The Congregation at Duke University Chapel





Some reading material provided in a handout during Adult Forum class by
Sonja Tilley
on November 7, 2010.


Law / Instruction
    Samuel (1 & 2)
    Kings (1 & 2)
    The Twelve:
    Song of Solomon
    Chronicles (1 & 2)



The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh contains the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, although the Tanakh numbers and arranges the books differently.

  • Tanakh has only 24 books since the following are all considered single books:
    • 1 & 2 Kings
    • 1 & 2 Samuel
    • The Twelve (Hosea - Malachi)
    • Ezra-Nehemiah
    • 1 & 2 Chronicles
  • The books are arranged differently:
    • The last book of the Tanakh is Chronicles
    • The last book of the Old Testament is Malachi

HEBREW BIBLE: Origins and Formation

Notes by Sonja Tilley, Congregation Director of Christian Education, for her class on November 7, 2010.

OPENING PRAYER: Hymnal #602 – “Concerning Scripture” (from the Book of Common Prayer)

Blessed Lord, you have caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning. Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. AMEN.


  • This morning, we are going to talk about how the Bible came to be.

    • We often take for granted that our Bible has always looked the way it does today

    • Yet, when we stop and think about it, we know this cannot be true

    • The Bible has evolved over a long period of time into what we hold in our hands today.

  • Today, we will focus on the Old Testament, or what is sometimes called the Hebrew Bible.

  • On December 5th, we will look at the evolution of the New Testament.

  1. THE BIBLE IN ANCIENT TIMES – Oral Tradition

  • At the time of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), scripture was made up of stories that had been told and retold through the years – Oral Tradition.

  • Nothing at this point was written down – written Hebrew language had not yet been invented.

  • Imagine for a moment that you are traveling with Abraham and his entourage. You are all resting around the campfire after a long day. It is a clear night, starry night. A 5-year-old Isaac, curious as all children are, asks his father where the stars came from. He gets the story from Genesis 1 in reply:

    • Genesis 1:1-3 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.

  • Or he asks his mother why she is so much older than the other children’s mothers’, and gets the story of the three visitors and how she laughed at their news, thus getting his name, which means “laughter”

  • Oral tradition existed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before writing developed

  • Included law codes, hymns, prayers, and numerous stories such as the Creation story, the Great Flood, and others that defined the Hebrew people’s faith.

  • Important not to think of the Oral Tradition in the same way we think of the game “Gossip” today. Think of it more as the way we all know the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, or the 23rd Psalm. Long stories were told and retold verbatim. It was almost a game at times with the people trying to catch mistakes as a story was told. Rabbi Steve Sager shared recently about how his congregation at Temple Beth El in Durham does the same thing with him.


Earliest Writing

  • The entire Old Testament, except for the book of Ezra and a few chapters in Daniel, was written in Hebrew. (These others were in Aramaic.)

  • Don’t know exactly when the written Hebrew language was invented, and when the first stories began to be written down.

    • The earliest fragments of any Hebrew writing dates from about 1500 BCE. These aren’t biblical texts but “shopping lists” carried by ships’ captains to foreign ports to trade goods.

    • Earliest manuscripts of any biblical texts – Dead Sea Scrolls, 150 BCE

  • The Bible itself contains some clues as to when early manuscripts existed:

    • Exodus 24:4 - “And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD.”

    • Moses recording the law given by God at Mount Sinai

    • This occurs somewhere around 1250 BCE

  • Even after written Hebrew, the Oral Tradition continues to dominate for hundreds of years

Earliest Bible?

  • There is evidence that writing of what could consider the earliest form of the Bible began under the rule of Kings David and Solomon

    • During this time of the United Kingdom, c. 1000-922 BCE, Israel was politically and economically strong. This allowed for a division of labor, where some raised food while others did various other jobs. One of these was the job of “court recorder” – filled by Jehosaphat under both David and Solomon (2 Sam. 8:15-16, 1 Kings 4:1-3).

  • Court Recorder was responsible for keeping a written account of what went on in the king’s court. Surely some of these records make up portions of the Old Testament, such as 1-2 Kings, Chronicles, etc.

  • After Solomon’s death in 922, the kingdom was divided – Israel (10 tribes) in the North and Judah (2 tribes) in the South.

