The Old Testament covers the time period from the creation of the world to about 500 years before the start of the New Testament. It includes the writings of inspired ancient prophets, and is often divided into three sections: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. This article includes historical and theological insights from Latter-day Saint and secular scholars, primarily drawn from From the Desk interviews.
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Table of Contents
- Dead Sea Scrolls
- Odds & Ends
- Old Testament vs. New Testament
Truman G. Madsen once questioned Hugh B. Brown in the Holy Land about why God would ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac:
I put the question once to President Hugh B. Brown, when we were in Israel: Why was Abraham commanded to go up on that mountain (traditionally Mount Moriah in Jerusalem) and offer as a sacrifice his only hope for the promised posterity?
President Brown wisely replied, “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.”
By being tested, all of us will one day know how much our hearts are really set on the kingdom of God.Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith Lecture 6: Joseph Smith as Teacher, Speaker, and Counselor
Answers to important questions
The book of Jonah comprises only 47 verse, but they pack quite a punch. According to Rabbi Steven Bob, they answer some of humanity’s most important questions, such as:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here?
- What is the purpose of life?
- How should we respond to people of others religions?
Law of tithing
The Law of Tithing explained in the book of Malachi has special relevance for our day, according to a Dallin H. Oaks quote: “The law of tithing is not a remote Old Testament practice, but a commandment directly from the Savior to the people of our day.”
Robert Alter’s translation of Psalm 23
The King James Version of the 23rd Psalm set a standard followed by most future translators. In particular, most translations use an iteration of “thou anointest my head with oil.” However, Hebrew scholar Robert Alter says that there’s only one biblical verb for “anoint”—and that it isn’t found in Psalm 23:
There is only one biblical verb for “anoint,” which is cognate with the noun from which we get “messiah.” It is used only for the consecration of high priests and dedication to the throne of kings.
The verb actually used, dashen, means, roughly, “to make luxuriant.” Thus, there is no sacerdotal, political, or messianic suggestion in the Hebrew, and I rendered it as “moisten,” reflecting the here-and-now emphasis of the Hebrew—rubbing the head with fine olive oil is a feature of the good life, as in Homer.Robert Alter and the Hebrew Bible
Turning to Psalms in times of need
Emilie M. Townes is the Dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Like many others, she turns to the Psalms during times of personal need:
I often turn to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in time of great personal need— particularly the psalms of lament such as Psalm 22 or 137 because they help remind me that one must speak the truth of what is going wrong or troubling (lament) in order to reach God’s salvation in the midst of the suffering.Emilie Townes: Meet the Distinguished Theologian
An apostolic book
There’s an entire book with apostolic insights into the Psalms. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland expounds of several scriptural passages that are especially helpful during challenging times in his book, For Times of Trouble: Spiritual Solace From the Psalms.
Song of Solomon
The Song of Solomon (also called Song of Songs) includes sensual writings in which a male and female lover describe their bodies and desires. Its place in the Latter-day Saint canon is an open question. For example, one anecdote claims that a prophet taught the book should be stapled shut, and Bruce R. McConkie called it “biblical trash.” At the same time, the book is quoted in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Conflicting teachings make it difficult to say whether Latter-day Saints consider the Song of Songs to be scripture. “The answer to this question is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ said BYU’s Dana Pike in an interview about the role of the Song of Songs.
A single book?
Many scholars view Ezra-Nehemiah as a single book. However, Robert Alter clarifies that the books also “differ in form and are certainly not the work of a single writer” (The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, p. 803).
A real person?
Scholars have debated whether Ezra was a real person for hundreds of years. While radical viewpoints suggest that Ezra was a fictitious creation, Charlotte Hempel says that “for most scholars today Ezra is a historical figure whose literary record was amplified by subsequent authors and editors.”
From secular to religious
One interesting question from the time period of Ezra-Nehemiah deals with how society transitioned from a civic nation state to a religious community:
The intriguing question beyond the purely political, therefore, is to see how what was originally civic law in a nation state developed into religious law of a community which eventually became what we know of as Judaism. This shift from the secular to the religious and how the two relate thereafter is something which we still need to consider carefully in our modern world.H.G.M. Williamson, Oxford Illustrated History of the Holy Land
Outside the Bible
Many books aren’t included
There are scores of ancient Jewish writings related to scripture that aren’t included in the traditional Hebrew Bible. For example, a three-volume set published by the Jewish Publication Society includes Jewish texts such as:
- 1 Enoch
- Life of Adam and Eve
- Apocalypse of Abraham
- Song of Miriam
- Apocryphon of Joshua
- Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
- Prayer for King Jonathan
- Wisdom of Solomon
A society devoted to Enoch
There’s an academic group devoted to studying the common roots of the world’s three major religions:
The Enoch Seminar is an open and inclusive forum of international specialists in early Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Scholars with different methodologies and approaches and at various stages of their academic careers, from graduate students to senior scholars, have the opportunity to meet and work together in the search for the common roots of the three “Abrahamic religions”.Gabriele Boccaccini, The Enoch Seminar
Dead Sea Scrolls
We don’t know who wrote them
There’s a great deal of debate about who authored the Dead Sea Scrolls. “The most unanswered question is their origin,” says Jean-Pierre Isbouts.
