Hebrew Bible

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The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (/tɑːˈnɑːx/; Hebrew: תַּנַ״ךְTānāḵ), also known in Hebrew as Miqra (/mˈkrɑː/; Hebrew: מִקְרָאMīqrāʾ), is the canonical collection of Hebrew scriptures, comprising the Torah, the Nevi'im, and the Ketuvim. Different branches of Judaism and Samaritanism have maintained different versions of the canon, including the 3rd-century BCE Septuagint text used in Second Temple Judaism, the Syriac Peshitta, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and most recently the 10th-century medieval Masoretic Text compiled by the Masoretes, currently used in Rabbinic Judaism. The terms "Hebrew Bible" or "Hebrew Canon" are frequently confused with the Masoretic Text; however, this is a medieval version and one of several texts considered authoritative by different types of Judaism throughout history. The current edition of the Masoretic Text is mostly in Biblical Hebrew, with a few passages in Biblical Aramaic (in the books of Daniel and Ezra, and the verse Jeremiah 10:11).

Hebrew Bible
תַּנַ״ךְ‎, Tanakh
Complete set of scrolls, constituting the Tanakh
Period8th/7th centuries BCE – 2nd/1st centuries BCE
Hebrew Bible - WikidataHebrew Bible at Hebrew Wikisource

The authoritative form of the modern Hebrew Bible used in Rabbinic Judaism is the Masoretic Text (7th to 10th century CE), which consists of 24 books, divided into chapters and pesuqim (verses). The Hebrew Bible developed during the Second Temple Period, as the Jews decided which religious texts were of divine origin; the Masoretic Text, compiled by the Jewish scribes and scholars of the Early Middle Ages, comprises the Hebrew and Aramaic 24 books that they considered authoritative. The Hellenized Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria produced a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called "the Septuagint", that included books later identified as the Apocrypha, while the Samaritans produced their own edition of the Torah, the Samaritan Pentateuch. According to the Dutch–Israeli biblical scholar and linguist Emanuel Tov, professor of Bible Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, both of these ancient editions of the Hebrew Bible differ significantly from the medieval Masoretic Text.

In addition to the Masoretic Text, modern biblical scholars seeking to understand the history of the Hebrew Bible use a range of sources. These include the Septuagint, the Syriac language Peshitta translation, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, the Targum Onkelos, and quotations from rabbinic manuscripts. These sources may be older than the Masoretic Text in some cases and often differ from it. These differences have given rise to the theory that yet another text, an Urtext of the Hebrew Bible, once existed and is the source of the versions extant today. However, such an Urtext has never been found, and which of the three commonly known versions (Septuagint, Masoretic Text, Samaritan Pentateuch) is closest to the Urtext is debated.

There are many similarities between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. The Protestant Old Testament has the same books as the Hebrew Bible, but the books are arranged in different orders. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches include the Deuterocanonical books, which are not included in the Hebrew Bible. In Islam, the Tawrat (Arabic: توراة‎) is identified not only with the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), but also with the other books of the Hebrew Bible.



Tanakh is an acronym, made from the first Hebrew letter of each of the Masoretic Text's three traditional divisions: Torah (literally 'Instruction' or 'Law'), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings)—hence TaNaKh.

The three-part division reflected in the acronym Tanakh is well attested in the rabbinic literature. During that period,[when?] however, Tanakh was not used. Instead, the proper title was Mikra (or Miqra, מקרא, meaning reading or that which is read) because the biblical texts were read publicly. The acronym 'Tanakh' is first recorded in the medieval era. Mikra continues to be used in Hebrew to this day, alongside Tanakh, to refer to the Hebrew scriptures. In modern spoken Hebrew, they are interchangeable.

Hebrew Bible

Many biblical studies scholars advocate use of the term Hebrew Bible (or Hebrew Scriptures) as a substitute for less-neutral terms with Jewish or Christian connotations (e.g., Tanakh or Old Testament). The Society of Biblical Literature's Handbook of Style, which is the standard for major academic journals like the Harvard Theological Review and conservative Protestant journals like the Bibliotheca Sacra and the Westminster Theological Journal, suggests that authors "be aware of the connotations of alternative expressions such as ... Hebrew Bible [and] Old Testament" without prescribing the use of either.

"Hebrew" refers to the original language of the books, but it may also be taken as referring to the Jews of the Second Temple era and their descendants, who preserved the transmission of the Masoretic Text up to the present day. The Hebrew Bible includes small portions in Aramaic (mostly in the books of Daniel and Ezra), written and printed in Aramaic square-script, which was adopted as the Hebrew alphabet after the Babylonian exile.


