What is the Difference between the Old Testament, the Tanakh, and the Hebrew Bible? by Amy-Jill Levine

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that there must be a corresponding New Testament, suggests to some that Judaism’s Bible and by extension Judaism are outdated and incomplete.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, "What is the Difference between the Old Testament, the Tanakh, and the Hebrew Bible?", n.p. [cited 25 Mar 2017]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/bible-basics/what-is-the-difference-between-the-old-testament-the-tanakh-and-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine
Professor, Vanderbilt Divinity School

Amy-Jill Levine is university professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the College of Arts and Science; she is also an affiliated professor at the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge, England.  She is a member of Congregation Sherith Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Nashville, although she is often quite unorthodox. 


A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

An acronym for the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), comprising Torah (Law), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

A period of time that appears most often in apocalyptic texts and refers to a future time marked by radical change, at the end of human history.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

A figure in the biblical book of Isaiah, seen by Christians as a prefiguration of Jesus Christ.

An alternate spelling for "tel" meaning a mound or hill-shaped site containing several occupational layers one on top of the other over milennia.

A Wisdom book located in the Apocrypha.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Isa 7:14

14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Matt 1:23

23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”

Ps 37:11

11But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

Matt 5:5

5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Isa 40:3

3A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Mark 1:3

3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ”

Isa 53:5-7

5But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.6All we ... View more

Acts 8:3-36

3But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.Philip Preaches in Samaria
4Now th ... View more

John 19:34-37

34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe ... View more

Isa 41:8

8But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;

Isa 44:1

God's Blessing on Israel
1But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!

Isa 44:21

Israel Is Not Forgotten
21Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you, you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgot ... View more

Isa 49:3

3And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Mal 4:5-6

5Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts ... View more

2Chr 36:23

23“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusa ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.