For Philippa: A short history of the Old Testament

Recently my daughter asked me what I knew about the history of the Bible—not history in the Bible, but how the Bible came to be written down, how it was put together, and how it reached us. So this post and the next are dedicated to you, Pip. And I soon realised that I didn’t have as many answers as I thought I had, so I looked for something on these topics and found Nick Page’s God’s dangerous book,[1]  a distillation of a lot of scholarship for the layman. These posts are just a gentle scratch on the surface of what he writes.

When were the Old Testament books written?

Figuring out when the books of the Old Testament were originally composed is tricky. Certain bits of certain books were apparently written down around 1100 BC, and the youngest bit is probably the second part of Daniel (I come back to it below). The problem with the dates of writing is that much of the Old Testament was probably composed from oral traditions that had been passed from generation to generation, so parts of its content may be much earlier than the date they were first written. Oral traditions in pre-literate communities, incidentally, can be much more accurate than we might imagine. A number of Australian indigenous groups have stories that recall when the sea rose after the last Ice Age ended and submerged chunks of coastline around 7000 years ago. Others remember volcanic eruptions that happened 5–10,000 years ago.[2]  So the possibility that oral history is behind parts of the Old Testament shouldn’t trouble us. Cultures across the Middle East had stories that recalled the Flood, for example.

Exiled to Babylon

The crucial event in the Old Testament’s history happened around 600 BC. Judaea had become a province of the Babylonian empire, but the Jews revolted against Babylon, and the Babylonians besieged and destroyed Jerusalem , the Judaean capital, then progressively deported the Jews (the elite, at least) to Babylon (in present-day Iraq). Thus began the Babylonian Exile, which lasted about 70 years. After this, some Jews dribbled back to Jerusalem. Ezra, for example, who read the books of the Law (Genesis to Deuteronomy) to the assembled population of Jerusalem, arrived back in 458 BC.[3] 

Why was the Exile crucial? Because it threatened to Jewish national identity in at least two ways. Central to that identity was the Temple in Jerusalem, but in Babylon there was no Temple. It was this that seems to have spurred exiled Jewish scholars to consolidate Jewish identity by editing existing sacred documents into what Christians now call the Old Testament. Perhaps some oral histories were written down at this time too. We don’t know.

The other threat was to the language of the Jews, Hebrew. The common language of the Babylonian empire was Aramaic. Probably those who went into exile already spoke Aramaic as well as Hebrew, but their children (like those of immigrants today) increasingly lost their ancestral language in favour of the language spoken around them. The Jews who ‘returned’ to Jerusalem, descendants of the original exiles, spoke only Aramaic. The threat to Hebrew was perhaps also motivated a ‘standardisation’ of Jewish sacred documents. After the return, Hebrew continued as the language of religious writing, but few people, if any, spoke it. When Ezra read the law to the people—perhaps the first time the recently edited documents has been read in Jerusalem—he had to use an interpeter who repeated it in Aramaic. The reason scholars think that the second part of Daniel was written relatively late is that much of it is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew.

The editing in Babylon evidently included not just the Law but also the so-called ‘earlier prophets’: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings. After the return, other books were added: first Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah, probably because of their relevance to the Babylonian exile, and the ‘minor prophets’ (the last twelve books of the Old Testament). The acceptability of these books continued to be debated, but evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls indicates that they were a standard part of the Jewish scriptures by around 400 BC.

The rest of the Old Testament books were broadly accepted only after this date. However, this doesn’t tell us when they had been written. The star among them was the collection of poems we know as the Psalms. At the opposite end of the acceptability scale was the book of Esther, which never mentions God.

The spread of Greek and the Septuagint

In 333 BC the Greek king Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and made Greek the common language of the eastern Mediterranean. There had been Jews in Egypt since the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, and they became a significant part of the population of Alexandria, the Egyptian city that Alexander named after himself. They needed their scriptures in Greek, so sometime after 300 BC, Jewish scholars produced the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. This was the Old Testament from which the New Testament writers quoted, as they wrote in Greek.

