The Hebrew Bible: Guide to the Jewish Tanakh

Marko Marina Author Bart Ehrman

Written by Marko Marina, Ph.D.

Author |  Historian

Author |  Historian |  BE Contributor

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Date written: February 18th, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

The Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, represents a foundational pillar in the study of ancient texts, intertwining religious tradition with historical and cultural development across centuries.

This corpus of writings, central to Jewish heritage, is not merely a religious document but a complex historical artifact that offers scholars a rich vein of inquiry into the ancient Near Eastern world. It encapsulates a broad spectrum of narratives, laws, and prophecies, each layer contributing to our understanding of the societal, legal, and literary landscapes of its time.

As a historian, my engagement with the Hebrew Bible seeks to transcend theological analysis, focusing instead on its significance as a historical document. This article aims to explore the content, structure, and historical impact of the Tanakh, shedding light on similarities and differences between the Jewish holy book and the Christian Old Testament. 

By examining the Tanakh through the dual perspectives of textual criticism and comparative analysis, we endeavor to appreciate its multifaceted contributions to the development of religious thought, communal identity, and ethical frameworks across millennia.

Hebrew Bible - Guide to the Jewish Tanakh

What is the Hebrew Bible? Revealing Historical Context

The Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh), a foundational text of Jewish religious heritage, encompasses a wide array of narratives, laws, and teachings that have shaped Jewish culture and spirituality. It’s an amalgamation of diverse literary forms, ranging from historical recountings and legal statutes to poetic verses and prophetic declarations. 

Crafted over centuries, the Jewish Bible reflects the historical experiences and societal norms of the ancient Israelites. 

Its compilation, believed to have occurred from the 8th to the 2nd century B.C.E., marks significant epochs in Jewish history—from the formation of the Israelite identity to the Babylonian exile and the return to Zion. 

Furthermore, as a document, the Hebrew Bible transcends its religious origins, serving as a critical resource for historians and scholars in understanding the ancient Near East.

Its narratives are deeply embedded within the cultural and mythological contexts of its time, drawing from and contributing to the rich tapestry of Near Eastern traditions. A prime example of this intertextuality is evident in the biblical flood narratives found in Genesis

As Mark Hamilton articulates: "A good example of Genesis’s creativity in using older material appears in the flood stories in chs 6–8. Similar stories have survived from ancient Mesopotamia (though not everywhere, as is often asserted—they were not universal). One version, the 'Epic of Atrahasis,' was definitively organized in the middle of the second-millennium B.C.E in Babylon but drew on older sources."

In the subsequent discussion, we’ll delve into the Tanakh, exploring the structure and significance of this sacred compilation in greater detail. 

Understanding Tanakh: The Content of the Hebrew Bible

The Tanakh, a term derived from the initial letters of its three main divisions - Torah (Teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings)—serves as the Hebrew Bible's canonical collection.

The Torah, often referred to as the Law or the Five Books of Moses, forms the foundation of the Tanakh. In other words, the Torah is an essential part of the Tanakh. It encompasses Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, chronicling the origins of the universe, the story of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the wanderings in the desert. 

Following the Torah, the Nevi'im or Prophets section includes both the Former Prophets, which contain historical narratives (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), and the Latter Prophets, which feature the oracular and often poetic messages of prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, along with the twelve minor prophets. 

The Ketuvim, or Writings, is the most diverse section, comprising poetry, wisdom literature, and additional historical texts. Books such as Psalms, Proverbs, and Job offer insights into personal devotion, ethical conduct, and theodicy, while books like Daniel and Esther address themes of perseverance and identity under foreign rule. 

The Ketuvim, with its eclectic content, reflects the broad spectrum of Jewish life, wisdom, and spirituality, offering a deeper exploration into the complexities of human experience and divine interaction.

Moreover, the compilation and preservation of the Tanakh's texts are deeply indebted to the ancient Near Eastern scribal culture. Scribes played a critical role not merely as transcribers but as custodians of knowledge, interpreters, and even creators of religious and historical narratives. This specialized class was essential in shaping the Jewish holy book. 

They operated within a framework that required both meticulous skill in writing and a profound understanding of the texts they were entrusted with. As Karel van der Toorn insightfully notes in Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, “being a product of the scribal workshop, the Jewish Bible owes its existence to the generation of scribes, each new one continuing the work of previous ones. 

This continuity and evolution of scribal tradition underscore the dynamic nature of the development of the Hebrew Bible, where each generation of scribes contributed to the textual legacy by preserving, interpreting, and occasionally expanding upon the works handed down to them.

