What Is The Old Testament?

The “Old Testament” is a name that has been ascribed by latter religions, primarily Christianity, to various collections of the ancient Hebraic texts. It implies two things: one that the writings of the ancient Israelites, such as the Torah or the wisdom books, represent one whole and consistent “testament”. Second, that the testament of the Israelites is “old”, perhaps outdated but not irrelevant. It is merely a testament that paved the way for the New Testament.

The name of the Old Testament is attributed to Melito of Sardis (located in Lydia in modern Turkey). He was a 2nd Century Christian Bishop. Much of his life is shrouded in mystery, however he was a fierce defender of the Christian religion to Marcus Aurelius, and wrote a notable work on the Passion of Jesus, among many other writings in Greek. He coined the term Old Testament. While traveling through Palestine, he compiled the first Old Testament canon, which was later cited by Jerome and Eusebius and others. He believed that the Old Covenant, made between God and the Israelites in the Old Testament, was not fulfilled by the Jewish people but that it was fulfilled in the New Testament with Christians. His canon corresponds almost fully with the Jewish Tanakh and the Protestant canon, but not the Greek Septuagint.

After Melito’s canon, many other potential compendiums were collected by the likes of St. Athanasius, among others. However, later writings by Eusebius confirm the remarkable influence of Melito. His canon was as follows (quoting Eusebius): “Of Moses, five books: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Jesus Nave, Judges, Ruth; of Kings, four books; of Chronicles, two; the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, Wisdom also, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah; of the twelve prophets, one book; Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras.” Following Melito were 22 canonical books noted by Origen (and documented by Eusebius).

There were originally 24 books composing the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh.


In Judaism, the Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh. Tanakh is an acronym of the first Hebrew letter of each of the Masoretic Text’s three traditional subdivisions: Torah (“Teaching”, also known as the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”)—hence TaNaKh. The books of the Tanakh were passed on by each generation and, according to rabbinic tradition, were accompanied by an oral tradition, called the Oral Torah. Christian scholars usually refer to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible as the ‘Pentateuch‘ (Greek: πεντάτευχος, pentáteuchos, ‘five scrolls’), a term first used in the Hellenistic Judaism of Alexandria. However, one of the earliest known translations of the first five books of Moses from the Hebrew into Greek was the Septuagint. This is a Koine Greek version of the Hebrew Bible that was used by Greek speakers. The Greek version’s name in Latin is the Septuagint: Latin septem meaning seven, plus -gintā meaning “times ten”. Ergo, the Septuagint means “seventy.” The full title in Ancient Greek was: “The Translation of the Seventy.” It was named Septuagint from the traditional number of its translators, which was derived from a letter by Aristeas that Ptolemy II requested that 70 or 72 translators, one from each tribe of Israel, separately translate the full canon. This Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures dates from the 3rd century BCE, originally associated with Hellenistic Judaism. It contains both a translation of the Hebrew and additional and variant material. The Septuagint is what is most frequently quoted in the New Testament.

In Hebrew, the five books of the Torah are identified by the incipits in each book; and the common English names for the books are derived from the Greek Septuagint and reflect the essential theme of each book:

  • Bəreshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית, literally “In the beginning”)—Genesis, from Γένεσις (Génesis, “Creation”)
  • Shəmot (שְׁמוֹת, literally “Names”)—Exodus, from Ἔξοδος (Éxodos, “Exit”)
  • Vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא, literally “And He called”)—Leviticus, from Λευιτικόν (Leuitikón, “Relating to the Levites”)
  • Bəmidbar (בְּמִדְבַּר, literally “In the desert [of]”)—Numbers, from Ἀριθμοί (Arithmoí, “Numbers”)
  • Dəvarim (דְּבָרִים, literally “Things” or “Words”)—Deuteronomy, from Δευτερονόμιον (Deuteronómion, “Second-Law”)


The texts of the O.T. are composed mainly in Biblical Hebrew, with some passages in Biblical Aramaic (such as in the books of Daniel, Ezra and a few others). Aramaic was the common language of a later generation. It was later translated into the Septuagint (the latin term for the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as described above). Then Jerome translated the Hebrew canon into the Vulgate, controversially using the original Masoretic Hebrew and Aramaic texts, rather than the Greek translations. This was against the wishes of many, including St. Augustine. Augustine wrote of the settled canon of books, as was widely accepted in North Africa. However, in 1546 the Holy Roman Empire at the Council of Trent slightly revised his canon by separating the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, while removing the book of Esdras as apocryphal.

In Roman Catholicism, the Old Testament comprises some 46 books. In many Protestant sects, the Old Testament is composed of 39 books.

The Hebrew Bible (24 books)

The Five Books of Moses


The Eight Books of the Prophets 

The Twelve (minor prophets) Trei-Assar

The Eleven Books of the Writings (Kesuvim)

Psalms – Tehilim
Proverbs – Mishlei
Job – Iyov
Song of Songs – Shir HaShirim
Ruth – Rus
Lamentations – Eicha
Ecclesiastes – Koheles
Daniel – Doniel
Chronicles – Divrei Hayamim

The Old Testament (39 books)

Genesis (50 Chapters)
Exodus (40 Chapters)
Leviticus (27 Chapters)
Numbers (36 Chapters)
Deuteronomy (34 Chapters)
Joshua (24 Chapters)
Judges (21 Chapters)
Ruth (4 Chapters)
1 Samuel (31 Chapters)
2 Samuel (24 Chapters)
1 Kings (22 Chapters)
2 Kings (25 Chapters)
1 Chronicles (29 Chapters)
2 Chronicles (36 Chapters)
Ezra (10 Chapters)
Nehemiah (13 Chapters)
Esther (10 Chapters)
Job (42 Chapters)
Psalms (150 Chapters)
Proverbs (31 Chapters)
Ecclesiastes (12 Chapters)
The Song of Solomon (8 Chapters)
Isaiah (66 Chapters)
Jeremiah (52 Chapters)
Lamentations (5 Chapters)
Ezekiel (48 Chapters)
Daniel (12 Chapters)
Hosea (14 Chapters)
Joel (3 Chapters)
Amos (9 Chapters)
Obadiah (1 Chapter)
Jonah (4 Chapters)
Micah (7 Chapters)
Nahum (3 Chapters)
Habakkuk (3 Chapters)
Zephaniah (3 Chapters)
Haggai (2 Chapters)
Zechariah (14 Chapters)
Malachi (4 Chapters)

The Catholic Old Testament (46 books)
1 Samuel
2 Samuel
1 Kings
2 Kings
1 Chronicles
2 Chronicles
1 Maccabees
2 Maccabees
Song of Solomon
Wisdom of Solomon

*Of these books, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, parts of Esther and parts of Daniel are deuterocanonical, and are found in the Bibles of Eastern Christianity. These books are usually not found in the Protestant Bible, but are sometimes included in a separate inter-testamental section called the “Apocrypha”.

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