List of Figures

List of Maps

List of Boxes



List of Abbreviations

Overview of the Historical Period


Prologue: Orientation to Multiple Bibles and Multiple Translations

Chapter Overview

The Different Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity

Basics on Bible Translations

Chapter Review

Resources For Further Study

Appendix 1: Translation And Paraphrase Comparison Of Isa 52:13–15

Appendix 2: Characteristics Of Select English Translations Of The Bible

1 Studying the Bible in Its Ancient Context(s)

Chapter Overview

The Geography and Major Characters of the Biblical Drama

Major Periods in the Biblical Drama

Multiple Contexts, Multiple Methods


Chapter One Review

Resources for Further Study

Appendix: Israel’s History and Empires

2 The Emergence of Ancient Israel and Its First Oral Traditions

Chapter Overview

Imagining Early Israel

Problems in Reconstructing Early Israel

Traces of the Most Ancient Israelite Oral Traditions in the Bible

Focus Text: The Song of Deborah

The Creation of “Israel“ Through Cultural Memory of Resistance to Domination

Chapter Two Review

Resources for Further Study

3 The Emergence of the Monarchy and Royal and Zion Texts

Chapter Overview

Imagining Early Monarchal Israel

The Rise of the Israelite Monarchy and Resistance to It

Influence of Ancient Empires on Early Israel’s Monarchy and Writings

Echoes of Near Eastern Royal Theology in the Royal and Zion Psalms

Chapter Three Review

Resources for Further Study

4 Echoes of Past Empires in Biblical Wisdom, Love Poetry, Law, and Narrative

Chapter Overview

Echoes of Past Empires in Writings Attributed to Solomon

Uncovering Echoes of Past Empires Elsewhere in the Bible

Focus Text: The Garden of Eden Story


Chapter Four Review

Resources for Further Study

5 Narrative and Prophecy amidst the Rise and Fall of the Northern Kingdom

Chapter Overview

Setting the Stage: The Rise of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Its Texts

Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy

Amos, Prophet of Justice

Hosea, the Northern Prophet, Calling for Israel’s Devotion to Yahweh Alone


Chapter Five Review

Resources for Further Study

6 Micah, Isaiah, and the Southern Prophetic Encounter with Assyria

Chapter Overview

The Historical Context for Micah and Isaiah

Micah, a Southern Prophet, Predicting Judgment for Judah and Jerusalem

Isaiah’s Vision of Hope for Jerusalem/Zion Embedded in the Book of Isaiah


Chapter Six Review

Resources for Further Study

Appendix: Comparison of a Zion Psalm (Psalm 46) with Micah 3:9 – 12 and Isa 1:21 – 6

7 Torah and History in the Wake of the Assyrian Empire

Chapter Overview

The Seventh Century: The Space Between Empires

The Deuteronomic Torah of Moses and the Phenomenon of Hybridity

The Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy–2 Kings)

Focus Text: Deuteronomy 6:4 – 9

Chapter Seven Review

Resources for Further Study

8 Prophecy in the Transition from Assyrian to Babylonian Domination

Chapter Overview




Focus Text: Jer 31:31 – 4

Conclusion to the Pre-Exilic Period

Chapter Eight Review

Resources for Further Study

9 Laments, History, and Prophecies after the Destruction of Jerusalem

Chapter Overview

The Sixth Century: The Neo-Babylonian Destruction of Jerusalem and Exile

The Exilic Edition of the Deuteronomistic History (and Jeremiah)


Second Isaiah (also called “Deutero-Isaiah”)

Focus Text: Isa 52:13 – 53:12

Chapter Nine Review

Resources for Further Study

10 The Pentateuch and the Exile

Chapter Overview

The Lay Pentateuchal Source (L)

The Priestly Source (P)

