Writing the Old Testament

The first instance of recording Scripture occurs at Moses’s hand at the covenant’s inauguration between YHWH and Israel (Exod. 24:4–8). Scholars mostly agree that the Book of the Covenant mentioned there entailed chapters 21–23 of Exodus, but opinions vary. Moses’ upbringing in Egypt explains how he became a scribe in the first place, because they placed a high amount of esteem and respect on the scribe. They believed that a scribe was his own boss and the highest of trades to which one could aspire. Moses obviously had scribal training in Egypt in the first forty years of his life in the higher echelons of society, and that skill would serve him well as the leader of Israel. 

Even in Israel’s later history, we see the scribe as one moving in royal circles ( 2 Chron. 24:11; Esth. 3:12). The scribal chamber was within the palace (Jer. 36:12), and their work often detailed the exploits of the monarchs they served (1 Kings 11:41) as well as the reign of the monarchy itself (1 Kings 14:19, 29). They also served by writing the decrees ordered (Dan. 6:8) and taking dictation (Jer. 36:32). Some might be sent to record the military skirmishes the realm was engaged in (Jer. 52.25), and a useful skill for the scribe to possess in later times was to be bilingual (2 Kings 18:26). Following the station of Moses as a prophet were other prophets who recorded books or records here or there (Josh 24:26; 1 Sam 10:25). Later, we even read about some later holy people referring to what had been written (Dan. 9:2; Neh. 8:1). 

This process led what we know as the Old Testament to be formed around 400 BCE, with some arguing that the Law, or Penteteuch (first five books of the Bible), itself was authoritative by that time if not earlier. By 200 BCE or earlier, the prophets were canonized (cf. Is. 34:16; Jer. 36:6ff). Unlike our Christian Bibles where the Old and New Testaments are major divisions, the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) grouped its books differently. There are three groupings of books: 

  1. The Law (Torah)
    1. Gen–Deut. 
  2. Prophets (Nevi’im)
    1. Josh, Judg., Samuel and Kings (Former Prophets)
    2. Isaiah, Jer., Ezek., and the Twelve (Latter Prophets)
  3. Writings (Ketuvim).
    1. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (Five Megillot)
    2. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles. 

This tripartite division is reflected from Ben Sira, who was the first to refer to it in this way (180–175 BCE), but may be earlier than him. 

Centuries before this time, King Josiah (622 BCE) found a copy of the Law in the temple, and his subsequent reverence of it as such demonstrates its authority in the life of Israelite society (2 Kings 22:3–20). After captivity, Ezra had a copy of the Law in which to lead the nation (Ezra 7:6; Neh. 8:1ff). Centuries before them, Joshua (13th century BCE) read the same (Josh 8:34–35), and King David was to have had a personal copy (Deut. 17:18–20; cf. Deut. 31:9, 25–26). We know David consulted it after Uzzah died (2 Sam. 6:1–10; cf. 1 Chron. 15:1–13), but it’s obvious that it wasn’t central at all times.  

The interlude from the reading of Joshua until the next reading is a noted period of silence of public readings. During that time, the united kingdom of Israel was divided, and the northern kingdom following an idolatrous path while the southern kingdom sinned as well, but with periods of reformation. The next public reading came after the high priest Hilkiah found the Book of the Law in the temple during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Hilkiah took the book to the king’s secretary who then took it to the King. Upon hearing the words of the Book of the Law, King Josiah grieved and sent to inquire of the Lord because all the curses of the book were to be rendered to the unfaithful people of Judah (2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chron. 34). When Josiah assembled the people to have the Book of the Law read in their hearing, Josiah led a covenant renewal to which the people consented. However, because of so many years of apostasy that began with King Solomon, changing the trajectory of Judah was unrealized because of so many years of neglecting to read the Law. Therefore, the land was purged of its inhabitants so that it could undergo a period of cleansing (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22).

This points us to the authority the Law and Prophets had. What we find was that those who were well regarded, adhered to the Law. We also note that the absence of it from the life of Israel resulted in an ignorance that permitted apostasy.  

