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Posted on Jun 04, 2024 by Mike LeDuke Next article:The Prophets

A Different Bible

Have you ever wondered what an ancient Bible looked like? Did it have the same sections or same divisions as the Bibles that we have today? Or, is the form that we read today something more modern?

When it comes to the Old Testament, the form that Christians read today is slightly different than what the Hebrews read in ancient times. The text itself is largely the same (as confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls), but what is mostly different is the organization. Today’s Christian Old Testament contains 39 books, beginning with Genesis and ending with Malachi. Ancient Judaism’s Bible, however, only contained 22 books. It began with Genesis and ended with Chronicles.

The text used in ancient Judaism is still the text (more or less) used in most Jewish circles today. If you were to pick up a Bible in a Jewish temple, you would likely notice that the order of the biblical books looks different. In addition to that, you might also notice that the Bible isn’t necessarily called a bible. Jewish groups generally call their Bible the “Tanakh.” Tanakh is an acronym, it doesn’t mean anything in Hebrew or any other language. Instead, “T” stands for “Torah” (which means “law” in Hebrew), “N” stands for “Nevi’im” (which means “prophets” in Hebrew), and “K” stands for “Ketuvim” (which means “writings” in Hebrew). The other letters in the acronym were added to aid pronunciation (just try to pronounce TNK and you’ll notice how hard it is). These three sections encompassed all of what we call the Old Testament today. In fact, it appears to have been, at least to some extent, the organization of books that Jesus used. When he spoke to his disciples about the Old Testament, he called it “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). These are the three divisions.

The ordering of the books in the Tanakh is largely based on when the documents were written. Thus the Torah is considered the oldest material, and so it is separated out to the beginning. The Prophets are the books that tell the rest of Israel’s history, stretching from Joshua through the time of the kings, to all the prophets during the time of the kings (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and all of the minor prophets). The Writings are wisdom literature like Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Other books that are more historical in nature, like Ruth and Esther, are also here because they are specifically read during Jewish holidays. Finally, the writings end with books about the exile and return: Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. Though Chronicles really tells the story of the time of the kings, it is believed to have been written during the time of the exiles, hence its placement at the end. The difference in the number of books between the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tanakh is largely the result of some books being put together. All of the minor prophets have been pushed together into one book called “The Twelve.” Other books like Ezra and Nehemiah are joined together.

But why is there a difference in order? And still, where did these books come from? The next post will dig a little deeper, noting what the Prophets, the next section of the Tanakh, claims about itself.

— Jason Hensley, PhD