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to Christians as “The Old Testament,” and the latter was argued to have been completed, perfected, and to some extent superseded by the new writings.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.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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 University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

Try Chambal: (vol. 1) (vol. 2)