  • This led to a time of instability and weakness as the two kingdoms experienced wars and invasions

Crisis Writings

  • Wars and invasions had a big influence on the recording of scripture.

  • As the Hebrews found themselves threatened, their leaders felt more and more compelled to write down the community’s laws, customs and faith stories to preserve the people’s identity and to reform the faithless nation so that they might escape the wrath of God. This phenomenon is known as “crisis writings”.

2 Major Crises

    1. Destruction of Israel by Assyrians in 722

  • Many disappeared, never to return: “10 Lost Tribes of Israel”

  • Others became refugees and fled to Jerusalem, bringing with them their own oral tradition and some written manuscripts that had been developed over the 200 years since the kingdom had been divided.

    • Widely accepted that these included the books of Amos and Hosea

  • The material was merged with existing material of Judah, and is thus preserved in our Bible today.

    • Note: Today’s biblical scholars believe that the people who edited these two sets of material into one manuscript often kept two versions of the same story rather than discard one in favor of the other. This explains why the Bible seems to have duplicate events, i.e. Abraham claiming Sara as his sister rather than his wife. It also explains why different names are sometimes used for the same place, such as Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19) and Mt. Horeb (Deut. 4).

    1. Destruction of Southern Kingdom

  • Babylonians conquered Judah in 587, completely destroying the Temple.

  • Prominent citizens of Jerusalem, including priests and scribes, exiled to Babylon.

  • This resulted in a tremendous crisis of faith for the Hebrews as they struggled to maintain their identity as God’s chosen people in a foreign land.

  • Existing texts were revised and expanded in the light of this new crisis, as the religious leaders reinterpreted their relationship with God in this new setting.

  • Other texts were written:

    • Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon-- there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our harps. 3 For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" 4 How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?”

  • This event likely had the most influence on the writing of the Hebrew Bible.

    • Strengthened the need for a written text that told the sacred stories of the faith community so that no one would forget and to make the story understood by future generations who may not remember the Promised Land.

Things to bear in mind as we examine how Bible books were written

  • We do not have the original manuscript of any book of the Bible, Old or New Testament

  • We are unsure about who the actual authors were of the great majority of the books. Authorship was not viewed as legal possession during the time when the books were written – no concept of copyrights. It was common practice to write under the name of a prominent person, and was not considered unethical to do so. It was rather seen as a way to honor that person.

  • Books were “scrolls”, not bound like we are familiar with today.

  • All books of the Old Testament in their final forms were written by scribes – professional writers whose job it was to write things down. Writing was not a common skill, and important documents were left to the professionals to write.

Examining the Hebrew Bible

  • The Hebrew Bible is called the TANAK, an acronym of the three sections: Torah, Nevi’im, Ketu’vim

  • Basically contains the same books as what we call our “Old Testament”, though differs slightly in structure

Three Sections of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh

  1. TORAH or Law –

Note: Although we frequently translate “Torah” as “Law”, it is actually closer to “instruction” or “teaching”. These books contain much more than the law codes.

      • Also called the “Pentateuch” (Greek for Five Scrolls) or the Books of Moses

      • Some parts of the Torah are quite old, maybe as old as the 9th century BCE

        • 2 Kings 22 records the story of a book of law being discovered in the walls of the Temple during the time of the reign of King Josiah around 620 BCE. Scholars believe this is an early version of book of Deuteronomy.

      • The Torah in its earliest complete form was most likely compiled during the time of the Babylonian Exile and was brought back to Jerusalem after Persia conquered the Babylonians and King Cyrus allowed the Hebrews to return home in 583 BCE.

  1. NEVI’IM or Prophets

  • Largest section of the Tanakh

  • Divided into two sections:

  1. Early prophets: Joshua-2 Kings

  2. Later prophets: Isaiah-Malachi, without Lamentations

  • Most books record the voice of a single prophet, in most cases identified by the name of the book

  • Often “schools” made up of disciples and followers would grow up around important prophets. Each school would have a scribe, whose responsibility it was to record the prophets words. At times, these schools would continue even after the death of the prophet and writing would continue to be done in his name. This is believed to be the case in Isaiah, which is thought to have at least 2 different authors, more likely 3.

  • Earliest book of the Nebi’im is Amos, a prophet from the Northern Kingdom, dated about 750 BCE.

