When did the Old Testament become the Old Testament? a crash course in the form of a chart

Last year, an English translation of Konrad Schmid’s (University of Zurich) approach to the literary history of the Old Testament–i.e., when the bits and pieces of the Old Testament originated and when they all came together to form a book–was published with the title The Old Testament: A Literary History.

I haven’t read the book, but I read a recent scholarly review of it on line. Exactly why and when the ancient writings of Israel came to be, let alone when they were compiled and edited into a one-volume collection we call the Bible, is not the easiest thing to nail down.

But one pillar of modern OT scholarship, which isn’t seriously challenged outside of inerrantist writers, is that the OT had a long pre-history before it reached the form that we know today.

That process began in at some point during the monarchic period but didn’t pick up serious steam until the exilic and post exilic periods, when Israel was in theo-political crisis and needed a book telling their story with God.

That process didn’t come to an end until sometime in the Greek period, which began with the conquests of Alexander the Great (332 BCE) and ended with the Maccabean Revolt (160s BCE). Some books are later still, such as the final form of Daniel and the shaping of the Psalter.

Whatever the Bible’s pre-history may be, the Bible we have is a product of the exilic and postexilic periods.

That’s generally the broad outline of the historical-critical narrative of the origins of the OT, and, for what it’s worth, it’s pretty uncontroversial in contemporary OT studies.

What might be of most help and interest is the chart below complied by the reviewer, Trent Butler, and it’s largely the reason I wrote this post (for a larger view, click the link below).

As I said, details are part of the scholarly dialogue, and Butler notes Schmid’s Euro-centric bias, but the overall picture the chart gives is almost a crash course on the state of the field.

Stare at it. Note how Schmid looks at different genres of OT literature and where he sees them falling within certain historical periods. Don’t let the details overwhelm you. Find a familiar chunk of the OT–say Genesis– and see in what periods (plural) it arose.

Again, the overall idea isn’t controversial, but working out the details of the how and when of ancient texts isn’t a hard science. It’s more like model building and there’s always room for more thinking and refinement.

The bottom line: Israel’s written (and oral) traditions grew to become the “Hebrew Bible/Old Testament” after a lengthy process, punctuated by the crisis of the exile and an uncertain future after Judah’s return. Or, as I put it elsewhere, it is an exercise in national self-definition in response to the Babylonian exile.

I don’t see this as a hushed, back room, discussion among biblical scholars with coded language and secret handshakes. I think all this is important to take in, because knowing something about when and why the Old Testament came to be helps us understand its theology. This saga of Israel gets reframed, redefined, and transformed in the NT around Jesus.

K. Schmid, Literary History of the Old Testament

 

  • mark

    OK, nice post, but …

    That book costs $37.50. Would you be able to recommend something popularized (or less expensive) that covers the same or substantially similar ground?

    As is usual, the part that interests me most is this:

    Again, the overall idea isn’t controversial, but working out the details of the how and when of ancient texts isn’t a hard science. It’s more like model building and there’s always room for more thinking and refinement.

    The bottom line: Israel’s written (and oral) traditions grew to become the “Hebrew Bible/Old Testament” after a lengthy process, punctuated by the crisis of the exile and an uncertain future after Judah’s return. Or, as I put it elsewhere, it is an exercise in national self-definition in response to the Babylonian exile.

    I don’t see this as a hushed, back room, discussion among biblical scholars with coded language and secret handshakes. I think all this is important to take in, because knowing something about when and why the Old Testament came to be helps us understand its theology. This saga of Israel gets reframed, redefined, and transformed in the NT around Jesus.

    which raises the question: What does all this mean for our “model” (theory) of revelation, and is there a different “model” that explains “revelation” better than the traditional model?

    • Norman

      Mark,
      I’m interested in this book also but noticed that Amazon also list other sellers that start at around $23 which makes it a reasonable price for a research book.
      I wish there were more details and reviews about it although the review Pete referenced is helpful and whetted my appetite. I’m particulary interested in research that investigates the origin of Jewish literature without all the baggage of nearly 2000 years of aquired traditions. It’s very difficult to find authors that have learned to shed their traditions and modern filters including so called historical critical scholars.
      I’m really interested in looking at how the early church percieved scripture and what it included before AD90 when the Jews begin consolodating their canon. The propensity for messiah appears to dissipate about that time and they begin excluding heavily messianic pieces like Enoch, Jubilees ect. I’m thinking that their recent catastrophe with Jerusalem and the Temples recent distruction had tempered their desire for messiah and let the Christians go their seperate way. It looks like the early Christians attempted to contest this stripping out of heavily messianic literature by the Jews but eventually later Christians gave into that stripped down corpus that we now call our OT. The first century Christians IMO would likley be very dissapointed in our acceptance of a canon that was formulated by the Jewish group that rejected Messiah.

      • mark

        Tx Norman. I’ll check that out. $23 is much more reasonable for the likes of me.

        • Norman

          Mark,
          I just located major excerpts of this book in Google Books. I’m planning on examining it thoroughly there but will likley purchase it also as a reference piece since it’s incomplete.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello Peter, after years of research, I concluded that many parts of the Bible (Exodus, United Monarchy…) CAN be interpreted in such a way they’re not contradicted by archaeology.

    To my mind, what makes these texts unacceptable are the moral atrocities attributed to God in them.

    Kind regards.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • edwardtbabinski

    Hi Peter, So the time between the writing of the last book of the OT and the first book of the NT was about 100 years? And the time since the last book of the NT was written until today has been 18 times as many years, with no added written revelations since then (unless you’re Muslim or Mormon)?

    Some Christians might argue that there have been heaps of divinely inspired interpreters of the Old and New Testament since then, though their interpretations often don’t agree.

    • steve

      well, thats a good point edward. If the Bible is defined as the writings of the people of God, and how they conceived God in their time and culture, the question then becomes: is The Purpose Driven Life the same as, say the book of Jude, or Jonah? That is, just the 21st century view of how God relates to us in our world.

  • James

    It seems ancient Hebrew faith (maybe modern too) is primarily a response to exile. There is really no post-exilic period of which to boast. And what is the best response to exile? Return to God. In any case, God will surely save his people from bondage: “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”

  • Dave

    You make mention of a chart and link in your article, but I can’t find them. “What might be of most help and interest is the chart below complied by the reviewer, Trent Butler, and it’s largely the reason I wrote this post (for a larger view, click the link below).” Where is the chart and link? Thanks.


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