Synopsis of

The Old Testament – An Introduction to Biblical Scholarship by

Arthur J. Bellinzoni
A brief summary or synopsis of each chapter (often using Arthur Bellinzoni's own words from the complete text) follows:


The development of modern Biblical scholarship, especially including David Friedrich Strauss (1808–74) is set forth. Basic historical methods and principles, include “time and place,” the “bias rule,” and “external written sources and circumstantial evidence.” The goal of the book is to: “lead the reader . . . through the method of biblical scholarship to what I consider the best conclusions based on a rigorous application of that method.”

1. The Authorship of the Pentateuch

According to almost all biblical scholars, the first five books of the Old Testament were not written by Moses. Nevertheless Arthur lays out the case for and against this. He shows, by application of the method and principles of modern Biblical scholarship, that the “tradition of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is a very late tradition, originating between 800 and a thousand years after Moses' death.” The so-called “four document hypothesis (J, E, D, and P) is introduced.

2. Israel's Primordial and Patriarchical History

“Fundamental to the writing of history is a good chronology.” Although Archbishop Ussher's (1581-1656) dating of creation is off the mark, his chronology is “generally reliable.” The “primordial” or prehistory before the flood from Adam to Noah is outlined, as is the “Postdiluvian” period from Shem to Terah. The early Yahwist (J) and later Priestly (P) traditions are editorially merged into the story we now have in Genesis. The Hebrew Patriarchs, such as Abraham, Issac and Jacob, are set in the 2000 to 1800 BCE period by most scholars. “The report of these early events is more schematic than historical.”

3. From the Exodus to the Conquest and Entrenchment of Canaan

The Exodus (circa 1000 BCE) is the defining event in Israel's history. Legend was apparently blended with history, but certain details of Moses' life can be substantiated. This chapter covers the formative period of Israel's history from its historical origins in the escape from Egypt and the establishment of the Sinai covenant, and through the wanderings in the wilderness and the conquest and entrenchment of Canaan, to the institution at Shechem of the tribal federation, and finally, to the period of the judges. The “criterion of embarrassment” points to a more realistic account of the Israeli occupation in one publication entitled “Israel's Failure to Complete the Conquest of Cannan,” than the account in Judges 1. The phenomenon of the “call” of the prophets (Micaiah, Elijah, Elisha et al) is compared to that of Moses.

4. The Period of the United Kingdom

The transition from the period of the tribal federation occurred from about 1250 BCE, to the end of the united monarchy in 922 BCE. The ascent of David to the throne in about 1000 BCE united the tribes and made Jerusalem its capital. It was during Solomon's reign that the Yahwist (J source) produced the national epic. The methods and principles of biblical scholarship are summarized. The macro-picture should always be the objective of the historian.

5. Mediators Between Yahweh and Israel

The prophets of Israel, such as Elijah, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, were not “fortune tellers.” A misunderstanding of the original role of the prophets, taken out of context, is evident in both early and contemporary Christian and Jewish literature. The prophets spoke to the issues of their time, particularly social injustice and the pending consequences. A striking parallel with the call and commission of Martin Luther King is given. Commentary on Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah, Amos and Hosea are provided. The foundational principles of conservative Christianity, inerrancy of scripture and the matter of predictive prophecy. are seriously challenged.

6. The Northern Kingdom's Epic: The Elohist

The purpose of this short chapter is to provide information about the second building block of the four-document hypothesist (the Elohist epic or E) within the historical context of the northern kingdom in the ninth (or eight) century BCE. Both the J and E epics certainly originated in tribal memories. The appearance of “doublets” in Genesis gives important evidence of difference between the E and J (Yhawist) sources. The two, or sometime even three, versions of the same story allow scholars to identify stylistic differences, geographical biases, and other motifs and subtleties in the text of the Pentateuch, once it is clear that Moses was not its author.