Curious about how these practices of text transmission extend into the New Testament era? Explore "The Scribal Corruption of Scripture: How The Bible Was Changed And How Readers May Never Know" - an enlightening online course by Dr. Bart D. Ehrman!

The Canon of the Hebrew Bible: Understanding the Composition

The concept of a "canon" plays a pivotal role in understanding the composition and authority of different religious texts, including the Hebrew Bible. 

Bart D. Ehrman elucidates the term's origin and significance: "The English term canon comes from a Greek word that originally meant ‘ruler’ or ‘measuring rod.’ A canon was used to make straight lines or to measure distances… Concerning the Bible, the term canon denotes the collection of books that are accepted as authoritative by a religious body."

The formation of the Hebrew Bible's canon was a complex process, influenced by historical, theological, and societal factors, culminating in a collection of texts that not only guide religious practice and belief but also serve as a foundational document for cultural and ethical identity.

Let’s take a closer look at the list of books within the Jewish Bible. Don’t worry! We’ll soon compare and contrast it with the Christian Old Testament. 


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How Many Books Are in the Hebrew Bible?

For those seeking deeper insights into the individual narratives, laws, prophecies, and wisdom contained within the Hebrew Bible, our separate article offers short summaries of each book, providing context, themes, and historical background.

Here, however, we present a concise listing of the Hebrew Bible's books, organized according to their traditional (Jewish) divisions, to serve as a quick reference guide for readers. The division is based on three separate parts of Tanakh. 

Torah (The Law)

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy

Nevi'im (The Prophets)

  1. Joshua
  2. Judges
  3. Samuel (I & II Samuel)
  4. Kings (I & II Kings)
  5. Isaiah
  6. Jeremiah
  7. Ezekiel
  8. The Twelve Minor Prophets:
  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zechariah
  • Malachi

Ketuvim (The Writings)

  1. Psalms
  2. Proverbs
  3. Job
  4. Song of Songs
  5. Ruth
  6. Lamentations
  7. Ecclesiastes
  8. Esther
  9. Daniel
  10. Ezra-Nehemiah (often treated as separate books: Ezra and Nehemiah)
  11. Chronicles (I & II Chronicles)

Having presented the structure and the books of the Hebrew Bible, we now turn our attention to a comparative analysis, shedding light on the similarities and distinctions between the Jewish Bible or Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament.

Hebrew Bible vs. Old Testament: Understanding the Differences

In the nascent stages of Christianity, its early adherents, emerging from within the Jewish community, regarded the Scriptures of Israel as central to their burgeoning faith. The New Testament itself reflects this continuity, frequently referencing the Jewish scriptures as “the Law and the Prophets,” or more broadly as “the Scriptures” or “the Holy Scriptures,” acknowledging the foundational role these texts played. 

However, as Bill T. Arnold explains, when Christianity started to expand beyond its Jewish origins, questions concerning the relationship between Christians and the Old Testament began to surface.

This period of transition marked the beginning of a theological, social, and liturgical delineation, as Christianity sought to define its distinct identity while still affirming the intrinsic value of the Hebrew Bible. This led to the gradual adoption of a two-part Bible structure, with the Scriptures of Israel forming the first and larger part, subsequently known as the Old Testament within the Christian canon.

Did You Know?

During the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, there is a custom to conclude and immediately restart the annual cycle of Torah reading. This celebration marks the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis, emphasizing the continuous and never-ending study of the Torah in Jewish life. What makes this day especially joyful and unique is the practice of parading the Torah scrolls around the synagogue in a series of circuits called Hakafot, with congregants dancing and singing with the scrolls.

Despite their shared origins, there emerged significant differences in how these texts were organized, interpreted, and integrated into the respective religious frameworks of Judaism and Christianity. 

As we saw earlier, the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, is traditionally divided into three sections: the Torah, Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), a structure that is foundational to Jewish religious life.

In contrast, the Christian Old Testament categorizes these texts into the Pentateuch, Historical Books, Wisdom Books, and Prophets, reflecting a different theological orientation and interpretive tradition. This arrangement reflects the Christian theological perspective and the historical narrative as interpreted within Christianity.

One major difference lies in the canon and the order of books. The Christian Old Testament often follows the Septuagint - an ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Bible. Additionally, in some traditions (e.g. Catholic) the Christian Old Testament includes additional texts not found in the Hebrew Bible, known as the Deuterocanonical books.

Moreover, the textual tradition of some books can vary. For example, the Book of Jeremiah is about one-eighth shorter in the Septuagint (Greek translation) than in the Masoretic Text (Hebrew text), which the Hebrew Bible follows. This difference indicates variations in textual transmission and the existence of different textual traditions early in the history of these scriptures.

