A Study of the Old Testament, part 1

Published: Dec. 12, 2016 |

Preface: The Bible says many things.  Each of us has our own interpretation of the books, stories and songs of the Bible.  Many theological scholars believe that the events of Exodus may not have actually occurred.  This introduction to the Old Testament shares the scholarly view but it is important to remember that there are many other ways to validate the history of the Israelites and the events of Exodus.  Would the ancient Israelites have been able to discern between a heavenly manifestation and an Extra-terrestrial visitor?  This article in its four part series examines the Old Testament from a scholarly perspective.  Later articles will discuss the possible ET interaction in antiquity but first we must explore the modern understanding of this ancient set of documents.

The contemporary Christian view of the Old Testament as heard during the readings at most Christian churches is portrayed quite differently than the original Hebrew version.  For the reader to get a true understanding of the OT stories it is helpful to read the OT in the original Hebrew or a translated version directly from the Hebrew Bible.  A Hebrew Study Bible is helpful in understanding the OT stories from the Israelite perspective.  Many have read the Bible cover-to-cover but unless the reader understands that the stories are, what the ancient Israelites believed was happening in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), there can be a great deal of misinterpretation.  The ancient texts were written to be heard, not to be read.  No book in the Bible was written with the intention to be connected to any other book written. The Old Testament is a text that takes its shape and form in exile as the Israelites work to affirm their own identity (around 585-531BCE). It is important for us to understand the Old Testament not as a Christian text but as an ancient Israelite text.  It is also very important to remember that, the Bible says many things.   The Bible is a faithful, culturally specific remembrance of Israel’s experience of Yahweh. What is of utmost importance when reading the OT is that there are no definitive answers.  The Word is fluid and open to discussion and God encourages discussion.  Interpretations may differ, for example, “Keep the Sabbath Holy.  The meaning of this may seem clear but as we learn from Jesus in the New Testament, it is open to interpretation.

World View – A framework for action – A way to make sense of one’s reality or universe, which shapes our everyday life.  When reading the Old Testament, what is already understood doesn’t need to be discussed so it isn’t. (The author doesn’t explain what everyone already knows/understands).  This must be kept in mind when applying modern day rationale to an ancient document.  For example, at a party when discussing a favorite car, all who are a part of the discussion know that the car has wheels and moves.  It isn’t necessary in the framework of the discussion to mention this.  When we think of OT stories, we must remember that we are not getting all of the details because the stories are remembrances, not historical from the story tellers perspective.  There is no effort to chronological ordering or adding fluff details.

Social, Scientific and Cultural Models – Models try to make sense of stuff in the Bible that isn’t discussed. Models are abstract representations of real world experiences, structures and interactions and help us outsiders understand what is going on in that other world.  Models are constructed to notice patterns in a different culture.  They are not an expression of reality but are lenses constructed so that we can see what is going on in the text differently.  We’re programmed to look at text in modern day terms and current day social interactions.  We must suspend this way of interpretation and remember the time that these events occurred in and the meanings of that time.  We must avoid mining the Bible from our experience remembering that this isn’t based on our experience, i.e.:  A handshake,  has many modern day meanings such as:  A friendly greeting; A covenant/contract; etc.  In ancient time, it meant who was “in charge or the authority” based on who initiated the handshake and who was receiving the handshake.  We must use this “model” concept in order to help view the text in antiquity.

To begin understanding the Old Testament, we must first lay the ground work for the World of the Old Testament; not from the contemporary view but from antiquity.  The remainder of Study of the Old Testament, part 1 will encompass this ground work allowing us to dig deeper into scratching the surface of the Old Testament studies in parts 2, 3 and 4.  What must be remembered when reading the Study of the Old Testament and it’s related parts is that these are only an overview.  A peek into a much bigger and deeper scholarly review and interpretation.  In the end, the reader will cling to whatever makes them comfortable.  For some, this material may be unsettling or unbelievable.  It is important to remember that what is discussed herein is modern day scholarly thinking.  This isn’t a perspective from any one denomination as the scholars span all denominations and are in agreement.  We must suspend our contemporary Christian Church revealing of the Old Testament in order to truly grasp the world of the Israelites during their exile.

