OTB6 – Earlier sources used by the Old Testament writers

Jeff Stacey   |   Last updated:  4 September 2014

Historical writings are necessarily based on information passed down from the times of the events they record.  So it is usually assumed that most of the OT books were compiled from prior sources.  These might have been either oral or written, together with any relevant information from surviving historical sites.

Some alterations to these sources may have occurred in various ways during their transmission to later times.  There could also have been further editing of them when they were finally written up as the OT texts that we now have.  But how much can we really know definitely about this whole assumed process?

A vast amount of biblical research has attempted to identify these prior sources.  Mostly the aim has been to find evidences of them from within the OT texts.  But often these “findings” have been little more than conjecture.1   So the results should be regarded only as probabilities.  Their credibility must be based mainly on the degree of certainty of the data used.

A world-eminent Australian OT researcher, Dr William Dumbrell, has summarised this situation as follows:

“Of course it is undeniable that sources in some form or other preceded the canonical material we now have.  But it cannot be emphasised too strongly that we must interpret what we have.  The identification of sources becomes a very subjective process and is always subject to dispute.  There are no assured results of literary criticism . . .”.2

This highlights the primary importance of carefully studying the biblical texts themselves.  Yet they can sometimes be illuminated by well-attested discoveries of archaeology and findings from historical and literary research.

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1.  Sometimes this work is driven by a desire to prove a point based on prior theological or other assumptions, or even to seek academic recognition. (Return to reading).

2.   W.J.Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Leicester, Apollos, 1988), page 11. (Return to reading).