The Place of the Old Testament in Jewish Life

This vast body of sacred literature assumed a renewed importance after the return from exile, when many scholars believe the books were edited and collected. It was then that Israel became truly the People of the Book and began to pore over their collected sacred literature with fervent interest and hope. These writings became not just a disparate group of scrolls from their long history, but a sacred category, “the Holy Scriptures.” During the time of Christ, the main religious function of the synagogue was to read, pore over, and interpret this literature, now collectively referred to as the Torah, since it was believed to be imbued with the same authority as found in the original revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Israel recognized this literature as not simply human literature and the works of men, but as the work of the Spirit of God, who lived among the people of Israel and inspired their prophets. Pious Jews therefore read and meditated on this Law, committing it to memory, and letting it fill the heart. Faithfulness to the Law was the key to a life of piety pleasing to God, who gave the Law to Israel. A true Jew not only visited the Temple and offered sacrifice there; he also mediated day and night upon the Law of God. This Law became all the more important as Israel was dispersed throughout the Roman world: a Jew living far from the Holy Land might not often visit the Temple, but he could always meditate and pore over the Law in the synagogue, however far from the Holy Land he might live. The Scriptures remained at the heart of his faith and life.