The Genesis of the Bible (for the average Christian)

We have in our possession a sacred book that is nonetheless a book. Scripture was written over 1,400 years by various authors. The Bible wasn’t put together until centuries after all the writings were collected, but some writings remained together as a corpus (e.g., Torah). How did this process occur? That’s what many wonder. How and who created the Bible is remarkable and something that isn’t required to know but is very enlightening. 

Allow me, first, to give you a timeline of pertinent events as it relates to writing altogether and the Bible.  

3200 BCE — Writing began in Sumer through pictographic means. 

3000 BCE — Egyptian hieroglyphs were developed. 

2100 BCE — Abraham lived around this time. 

1800 BCE — An alphabet is created in Egypt. 

1500 BCE — Moses lived around this time. 

1200 BCE — Ugaritic, a language from Ugarit—a northwestern area in Syria—is used, and Exodus 15 and Judges 5 have stylistic patterns that resemble them. These similarities lead linguists to conclude that these two chapters are the oldest in the Bible and date to 1100–1200 BCE. 

1000 BCE — The monarchical period of Israel’s history begins. 

1000–900 BCE — The earliest Hebrew inscription on a potsherd is discovered (Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon). 

516→ BCE — We have manuscripts dating to this time period, known as the Second Temple Period, with the oldest dating to the late 4th century BCE. 

250→ BCE — Dead Sea Scrolls 

This timeline provides us a rough idea and overview of what we know about written communication. This information results from linguists, philologists, archaeologists, and other related areas of study.  

Materials used in writing were stone (Exod. 34:1, 28; Deut. 27:2–3), clay (Ezek. 4:1), wood (Is. 30:8; Hab. 2:2), and leather (Jer. 36:23). Additionally, papyrus leaves were mostly that upon which the New Testament was written. These plants grew along the Nile River and had been used as far back as 3000 BCE, but became common among the Greeks and Romans for making a book (codex) or books (codices). The average roll was 30 feet long and 9–10 inches high. Scribes would write on one side mostly and occasionally on both sides (cf. Rev. 5:1). Animal skins, referred to as either vellum or parchment, were another common material used in making a letter. 

Whenever you hear about the discovery of a manuscript or something that scholars date to thus-and-such a period, they base this off the material upon which it was written, the language, dialect and syntax, and even carbon dating. Because we know that certain materials were used by particular people during a specific time period, this allows archaeologists to pinpoint a general time frame that contributes to our overall knowledge of the history of a text. 

The Birth of the Bible

It’s difficult to fix a date when the Bible was written or began to be written. Believing that Moses lived around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to his authorship would have been written sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, with redactions throughout the centuries (cf. Num. 12:3; Deut. 34:5–6). However, the book of Job is believed to have been written in the second millennium BCE, or it at least is about that period if it was written later. To put it in perspective, Job is believed to have been a patriarch akin to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in their time. 

Regarding what’s extant, the tenth-century BCE potsherd known as Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon is the eldest. This dates to the reign of King David and was found on the north side of the valley of Elah (1 Sam. 17:1–3). Differing interpretations of what it says exists, so suggesting it is Scripture may not be altogether true. However, this discovery also can’t be ruled out as unreflective of Scripture. The Ketef Hinnom amulets, however, are among the oldest finds that contain language akin to the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24–26 and date to the seventh century BCE. Since many scholars believe that the Old Testament is primarily a product of Israel’s post-exilic period, these two finds cast that conclusion into doubt, given the language they each demonstrate.

Behind these fragmentary pieces, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest full-manuscript evidence of our Old Testament. They are a collection of over 900 manuscripts discovered around Qumran from 1947–56. Copies of every Old Testament book except Nehemiah and Esther were found in 11 caves around the Dead Sea, and the oldest dates to the third century BCE. Before this discovery, the Leningrad Codex was the oldest Old Testament manuscript, dating to 1008 CE. Scholars compared the two texts, being greater than a millennium apart, and found that little had changed. This attests to the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible transmission. The notion supported by Bart Ehrman and company that we can’t fully trust Scripture because of the lack of original copies is a bit of a farce when one considers the accuracy between these two texts.  Stay tuned!

