Checked content

Old Testament

Related subjects: Religious texts

Background Information

SOS Children, an education charity, organised this selection. Before you decide about sponsoring a child, why not learn about different sponsorship charities first?

The Old Testament is a Christian term for a collection of religious writings of ancient Israel that form the first section of Christian Bibles, in contrast to the Christian New Testament. The books included in the Old Testament (the Old Testament canon) varies markedly between Christian denominations; Protestants accept only the Hebrew Bible's canon but divide it into 39 books, while Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian churches recognise a considerably larger collection.

The books can be broadly divided into the Pentateuch, which tells how God selected Israel to be his chosen people; the history books telling the history of the Israelites from their conquest of Canaan to their defeat and exile in Babylon; the poetic and " Wisdom" books dealing, in various forms, with questions of good and evil in the world; and the books of the biblical prophets, warning of the consequences of turning away from God. For the Israelites who were its original authors and readers these books told of their own unique relationship with God and their relationship with proselytes, but the overarching messianic nature of Christianity has led Christians from the very beginning of the faith to see the Old Testament as a preparation for the New Covenant and New Testament.


The Old Testament contains 39 (Protestant) or 46 (Catholic) or more (Orthodox and other) books, divided, very broadly, into the Pentateuch (meaning "five books"), the historical books, the "wisdom" books and the prophets.


The table uses the spellings and names present in modern editions of the Bible, such as the New American Bible Revised Edition, Revised Standard Version and English Standard Version. The spelling and names in both the 1609–1610 Douay Old Testament (and in the 1582 Rheims New Testament) and the 1749 revision by Bishop Challoner (the edition currently in print used by many Catholics, and the source of traditional Catholic spellings in English) and in the Septuagint differ from those spellings and names used in modern editions which are derived from the Hebrew Masoretic text.

For the Orthodox canon, Septuagint titles are provided in parentheses when these differ from those editions. For the Catholic canon, the Douaic titles are provided in parentheses when these differ from those editions. Likewise, the King James Version references some of these books by the traditional spelling when referring to them in the New Testament, such as "Esaias" (for Isaiah). In the spirit of ecumenism more recent Catholic translations (e.g. the New American Bible, Jerusalem Bible, and ecumenical translations used by Catholics, such as the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition) use the same "standardized" (King James Version) spellings and names as Protestant Bibles (e.g. 1 Chronicles as opposed to the Douaic 1 Paralipomenon, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings instead of 1-4 Kings) in those books which are universally considered canonical, the protocanonicals. The Talmud in Bava Batra 14b gives a different order for the books in Nevi'im and Ketuvim. This order is also quoted in Mishneh Torah Hilchot Sefer Torah 7:15. The order of the books of the Torah are universal through all denominations of Judaism and Christianity.

The disputed books, included in one canon but not in others, are often called the Biblical apocrypha, a term that is sometimes used specifically to describe the books in the Catholic and Orthodox canons that are absent from the Jewish Masoretic Text and most modern Protestant Bibles. Catholics, following the Canon of Trent (1546), describe these books as deuterocanonical, while Greek Orthodox Christians, following the Synod of Jerusalem (1672), use the traditional name of anagignoskomena, meaning "that which is to be read." They are present in a few historic Protestant versions; the German Luther Bible included such books, as did the English 1611 King James Version.

Empty table cells indicate that a book is absent from that canon.

