Bible Study Seven Keys for Understanding the Old Testament


By the Bible we mean the collection of writings that contain the records of divine revelation. The word itself is of Greek origin, being derived from ta biblia, "the books". In course of time "biblia," a neuter plural, was regarded as a feminine singular, and in that way "the books" came to be spoken of as "the book." By the word Bible therefore we must understand not a single book, but a divine library.

The bible is the work of many prophets and inspired writers acting under the influence of the same Holy spirit; but at the same time it came into being "in many parts and in many modes," by a gradual growth extending over many centuries, and we can see in the books themselves evidence of the varied conditions of time and place and thought under which they were composed.

In the New Testament we find the Jewish sacred books described as "the scriptures" e.g. Matthew 22:29; John 5:39; "the holy scriptures" Romans 1:2, 2 Timothy 3:15; cf. Romans 15:4.

Structures of the Bible. The Christian Bible has two great divisions, familiarly known as the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament consists of the canon of scriptures current among the Jews of Palestine in our Lord's time, and received on that account in its entirety by the Christian Church. The New Testament contains writings belonging to the Apostolic age, selected by the Church and regarded as having the same sanctity and authority as the Jewish scriptures. (For an account of the way in which these two collections of sacred writings were gradually made, see Canon.) The books of the Old Testament are drawn from a national literature extending over many centuries and were written almost entirely in Hebrew, while the books of the New Testament are the work of a single generation and were written in Greek (with the possible exception of the Gospels of Matthew and John, which were probably written originally in Aramaic).

With regard to the word testament, the Greek word diatheke, of which testament is a translation, meant in classical Greek an arrangement, and therefore sometimes a will or testament, as in an arrangement for disposal of a person's property after his death. In the Old Testament the word testament represents a Hebrew word meaning covenant. The Old Covenant is the law that was given to Moses. The New Covenant is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The title Old Testament is a misnomer since all the prophets, beginning with Adam, had the fullness of the gospel of Christ, with its ordinances and blessings. However, a lesser law was given to Moses for the children of Israel (see Law of Moses). When the Savior came in the meridian of time, he restored the gospel to the Jews in Palestine. Since they had strayed, even from the law of Moses, it was a new covenant to them. Thus we have the record called the Old and the New Testaments.

In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) the books were divided into three groups: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (or Hagiographa). See Luke 24:44. This arrangement was according to the Jews' evaluation of the importance of the books based on the identity of the author. The Bible used by the Christian world is based on a different arrangement of the Old Testament books and was set up by a Greek translation called Septuagint. In this case the books are classified according to subject matter, such as historical, poetical, and prophetical.

The books of the New Testament have varied in sequence somewhat through the centuries but are generally in this order: the four Gospels and Acts, being primarily historical; the epistles of Paul (arranged according to length, except Hebrews); the general epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude; and the Apocalypse or Revelation of John.

The Bible used by most non-Catholic churches today has 66 books -- 39 in The Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. The books called Apocrypha have generally not been printed in the non-Catholic Bibles in the past century, although in recent years these books have been gaining in popularity. (See Apocrypha)

Preservation of the Text of the OLD TESTAMENT The original language of most of The Old Testament is Hebrew, but a few portions (Daniel 2:4-7; 28; Ezra 4:8-6:18; 17:12-26; Jeremiah 10; 11) were written in what is popularly called Chaldee, but more correctly Aramaic. The direct evidence for the text of the Old Testament is of three kinds: Hebrew manuscripts, ancient versions, and quotations in the Talmud and other ancient Jewish writings. The manuscripts are of two kinds: (1) synagogue rolls, about which the Talmud gives elaborate rules as to the nature of the skins and fastenings, the number of columns in each, the size of each column and title; these were written without vowel points being inserted, and a commentary generally provided in the margin.

If we had only Hebrew manuscripts we might conclude that the text of the Old Testament has been the same always and everywhere. But the existence of the Greek Version called the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch (see Samaritans) proves that this is by no means the case. They differ materially from the Massoretic text, and in some cases have no doubt preserved older and truer readings; but it is most difficult in many cases to decide to which reading the preference should be given. The close agreement among the different Hebrew manuscripts (other than the Samaritan Pentateuch) is accounted for by the fact that soon after the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) much labor was bestowed upon the Hebrew text by the scholars who formed the Jewish School at Tiberias. One form of text was agreed upon, afterwards called the Massoretic text. Manuscripts that differed materially from this were destroyed and the utmost care was taken to prevent any other readings from obtaining currency. The English KJV follows the Massoretic text except in a very few passages.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, some of which are believed to be as early as the 2nd century BC, give evidence that the Old Testament text was corrupted at least by that time.