The Modern way of thinking is a natural world with natural laws.  Something supernatural is something that goes against the laws of nature.  We use these things to support why we should believe in God or Jesus.  To understand the ancient world view we must suspend our modern thinking.   Supernatural is a language used by our Church and Catechism – (i.e.: Jesus walking on water or being taken into the heavens).  There is not a single thing that occurs in the Old or New Testament that is supernatural.  The word doesn’t show up until the 6th century AD.  Paul used “according to nature”, not supernatural.  In the Bible of the antiquity, there is no supernatural because God can do whatever He pleases and however He pleases.  This is simply the way the world was.  The Cycle of Meaning is as follows – World View -> Ritual/Mythic Expressions -> Experiences -> Interpretation -> World View -> etc.  We begin with a world view.  This leads to ritual/mythic expressions, experiences and interpretations.  Based on the interpretations, our world view is reshaped.  This is a cycle that continues endlessly, i.e.:  Jesus gets dunked in water and comes out and sees the heaven’s open.  (Mythic Expression of Baptism).  Jesus goes out into the wilderness and interacts with Satan after fasting (Experiences/Visions/Alternate State of Consciousness), the interpretation of the experience then feeds again the world view.   When we read the books of the Bible, we must remember that we are not reading the modern message but the terms that had meaning in antiquity.  The “meaning” changes based on the temporal experience.  Hallucinations in modern terms refers to something that isn’t real.  To call today, Jesus’ alternate state of consciousness, would give the inappropriate interpretation of false visions.

The Old Testament Text is a discussion of Israel’s identity and is a collective self-identity of the people of Israel.  Israel means: One that fight’s with God and wins. We will touch upon this further when discussing the story of Jacob .  God’s identity as Israel understands it is unpacked in the Old Testament.  There are 7 original books in the Bible Old Testament that are considered Canon.  Canon is simply a term that means measuring stick.  Thus we have the Canon Criteria or Measuring Stick Status.  To establish the Canon in the Old Testament scholars use a rigid outline.  Date (narrative or story world date); Hebrew (was it found in the Hebrew language), Use (is it used?  If it wasn’t talked about it never made it into the written form).

Torah was in pieces and believed to be from around the 5th century BCE.  Prophets and Writings are believed to be around 2nd Century BCE.  The actual 39 texts of the Torah Canon are believed to have been constructed around the 1st or 2nd century CE.

When reading the Old Testament we need to remember it is a text that takes its shape and form during exile as the Israelites work to affirm their own identity (around 585-531BCE).  We also need to  consider that the Bible we know today wasn’t in existence.  The teaching was more fluid based on region.  For example, the Bible that Jesus would have been reading was in the Hebrew while the Bible Paul would have used was in the Greek and included the 7 additional books.  The “seeds” of Israel were scattered through out the regions (Diaspora).  In Judea and Galilee, Aramaic was spoken but after Alexander the Great, nearly everyone in the known world spoke Greek.  Most Israelites were born away from Judea during this time and because most Israelites only knew Greek, scholars decided to translate the Hebrew into Greek.  The drive to create Canon was due to the destruction of the Temple and a desire to remember.

The ancient Israelites weren’t as concerned with getting the story straight as much as we are.  For them it was about their cultural memory.  Every text in the Bible is a remembrance.  John’s Gospel was written between 90-120 CE.  But it must be remembered that when it was written, it was based on word of mouth.  Scholars feel that it wasn’t until the 3-4th century until the written form was a preferred method.  Scholars believe about 98% in antiquity couldn’t read/write.   While the Bible is authoritative, we must consider other writings of the time to put things into perspective, i.e.: The Gospels are one perspective.  If we only look to the Gospels, we will get information but perhaps not the entire perspective.  Much like asking someone at a party their “opinion” of a specific car.  Those who like it will have one perspective.  Those who dislike it will offer another.  Capturing all insight helps to create a more rounded perspective.

Recommended Reading:


Reading the Old Testament : an introduction / by Lawrence Boadt. — 2nd ed. / rev. by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington. Published by Paulist Press https://www.amazon.com/Reading-Old-Testament-Introduction-Second/dp/0809147807


The inspiration and truth of sacred scripture by Pontifical Biblical Commission, Gerhard Ludwig Müller  published by Liturgical press  https://www.litpress.org/Products/4903/the-inspiration-and-truth-of-sacred-scripture.aspx