OTB8 – Compiling and structuring of the Old Testament books

©  Jeff Stacey   |   Last updated:  12 May 2020

OTB8(a)   Processes of compilation

Like other historians, the compilers of the OT historical narratives selected and arranged material from the various prior sources available to them.  For example, see 2Kings 15:6,11,15,21,26,31,36.  Sometimes they added their own interpretations of events or other comments.  For example, see 2Kings 15:3,9,12,18,24,28,34.

OT researchers have shown that some of the language used has features that were characteristic of later times rather than when the original events occurred.  An example is use of “the Teacher” in the introduction as well as other explanatory comments in the ending of Ecclesiastes Eccl 1:1, 12:9-10,11-12,13-14.  This has given rise to controversy over the actual origins of some books.  But long processes of compilation and reworking of older original material by later scribes, priests and teachers for various purposes were probably often involved.

OTB8(b)  Literary structuring

Often there is deliberate structuring of the material into sometimes complex literary formats that were conventional in those times.  Again this suggests later reworking of earlier sources.  The most common example was the use of Hebrew poetry.  This is seen even in quoted speeches that were unlikely to be precise records of what was actually said.  Hebrew poetry also used literary “parallelism” where the same thing was said consecutively in two or three very similar ways, for example Psalm 85:1-3,   Isaiah 49:8,9,10-11.

Sometimes this poetry also involved the use of “acrostics”.  That is where the lines or verses start with consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Some examples are Lamentations and Psalm 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145.  Older material, especially the Psalms, was often reworked like this to make it suitable for later use in Israel’s worship.

A further example was “chiastic” arrangement, where there is “balancing” of parts of a passage.  Study of these structures including their use in other recently discovered Ancient Near Eastern writings, gives further insights.1

It is apparent that the compilation of some OT books occurred in many ways within Israel and the later Jewish communities over a period of at least 1100 years.  These processes were guided by various intentions that are often unknown and can only be inferred from the biblical texts themselves.2

OTB8(c)  Separate blocks of material

The “joins” between various blocks of original material can be seen or suspected at many points.  For example, some of the prophetic speeches in Jeremiah are out of chronological order (see Jer 25:1 [605BC],   Jer 26:1 [609BC],   Jer 27:1,  Jer 28:1 [593BC],   Jer 32:1 [587BC]).  There are also some abrupt switches from historical recording (third person) to personal memoirs (first person), for example Ezra 7:27 – 9:15.  Other books are obviously just accumulated collections of separate pieces (Psalms and Proverbs,  see Proverbs 1:1, 10:1, 22:17, 24:23, 25:1, 30:1, 31:1).

OTB8(d)  Use of a different language

Almost all of the OT was written in the ancient Hebrew language.  But there are several short sections written in ancient Aramaic or Chaldean Ezra 4:8-6:18,   7:12-26,   Jeremiah 10:11,   Daniel 2:4-7:28.  These were due to the later times of production of these books, when Aramaic had become the international language of trade.

OTB8(e)  Summary

The OT as we now have it represents thousands of years of writing, copying, modifying, preserving, discovering and analysing ancient manuscripts.  Thanks to massive archaeological exploration and textual research over at least the last two hundred years, we now have a highly accurate text of the OT.  This has then been intensively studied by biblical scholars and translated into most of the world’s major languages.

Continue to OTB9


1.   D.Garrett, Rethinking Genesis (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1991) pages 107-108. (Return to reading).

2.  In the case of Chronicles this process of selecting material can be analysed, because one of the main sources used was Kings.  So the differing emphases of these books can be seen by comparing parallel passages and noting the material selected or omitted (the same is true in the New Testament in the first three Gospels). (Return to reading).