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The Old Testament: A Survey and Chronological Reading

by Salvatore J. Ciresi

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  • Description:
    In this series of articles, Sal Ciresi aims for a greater understanding of the Old Testament by providing a chronological reading of the main historical events found in the epoch of the Old Covenant. This first article will address some key related areas in order to lay a foundation for future articles.
  • Larger Work:
    Latin Mass
  • Pages: 28 - 30
  • Publisher & Date:
    Keep the Faith, Inc., Ramsey, NJ, Winter 2005

The Bible consists of two large collections of sacred or divinely inspired books comprising the Old and New Testaments. Taken together, these books form a unified theme, namely, the history of God's love for mankind through the promise of its salvation and through the fulfillment of this promise by the mission of Jesus Christ. The Bible, therefore, may be rightly considered as one book. — Monsignor John E. Steinmueller The Sword of the Spirit.

A study of the reverend prayers within the traditional Roman Missal testifies to a dependence upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition — a providential match that has nourished the Church Militant for centuries. Focusing upon the Scripture texts within the Missal, we discover a significant portion of selections from the Old Testament. Displaying sound wisdom, the organically developed Missal has the proper balance of excerpts from the Old and New Covenant writings.

With this balance in view, this series of articles will aim to facilitate a greater understanding of the Old Testament by examining what is commonly called Sacred History (or Salvation History). Our specific goal is a chronological reading of the main historical events found in the epoch of the Old Covenant. Before the beginning this chronological study of the Sacra Pagina, our present article will address some key related areas that will lay a foundation for this series.

The Sequence of Sacred History and its Relevance for the Church Militant

Asking ten biblical scholars a single question about biblical chronology will usually yield eleven answers, with no two alike. Nonetheless, it is possible to draw up an accurate chronological order for reading the Old Testament. This kind of reading utilizes a synopsis of the most crucial events from the age of the Old Covenant. This synopsis is accompanied by the reading of the applicable biblical books of the time frame under examination. To assist our endeavor, approximate dates will be offered for each central milestone of Sacred History.

From a practical standpoint, our particular approach to Sacred History can have three immediate advantages for the orthodox Catholic. First, Sacred History will help place in proper context all of God's dealings with mankind, from Creation "in the beginning" to the present ecclesiastical milieu "in these last days." Second, the knowledge of Sacred History will deepen our appreciation for the Holy Bible, which can serve to help one's spiritual life. Third, a penetration of Sacred History will sharpen our understanding of the Old Testament texts that are read from the liturgical books, which should increase our devotion to the sacraments and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Old Testament and the Catholic Faith

Throughout ecclesiastical history, every age has borne witness to the Old Testament's utility within the depositum fidei. The New Testament, the Church Fathers, the Scholastics, and the Magisterium can justify our study of the earliest portions of Sacred History.

The New Testament itself leans repeatedly upon the Old. As a matter of fact, certain books of the New Testament (e.g., Galatians and Hebrews) root almost their entire theological argumentation upon Old Testament verses. It should be enough, however, to listen to the very words of the Savior:

Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For amen, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:17-19).

The phrase "Law and the Prophets," cited above from the Redeemer's "Sermon on the Mount" discourse, is a clear reference to the Old Covenant texts. Our Lord even appeals in an apologetic fashion to the Old Testament as one of the motiva credibilitatis (motives of credibility) — fulfilled prophecy as a validation to His claims of Deity (cf. Lk. 24:13-47). In addition, the Gospels reveal many other phrases that hearken back to the Old Covenant books within Sacred History: "Law" (Lk. 5:17), "Law of Moses" (Lk. 2:22), "Writings" (Jn. 5:47), and "Scriptures" (Jn. 5:39).

The most prolific writer in the New Testament, St. Paul, is in complete accord with the example given by the Son of God. The "Apostle to the Gentiles" shows us the practical use of the Old Testament: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4). Throughout the New Covenant era, St. Paul makes frequent mention of Sacred History before the Incarnation, with terms such as "Law" (1 Tim. 1:8), "Law and the Prophets" (Rom. 3:21), "Law of Moses" (Acts 13:39), "Writings" (2 Tim. 3:15), and "Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3). We see that while spreading the Gospel, both Our Lord and St. Paul appeal to events in Sacred History; Catholics today should do likewise.

Continuing the pattern we have just seen in the New Testament, the Church Fathers followed suit and frequently utilize the Old Testament. We shall bring forward two Church Fathers, St. Irenaeus and St. Augustine, who both reflect the Patristic attitude toward the sacred treatises from the Old Covenant. St. Irenaeus (d. 200), considered by some to be the most important theologian of the second century, writes: "The Law is a pedagogy and a prophecy of things to come" (Against Heresies 4.15). The "Doctor of Grace," St. Augustine (d. 430), who many consider the finest intellect within the interval of Patrology, states: "The New is hidden in the Old, and the Old is made manifest in the New" (Questions on the Heptateuch 2.73).

