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What is the Hebrew Bible?

In response to my previous two posts about how the Hebrew Bible came to be copied over the years, several readers have asked me a related (though also very different) question about how the books of the Hebrew Bible were chosen – why do we have these books and not some others?  Who decided what the canon of the Hebrew Bible would be?  When did they decide?  And what were their criteria? These are important questions, and even though not quite as directly related to the thread I’m making my way through, I think they are worth a couple of posts.


Before giving the standard scholarly view of such things, I will need to explain in the simplest terms I can what the layout, structure, and divisions of the Hebrew Bible are, and define and explain a number of terms.  That will occupy us in the present post.


I have once more taken this information from the discussion in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.




The English term “canon” comes from a Greek word that originally meant “ruler” or “measuring rod.” A canon was used to make straight lines or to measure distances. When applied to a group of books, it refers to a recognized body of literature. Thus, for example, the canon of Shakespeare refers to all of Shakespeare’s authentic writings.

With reference to the Bible, the term “canon” denotes …

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How We Got the Hebrew Bible: The Older View
Looking Back on the Blog 2016



  1. Avatar
    Danny  January 1, 2017

    Just one quick point. In the Tanakh, the order of Ketuvim is Tehilim (Psalms), Mishlei (Proverbs), and Iyov (Job), not as you have it above. The three books are sometimes grouped together as Sifrei Emet (Truth Books), but that has more to do with the acronym of the three books, read backwards אמ”ת.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2017


    • Avatar
      dankoh  January 2, 2017

      Also, Ruth through Esther are known as the Five Megiloth (scrolls), though in the popular mind “megillah” means only Esther. They are still counted as separate books, however.

  2. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 1, 2017

    I always understood the differences between the Catholic/Orthodox and Protestant Bibles to be that the former were based on the Greek translation, the Septuagint, of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. The Protestant Bible is based on the Hebrew version and, if I’m not mistaken, a Hebrew version produced during the Middle Ages and adopted by the Reformers.

    Why is there a difference between what’s included in the Greek translation and the Hebrew version?

    But what is the explanation of the differences between the Orthodox and Catholic versions – and between the Slavonic and Greek versions? Were the Orthodox-only books included in the Septuagint or did they come from somewhere else? If they did come from the Septuagint why didn’t Catholics include them?

    Do the differences among the Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox versions result in any significant doctrinal differences?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2017

      Yes, the apocryphal books are those found in the Septuagint, but hte traditional Catholic Bible is not a translation of the Septuagint but of the Latin Vulgate.

    • Avatar
      Eskil  January 3, 2017

      We Lutherans do translate apocryphal books as well and include them in our larger Bible prints. The apocryphal books are considered as good to read. Hence, the question is not that black and white with protestants either.

      BTW, I love the ending of Wisdom of Solomon. It’s almost like reading Darwin 😉

      “For earthly things were turned into watery, and the things, that before swam in the water, now went upon the ground.”

  3. Avatar
    Jana  January 1, 2017

    The chart is extremely helpful in comparison and contrast among the various Bibles. Thank you.

  4. Avatar
    dankoh  January 1, 2017

    My copy of Luther’s translation into German includes all the OT books that are in the Jewish list, but none of the apocrypha at all, except for the Letter of Jeremiah, which he puts as the last chapter of Jeremiah. (The RSV puts the letter in its apocrypha section.)

    In my Catholic version (NAB, St. Joseph’s edition), it does have all the extra items you listed, though the additions to Esther and Daniel, and the letter of Jeremiah, are included in the books and not separated (but there is an explanation attached to each).

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2017

      Yes, that’s the difference between the Protestant and the Catholic Bibles.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 1, 2017

    Once again I strongly recommend Ehrman’s textbooks on the Bible and the New Testament.

    • Avatar
      Prizm  January 3, 2017

      I have both. Haven’t read them cover to cover, but they have indeed been useful for reference.

  6. Avatar
    Jana  January 1, 2017

    Digressing I just finished watching Sir David Attenborough’s intriguing and delightful video Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life. I had little idea that for 2000 years the Old Testament Creation Story dominated ALL interpretation of natural life, the cosmos and cemented human superiority … and command over all life forms as Psalm 8:1 mirrors (which Darwin and Sir David contest) … http://www.primewire.ag/watch-4907-Charles-Darwin-and-the-Tree-of-Life-online-free. It’s delightful if you haven’t viewed. Happy New Year!