  • Latest book is probably Malachi, dated anywhere from 500-397 BCE

  • Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible has 11 less books than our Old Testament, since the “minor prophets” (Hosea through Malachi) are considered a single book – The Book of Twelve. This comes from the fact that they were short enough to be all contained on a single scroll.

  1. KETUBIM or Writings

  • Collection of history, proverbs, stories, songs, prayers and dialogues

  • Includes 1 Chronicles – Song of Songs, plus Lamentations

  • Written at various stages of the Hebrew nation

  • Daniel is the latest book from this section, the final version of which likely dates from about 165 BCE


  • By Jesus’ day, the Torah, Prophets, and most of the Writings were considered part of sacred scripture.

  • But while there was widespread recognition of what was sacred, no official canon existed.

    • From a Greek word that came to mean a “standard of measure”

    • Canon” defined as those writings considered authoritative and definitive, forming a religion’s body of scripture

  • Most scholars now believe that there was no formal canonization process for the Hebrew Bible.

  • After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the focus of Judaism soon shifted from the Temple to the synagogues, the centers of teaching.

    • Different schools of rabbis formed and became highly influential.

    • Rabbinic interpretation of the sacred scripture and law soon replaced Temple rituals of sacrifice.

    • It became more important than ever to know what texts were sacred scripture, and debates over a few texts intensified.

Rabbinical School of Jamnia

  • Formed somewhere around 90 CE, became the most influential school for the next 20+ years

  • Jamnia is the town the school was located in, near present-day Tel Aviv.

  • Many issues were discussed at Jamnia, among them what books are sacred, what books are not.

    • Books that were debated:

        • Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ezekiel, Esther

  • Sometimes referred to as “Council of Jamnia” though this is something of a misnomer.

    • The rabbis that gathered at Jamnia had no special authority to speak on behalf of all Jews,

    • No official “declarations” were issued.

  • Yet many of the decisions made at Jamnia gained wide acceptance throughout Judaism.

  • The work at Jamnia began what is known as the Rabbinic Judaism, still the predominant form of Judaism today.

  • After much discussion and debate, rabbis finally decided on the list of books that are contained in the Hebrew Bible

  • What came to be accepted was a list of texts.

    • The order was not important.

    • Neither was a particular version, and in most cases more than one existed. That meant that two different communities could read Isaiah, but not be reading exactly the same thing.

  • The canonization process was not completed until 1000 CE, when a group of rabbis called the Masoretes developed the authorized version of the accepted books.

    • This “Masoretic Text” forms the basis for the modern Jewish Bible and Protestant Old Testament.

Cover only if time:

Dead Sea Scrolls

  • Between 1946 and 1956, a large cache of ancient scrolls was discovered in a series of caves near the ancient settlement of Qumran in Israel.

  • Contained over 200 manuscripts and fragments of Old Testament books, including at least a portion every book except for Esther.

  • Very important as many of these texts were almost 1000 years older than any known biblical manuscripts, dating to around the 2nd century BCE.

What about the Apocrypha?

  • A Greek word meaning “concealed or hidden away”

  • Accepted to be the OT Apocrypha, all of which were written during the time period between the Old and New Testaments.

  • Considered “deutero-canonical” by the Catholic church, meaning that they are included in the canon, but are realized to be of secondary importance, most likely because of the late authorship by OT standards

  • Not considered sacred by the Jewish people.

  • Today, many Protestant Bibles contain the Apocrypha. Though not considered part of the canon, they have come to be recognized as important.


  • One of the most amazing things about the Bible is how we came to have it.

    • Archaeologists have made amazing discoveries of long-forgotten ancient manuscripts. Through their work, the modern world has recovered all kinds of documents belonging to long-lost civilizations.

    • Yet this is not the story of the Bible. The Bible has been bequeathed to us in a long line of uninterrupted transmission, from those who first told and then recorded its stories millennia ago, to those who continued to value it for the life-sustaining power those stories continued to have, even until now.

    • Why has the Hebrew Bible, the sacred documents of the ancient Israelites, survived so long when similar sacred literature of Israel’s neighbors did not survive but has only been rediscovered through archaeology in modern times?

    • That, to me, is a testimony to this material as “The Word of God for the People of God.”

  • That being said, we also remember that we worship God, not the Bible. We need to guard against a kind of idolatry that considers the Bible itself Divine. Only God is Divine. We treasure the Bible, we don’t worship it.

Sonja Tilley 11/7/2010