7. Mediators Between Yahweh and Judah

The political history of the northern kingdom of Israel was tumultuous during the two-hundred year history following the civil war, while Judah enjoyed relative political stability during the three-hundred year reign of the house of David in Jerusalem from 922–586/587 BCE. Therefore most of the prophetic writings that survive are from Judah, including Isaiah of Jerusalem, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Malachi.

In looking at the narrative accounts of the calls and commissions of Isaiah and Jeremiah, we see the degree to which the psychology of prophecy and the use of poetic conventions, including the contextual setting in Near Eastern mythology, have played an important role in the prophets account of their calls. Biblical scholars have maintained consistently that the prophets of Israel spoke not about the long-time future (such as events in the life of Jesus) but about events contemporaneous with their own times.

8. The Reform of King Josiah, Deuteronomy, and the Deuteronomistic History

The book of Deuteronomy (containing the third source, D, of the Pentateuch), serves as a theological preface to the books of Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, the so-called Deuteronomistic History. The book of the law that Hilkiah the priest discovered in the Jerusalem temple during the reign of king Josiah was the core of the present book of Deuteronomy. The proximity of the Deuteronomic historian's early sources to many of the events described gives us confidence in the reliability of a good deal of the material. After much updating, revising, and editing, of the Deteuronomistic History, the final editions of these books appeared, probably in Jerusalem during the period of reconstruction following the Babylonian exile, a major watershed event in the national history.

9. The Restoration and the Priestly Synthesis

The story of the events that transpired in Jerusalem following the people's return from the Babylonian exile after the Edict of Cyrus of Persia, is reported in Ezra and Nehemiah, two of the four books that scholars refer to as the Chronicler's History. The Chronicler reports the history of Israel in ecclesiastical terms. Out of the consolidation of power by the priests in that period, there emerged the Priestly Code of the Pentateuch, P, which had as its purpose maintaining the unity and integrity of Israel as a people at a time when Israel was no longer a nation-state. The priest's method was to rework older tradition, the material that existed previously as J, E, and D, and put it into their own framework. The survival of Israel in exile for twenty-five hundred years in spite of persecutions is surely the crowning success of the Priestly movement of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. It is safe to say that twentieth-century Zionism, which brought about the re-creation of Israel, would not have been possible without the priestly effort of the post-exilic period.

10. Israel's Wisdom Literature

Another product of the post-exilic period, after the end of the prophetic movement, was the wisdom literature, of which there are more than 10 writings, such as Sirach and Tobit. Only three have been included in the canon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Unlike the earlier Israelite religion, the wisdom movement was more secular and the writings dealt in large measure with the routine problems of everyday life, as well as right ethical behavior. All three were put together from earlier written material. Proverbs is the most closely related to wisdom literature of the ancient Near East. It was composed primarily in two-line sayings in the typical form of Hebrew parallelism. Excerpts of the literature in the eight distinct literary units of Proverbs are compared and contrasted with other books, as well as other traditions.

These comparisons to antecedents in the ancient Near East are also found in the discussion of the more agnostic book of Ecclesiastes, in which Qoheleth concludes that the important matters of the universe are impenetrable, enigmatic, and inscrutable. The book of Job has at least three distinct units: the narrative prologue and epilogue, the poetic dialogue between Job and his three friends, and the speeches of Elihu. It deals with existential questions like: Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? The translation and meaning of some verses are disputed. For instance, our Princeton Religion Department professor, R. B. Y. Scott claims that words in Chapter 30, verse 1, given in the Revised Standard Version, “I am weary , O God. How can I prevail?” are not from Hebrew, but Aramaic, and should be translated “There is no God! There is no God, and I can [not know anything].” This verse evidently raises questions of a skeptic, who seems to be wrestling with the problem of whether man can ever know God. Job's God (and certainly that of his three friends) was too small. In the end, the book of Job makes it clear that it is not possible to answer the most important questions of human existence. Job must leave room for mystery.

11. Psalms

Psalms is the storehouse of poetic literature that introduces the modern reader to Israel at worship, with liturgies and music. It is not clear that any of the one hundred and fifty psalms reach back in unbroken line to David and Solomon in the tenth century, BCE. Yet many of the psalms reach back to a period earlier than 515 BCE. Psalms is divided into five books, with duplications and partially excerpted psalms that evidence an independent history.

