A Chronological Order of Old Testament Writings

The history of the Hebrew people is reflected in nearly all of the literature found in the Old Testament. Sometimes it is the history of the people as a whole; other times, it is that of a smaller group or even the experiences of a particular individual. The writers of the Old Testament believed that Yahweh revealed himself through history in much the same way that we think a person’s character is disclosed through that person’s actions. For this reason, some familiarity with the historical setting of each of the writings is prerequisite to an understanding of them.

The exact order in which the contents of the Old Testament were initially placed is not known. The literature as we have it today contains many fragments that appear to have existed separately at one time. They have been combined, copied, edited, supplemented, and arranged so many times that not even the most expert scholars are in complete agreement about the order in which they first appeared. This confusion does not mean that we are unable to know anything concerning the Old Testament or that we cannot be reasonably certain about the approximate time when the various parts of the literature were produced. On the other hand, our conclusions should be reached with considerable caution, and we must always be ready to revise them in consideration of new evidence. Our purpose here is merely to outline the approximate order of the writings in accordance with generally recognized Old Testament scholarship.

The oldest writings are now included as parts of historical narratives that did not reach their final form until a relatively late date. Many of them can be located with a fair degree of accuracy in the books of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. Other early fragments are found in Joshua, Judges, and those portions of the Old Testament that deal with the early history of the Hebrew nation. Some of these writings are as old as the conquest of Canaan, and some even older than that. Not all of the early literature of the Hebrews has been preserved in the Old Testament—for example, the Book of the Wars of Yahweh, the Book of Yashur the Upright, the Book of the Acts of Solomon, the “Royal Annals,” and the “Temple Annals”—but we know of their existence because of Old Testament references to them. In several instances, extracts have been taken from them and included in other Old Testament writings.

An exhaustive account of these early writings cannot be attempted here, but their general character is indicated by the following examples. Poems were written in commemoration of significant events. For example, “The Song of Deborah,” recorded in Judges 5, was written in celebration of a victory over the Canaanites. “The Fable of the Trees,” found in Judges 9, discusses the abortive attempt of Abimelech to become king over Israel. “The Blessing of Jacob,” part of Genesis 49, recalls Jacob’s last meeting with his sons. “The Oracles of Balaam,” recorded in Numbers 23 and 24, describe an experience that occurred during the wilderness march. “David’s Lament,” which commemorates the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, is found in 2 Samuel 1:19–27, and a song celebrating a victory over the Amorites is recorded in Numbers 21:27–30. One of the oldest of these poems is Lamech’s “Song of Revenge,” found in Genesis 4:23–24. Miriam’s “Song of Deliverance,” in Exodus 15:21, may be as old as the time of Moses.

Among the early narratives that were used as source materials for later histories are such documents as “The Story of the Founding of the Kingdom.” Written by an ardent admirer of King David, it presents the story of David’s kingship in a most favorable light. The writer believed in the monarchy and describes in considerable detail the events that led to its establishment. He begins with an account of Israel’s oppression by the Philistines, which, he argues, clearly shows the need for a strong and capable leader. The prophet Samuel sees the proper qualifications in Saul and promptly anoints him to be the first king of Israel. The writer tells of important events in Saul’s reign, but the real hero of his story is David. The reader is impressed with the charm of David’s personality and the accomplishments of his reign. Although David was proclaimed king at Hebron, located in the southern kingdom, he was able to win the loyalty and support of the northern tribes as well. As a means of further unification, he made the city of Jerusalem, located midway between the northern and southern kingdoms, the capital of the newly formed state. The story concludes with an account of the succession to the throne of David’s son Solomon.

Two other narratives that furnished valuable information for later historians are the Book of the Acts of Solomon and “The Rise and Fall of the House of Omri.” The first of these tells of King Solomon and the events that took place during the early years of his reign. Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple, his request for wisdom to guide his people, and the grandeur of his building operations are given particular emphasis. The other narrative concerns the reign of Omri, who was one of the more important rulers of the northern kingdom. Only parts of this narrative were used by the author of 1 Kings, for some of the material did not serve the purpose for which that author wrote. The reign of King Ahab, Omri’s son, is described at considerable length. The account is especially important because it helps to correct some of the unfavorable impressions of King Ahab conveyed by other narratives.

Stories concerning the work of the prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha, are also part of the early narratives produced in the northern kingdom. Of these stories that have been preserved, those having to do with Elijah are by far the most significant. They indicate a conception of Yahweh that is far more advanced than previously held beliefs, whereas the Elisha stories are of a somewhat lower level of religious development.

No account of the early fragments that ultimately became parts of the Old Testament would be complete without mention of the laws that were designed to regulate human conduct. Probably the oldest of these laws are those contained in the Book of the Covenant. Although we do not know when they first appeared in written form, there are good reasons for believing that these laws were known as early as the time of Moses, but they were not put in writing until a much later date. We do know that new laws were added from time to time as the need for them arose. Later, all of the laws were placed in a historical framework and, along with the early poems and narratives, were incorporated in the lengthy historical documents that constitute a relatively late but significant portion of the literature of the Old Testament.

