The Hebrew Bible and Other Sacred Writings

The Tanakh

The sacred writings of the Jews are divided into the primary (or foundational) and the supplementary ones. The primary ones are those found in the Hebrew Bible (or Hebrew Scriptures), known in Hebrew as the Tanakh (or Tanak). The supplementary ones are called the Talmud (which contains the Mishnah and Gemara) and Midrash. The Hebrew Bible is a collection of particular books which were once separate scrolls. The word Bible, in fact, was derived from the Greek word biblia, which means books. Thus a bible, strictly speaking, means a collection of books. The particular books of the Hebrew Bible are classified into three groups: (1) the Torah (The Teachings), (2) Nevi’im (The Prophets), and (3) Kethuvimor Ketuvim (The Writings). The name Tanakh is actually an acronym for these three particular books. The vowel “a” was added to the first Hebrew letter of each of the names of these particular books, namely T-N-K. (See Molloy 2010, 292-94 and Matthews 2010, 238-39 for a discussion of the Hebrew Bible.)

The Torah

The word Torah means “teachings and instructions.” The Torah is the set of laws that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. This set of laws is believed to have been given to Moses in two forms: the written form, known as the Written Torah, and the oral form, known as the Oral Torah. The Written Torah consists of 613 rules (mitzvot in Hebrew), which include the ten commandments written on two stone tablets. The Oral Torah (which Moses transmitted to Aaron, his brother, who in turn transmitted to his sons and others), which supplements the Written Torah, was originally intended to remain as an “oral tradition” and to be passed on from parent to child throughout the generations. It was only later (fourth century BCE, after the destruction of the second temple of Jerusalem) that the Oral Torah was written to ensure its preservation during the times of war. What the Tanakh contains is the Written Torah; the Oral Torah is what is contained in the Talmud, which consists of the books of Mishnah and Gemara (previously these books were separate until they were combined to form the Talmud).

The Written Torah is considered the most important part of the Tanakh because it contains God’s covenant with the Jews and God’s instructions to them in fulfilling their part of the covenant. The Torah in the Tanakh contains five books, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books are also known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses, for they are widely believed to be written by Moses (some contemporary scholars, though, question thinking).

The Nevi’im

The Nevi’im consists of materials from what are called former prophets (or major prophets) and latter prophets (or minor prophets). There are in total 22 books comprising the Nevi’im. Each book is named after its respective prophet.

The Kethuvim

The Kethuvim consists of materials that are generally based on human knowledge and experiences, some of which reflect Greek, Persian, and Egyptian influences that greatly influenced the Israelites.

The Particular Books

The following are the books under the three particular books of the Tanakh.


(The Teachings)


(The Prophets)


(The Writings)

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy

(Former Prophets)

Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings

(Latter Prophets) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and The Twelve (treated

as one book) consisting of Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and the Festal Scrolls: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and First and Second Chronicles

The Tanakh generally corresponds to the Old Testament of the Christian Bible with some minor differences in the order of the books. The name “Old Testament,” however, is not acceptable to some Jewish scholars because of its connotation that it is meaningful only in relation to the “New Testament.”

The Talmud

As noted above, the Talmud is a set of books consisting of the Mishnah and Gemara, which are commentative and interpretative writings. The Mishnah is a collection of writings that were originally oral instructions intended to supplement the laws of the Written Torah. The Mishnah thus refers to the Oral Torah. The Gemara, on the other hand, is a collection of legal and ethical commentaries on the Mishnah. The Talmud has two versions, the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud, produced by the rabbis (Jewish teachers) from Babylonia and Palestine, respectively. The Babylonian Talmud is considered the more authoritative version and thus is what is standardly referred to when one speaks of the Talmud. The Palestinian Talmud is considered incomplete and not clearly written.

The Midrash

The Midrash examines the nonliteral meanings of the Tanakh. Midrash writings are ordered around the layout of the Tanakh. They are mostly stories that relate to words, themes, or stories in the Tanakh, which aim to make these words, themes, or stories more understandable and applicable to a person’s life. Sometimes a midrash changes the general understanding of a biblical story. For example, many people familiar with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden will say that Eve ate an apple. The idea of the apple came from a midrash, for in the biblical story the name of the fruit is not mentioned.