Jewish Bible

Hebrew Bible: Original Language and Translations

Christianity and Judaism distinctly differ from Islam not only in their perspective on Jesus but also in their general approach to sacred texts. In Islam, the Quran is revered as the verbatim revelation delivered in Arabic by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, establishing the Arabic text as the unequivocal word of Allah and attributing to it an intrinsic sanctity unique to its original language.

Conversely, the biblical narratives within Judaism and Christianity are acknowledged as emanations from historical figures under divine inspiration, situated within real historical contexts. 

Moreover, unlike the Islamic stance, which holds the Arabic Quran as the sole authentic scripture, Jewish and Christian traditions embrace translations as legitimate conveyances of the divine message, regardless of the original language.

In essence, these traditions have canonized the compositions themselves rather than the languages in which they were first written. That naturally leads us to consider the profound question of the original language of the Hebrew Bible - a topic rich with historical depth and cultural significance.

The Hebrew Bible was predominantly written in Hebrew - a Semitic language that has been central to Jewish culture and religion for millennia. Hebrew serves not only as the vehicle for the vast majority of the biblical texts but also as a deep reservoir of religious, cultural, and national identity for the Jewish people. 

However, it's intriguing to note that while Hebrew dominates the linguistic landscape of these ancient texts, Aramaic also plays an important role. This latter language, closely related to Hebrew and extensively used across the Near East, not only appears in parts of the Hebrew Bible but was also the spoken language of Jesus, adding another layer of historical and religious context to our understanding.

Notable sections written in Aramaic include portions of the books of Daniel and Ezra, reflecting the historical and geopolitical contexts of their composition. Considering that Jews embraced the translations of their Scripture, Hebrew Bible translations were inevitable. 

The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, represents a landmark in the history of biblical texts. Created between the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.E., the Septuagint was the result of the Jewish diaspora's need, particularly in Hellenistic Egypt, for scriptures in Greek, the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean at the time.

This translation is of immense significance for several reasons.

a) It demonstrates the early spread of Jewish scriptures beyond their original linguistic and cultural boundaries, making them accessible to a broader audience.

Natalio Marcos describes the emergence of the Septuagint as an “unprecedented event” made possible by the convergence of several determinative processes. But perhaps the most important was the Jewish thought itself. Marcos notes that the “Torah was originally considered to be a guide for the whole of humankind.” Consequently, it had to be translated into other languages. 

b) Septuagint played a crucial role in the development of Christian Scripture, as it was widely used by early Christians, who often quoted from it in the New Testament.

The latter reason led to variances between some Old Testament quotations found in the New Testament and their counterparts in the Masoretic Text, the authoritative Hebrew text compiled later. 

The creation and adoption of the Septuagint underscore the dynamic nature of sacred texts, adapting to the linguistic and cultural needs of their readers while preserving their divine message.

In this light, the Hebrew Bible's journey from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek illustrates the profound interplay between language, translation, and religious tradition. It highlights how the Jewish holy book transcended its original linguistic confines to reach and influence a diverse global audience, shaping the religious landscape of both Judaism and Christianity.

Hebrew Bible: Summing up Conclusions

In our exploration of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, we traversed a landscape rich in historical nuance and cultural depth. This journey has not only allowed us to examine the foundational text of Jewish religious heritage but also to understand its pivotal role in the tapestry of human history.

The Hebrew Bible, with its diverse compilation of narratives, laws, and prophecies, serves as a crucial window into the ancient Near Eastern world, offering scholars invaluable insights into the societal norms, legal systems, and literary traditions of the time.

Furthermore, we sought to uncover the similarities and differences between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament thus providing another interesting layer to our understanding of the Jewish holy book. This analysis has highlighted the Hebrew Bible's influence on the development of religious thought, ethical frameworks, and communal identity across centuries.

As we conclude this examination, it’s clear that the Tanakh stands as a testament to the complex interplay of history, culture, and text. It remains an indispensable resource for historians, offering a rich field for study and reflection on the forces that have shaped human civilization.

For those intrigued by the scholarly exploration of the Hebrew Bible and wishing to delve deeper into its first book, consider enriching your understanding through Dr. Bart D. Ehrman's course, "In the Beginning: History, Legend, or Myth in Genesis?" This series of six online lectures offers a critical analysis of the Book of Genesis, providing valuable perspectives on its historical context and literary significance.

Marko Marina

About the author

Marko Marina is a historian with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Zagreb (Croatia). He is the author of dozens of articles about early Christianity's history. He works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zagreb where he teaches courses on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and spending quality time with his family and friends.

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