How Many Books Are in the Old Testament?

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The Bible is composed of two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the first section and documents everything from the creation of life up until the birth of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament consists of 39 different books that document Israel's history and serve as the moral teachings and basis of the Christian and Jewish faiths.

We’ll explore the books that make up the Old Testament, considering the way in which this first major division of scripture is organized.

Brief History of Canonization and Translation

As we prepare to look closer at the books of the Old Testament, let’s briefly consider how the list of 39 books as we know it came to be. Some mistakenly believe that the Hebrew Bible—that is, the Tanakh—is identical to what Christians know as the Old Testament. But this is not the case. The Hebrew Bible varies in the way it categorizes and divides its books. 

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The decision over which books ought to be included in the Old Testament was one of some debate. When a book or text is recognized as authoritative, it is said to be “canonized”, that is, officially considered to be part of the Bible. Today, the Bible is considered by Christians to be a closed canon, meaning that it cannot be opened to include new texts down the line. 

The Tradition Surrounding the Hebrew Scriptures

The decision over which books would be included in the Old Testament was based in part on the long history of Jewish canonization with regards to the Hebrew Bible. Although the Hebrew Bible has its own history and distinction organization, it does form the basis for what came to be the Christian Old Testament. The authority of most of these ancient texts was agreed upon by Jewish teachers and communities almost from the time they were written. Around the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, these key Jewish texts were translated by Jewish scholars from their original Hebrew into Greek, in a translation known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint included all the books of the Tanakh as well as several other later Jewish scriptures of cultural significance. Some of these additional books include Tobit, Judith, and Sirach.

From Hebrew Bible to Christian Bible

In the early days of the church, the Septuagint was used as the primary basis for the Old Testament. All major Christian traditions recognize the key texts (the ones found in the Hebrew Bible) as Christian canon. However, there is less uniform consensus with regards to the later additional books (Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, etc.).

The additional books are believed to have been written primarily in the intertestamental period, that is, the period between the events of the Old and New Testament. There are also additional sections of some books of the Tanakh that appear to have been added in later. The books of Daniel and Esther, for example, both have added sections. The Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Bible include many of these books and additions in their Biblical canons. In Protestant traditions, these are considered deuterocanonical books or Biblical Apocrypha, which means that while these texts can offer insight into the life and times in which they were written, they are not considered an authoritative part of Protestant Bible.

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Old Testament Organization

The Old Testament of the Bible is organized into four major sections. These sections are known as the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Wisdom Books, and the Prophetic Books—subdivided into the Major and Minor Prophets. We’ll take a closer look at each of these sections.

The Pentateuch

Just like the Torah, the Pentateuch contains the first five books of the protestant Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books document the history and the beginnings of the world with special emphasis on the formation of the people of Israel. Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are also known as the Law. The law, as expressed in the Old Testament, shows how people of God are meant to live. Made up of narrative accounts as well as formalized guidelines for living, the Pentateuch presents God’s plan for humanity and His relentless faithfulness to His people.

The Historical Books

The next major section of the Old Testament are the Historical Books. These books recount events spanning from Israel’s conquest of Canaan, to the dissolution of the Kingdom of Israel and the Babylonian captivity, to the eventual return to Jerusalem. The books in this section are Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. In this section we can see why the Old Testament has more books than the Hebrew Bible; certain texts are split up into multiple books. For example, in the Tanakh, Samuel is one book, whereas in the Testament it is split into two.

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The Wisdom Books

The Wisdom Books consist of the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. These books are made up of poetry, narratives, and moral sayings. The Wisdom Books center around reflections on worship, love, suffering, and life. 

The Prophetic Books

Finally, we have the Prophetic Books. Each of the Prophetic books primarily consist of a historical account and call to action from the various prophets, or messengers, sent to the people by God. They not only document the events of ancient Israel but also explain the lasting significance of the events that occur during this time. The Prophetic books offer a record of the messages God commanded the prophets to share with the people.

The Biblical prophets can be further split into two major groups: the Major and Minor prophets. The designation of the prophets as either “major” or “minor” is not a statement of their importance or worth. Rather, the so-called Major prophets are the longer Prophetic books, while the Minor Prophets are a collection of shorter books. Here we see another difference in organization between the Tanakh and Old Testament. In the Hebrew scriptures the twelve prophets are compiled together into one volume or book, called The Twelve. In the Christian Bible, each prophet is separated into an individual book.

The Major Prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The twelve Minor Prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

Final Thoughts

The various books of the Old Testament demonstrate the tenacity of God’s love for His people. Comprised of many texts by many human authors, over an expansive period of time, and in an array of literary genres and styles, the Old Testament is intended to point us to God and to encourage us to live rightly. Through the laws, historical accounts, words of worship and wisdom, and prophetic calls, the Old Testament sets the stage for Gospel, introducing us to a God who loves the world so much that He would send us His son, Jesus Christ.

If you want to learn more about the Old Testament and the Bible as a whole, take a look at Alabaster’s beautifully designed collection of Bibles and other supplemental material to help you along your journey.