Religion 101

Religion 101


Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries (Part Two)

posted by Reed Hall

In my previous blog entry (“Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries, Part One”), I mentioned that the Bible was itself a kind of “mini-library,” an anthology of multiple individual sacred texts or scriptures, all assembled together between the covers of a single volume. This is reflected in the very term “Bible” itself, which derives from the Greek ta biblia, “the books” (it’s plural).

I also briefly alluded to the fact that this concise, one-volume scriptural canon actually exists in two distinct forms; in other words, there are two separate and distinct kinds of “Bibles” out there. Christianity has its Bible, of course; but Judaism also has a Bible of its own, which is different in important ways.

Both of these tidbits of information merit additional explanation and clarification, because (as surprising at it may seem to some readers) a sizable proportion of the U.S. population seems to be utterly unaware of any of this.

In my own college classes on world religions, I encounter at least a few students at the start of most semesters who simply have no familiarity with the Bible whatsoever. Oh, sure, they’ve heard of it, of course; but that’s really about it. Many of them also have no clear understanding of what Judaism actually is, or how it differs from Christianity, much less the fact that Christians and Jews each have distinctively different “Bibles” of their own.

So, each semester, I start from “square one,” assuming no previous religious knowledge whatsoever on the part of my students. And since I suspect that community college students, as a group, probably represent a pretty fair cross-section of the general public, it follows that a signficant percentage of the public at large is woefully uninformed about such matters.

That being the case, I must beg the indulgence and patience of those readers for whom the following material may seem too basic, or otherwise “old hat.” While what follows may be old news to some, I can assure you that to many others it will come as brand new (and perhaps even quite surprising) information, indeed.

With regard to our first major point or topic: what’s the difference between the Christian Bible, and the Jewish Bible? (The two are by no means identical.)

The simple answer? Well, basically, the Jewish Bible is essentially the same material as that of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible; it’s just arranged and structured a bit differently.

The Jewish Bible also completely lacks the New Testament (which is found exclusively in the Christian version of the Bible alone.)

Now, let me stop and back up a bit right here, because I’m afraid that even that seemingly simple assessment already presupposes a certain minimal amount of biblical knowledge, which I really cannot simply presume exists among readers. And in saying so, I in no way mean to sound condescending; it’s just that many people have simply never been exposed to this kind of information before. (I myself grew up in a non-religious household, and so I was as “religiously ignorant” and “biblically illiterate” as they come, until relatively late in life.)

Again, the Bible is an anthology, a collection of shorter individual texts. The specifically Christian version of the Bible is composed of two main sub-anthologies or sub-collections, known respectively as the Old Testament and the New Testament. As these titles imply, the texts comprising the New Testament are of more recent vintage than those comprising the Old Testament. Additionally, Christians believe that the texts of the New Testament not only build upon, but also in important ways complete and fulfill, the texts of the Old Testament.

Jews, however, profoundly disagree with this assessment, for reasons that will become clear shortly.

In a nutshell, the Old Testament is a collection of Hebrew scriptures, which are all about the history of the ancient Israelites and their interactions with God (the God of Israel). The “time frame” covered by its individual component Hebrew texts begins with the divine creation of the heavens and the earth, and runs through the return of the exiled Israelites (by then known as “Jews”) from Babylon to their homeland, where they rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple. The final events recorded in the Old Testament’s sweeping narrative conclude approximately four centuries B.C. (before Christ).

By contrast (and fast-forwarding about four centuries), the New Testament is a collection of Greek scriptures which begin with the birth of Christ. In a nutshell, the New Testament is the definitively Christian scripture, because the New Testament (and the New Testament alone) is “all about Jesus.”

(Granted, Christians also believe that the Old Testament is, at least implicitly, also “all about Jesus” insofar as Christians believe that Jesus is God in some sense, and that the Old Testament is accordingly filled with messianic prophecies which Christians believe point ahead to Jesus. However, Jews for their part reject all such specifically Christian beliefs about the Old Testament; to Jews, Jesus is in no way divine and in no sense God, and none of the aforementioned messianic prophecies actually point forward to Jesus at all.)

