What Is the Hebrew Bible?

The Hebrew Bible contains 24 books, of which we’ve come to know as the Old Testament. Now for those of us who have counted the number of books featured in the first half of our Bibles, we may wonder how the number 39 translates as 24 in the Hebrew Bible.

Published Feb 04, 2020
What Is the Hebrew Bible?

This question may appear out of place. Readers may wonder, “Is there more than one Bible? Is this simply a Bible written in Hebrew?”

We do have to understand that Judaism does have a portion of the Bible that we have today, just not all 66 books. Known as the Tanakh, or otherwise called “The Jewish Bible,” this book is divided up into three major sections (sometimes more, depending on the scholar you ask). 

Because the article linked above dives into the different sections, this article will have a different focus. We’ll talk about how the Hebrew Bible differs from the Bible that we typically read today, why the Hebrew Bible doesn’t include certain books that we have in our Bibles, and why this matters to us today.

How Does the Hebrew Bible Differ from Ours?

The Hebrew Bible contains 24 books, of which we’ve come to know as the Old Testament. Now for those of us who have counted the number of books featured in the first half of our Bibles, we may wonder how the number 39 translates as 24 in the Hebrew Bible.

This is because of a number of reasons. Instead of breaking up books into 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, etc., the books are under one heading: Kings, Samuel.

We should also note that the 12 minor prophets are lumped into one book known as The Twelve or Trei-Assar.

We should also note that some Christian Bibles, of the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions, contain extra books that some call the Apocrypha. These are not included in the Hebrew Bible, such as Judith, Bel and the Dragon, etc.

The organization of the 24 (or 39 books in our case) will look different as well. What we may consider a prophet, may end up in the writings section of the Hebrew Bible, and vice versa. 

Although they contain the same books, they have different organizational structures.

Also, Christian Bibles of the Old Testament have more roots in the Septuagint translation, and the Hebrew Bible does not. The Septuagint was the oldest translation of the Old Testament into Greek. Although the translators made sure to copy the text with precision, certain words from one language to another don’t always translate easily. 

But all in all, the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament in a Christian Bible are remarkably similar.

Why Doesn’t the Hebrew Bible Contain the New Testament?

Jewish tradition does not hold that the New Testament is part of Scriptural canon. Judaism (with the exception of Messianic Judaism) does not see Jesus Christ as divine or the son of God. They are still waiting for the Messiah mentioned in the Old Testament, believing Jesus not to be the person who fulfilled that messianic role.

Because of this, Jewish and Christian perspectives will differ on the purpose of the Old Testament or Tanakh. 

Christians see the Old Testament as the beginning of the story, and the New Testament as the completion of it. We see a lost world in need of a Savior, and a Savior enters the world starting in the New Testament.

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18).

Jewish readers may see the Tanakh more as a guide for a way of life, especially in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament and in the Tanakh), instructional living, in essence. 

Although, as mentioned in this article, many are still awaiting the Messiah described and foreshadowed in the Old Testament.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him — the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-2). 

Why Does This Matter?

Why should we care about the differences in our Bibles? And why do we have to know about the Tanakh?

First, we have to understand where our audience comes from before we can tell them about the gospel. When Stephen preaches to a Jewish audience, he begins by citing several items from the Hebrew Bible that they would’ve studied and known (Acts 7). He does so before shifting the conversation to Jesus.

In the same way, we have to understand why we can’t start immediately with the New Testament when talking with a Jewish audience. They don’t see the New Testament as God’s word or part of the biblical canon.

Seeing this, we can start with what’s familiar. We can talk about the similarities between our version of the Old Testament and their Tanakh and use that as a diving-in point for dialogue. 

We can move from similarities to talking about the Messianic prophecies and ask them who they think the Scripture is referring to.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

But we cannot get there without finding common ground. 

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Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, book editor for hire, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids. Check out her editing profile at Reedsy.com to find out about hiring her for your next book project.


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