Bible, English. The first attempts to translate the Bible into the English language were made in the 8th century. The Venerable Bede, who died at Jarrow in 735, was engaged on his translation of John's Gospel up to the very moment of his death. There are also in existence translations of the Psalms by Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), and King Alfred (d. 900). After the Norman conquest further attempts were made, but the first English Version of the whole Bible is associated with the name of John Wycliffe. There were two editions of this version, beginning in 1382. These versions were made from the Latin. They include all the canonical books and almost all the apocryphal books that are usually found in English Bibles. The work was circulated far and wide. The honor of making the first translation of the Bible into English from the languages in which it was originally written belongs to William Tindale, born about 1490. He studied first at Oxford and then at Cambridge, where Erasmus was then lecturing. Erasmus was the editor of the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, published in 1516. In 1525 we find Tindale at Cologne, engaged in printing a quarto edition of the New Testament in English translated from Erasmus's edition of the Greek text. When about ten sheets were printed his plan was discovered, and an interdict was placed on the work. On this Tindale fled to Worms, carrying with him the sheets already printed, and there published an octave edition of 3,000 copies. A fragment of one of the sheets printed at Cologne is now in the British Museum. A complete copy of the Worms edition is preserved at the Baptist College, Bristol. They were all proscribed by the authorities of the English Church and copies were burned when discovered. Tindale was still engaged on his translation of the Old Testament when he was put to death for heresy in 1536.

In 1530 Henry VIII promised the English people that they should have the New Testament in their own tongue, and in 1534 the Convocation petitioned for a translation of the whole Bible.

In 1535 Miles Coverdale issued, with the king's permission, the first complete English Bible. It was printed at Antwerp, the translation being made, as the title page tells us, "out of Douche (i.e. German) and Latin." In 1537 Thomas Matthew (whose real name was John Rogers) issued, also with the king's license, an edition that followed Tindale's as regards the New Testament and half the Old Testament, the remainder being taken from Coverdale's. A copy of this Bible was ordered by Henry VIII "to be set up in churches." In April 1539 appeared the first edition of the Great Bible (also known as Cranmer's, the Preface added in 1540 being written by him). On the title page is an elaborate engraving, which represents the king giving the word of God to the clergy, and, through Thomas Cromwell, to the laity of the kingdom, amid the great joy of his subjects. The Bible is here described as "truly translated after the verity of the Hebrew and Greek texts by the diligent study of divers excellent learned men."

The accession of Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, threatened danger to all who were closely identified with the translation of the Bible into English. Coverdale narrowly escaped with his life; Cranmer and Rogers were brought to the stake. Many refugees found their way to Geneva, the city of Calvin. Here appeared in 1560, after Mary's death, the Genevan Bible, of which 150 editions were published in England and Scotland between 1560 and 1616. It at once became popular from its use of Roman type, its division of the text into verses, and its copious notes, explanatory and controversial. This version is familiarly known as the Breeches Bible, from the rendering in Gen. 3:7. Its strong Puritan flavor made it distasteful to many English churchmen, and accordingly Archbishop Parker devised a plan for the revision of the Great Bible by the joint labor of a number of learned men, mostly bishops. The revisers were instructed to follow "the common English translation used in the churches," unless alteration were necessary, and to avoid bitter and controversial notes. In three or four years the Bishops' Bible was completed, and was presented to Queen Elizabeth I in 1568. It was regarded as the official English Church Bible. It was used in public worship, but otherwise had no great circulation. It was unfortunately printed very carelessly. Some years later English Roman Catholics issued at Douai (France) a version of the OT and at Rheims (France) a version of the NT. Modern editions of the Douai version have borrowed many renderings from the Authorized Version (KJV).

At the Hampton Court Conference (London) held in 1604, soon after the accession of James I, the Puritan party asked for a new translation, to which the king agreed and gave an outline of a plan for a new version, now known as the Authorized Version. The work was to be assigned to the universities; the translation was to be then reviewed by the bishops and chief learned of the Church, presented to the Privy Council, and ratified by the king.

