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How did we get the Old Testament? (Paul D. Wegner)

In the new issue of Credo Magazine, “By the Book: How well do you know the Bible?”, Paul Wegner’s article answers a complex question many Christians have wondered about: “How did we get the Old Testament?” Paul D. Wegner (Ph.D., Kings College, University of London) is Professor of Old Testament Studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2004); A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism: It’s History, Methods, and Results (IVP, 2006); and Using Old Testament Hebrew in Preaching: A Guide for Students and Pastors (Kregel Academic, 2009).

Here is the start of Wegner’s article:

Around the third millennium B.C., people began to write historical records in Hieroglyphic (Egypt) and Sumerian (Mesopotamia) of such things as land deeds, lists of sacrifices to the gods, conquests of empires, etc. Sometime later the Israelites preserved the writings of their prophets whose messages they believed came directly from God. These latter works were considered authoritative and served as the standard by which faith and practice were regulated and the history of the nation retained.

Old Testament Scripture is almost silent regarding how or when the books were assembled and the process or stages of its growth. However, it is almost certain that the earliest of biblical materials were transmitted orally. Moses commanded the people of Israel to teach God’s laws and statutes to their sons and grandsons (Deut. 4:9). How long these traditions were transmitted orally is not known, but at some point they were committed to writing to better ensure their accuracy.


Several biblical books suggest that early on some biblical books or parts of books were treated with great reverence and were thought to be authoritative (Exod. 17:14-16; 24:3-4, 7).  The stone tablets upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments were stored in the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 25:16, 21; Deut. 10:2-5; 1 Kgs 8:9; Heb. 9:4), a sacred place. The Law of Moses was taught to the priests and commanded to be publically read aloud every seven years so that the Israelites would not forget God’s laws (Deut. 31:9-11); nothing was to be added to or subtracted from its words (Deut. 4:2; 12:32).

We know that biblical authors make reference to earlier biblical writings (2 Kgs 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4; 35:12; Ezra 6:18; Neh. 8:1, 3, 5, 8; etc.) and the prophets often rebuked Israel for not obeying the words of their predecessors (2 Chron. 24:19; 36:15-16; Ezra 9:11; Neh. 9:26, 30; Jer. 7:25-26; etc.). Written forms of prophetic oracles (2 Chron. 21:12; Isa. 30:8; Jer. 25:13; 29:1; etc.) are mentioned, as well as histories recorded by prophets (1 Chron. 29:29; 2 Chron. 9:29; 12:15; 13:22; etc.). But the first reference to a collection of biblical books (i.e., scrolls, bassepārîm) is in Daniel 9:2, which states: “in the first year of his reign [Darius], I, Daniel understood from the scrolls, according to the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.” Thus by Daniel’s time the book of Jeremiah was part of a larger collection of books/scrolls that he considered authoritative.

Following the destruction of the temple there was a renewed emphasis on the collection and study of Scripture. It is difficult to know exactly when the Old Testament canon (i.e., list of books in the Old Testament) was closed, but the evidence suggests that it was completed before about 200 B.C. The Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, written about middle second century B.C., mentions a Greek translation of “the Law itself, the Prophecies, and the rest of the books” (NRSV). The implication is that there exists a collection of books that was then translated into Greek.

The concept of a canon containing authoritative information comes directly from Scripture itself (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Jer. 26:2; 2 Pet. 3:15-16; Rev. 22:6-8, 18-19). There were three specific occasions in Israel’s history when certain writings were recognized as having divine authority. The first was when Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the book of the covenant and read it to the Israelites, who responded, “We will do everything that the LORD has said” (Exod. 24.7). The second was when King Josiah read the book of the covenant found in the temple by Hilkiah (622 B.C.; 2 Kgs 23:3; cf. 2 Chron. 34:32). The people accepted the words of the covenant and were willing to put themselves under its authority. The last occasion was when Ezra read the law to the Babylonian exiles who had returned to Israel. The people wept as they listened and renewed their obedience to the law, implying that they believed the words to be authoritative (Neh. 8:9). …

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Credo Feb 2015 Cover-01How well do you know your Bible? Now that is a scary question, even if you have been a Christian for a long time. Between church events, little league games, and a full-time job, finding time to read and study Scripture is a herculean task. To make matters worse, when you finally do escape to read the Bible you struggle to understand what it means. At times you can relate with the Ethiopian eunuch who said to Philip when asked if he understood what he was reading, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

In this issue of Credo Magazine we are here to help! If you feel tired and frustrated, this issue will give you that shot of adrenaline you need to keep going. And if you feel like you just don’t have the tools in your belt to interpret the Bible properly, then you are in good hands. Consider this an exercise in going to the hardware store to find those tools you need to comprehend the Bible. Obviously this issue of the magazine won’t give you all the tools you need, but we hope to get you started, even provide you with the motivation you need to study the Bible on your own. Sure, it’s hard work. But hard work pays off. And maybe one day you will be able to say, “Hey, I do know the Bible, and I think I can help someone else understand it too.”

Contributors include: Robert Plummer, Ardel Caneday, Michael Kruger, Deven K. MacDonald, Paul D. Wegner, Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, Kevin DeYoung, Douglas Moo, and Thomas Schreiner.

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