Genres and themes

The Tanakh includes a variety of genres, including narratives of events set in the past. The Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) contains legal material. The Book of Psalms is a collection of hymns, but songs are included elsewhere in the Tanakh, such as Exodus 15, 1 Samuel 2, and Jonah 2. Books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are examples of wisdom literature.

Other books are examples of prophecy. In the prophetic books, a prophet denounces evil or predicts what God will do in the future. A prophet might also describe and interpret visions. The Book of Daniel is the only book in the Tanakh usually described as apocalyptic literature. However, other books or parts of books have been called proto-apocalyptic, such as Isaiah 24–27, Joel, and Zechariah 9–14.

A central theme throughout the Tanakh is monotheism, worshiping one God. The Tanakh was created by the Israelites, a people who lived within the cultural and religious context of the ancient Near East. The religions of the ancient Near East were polytheistic, but the Israelites rejected polytheism in favor of monotheism. Biblical scholar Christine Hayes writes that the Hebrew Bible was "the record of [the Israelites'] religious and cultural revolution".

According to biblical scholar John Barton, "YHWH is consistently presented throughout the [Hebrew Scriptures] as the God who created the world, and as the only God with whom Israel is to be concerned". This special relationship between God and Israel is described in terms of covenant. As part of the covenant, God gives his people the promised land as an eternal possession. The God of the covenant is also a God of redemption. God liberates his people from Egypt and continually intervenes to save them from their enemies.

The Tanakh imposes ethical requirements, including social justice and ritual purity (see Tumah and taharah). The Tanakh forbids the exploitation of widows, orphans, and other vulnerable groups. In addition, the Tanakh condemns murder, theft, bribery, corruption, deceitful trading, adultery, incest, bestiality, and homosexual acts. Another theme of the Tanakh is theodicy, showing that God is just even though evil and suffering are present in the world.


The Tanakh begins with the Genesis creation narrative. Genesis 12–50 traces Israelite origins to the patriarchs: Abraham, his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob. God promises Abraham and his descendants blessing and land. The covenant God makes with Abraham is signified by male circumcision. The children of Jacob become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob's son Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, but he becomes a powerful man in Egypt. During a famine, Jacob and his family settle in Egypt.

Jacob's descendants lived in Egypt for 430 years. After the Exodus, the Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years. God gives the Israelites the Law of Moses to guide their behavior. The law includes rules for both religious ritual and ethics (see Ethics in the Bible). This moral code requires justice and care for the poor, widows, and orphans. The biblical story affirms God's unconditional love for his people, but he still punishes them when they fail to live by the covenant.

God leads Israel into the promised land of Canaan, which they conquer after five years. For the next 470 years, the Israelites were led by judges. Afterwards, the government transitioned to a monarchy. The united Kingdom of Israel was ruled first by Saul and then by David and his son Solomon. It was Solomon who built the First Temple in Jerusalem. After Solomon's death, the united kingdom split into the northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria and the southern Kingdom of Judah centered at Jerusalem.

The northern kingdom survived for 200 years until it was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The Kingdom of Judah survived for longer, but it was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Temple was destroyed, and many Judeans were exiled to Babylon. In 539 BCE, Babylon was conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia, who allowed the exiles to return to Judah. Between 520 and 515 BCE, the Temple was rebuilt (see Second Temple).

Development and codification

The books that make up the Hebrew Bible were composed and edited in stages over several hundred years. According to biblical scholar John J. Collins, "It now seems clear that all the Hebrew Bible received its final shape in the postexilic, or Second Temple, period."

Traditionally, Moses was considered the author of the Torah, and this part of the Tanakh achieved authoritative or canonical status first, possibly as early as the 5th century BCE. This is suggested by Ezra 7:6, which describes Ezra as "a scribe skilled in the law (torah) of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given".

The Nevi'im had gained canonical status by the 2nd century BCE. There are references to the "Law and the Prophets" in the Book of Sirach, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the New Testament. The Book of Daniel, written c. 164 BCE, was not grouped with the Prophets presumably because the Nevi'im collection was already fixed by this time.

The Ketuvim was the last part of the Tanakh to achieve canonical status. The prologue to the Book of Sirach mentions "other writings" along with the Law and Prophets but does not specify content. The Gospel of Luke refers to "the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms" (Luke 24:44). These references suggest that the content of the Writings remained fluid until the canonization process was completed in the 2nd century CE.