The Dead Sea Scrolls include fragments from numerous Old Testament texts—but not the New Testament. As BYU’s Dana M. Pike explains, “The Dead Sea Scrolls are Jewish religious texts, not Christian ones.”
They don’t mention Ezra
The Dead Sea Scrolls include fragments from the book of Ezra—but they don’t actually reference the biblical scribe. And scholars aren’t entirely sure why:
This silence on Ezra might point to an ambivalent assessment of Ezra’s legacy in various circles—a ‘snub,’ if you like—or suggest a more limited reach of the ancient Ezra narrative in the Second Temple period than later sources have led us to believe.Charlotte Hempel, Why Isn’t Ezra Mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls?
3 common elements of Jewish practice
Malka Simkovich says that Jews had three things in common during the Second Temple period:
The three main identifying elements of Jewish practice which all virtually observant Jews kept is the observance of the Sabbath, dietary laws, and circumcision of sons.
But there were other extremely important practices which virtually all Jews kept as well, regardless of where they lived. Among these practices was the regular reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue.Second Temple Literature with Malka Simkovich
The story of Masada
Josephus tells a gruesome story about Second Temple Jews at Masada, according to Biblical archaeologist, Jodi Magness:
According to Josephus, Eleazer ben-Yair, the leader of the rebels atop Masada, convinced the men that they should deprive the Romans of victory by committing suicide before the fortress fell.
Accordingly, all the men first killed their wives and children.
Then the men got together and drew lots, and ten of them killed the others.
Then the ten remaining men drew lots again, and one of them killed the other nine and then himself.
According to this story, only one person—the last man—died at his own hand.Jodi Magness, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth
Scholars look at the meaning of “Jehovah” in many ways. One interesting perspective shared with Ann Madsen by David Noel Freedman includes a future tense of “I am”:
The translation of Jehovah reads, “I am that I am.” But there are other possible translations of the name, Jehovah. So, you could say, “I will become what/who I will become.”Ann Madsen Reflects on Isaiah, Jehovah, and the Temple
Jehovah is one name of many
Jesus Christ is the Jehovah of the Old Testament—but it’s not the only name by which He’s known in the Hebrew Bible. According to Elder Holland in Witness for His Names, the Savior is also known by several other Old Testament titles:
- Almighty God
- Angel of His Presence
- Angel of the Lord
- Anointed One
- Beginning and End
- Branch of the Lord
- Branch of Righteousness
- Captain of Salvation
- Covenant of the People
- Creator of Israel
- Creator of the Ends of the Earth
- Creator of the Heavens
- Creator of the Wind
- Crown of Glory
- Elect of God
- Everlasting Father
- Everlasting God
- Everlasting King
- Everlasting Light
- Everlasting Strength
- Faithful God
- Father of the Fatherless
- Father That Hath Bought Thee
- Father to Israel
- Glory of Their Strength
- Habitation of Justice
- Holy God
- Horn of David
- Horn of Salvation
- I Am That I Am
- King of Israel
- Light of Israel
- Light to Lighten the Gentiles
- Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
- Lord God of Gods
- Lord God of Truth
- Lord of Kings
- Lord of Lords
- Lord Our Righteousness
- Lord That Is Faithful
- Messenger of Salvation
- Nail in a Sure Place
- Only Begotten
- Power of God
- Rock of Israel
- Rock of Refuge
- Rock of Salvation
- Rock of Strength
- Shepherd of Israel
- Son of Man
- Stem of Jesse
- Sun of Righteousness
- The Great I Am
- The Lord Almighty
- True and Living God
Odds & Ends
A commentary by Elder McConkie
Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote a six-volume series about the life of Jesus Christ. The first book, The Promised Messiah, includes commentary on every verse he found that references the Savior before His mortal birth.
