Old Testament Overview

The Old Testament consists of 39 books that were written over a period of about a thousand years. The material was drawn from every walk of life and was written by numerous individuals, from uneducated herdsmen to highly skilled priests and kings. It consists of four sections:

The Pentateuch

The first section of the Old Testament consists of five books (Genesis through Deuteronomy). These writings contain the story of the beginning of the world up to the entrance of Israel into the promised land of Canaan. This collection of books is referred to as “the five books of Moses,” “the Law,” “the Torah,” or “the Pentateuch.” The Pentateuch was considered especially sacred by the Jews, since it contained the Ten Commandments and the history of the founding of their nation.

The term “Pentateuch” (Greek for “five scrolls”) apparently arose during the first century A.D. among Alexandrian Jews as a name for the first five books of the Old Testament. The early church fathers Tertullian and Origin used the term in the second and third centuries.


The second major section of the Old Testament contains basic historical material concerning the nation of Israel. It consists of twelve books, from Joshua to Esther. The narration goes sequentially through the capture of the land (Joshua); the history of the early nation (Judges, Ruth); the period of the united and divided monarchies (I Kings–Chronicles); and the exile and return (Ezra–Esther).


The third major section of the Old Testament contains books written mainly in poetic style. There is an epic poem (Job), a collection of hymns (Psalms), a collection of traditional wisdom (Proverbs), an ornate meditation on life and its vanity (Ecclesiastes), and a love poem (Song of Solomon). Hebrew poetry is different from English poetry in that it stresses a balance of ideas rather than sounds, rhythm, and images.

The Prophets

The fourth major section of the Old Testament contains the writings of the prophets of Israel. It is divided into two groups, the major prophets (Isaiah–Daniel) and the minor prophets (Hosea–Malachi). The words major and minor do not imply any value judgment, but refer to the length of the books. Major prophets are long, and minor prophets are short. This section of the Old Testament contains prophecies concerning the coming of Jesus Christ.

General Contents

The Pentateuch seeks to explain how Israel became the chosen and covenanted people of God, and what this relationship to God involved for the life and destiny of Israel and all humankind.

Genesis tells how God chose the covenant family from among the peoples of the earth; Exodus, how God redeemed this chosen family–greatly enlarged–from bondage in Egypt, and how God entered into a covenant with it at Mount Sinai; Leviticus, how God consecrated the new nation for service and educated it in worship; Numbers, how God purged and disciplined it according to the provisions of the covenant during its wandering in the wilderness; and Deuteronomy, how Moses exhorted it to perpetual fidelity to God, and to the terms of the covenant it had accepted.

Place in the Hebrew Canon

The Pentateuch comprises the first division of the threefold Hebrew canon: the Law (Torah), the Prophets, and the Writings.

That these five books occupied the leading place in the Hebrew Canon long prior to New Testament times is clear from their position and separation from the other canonical books in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament, 3rd-2nd centuries, B.C.), and from evidence in the second century B.C. book, Ecclesiasticus (The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach). The Prologue of this book speaks of “the law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers.” In the New Testament, “the law or the prophets” (Matt. 5:17) and “the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms” (Luke 24:44) are referred to.

Apparently the books of the Pentateuch were the first writings regarded by the Jews as authoritative. From early times–how early we do not know–Moses was regarded as the author or compiler of these books, a view taken over by the Christian Church.

Authorship and Formation

There is no scholarly consensus today concerning the process by which the books of the Pentateuch came into being, even though the problem has been under investigation for over two hundred years. The major hypotheses are as follows.

One Author and Later Editors In Graeco-Roman times Jews (Philo, Josephus) and Christians (John 5:46-47; 7:19; Acts 3:22; Romans 10:5) believed that Moses wrote these books. This belief persisted, with occasional challenges, until the time of the Enlightenment (seventeenth-eighteenth centuries). In that period of rationalism and deism, several influential philosophers and biblical scholars (including Spinoza) denied Moses’ authorship. Some, as had others earlier, attributed the Pentateuch to Ezra.

In the centuries after the Enlightenment, liberal scholars uniformly repudiated the Mosaic authorship, preferring a view that held to a multiplicity of authors and documents behind the Pentateuch. Against them were arrayed conservative church people and scholars, who staunchly sought to maintain the traditional view.

The grounds of the liberals’ challenge of the Mosaic authorship lay in part in phenomena in the text of the Pentateuch itself.

How could Moses have composed the account of his own death (Deut. 34:1-8)?

