The Hebrew Bible
Jewish civilization has made its impact felt throughout the world not through
monumental building, political supremacy, or the visual arts, but through its religious thought as
expressed in the Bible. The Bible is not so much a book as a library of books, a collection of
writings which evolved over many centuries and did not become completely fixed in its classic
form until the first century CE. The core of the Hebrew Bible is the Torah, the first five books
which define who the Jews are through story and law. One group, the Samaritans, accepted only
these seven books as their Bible. The classic collection of works written in Hebrew (the ancient
language of the Jews) was accepted as divine scripture not only by Jews but by early Christians ,
though few Christians could read Hebrew and preferred to read and quote Greek translations
which contained some passages and several whole books lacking in the Hebrew text. Thus, from a
very early date, the meaning of the word "Bible" differed between the two groups. The
early church eventually gathered an additional number of Christian Greek-language writings and
added them to the Hebrew Bible to create what is known as the "New Testament." The
Hebrew Bible (with its older Greek additions) became known to Christians as "The Old
Testament," and the latter was argued to have been completed, perfected, and to some extent
superseded by the new writings. Faithful Jews refused to accept the view of their scriptures, of
course. The process of redefinition was repeated when Islam pronounced the Bible incomplete
and its existing texts flawed, and presented the Qur'an as the definitive religious scripture. Finally,
during the Protestant reformation, many churches rejected the Greek additions to the Old
Testament. Thus the word "Bible" has meant many things to many people. In order to
avoid expressing a bias, in this reader the neutral terms "Hebrew Bible" and
"Christian Scriptures" will be used respectively to label the orthodox Jewish Bible and
the New Testament.
A word on terminology. The words "Hebrew" and "Jew" may seem to be
used interchangeably in the following notes, but in fact the people known as the Hebrews do not
properly become known as Jews until the dominant tribe known as Judah is reestablished in the
land of Judah (later called Judaea by the Romans) after the Babylonian Exile in 539 BCE. The
Hebrew language fell out of common use some time after that period, being replaced by Aramaic:
but the Biblical texts continued to be studied by pious men in their original language in Judaea. It
was Jews living abroad in the Hellenistic world who first translated the text into Greek,
incidentally providing access to these writings for the early Christians.
Christians, Muslims, and others have used these texts for many different
purposes, but our aim here is to concentrate on their meaning for the people who first created
them and whose sacred texts they continue to be: the Jews.
The translation used here is the New Revised Standard Version a translation made
primarily for Christians but which tries to give an unbiased presentation of the Hebrew text.
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This is an excerpt from Reading
About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers
Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by
Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.
The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State
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Department of English
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