Origins of the Hebrew Bible: the Bible Origins & History

The Hebrew Bible is the more academic term referring to the general collection of books which both Jews and Christians hold in common as sacred or inspired by God.[1] In this episode, we will look at how this text emerged and came to be used and transmitted in the Jewish world. Jews call these writings simply the Bible or TNK whereas Christians usually call it the Old Testament to distinguish it from the New Testament. The latter refers to the Christian writings not accepted by Jews such as the four gospels, the book of Acts, the apostles’ letters, and the book of Revelation.[2]

The Hebrew name these books are collectively known by in Jewish circles is the acronym “TNK [Pronounced Tanakh].”[3]

The letter T corresponds to Torath Moshe or simply Torah which are also known as the five books of Moses. When these were translated to Greek, they came to be known as the Pentateuch which means the five books. These books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.[4] Though traditional Jewish and Christian circles attribute the first five books of the Hebrew Bible to Moses, modern scholarship has vehemently challenged this position. 

The letter N corresponds to the Naviem or prophets. These books are divided into three major sections: the earlier prophets namely Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1 and 2), and Kings (1 and 2); the latter prophets are namely Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel together with the twelve other prophets often combined and dubbed as “The Twelve.”[5]

The letter K corresponds to the Ketuvim or writings. This section includes the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Five Scrolls, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles (1 and 2). The Five scrolls are a collection of books within the writings of the TNK that includes the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther.[6]

Rabbinic authorities discussed the authority of the different books between 70 and 100 CE. Although they did not produce a formal list, it is around this time that we find references to a fixed number of authoritative books. These references are often associated with the Council of Jamnia after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This council is better thought of as a series of rabbinical meetings debating the authority of books that will eventually make up the canon rather than a council similar to the ecumenical councils where bishops met and ended the meeting with authoritative documents and directives.[7] This list or canon differs from the Christian list of “Old Testament books” in order and number as Christians added other books. In a way, the different arrangements give a different flavour to the narrative of God interacting with His people, Israel. 

It is worth mentioning that the 39 books that came to be codified as the Jewish Bible were almost written entirely in Hebrew except for a few parts in Aramaic such as in Daniel and a portion of the book of Ezra. 

After the invention of the printing press, the image that comes to mind when one thinks of the Bible is a large book containing the various books of Scripture. However, the ancients thought of the Bible as scrolls of Scripture or more specifically the scrolls of the Torah or the scrolls of Naveim, etc. Scrolls were found in the temple and in synagogues for liturgical use in prayer services. Parts of the Hebrew Bible were and still used in daily prayers both in the synagogue and privately; the most famous of such prayers is the Shema Prayer “Listen O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4) which an observant Jew is required to recite three times a day. And though the entire TNK is important to Jewish faith and life, the Torah takes a special role as it is entirely read on an annual basis and is to be studied by every devout male Jew. 

There are three major versions of the Hebrew Bible: First, the Masoretic text or MT, the Septuagint or LXX, and the Targums. The Masoretic texts are based on ancient Jewish manuscripts, most of which come from the tenth and eleventh century CE. The Masoretic text is the most widely used text in today’s Jewish world.[8] The second text is the Septuagint which was far more widespread in the ancient Greek-speaking world. It is a translation of the Hebrew Bible to Greek that was commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Egypt in the first half of the third century CE.[9] Finally, Targums, a translation that paraphrased the Hebrew Bible, spread after the Babylonian exile gave rise to many Jews who did not know Hebrew.[10] Although the most famous Targum is the Aramaic one, any paraphrastic translation of the Hebrew Bible to the congregation’s common tongue may be referred to as Targum.   

[1] Richard Soulen, Handbook Of Biblical Criticism, Fourth Edition, 1st edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 81–82.

[2] Soulen, 139.

[3] Soulen, 207.

[4] Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 2155.

[5] Berlin and Brettler, 2155.

[6] Berlin and Brettler, 2155.

[7] John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 3–6.

[8] Collins, 7.

[9] Collins, 6.

[10] Collins, 639.