In yet another nutshell: by definition, Christians (and only Christians) believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and as a resurrected divine Savior; Jews (and all other non-Christians) do not. Since the New Testament is all about Jesus Christ being the Son of God and a resurrected divine Savior, Jews likewise do not believe in the New Testament, or in its claims about Jesus, and so do not regard it as legitimate or genuinely authentic “holy scripture,” as Christians of course do.

(That “Jews do not believe in Jesus” sometimes comes as something of a shock to some of my religiously less well-informed students, early in the semester. The specific reasons why Jews reject Christianity’s claims about Jesus are also worth going into, especially for the uninitiated, but to do them justice they really need to be the subject of a separate future blog post.)

For Christians, then, the New Testament is regarded as absolutely essential holy scripture, and therefore it is an absolutely essential component of the Christian version of the Bible. For Jews, however, the New Testament is not holy scripture at all (since it’s all about salvation as made available through Jesus, and Jews simply don’t believe that Jesus was any sort of savior whatsoever). The New Testament is, therefore, simply not included in the Jewish version of the Bible.

And that’s the single biggest difference between the Jewish and Christian versions of the Bible.

That leaves Jews with just the Old Testament, as Christians call it. But note that it is “old” only in relation to a subsequent (and exclusively Christian) second such “testament,” which is contrastingly labeled “new.” To Jews, who do not recognize the validity of any such “new” testament, the so-called “old” testament is in fact the only “testament.” Consequently, Jews do not refer to it as the “Old Testament” (or as an “old” anything). Rather, to Jews, that particular collection of texts is simply “the Bible” — period.

Christians sometimes tend to regard the Old Testament (or Jewish Bible) as a sort of “prequel” to the New Testament — which, being all about Jesus Christ as savior, is something which many Christians naturally see as “the main event.” From such a perspective, the significance of Old Testament for Christians is largely as a kind of “ramp up,” culminating in the New Testament’s account of the life and meaning of Christ. However, what Christians consider to be this culminating “main event” is, for Jews, a complete “non-event.” So, from the Jewish perspective, the Jewish Bible (which Christians regard as their Old Testament) is not a “prequel” to anything; rather, it itself is the “main event.”

So far, I’ve been referring to this particular collection of Hebrew scriptures as “the Jewish Bible,” simply in order to emphasize its distinction from the Christian version of the Bible (which also contains them, but which then adds the New Testament). However, what I’ve been calling the “Jewish Bible” is actually more commonly referred to as the Hebrew Bible (since it’s composed of scriptures originally written mostly in Hebrew), or alternatively as the Tanakh (an acronym derived from the Hebrew names of its three main subsections). But again, to Jews, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is, at its simplest, just “the Bible” — the only Bible (for them).

Also, as mentioned earlier, the specific arrangement and structure of the Jewish Tanakh (a.k.a. the Hebrew Bible) differs in some ways from the arrangement and structure of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. So, if you pick up a copy of the Hebrew Bible and turn to its table of contents, and if you also pick up a copy of the Christian version of the Bible and you open it to the table of contents for its Old Testament, you’ll see essentially the same texts (or “books”) listed, albeit in a somewhat different order. The total number of “books” in each will also differ somewhat, simply because in a number of instances what are treated as single books in the Jewish version are split into two or more separate books in the Christian version, thereby resulting in the Old Testament having a larger total number of books.

Which brings us to our second major point or topic: how many books are there in the Bible?

The simple answer: it depends. And it depends not only upon whether we’re taking about the Hebrew (Jewish) Bible vs. the Christian Bible, but also upon which particular version of the Christian Bible we’re talking about. (And I don’t mean which translation; I mean which version, because there’s more than one.)

(To be continued, in Part Three.)

 

 



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