Here’s a simple graphical representation of the books of the Old Testament, tied to Hebrew history.
I recently came across Tim Challies’ Visual Theology series, and his Periodic Table of the Bible. The notes about that table state that he and graphic artist Josh Byers decided not to include chronology or the relative size of the books in their depiction. That was intriguing because for some unknown reason I always thought it would be nice to have a chart indicating the size of the books of the Bible—suitable for taping to dashboards or refrigerators for memorization. Inspired by Challies and Byers, I started noodling around. It seemed pretty straightforward, at first, until it was time to fill in the authors and dates.
Among reliable references there is a lot of disagreement about who actually penned the books of the Bible, and when they were written. Take the debate a step further by tying the dates of writing to Hebrew history (about which there is also considerable disagreement), and we have a formidable academic can of worms to sort through.
I won’t go into the academic supporting arguments for the authors and dates of writing (that’s the stuff of seminary papers and the like), because my goal was just to develop a simple and useful graphic—not to win an argument. I did use lots of references, many of which disagree with each other. One thing that was interesting was that in graphing the dates of writing, I found internal inconsistencies among credible scholars. You cannot argue that Ezra was a possible author of 2 Chronicles and that 2 Chronicles was written before 1,004 BCE (more than 500 years before Ezra was born). It helps to have a picture.
Based upon my limited and unqualified studies, there is an authoritative, new chronological reference of the Bible that makes solid arguments for very specific dates in Hebrew history. From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology by Andrew E. Steinmann was given high marks for academic accuracy and rigor on Justin Taylor’s blog in 2011. Two graphical chronologies on the Old Testament and New Testament seem to fit very well with several credible sources I have studied. If you really want a clear picture of Hebrew history and the events described in the Bible, spend some time studying the prior two hyperlinks. (Ironically, Steinmann’s text avoids attempting to date the writing of the books of the Bible.)
OK, so what? Why bother with so much rigor about dates in the Bible?
Since the acts of God are so inextricably connected to time and history, the study of when those acts took place—biblical chronology—is inescapable for Christians. This is so because if the Bible’s historical claims about the acts of God at particular times and in particular places are false, the Christian faith is built on nothing but invented myth that vanishes like a vapor. But the Christian faith is not a collection of “cleverly devised myths” that have been given a false backdrop (1 Peter 1:16). On the contrary—the acts of God, and especially the acts of God in Christ Jesus, are historical. Moreover, they can be arranged in chronological order as a witness to the Gospel (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
Andrew E. Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology
As an aside, here are some basic facts that every student of the Bible should know:
- The Hebrew Bible (the “Tanakh“) is different from our Christian Old Testament in that the books have been cut into smaller pieces and reordered. The content is the same, but it’s in different places and grouped differently.
- The direct citations among the books are an interesting study, and support arguments for canonicity.
- Genesis is not the oldest book, Job has that distinction.
- Moses could not have written the entire Pentateuch, as Deuteronomy includes the account of his death and burial.
- The profits were prolific under the kings, and not so much before or after that period.
- There is a lot of interesting Hebrew history after 400 BCE (including the Maccabees, and Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties), but none of that history is in the Tanakh.
- There is a lot more to Hebrew history than indicated in the above graphic, but it helps to appreciate the timing of the patriarchs, Judges, Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms, Kings, the Babylonian exile, and the reconstruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple.
This little project turned out to be more work and more interesting than I anticipated. The real value was spending time finding out how the Bible is grounded in Hebrew history. As Steinmann notes, it is history, not myth, and understanding how it fits together is a witness to the Gospel.