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The Bible a Jewish book


by Eelco Hooglander

You can enumerate a list of peculiarities about the Bible. It is the most ancient book in the world; in spite of its age, the Bible is still very relevant to our times (more then 560 million Bibles are sold each year (1997); it has withstood many attacks: Roman emperors who ordered to burn all Bibles, the Roman Catholic Church who prohibited the Bible for the common people, the modern critical theology, which tried to deprive the Bible of all power, etc. The miracle is that the Bible always keeps going. It is also the most translated Book in the world: it has been translated partly, or wholly, in 2261 languages. Finally all those million Bibles and all these translations spring from one original Hebrew and Greek Bible.

What makes the Bible so special?

Indeed, the Bible is very special. But what makes it so unique? First of all the Bible is the only Book in the world that is inspired by God. This means that the writers have written the Bible exactly as God Himself has wanted and meant it. The Holy Spirit has guided the thoughts of those who wrote the Bible in this way, that they wrote as He meant the Bible to be for us people. That is why we can say that the Scripture is unfailing. This means that the words that are written in this Book are all completely trustworthy. But we will also see that the Bible is unique in its origin, its development and in its distribution.

Jewish Book

We cannot imagine the Bible without the Jewish people and we cannot imagine the Jewish people without the Bible. That is why Israel is called ‘the people of the Book’. The last thesis, that we cannot imagine the Jewish people without the Bible, has also a painful friction in itself. For the first part of the Bible the thesis is correct: We cannot imagine the Jewish people without the Tanakh (The Old Testament). But unfortunately, many Jews have to do without the second part of the Bible, the New Testament. Many of them do not realize that this second part could be a Jewish Book in any way at all.

The Bible is unique in its origin

The word ‘Bible’ springs from the Greek word ‘biblia’, which means ‘books’. Because of this, we may notice that the Bible has been composed from several books. More then 40 writers have been writing the books of the Bible over a period of 1500 years. This fact alone is very special. Normally one or at most a few writers put a book together. For an encyclopaedia 40 writers could be possible, but then it should be 40 writers who lived at the same time. Possibly one or two generations could be between it, but 1500 years.....?! And still such a coherent unity! That is really unique.

Every writer had his own background, social climate, knowledge and experience. For example: Moses has been a shepherd, but he has also been a prince at the court of Pharaoh. Jeremiah was the son of a priest, who was called very young to be a prophet. Amos was a cattle breeder, Peter was a fisherman, Paul was a Pharisee and Matthew was a publican. The thing they have in common: they are all writers of the Bible, born as descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and therefore belonging to the Jewish people.

There is more that they have in common. In spite of the fact that they sometimes did not know each other and they lived in different periods of time, with sometimes intervals of centuries between them, they were all writing with the same purpose: The plan of God to redeem this world by the coming of a Redeemer: Yeshua Messiah. This purpose was also inextricably bound up with the Jewish people. For God had made a covenant with Abraham. He had chosen Israel to be His special people, to whom He gave His promises, for the benefit of all nations. Not because the Jewish people was a large or strong people, but because of love. Moses said: “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God; the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto Himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the LORD loved you, and because He would keep the oath which He had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deut. 7:6-8)

But most of all… out of Israel the Messiah would be born, for the salvation of all people.

The origin of the first five books

Regarding the origin of the first five books of the Bible, we come to Moses. Under God’s guidance he wrote the history from creation until Israel’s journey through the desert (so from about 4000 until 1400 before Christ). Many histories from the beginning of creation probably have been passed on by word of mouth (until the time of Noah people reached an average age of 900 years, so the transformation as a result of oral tradition will have been minor). After the flood the average age of people diminished, although Shem had lived for 50 years in the same period as Jacob and Esau. In Abraham’s time, clay tablets were already known. The patriarchs probably have written down their stories on them and left them to their children. Moses probably has used those oral and written sources.

In Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, many laws and ordinances are described for the Jewish people. This created the basis of their identity as a people. We can look upon the writing of the first five books of the Bible as a means of God to prove and confirm His covenant and connection with the Jewish people. They call the first five books of the Bible ‘Torah’, which means ‘Teaching’.

Samuel

After Joshua and the time of the Judges, Samuel was born (about 1100 before Christ). In his time there were prophet schools in Israel, who, as people assume, have also written parts of the Bible. The books Judges and Ruth are ascribed to Samuel or one of the prophets from such a prophet school. The first book of Samuel narrates his death. So other prophets must have written the stories about the period after his death. The Bible also gives further details about this in I Chronicles 29:29, where we can read that the history of David is written down by Samuel, Nathan and Gad: “ Now the acts of David the king, first and last, behold, they are written in the book of Samuel the seer, and in the book of Nathan the prophet, and in the book of Gad the seer.”

The books 1 and 2 Kings (about 980-586 before Christ) are written by various prophets, as mentioned in the referral texts in Chronicles.

In the time of the Kings, in the kingdom of the two tribes as well as in the kingdom of the ten tribes, the prophets spoke and wrote their prophecies, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Think of Isaiah, Hosea and Habakkuk for example. The same is true for the period during and after the Babylonian exile (for example Ezekiel and Zechariah).

After the Babylonian exile the priest Ezra was the one who brought the bulk of the Old Testament canon together. Apart from being the author of his own book, he was probably also the editor of the book of Chronicles.

The sequence of the Jewish Bible

The sequence of the books of the Jewish Tanakh is different then the sequence of the common Old Testament. The Tanakh is divided in three parts: the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. The book of Psalms is the most important book of the Writings. The Lord Jesus also seems to use this division in three parts in Luke 24:44, where He says: “...that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses (Torah), and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms (Writings), concerning Me.”

According to the Jewish order, the books Joshua up to and including Kings belong to the (early) prophets. The later prophets are the books Isaiah up to and including Malachi, with the exception of the book Daniel, which belongs to the Writings. Chronicles makes the last book of the Torah. When the LORD speaks about the blood shed upon the earth ‘from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias’ (Matt. 23:35), He means from Abel to the end of the Tanakh.

After the prophecy of Malachi there has been a silence of God for 400 years, until the Word Himself became flesh. He came to live among His people, but they did not recognize Him (John 1:11). But...the ones that received Him, who recognized him as Messiah Who was to come, were also the ones that were about to write down the New Testament, or rather the New Covenant. . The second part of Gods Word came into being. After that the salvation would come to the Gentiles.

The New Testament has come into being in the period of about 45 until 95 AD and consists of 27 books/letters. Most of them were not written in Israel, but in the countries and places around the Mediterranean area. Nevertheless they were all written by Jewish writers; disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul has written 14 letters (assuming that the letter to the Hebrews is of his hand), from different places. From Rome, where he was twice in prison, he wrote 6 letters. He also wrote letters during his stay in Corinth, Ephesus and Macedonia. Peter, Luke and Mark also wrote from Rome, while John wrote his letters in Ephesus and the Book of Revelation on Patmos. Peter wrote his first letter from Babylon (1 Pet. 5:13). Curious, that all these letters and books, written by Jewish people from so many places, all ended up in one Bible and form a unity, confirm each other, complete each other, and all are testifying of Yeshua; the Word that became flesh.

The tradition of the Bible

How could all these Holy Scriptures have been saved during so many centuries? That was the work of the ‘people of the Book’; the Jewish people to whom the world owes gratitude. Because of their efforts we have an exceptionally accurate copy of the Holy Scriptures. As an example for the tradition of the Bible we will take a Psalm of David, who wrote the words on a piece of papyrus or parchment, which was copied to be used for the singers in the temple for example. Because more Psalms were written, they were put together on one scroll. That is how a scroll of (a part of the) Psalms came into being. The scrolls were kept and copied again and again because of wear. In the time of Ezra all Bible scrolls (from Torah, Prophets and Writings) were gathered and saved in the temple and synagogues. Since then this went on through the centuries.

