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The Old Testament.
The Old Testament, or “Old Covenant.” centers around the covenant made at Sinai in the time of Moses. It is divided into three main canonical units, the Law, the prophets, and the Writings.
The Law, or Torah.
The Law has traditionally been known as the Law of Moses, although scholars debate the extent to which the tradition of the Law goes back to Moses himself. There is no doubt, however, that from the time of the discovery of the Book of Deuteronomy in 621 B.C., the Law was the mainspring of Jewish religious life. Deuteronomy became the law of the land. During the exile, Jews turned to the Law for study and strength, and thus the Synagogue was born. By the time of Ezra (450-400 b.c.), the Law had come into its full importance, with almost the exact structure and text that are known today.
In Hebrew the Law was called Torah, meaning “teachings” or “learning.” but in Greek its five books were called Pentateuch, meaning “five vessels” (i.e., of the word of God), for only these five books of the Law were ever acknowledged as authoritative. In the 3rd century B.C., the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria began to translate these books into Greek; their work later came to be known as the Septuagint, sometimes written “LXX.”
The Prophets, or Nebi’im.
The work of the writing prophets covered four centuries-Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah in the 8th century B.C., Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah in the 7th century B.C.; Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah in the 6th century B.C., and Malachi, Obadiah, and Joel in the 5th century B.C. The date of Jonah, which completes the list of 15 prophetic writings, is widely disputed. The Jews came to consider the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings as prophetic in purpose and thus put them into group designated as the “Former Prophets.” The “Latter Prophets” (or “Writing Prophets”), the second part of the prophetic collection, then contained Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the “Book of the Twelve,” consisting of the Minor Prophets from Hosea to Malachi. By the end of the 3rd century B.C., these writings had been organized and copied in the form of eight scrolls, four for the Former Prophets and four for the Latter Prophets, and had become recognized as standing with the Law in religious authority.
The Writings, or Kethubim.
It was not until the close of the first Christian century, at the Rabbinical Council of Jamnia (about 90 A.D.), that the rest of the Old Testament was finally fixed and declared authoritative. The Book of Psalms was the central feature in this collection of practical and devotional material, which contains wisdom, ethics, liturgy, history, and even wedding songs. The poetic works in this group include Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Lamentations, and the Song of Solomon. Those dealing with Jewish history are Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, while Daniel is apocalyptic (a special type of Jewish literature) and Ecclesiastes a philosophical book. Ecclesiastes and Esther were less widely accepted, and doubts about their authority continued until the Council of Jamnia.
The third division of the Hebrew Bible, therefore, contained 11 scrolls: the 3 large poetic works, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job; the 5 Megilloth (scrolls used on special festival occasions), the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther; the apocalyptic Book of Daniel; and 3 books of history, Ezra-Nehemiah (in one scroll) and Chronicles (in one scroll). Thus the Hebrew Bible consisted of 5 scrolls of Law, 8 scrolls of the prophets, and 11 scrolls of the Writings when it reached its final canonization at Jamnia. It is in this form and order (with some slight variation) that modern Hebrew study Bibles are printed.
During the last two centuries before Christ and the first Christian century, a number of Jewish writings had appeared but failed to gain acceptance at the Council of Jamnia. These books are now called “Apocrypha”; the word is from a Greek term meaning “hidden” or secret.” Originally its use suggested that the books so designated contained esoteric truth to be communicated only to the initiated, being hidden from the outside world. It was the great Latin scholar Jerome who, in the 5th century A.D. first applied the term to these books.
Some of these documents were expansions of Old Testament books, especially Esther and Daniel. Some, such as Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon, are of the nature of wisdom literature. Jewish fiction, as exemplified in the books of Tobit and Judith, is also included. First Esdras is little more than a combination of parts of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. two important historical books are those of I and II Maccabees, and the group also includes the important apocalypse known as II Esdras.