There is no scholarly consensus as to when the Hebrew Bible canon was fixed: some scholars argue that it was fixed by the Hasmonean dynasty, while others argue it was not fixed until the second century CE or even later. The late 1st century Council of Jamnia was once credited with fixing the Hebrew canon, but modern scholars believe there was no such authoritative council of rabbis. Between 70 and 100 CE, rabbis debated whether certain books "make the hands unclean" (meaning the books are holy and should be considered scripture) and references to fixed numbers of canonical books appear. There were several criteria for inclusion. Books had to be older than the 4th century BCE or attributed to an author who had lived before that period. The original language had to be Hebrew, and books needed to be in wide use. Many books considered scripture by certain Jewish communities were excluded during this time.

The inter-relationship between various significant ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (some identified by their siglum). Mt being the Masoretic text. The lowermost text "(lost)" would be the Urtext.

There are various textual variants in the Hebrew Bible, the result of centuries of hand-copying. Scribes introduced thousands of minor changes into the biblical texts. Sometimes, these changes were by accident. At other times, scribes intentionally added clarifications or theological material. In the Middle Ages, Jewish scribes produced the Masoretic Text, which became the authoritative version of the Tanakh. Ancient Hebrew was written without vowels, but the Masoretes added vowel markings to the text to ensure accuracy.

Rabbi and Talmudic scholar Louis Ginzberg wrote in Legends of the Jews, published in 1909, that the twenty-four book canon was fixed by Ezra and the scribes in the Second Temple period.[failed verification] According to the Talmud, much of the Tanakh was compiled by the men of the Great Assembly (Anshei K'nesset HaGedolah), a task completed in 450 BCE, and it has remained unchanged ever since. The 24-book canon is mentioned in the Midrash Koheleth 12:12: Whoever brings together in his house more than twenty four books brings confusion.

Language and pronunciation

The original writing system of the Hebrew text was an abjad: consonants written with some applied vowel letters ("matres lectionis"). During the early Middle Ages, scholars known as the Masoretes created a single formalized system of vocalization. This was chiefly done by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, in the Tiberias school, based on the oral tradition for reading the Tanakh, hence the name Tiberian vocalization. It also included some innovations of Ben Naftali and the Babylonian exiles. Despite the comparatively late process of codification, some traditional sources and some Orthodox Jews hold the pronunciation and cantillation to derive from the revelation at Sinai, since it is impossible to read the original text without pronunciations and cantillation pauses. The combination of a text (מקרא mikra), pronunciation (ניקוד niqqud) and cantillation (טעמים te`amim) enable the reader to understand both the simple meaning and the nuances in sentence flow of the text.

Number of different words used

The number of distinct words in the Hebrew Bible is 8,679, of which 1,480 are hapax legomena,: 112  words or expressions that occur only once. The number of distinct Semitic roots, on which many of these biblical words are based, is roughly 2000.: 112 


The Tanakh consists of twenty-four books, counting as one book each 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles, and Ezra–Nehemiah. The Twelve Minor Prophets (תרי עשר) are also counted as a single book. In Hebrew, the books are often referred to by their prominent first words.


The Torah (תּוֹרָה, literally "teaching") is also known as the "Pentateuch", or as the "Five Books of Moses". Printed versions (rather than scrolls) of the Torah are often called Chamisha Chumshei Torah (חמישה חומשי תורה "Five fifth-sections of the Torah") and informally as Chumash.

  • Bərē’šīṯ (בְּרֵאשִׁית, literally "In the beginning") – Genesis
  • Šəmōṯ (שְׁמֹות, literally "The names of") – Exodus
  • Vayyīqrā’ (וַיִּקְרָא, literally "And He called") – Leviticus
  • Bəmīḏbar (בְּמִדְבַּר, literally "In the desert of") – Numbers
  • Dəvārīm (דְּבָרִים, literally "Things" or "Words") – Deuteronomy


Nevi'im (נְבִיאִים Nəḇīʾīm, "Prophets") is the second main division of the Tanakh, between the Torah and Ketuvim. This division includes the books which cover the time from the entrance of the Israelites into the Land of Israel until the Babylonian captivity of Judah (the "period of prophecy"). Their distribution is not chronological, but substantive.