History and Fiction

Focus Text: Gen 12:1 – 3

Conclusion on the Torah (Pentateuch) and Exile

Chapter Ten Review

Resources for Further Study

11 The Torah, the Psalms, and the Persian-Sponsored Rebuilding of Judah

Chapter Overview

History: Persian-Sponsored Building of a Temple and Torah-Centered Judaism

The Formation of the Torah

The Book of Psalms as a Torah-Centered Collection of More Ancient Psalms

The Introduction to Psalms in Psalms 1 – 2

Chapter Eleven Review

Resources for Further Study

12 Other Texts Formed in the Crucible of Post-Exilic Rebuilding

Chapter Overview

Texts Closely Associated with the Rebuilding of the Judean Community

Texts Emphasizing God’s Favor Toward Foreigners

Focus Text: Isa 56:1 – 8

Scriptures in the Post-Exile

Chapter Twelve Review

Resources for Further Study

13 Hellenistic Empires and the Formation of the Hebrew Bible

Chapter Overview

Judaism and Hellenism before the Hellenizing Crisis

The Crisis over Hellenizing Jerusalem and the Book of Daniel

The Hasmonean Kingdom and the Formation of the Hebrew Bible

The Hellenistic Period as the Setting for Other Hebrew Bible Texts

Focus Text: Daniel 10 – 12


Chapter Thirteen Review

Resources for Further Study





0.1One of our earliest manuscripts of the book of Isaiah.
0.2Scholarly edition of the same text as in Figure 0.1.
2.1Part of the hill country of central Israel.
2.2Typical pillared house of the Israelites.
2.3Tablet containing a letter from Abdi-heba.
2.4Stela listing Egyptian conquests.
2.5Animals feeding on trees.
3.1Artist’s reconstruction of Solomon’s Jerusalem.
3.2Scribe standing before the king of a small neighboring kingdom.
3.3Student exercise tablet.
3.4Letters inscribed into the surface of a stone.
3.5The “Gezer Calendar.”
4.1Copy of the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope.
4.2The Hammurabi stela.
4.3Tablet of the Gilgamesh epic containing the flood narrative.
4.4Titian’s painting of Adam and Eve taking the apple.
5.1One of the ivory carvings found in Samaria.
5.2Detail from a wall-sized panorama of the defeat of the town of Lachish in Judah.
5.3Panel from the Black Obelisk of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III.
5.4Ivory spoon found at Hazor.
5.5Drawing and inscription found at a desert trading post called Kuntillet Adjrud used by eighth-century Israelites.
5.6Pillar figurines of a sort common in archaeological remains of the eighth century.
6.1The Sennacherib prism.
6.2Judean seals from the time of Isaiah and Micah.
7.1Seals and other images from the late seventh century.
9.1Ashes and arrowheads left from the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem.
9.2Reproduction of part of the magnificent temple of Ishtar.
10.1The exilic L Source or Lay Source is much like this conglomerate rock.
10.2Silver amulet, dating to just before the fall of Jerusalem.
11.1Relief from the Persian capital of Persepolis.
11.2The Cyrus cylinder.
13.1Copy of the Hebrew book of Ben Sira found near the Dead Sea.
13.2Coin from the time of the Hasmoneans.


0.1The ancient Near East.
1.1The land of Israel and its surroundings.
1.2The major routes of the ancient Near East.
1.3The reach of three of the major empires that dominated Israel and/or Judah.
2.1Areas of the hill country occupied by the Israelites and Judeans.
3.1Areas ruled and dominated by David and Solomon.
5.1The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
7.1The Judean kingdom after the fall of the north.
9.1The journey to Babylon.
11.1Judah as a province of the Persian empire.
13.1The expanding kingdom of the Hasmoneans.


basicsWhat is a Basics Box?
 These boxes give a brief overview of basic information about a biblical book or other major text under discussion. This includes an outline of the book or text, information about the time(s) in which it was written, and (usually) a discussion of a major issue in interpretation of the book or text.