The Apocrypha were included in the Canon of the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament made for the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, which became the Bible of the early Church; these books appear also in the Old Latin Bible, as well as in the Latin Vulgate, Jerome’s revision. They were carried over into the early German translation of the Latin Bible made in the 14th century, as well as into English translation made by Wyclif (Wycliff) in the same century, Both the Greek and the Roman Church have always recognized the apocrypha as canonical. The exclusion of these books from the bible came as a result of the Reformation. When Luther translated the Old Testament from the Hebrew, these books were of course absent; but recognized their presence in the Latin Bible. Luther translated them and put them in a group by themselves, between the Testaments. there they remained in most Protestant Bibles until the 19th century, when publishers, led by the British and Foreign Bible society, voluntarily began to omit them.
The length of the apocrypha in comparison with the Old Testament and New Testament may be seen from these figures (based on the King James Version):
Old Testament: Chapters: 929 Verses: 23,214 Words: 592,439
New Testament: Chapters: 260 Verses: 7,959 Words: 181,253
Apocrypha: Chapters: 183 Verses: 6,081 Words: 152,185
The New Testament.
The title “New Testament,” or New Covenant probably originated with Paul’s delineation of the two covenants of history in II Corinthians 3:6-16. Probably Jeremiah’s famous words in 31:31-34 were associated in Paul’s mind as he wrote.
Although the Gospels stand first in the New testament, they are of later date than many other books found there. When the New Testament was collected, however, it was only natural that the place of priority be given to the four accounts of Jesus’ ministry: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (although this order was not always followed in early collections). The Evangelists had the Old Testament biographies of Joseph, David, Elijah, Moses, and others before them as examples (Luke seems especially to have been so influenced); they also were aware of the practice of the Greeks, for the art of biography was by no means a new one. Yet the Gospels were a new literary form in many respects, standing by themselves as evangelical documents to proclaim the “good news” (the meaning of “gospel”) of God’s redemptive action in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “Synoptic Gospels” because they are so closely related and share a common point of view. John’s Gospel in many ways preserves an independent tradition and is, by far, the most interpretative of these books.
The Book of Acts is described as history, but it is far more. its primary message is the story of Christianity’s spread throughout the civilized world. It is history seen from the evangelistic and missionary viewpoint, centering in the life and activity of the Apostles who established the early churches.
The majority of the books in the New Testament might be classified as correspondence. Letter writing was a common means of communication in the first Christian century, as archaeological discoveries have abundantly revealed, and the early church was no exception. Paul was the most prolific writer of those who contributed to the New Testament, and much of his contributions is typical of personal correspondence of that age. Among the writings traditionally ascribed to him are Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Esphesians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews.
Modern scholarship has questioned the Pauline authorship of several of these letters, especially I and II Timothy and Titus, which are often called the Pastoral Epistles because they deal mostly with the administration of the organized Church. Hebrews, which is not in letter form and does not name its author, has from early times been questioned because of its distinctly non-Pauline nature. A few late manuscripts ascribe Hebrews to Timothy, but its author is unknown. Usually Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon are called the “imprisonment letters,” since their contents imply that the author was writing from prison.
Another group of letters in the New Testament is referred to as the”Catholic” or “General” Epistles. The term “Catholic,” meaning “universal,” designates those letters that are addressed to larger and more inclusive groups, in contrast to the local church or individuals addressed in the Pauline letters. James, I and II Peter, and Jude are so designated. Some scholars include the Johannine letters with the “General Epistles” while others consider them a third group. First John lacks the salutation and epistolary ending characteristic of letters. Traditionally the Johannine letters have been credited to the Apostle John, although in the 20th century some debate has centered on this assumption.
The letters of the New Testament tell of many of the churches founded by Paul and reveal even intimate and personal details of the author’s relation to various congregations and persons. More important, however, these letters by Paul and others give additional insight into the content of the Christian message and its application to life situations. In fact, some of these letters resemble theological treatises or sermons more than personal letters (Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, I John), while others are essentially practical in their applications to life (I Corinthians, Philemon, James).
The last book of the Bible is the only one of its literary type in the New Testament, though it has affinity with some of the Old Testament books, especially Daniel. The revelation is an apocalypse )from a Greek word meaning “revelation”), telling its message by use of signs, symbols, and visions of cosmic drama. Coming out of the suffering and persecution of the early Church, it is an unveiling of the Christian hope and confidence in the ultimate triumph of God and the vindication if His people.