top of page

Old Testament

The Old Testament (OT) is the first division of the Christian biblical canon, which is based primarily upon the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, a collection of ancient religious Hebrew and occasionally Aramaic writings by the Israelites.
The second division of Christian Bibles is the New Testament,
written in Koine Greek.

Old Testament

The Old Testament is a fascinating collection, a testament to the diversity of its authors who spanned centuries. Christians have traditionally divided the Old Testament into four sections: the first five books or Pentateuch (which corresponds to the Jewish Torah); the history books, a chronicle of the Israelites from their conquest of Canaan to their defeat and exile in Babylon; the poetic and "Wisdom books", a diverse range of literature grappling with questions of good and evil in the world; and the books of the biblical prophets, a warning of the consequences of turning away from God. Lester L. Grabbe, a historian of ancient Judaism, notes that those in his field now "are all minimalists – at least when it comes to the patriarchal period and the settlement. Very few are willing to operate [as maximalists]."

The books that make up the Old Testament canon, their order, and their names vary between different branches of Christianity. The canons of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches comprise up to 49 books; the Catholic canon comprises 46 books; and the most common Protestant canon comprises 39 books. These differences in canons offer a unique insight into the diverse interpretations of the Old Testament.

There are 39 books common to essentially all Christian canons. They correspond to the 24 books of the Tanakh, with some differences in order and differences in text. The additional number reflects the splitting of several texts (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra–Nehemiah, and the Twelve Minor Prophets) into separate books in Christian Bibles. The books that are part of the Christian Old Testament but not part of the Hebrew canon are sometimes described as deuterocanonical books. Catholic and Orthodox churches generally include these books in the Old Testament. Most Protestant Bibles do not include deuterocanonical books in their canon, but some versions of Anglican and Lutheran Bibles place such books in a separate section called Apocrypha. These books are ultimately derived from the Greek Septuagint collection of the Hebrew scriptures and are also Jewish. Some are also contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Biblical canon and Development of the Old Testament canon. The Old Testament contains 39 (Protestant), 46 (Catholic), or more (Orthodox and other) books, divided, very broadly, into the Pentateuch (Torah), the historical books, the "wisdom" books, and the prophets.

For the Orthodox canon, Septuagint titles are provided in parentheses when they differ from those editions. For the Catholic canon, the Douaic titles are provided in parentheses when they differ from those editions. Likewise, the King James Version refers to some of these books by the traditional spelling when referring to them in the New Testament, such as "Esaias" (for Isaiah).

In the spirit of ecumenism, more recent Catholic translations (e.g., the New American Bible, Jerusalem Bible, and ecumenical translations used by Catholics, such as the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition) use the same "standardized" (King James Version) spellings and names as Protestant Bibles (e.g., 1 Chronicles as opposed to the Douaic 1 Paralipomenon, 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings instead of 1–4 Kings) in those books which are universally considered canonical: the protocanonicals.

The Talmud (the Jewish commentary on the scriptures) in Bava Batra 14b gives a different order for the books in Nevi'im and Ketuvim. This order is also cited in Mishneh Torah Hilchot Sefer Torah 7:15. The order of the books of the Torah is universal through all denominations of Judaism and Christianity.

The disputed books, included in most canons but not in others, are often called the Biblical Apocrypha. This term is sometimes used specifically to describe the books in the Catholic and Orthodox canons that are absent from the Jewish Masoretic Text and most modern Protestant Bibles. Catholics, following the Canon of Trent (1546), describe these books as deuterocanonical, while Greek Orthodox Christians, following the Synod of Jerusalem (1672), use the traditional name of Anagignoskomena, meaning "that which is to be read." They are present in a few historic Protestant versions; the German Luther Bible included such books as the English 1611 King James Version.

bottom of page