and these were likely to be taken from secular views that were popular at the time. Belief in progress and in the history of the human race as a process directed by divine providence had a profound influence upon Old Testament scholars. It enabled them to ascribe to a ‘primitive’ stage of Israel's moral and religious development narratives such as those describing Joshua's slaughter of whole populations at God's command.

In the twentieth century two notable attempts were made to correct or modify the nineteenth-century consensus and to offer alternative explanations of the origins of Israel's faith. The first, associated with the American scholar W. F. Albright and his students J. Bright and G. E. Wright, believed that archaeology supported a mildly critical, traditional reading of the Old Testament. The Ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were located in second millennium Mesopotamia and Syria/Palestine and the Exodus from Egypt was dated in the thirteenth century. The faith of Israel originated in acts of God in history such as the Exodus, events which could be dated and reconstructed with the aid of historical and archaeological research. What made them ‘acts of God’ was the testimony to this fact in the biblical traditions. Wright's books Biblical Archaeology and God who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital were classic statements of this position.

The second approach, that of the German scholar Gerhard von Rad, was more sceptical about what could be known about figures such as Moses and the Ancestors and events associated with them in the biblical record such as the Exodus. It did not so much search for the origins of Israel's faith as concern itself with proclamations of that faith that von Rad connected with two great festivals in particular, one which celebrated the occupation of the land, and one which celebrated the law-giving at Mt Sinai. The datum, in other words, was the faith that was confessed, rather than the revelations or events that gave rise to the faith. Those parts of the confession that referred to revelatory events, such as the Exodus, referred to happenings beyond the scope of historical research, either because the necessary evidence was not available, or because theological reflection upon the events and the celebratory retelling of them had altered them beyond recognition in the tradition. According to von Rad the core of the Pentateuch was to be found in the ‘creed’ recited at the festival of first-fruits, according to Deuteronomy 26: 5–9 :

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our afflictions, our toil and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place.

Two other features of von Rad's position were important: belief in the ‘Solomonic Enlightenment’, a period in the tenth century in which the traditions relating to Israel's faith began to be written down; and acceptance of Albrecht Alt's attempt to identify the ‘God of the fathers’ (i.e. the Ancestors) by means of comparative studies. According to Alt the ‘God of the fathers’ (a common phrase in the tradition) identified a manifestation of the divine to a particular person, whose descendants then worshipped that manifestation as, for example, the God of Abraham or the God of Nahor (Gen. 31: 53 ), Abraham and Nahor being the names of Ancestors to whom, it was believed, the deity had been manifested. This accounted for the traditions about Abraham and the other Ancestors.

Since the work of Wright and von Rad (both of whom died in the early 1970s) Old Testament studies have undergone a transformation in radical directions which have completely changed the landscape of the discipline. New literary-critical study of the Pentateuch and the ‘historical’ books (Joshua to 2 Kings) has suggested later dates for their composition. The nineteenth-century consensus dated the sources for these books from the tenth/ninth to the seventh/sixth centuries BCE. There is now a tendency to regard all of them as post-exilic. Von Rad's ‘Solomonic Enlightenment’ has been abandoned. At the same time, archaeological research has produced an account of the history of Syria/Palestine that suggests that Israel, Judah, Moab, Ammon, and Edom did not begin to emerge as ‘states’ until the ninth/eighth centuries BCE. The biblical accounts of the empire of David and Solomon hardly fit in with this picture, although it is going too far to deny the existence of David and Solomon. Events such as the Exodus or the time of the Ancestors are now so remote compared with the proposed dates for the traditions about them that they have become invisible as far as any historical attempt to recover them is concerned. At the same time, much more has become known about the popular religion of Israel thanks to the researches of Othmar Keel and his associates on cylinder seals, amulets, and suchlike.

© The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Collection Israel Antiquities Authority.

Cairo Museum.

The task, not only of writing a history of Israel, but of accounting for the faith of Israel and therefore the origin and growth of the Old Testament traditions has become more formidable than ever. Unlike New Testament scholars whose task is to trace the growth of specifically Christian scripture from Jesus of Nazareth, Old Testament specialists are faced with a faith that developed within a nation, in circles that often came into conflict with the rulers and ordinary people of that nation. Furthermore, the ‘history’ of the nation that these circles produced was not a history in the modern sense. Although the writers used historical sources such as royal chronicles, their aim was not to present a chronological account of the nation's fortunes but to write what has been called a ‘decision history’—a story containing incidents with outcomes that would challenge readers/hearers to faith in God. Also, the religious beliefs and practices of the post-exilic community were explained in terms of an overall story that was projected back to the creation of the world. In what follows, an attempt will be made to sketch the origins of Israel's faith and the growth of its scripture in the light of present Old Testament studies, and taking into account the dynamics indicated in the preceding sentences.

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