Jacob Story

Book of Psalms: Part 1

Song of Songs


Book of Proverbs

Book of Amos

Book of Hosea

Book of Micah

Deuteronomy (and the Ten Commandments)

Book of Joshua

Book of Judges

Books of Samuel

Books of Kings

Book of Nahum

Book of Zephaniah

Book of Jeremiah

Book of Lamentations

Book of Ezekiel

Second Isaiah/Deutero-Isaiah

L Source

(Hypothesized) P Source

Book of Leviticus

Book of Genesis

Book of Exodus

Book of Numbers

Book of Psalms: Part 2

Book of Haggai

Book of Zechariah

Book of Job

Book of Jonah

Book of Ruth

Book of Isaiah

Book of Daniel

Books of Chronicles

Books of Ezra–Nehemiah

Book of Esther

What is a More on Method Box?

These boxes give a brief introduction to methods used to interpret the Hebrew Bible. They detail the sorts of questions that each method attempts to answer, give an example of how the method has been applied, and include a reference to an article or book with more information about the method under discussion.

Textual Criticism

Tradition History and Transmission History

Poetic Analysis

Comparison with Non-Biblical Texts

Source Criticism

The Joseph Story and Literary Approaches

Postcolonial Criticism

(Study of) Intertextuality

Insights from History of Religions

Form Criticism and Genre

What is in Miscellaneous Boxes?

These boxes offer extra information relevant to the broader discussion. Some pull together relevant dates for a period, while others show parallels between texts, or summarize information on a theme or question that relates to the topic at hand. This information is not optional or superfluous. Instead, these boxes highlight topics that are worth focused attention.

Contents of the Hebrew Bible/Tanach/Old Testament

AD, BC, BCE, and CE

Bible Abbreviations, Verses, and Chapters

The Origins of Verses and Chapters

Overview: Order of Main Discussions of Biblical Books

The Name of Israel’s God: Yahweh/the LORD

What Was Earliest “Israel” and Who Were “Judges”?

History and the Books of Joshua and Judges

The Name “Israel”

Timeline: Rise of the Monarchy

Labels (e.g. “Psalm of David”): What They (Don’t) Tell Us

Significant Dates: The Northern Kingdom (“Israel”)

Hosea and the “Book of the Twelve Prophets”

A View from the Assyrian Imperial Court: The Annals of Sennacherib

Significant Dates: Judah under Assyrian Domination

Isaiah 6 and the “Call Narrative”

Overview: The Three Pilgrimage Festivals in the Covenant Code and Deuteronomy

Proverbs and Deuteronomy

Overview: The Covenant Code and Deuteronomy

The Conquest and Ancient Holy War

Forced Labor for Exiles Under Nebuchadnezzar

The Divine Council

The L Source: Terms for It and Pictures of Its Formation

The Story of Jacob at Bethel as an Example of the Exilic Addition of Promise to an Older Story

Which Texts Were Once Part of the P Source?

Significant Dates: The Persian-Sponsored Restoration of Judah

The Emergence of “Judaism”

Significant Dates: The Rise of the Hasmonean Kingdom


This book introduces students to the books of the Hebrew Bible as shaped in the crucible of the history of Israel and Judah, as well as in the varied interpretations of later Jewish and Christian communities. A prominent theme throughout is the way the books of the Bible reflect quite different sorts of interaction with past and present empires that dominated the ancient Near East. At first both students and professors may find this approach jarring, since I do not begin with Genesis and do not proceed through biblical books in order. The group of texts introduced early on in this textbook is quite different from the Bible they now know. Moreover, this textbook incorporates advances in Pentateuchal criticism over the last decades that are unfamiliar to both students and many professors. Yet I can say on the basis of my and others’ experience teaching this approach that the picture of the Bible’s development comes into focus as the narrative of its formation unfolds. By the end students should find meaning in aspects of the Bible that they once overlooked, even as they also understand that much of the power of the Bible has been its capability to transcend the original contexts in which it was written. Moreover, through discussion of the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation of focus texts at the end of each chapter, students will gain a taste of how faith communities have used the Bible in creative, inspired, and sometimes death-dealing ways to guide and make sense of their lives.