Reading tip: Take it slow
Ellen F. Davis is one of today’s leading female theologians and Old Testament scholars. She recommends that people read the Old Testament slowly:
Take it slowly, a chapter at a time. Learning to read slowly is crucial. Don’t read for plot (you know it!); read for character, for relationships. Look for what surprises you when you slow down.Ellen F. Davis: An Interview with the Scholar
Andrew Teal is a treasured friend of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. The Anglican priest has this advice for those embarking on a study of the Hebrew Bible:
Enjoy it—try to keep an eye on the overview and really relish the detail.Andrew Teal on Finding Christ Through Suffering
You can read each general conference reference
BYU’s Scripture Citation Index allows you to see each time Old Testament verses have been referenced in general conference—and what’s been said about them. While scriptures from the Hebrew Bible have been cited more than 20,000 times, only five books include more than 1,000 references:
- Isaiah (4,357 references)
- Genesis (3,014 references)
- Psalms (2,078 references)
- Exodus (1,826 references)
- Daniel (1,329 references)
Quoted by Moroni
The angel Moroni quotes the Old Testament prophet Elijah in D&C 2:3 and Joseph Smith History 1:39. Similarly, Section 110 of the Doctrine and Covenants includes an appearance of Elijah to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
The “Javelin Sermon”
Brigham Young gave a sermon during the Mormon Reformation that many argue is evidence of his support for blood atonement. However, this particular sermon isn’t quite what it seems:
In this sermon Brigham pairs an Old Testament event in which sinners were killed with a javelin with the account of the New Testament story of the women taken in adultery for the specific purpose of reminding the Saints that they needed to have compassion on their neighbors’ wrongdoings.Chad Orton Looks at Brigham Young in 40 Different Ways
It sounds like a complicated word, but the definition is surprisingly simple:
The term “pseudepigrapha” (literally “with false superscription”) refers to religious writings that are typically attributed to prominent Old Testament figures but that almost certainly did not originate with them.Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, Tracing Ancient Threads in the Book of Moses
The “Targums” are translations of the Hebrew Bible in Aramaic, one of the languages spoken by Jesus:
The word targum in Aramaic simply means translation. So, by definition, the Targums let us see how the Scriptures of Israel were rendered in Aramaic. At the same time, these renderings are highly interpretative, and on occasion they provide insight into language also used in the New Testament.Bruce Chilton, Who Was Mary Magdalene?
Old Testament vs. New Testament
Many students don’t know the difference
Robert Miller II teaches Biblical Studies at The Catholic University of America, and has also recorded Old Testament lectures for the The Great Courses. He says that many of his students can’t initially distinguish between the Old Testament and New Testament:
Some students come so ignorant of the Bible that they don’t even know the difference between Old Testament and New Testament. So getting them to see the Old Testament as a pre-Christian document is huge.Robert D. Miller II, What Are Historical and Literary Analyses?
There’s a 500-year gap
The Old Testament and New Testament are separated by a time period of roughly 500 years. One of the greatest Jewish accomplishments during these five centuries was holding onto what they thought was most important:
Remarkably, the Jews held onto their scripture which provided the guide for their daily lives. But their brush with Greco-Roman society left an imprint. To avoid receiving that imprint as much as possible, they turned inward and adopted strategies of surviving with their identities still intact. This sort of action meant that they took imaginative steps to hold onto their religious traditions, often changing and adjusting those traditions into something that people a couple of centuries earlier would not have recognized.What Happened Between the Old and New Testament?
They’re both scripture
While there are key differences between the Old and New Testaments, most Christians accept both as scripture:
The vast majority of Christians hold to the same canon, namely 39 books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and 27 books of the New Testament.Thomas A. Wayment, “How Was the New Testament Canonized?“
Covenants created a family relationship
Covenants made in ancient and modern temples are more than just two-way promises. As Jennifer C. Lane explains, covenants provide access to a special relationship with God:
The Hebrew concept of covenant refers to a change in relationship, the creating of a family relationship. It is helpful to think of marriage or adoption as analogies, and they are often used as such in the Old Testament. Once we are in a covenant relationship with the Lord, we are His and He is ours in a new way.Let’s Talk About Temples and Ritual
Women in the Old Testament include both righteous disciples and wicked figures. That reality has taught BYU’s Camille Fronk Olson a powerful lesson:
The purpose of scripture is to bear witness of Jesus Christ, not to define the level of righteousness of the various individuals portrayed therein.
As is true for all of us today, none of these biblical women was without weakness, and all of them had a divine potential to contribute to the Lord’s work. That is why careful gospel study never confuses the Savior with anyone else in scripture. He alone is without sin; everyone else has a desperate need for the Redeemer.Women of the Old Testament: Witnessing of Christ
We frequently update each of these “cornerstone” articles about Latter-day Saint scriptures and prophets:
Old Testament Come Follow Me resources
- Old Testament Overview (Gospel Topics)
- Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- The Hebrew: A Translation with Commentary (W. W. Norton)
- Finding Jesus Christ in the Old Testament (Ensign)
- Discussions on the Old Testament (BYU TV)
- Why Is There a Threefold Division of the Hebrew Canon? (Blue Letter Bible)