What is the Old Testament?

TS_scrollThe 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?

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