Hebrew Bible

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The Hebrew Bible is a comparatively recent term used by scholars and academics in Jewish studies to describe the works of the ancient Hebrews that came to be accepted as the scriptures of Judaism. The study of the Hebrew Bible as such is a relatively new academic discipline, intended to enable academics to discuss, analyse and reference these works without relying on comparisons to either a Christian or a secular viewpoint. An ancient anthology, there is no consensus about when the component books were written, who were the authors, where they were composed, how the works came to be published as a canon, and what the books mean. Indeed, its contested meanings speak to why the Hebrew Bible has significance. The Hebrew Bible has inspired reviews, endless exegesis, polyglot translations, legal analysis, knock-offs, fan fiction, martyrdom and war. As scripture, the Hebrew Bible is the sine qua non of Judaism and sacred to Christians. As literature, it is a runaway bestseller upon which dozens of movies and countless art works are based. As a subject of scholarship, the Hebrew Bible plays a dominant historical role in the fields of ancient history, grammar and linguistics, hermeneutics, historical-critical research, law, literary theory, religion and theology.

So contested is the Hebrew Bible, there is disagreement about the exact text and ordering of the books of the Bible. Notably, the Hebrew Bible canon in Judaism differs from Samaritan text and from some Christian versions of the Old Testament. (The Roman Catholic Eastern Orthodox, Anglican[1] and some Protestant versions of the Old Testament supplement the Hebrew Bible with apocryphal and deuterocanonical books.)[2] All canons begin with the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, known in Hebrew as the Torah. Prophetic books include three sizable works, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In addition, the Hebrew Bible contains the Writings (Nevi’im or Hagiography), encompassing historical books, psalms, proverbs, the satire of Esther, the eroticism of the Song of Solomon, and the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and Job.

Plot and Content Summary

In the beginning, the first book, Genesis, tells the stories of the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the tribulations of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), and Joseph, the protagonist of chapters 37-50. God, the creator of the world, makes covenants with humankind after the flood and with the patriarchs. Genesis also contains genealogies, accounts of incest and war, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and a few snippets of Biblical poetry. Genesis articulates almost no Biblical law, though the story of Jacob’s wrestling explicitly provides the etiology of one.

Moses is the hero of the next four volumes, which tell how God liberated the Hebrews from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt. According to the Bible, the Hebrews grew into a nation of more than 600,000 adult males, descended from Jacob qua Israel, and divided into 12 tribes named after Jacob’s sons. The people of Israel miraculously cross the sea into the wilderness, and receive the revealed Decalogue (Ten Commandments) on Mount Sinai, and wander through various trials and battles in the wilderness. Biblical laws interrupt the narrative in Exodus and comprise most of Leviticus and some of Numbers. In Deuteronomy, Moses preaches to the people of Israel, writes down the Torah onto a scroll, offers a retrospective account of the prior three books, and concludes with his poetry, prophecy and death.

In the remaining books of the Hebrew Bible, the people of Israel conquer Canaan (Joshua), follow a series of local leaders (Judges, Samuel), unify under kings Saul and David, and build the First Temple for wise King Solomon in Jerusalem. As a punishment for their idolatry and greed, the people split into two kingdoms. Assyria conquers the northern kingdom of Israel and exiles its Ten Tribes, who are lost in both the Biblical and historical sense. The southern kingdom is Judea, which is why the people become identified as Jews (e.g., Esther). Around the year 587 B.C.E., Judea is conquered and exiled into Babylonia. A few generations later, under Persian rule, the exiles return and build a Second Temple (Ezra, Nehemiah).

The Making of the Books and the Canon

The Language of the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew bible was mostly written in Biblical Hebrew, an ancient Semitic language. (It is important to distinguish Biblical Hebrew from Modern Hebrew, a modern, living language created in large part by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.) Parts of Daniel and Ezra are written in Aramaic.

Given that the Hebrew Bible was written in many places and at many different times, the Hebrew Bible is an important resource for historical linguistic reasons.

Though the Hebrew Bible was mostly written in Hebrew, non-Hebrew linguistic influences on the Hebrew bible are also important. In particular, the influence of Aramaic is particularly strong in parts. It is also interesting when a word seems to have been picked up from the temporal powers of the Ancient Near East, i.e. from Assyrian or Babylonian rulers.

Historical-critical Analysis of the Bible.

Regarding the authors of the Bible, See main article.

Canonization and Translation

The Hebrew Bible in Publishing

The Bible as Religious Scripture

Uses of the Bible in Western Religion

In liturgy and homiletics, Jews and Christians often perform readings of the Hebrew Bible.

In Jewish synagogues, for instance, the entire Torah is read out loud in an annual or triennial cycle. The readings are performed from a handwritten parchment in the form of a scroll. Such readings are divided into segments, with an adult honored to recite a blessing before and after each segment. Readings occur on Monday, Thursday and Saturday, as well as each New Month and various Festivals. In a ritual following the reading, the Torah scroll is elevated and returned to a sacred enclosure.

The Psalms figure prominently in Jewish liturgy. In addition, the liturgy calls for the weekly reading of the Prophets, known as the Haftarah, and the Song of Solomon (Canticles). There are periodic readings of such books as Ecclesiastes, Esther, Jonah, Lamentations (Eichah), and Ruth.

In traditional Jewish homiletics, a rabbi or other adult will center the sermon around passages of the Hebrew Bible. Such a sermon is known as a d'var Torah, a word of Torah. According to scholars, ancient sermons typically began and ended with verses from the appropriate weekly readings of the Pentateuch or Haftarah.

Religious, quasi-religious and related books

Jewish Bible Interpretation

Christian Exegesis and Biblical Theology

Islamic Reception

The Bible and New Religious Movements (NRMs)

One of the most influential Biblical sequels, so to speak, is the Book of Mormon. The scripture of the Latter Day Saints, the Book of Mormon shares much in common with the Hebrew Bible with the genre of literature, religious history and theology.

The Bible as Law

From Biblical into Karaite and Rabbinic law

The Legal Legacy in Western Law

The Artistry of the Bible

The Bible as and in Literature

Art and film

Cultural impact

The Bible and the Rise of Modern Scholarship

From Ancient to the New Historiography

The faithful have long been puzzled by Biblical stories, especially miracles, and such puzzles have motivated generations of historians and archaeologists of the ancient Near East.

Influence of Biblical Research on Grammar and Linguistics

In an effort to understand the Hebrew Bible, scholars in Europe spearheaded much of the work on language that gave rise to the fields of grammar, philology and linguistics.

In his scathing critique of philology, Volosinov writes:

The first philologists and the first linguists were always and everywhere priests. History knows no nation whose sacred writings and oral tradition were not to some degree in a language foreign and incomprehensible to the profane. To decipher the mystery of sacred words was the task meant to be carried out by the priest-philologists.[3]

Hermeneutics, Bible Interpretation, and Literary Theory

The Impetus for Historical-critical Methods

Old Testament Theology and its Critics

In recent years, scholars such as Jon Levenson have traced and critiqued the historical development of such fields as Old Testament Theology and Biblical Theology.


  1. King James Version of 1611
  2. See the introduction to the apocrypha section of The New Oxford Annotated Bible.
  3. p.74, Volosinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Seminar Press, 1973