The Origin And Structure Of The Old Testament

The Hebrew scriptures, as they existed before the days of Ezra were divided into three parts:

  • The Tanakh (known as the Torah or the law). It is also called the Pentateuch (meaning the five-fold books)
  • The Nebiim (the prophets)
  • The Kethubim (the literary writings)

In fact, there were many different manuscripts available to the religious leaders that were not generally available to the common people. The Savior was familiar with these writing during his ministry and referred to them often as the law and the prophets.

For example, when he was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the law,” he responded that it was “to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” He then went on to say that the second commandment, which was like unto it, was to “love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:35-40, emphasis added).

When Christ told His disciples the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), he also made reference to the ancient scriptures. When the dead rich man, recognizing eh error of his mortal pursuits, asked Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers of the punishments awaiting them if they did not repent, Abraham said (verse 31), “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead” [emphasis added].

After the Savior’s resurrection, he appeared to the eleven Apostles gathered in the upper room. After eating fish and honeycomb with them, he said, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms [Psalms being the most important book of the literary writings], concerning me” (Luke 24:44, emphasis added).

The books of the Old Testament were not entirely settled upon until late in the First Century AD.

With regard to the three parts of the Old Testament record mentioned above, we should also note the following. The Torah (the law) was closed (i.e., nothing could be either added or removed) centuries before the coming of Christ, though there are some scholars who believe that the book of Deuteronomy was actually written—or at least heavily edited—by a group of religious reformers that modern scholars call Deuteronomists, who date back to about the time of King Josiah of Judah.

The other two parts of the Old Testament, however, the Nebiim (the prophets) and the Kethubim (the [literary] writings) were open and various writings (many from multiple manuscripts) were going in and out of favor. In fact, various writings not included in our Old Testament are mentioned in the Bible. Among these are:

  • The “book of the wars of the Lord” (mentioned in Numbers 21:14)
  • The “book of Jasher” (mentioned in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18)
  • The “book of the acts of Solomon” (mentioned in 1 Kings 11:41)
  • The “book of Samuel the seer” (mentioned in 1 Chronicles 29:29)
  • The “book of Nathan the prophet” (mentioned in 2 Chronicles 9:29)
  • The “book of Shemaiah the prophet” (mentioned in 2 Chronicles 12:15)
  • The “story of the prophet Iddo” (mentioned in 2 Chronicles 13:22)
  • The “book of Jehu” (mentioned in 2 Chronicles 20:34)
  • The “sayings of the seers” (mentioned in 2 chronicles 33:19)

Those familiar with the Book of Mormon will also recall that prophets named Zenos and Zenock are quoted there with some frequency. The book of Helaman says that these were two of the prophets who had testified and prophesied of the coming of the Savior since the days of Abraham (Helaman 8:19).

After the prophet Lehi obtained possession of the brass plates containing the records of his fathers when he and his family fled from Jerusalem, his youngest son Nephi was told by an angel of that future time when the record of the Jews [the Bible] would be delivered to his (Nephi’s) descendants by the gentiles. The angel said that this record of the Jews would contain “many of the prophecies of the holy prophets and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many…” (1 Nephi 13:23, emphasis added).

There are other terms relating to the origin and structure of the Old Testament that should be mentioned here. One of these is Septuagint. The Septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, made in the third century before Christ. Its name came from the tradition that it was translated in 70 (actually 72) days by 70 Palestinian Jews, at the order of Ptolemy Philadelphus, for use by the Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria. The Septuagint was used by the Jews during New Testament times. It was of immense value to them because they could not read the Hebrew language. Old Testament scriptures quoted in the New Testament are from the Greek Septuagint.

The Talmud should also be mentioned. The name means “learning.” It is a compilation of text (called Mishnah) and of commentaries (called Gamara). The Mishnah was a collection or digest of oral Jewish traditions that had developed through the centuries and was still in the process of compilation two or three centuries AD. The earliest writings date from about 200 BC. These writings and the oral tradition behind them were used to interpret the scriptures and were what made Jewish law at the time of the Savior so cumbersome, even a burden to the people. These traditions of the fathers exaggerated everything, defining every jot and tittle so that it was actually a hedge, or a fence, around the law. They went far beyond the law given to Moses by Jehovah so that there was not even a remote possibility that a person could break the law. Everything was defined, including how far one could travel on the Sabbath or what was and what was not an acceptable Sabbath activity. Jesus, you will recall, was severely criticized because he healed the sick on the Sabbath.

Jesus was referring to these Talmudic traditions in his Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time” (Matthew 5:27 and 33). The Talmud was nothing more than a collection of commentaries by dead rabbis, the ultimate example of the traditions of the fathers.

The Gamara is of more recent origin and consists of the Halakah and the Haggada. The Halakah was the authoritative unwritten law of the Jews (their oral Torah). The Haggada, on the other hand, is a collection of illustrative stories, written in a scriptural style in the late middle ages-probably about the Thirteenth Century-in Spain.

We should also speak of the Apocrypha. The word, coined by St. Jerome in the Fifth Century, means “secret” or “hidden” and refers to fifteen sacred books and parts of books from the Greek Septuagint that were not included in the Hebrew scriptures when the canon was closed. Twelve of these records, however, were accepted by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and are included in the Douay Version of the Bible as a result of the Council of Trent in 1546). They were also included in the 1611 version of the King James Translation but were afterward excluded. The books of the Apocrypha are:

1 Esdras
2 Esdras (
AKA 4 Ezra)
Esther (additions to)
Wisdom of Solomon
Sirach (
AKA Ecclesiasticus)
Letter of Jeremiah
Prayer of Azariah (
AKA Song of the Three Hebrew Children)
Susanna (Daniel 13)
Bel and the Dragon (Daniel 14)
Prayer of Manasseh
1 Maccabees
2 Maccabees

The two books of Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh are not included in the Douay Version of the Bible. These are called deuterocanonical Apocrypha because they are not considered to be inspired. These same uninspired writings are today referred to as pseudepigrapha because they are believed to be falsely attributed to Biblical characters.

It is interesting to note that our Old Testament contains no writings from some very significant prophets, such as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha. Instead, we have only accounts of these prophets and their lives in the Bible’s historical writings. Many modern Biblical scholars think that the Deuteronomists, mentioned earlier, took the writings of the prophets and rewrote them in the various historical accounts which they compiled in order to satisfy their own perspectives. The books of Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings-in addition to Deuteronomy-are believed to have been either written, or heavily edited, by the Deuteronomists to satisfy their own interpretations..

The Old Testament was not compiled with the books in chronological sequence, nor are there clear divisions between the parts. The five books of Moses are at the beginning, but the books containing the prophets and the literary writings are not separated. Today most Bible scholars divide our Old Testament into five categories:

  • The Law: (including Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
  • History: (including Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther)
  • Literary writings: (including Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon)
  • Major Prophets: (including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel)
  • Minor Prophets: (including Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)

The Major Prophets differ from the Minor Prophets only in the volume of their writings, not in their importance.


The Old Testament: understand it, love it!