Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

What is the Old Testament?

Posted by Jim F. on December 20, 2009

The version of the Old Testament used by Protestants and Jews today contains 39 books. Catholic Bibles include 9 more books, as well as 2 additions to Daniel and 1 to Esther. At least some of those 9 additional books were used as scripture by Saints of the 1st century AD. For various reasons (mostly historical rather than doctrinal or revealed, I would guess) Latter-day Saints use the same version of the Bible as do the Protestants.

The major difference between the Protestant and Jewish Bibles is that the order of the books in each is different. The Protestants arrange the books chronologically, and the Jews arrange them according to the scriptural authority they give the books. (The New Testament is arranged, not chronologically, but according to type: Gospels, history of the early Church, then letters. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are arranged more-or-less chronologically.)

As you can see in Mike Parker’s chart of the Old Testament (which includes a schedule for reading the Old Testament in a year), Jews divide the Old Testament into three parts, each part less authoritative than the last, though all three parts are authoritative: the Law (or “Instruction,” namely the instruction a parent gives to a child), the Prophets, and the Writings. Scriptures such as Acts 28:23 reflect this arrangement. For other scriptures that also reflect it, see Zechariah 7:12; Matthew 5:17, 7:12, and 22:40; Luke 16:16, and 24:44; John 1:45; Acts 13:15 and 24:14; Romans 3:21; 3 Nephi 12:17, 14:12, and 15:10; and D&C 59:22.

The Law is the first five books, also called “the books of Moses” (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The Prophets are Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and “The Twelve Prophets” (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The Writings are Psalms, Proverbs, and Job (the “Greater Writings”) and Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (the “Five Scrolls”), and Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles (historical books which go by a variety of names).

Why is it called the Old Testament?

The New Testament Church sometimes spoke of a new covenant and an old covenant. (See, for example, 2 Corinthians 3:14, where the Greek word for “covenant” is translated “testament,” and Hebrews 8:7). As a result, sometimes we assume that the Old Testament is the record of an old covenant and the New Testament the record of a new one. But referring to new covenant and the old covenant is a way of distinguishing the covenant between the Church and God before Christ’s coming from the covenant between the Church and God after Christ’s coming —which isn’t the same as the distinction between the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament Church, what we call the Old Testament was simply called “the Scriptures” or “the Law and the Prophets.” They had various books that eventually came to be our New Testament, but not a collection by that name, and not every branch of the early Church had the same books.

The name “Old Testament” isn’t used until the second and third centuries AD, when early Christians were deciding which of books are canonical and which are not. That is when the collection to which we refer as the “New Testament” was put together. The word “testament” is related to the word “testimony.” Thus, the Old Testament is “the older testimony” of Christ and the New Testament is “the newer testimony.” This is the same use of the word in the subtitle of the Book of Mormon: “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”

How can the Old Testament help to us today?

Here are some question to help you think about that broader question:

  • What did the New Testament writers mean by “the old covenant”?
  • What did they mean by “the new covenant”?
  • How do those differ? How are they the same?

On the old covenant, see Exodus 19-24, especially 19:5-6, 23:20-33, and 24:7-8.

On the new covenant, see Jeremiah 31:31-34 (Hebrews 8:8-13) and 1 Corinthians 11:24-26 (Luke 22:19-20), 2 Corinthians 3:6, and Hebrews 9:1-15.

  • How does the Old Testament testify of Christ (cf. Jacob 7:10-11)?
  • Why might someone be unable to see that testimony in the Old Testament?

8 Responses to “What is the Old Testament?”

  1. ricke said

    How would you recommend someone read the OT? Is there a chronological order that would make sense? Do you recommend interspersing LDS scriptures such as parts of the Book of Mormon, in addition to the Books of Moses and Abraham? What about the Deuterocanonical books? Would you include them in your reading, and if so, where in the list?

  2. Jim F. said

    Ricke, I think that Mike Parker’s schedule for reading the OT is as good a recommendation as any. There are a dozen ways to read it, each of them with its advantages and disadvantages, but before beginning to do a lot of comparison to latter-da revelation or introducing the deutero-canonical books, I would recommend getting through the entire canonical Old Testament, probably in the order the books are now in.

    With that familiarity as background, other programs of study are possible. I would probably next read the deutero-canonical books. Then I would choose a book or set of books (based on my own interests and spiritual questions) and begin a more in-depth study. That study would include comparison to other LDS scripture as well as research in good commentaries.

  3. Robert C. said

    A bit off topic, and there are suddenly lots of new comments and posts here at the blog, but you mentioned 2 Cor 3:6 in your post, and I’ve been wondering recently about the end of chapter 3 where Paul gives a kind of midrash on Moses’s veil. This seems to be an important idea regarding Paul’s understanding of the new covenant in comparison and distinction with the old covenant. But this is a difficult (but fascinating!) passage for me to make sense of. Since you’ve studied Paul quite a bit (and since Jean-Luc Marion discusses the end of this chapter quite a bit), I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sketching your understanding or sharing your thoughts on those verses.

    • Jim F. said

      I haven’t thought much about the end of Corinthians 3 lately, though I should have. I’m in the middle of reviewing a book and have to finish this week or early next. (That’s why I put so many things up at once, to get them done and get one to this other project.) But I am interested in your question. Let me see what I can do–perhaps on Sunday.

  4. joespencer said

    I’d love to get some discussion of 2 Cor. 3 going. (That chapter might make a good text for a Mormon Theology Seminar project, no?)

  5. [...] on this post should be made at Feast Upon the Word 0 people like this post. [...]

  6. KirkC said

    2 Cor. 3 is certainly one of the most captivating and intriguing chapters from the epistles.

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