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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Motifs

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Interpretations

The Canons of the Hebrew Bible

The word canon comes from a Greek word meaning "ruler" and is used to indicate the list of books that are include d in the Bible. The Jewish canon of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, includes 24 books, divided into three sections: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. This list appears to have been stabilized by the 1st century CE. Early Christians primarily read the books of the Hebrew Bible in Greek translations. This group of Greek scriptures included additional books that became part of the Christian canon, called the Old Testament, that were not part of the Jewish canon. These are often called the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches retain these books in their biblical canons, each with a slightly different list of books included. Protestant Christian churches primarily follow the Jewish canon for the contents of their Old Testament, and either separate the additional books into a discrete section called the Apocrypha, or omit them entirely.

The Hebrew Bible in Judaism

In Judaism, the books of the Hebrew Bible are called the Tanakh, an acronym for the Hebrew names of the three main sections of the Bible. The Jewish Tanakh, particularly the Torah, is the source of key texts read during the Sabbath liturgy, or religious service, and informs later Jewish beliefs and practices. It was the subject of extensive commentary already in antiquity. The Talmud collects interpretations and teachings of several early rabbis, or Jewish teachers, of the first few centuries CE. Traditional Jewish belief holds that these teachings, called "Oral Torah," were revealed to Moses at Sinai, along with the "Written Torah." Adherence to these traditional understandings of the Tanakh and Oral Torah varies among different branches of modern Judaism.

The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament in Christianity

Christians traditionally call the books of the Hebrew Bible the "Old Testament," and they are joined with the books of the New Testament to compose the Christian Bible. The Old Testament serves as the historical background and theological foundation for the New Testament, and its text is frequently quoted, as are its symbols and themes.

The terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" are based on reference in the New Testament to a "new covenant" with God established by Jesus. Early Christian writers extended this terminology to the two major divisions of their canon of scriptures. They also often used "the law" and "the gospel" to refer to the Old and New Testaments. One 2nd-century Christian leader, Marcion, famously rejected the Old Testament entirely, but his views were denounced.

The relationship of the Old Testament to Christian belief and practice is complex and varied. The New Testament describes much discussion and debate in early Christianity over the question of whether Christians, especially those of non-Jewish background, should still follow the commandments of the Torah. Mainstream Christianity concluded that the laws of the Old Testament no longer fully applied to Christians. A common Christian approach has been to categorize the commandments of the Torah—moral, ceremonial, and civil—and evaluate their applicability to Christianity based on these categories. Early Christian interpretation of the Old Testament often sought to identify texts in the Old Testament that could be interpreted as referring to Jesus.

Following the Nazi Holocaust, many Christian scholars have questioned the traditional notion that the New Testament supersedes the Old, given how this literary interpretation has influenced cultural and policy attitudes toward Jews. This theological question is seen as one the primary barriers between Christian and Jewish religious dialogue, and remains controversial among Christians.

The Hebrew Bible in Islam

The Hebrew Bible is historically significant to Islam. The Qur'an specifically refers to the Torah and the Psalms as inspired, and frequently refers to Moses. Many figures from the Hebrew Bible are called "prophets" or "messengers" in the Qur'an. However, traditional Islamic belief also holds that the Hebrew Bible became corrupted, and thus is not entirely accurate or reliable in its surviving form. Islamic tradition believes that Abraham's first son, Ishmael, is an ancestor of its central prophet Muhammad, and that Ishmael, rather than Isaac, was the son whom Abraham nearly sacrificed.

Translation and Transmission of the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible was first translated from its original Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek beginning in the 3rd century BCE. This Greek translation, commonly called the Septuagint, was widely used by Greek-speaking Jews in the Hellenistic world. Early Christianity also primarily used the Old Testament texts in Greek translation.

Even after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the accompanying expulsion of the Jews from the land of Israel, the value of reading the Hebrew Bible in its original languages was emphasized in Judaism. Aramaic translations (called targums) that paraphrased the Hebrew text were used, but they did not replace the original text. Christianity had relied on the Old Testament in Greek translation from the beginning and continued to do so.

Then a Latin translation produced by Jerome in the late 4th century CE, called the Vulgate, displaced the Greek scriptures as the primary biblical translation in the Western Christian church. The leaders of the Reformation in the 16th century CE placed a renewed emphasis on translating the Bible into the native languages of the people, concurrent with an emphasis on individual engagement with the Bible for all Christians. The advent of the movable-type printing press in Europe in the 15th century made mass dissemination of the Bible feasible. The first full translation of the Bible into English was completed in the 14th century by John Wycliffe. The King James Version, completed in 1611, is a landmark in the development of the English language, and is still used within some Christian churches today.

The Inspiration of the Hebrew Bible

Traditional Jewish and Christian belief hold that the Hebrew Bible is inspired by God, but specific articulations of this belief vary widely. Judaism traditionally connects the inspiration of the Torah (written as well as oral) with the revelation of the Torah to Moses from Yahweh. While Orthodox Judaism primarily upholds this traditional view of biblical inspiration, other branches or sects of contemporary Judaism place less emphasis on it. Traditional Christian belief endorses the inspiration of both the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God. Some conservative segments of Christianity further specify the nature of this belief to insist that the Bible is infallible or inerrant, although interpretations of these ideas vary. Other Christians, particularly from traditionally less conservative churches, do not emphasize such understandings of inspiration and interpret the Bible less literally.

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