I have been helped by many people in writing this textbook, first and foremost my wife, Colleen Conway. Versions of these chapters were originally written for a combined introduction to the Old and New Testaments that is co-authored with her, Introduction to the Bible: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts (also published by Wiley-Blackwell), and so she has read multiple versions of them, taught them in her courses, and offered many suggestions for improvement. Several colleagues – Benjamin Sommer, Kent Reynolds, Mark Smith, and Marvin Sweeney – went way beyond the call of duty to read and suggest revisions to excerpts from the manuscript relating to areas of their expertise. I cannot say that I incorporated every revision that they suggested, and they only looked at parts of earlier draft manuscripts, but I can affirm that this book is much stronger thanks to their gracious help. In addition, my students over the last two years have read earlier drafts of this textbook and suggested corrections. Some students and teaching assistants who have offered a particularly large volume of helpful corrections are Mary Ellen Kris, Candice Olson, Lizzie Berne-DeGear, Laurel Koepf, Meagan Manas, and Todd Kennedy. My thanks to all for their generous help in this project.

The date framework given in this textbook follows that of Anson Rainey and Steven Notley’s The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem: Carta, 2005). In many cases specific dates are uncertain, but Rainey and Notley provide a recent, solid framework to start from on an introductory level. Unless otherwise indicated, the Hebrew translations here are my own.

As with any such textbook, particularly a first edition, there is plenty of room for improvement. In particular, I am acutely conscious of the multiple ways in which virtually everything that is written here could be footnoted, qualified, and balanced with other perspectives. At particular points, such as my treatment of Pentateuchal source criticism, I explicitly summarize alternative perspectives that students may encounter when reading other resources. But inclusion of all alternative perspectives would have turned this into quite a different book, and one – I suggest – that would be much less suited for introducing students to academic study of the Bible. This introduction provides one general outline of the Hebrew Bible, which students can then supplement, correct, and balance in their future studies. All that said, I certainly invite all possible suggestions for correction and improvement so that any future edition of this textbook will be better.

David Carr
New York


The author and publisher gratefully acknowledge the permission granted to reproduce the copyrighted material in this book:

Figure 0.1© John C. Trever, Ph.D., digital image by James E. Trever.
Figure 0.2Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, edited by Karl Elliger and Wilhelm Rudolph, Fifth Revised Edition, edited by Adrian Schenker, © 1977 and 1997 Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart. Used by permission.
Figure 2.1Z. Radovan/
Figure 2.3bpk/Vorderasiatisches Museum, SMB/Gudrun Stenzel.
Figure 2.4Jürgen Liepe.
Figure 3.1© Lloyd K. Townsend.
Figure 3.2William Schniedewind.
Figure 3.3akg-images/Erich Lessing.
Figure 3.4Courtesy of R. E. Tappy and The Zeitah Excavations Photograph by B. Zuckerman and M. Lundberg Overlay by P. K. McCarter, Jr.
Figure 3.5Z. Radovan
Figure 4.1© The Trustees of the British Museum.
Figure 4.2The Granger Collection/Topfoto.
Figure 4.3akg-images.
Figure 4.4Image by © Francis G. Mayer/CORBIS.
Figure 5.1Z. Radovan/
Figure 5.2akg-images/Erich Lessing.
Figure 5.3Z. Radovan/
Figure 5.4Stiftung BIBEL+ORIENT.
Figure 5.5Stiftung BIBEL+ORIENT.
Figure 5.6Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Figure 6.1Image by © The Gallery Collection/Corbis.
Figure 6.2Stiftung BIBEL+ORIENT.
Figure 7.1Stiftung BIBEL+ORIENT.
Figure 9.1Z. Radovan/
Figure 9.2akg-images/Erich Lessing.
Figure 10.1© The Natural History Museum, London.
Figure 10.2Stiftung BIBEL+ORIENT.
Figure 11.1Image by © Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS.
Figure 11.2akg-images/Erich Lessing.
Figure 13.1Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Figure 13.2Courtesy of Carta, Jerusalem.