The Former Prophets (נביאים ראשונים Nevi'im Rishonim)

  • Yəhōšúaʿ (יְהוֹשֻעַ) – Joshua
  • Šōfṭīm (שֹׁפְטִים) – Judges
  • Šəmūʾēl (שְׁמוּאֵל) – Samuel
  • Məlāḵīm (מְלָכִים) – Kings

The Latter Prophets (נביאים אחרונים Nevi'im Aharonim)

  • Yəšaʿyāhū (יְשַׁעְיָהוּ) – Isaiah
  • Yīrməyāhū (יִרְמְיָהוּ) – Jeremiah
  • Yəḥezqēʾl (יְחֶזְקֵאל) – Ezekiel

The Twelve Minor Prophets (תרי עשר, Trei Asar, "The Twelve"), which are considered one book:

  • Hōšēaʿ (הוֹשֵׁעַ) – Hosea
  • Yōʾēl (יוֹאֵל) – Joel
  • ʿĀmōs (עָמוֹס) – Amos
  • ʿŌḇaḏyā (עֹבַדְיָה) – Obadiah
  • Yōnā (יוֹנָה) – Jonah
  • Mīḵā (מִיכָה) – Micah
  • Naḥūm (נַחוּם) – Nahum
  • Ḥăḇaqqūq (חֲבַקּוּק) – Habakkuk
  • Ṣəfanyā (צְפַנְיָה) – Zephaniah
  • Ḥaggay (חַגַּי) – Haggai
  • Zəḵaryā (זְכַרְיָה) – Zechariah
  • Malʾāḵī (מַלְאָכִי) – Malachi


Kəṯūḇīm (כְּתוּבִים, "Writings") consists of eleven books.

Poetic books

In Masoretic manuscripts (and some printed editions), Psalms, Proverbs and Job are presented in a special two-column form emphasizing the parallel stichs in the verses, which are a function of their poetry. Collectively, these three books are known as Sifrei Emet (an acronym of the titles in Hebrew, איוב, משלי, תהלים yields Emet אמ"ת, which is also the Hebrew for "truth").

These three books are also the only ones in Tanakh with a special system of cantillation notes that are designed to emphasize parallel stichs within verses. However, the beginning and end of the book of Job are in the normal prose system.

  • Təhīllīm (תְהִלִּים) – Psalms
  • Mīšlē (מִשְׁלֵי) – Proverbs
  • ’Īyyōḇ (אִיּוֹב) – Job

Five scrolls

The five relatively short books of the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther are collectively known as the Ḥamesh Megillot (Five Megillot).

In many Jewish communities, these books are read aloud in the synagogue on particular occasions, the occasion listed below in parentheses.

Other books

Besides the three poetic books and the five scrolls, the remaining books in Ketuvim are Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah and Chronicles. Although there is no formal grouping for these books in the Jewish tradition, they nevertheless share a number of distinguishing characteristics.

  • Their narratives all openly describe relatively late events (i.e. the Babylonian captivity and the subsequent restoration of Zion).
  • The Talmudic tradition ascribes late authorship to all of them.
  • Two of them (Daniel and Ezra) are the only books in Tanakh with significant portions in Aramaic.
  • Dānīyyē’l (דָּנִיֵּאל) – Daniel
  • ‘Ezrā’ (עֶזְרָא) – Ezra and Nehemiah
  • Dīvrē hayYāmīm (דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים) – Chronicles

Book order

The Jewish textual tradition never finalized the order of the books in Ketuvim. The Talmud gives their order as Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Scroll of Esther, Ezra, Chronicles. This order is roughly chronological (assuming traditional authorship).

In Tiberian Masoretic codices (including the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex), and often in old Spanish manuscripts as well, the order is Chronicles, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra. This order is more thematic (e.g. the megillot are listed together).

Number of books

The Hebrew Bible is generally considered to consist of 24 books, but this number is somewhat arbitrary, as (for example) it regards 12 separate books of minor prophets as a single book. The traditional rabbinic count of 24 books appears in the Talmud and numerous works of midrash. In several early nonrabbinic sources, the number of books given is 22. This number corresponds to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; according to Athanasius there were 27 books, corresponding to the alphabet with final letter forms (sofiot).

The count of 24 was said to be equal to the number of priestly divisions. According to a modern source, the number of books may be related to the division of the Iliad and Odyssey into 24 books, corresponding to the letters of the Greek alphabet. Both the Bible and Homer formed "foundational literature" of their respective cultures, studied by children and considered distillations of the society's values. The division of the Bible into 22 books may be a conversion of the Greek system to the Hebrew alphabet, while the division into 24 may be an adoption of the "perfect" number 24 as befitting the Bible's stature in Jewish eyes.


