1.the collection of books comprising the sacred scripture of the Hebrews and recording their history as the chosen people; the first half of the Christian Bible
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Old Testament (n.)
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The Old Testament is a Christian term for the religious writings of ancient Israel held sacred by both Judaism and Christianity. The number of these writings varies markedly between denominations, Protestants accepting only the Hebrew Bible's canon but dividing it into 39 books, while Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian churches recognise a considerably larger collection.
The books can be broadly divided into the Pentateuch, which tells how God selected Israel to be his chosen people, the history books telling the history of the Israelites from their Conquest of Canaan to their defeat and exile in Babylon, the poetic and "wisdom" books dealing, in various forms, with questions of good and evil in the world, and the books of the biblical prophets, warning of the consequences of turning away from God. For the Israelites who were its original authors and readers these books told of their own unique relationship with God and their relationship with Proselytes, but the over-arching Messianic nature of Christianity has led Christians from the very beginning of the faith to see the Old Testament as a preparation for the New Covenant and New Testament.
The Old Testament contains 39 (Protestant) or 46 (Catholic) or more (Orthodox and other) books, divided, very broadly, into the Pentateuch (meaning "five books"), the historical books, the "wisdom" books and the prophets. The difference of seven books between the Catholic and Protestant canons stems from the fact that the early Christians used a Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, called the the Septuagint. The Protestant churches later dropped those books which were not accepted by the Jews. The following table shows the arrangement of the holy books in the Jewish Bible and the Old Testament (Jewish bibles count 24 books, as shown here, but Christian bibles divide Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and the Minor Prophets, bringing the total to 39; books additional to the Hebrew Bible in italics):
|Hebrew Bible||Greek Bible||Notes|
Minor Prophets (single book)
Esther (with additions)
|The Prophets collection in the Hebrew Bible get its name because the books were attributed to prophets, not because they all contain prophecy. Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, have been moved from the Writings collection in the Hebrew Bible to the History collection in the Old Testament, as the organising principle is subject matter rather than authorship.
"Minor prophets" means short, not unimportant.
Song of Songs
Song of Songs
Wisdom of Solomon
|Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew canon, showing Israel restored to Jerusalem and history at an end; in the Old Testament it is part of the ongoing history which will end in the New Testament.|
|Minor prophets (12 books)
Letter of Jeremiah
Daniel (with additions)
|The order of the prophets has been reversed in modern Old Testaments so the last words are those of the minor prophet Malachi, predicting the return of the prophet Elijah and "the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD" (Malachi 4:5).|
God is consistently depicted as the one who created the world and guides its history. He is not, however, consistently presented as the only god who exists - monotheism apparently only developed around the time of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC. Nevertheless, he is always depicted as the only God whom Israel is to worship, and both Jews and Christians have always interpreted the bible as an affirmation of the oneness of God.
The Old Testament also stresses the special relationship between God and his chosen people, Israel. This relationship is expressed in the biblical covenant (contract) between the two, mediated by Moses. The law codes in books such as Exodus and especially Deuteronomy are the terms of the contract: Israel swears faithfulness to Yahweh, and God swears to be Israel's special protector and supporter.
Further themes in the Old Testament include salvation, redemption, judgement, obedience and disobedience, faith and faithfulness, among others. Throughout there is a strong emphasis on ethics and ritual purity, both of which God demands, although some of the prophets and wisdom writers seem to question this, arguing that God demands social justice above purity, and perhaps does not even care about purity at all. The Old Testament's moral code enjoins fairness, intervention on behalf of the vulnerable, and the duty of those in power to administer justice righteously. It forbids murder, bribery and corruption, deceitful trading, and many sexual misdemeanors. All morality is traced back to God, who is the source of all goodness.
The question of evil plays a large part in the Old Testament. The problem the Old Testament authors faced was that a good God must have had just reason for bringing disaster (meaning notably, but not only, the Babylonian exile) upon his people. The theme is played out, with many variations, in books as different as the histories of Kings and Chronicles, the prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and in the wisdom books like Job and Ecclesiates.
The first five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy - make up the Torah, the story of Israel from the Creation to the death of Moses. Few scholars today doubt that it reached its present form in the Persian period (538-332 BC), and that its authors were the elite of exilic returnees who controlled the Temple at that time. The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings follow, forming a history of Israel from the conquest of Canaan to the fall of Jerusalem: there is a broad consensus among scholars that these originated as a single work (the so-called "Deuteronomistic history") during the 6th century Babylonian exile. The two Books of Chronicles cover much the same material as the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic history and probably date from the 4th century BC. Chronicles links with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were probably finished during the 3rd century BC. Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments contain two (Catholic Old Testament) to four (Orthodox) books of Maccabees, written in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.
The history books make up around half the total content of the Old Testament. Of the remainder, the books of the various prophets - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and the twelve "minor prophets" - were written between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, with the exception of Jonah and Daniel which are much later, and the "wisdom" and other books - Job, Proverbs and similar books - date from the 5th century BC to the 2nd or 1st, with the exception of some of the psalms.
The process by which scriptures became canons and Bibles was a long one, and its complexities account for the many different Old Testaments which exist today. By about the 5th century BC Jews saw the five books of the Torah (the Old Testament Pentateuch) as having authoritative status; by the 2nd century BC the Prophets had a similar status, although without quite the same level of respect as the Torah; beyond that, the Jewish scriptures were fluid, with different groups seeing authority in different books.