There are many types of psalms, including Royal Psalms, Hymns or Songs of Praise, Thanksgiving, Songs of Zion, Laments or Prayers, Liturgies, and Wisdom and Torah Psalms. Three psalms are examined in detail, Psalm 2:1–12 for an enthronement ceremony, Psalm 45:1–7 for a wedding, and Psalm 137:1–9, a reflection on the fall of Jerusalem sometime around 538. The book of Psalms was written in the same poetic parallelism characteristic of poetry in other books of the Bible. Because it is an anthology, Psalms does not speak with a single theological voice and it reflects the complexity and diversity of Israelite religion and worship.

12. Apocalypticism

Apocalyptcism has been defined as “the dualistic, cosmic, and eschatological (a distinct concern about end time) belief in two opposing cosmic powers, good and evil, God and Satan (or his equivalent); and in two distinct ages – the present, temporal, and irretrievably evil age under Satan, who now oppresses the righteous but whose power God will act soon to overthrow; and the future perfect and eternal age under God's own rule, when the righteous will be blessed forever.” “Apocalypse” is the genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spacial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world. The apocalyptic hope of late Judaism is pessimistic with regard to the present age, but optimistic with regard to the future age, the period of God's rule. The origin of apocalyptic thought is in Persian Zoroastrianism, and thereafter in the Greco-Roman period when religious syncretism was prevalent. The Jewish ideas regarding apocalypse, the kingdom of God, a final judgment, the resurrection of the dead, the son of man, owe a great deal to Zoroastrianism.

This genre of Jewish writing, in both canonical and extracanonical books, is described and analyzed in some detail in this chapter. Portions of a dozen works, including parts of Ezekiel, Zechariah, Isaiah, Joel, the Syriac Apocalpse of Baruch, Ezra, the Sibylline Oracles, and especially Daniel, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, are discussed. Images of special importance to subsequently Christian thought, such as “the Son of Man,” “Messiah”and the “Kingdom of God” are found in Daniel, 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra. The visions of the Jewish apocalypticists are qualitatively different from the visions of most of the classical prophets of the eight, seventh, and sixth centuries BCE. It's likely that the conditions for the emergence of apocalypticism did not exist until late in the post-exilic period or even later during the Hellenistic age.


13. The Text of the Old Testament

Textural criticism is the foundation of all biblical scholarship. But no book of the Old Testament comes down to us in its original form, and historical accuracy was not a concern of the writers and copyists. So the task of trying to reconstruct the earliest possible version of the Hebrew text is difficult for the textual critic. A more realistic goal might be to try to find the textural form for the period of the fourth and third centuries BCE. Versions of three traditions are studied; the Masoretic text (previously considered the “received text”), the Greek Septuagint, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. The finding of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 was a great aid in the task of understanding the history of transmission. The Qumran scrolls are about a thousand years older than our previously oldest extant manuscripts. Yet it is evident, in the study of these many different versions of the scrolls and fragments of the same book found in the caves, that editorial changes are more than simple corrections; they sometimes seem to be deliberate, and the Essenes who produced the scrolls were not scrupulous. What we learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls is that the Essenes actively engaged in transcribing biblical texts, that their texts had no fixed form, and that discrepancies, divergences, and inconsistencies apparently posed no serious theological problem for the sect.

In this chapter the so-called “Council of Jamnia” following 70 CE is shown to be a serious misapprehension about Judaism and the role of the rabbis who gathered there over a period of many generations. Unlike Christianity, Judaism did not divide over these discussions and disagreements. In addition, the results of the finding of scrolls in the area of Wadi Murabba'at in 1951, the Masoretic text, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Targums, the Septuagint are summarized. By the end of the first century CE, the texts were relatively fixed, but in three relatively distinct forms.

Jerry Moyar ‘57

May 10, 2009