Time to Study the Old Testament……..Again – Part 1 – Introduction

Jeff Spectordoctrine, LDS, Mormon, revelation, scripture 20 Comments

As part of the four-year LDS Sunday School study cycle, it is time to open up that voluminous book known as the Old Testament. Many in the Christian community, including LDS, question the value of even studying the Old Testament. After all, they say, “we have the New Testament, which is Christ’s teachings to us.”  AndTorah, the LDS have additional scripture that have Christ’s teachings as well.

Is that true?  Is the Old Testament “Old,” and thus not as relevant as other scriptures?

The answer of course is no.  These scriptures are important to us.

From the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, Lesson 1,

“The Old Testament is an account of God’s dealings with his covenant people from the time of the Creation to a few hundred years before the Savior’s birth. The Old Testament provides powerful examples of faith and obedience.  It also shows the consequences of forgetting, disobeying, or opposing God.  Its prophecies bear witness of the Messiah’s birth, redeeming sacrifice, second coming, and millennial reign.”


The Old Testament consists of a various number of books from 39 to 47, depending on which version you use. (We’ll cover this in detail in a subsequent posting).  The order varies as well.  “Old Testament” is somewhat of misnomer, the term “Old Testament” itself is credited to Melito of Sardis.[1] The term “Old” is used to distinguish it from the “New” Testament, or the Old Covenant from the New Covenant given by Jesus.  Most scholars refer to the Old Testament as the “Hebrew Bible” or the Jewish Bible.  Jews refer to it simply as “The Holy Scriptures or TaNaKn.”

The books were written mainly in Biblical Hebrew with a few books in Biblical Aramaic.  According to traditional Jewish belief, the Hebrew Bible existed as an oral tradition for a long time, and it was forbidden to be put into written form.[6] According to that tradition, the date on which permission was given to write down the Bible is considered one of mourning.[6] Contemporary conservative scholars date the origin of the Hebrew Bible between the tenth and seventh centuries BCE,[7] while most contemporary secular biblical scholars date its finalization in the Persian period (539 to 334 BCE).[8] (From Wikipedia, “Hebrew Bible”)

While many Christians tend to downplay the relevance of the Old Testament compared to the New Testament, it is ironic that much of the fire and brimstone teachings of Christianity can be more closely linked to the harshness of how God dealt with his covenant people who couldn’t seem to stay on the straight and narrow path.  Jesus’ own teachings seem more gentle than those of the Old Testament.

So, are you looking forward to once again opening that huge book and studying it?  I, for one, am looking forward to teaching it this year and bringing some of my own perspectives to the lessons, given my background.

Comments 20

  1. I’m definitely looking forward to studying the Old Testament. It’s my favorite part of the standard works. I love the richness and depth of the stories; there’s something about them that just speaks to me. I think it’s because the stories are messy, contradictory, and ambiguous – just like modern life. Through all the mess, God’s love and covenants shine through.

  2. I’m the Sunday School President in my ward, and in a month from today, we’re doing a symposium on the Old Testament with various breakout sessions on various topics like “Women of the Old Testament” and “Understanding Isaiah.” If anyone in Manhattan would like to attend, it’s on December 12 in the Inwood ward.

  3. I think that the Old Testament is useful for the human fraility it displays in the people it is about.

    I also like the small nuggets, here and there (such as Noah had a grandson who divided the land with the gentiles, according to their languages, well before the Tower of Bable … which implies that by then they had met people outside their family, whose decent was a different chain, and outside the flood).

  4. I just wish we would really study the Old Testament. I have to remind myself that the name of the class isn’t “Old Testament,” or “Scripture Study,” but “Gospel Doctrine.”

  5. I love the OT. I think we should take 2 years to review it. we spend a year on 20 years of the d&c, and spend a year to cover thousands of years of the OT. something seems off here.

  6. #4, CS Eric. Good point. Everything is slanted toward how it relates to our Doctrine, not just what it says. So you miss a lot of explanation of how things evolved the way they did.

    mh, Two years might be enough time to explore some of that.

  7. I have to admit that I find the use of the Bible in Sunday School classes to be either almost entirely boring and frustrating. Mormonism seems to be (like most everything else) years behind in Biblical scholarship and hermeneutics. It’s one thing to study as if everything were merely ‘likening’ the scriptures to our modern times, but we tend to instead read the Hebrew Bible and New Testament through the eyes of 19th century protestants, millenarians, and restorationists without the slightest attempt to read them as what they are – ancient oral narratives highly influenced by their cultures and prophetically restructured to deal with their own peoples in their own times.

  8. I’m anxious to hear some of Jeff’s insights given his background. I must confess, I am probably one of those who are too quick to dismiss the OT in favor of the NT and other scripture.

    Jeff, I’d be interested in knowing how your perspective of the OT changed when you converted to Mormonism?