What does one do with the anachronistic references to the Israelite kings (Gen. 36:31), to later place names like “Dan” (Gen. 14:14; Judges 18:29), and to the “Philistines” as in the land during Abraham’s and Isaac’s time (Gen. 21:34; 26:14-18), when in reality they entered several hundred years after these patriarchs?

What of the later perspective indicated by the phrase “to this day” (Gen. 32:32; Deut. 3:14; 34:6), and by the references to the Canaanites and Perizzites as formerly in the land (Gen. 12:6, 13:7)?

Why do different versions of the same material appear: two stories of creation (Gen. 1:1-2:4-25); three accounts of a patriarch representing his wife as a sister (Gen. 12:10-20; ch. 20; 26:1-11); two accounts of the naming of Beersheba (Gen. 21:31; 26:33), and of Bethel (Gen. 28:19; 35:15); two renamings of Jacob (Gen. 32:28; 35:10)?

Why is there disagreement concerning the kind and number of animals Noah took into the ark (Gen. 6:19-20; 7:2, 8-9) and the time at which worship of Yahweh began (Gen. 4:26; Ex. 6:2-3)?

Conservatives have explained these phenomena in various ways: by postulating Moses’ use of different documentary sources; by emphasizing ancient writers’ love of duplication, repetition, and multiple naming of persons and deities; and by stressing the role of later scribes in updating ancient place names, in supplementing stories from parallel accounts, and in correcting and clarifying puzzling data in the texts they were editing.

Conservatives do not argue that Moses wrote the story of his own death; and some are willing to grant the blocks of material (for example, Deuteronomy 1-11 and 32-33) “were added at a somewhat later time” (R.K. Harrison). This scholar contends that Moses and the scribes after him used the standard literary procedures of their age, as illustrated in the compositions we possess from Mesopotamia.

In general, conservatives hold that scribal editing was completed early, probably by the death of Samuel (late eleventh century B.C.) or at least by the time of David (about 1000 B.C.). Some allow for “modest amounts of revision” until about the time of Ezra (c. 400 B.C.)(La Sor-Hubbard-Bush).

One scholar stated his position as follows:

“Who in Israel’s history was better prepared than Moses to write the Pentateuch? He had the time and also the training and learning to do so. Also, as human founder of the theocracy, he had the information that was requisite. The Pentateuch exhibits an inner plan and structure that betray a great mind. Who, better than Moses, could have produced such a work?” (E.J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 3rd. ed. 1964).

Several Authors and Later Editors

In 1753, Jean Astruc, a French physician, published a book in which he contended that Moses used two main parallel sources in compiling the book of Genesis: one referred to God by the name Elohim (Deity) and the other by YHWH (Yahweh). He postulated in addition ten fragmentary sources. This began a long search on the part of scholars for major documents that might lie behind the Pentateuch.

The most careful and influential analysis of the sources of the Pentateuch was made by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen (1876-77), who built on the views of Graf, Kuenen, and others. Wellhausen and his followers believed that the earliest parts of the Pentateuch came from two originally independent, extensive and largely parallel sources.

One, written by a Judean author about 850 B.C., uses the divine name YHWH, is cast in epic style, revels in the deeds of the Patriarchs whom God chose to bring into being a glorious new, redemptive kingdom in the earth, and presents the Deity (YHWH) in humanlike terms. These scholars gave to this document the symbol J (standing for “Jahweh”, the German spelling of the divine name).

The other document, written in the northern kingdom in the eighth century B.C., uses the name Elohim (thus the symbol E), exalts Jacob and Joseph, gives prominence to the northern sanctuaries of Bethel and Shechem, especially praises Moses, and sees and evaluates Israel’s history from the standpoint of prophets like Amos and Hosea.

The two documents were joined by an unknown editor (thus JE) in the seventh century.

Wellhausen and his followers saw two other major documents behind the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy (called D), which they identified in whole or in part with the law book found in the temple in the time of Josiah (622 B.C.; II Kings 22-23) and which they held to be a product of the period immediately preceding this; and a priestly document (P), containing material of a ritualistic and statistical character (as in the book of Leviticus and in the Pentateuch’s genealogies, tribal lists, chronological notations, etc.). They dated P to the period after the Babylonian Exile (500-450 B.C.) and suggested that this document afforded the framework into which some unknown editor fitted the three other documents, perhaps in Babylonia in the late fifth century B.C.