The Pharaoh Merneptah hymn in Chapter 3, page 65, and the Cyrus cylinder text in Chapter 11, page 210: PRITCHARD, JAMES; ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN TEXTS RELATING TO THE OLD TESTAMENT – THIRD EDITION WITH SUPPLEMENT. © 1950, 1955, 1969, renewed 1978 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

At points throughout the book extracts have been used from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions in the above list and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.


ANETJames Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
GeorgeAndrew George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
LivingstoneAlasdair Livingstone (ed.), Court Poetry and Literary Miscellanea. State Archives of Assyria, 3. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1989.
NJPSThe New Jewish Publication Society Tanach Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
NRSVThe New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. New York: National Council of Churches, 1989.
NTNew Testament
OTOld Testament
OT ParallelsVictor Matthews and Don Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East (3rd revised and expanded edition). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007.

For Bible abbreviations, see the Miscellaneous Box on “Bible Abbreviations, Verses, and Chapters,” in Chapter 1, p. 18.

Asterisks after Bible citations, e.g. “Genesis 12–50*,” indicate that only parts of the cited texts are included.

// indicate that the texts before and after the slashes are parallel to each other.


This shows major periods and corresponding texts covered in this book.



Important texts are noted in boldface.


Map 0.1 The ancient Near East. Redrawn from Adrian Curtis (ed.), Oxford Bible Atlas (4th edition). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, page 67.




Chapter Outline

Chapter Overview

The Different Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity

Basics on Bible Translations

Chapter Review

Resources for Further Study

Appendix 1: Translation and Paraphrase Comparison of Isa 52:13–15

Appendix 2: Characteristics of Select English Translations of the Bible


This chapter answers the questions: “What are the biggest differences between the scriptures revered in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?” and “What should I know about in choosing an English translation of the Bible?” By the end of this chapter you should know the differences between the Bibles of Judaism and Christianity, as well as the relationship of the Muslim Koran to both sets of scriptures. You will also learn about how study of different readings of ancient manuscripts of the Bible, “textual criticism,” and advances in knowledge of ancient languages have led to major progress in translation of the Bible since the King James Version was completed in 1611. Finally, you will learn some basic things to look for in choosing an up-to-date English translation of the Bible.


Using the parallels provided at the end of the chapter in Appendix 1, compare the translations (and paraphrase) of Isa 52:13–15. What differences do you notice?

Take a look at two pages of a biblical book in your Bible. Make a list of all types of elements on those pages aside from the actual text of the Bible. Using the discussions in this chapter, identify where those elements came from.

The Different Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity

To begin, it is important to get acquainted with the different forms of the Old Testament/ Hebrew Bible recognized by different faith communities. These are referred to as different “canons” of the Bible, with “canon” meaning a collection of books that are recognized as divinely inspired scripture by a given religious community. Such books are recognized as “canonical.”

The Jewish people calls its Scriptures the “TaNaK” (or “Tanach,” with the ch pronounced like the ch in Bach). This is a word formed out of the first letters of the three main parts of the Jewish Bible: Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), Neviim (“prophets”), and Ketuvim (“writings”). See box on p. 4 for an overview of the contents of each of these three parts. The Torah, otherwise known as the Pentateuch, is the centerpiece of the Jewish Tanach, while the prophets and writings are understood as commentary on it. In accordance with the emphasis in Judaism on temple and purity, the Tanach concludes with the edict of Cyrus at the end of 2 Chronicles that authorizes the rebuilding of the Temple. The Jewish people looks with hope toward a new rebuilding of the Temple to accompany the coming of the messiah.

The Christian version of these scriptures, the “Old Testament” (OT) is organized quite differently from the Jewish Tanach. This is especially clear in the case of Protestant Bibles, which contain the very same books as the Jewish Tanach, but in a different order. Like the Jewish Bible, the Protestant “Old Testament” starts with the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and then moves to Joshua through 2 Kings and then the parallel history found in 1–2 Chronicles and Ezra–Nehemiah. The rest of the books in the Old Testament are put in the order of their traditional authors, starting with the book of Job (an early Edomite sage), and moving through Psalms (David as traditional author), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (Solomon as traditional author), and on to the major (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and minor (Hosea, etc.) prophets. As in the case of the Jewish Tanach, the ending of the Christian Old Testament is revealing. It concludes with the last chapter of Malachi, a prediction of the second coming of Elijah (Mal 4:5). This ending leads nicely into the first book of the New Testament (NT), the Gospel of Matthew, which describes the coming of John the Baptist, who is clothed like Elijah and prophesies the coming of Jesus (Matt 3:1–6).

