1.3.1 The Old Testament
The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament were written between 1200 and 100 B.C. Some of them contain older fragments that survived from Israel’s early days. Initially the leaders of Israel transmitted verbally to their people their legend, history, stories, songs and traditions and parents taught them to their children. Around 950 B.C. someone made a collection of the oral and written material available and fused it in a coherent document known as the J document. Other early sources have been identified as E, D and P sources. These documents of different origin have been collected, pieced together, and edited in a continuous story of the people of Israel and form the beginning of the Old Testament (from Genesis to 2 Kings). The inconsistencies and repetitions are due to this assembly of documents of different origin put together. Most of the Old Testament books have been written not by a single author, but are, on the opposite, a compilation that includes the work of many writers and, also, of many editors. In antiquity it was considered as acceptable to revise old texts to adapt them to new realities. It was in a certain way the only possibility to rescue them from oblivion. As a result biblical books are a patchwork of works of different periods.
No Old Testament book has survived in the author’s handwriting but early copies of them still exist. They were written in pen and ink on scrolls of thin leather (parchment), or on papyrus. The parchment scrolls were made from the skins of sheep, goats or calves. The skins were soaked, scraped, stretched and polished with pumice to produce a smooth and durable writing surface that did not wrinkle easily and that retained ink. These skins were sewed together to make strip ten or twenty feet long or more. They were then rolled around a spindle. Two people were necessary to help reading the scroll: one to unwind it and another to rewind it on a second stick. As only one side of the skin was used those books were long, bulky, expensive and difficult to store. Papyrus scrolls were a little better. Papyrus is a tall aquatic plant that grow well in the Nile valley. Stalks of this plant were cut and the central tissue, or pith, was cut in thin slices that were laid vertically and overlapping one another. On top of the first layer a second series of pith was laid at right angle. The two layers were pressed together, the sap of the plant glued them together. After being dried and polished the smooth surface was ready to be used. The word papyrus is the root of the name bible. In effect the Greek name of the inner pith is “biblos”. The Scriptures being a collection of papyrus the derivation is obvious. In its Greek form, the word may have been used for the books that had already been considered as canonical -sacred or officially approved- as early as the second century AD. Before that the terms used were Scriptures or Holy Scriptures.
The original books of the Bible were different in appearance from the modern books. Moreover they were written without the separation in verse or chapter. This style existed until 1228 A.D. Numbered verses were introduced when Bibles started to be printed in 1528. (1)
The books of the Old Testament are not arranged by date but in three groups according to their content:
In this group we have five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books, that tell the origin of the people of God, are known as the Torah by the Jews. Their author is assumed to be Moses. The Christian historians call them “Pentateuch”
Here we have eight books. The first four are thought to have been written by the Early Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings; Samuel and Kings were later divided in two books each) under the dictation of God himself. The Latter Prophets composed also four books: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Twelve. This later book contains the twelve short prophetic books from Hosea to Malachi.
Writings: This group includes Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Songs of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and 1 and 2 Chronicles.
Lately the books of the Old Testament have been published in four groups: Law as before; History that includes the twelve books from Joshua to Esther; Wisdom Literature and the Palms with five books from Job through the Song of Solomon; Prophecy, including the four major prophets from Isaiah through Daniel and the twelve minor prophets Hosea to Malachi.
The recognised list of books included in the Old Testament was not completed until 90 A.D. although the process of canonisation started seven hundred years earlier, in 621 B.C. In that year a scroll was discovered during the repair works of the Solomon Temple. Prophetess Huldah recognised that it was “the words of the God of Israel” and, in this way, Deuteronomy became the first book of the Jewish Bible and the nucleus of the Old Testament. By the time of Jesus the Pentateuch and the Earlier and Later Prophets’ had been canonised. The Writings often quoted by Jesus were not included in the official Jewish bible until 90 A.D., that is until after the fall of Jerusalem when a Council of rabbis met in Jamnia and drew the official final list. This list is the same as the one mentioned before. It excludes however other books related to the Old Testament and known as the Apocrypha.
The fifteen books excluded by the Rabbis were however very popular in their days. They were written in Hebrew or Aramaic between 200 B.C. and 90 A.D. and translated into Greek. Soon after the Rabbis’ decision to exclude them they ceased to be read. They were called after the Greek name “Apokryphos” or “hidden”, although they were never considered heretical. To-day the Jews still exclude the Apocrypha from their scriptures. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches consider that they are an important part of the Old Testament. Other Christian churches have an ambiguous attitude towards it. To-day, however, most modern historians, and also the Churches, consider that the Apocrypha is a collection of important documents necessary to understand the period just before the appearance of Christianity. (1)
1.3.2 The New Testament
The New Testament refers time and time again to Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament prophesies. Jews and Christians differ as to whether Jesus was or not the Messiah. However the writers of the New Testaments, and especially the authors of the Gospels, built up on the Old Testament prophesies. They saw their Gospels as the continuation of the Old Testament.