( Jewish Bible)
(24 books)
Books in bold are part of the Ketuvim
Old Testament
(39 books)
Old Testament
(46 books)
Eastern Orthodox
Old Testament
(51 books)
Original language
Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses
Bereishit Genesis Genesis Genesis Hebrew
Shemot Exodus Exodus Exodus Hebrew
Vayikra Leviticus Leviticus Leviticus Hebrew
Bamidbar Numbers Numbers Numbers Hebrew
Devarim Deuteronomy Deuteronomy Deuteronomy Hebrew
Nevi'im (Prophets)
Historical books
Yehoshua Joshua Joshua (Josue) Joshua (Iesous) Hebrew
Shofetim Judges Judges Judges Hebrew
Rut (Ruth) Ruth Ruth Ruth Hebrew
Shemuel 1 Samuel 1 Samuel (1 Kings) 1 Samuel (1 Kingdoms) Hebrew
2 Samuel 2 Samuel (2 Kings) 2 Samuel (2 Kingdoms) Hebrew
Melakhim 1 Kings 1 Kings (3 Kings) 1 Kings (3 Kingdoms) Hebrew
2 Kings 2 Kings (4 Kings) 2 Kings (4 Kingdoms) Hebrew
Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles) 1 Chronicles 1 Chronicles (1 Paralipomenon) 1 Chronicles (1 Paralipomenon) Hebrew
2 Chronicles 2 Chronicles (2 Paralipomenon) 2 Chronicles (2 Paralipomenon) Hebrew
1 Esdras Hebrew
Ezra-Nehemiah Ezra Ezra (1 Esdras) Ezra (2 Esdras) Hebrew and Aramaic
Nehemiah Nehemiah (2 Esdras) Nehemiah (2 Esdras) Hebrew
Tobit (Tobias) Tobit (Tobias) Aramaic (and Hebrew?)
Judith Judith Hebrew
Esther Esther Esther Esther Hebrew
1 Maccabees (1 Machabees) 1 Maccabees Hebrew
2 Maccabees (2 Machabees) 2 Maccabees Greek
3 Maccabees Greek
4 Maccabees Greek
Ketuvim (Writings) Wisdom books
Iyov (Job) Job Job Job Hebrew
Tehillim (Psalms) Psalms Psalms Psalms Hebrew
Prayer of Manasseh Greek
Mishlei (Proverbs) Proverbs Proverbs Proverbs Hebrew
Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) Ecclesiastes Ecclesiastes Ecclesiastes Hebrew
Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) Song of Solomon Song of Songs (Canticle of Canticles) Song of Songs (Aisma Aismaton) Hebrew
Wisdom Wisdom Greek
Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) Sirach Hebrew
Nevi'im (Latter Prophets) Major prophets
Yeshayahu Isaiah Isaiah (Isaias) Isaiah Hebrew
Yirmeyahu Jeremiah Jeremiah (Jeremias) Jeremiah Hebrew and Aramaic
Eikhah (Lamentations) Lamentations Lamentations Lamentations Hebrew
Baruch Baruch Hebrew
Letter of Jeremiah Greek (majority view)
Yekhezqel Ezekiel Ezekiel (Ezechiel) Ezekiel Hebrew
Daniel Daniel Daniel Daniel Hebrew and Aramaic
Twelve Minor Prophets
The Twelve
Trei Asar
Hosea Hosea (Osee) Hosea Hebrew
Joel Joel Joel Hebrew
Amos Amos Amos Hebrew
Obadiah Obadiah (Abdias) Obadiah Hebrew
Jonah Jonah (Jonas) Jonah Hebrew
Micah Micah (Micheas) Micah Hebrew
Nahum Nahum Nahum Hebrew
Habakkuk Habakkuk (Habacuc) Habakkuk Hebrew
Zephaniah Zephaniah (Sophonias) Zephaniah Hebrew
Haggai Haggai (Aggeus) Haggai Hebrew
Zechariah Zechariah (Zacharias) Zechariah Hebrew
Malachi Malachi (Malachias) Malachi Hebrew

Several of the books in the Eastern Orthodox canon are also found in the appendix to the Latin Vulgate, formerly the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.

Books in the Appendix to the Vulgate Bible
Name in Vulgate
Name in Eastern Orthodox use
3 Esdras 1 Esdras
4 Esdras
Prayer of Manasseh Prayer of Manasseh
Psalm of David when he slew Goliath (Psalm 151) Psalm 151


The first five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy - comprise the Torah, the story of Israel from the Genesis creation narrative to the death of Moses. Few scholars today doubt that it reached its present form in the Persian period (538-332 BC), and that its authors were the elite of exilic returnees who controlled the Temple at that time. The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings follow, forming a history of Israel from the Conquest of Canaan to the Siege of Jerusalem c.587 BC: there is a broad consensus among scholars that these originated as a single work (the so-called " Deuteronomistic history") during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC. The two Books of Chronicles cover much the same material as the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic history and probably date from the 4th century BC. Chronicles links with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were probably finished during the 3rd century BC. Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments contain two (Catholic Old Testament) to four (Orthodox) Books of Maccabees, written in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.