According to this hypothesis, the Pentateuch was in process of formation for some four hundred years. While Wellhausen did not regard Moses as the author of the Pentateuch, he did accord him a high place as “the founder of the nation out of which the Torah and prophecy came as later growths” and as “the people’s leader, judge and center of union.”

Refinements of Wellhausen’s views went forward in liberal scholarly circles in the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the supposed basic documents (JEDP) were divided into yet other documents (Jinto J1 and J2 , E into E1 and E2 , and P into P1 and P2 ). J has been most divided, one scholar separating out from it a “lay” source (L ), another scholar a “nomadic” source (N), another a “Seir” or “Southern” source (S), and yet another a “Kenite” source (K).

The critical knife has been very busy since the time of Wellhausen. The lack of agreement among the subdividers became a factor in growing, widespread loss of confidence in the whole way of attacking the problem of the origin of the Pentateuch and caused researchers to turn to yet other approaches.

Oral Traditions, Multiple Authors, and Late Editors

The attention of important scholars (Gunkel, Noth, von Rad, Engnell) began to focus on the growing evidence that oral transmission of Israel’s memories of the past lay behind and alongside the writing down of the Pentateuchal material. They observed that oral transmission of historical memories and folklore was strongly operative in other cultures around the ancient Hebrews and indeed exists in some modern societies.

They studied the forms in which oral traditions circulate and are handed down, the practical uses these forms have in the life of the people who create and use them, the changes in the traditions (expansions, alterations, reinterpretations) that occur in transmission, their clustering into cycles of traditions, and their reduction to writing.

They concluded that oral traditions were circulating in Israel long before the writing of J and the other Pentateuchal sources. Indeed, the documents were simply crystallization of cycles of oral tradition. They asserted that the really creative process in the formation of Israel’s record of the past was the oral process.

Each generation received the stories of the past, affirmed them, altered them in the light of their own circumstances and needs, created some new traditions, and passed them all on to the next generation. Cult centers, such as Shechem and Gilgal, particularly after the formation of the twelve-tribe confederacy (amphictyony) in the time of Joshua, utilized the traditions in worship and instruction in connection with sacred festivals. The traditions set forth God’s promises to the Fathers, God’s deliverance of the oppressed Israelites from Egypt, God’s guidance through the wilderness, God’s revelation of the Law and God’s formation of a covenanted nation at Mount Sinai, and God’s provision of a home for the new nation in the Promised Land. It has been suggested that in connection with the annual recital of these traditions at Shechem the covenant was renewed and the worshipers repledged to obedience to its terms. The J writer may have been the first to give traditions literary form and others (the writers of E, D, P ) and later editors assembled and shaped yet other cycles.

This general view of the formation of the Pentateuch was widely accepted for about a quarter of a century (from about 1940-1965). Today it is being seriously challenged. Some scholars doubt that a long stage of oral transmission can be argued from the Pentateuchal materials, that changes in orally transmitted material can really be identified, that an emphictyony ever existed to bring the traditions together, that the concept of a covenanted nation existed prior to the seventh century B.C., and so on.

Late Editors of Traditional Materials

Some scholars (for example Van Seters) recently have contended that there were no long, somewhat parallel, and comprehensive written sources (JEDP) to be woven together, as Wellhausen and his successors assumed. Rather, editors during the Babylonian Exile and after it put together collections of folktales of the time (some of them may have been in written form) to serve the pressing community need: the reconstitution of the shattered nation by an interpretation and application of its manifold traditions about its forefathers, its ancestral laws, and its reason for existing. As thus conceived, the Pentateuch is through and through a late composition, both as to its time of writing and the kind of material it enshrines.

Our brief survey here of the major hypotheses, concerning the authorship and formation of the Pentateuch, has shown that the documentary hypothesis, as advocated by Wellhausen and his followers for a century, has well nigh come apart. And the study of the oral traditions assumed to lie behind and within the documents, as carried out by Noth, von Rad, and others, has done less than enough to save the documentary hypothesis and convince the scholarly world of the adequacy of the tradition-document approach. The conceiving of the Pentateuch as comprised of non-historical (folktale) matter, put together by Exilic and post-Exilic editors, for religious and national purposes, imposes an unproved hypothesis on the Pentateuch and smacks of rationalistic skepticism. The chaos in liberal scholarship today has led one astute observer to say, “Pentateuchal studies is hardly in a favorable position at the present point” (D.A. Knight in Knight and Tucker (eds.), The Hebrew Bible and its Modern Interpreters, 1985).

