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What is the Difference between the Old Testament, the Tanakh, and the Hebrew Bible?

The (Protestant) Old Testament and the (Jewish) Tanakh share the same books, but our readings differ in language, punctuation, canonical order, and emphases.

Torah scroll
Torah scroll

The term Old Testament, with its implication that there must be a corresponding New Testament, suggests to some that Judaism’s Bible and by extension Judaism are outdated and incomplete. Well-intended academics thus offered Hebrew Bible as a neutral alternative. However, the new language confuses more than it clarifies by erasing distinctions between the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tanakh. It is understandable if Christians think the Old Testament and the Tanakh are one and the same thing, but a closer look reveals important distinctions. For example, Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christian Old Testament canons include additional books, either written or preserved in Greek (Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Maccabees, etc.), that are not in the Jewish canon. And some Orthodox communions only use the Greek translation of the Hebrew (the Septuagint)—which varies in word choices and length from the Masoretic (Hebrew) Text. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tanakh are also distinct from each other in terms of punctuation, canonical order, and emphases.

Jesus would have heard his Scriptures in Hebrew, perhaps accompanied by an Aramaic paraphrase (targum). However, New Testament quotations from the Hebrew Bible usually follow the Greek of the Septuagint. For example, Isa 7:14 (written circa 700 B.C.E.) describes a pregnant young woman (Hebrew ’almah). The Greek translates ’almah as parthenos, which came to mean virgin (as in the Parthenon), and Matt 1:23, following the Greek, does the same. Ps 37:11 states, “the meek shall inherit the land” (Hebrew, arets); the Greek, echoed in Matt 5:5, shifts focus away from the land of Israel, and in this version “the meek … will inherit the earth.”

Because the consonantal Hebrew text lacked punctuation, phrase breaks could be variously inserted. The Hebrew of Isa 40:3 predicts the return to Israel of the exiles in Babylon: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” The Gospel of Mark repunctuates this same passage to introduce John the Baptist: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (Mark 1:3).

Interpretations of figures and images create yet another distinction between the (Christian) Old Testament and the (Jewish) Tanakh. For example, the Christian church understands Isaiah’s “suffering servant” (Isa 53:5-7) to be Jesus (Acts 8:3-36, John 19:34-37). In the synagogue, traditionally, the servant is Israel (see Isa 41:8, Isa 44:1, Isa 44:21, Isa 49:3); rabbinic sources also associate the servant with Moses, Rabbi Akiva, and a hidden Messiah who suffers from leprosy. 

Differences in canonical order further create distinct interpretations. The Old Testament tucks Ruth between Judges and 1 Samuel; the book fits here chronologically, because Ruth is King David’s great-grandmother, and David is introduced in 1 Samuel. The Tanakh places Ruth in the Ketuvim (Writings), where her scroll (Hebrew, megillah) accompanies the Song of Songs, Lamentations, Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), and Esther. These scrolls are read, in full, on certain Jewish holidays; thus they have a more prominent place in the canon of Judaism than they do in the Christian canons.

Readers of the Old Testament know that it ends with the Prophets; the last book is Malachi, who predicts Elijah’s return before the “day of the Lord” (Mal 3:23-24 [Mal 4:5-6 in English]) or what came to be thought of as the messianic age. Tanakh readers know that the canonical division Nevi’im (Prophets) appears in the middle, followed by Ketuvim. Here, the last words fall to King Cyrus of Persia (2Chr 36:23), whose edict tells the Babylonian exiles, “Any one of you of all His people … let him go up” (JPS)—that is, go home. Thus the two canons tell a different story: the Old and New Testaments focus on salvation at the end-time, with the book of Revelation showing the rectification of the “fall” in Eden; the Tanakh speaks of returning to the homeland.

Finally, Jews and Christians read with different emphases. Judaism focuses on the Torah, which is read in its entirety in synagogues either annually or triennially. Each Torah reading is accompanied by a reading from the Prophets. Christian lectionaries focus on the Prophets, and the “Old Testament” selections are accompanied by New Testament readings. We even hear the texts differently. In most churches, the Bible is read in the vernacular; in the synagogue, it is chanted from the Hebrew.

Attention to the connections but also the differences between the Tanakh and the Old Testament allows us to respect the integrity of each tradition and to understand why we interpret texts differently.

  • Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, TN; she also Affiliated Professor, Woolf Institute, Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK and in spring, 2019, teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.