  9. @8

    I have to agree. Wouldn’t be nice if we actually studied the OT for once and tried to figure out what it is trying to say rather than decide a priori what it is or isnt and read it into the text

  10. I’ve been studying the OT for the past 1.5 years now and find it fascinating, if a bit distant. The hard thing about the OT, imo, is that it is a lot harder to “liken” than NT, BoM, or D&C texts. I agree with many of the comments already that it would be nice to take a different approach and not seek to liken, but to contextualize. But having done so myself, I have to say it throws up lots more questions about the nature of revelation, priesthood authority, God’s “plan”, etc. than it provides answers, especially if you try to see an LDS worldview and ethos in OT writings (hint: it ain’t there!). And understanding the OT’s literary provenance further clouds the waters, especially as the astute student begins to see flaws in JS’s reading of the OT based on early 19th-century protestant assumptions of its historicity. I completely understand why the church stays as far away from this kind of study in any of its instruction fora (GD, seminary, institute, etc.), and why they discourage “bible study” groups meeting in individuals’ homes. But I think this decision ultimately does a disservice to members of the church. To me, continuing to teach “doctrine” the way the church does by favoring a “warm feelings” approach, it must increasingly ignore myriad rich sources of scholarship in ancient religious and cultural studies that can provide more nuanced perspectives of what the text is, what it says, and how it should and should not be read in our times.

  11. If you are interested in a deep study of the Old Testament follow this link: http://www.joncourson.com/teaching/teachings.asp

    I bought the MP3 CDs and listen to them every time I am driving. The “types” and “pictures” of the stories in the Old Testament ultimately point to Christ. The entire old testament points to Christ and when you realize its about him your entire perspective changes.

    I love all of Jon Courson’s teachings on the Old Testament, but I particularly love the six teachings on the Song of Soloman. The Song of Soloman is often discounted, ignored, or even discouraged to be studied. However, this book was a favorite of CH Spurgeon.

    C. H. SPURGEON (the great 19th cent. preacher) on the Song of Solomon:
    ” The true believer who has lived near to his Master will find this book to be a mass, not of gold merely, for all God’s Word is this, but a mass of diamonds sparkling with brightness; and all things thou canst conceive are not to be compared with it for its matchless worth.

    If I must prefer one book above another, I would prefer some books of the Bible for doctrine, some for experience, some for example, some for teaching, BUT LET ME PREFER THIS BOOK ABOVE ALL OTHERS FOR FELLOWSHIP AND COMMUNION (my emphasis). When the Christian is nearest to heaven, this is the book he takes with him.”

  12. The biggest problem with Christian and LDS study of the Old Testament is the “spin” they put on it. In other words, the study is bias toward their own views. There are some interesting studies and papers that have been done on that subject which I will save for a later time.

    Not to mention the issues with translation and revisions.

  13. Jeff… I agree that the original Hebrew text must be considered when studying the Old Testament. For instance… Did you know that Joseph’s coat of many colors is better translated as the “coat of many pieces”? In Old Testament times the laborers wore vests, while those in authority wore coats of many “pieces” including the sleeves. So Joseph had a higher authority than his brothers, making them jealous and envious of him, ultimately causing them to fake his death, and sell him into slavery. A coat of many “colors” makes no sense in this story…

  14. I teach the Gospel Essentials class; for the last year, I’ve had two convert couples in there and have been teaching from ‘Preach My Gospel’ — basically, I’ve been teaching the missionary discussions (which double as the new member lessons), usually covering just one point per class. Most classes, I start with an Old Testament scripture if I can, just because I love tying the Old Testament into all the foundational principles of the Gospel.

    I did get to teach OT in Gospel Doctrine the first time ever two years ago, and I had a blast. I think the class enjoyed it, too. ..bruce..

  15. I think we need to stop using the term study. In no way do we study the OT or any other text for that matter in the church setting. We engage in proof texting to make points about our own doctrine.

    I very much agree with the idea that we put a lot of spin on the OT. We Mormons in particular, are very selective about what we value in the OT. We just about totally do away with the ethical teaching of the Hebrew tradition while latching onto the idea of keeping ourselves in the tradition of “chosen” people.

  16. I am looking forward to it but that might be because I have spent the last year working through it. I am not far, I get side-tracked easily. But I agree with Douglas that with a book as complex and culturally distant as the OT (and the NT for that matter), SS is not the place to study, but then again I am not sure I have a big problem with that. I don’t expect SS to teach me things.

    I have made attempts over the last year as well to learn biblical hebrew, but buying a bible is expensive and it has held me back. But it is worth trying. I think I treat myself this Christmas.

  17. #17- I don’t really expect SS to teach me things but it would be wonderful if SS was a place where we could learn new things! I would welcome that.

    I would also welcome a real engagement with the text of the OT and with the Hebrew tradition. I will probably spend the next year in SS trying to add historical context and offering additional ways of reading the few OT passages that are actually used in SS.

  18. “I will probably spend the next year in SS trying to add historical context and offering additional ways of reading the few OT passages that are actually used in SS.”

    That is pretty much what I am going to do. I really want to get a ways from the proof texting as you pointed out, but then again, we might stray so far from the lesson, I might get in trouble….. 🙂

  19. Thanks for your post, but a small correction. You said Jews call the Old Testament “The Holy Scriptures or TaNaKn.” It should of course be Tanakh (not Tanakn), which is an acronym standing for Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim, or the Law, Prophets and Writings. This describes the three main divisions of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, a division which was already present in New Testament times.

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