The first book of the New Testament is believed to be Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians written in Corinth, Greece, about 50 A.D. Paul wrote other letters explaining his faith and giving advice to local churches immersed in their problems. He probably never thought that they would become Holy Scriptures. But this must be the same for all the authors of the Gospels and of the other books of the New Testament.
The earliest Gospel, the Gospel attributed to Mark, dates from 70 A.D. that is after the death of Peter and Paul. This Gospel, as well as those of Matthew, Luke and John, seems to be a collection of oral and written testimonies and traditions concerning Jesus Christ. They were written to strengthen the faith of the Christian community for which they were written. No one was written to supplement the other three, or to be read together. Moreover no writer thought that their book would be considered to be Holy Scripture.
The original New Testament books were written, as the books of the Old Testament, with pen and ink on parchment or papyrus scrolls. Some of the shorter writings required only one sheet or two of these materials. In the first century A.D. a new book form, the codex, appeared. It replaced the long strip of the scrolls by separate pages on wooden tablets. The Greeks and the Romans wrote with a metal stylus on these wooden tablets covered with a layer of wax. They were then stacked one on another and bound together by a string threaded through holes in one side. The Romans replaced the wooden tablets by parchment sheets on which they wrote with carbon ink. Paul used this type of parchment notebooks. Later on codex made from parchment or papyrus was invented. This consisted of a stack of quires, made of sheets of papyrus or parchment folded inside each other. The quires were held together by stitching along their folded edges. In this way one could turn the pages instead of unrolling the scroll and, moreover, both sides of the sheet could be used for writing. The Jews went on using the scrolls but the Christians adopted the codex. This new technique was in part responsible for the dissemination of Christianity. Documents written about 200 A.D. have been discovered. The brittle papyrus was replaced later by durable parchment, in particular vellum. Important vellum documents of the fourth century have also been found.
The first Bible of the Christian Church was the Old Testament followed by Paul’s letters that soon became part of the Christian Scriptures. A little later the four Gospels witnessing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus joined Paul’s letters and were soon read in the Churches instead of the Old Testament. During the second century many Gospels were written, some of them heretical. But the Church decided that only the four Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were the correct expression of the Christian faith as taught by the Apostles. Many years later other books were added to the New Testament bringing the total to twenty-seven. The earliest list of the New Testament Canon as it exists today is found in a letter from Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, to his clergy in 367 A.D. (1)
The books of the New Testament are classified as follow:
In this group we find the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They contain the basic information about Jesus Christ and His message.
Under this title we find the Acts of the Apostles that covers the period beginning forty days after the Resurrection of Jesus until the two years stay of Paul in Rome.
Here we have nine or ten letters from Paul and those written by early leaders to arrive to the total of twenty-one.
In this part called also Revelation, John closes the Testament.
Some people have said that the New Testament is a collection of myths. This is far from the truth. The first three Gospels paint a realistic figure of Jesus. Their sincerity is evident even if some contradictions are easy to detect. It is obvious that if they had been written for propaganda these contradictions would have been eliminated. This cannot be said of the later apocryphal Gospels and Epistles that were excluded from the Canon by the Church as make-believe material. The canonical books on the opposite present a believable story.
1.3.3 Comparison of the Old and New Testaments
The word testament must be interpreted to mean a binding agreement, or Covenant, between God and humanity. The Old Testament is the Covenant agreed between God and Abraham. It was confirmed later by Moses to the people of Israel at Sinai. This covenant is the main point of the Old Testament. It records two-thousand year history of the people of Israel. The main part is the Pentateuch composed of the first five books.
In the New Testament the covenant is between Christ and his people, the Church. It tells the story of Jesus Christ and of the first seventy years of the Church. The four Gospels are the heart of it.
Both Pentateuch and Gospels record and interpret real historical events as they were understood by the Prophets, in the first case, and by the apostles, later on. The Pentateuch deals mainly with the early history of Israel while the Gospels focus on the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In both books the same story is told generally by more that one person. Contradictions are frequent on points of detail. The Pentateuch has been edited so that the story is more continuous while the Gospels have been left as written by the different authors.
Although the New Testament is not part of the Jewish Holy Scriptures, many Jews study it as Jesus was one of them and, what is more, in line with their old Prophets. The Christians include the Old Testament in their Holy Scriptures because they believe it was the base of Christianity. As we know, Jesus was educated in the Hebrew system and learned their Scriptures that he quoted frequently. The Old Testament is the root of God’s revelation of Himself to his people through Jesus Christ. (1)