  7. Avatar
    godspell  January 1, 2017

    Would it be correct to say that both the major and minor prophets left written records of their teachings behind them (whether they wrote them down themselves, or someone else did, during their lifetimes or not long afterwards), whereas more evangelistic figures such as Elijah and Elisha (the former of whom was often associated with Jesus) were only preserved for posterity by legendary recollections of their deeds, as in the historical Books of Kings? And indeed, Moses himself, though he’s supposed by some to have written the Pentateuch, including the parts that are about him (they argue about whether he wrote the part about his own death and burial).

    I’ve read some scholarship on how the Old Testament came to be written down and preserved, and look forward to getting your perspective on that murky narrative.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2017

      Sometimes the prophets of Scripture are called “the writing prophets” to distinguish them from itinerants such as Elijah and Elisha. I don’t think I would designate the latter as “more evangelistic” though. The writing prophets were intensely evangelistic! (And the Pentateuch makes no claim, as you know, to be written by Moses)

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 2, 2017

        It does not, and yet it became important within Judaism to say that it was. Perhaps to cover up the embarrassment that they couldn’t really remember anymore who did write it? Not that Christians are in a position to point fingers in this regard.

        At some point in time, these writings were of no great importance–just scrolls gathering dust in court libraries, as I understand it. But then time passed, and they were rediscovered, and they took on an authority they never had in the lifetimes of their authors. The very fact that their authorship was not known made them more mysterious, more seemingly authentic. As if they had, in fact, been handed down from Mt. Sinai.

        And in point of fact, people still often give great authority to stories handed down to them from Mt. Internet, the provenance of which is not known. At least the authors of the bible stories were not maliciously attempting to deceive. But did they necessarily believe in the literal truth of every word they wrote, anymore than Homer writing the Iliad?

        Elijah and Elisha were depicted as miracle workers, as well as itinerants. Offhand, I can’t remember any of the writing prophets being able to work miracles, but to have millions of people of all races and many faiths pouring over your work millennia after you produced it for a pretty limited audience certainly seems miraculous in itself.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  January 2, 2017

        I don’t believe that Judaism makes the “major/minor” distinction among the prophets; they are generally given equal weight. “Major/minor,” when used, means the size of their writings, not their importance.

        Moses, by the way, is called a prophet, in fact the greatest of the prophets. But the idea that he wrote the whole Torah is Talmudic; there is even a midrash that he wrote the verses about his death as God dictated them to him, crying the whole while!

        • Bart
          Bart  January 3, 2017

          Yes, that’s right: Major and Minor are English-Bible designations. The Twelve (together) were simply one of the scrolls of the “Prophets” in the Hebrew Bible.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  January 6, 2017

          Interestingly, though, if you search “Moses” in the New Testament, there are many references to the Law of Moses and hardly any, if any, that indicate that Moses was just passing on what God had commanded. The teachings and Law, it seems, for NT writers, were Moses’.

  8. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  January 1, 2017

    1 Chronicles 29:29.. do you know about this Bart ? Samuel the seer, Nathan the prophet, and Gad the seer.. Who were they ?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2017

      For 1 Chronicles they were three prophets living in the time of David who wrote accounts of his life. (But in reality they are probably fictional characters.)

      • Avatar
        brandon284  March 4, 2017

        Why do you suppose they were fictional?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 5, 2017

          Because (a) there is no evidence outside the stories they existed and (b) the stories about them come from many (many!) centuries after they allegedly lived.

  9. Avatar
    llamensdor  January 2, 2017

    This is a wonderful and very useful post. However, you know that Torah doesn’t mean law, it means [the] teaching, or some equivalent thereof. You define the prophets correctly, in that you say the prophets teach the Jews what will happen if they don’t behave properly. Some folks make prophecy equivalent to fortune-telling, which the Jews despised, and I would appreciate if you will make the point clearly. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2017

      Yes, “Torah” is a tricky word to translate. It can indeed refer to “law,” but also can mean something broader such as “instruction,” “guidance,” “direction” etc. Prophecy: yes indeed, I am not using the term to refer to crystal-ball gazing!