From Prison

Matthew 11:2–30; Luke 7:18–35

John the Baptist is next depicted as imprisoned, and the reason given is detailed in Mark 6:17–20. As a man who preached the message of repentance, John the Baptist was sure to know the law and point it out. Perhaps John’s resolution stemmed from his sense of duty as a prophet (Ezek. 3:18–19). John was right to warn Herod. The law prescribed that a man not marry his living brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21), and both Herod’s wife and Herodias’ husband were still living when they married (Antiq. 18.5.4 [136]). Jesus would later preach that if one married another after divorcing for any reason other than infidelity, they were an adulterer (Matt. 19:9). This relationship was adulterous. John pointed that out to his disparagement.

The result of John pointing out that Herod and Herodias were sinning was imprisonment. While in prison, John heard about the works of Christ and sent his disciples to Him. However, his inquiry was odd given that John had previously acknowledged Christ as Messiah: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; cf. 1:32; 3:30). John’s inquiry may have been legitimate for several reasons: it may have been for the benefit of his disciples. They chose to remain with John after the revelation of Jesus being the Messiah (John 3:26). John may have wanted to continue to point to Christ while decreasing himself (John 3:30). Secondly, the expectation of Jesus doing the works John said He would perform may have created impatience within John. Perhaps John wanted to know when Jesus would fulfill the prophecy he had proclaimed (Matt. 3:7–12). A final possibility may rest within John’s humanity. The Baptist may have wanted to confirm what he already knew. Given the pressure of imprisonment on John, it is possible that he had a moment of weakness.

John’s scriptural knowledge was so excellent that Christ used scripture to answer John. When in prison, the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus who he was. When Jesus answered John (Luke 7:22), he quoted Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming age of the Messiah and those things that would accompany His coming (Isaiah 29:18–19; 35:4–6). To John, Jesus’ usage of this passage would have communicated what John expected from the Messiah. 

When the disciples of John left, Jesus addressed the crowd. “A reed shaken in the wind” speaks of John’s character in one of two ways: 1) Israel is described as a reed easily uprooted (1 Kings 14:15), and John was undeterred in his commitment to God’s mission, or 2) King Herod’s insignia on coins of his minting was a reed so that John couldn’t be bought. Either interpretation fits John’s character because he was a true prophet, not a straw man.

Luke further shows the typology of John being likened to Elijah (cf. Luke 1:17) when he quotes from Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1. The latter passage is linked with Malachi 4:5, where Elijah is identified as the messenger. These passages, along with Isaiah 40:3, are commonly identified with John the Baptist though he denied that he was Elijah incarnate (John 1:21–23).

Those who rejected his baptism and message were those who Jesus likened to brats. They didn’t initiate the game so they won’t play. Those who play and abstain are bad, while those who play and partake are bad too. Moreover, the imagery is akin to a marriage, and this imagery has been used of Christ being the bridegroom (Luke 5:33–35). Either way, those who rejected John and Christ could not be satisfied because of their lack of wisdom. 

Next, Jesus denounces the places where he performed some of his miracles (Matt. 11:20–30).  He does this by comparing them to cities that suffered wrath at the hands of God in a time past. These evil cities, whose stories were infamous to the Israelites, were Tyre and Sidon—who worshiped Baal and were notorious for their immortality and corruption—and Sodom, which was destroyed for their wickedness. Had these evil cities seen what Jesus had done, they would have repented, unlike the cities that saw the good works of Christ and did not. The point is this: those cities that didn’t repent were cozy with sin and not burdened by it in the least. Twice in Jeremiah, the prophet says that God’s people didn’t know how to blush (Jer. 6:15; 8:12). Every one of us has somehow become desensitized to sin. When was the last time someone used curse words that did not bother me? Was I one of the hypocrites who quit watching a television show because of homosexual relationships while the same show otherwise was about fornication and adultery (e.g., Grey’s Anatomy)? Maybe those aren’t the sins we’re desensitized to, but we all likely have some that just don’t bother us, and they may be some in our lives.

Jesus’ invitation, then, follows a prayer. After rebuking the cities, He doesn’t stew or fixate on them but prays. Then, He explains the prayer to those present, inviting them to come: The invitation is to the one who labors under the heavy burden of manufactured religious traditions spurred by the law. No one can measure up no matter how hard they try. The invitation is to the one who labors under the heavy burden of their sins. Sin is exhausting because we then think we must use our resources to please God. 

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