In 1607 six companies were appointed, consisting in all of 54 members, the meetings being held at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster. Of the rules laid down the following were the most important: the Bishops' Bible was to be followed, and "as little altered as the truth of the original will permit"; the translations of Tindale, Matthew, Coverdale, Whitchurch (i.e., the Great Bible), and Geneva were to be used when they agreed better with the text than the Bishops' Bible; the old ecclesiastical words (church, etc.) were to be retained; no marginal notes were to be affixed unless for necessary explanation of some Hebrew or Greek words. The new translation was published in 1611. The familiar dedication to the king, and also a long preface, ably setting forth the principles and aims of the work (unfortunately omitted by most modern editions), are said to have been written by Dr. Miles Smith, afterwards Bishop of Gloucester. The words on the title page "appointed to be read in churches" would seem to imply express authorization; but we have no evidence that the book ever received formal sanction. There was at first some reluctance to adopt it, but in course of time its own merits enabled it to supplant all other existing English translations.

Canon. A word of Greek origin, originally meaning "a rod for testing straightness," now used to denote the authoritative collection of the sacred books used by the true believers in Christ. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the canonical books are called standard works. The history of the process by which the books of the Bible were collected and recognized as a sacred authority is almost hidden in obscurity. There are several legends extant and these may have some truth in them, but certainly are not complete or totally accurate. Though many of the details have not been preserved, we know that the servants of the Lord have been commanded to keep records even from the earliest times, and that those records have been revered by the faithful and handed down from generation to generation.

Much of the information we now have on this subject has come to use through latter-day revelation. For example, we learn that Adam was an intelligent being who could read and write and had a pure and perfect language. Sacred records were kept by him and handed down to succeeding patriarchs, even to Enoch and Abraham, who also added their own writings to the collection (Moses 6:3-6, 46; Abraham 1:31). Likewise Moses kept a record in his day (Moses 1:40-41). A collection of Old Testament documents and other writings was available in Jerusalem in 600 BC, written upon plates of brass, and was obtained by Nephi from Laban (1 Nephi 4; 5:10-19).

The various Old Testament prophets wrote or dictated to scribes who wrote (such as Jeremiah to Baruch, c.f. Jeremiah 36), and thus the sacred books were produced and collected.

In New Testament times the apostles and prophets kept records, giving an official testimony of the earthly ministry of the Savior and the progress and teachings of the Church. Many of the details, such as time and place involved in the production and the preservation of the records, are not available, but the general concept is clear that the servants of the Lord wrote what they knew to be true of Jesus. Thus came the Gospels. The epistles were primarily written to regulate affairs among the members of the Church.

With the multiplicity of true books, of both Old and New Testament origin, there was also a proliferation of false writings from apostates and from authors who for one reason or another wished to propagate some particular thesis. From time to time decisions needed to be made as to which books were authoritative and which were false. A council of Jewish scholars met for this purpose in Jamnia, or Javneh (near Joppa), in about AD 90, and some determinations were made as to what were the official and accepted books of the Jews' religion. This probably was a defensive reaction to the rise of Christian writings, and perhaps also from the fact that the Christians freely used the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) as well as the writings of the apostles and the early Christian leaders. It appears that the rabbis wanted to make clear the distinction between the two.

Councils were held in early Christianity to determine which of the writings were authoritative and which were heretical. Some good judgment was used, and many spurious books were rejected, while our present New Testament was preserved. Times of persecution also precipitated decisions as to which books were true and which false. If a Christian is forced by the Roman government to burn his books, he most likely will surrender those that are nonauthoritative and conceal the more valuable documents. In order to do this, he must know which are which.

No doubt many writings, of both Old and New Testament times, have been lost, and perhaps even willfully destroyed (see Lost Books). When the Church was in apostasy, whether before or after the time of Christ, some valuable writings were misjudged to be in error (because the judges lacked the truth) and so were discarded. Likewise some books of lesser value may have been judged to be good. In the main, however, sound guidelines were established that helped to preserve the authoritative books. Among these rules were the following: (1) Is it claimed that the document was written by a prophet or an apostle? (2) Is the content of the writing consistent with known and accepted doctrines of the faith? (3) Is the document already used and accepted in the Church? By application of these tests the books now contained in the Bible have been preserved.

Although the decisions were made in the past as to which writings are authoritative, that does not mean that the canon of scripture is complete and that no more can be added. True prophets and apostles will continue to receive new revelation, and from time to time the legal authorities of the Church will see fit to formally add to the collection of scripture.

STH Typing Service -- a home-based business
Elder Jared Pixley: My Missionary Son
Favorite Recipes
Susan's Newsletter
Scripture Study Guide
Book of Mormon Project
My E-books
Bible Study
My History
History of the Church
The Family: A Proclamation to the World
B.A.R.E. Facts
My List of Links