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Old Testament biblical studies is an interdisciplinary method by which an individual arrives at the base meaning of an Old Testament passage. Old Testament biblical studies focuses on the language, literature, authorship, divisions, genres, and concepts of the Hebrew Bible. Additionally, Old Testament biblical studies gives attention to Old Testament textual transmission, criticism, and canonicity. While specifically focusing on the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament scholars use ancient Near Eastern literature and archeology to assist them in arriving at historically informed conclusions.


The Hebrew Bible consists of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, which were written over a period of roughly one thousand years. These books were revealed by God to Israel in a variety of ways through numerous human authors from Moses until the return of the exiles from Babylon. The majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the original language of the Jewish nation. However, small portions were written in Aramaic (e.g., several passages in Daniel and Ezra), due to the influences on the Jews in exile. Therefore, Old Testament biblical studies requires a working knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic.

The Jewish division of the Hebrew Bible is commonly referred to as the Tanakh. The word Tanakh is a acrostic of three Hebrew words, representing the threefold division of the Old Testament. Each of the books of the Old Testament belong to one of these three divisions. The first division is the Torah (the five books of Moses), the second is the Nevi’im (the Prophets), and the third is the Ketuvim (the Writings). Jesus alluded to this threefold division when He said, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

Old Testament biblical studies involves consideration of the literary genres of Old Testament revelation. The diverse genres in which the Holy Spirit reveals the Old Testament portion of God’s Word include historical narrative, poetry, genealogy, legal code, royal records, prophecy, wisdom literature, and apocalyptic. Understanding the function of a genre helps individuals draw accurate conclusions about what is being communicated through it.

Structuring concepts of Old Testament revelation—such as covenant, covenant and law, the division of the law, prophecy, and messianic expectations—are areas of principal interest in Old Testament biblical studies. Cultic subjects of interest include the sacrificial system, feasts and festivals, the priesthood, the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle, the temple, circumcision, and Passover. Historical acts of interest involve God’s works of judgment and salvation. Much of Old Testament biblical studies centers on understanding the role of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, with special focus on such aspects of Israel’s history in the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the establishment of the kingdom of God, and the exile and restoration.

While Old Testament biblical studies is primarily concerned with the Hebrew Scriptures, other sources—such as the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hellenistic Jewish literature, rabbinic literature, and the Peshitta (the Syriac translation of the Old Testament)—are instructive. Comparing and contrasting the language, genre, and practices of contemporaneous extrabiblical materials often sheds light on the practices of the nations around Israel to which the Old Testament refers. The study of ancient Near Eastern literature holds an especially important place in Old Testament biblical studies. Knowledge of the language and practices of cultures that dwelled in close proximity to Israel give insight into Israel’s own language and practices. For instance, recent biblical scholarship has shed light on practices associated with covenant making in the Bible.

Biblical archeology also plays an essential role in biblical studies. Archeological discoveries of cities, objects, and literature of the ancient Near East aids in the dating of biblical accounts. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the preservation of the text of the prophecy of Isaiah. The Great Isaiah Scroll—one of the seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1946—contained all sixty-six chapters of the book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. It is the oldest complete version of Isaiah’s prophecy, dating from about 125 BC.

The discovery of Old Testament manuscripts in the nineteenth century also paved the way for a resurgence in textual studies. The study of textual variants became a vital component of biblical studies. Textual criticism enables biblical scholars to identify the original wording of Scripture with a high degree of certainty. However, it has also been used in an attempt to undermine the historicity of the authorship of various portions of the Old Testament. The documentary hypothesis of the nineteenth-century German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen became a standard in German theological institutions. The documentary hypothesis was used to reject the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch as well as the historicity of much of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, German higher criticism deeply affected the scholarship of mainline American seminaries and the pulpits of liberal Protestant churches. Higher criticism led to a widespread denial of the inerrancy of Scripture in the mid-twentieth century.


Variations in perspective are exactly what we should expect even in a divinely inspired text, for the Holy Spirit did not override the personalities and styles of the individual authors when they wrote. Instead, the Spirit worked through their concerns to give us an inerrant record of what happened even as each writer focuses on some details and not others.

R.C. Sproul

Explaining Anomalies

Tabletalk magazine

The five books from Genesis to Deuteronomy form the first section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Torah. Unfortunately, the Hebrew term torah is often misleadingly translated into English as ‘law.’ Torah is better understood as meaning ‘instruction.’ As instruction, the books of Genesis to Deuteronomy provide an essential foundation for understanding all of Scripture. As the opening stages in the grand story of divine redemption, these books set the scene and give direction to all that follows.

T. Desmond Alexander

The Royal Genealogy of Jesus

Tabletalk magazine