Following the New Testament and the Church Fathers, the great period of Scholasticism pays tribute to the role of the Old Testament in Catholic theology. St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), the greatest theologian in ecclesiastical history, comments upon the usefulness of the writings of the Old Covenant when he exegetes St. Paul: "First, he shows that the Law is not contrary to the promises of God; Secondly, that the Law is in keeping with the promises" (Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, chapter 3, lecture 8). A close rival to St. Thomas Aquinas is the brilliant theologian St. Bonaventure (d. 1274). In his analysis of the importance of all Divine Revelation, the Seraphic Doctor observes:

No passage of Scripture, then, should be regarded as valueless, rejected as false, or repudiated as evil, for its all-perfect Author, the Holy Spirit, could inspire nothing untrue, trivial, or degraded. That is why heaven and earth will pass away, but the words of Scripture will not pass away until they are fulfilled (The Breviloquium, prologue).

In union with the New Testament, the Church Fathers, and the Scholastics, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church itself often employs the Old Testament. To prove this point one need only consult The Roman Catechism (1566). This monumental works gives us a detailed exposition of the Ten Commandments (cf. Ex. 20:1-17; Dt. 5:1-21). The catechism elsewhere uses many citations from the books of the Old Covenant.

What we have seen here constitutes just a small selection of citations that justify our attempt at a chronological study of the Old Testament. A plethora of verses within the New Testament, citations from the Church Fathers, quotations from the Scholastics, and pronouncements of the Magisterium manifest the same devotion to the inspired writings when "God spoke of old" (Heb. 1:1). To express it plainly: Tradition validates reading and appreciating Sacred History.

(Nota bene: In light of the praises we have poured upon the Old Testament, it is taken for granted that Catholics should spend more time in study and meditation upon the New Testament, with a special attention to the Gospels. The Old Covenant books serve as a door to lead individuals to the Savior and His Catholic Church. The fact still remains: the Old Covenant revelation alone does not save anyone.)

The Divisions of Sacred History

During the actual time period in which Divine Revelation was given prior to Christ's first advent, the Old Testament was usually (but not always) divided by the Jewish people into three main groups of sacred literature: the Law (Hebrew: Torah), the Prophets (Hebrew: Nebiim), and the Writings (Hebrew: Ketubim).

The Law included the Pentateuch, which consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets entailed the "latter prophets" (i.e., Isaiah through Malachi) and the books termed "former prophets" (i.e., Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings). The Writings were the remaining inspired tomes (i.e., Psalms through 2 Chronicles).

Today, Catholics employ a more logical division for the books of the Old Testament. A common threefold pattern is History, Wisdom, and Prophets. Since these three categories will provide the divine material for our study of Sacred History, it is helpful to list the texts for the sake of clarity.

The Historical books include the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, and 1-2 Maccabees. The Douay-Rheims Bible maintains different names for certain books: 1-4 Kings (vice 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings), 1-2 Paralipomenon (vice 1-2 Chronicles), and 1-2 Esdras (vice Ezra and Nehemiah). Slight spelling variations are found in the Douay: Josue, Tobias, and Machabees.

The Wisdom literature includes Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Wisdom, and Sirach. The Douay has some different names: Canticle of Canticles (vice Song of Solomon) and Ecclesiasticus (vice Sirach).

The Prophetic corpus consists of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The Douay retains the same names but with minor spelling differences: Isaias, Jeremias, Ezechiel, Osse, Abdias, Jonas, Michaes, Habacuc, Sophonias, Aggeus, Zacharias, and Malachias.

In addition to the difference between Catholic and Jewish divisions in reference to the categories of inspired books of Sacred History, there is a discrepancy involving the actual number of books that comprise the Old Testament canon. (A detailed examination of the canon is beyond the scope of this article; a good resource is The Catholic Encyclopedia.) Some Jewish canons, and nearly all Protestant canons of the Old Testament, are missing the following inspired books: Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch. As well, some Jewish canons and nearly all Protestant canons are missing parts of books: Esther 10:4-16 and Daniel 3:24-90; 13; and 14. The other portions of Daniel and Esther are undisputed by all parties.

For the interested reader who wants to examine some of the more pertinent Magisterial events and pronouncements on the biblical canon, the following may profitably be consulted: the Decree of Pope St. Damasus I (A.D. 382), the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397), the Epistle of Exuperius of Pope St. Innocent I (A.D. 405), the Council of Florence (1441/2), the Council of Trent (1546), and the First Vatican Council (1870).

A Preview of Reading Sacred History

We have set the foundation for reading Sacred History by covering various issues related to the Old Testament. There is only one point remaining: the list of specific books of the Old Testament that offer a chronological reading of Sacred History. The books are Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 Maccabees. These inspired treatises are the basis for an orderly reading of the words and deeds found within the Old Covenant.

The books mentioned above will provide the subject matter for the next article, which will give a synopsis of the following 10 crucial events of Sacred History: the Beginning of History (Creation-2000 B.C.), the Time of the Patriarchs (2000-1675 B.C.), Israel in Egypt (1675-1275 B.C.), the Conquest of Canaan (1280-1220 B.C.), the Period of the Judges (1220-1050 B.C.), the United Kingdom (1050-930 B.C.), the Divided Kingdom (930-722 B.C.), the Exile (722-538 B.C.), the Restoration (538-430 B.C.), and the Maccabean Revolt (175-63 B.C.).

Salvatore J. Ciresi is a civilian employee with the U.S. military and part-time faculty member of Christendom College's Graduate School. He resides with his wife and children in Spotsylvania, Virginia, where he directs the St. Jerome Biblical Guild.

© Keep the Faith, Inc.


Part Two: The Old Testament: A Chronological Reading

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