Contents of the Hebrew Bible/Tanach/Old Testament


Other Christian churches organize their “Old Testament” similarly, but recognize additional books as part of it, books not included in the Jewish or the Protestant scriptures. For example, the Roman Catholic church also includes books such as 1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon. The Ethiopic church recognizes the book of Enoch as part of its Old Testament, and various forms of Orthodox Christianity likewise recognize slightly different groups of additional books. For the Roman Catholics, such additional books are “deutero-canonical,” which means that they belong to a “second canon.” For Protestants, such books not in the Jewish Tanach are not considered true scripture, but “apocrypha,” which means “books hidden away.” I will not hide such books away in this textbook, but neither will I be able to discuss them at length. Instead, I will discuss briefly a sampling of them: Sirach, Enoch, and the books of Maccabees.

Hebrew Bible” is yet another term that is often used to designate the scriptures shared by Jews and Christians. Many people prefer the expression “Hebrew Bible” because it avoids the pejorative connotations that the term “Old Testament” has assumed in some Christian circles. Christianity has long struggled with a tendency toward what is called “supersessionism” – the idea that Christianity and the Christian church have superseded and thus replaced Judaism and the people of Israel. For Christians who subscribe to this idea, the Old Testament is often treated as the Old and superseded Testament. It is seen as the outdated book of the “law,” as opposed to the New Testament, which is understood to be the truly scriptural word about Jesus, love, and grace. Such views reflect a lack of close reading of either the Old or the New Testament, but they are widespread and influential. Therefore, some avoid the term “Old Testament,” with its possible implications of supersessionism, and prefer terms such as “Hebrew Bible” or “First Testament” instead. Other Christians find these terms odd and /or inaccurate (for example, several chapters in the Tanach /Old Testament are not in Hebrew, but Aramaic). They prefer sticking with the Christian term “Old Testament,” but emphasize the more ancient understanding of “Old” as implying something good, rather than the more contemporary idea of “Old” being something that is outdated.

The important thing for academic study of the Bible is to understand the meanings of these different terms for the Tanach /Old Testament / Hebrew scriptures and the slight differences in contents and order of these otherwise similar collections. These differences reflect the fact that these scriptures have come to belong to multiple faith communities. In addition, the religion of Islam sees the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity as possessing a secondary authority to that of its central text, the Koran. From the Muslim perspective, the Koran represents in pure form revelations about the one true god, Allah (Arabic for “the God”), revelations present in diluted form in the Jewish Tanach and Christian Old and New Testaments. This Koran is quite different in contents from the Tanach /Old Testament, containing a set of Arabic poems attributed to the prophet Muhammad. It is not a parallel “Old Testament” or “Tanach.” Nevertheless, parts of the Koran reflect post-biblical Jewish traditions about history up to Moses, and other Muslim traditions have elaborated on stories about Adam, Abraham, Ishmael, Joseph, and other biblical figures up to and including Moses. Thus Islam represents another strand of history of interpretation of scripture, alongside Judaism and Christianity.

Thus we see that there is no one “Bible” or “Old Testament” shared by Judaism and Christianity, let alone Islam. Despite major overlaps in the contents of the Jewish Tanach and Christian Old Testament, there are significant differences in order and (occasionally) content as well. This is an initial indicator of the quite different readings that Christians and Jews give to the texts they hold in common. We will see others along the way. Moreover, this diversity of Jewish and Christian Bibles is preceded by a diversity of perspectives and voices found within the Hebrew scriptures themselves. In the following chapters, we will see this diversity in texts written at different times and even in texts offering different perspectives on the same time.