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  January 6, 2017

        So, not only do New Testament writers seem to not understand that prophecy meant “telling forth” rather than foretelling,” but they seemed unaware of the Jewish distrust of fore-tellers? Perhaps finding reasons in scripture for the crucifixion of the man they considered the messiah was more important to them?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 8, 2017

          I’m not sure there was a general distrust of fore-tellers was there?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 2, 2017

      The word I often see in translations that, to me, bests captures the “feel” of the word “torah” in Hebrew is “precept”.

    • Avatar
      dankoh  January 2, 2017

      “Torah” when used in Scripture (that is, in the Prophets and the Writings) means “teaching” or “law” in general, and while there are occasional references to “torat Mosheh” (the law of Moses), it’s not clear that they are referring to the Pentateuch specifically, also, other uses of “torah” without the qualifier are even less clear.

      After Ezra, and certainly after the Second Temple, “torah” is used almost exclusively to mean the Pentateuch.

  10. Avatar
    dankoh  January 2, 2017

    Daniel. by the way, is not considered a prophet in the Jewish tradition, although there is a reference in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q174) to him as such. Since the book claims (incorrectly) to have been written during the Babylonian exile, and thus before Malachi, the last of the prophets, my guess would be that he was not listed among the Nevi’im because he reported only visions rather than messages directly from God.

  11. Avatar
    rap2016  January 3, 2017

    Ladies and Gentlemen
    The Pentateuch was written by one Moses Maimonides 1135 to 1204. Originally known as Moses Ben Maimon, also known as Rambam. Born in Cordoba, Spain.
    Also Solomon Bar Isaac 1040 to 1105 also known as Rashi, author of the Tulmud and Tanakh based on the Sefer ha Yashar literature.
    These people were able to read and write because the Moors went into Spain and civilised the country from the 8th to the 15th century when they were expelled. They built Granada, Seville, Cordoba, Zaragoza and Malaga.
    They founded institutions, local Government, schooling, taught them agriculture, roads and lighting.
    Before this time Europeans had not even shoes on their feet. They did not know what a house with a window was.
    A reading and writing system can only come from civilised people. You need an alphabet and institutionalisation of learning. That requires resources. A wondering community of goat and cattle herders cannot be civilised.
    Do your research. The Hebrew bible cannot predate Rashi or Moses Maimon

    I await comments

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2017

      There are lots of reasons no one thinks this. One is that we have a complete manuscript of the entire Hebrew Bible (including the Pentateuch) from 1000 CE, and copies of virtually every book of the Hebrew Bible from a millenium before that! This cannot be explained by the hypothesis that the books were written in the twelfth century.

  12. Avatar
    rap2016  January 3, 2017

    Hello Bart
    These manuscripts could they be fake…………..?
    Are they simply referring to stories with some kind of political agenda. I refer you to S David Sperling “The Original Torah” he claims there never was a Moses or an Abraham or any of the other Patriarchs in the Hebrew Bible. Further I would refer to Shlomo Sands “The Invention of the Jewish People” he discusses the literalisation of the Bible and an awakening of Jewish conscience from exile to the promised land. The Zionist movement that started in the 19th Century by Theodore Herzel 1860 to 1904 and social Zionism by Nathan Birnbaum 1864 to 1937. This resulted in the creation of Palestine by the British after WW 1 and then the invention of Israel in 1948 uncompromisingly.
    So since 1948 there appears to be a kind of Jewish conscience to reveal the truth that the Hebrew Bible is just metaphors and allegories. They claim that there is little evidence that Moses existed, that the 10 plaques happened and there was this great Exodus.
    So no Moses no historical Old Hebrew Bible………..No Jesus either as he is dependant upon the OT. I look forward to comments.
    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      There could be a lot of history in the Hebrew Bible without a historical Moses. And whether or not Moses existed has no bearing on whether Jesus existed.

  13. TWood
    TWood  January 5, 2017

    1. In regards to Kings, Samuel, Chronicles, is it right that they are considered one “scroll” because the only reason they were actually written on two scrolls was due to the length limitations of scrolls (as opposed to codices)? In other words, if they had codices when they were written, would they have been written in one codex?