The history books make up around half the total content of the Old Testament. Of the remainder, the books of the various prophets - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and the twelve " minor prophets" - were written between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, with the exceptions of Jonah and Daniel, which were written much later. The "wisdom" and other books - Job, Proverbs and so on - date from between the 5th century BC and the 2nd or 1st BC, with the exception of some of the Psalms.


God is consistently depicted as the one who created the world and guides its history. He is not, however, consistently presented as the only god who exists. Nevertheless, he is always depicted as the only god whom Israel is to worship, and both Jews and Christians have always interpreted the bible as an affirmation of the oneness of God.

The Old Testament stresses the special relationship between God and his chosen people, Israel, but includes instructions for proselytes as well. This relationship is expressed in the biblical covenant (contract) between the two, received by Moses. The law codes in books such as Exodus and especially Deuteronomy are the terms of the contract: Israel swears faithfulness to Yahweh, and God swears to be Israel's special protector and supporter.

Further themes in the Old Testament include salvation, redemption, judgement, obedience and disobedience, faith and faithfulness, among others. Throughout there is a strong emphasis on ethics and ritual purity, both of which God demands, although some of the prophets and wisdom writers seem to question this, arguing that God demands social justice above purity, and perhaps does not even care about purity at all. The Old Testament's moral code enjoins fairness, intervention on behalf of the vulnerable, and the duty of those in power to administer justice righteously. It forbids murder, bribery and corruption, deceitful trading, and many sexual misdemeanors. All morality is traced back to God, who is the source of all goodness.

The problem of evil plays a large part in the Old Testament. The problem the Old Testament authors faced was that a good God must have had just reason for bringing disaster (meaning notably, but not only, the Babylonian exile) upon his people. The theme is played out, with many variations, in books as different as the histories of Kings and Chronicles, the prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and in the wisdom books like Job and Ecclesiastes.

From scripture to canon: formation of the Old Testament

The interrelationship between various significant ancient manuscripts of the Old Testament, according to the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1903) Some manuscripts are identified by their siglum. LXX here denotes the original Septuagint.

Greek, Latin and Protestant Old Testaments

The process by which scriptures became canons and Bibles was a long one, and its complexities account for the many different Old Testaments which exist today. By about the 5th century BC Jews saw the five books of the Torah (the Old Testament Pentateuch) as having authoritative status; by the 2nd century BC the Prophets had a similar status, although without quite the same level of respect as the Torah; beyond that, the Jewish scriptures were fluid, with different groups seeing authority in different books.

The scriptures were first translated into Greek in Alexandria between about 280–130 BC. These early Greek translations – supposedly commissioned by Ptolemy Philadelphus – were called the Septuagint (Latin: "Seventy") from the supposed number of translators involved (hence its abbreviation " LXX"). This Septuagint remains the basis of the Old Testament in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but it varies in many places from the Masoretic Text and includes numerous books no longer considered canonical in other traditions: 1st & 2nd Esdras, Judith, Tobit, 3rd & 4th Maccabees, the Book of Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch. Early modern Biblical criticism typically explained these variations as intentional or ignorant corruptions by the Alexandrian scholars, but most recent scholarship holds it is simply based on early source texts differing from those later used by the Masoretes in their work.

The Septuagint was originally used by Jews so thoroughly Hellenized that their knowledge of Greek was better than their Hebrew. The ever-increasing number of gentile converts to Christianity created a growing need for translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek and Latin. The three most acclaimed early interpreters were Aquila of Sinope, Symmachus the Ebionite, and Theodotion; in his Hexapla, Origen placed his edition of the Hebrew text beside its transcription in Greek letters and four parallel translations: Aquila's, Symmachus's, the Septuagint's, and Theodotion's. The so-called "fifth" and "sixth editions" were two other Greek translations supposedly miraculously discovered by students outside the towns of Jericho and Nicopolis: these were added to Origen's Octapla.

In 331, Constantine I commissioned Eusebius to deliver fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople. Athanasius recorded Alexandrian scribes around 340 preparing Bibles for Constans. Little else is known, though there is plenty of speculation. For example, it is speculated that this may have provided motivation for canon lists, and that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are examples of these Bibles. Together with the Peshitta and Codex Alexandrinus, these are the earliest extant Christian Bibles. There is no evidence among the canons of the First Council of Nicaea of any determination on the canon, however, Jerome (347-420), in his Prologue to Judith, makes the claim that the Book of Judith was "found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures".