The first books of the Old Testament to appear in the approximate form in which we have them today are the ones attributed to the prophets. It would be a mistake to suppose that all of the contents found in the Old Testament books that bear the names of prophets were written by the persons for whom the books are named. Actually, the work of the prophets themselves constitutes only the main basis or essential core of the books. Editors, copyists, and redactors added materials that they regarded as appropriate, and these additions were preserved along with the original materials.

Amos and Hosea are the only prophetic books that belong to the literature of the northern kingdom. Both books were produced during the eighth century B.C., and both concern conditions that existed in Israel prior to that nation’s collapse. The Book of Isaiah (Chapters 1–39) and the Book of Micah come from the same century and are addressed to the people of Judah, or the southern kingdom.

From the seventh century B.C., or the era that preceded the Babylonian captivity, we have the prophecies of Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah. Of these four, the Book of Jeremiah, who in many respects is regarded as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, is not only the longest but also the most important. Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah (Chapters 40–55 in the Book of Isaiah) are especially significant. They came out of the period of the exile and greatly influenced the development of religious ideals in the centuries that followed. The prophets of the post-exilic period—Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Joel, and Obadiah—are usually classified among the so-called minor prophets. The books in which their messages have been preserved are relatively small, and their contents indicate that their authors were men of lesser stature than the ones who appeared earlier.

The historical writings that make up approximately one-third of the Old Testament—the Pentateuch, or what is often referred to as the five books of Moses; Joshua; Judges; 1 and 2 Samuel; 1 and 2 Kings; 1 and 2 Chronicles; Ezra; and Nehemiah—cannot be dated or arranged as definitely or with the same degree of accuracy as the prophetic writings, the chief reason being that they were in the process of being written and amended over long periods of time. Whether they are to be regarded as early or late will depend on one’s point of view. If we have in mind the source materials that were used, they are among the earliest of the writings, but if we consider the final form of these narratives, they will be relatively late but not the latest of the writings to be included in the entire Old Testament.

A complete analysis of the contents of the Old Testament books is a very complex and difficult task, one in which there is no universal agreement among competent scholars. However, some conclusions have found general and widespread acceptance. For example, few people would question that the Pentateuch is composed of documents written by different persons who were widely separated both in time and in point of view. The hypothesis of four separate and distinct narratives, known respectively as J, E, D, and P, has been widely publicized. Although many corrections and modifications have been made since this hypothesis was first proposed, its main thesis is still relevant. Recent investigations merely indicate that the Pentateuch literature is even more complex and requires a larger number of documents to account for all the materials found in these books. In their final form, the historical writings are presented in a manner that is designed to account for the laws and institutions peculiar to the Hebrew people from the time of creation to the post-exilic period. Thus we find the laws of Deuteronomy, as well as those that belong to the so-called Holiness Code and the relatively late ones known as the Priests Code, included in historical narratives that attribute all of the laws to Moses.

During the post-exilic period, it was considered necessary to attach great significance to those religious institutions that were unique among the Hebrew people, and one of the most effective means for doing this was to indicate their ancient origins. Events belonging to the distant past were presented in a manner that would reflect the interpretation given to them at the times when the historical narratives were written. For example, the belief that the increasing sinfulness of man has shortened his life span is reflected in the accounts concerning the large number of years that the early patriarchs lived. And the sordid events so numerous in the Book of Judges reflect the sentiment of those who held that conditions that preceded the establishment of the religious monarchy were intolerable since they permitted everyone to “do that which was right in [their] own eyes.”

The sacred writings of the Old Testament include not only the prophets and the historical narratives but also a collection of miscellaneous books, which are sometimes referred to as the Hagiographa. These writings cannot be dated with precise accuracy, nor can they be placed in the exact chronological order in which they were produced. Concerning this group of writings as a whole, they are relatively late and belong for the most part to the post-exilic period. Three of these books—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job—are known as wisdom literature. Characterized by features that sharply distinguish them from the writings of the prophets, they address problems of a universal nature rather than problems peculiar to the Hebrew people. Their appeal is to essential reasonableness instead of the “Thus saith Yahweh” of the prophets. The topics that they consider are ones that pertain to the practical affairs of everyday living.

The Book of Daniel, one of the latest to be included in the Old Testament, represents a different literary type known as apocalyptic. As such, Daniel stands in sharp contrast with the prophetic writings. Produced during a period of crisis that occurred in connection with the Maccabean wars, it was designed to strengthen and encourage those who were suffering extreme persecution. The Book of Psalms is a collection of hymns, prayers, and poems reflecting both individual and group experiences of the Hebrew people from almost every period of their national history. A part of this collection was used as the hymn book of the restored Temple after the people’s return from the Babylonian captivity. “Short stories” is an appropriate title for three books produced during the post-exilic years: Jonah, which is a classic protest against narrow-minded nationalism on the part of the Jews; Ruth, written in protest against the law forbidding international marriages; and Esther, which provides an account of events leading to the origin of the Feast of Purim. The book called Lamentations portrays some of the bitter experiences that followed King Zedekiah’s flight from the city of Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian conquest. The Song of Songs is a love poem that came to be included in the sacred writings because of the allegorical interpretation given to it.