The scriptures were translated into Greek between about 280-130 BC. At this stage (i.e., around the time of Christ) there was no collection of these scriptures - the various texts were read as separate scrolls. It was only in the early centuries of the Christian era that the scriptures began to be bound together into books and that Bibles as we know them today came to be invented. The Greek translations, called the Septuagint, contained several books (using that term loosely) not found in the modern Hebrew Bible (1-2 Esdras, Judith, Tobit, 1-4 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, and numerous additions to other books), based loosely on chronology and "literary typology" (i.e. subject matter). It continues in use to this day as the Old Testament of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In 331, Constantine I commissioned Eusebius to deliver fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople. Athanasius recorded Alexandrian scribes around 340 preparing Bibles for Constans. Little else is known, though there is plenty of speculation. For example, it is speculated that this may have provided motivation for canon lists, and that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are examples of these Bibles. Together with the Peshitta and Codex Alexandrinus, these are the earliest extant Christian Bibles. There is no evidence among the canons of the First Council of Nicaea of any determination on the canon, however, Jerome (347-420), in his Prologue to Judith, makes the claim that the Book of Judith was "found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures".
In Western Christianity or Christianity in the Western half of the Roman Empire, Latin had displaced Greek as the common language of the early Christians, and about 400 AD Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome, the leading scholar of the day, to produce an updated Latin bible to replace the Vetus Latina. Sometime in the centuries after the Septuagint (exactly when is disputed) the Rabbis (Jewish religious scholars and teachers) defined the Jewish canon, which is a much shorter canon of only 24 books, and Jerome used it (commonly called the Hebrew Bible) instead of the Greek Old Testament as the basis for his translation, citing "Hebraica Veritas" (Latin: Truth of the Hebrew). His Vulgate (i.e. common language) Old Testament became the standard bible used in the Western Church, specifically as the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate, while the Churches in the East continued, and still continue, to use the Septuagint.
Jerome had wanted to drop all the books that did not appear in the Hebrew Bible, but St Augustine, a bishop and another great scholar of the day, opposed him and won the argument, notably at the Council of Carthage on 28 August 397. In the 16th century the Protestant reformers reopened the debate, and sided with Jerome, but only for their own congregations: yet although Protestant Bibles now have only those books that appear in the Jewish Bible, they have them in the order of the Greek Bible. The Catholic Church, largely in reaction to this attack on tradition, officially adopted a canon, the Canon of Trent, which can be seen as following Augustine's Carthaginian Councils or the Council of Rome, and includes most, but not all, of the Septuagint (3 Ezra and 3 and 4 Maccabees are excluded); the Anglicans after the English Civil War adopted a compromise position, restoring the 39 Articles and keeping the extra books that were excluded by the Westminster Confession of Faith, but only for private study and for reading in churches, while Lutherans kept them for private study, gathered in an appendix as Biblical Apocrypha.
While the Hebrew, Greek and Latin versions of the Hebrew Bible are the best known Old Testaments, there were others. At much the same time as the Septuagint was being produced, translations were being made into Aramaic, the language of Jews living in Palestine and the Near East and likely the language of Jesus: these are called the Aramaic Targums, from a word meaning "translation", and were used to help Jewish congregations understand their scriptures. For Aramaic Christians there was a Syriac translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Peshitta, as well as versions in Coptic (the everyday language of Egypt in the first Christian centuries, descended from ancient Egyptian), Ethiopic (for use in the Ethiopian church, one of the oldest Christian churches), Armenian (Armenia, a former kingdom, now part of modern northeast Turkey, was the first to adopt Christianity as its official religion), and Arabic.
Christianity is based on the claim that the historical Jesus was also the supernatural Christ, the Saviour. This claim is in turn based on Jewish understandings of the meaning of the Hebrew term Messiah, which, like the Greek "Christ", means "anointed". In the Hebrew Scriptures it describes a king anointed with oil on his accession to the throne: he becomes "The LORD's anointed" or Yahweh's Anointed. By the time of Jesus, some Jews expected that a flesh and blood descendant of David (the "Son of David") would come to establish a real Jewish kingdom in Jerusalem, instead of the Roman province; others stressed the Son of Man, a distinctly other-worldly figure who would appear as a judge at the end of time; and some harmonised the two by expecting a this-worldly messianic kingdom which would last for a set period and be followed by the other-worldly age or World to Come. Some thought the Messiah was already present, but unrecognised due to Israel's sins; some thought that the Messiah would be announced by a fore-runner, probably Elijah (as promised by the prophet Malachi, whose book now ends the Old Testament and precedes Mark's account of John the Baptist). None predicted a Messiah who suffers and dies for the sins of all the people. The story of Jesus' death therefore involved a profound shift in meaning from the tradition of the Old Testament.
The name "Old Testament" reflects Christianity's understanding of itself as the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophesy of a New Covenant (which is similar to "testament" and often conflated) to replace the existing covenant between God and Israel (Jeremiah 31:31). The emphasis, however, has shifted from Judaism's understanding of the covenant as an eternal contract between God and Israel to one between God and those who are "in Christ".
In Hebrew, God has a name, namely YHWH. As Hebrew was originally written without vowels it is generally pronounced in English as Yahweh. The Hellenised Jews who produced the Septuagint translated this as kyrios, meaning "Lord". This produced a crucial change of meaning: Yahweh, the national god of the Israelites, became the universal Lord.
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