Two features of the Septuagint are significant for us. First, there were evidently differing versions of the Old Testament scriptures in circulation when the translation was made, as the text is not always the same as the Hebrew version Christian scholars use today. This sometimes explains why, when New Testament writers quote the Old Testament, the text they quote is not quite what is in our Old Testament. Differences also occur in the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in a cave in 1947.
Second, continuing the process of adding to the Jewish scriptures, there are thirteen extra books in the Septuagint, mostly in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic. Some concerned recent Jewish history, and were added to the Septuagint at various times after its translation, as they apparently date from a period between perhaps 250 BC and 100 AD. These extra books appear in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles as the Apocrypha, but not in modern Protestant Bibles. Early Christians knew them, as they are sometimes quoted in their writings.

After the destruction of the Temple, 70 AD

History in a sense repeated itself in 66 AD. This time the Jews revolted against their Roman overlords. The revolt was crushed in 70 AD and the rebuilt Temple was destroyed. A group of Pharisee scholars withdrew to Jabneh, south of Jaffa, and, again fearing that with the end of Temple sacrifices Jewishness would dissipate, they set about codifying the teachings that enabled people to live as Jews.[4]  But they first addressed the still tricky question of what books they should recognise as ‘official’ Jewish sacred scriptures. Several of the most recent additions troubled them: Proverbs (just proverbs), Ecclesiastes (too depressing), the Song of Solomon (too romantic) and Esther (no mention of God). The fact that Esther and Ecclesiastes were associated with Jewish festivals got them in (this was also true of Ruth and Lamentations). The final list of books is preserved in the Christian Old Testament (albeit in a different order). It didn’t include the Aprocrypha.

The Masoretic text

If there were different versions of the Old Testament books circulating when the Septuagint was translated, then how did we get the Hebrew version that is translated into English and other languages today? That version is known as the Masoretic text, and dates from between 900 and 1000 AD. Before the Masoretic text, Hebrew was written largely without vowels—the text had only consonants[5]  (modern Israeli Hebrew is also written this way[6] ). This meant that the text was sometimes ambiguous, and over the centuries scribes had also made copying errors. Over a period of 300 years or so, Jewish scholars based in Palestine and what had been Babylonia had worked to produce an agreed, authentic text, and also inserted dots and dashes above the consonants to indicate the vowels that should be read. The resulting Masoretic text is the one that is used in Jewish synagogues throughout the world and the one from which Christian scholars translate the Old Testament into modern languages.

What should we make of this maze of history?

Is the Old Testament really part of God’s word after all these human interventions? Much depends here on how we read the Bible, and I wrote about this last year. Actually, there are bigger problems than these tucked away in the Old Testament, mostly in the bits Christians don’t read. Greg Boyd has written about this (see my post here). But if Christians read the Old Testament through the lens of the Cross, they see an unfolding story that culminates in Jesus, and this story clearly survives both the difficulties Greg Boyd writes about and human acts that have affected the Old Testament along the way. There are clear signs in the Old Testament’s inconsistencies that its various editors were inclusive: they didn’t cut things out and they didn’t try to smooth out the troublesome bits. They included, for example, the books of the Kings and the Chronicles and kept their separate identities, despite the fact that the events they cover overlap. And who is to say that the honest and punctilious work of the various groups of Jewish scholars down the ages has not been guided by the Holy Spirit?


  1. [^1]  Nick Page, God’s dangereous book: The surprising history of the world’s most radical book.Milton Keynes: Authentic Media, 2011.
  2. [^2]  Patrick Nunn, The Edge of Memory: Ancient stories, oral tradition and the post-glacial world. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018.
  3. [^3]  See Nehemiah, chapter 8.
  4. [^4]  The collection they created was finally completed around 200 AD, and is called the Mishnah.
  5. [^5]  That is, my name ‘Malcolm Ross’ would have been written ‘MLKM RS’ or something like that.
  6. [^6]  Modern Israeli Hebrew originates from a deliberate revival of the language in the early 20th century, some 2400 years after it more or less stopped being spoken in ancient Israel.