In Western Christianity or Christianity in the Western half of the Roman Empire, Latin had displaced Greek as the common language of the early Christians, and about 400 AD Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome, the leading scholar of the day, to produce an updated Latin bible to replace the Vetus Latina. Sometime in the centuries after the Septuagint (exactly when is disputed) the Rabbis (Jewish religious scholars and teachers) defined the Jewish canon, which is a much shorter canon of only 24 books, and Jerome used it (commonly called the Hebrew Bible) instead of the Greek Old Testament as the basis for his translation, citing "Hebraica Veritas" (Latin: Truth of the Hebrew). His Vulgate (i.e. common language) Old Testament became the standard bible used in the Western Church, specifically as the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate, while the Churches in the East continued, and still continue, to use the Septuagint.

Jerome had wanted to drop all the books that did not appear in the Hebrew Bible, but St Augustine, a bishop and another great scholar of the day, opposed him and won the argument, notably at the Council of Carthage on 28 August 397. In the 16th century the Protestant reformers reopened the debate, and sided with Jerome, but only for their own congregations: yet although Protestant Bibles now have only those books that appear in the Jewish Bible, they have them in the order of the Greek Bible. The Catholic Church, largely in reaction to this attack on tradition, officially adopted a canon, the Canon of Trent, which can be seen as following Augustine's Carthaginian Councils or the Council of Rome, and includes most, but not all, of the Septuagint ( 3 Ezra and 3 and 4 Maccabees are excluded); the Anglicans after the English Civil War adopted a compromise position, restoring the 39 Articles and keeping the extra books that were excluded by the Westminster Confession of Faith, but only for private study and for reading in churches, while Lutherans kept them for private study, gathered in an appendix as Biblical Apocrypha.

Other versions

While the Hebrew, Greek and Latin versions of the Hebrew Bible are the best known Old Testaments, there were others. At much the same time as the Septuagint was being produced, translations were being made into Aramaic, the language of Jews living in Palestine and the Near East and likely the language of Jesus: these are called the Aramaic Targums, from a word meaning "translation", and were used to help Jewish congregations understand their scriptures. For Aramaic Christians there was a Syriac translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Peshitta, as well as versions in Coptic (the everyday language of Egypt in the first Christian centuries, descended from ancient Egyptian), Ethiopic (for use in the Ethiopian church, one of the oldest Christian churches), Armenian (Armenia was the first to adopt Christianity as its official religion), and Arabic.

Christian theology and the Old Testament

Christianity is based on the claim that the historical Jesus was also the supernatural Christ, the Saviour. This claim is in turn based on Jewish understandings of the meaning of the Hebrew term messiah, which, like the Greek "Christ", means "anointed". In the Hebrew Scriptures it describes a king anointed with oil on his accession to the throne: he becomes "The LORD's anointed" or Yahweh's Anointed. By the time of Jesus, some Jews expected that a flesh and blood descendant of David (the " Son of David") would come to establish a real Jewish kingdom in Jerusalem, instead of the Roman province; others stressed the Son of Man, a distinctly other-worldly figure who would appear as a judge at the end of time; and some harmonised the two by expecting a this-worldly messianic kingdom which would last for a set period and be followed by the other-worldly age or World to Come. Some thought the Messiah was already present, but unrecognised due to Israel's sins; some thought that the Messiah would be announced by a fore-runner, probably Elijah (as promised by the prophet Malachi, whose book now ends the Old Testament and precedes Mark's account of John the Baptist). None predicted a Messiah who suffers and dies for the sins of all the people. The story of Jesus' death therefore involved a profound shift in meaning from the tradition of the Old Testament.

The name "Old Testament" reflects Christianity's understanding of itself as the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophesy of a New Covenant (which is similar to "testament" and often conflated) to replace the existing covenant between God and Israel (Jeremiah 31:31). The emphasis, however, has shifted from Judaism's understanding of the covenant as an eternal contract between God and Israel to one between God and those who are "in Christ".

Retrieved from ""