After the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD) and the revolt of Bar Kochba (135 AD), the Jewish people lived in the Diaspora, in dispersion. However, the tradition of the Tanakh went on undiminished from generation to generation.

From the early Middle Ages on Jewish keepers of the text were called ‘Masoretes’. They copied the Bible in a very accurate way. In the margin of the text the amount of characters was noted down, the amount of expressions, the character on the middle of each verse and the middle of each book. All this controlled by counting. That is how we know that the Aleph (the first character of the Hebrew alphabet) appears 42.337 times in the Old Testament and the Beth (2nd character) 38.218 times.

Before they started and during the copying of the Bible, the Sopherim (writers) needed to meet several requirements. The writer had to wash himself first and dress himself in a religious garment, before he could start copying. He was not allowed to write a word or a character by heart. The room between two characters should be the breadth of a hair and between two words it should be the breadth of one character. This work was so very important, that even if a king entered their room, they were not allowed to take notice of that.

In case of a clerical error, they were not allowed to correct the mistake. That part of the scroll had to be buried.

As a result of the accurate way of copying only very few clerical errors are known of the Old Testament. This was evidently proved when in 1947 the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ were found. These are scrolls, hidden during the Jewish revolt (about 70 years after Christ) in the caves of Qumran (about 12 km south of Jericho). Comparing the Dead Sea Scrolls and the oldest Bible texts still existent, hardly any difference in the texts was found. This means almost no clerical errors in a period of 10 centuries.

The distribution of the Bible

The fact that the tradition of the Bible was so accurate, does not mean that the Bible is distributed over the whole world. If distribution depended on the Jewish scholars, it would not have happened. The Bible was copied accurately for the descendants of their own people. The historical notice that they are God’s chosen people, was (and is) deep-rooted in them. The fact that the Word of God is distributed over the whole world is because of the Lord’s missionary order: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19).

This missionary order has been practiced by the disciples and later by Paul. Paul even tells his ‘strategy’: To the Jew first and also to the Greek. Besides this order he also went to places where no one else had brought the Gospel (Rom. 15:20).

Others took over the work of Paul and the other apostles. They went through the whole Roman Empire and even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Gospel kept on spreading. Next to the oral spreading of the Gospel, also the spreading in writing started. For this, as in oral preaching, translation was needed. For the Bible was written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). A Greek translation of the Old Testament was already available. Jewish scholars in the Diaspora had finished this ‘Septuagint’ in the second century before Christ. One of the first translations of the whole Bible was the translation into Latin, the language of the Romans. This translation was made by Hieronymus and is called the ‘Vulgate’. It has been used for ages in the Roman-Catholic church. For centuries, the Roman-Catholic church did not consider translation of the Bible into other languages to be advisable. Not until the 14th century, John Wycliffe in England dared to translate the Bible in a different language then Latin. Later on, Erasmus followed, who translated the Bible in Latin again, and Luther, who translated the Bible into German. Since the Reformation the Bible has been translated into the language of every country where the Word is brought.

The Society for Distributing Hebrew Scriptures, co-operating closely with ‘Israël en de Bijbel’, has its unique position amongst the many Bible societies. For the SDHS publishes bilingual Bibles, for distribution among the Jewish people. On the one page of this Bibles you see the Hebrew text and on the opposite page the text in the language of the country where the Bibles are given away. The Bibles are available in the following languages:

Tanakhs: Hebrew-English, Hebrew-Russian, Hebrew-French and Hebrew-Hungarian.

New Testaments: Hebrew-Arabic, Hebrew-Dutch, Hebrew-English, Hebrew-French, Hebrew-German, Hebrew-Hungarian, Hebrew-Portuguese, Hebrew-Romanian, Hebrew-Russian, Hebrew-Spanish and Hebrew-Yiddish.