Nach, also anglicized Nakh, refers to the Nevi'im and Ketuvim portions of Tanakh. Nach is often referred to as its own subject, separate from Torah.

It is a major subject in the curriculum of Orthodox high schools for girls and in the seminaries which they subsequently attend, and is often taught by different teachers than those who teach Chumash. The curriculum of Orthodox high schools for boys includes only some portions of Nach, such as the book of Joshua, the book of Judges, and the Five Megillot. See Yeshiva § Torah and Bible study.


  • The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text: A New Translation with the aid of Previous Versions & with the Constant Consultation of Jewish Authorities was published in 1917 by the Jewish Publication Society. It was replaced by their Tanakh in 1985
  • Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society, 1985, ISBN 0-8276-0252-9
  • Tanach: The Stone Edition, Hebrew with English translation, Mesorah Publications, 1996, ISBN 0-89906-269-5, named after benefactor Irving I. Stone.
  • Tanakh Ram, an ongoing translation to Modern Hebrew (2010–) by Avraham Ahuvya (RAM Publishing House Ltd. and Miskal Ltd.)
  • The Living Torah and The Living Nach, a 1981 translation of the Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and a subsequent posthumous translation of the Nevi'im and Ketuvim following the model of the first volume
  • The Koren Jerusalem Bible is a Hebrew/English Tanakh by Koren Publishers Jerusalem and was the first Bible published in modern Israel in 1962

Jewish commentaries

Hebrew bible (Tanakh) in the collection of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, printed in Israel in 1962.

The major commentary used for the Chumash is the Rashi commentary. The Rashi commentary and Metzudot commentary are the major commentaries for the Nach.

There are two major approaches to the study of, and commentary on, the Tanakh. In the Jewish community, the classical approach is a religious study of the Bible, where it is assumed that the Bible is divinely inspired. Another approach is to study the Bible as a human creation. In this approach, Biblical studies can be considered as a sub-field of religious studies. The latter practice, when applied to the Torah, is considered heresy by the Orthodox Jewish community. As such, much modern day Bible commentary written by non-Orthodox authors is considered forbidden by rabbis teaching in Orthodox yeshivas. Some classical rabbinic commentators, such as Abraham Ibn Ezra, Gersonides, and Maimonides, used many elements of contemporary biblical criticism, including their knowledge of history, science, and philology. Their use of historical and scientific analysis of the Bible was considered acceptable by historic Judaism due to the author's faith commitment to the idea that God revealed the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.[citation needed]

The Modern Orthodox Jewish community allows for a wider array of biblical criticism to be used for biblical books outside of the Torah, and a few Orthodox commentaries now incorporate many of the techniques previously found in the academic world, e.g. the Da'at Miqra series. Non-Orthodox Jews, including those affiliated with Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism, accept both traditional and secular approaches to Bible studies. "Jewish commentaries on the Bible", discusses Jewish Tanakh commentaries from the Targums to classical rabbinic literature, the midrash literature, the classical medieval commentators, and modern-day commentaries.

Influence on Christianity

Christianity has long asserted a close relationship between the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. In Protestant Bibles, the Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew Bible, but the books are arranged differently. Catholic Bibles and Eastern Orthodox Bibles contain books not included in the Hebrew Bible called Deuterocanonical books. Protestant English Bibles originally included the Deuterocanonical books, which Protestants term the Apocrypha. These books were removed when a slimmed-down King James Version was mass-produced by free Bible societies out of cost considerations.

The ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible currently used by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are based on the Septuagint, which was considered the authoritative scriptural canon by the early Christians. The Septuagint was influential on early Christianity as it was the Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible primarily used by the 1st-century Christian authors.

See also



Further reading

  • Johnson, Paul (1987). A History of the Jews (First, hardback ed.). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-79091-4.
  • Kuntz, John Kenneth. The People of Ancient Israel: an introduction to Old Testament Literature, History, and Thought, Harper and Row, 1974. ISBN 0-06-043822-3.
  • Leiman, Sid. The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1976).
  • Levenson, Jon. Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1985).
  • Minkoff, Harvey. "Searching for the Better Text". Biblical Archaeology Review (online). Archived from the original on 14 March 2012. Retrieved 9 June 2011.
  • Noth, Martin. A History of Pentateuchal Traditions (1948; trans. by Bernhard Anderson; Atlanta: Scholars, 1981).
  • Schmid, Konrad. The Old Testament: A Literary History (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).