    2. Follow up… is Luke/Acts the same way (was it written as one work) or was it more like 1 and 2 Corinthians (written separately… I understand that 2 Cor. is a composite itself)? Acts *seems* to start a second account that makes it distinct from Luke (“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote…” )… But I’ve read that it was actually written as a single “scroll” and was only broken up due to its length… I can’t find a solid answer on this… so I’m hoping you can give me one…

    3. How do you pronounce “ta biblia” (“the little scrolls”)? Is the “a” in “ta” long or short? or is it something else? I’ve read it a million times.. but I don’t’ want to sound like a moron and pronounce it wrong… no one better than you could answer this one…

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2017

      1. Yes. 2. Luke-Acts, yes. 3. Ta — the “a” sounds like “aw” in “awful”

  14. Avatar
    KathleenM  January 12, 2017

    Just a thot – Phoenicians did the alphabet and then various languages developed around that time in various modes — I got Hebrew at about 650BC, so maybe earlier.

    But that means Moshe and the OT old timers might have carved something in clay or stone, but probably not much. Moses might have been an Egyptian with scribes (mentioned in the texts). I picture the stone tablets carved by God might be the numerals I to X as I’ve seen it a bit in Catholic Icons. (Then everyone memorized what they were such as with psalms.) These guys didn’t write stuff down until about then I think, or maybe earlier? Yes, scrolls. A codex I read recently had some letters in it — suggesting to sew the scrolls up forming pages and cut them so it could be a “book”.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      I think it’s pretty well established that there was writing — and writings — long before the 7th c. BCE. But I’m not particularly expert in the question.

  15. Avatar
    rap2016  January 18, 2017

    Ladies and Gentlemen
    Do we really believe that “text” on “what material” “written” can be deciphered and understood, that is over 2000 years old. That it can be identified, by its location and a time period established for it……??????????
    Lets ask some basic questions.
    Where was this “Text” found?
    “Who found it?
    What happened to it?
    Who translated it, what was their qualification?
    What does it actually say?
    What condition is it in?
    Where is it now ?
    Ladies and Gentlemen
    Europe was illiterate up to the renaissance period. That is the 16th Century.
    You are over looking this fundamental point.
    The problem is the establishment is keeping the masses ignorant.
    Fake history and fake news.
    History defines your past and who you are and where you came from. Which is why it is being controlled.
    Do your research. You will need to persevere.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2017

      There are, of course, answers to all those questions. If you want to know what they are, feel free to ask one of them.

  16. Avatar
    rap2016  January 19, 2017

    Could you comment on this one and how much of the text survived ……
    What does the actual text say……
    Thank you…

    • Bart
      Bart  January 22, 2017

      Do you mean the Hebrew Bible? It has entirely survived. It says what it is translated as saying. Maybe I’m not understanding your question.

  17. Avatar
    rap2016  January 23, 2017

    Hello Bart
    What is the name of this Hebrew Bible…..? You don’t mean the Vulgate?
    Where is it now……?
    Who wrote it……?
    Have you read it? Can you confirm the content?
    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. The Hebrew Bible today is based on the Codex Leningradensis from around the year 1000, although editions also take into account earlier surviving manuscripts — mainly those among the Dead Sea Scrolls from roughly the first century BCE. And yes, o of course I have read it. That’s my day job! (and my night one too, for that matter.) I’m a Bible scholar!

  18. Avatar
    JayinHK  April 2, 2019

    Professor Ehrman, just curious to know if scholars have any idea when Christians changed the order in the Hebrew canon and who did it? Would it have happened at/about the same time of Athanasius in 367?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      It has to do in part with the facdt that Christians were using the Septuagint — the Greek translation of the Bible — rather than the Hebrew, and the order of books is different there (though not the same as the English); also, since the technology was not available, it wasn’t until the fourth century that it was possible to put all the books together in one monster of a book — so there wasn’t any strict ordering of them.

      • Avatar
        JayinHK  April 3, 2019

        I remember reading somewhere, perhaps in one of your books, that Malachi was placed last in the Christian Old Testament so that it would flow into Matthew. Is Malachi last in the Septuagint?

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