The Hebrew Bible: The Sacred Books of the Jewish People

It’s the all-time best-seller, and the No. 1 book many would choose as a desert island companion. But three-quarters of the Christian 'Holy Bible' read around the globe in over 500 languages is in fact the Hebrew Bible, in its 'Old Testament' form.

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Reading from the Hebrew Bible (illustrative).
Reading from the Hebrew Bible (illustrative).Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Mike Rogoff

The Hebrew Bible is a complex and diverse collection of ancient books, written almost entirely in the Hebrew language, though a few scattered passages appear in the closely related Aramaic.

Orthodox Judaism views the Bible as the Word of God from Sinai. Modern scholars may concede the divine inspiration of many sections, but regard others as the work of very human authors and editors, sometimes reflecting a particular earthly agenda. The writing of this vast work extended over a period of centuries, and centuries more would pass until its Hebrew text was finally standardized in the sacrosanct form we know today: around 200 CE is a common scholarly view.

The Hebrew Bible comprises 24 books, arranged in a specific order within three major divisions.

The first and best-known is "Torah," loosely translated as "the law," but often referred to as the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses (from Genesis through Deuteronomy). The Torah, hand-written on scrolls of parchment, was eventually divided into fixed weekly portions, which are still read regularly – in scroll form – in synagogues of all Jewish denominations.

On the one hand, the Torah is the foundation narrative of the Jewish people. Once it gets beyond the Creation story and early human genealogy, it introduces Abraham & Co. as the first monotheists and ancestors of the nation, and continues through Hebrew slavery in Egypt to Moses, the Exodus and the dramatic giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The long desert wandering of this new, faith-based nation, now called the "Children of Israel," ends with the death of Moses, and the people poised to enter Canaan.

On the other hand, the Torah is the primary Jewish religious scripture, with Mount Sinai as the soaring moment of Divine revelation and covenant with the people. It articulates the religious precepts, rituals and moral teachings that eventually would be interpreted, expanded and even transformed into what we know today as Judaism.

The second division of the Hebrew Bible is "Nevi'im" – "Prophets." That, in turn, is divided into the “Earlier Prophets” (the historical works of Joshua, Judges, the two books of Samuel appearing as separate books but regarded as one, and the similarly organized two books of Kings), and the “Later Prophets” (the three "major" prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and 12 "minor" prophets regarded as one book). Scholars note that the term “minor” does not imply that these prophets were less important, but that the works that have come down to us in their name are very short.

The third division, "Ketuvim" – "Writings" – contains everything else: the poetical literature of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job; the five "megillot" (scrolls) of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, read publicly on specific dates on the Jewish calendar; the book of Daniel; Ezra and Nehemiah, which appear separately but are regarded as one book; and, closing the Hebrew canon, the two books of Chronicles (also regarded as one), which parallel the earlier historical narratives in Samuel and Kings.

The first line of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.Credit: © Lucidwaters |

In Hebrew, the Bible is called the “Tanakh,” an acronym of the Hebrew names of the three divisions.

Standardizing the text

Naturally enough, errors crept into the biblical text as it was transmitted from generation to generation. Comparisons between surviving ancient versions, some of them mere fragments, show both minor and more significant variations. There was a need to standardize the text; but that, in turn, also demanded agreement on the “vowelization” of what is essentially a consonantal language, so as to establish the correct pronunciation and meaning.

The problem was tackled by generations of Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes (from the Hebrew for “handing on,” as in “handing on” a tradition), who were active in Israel and Babylonia in the 7th to 10th centuries CE. Their greatest achievement, called the Masoretic Text, is the acknowledged standard biblical Hebrew text, and the basis of many Christian translations to this day. The famous 10th-century Aleppo Codex, now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, is considered the most authoritative extant version of that text. It contains the dots and dashes that represent the Hebrew vowels but are absent from Torah scrolls, as well as a range of esoteric symbols that serve simultaneously as accents, punctuation and cantillation (musical indicators as to how to chant the text).

The Christian Bible

The “Old Testament” of the Christian Bible is not identical with the Hebrew Bible. The Pentateuch was left intact, but the Jewish divisions of Prophets and Writings were rearranged. Books that appear as subdivisions in the Hebrew Bible were given their own status as separate books in Christian scripture, and the order of books was reorganized, ostensibly to follow historical threads.

The book of Ruth, for example, which relates the idyll of King David’s great-grandmother, was given a chronologically “sensible” slot between Judges and 1 Samuel. The historical books of Chronicles were “promoted” to a position immediately following 2 Kings, and were in turn followed by Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Job, four books with a distinct historical context. And the book of Lamentations, traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, was relocated right after the book that bears his name. Significantly for Christian theologians, the Old Testament in the Christian Bible now ends with the prophets, and looks forward to the Christian New Testament.

The Catholic edition of the Bible includes what is sometimes referred to as the Apocrypha, half a dozen additional books, mostly from the Hellenistic period, which didn’t “make it” into either the Jewish biblical canon or the Protestant version; the Eastern Orthodox edition contains even more additions.

A more fundamental difference lies in the actual translation of Holy Writ. Competent translators typically consult a range of ancient versions and other sources, but the results may be quite different. Protestant editions of the Bible, for example, have tended to closely follow the Hebrew Masoretic Text, while others have clung to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint, which emerged in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. Differences between these two dominant versions (there were others) sometimes had serious theological implications, and the debate has raged on for centuries.

Endless inspiration

The mystique of the Bible has been an endless source of inspiration for artists, composers and writers. And for wannabe record-breakers, it seems. The biggest Bible ever is a copy of the King James Version (including both the Old and New Testaments), hand-printed by Louis Waynai, an American, in 1930. It weighs in at about half a ton and holds pride of place in the library of Abilene Christian University, Texas.

“And then there was Nano!” The smallest Bible ever was produced in 2009 by scientists at the Nanotechnology Institute at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. The 1.2 million letters of the Hebrew Bible were etched with a focused ion beam onto a gold-plated silicon microchip the size of a grain of sugar. It requires magnification of at least 10,000 to make it legible.

One of the first two copies was presented to Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to the Holy Land that year. Another was made especially for the current jubilee exhibition of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.