Conservatives continue to support the traditional belief in Mosaic authorship–with generous allowance for the work of editors after Moses’ time–but they fail to convert many liberals. The question of the origin of the Pentateuch is more open today than it has been in a hundred years.

Historical Reliability

The advocates of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch believe that authentic early documents and traditions were available to Moses and that he added his own recollections to form a trustworthy narrative of the beginnings of the world, human society, and the people of Israel. Conservatives tend to defend the verbal inerrancy of this material, while allowing for textual corruption in the process of transmission.

Some liberal scholars, who have accepted the documentary hypothesis along the lines laid down by Wellhausen (W.F. Albright and his students), have refused to accept Wellhausen’s skepticism about the historical value of the Pentateuchal materials. Wellhausen put his position frankly:

“We attain to no historical knowledge of the patriarchs, but only of the time when the stories about them arose in the Israelite people; this later age is here unconsciously projected, in its inner and outward features, into hoar antiquity, and is reflected there like glorified image.”

In the middle third of the present century, the Albrightians argued that Wellhausen was wrong in this judgment, that archaeology has established the historical accuracy of innumerable date of the Pentateuch, that the oral and written transmission of Israel’s traditions was on the whole faithful, and that we can believe that the fountainhead of Hebrew faith and life was Abraham and Moses–both historical persons–who fit well in the cultural contexts in which the Pentateuch places them. However late the basic Pentateuchal documents may be and however much they were edited, they present a reasonably accurate picture of the distance past.

Today the Albrightians are being attacked with vigor by somewhat secular Syro-Palestinian archaeologists and students of ancient Near Eastern religions (Dever, Van Seters, T.L. Thompson). They accuse the Albrightians of theological bias and unsound archaeological methodology. They see in archaeological data no supporting evidence for the historicity of the Pentateuchal materials. Since the Pentateuch was put together during and after the Babylonian Exile, more than a thousand years after the supposed time of the Patriarchs, when probably little authentic memory of ancient events existed, these scholars believe that even the historicity of the Patriarchs is open to question and the stories about them and Moses are in all likelihood pious fiction. It is easy to detect a strong rationalistic skepticism in the attitudes of these scholars, who are guilty of conditioning presuppositions quite as much as the Albrightian scholars they oppose.

Not all liberal scholars hold that the sort of oral-literary process that seems to lie behind the Pentateuch necessarily empties it of usable data for historical reconstruction. These “moderate” liberals join with the conservatives in holding that Abraham and Moses constitute the fountainhead of Hebrew belief and life, that they were central actors under God in the raising up of Israel as a redemptive people, and that the stories about them, however shaped they may be by transmissional processes, are vastly more than “pious fiction.”


It is agreed by more conservative and liberal scholars that the Pentateuch in its present form is the product of more than one mind and of several centuries, at least, and is a vast treasure chest of Israel’s historical memories. Both groups agree that long copying of the Pentateuch and the translating of it into other languages resulted in many changes to the text and that it is the common responsibility of all scholars to discover the changes and restore the text as nearly as possible to its earliest form. This work is known as textual criticism.

There is considerable agreement between both groups that “neither Testament ascribes the entire work to Moses, although both attribute substantial parts to him” (D.A. Hubbard, a conservative scholar). Passages that refer to Moses’ writing down “all the words of the Lord,” “this law,” and the like (Ex. 17:14, 24:4; 34:27; Num. 33:1-2; Deut. 31:9, 22) refer to certain parts like the great legal codes (Ex. 20:2-23:33; 34:11-26; Deut.5-26) and the Israelites’ itinerary (Num. 33:2), says Hubbard. This conservative scholar can even write, “As far as the Gn. [Genesis] stories are concerned, Moses may or may not have been the one who compiled them from their written and oral forms.” He allows as “credible” the final editing of the Pentateuch during the time of Saul and David, with some “modernizing of vocabulary and style” even later (all quotations from the article “Pentateuch” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1980).

Though Moses apparently did not write the whole Pentateuch in its present form, he clearly stands behind its laws, institutions, religious concepts, and ceremonies described there. He was the central actor under God in the liberation of Israel from Egypt and in the organization of Israel’s life on its many sides. Adaptations of Moses’ laws and institutions to meet changed conditions undoubtedly were made in his spirit in later times and are now included in the Pentateuch. These too witness to the towering greatness of Moses.

In sum, if Moses was not the “author” of the Pentateuch, in the modern understanding of that term, he was its fountainhead. And the book of which he is the veritable center and heart is thus not inappropriately called “the book of Moses” (Mark 12:26).