Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible, also known as Mikra (“what is read”) or TaNaKh, an acronym referring to the traditional Jewish division of the Bible into Torah (Teaching), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), is the founding document of the people of Israel, describing its origins, history, and visions of a just society. The word Bible, from the Greek, ta biblia, is plural and means “books.” This reflects the fact that the Bible is actually a collection of individual books (such as Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Song of Songs, and many others). Similarly, another traditional name for the Torah, Humash (“of Five”), indicates that the Torah itself is a book composed of five books.

bible quizPerhaps our conception of the Bible as one book is a result of our having one-volume printed Bibles; in ancient times, individual books were published in smaller scrolls; the word Bible, however, comes from the Greek ta biblia, which is plural and means books. Even the individual books can include a variety of different genres of writing—narratives, poetry, legal texts, prophecies—which makes reading the Bible as a unified book that much more difficult.  Collecting the books and deciding which ones were to be included as part of the Bible and which were not is called the process of canonization; canonization of the Hebrew Bible was concluded during the first century CE. We have fragments and significant portions of the Bible from before that time, but our earliest complete manuscripts date from the ninth century C.E. and later; remarkably, through hundreds of years of transmission, the received text, what we call the Masoretic text, differs only slightly from those earliest fragments.

Where did the Bible come from? Traditionally, Jews have claimed that all five books of the Torah were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. The prophets were the authors of their own books as well as others that are attributed to them (Lamentations is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah), and Kings David and Solomon each wrote several works (eg. Psalms is attributed to King David). Internal contradictions as well as shifts in language and outlook have convinced many modern scholars that the Torah and later historical narratives, as well as the books of the prophets and some of the writings, had multiple authors or redactors who edited traditional materials together, leaving some of the seams between the sources. Some of the critical theories that break apart the Bible into its various sources were initially suggested by Christian theologians who used their arguments to advance claims that later Judaism was a corruption of early biblical religion.  Since that time, however, many Jewish scholars have integrated the insights drawn from a critical approach; a Redactor or Redactors (known as “R”) may have edited together different sources, but contemporary Jewish scholars may understand “R” (whether singular or plural) as standing for Rabbenu, our Rabbi and teacher.

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