Basics on Bible Translations

Since most students do not know Hebrew or Greek, they can only read a Bible in translation. There are several things that every user of such Bible translations should know about them in order to be an informed user.

First, every translation involves many decisions by the translator about the Hebrew, Greek, or (in a few cases) Aramaic text. Scholars are still not sure about the meanings of some words, and the biblical languages do not translate precisely into English (or other modern languages). In addition, we have no original manuscript of any biblical book, and the existing biblical manuscripts disagree with each other at many points. This means that scholars must use textual criticism to decide the best Hebrew or Greek text in each case where the manuscripts disagree with each other. Luckily, over the last several centuries much progress has been made in uncovering ancient manuscripts and learning to identify copying errors and other changes in such manuscripts. In addition, there has been a huge growth in knowledge about the biblical languages.

These advances in knowledge about the text and language of the Bible mean that academic study of the Bible requires use of up-to-date translations of the biblical text. The King James Version (also known as the “Authorized Version”), though beautiful and cherished by many, is not an up-to-date translation. It was done four hundred years ago. Scholars knew far less about Hebrew and Greek then than they do now. And the translation is based on manuscripts with more errors and expansions than the manuscripts used for translations today. Therefore, the King James Version should not be used for readings in a twenty-first-century academic course on the Bible.

Translations also vary in religious perspective. The New Jewish Publication Society translation (NJPS) obviously comes out of a tradition of Jewish interpretation of the Tanach. The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and New American Bible (NAB) were produced by Catholic scholars. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV; preceded by the Revised Standard Version – RSV) aims to be an ecumenical translation, but it is part of a line of Protestant revisions of the King James Version. The New International Version (NIV; now available in updated form as Today’s New International Version) is also Protestant and was conceived as an evangelical alternative to the RSV/NRSV.

Figure 0.1 One of our earliest manuscripts of the book of Isaiah, dated to the early first century bce. Note how the letters are hung from lines on the parchment and a scribe has added a verse into the middle.


Figure 0.2 Scholarly edition of the same text as in Figure 0.1. In contrast to the early manuscript it has chapter and verse numbers along with scholarly notes at the bottom about alternative Hebrew readings to the ones given in the body of the text.



“Textual criticism” is not general study of a text. Instead, textual criticism focuses exclusively on getting the best textual reading for a given biblical text in its original language. Over the centuries scribes have introduced tens of thousands of minor changes into biblical texts as they copied them. Some were introduced by accident, as when a scribe might accidentally copy a given line twice. Other changes seem more intentional, where a scribe seems to have added a clarification of a place name or a theological correction or expansion.

In search of the best reading

Textual critics use two main methods to uncover the best reading for a Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic biblical text. The first method is to compare ancient manuscripts of a given passage with each other, seeing if one or more manuscript witnesses to the passage seem to preserve a better reading. For example, one major witness for the Hebrew Bible is the Masoretic text (MT), the authoritative version of the Hebrew text that was produced by Jewish scribes in the medieval period. Other important witnesses for the Hebrew Bible are the biblical manuscripts found at the Dead Sea (Qumran), the Pentateuch preserved by the Samaritan community (around Samaria in the north), and even ancient translations of early Hebrew manuscripts, especially the Septuagint (LXX), an ancient set of translations of various biblical books into Greek.

On occasion, a biblical scholar may judge that all of the textual witnesses preserve an error. In such cases, that scholar may propose a reading that is not preserved in any manuscript. This second method of correction is called conjectural emendation.

Translations also vary in style: whether they aim to stay as close to the biblical languages as possible or whether they aim for maximum readability. Formal correspondence translations aim to stay as close as possible to word-for-word translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek text. This can make them good tools for study, but it also makes them more difficult to understand. Translations that tend toward formal correspondence include the NRSV, NIV, and the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Other translations tend toward dynamic equivalence, which aims for equivalent meaning, but not a word-for-word translation. This results in translations that are more readable, but also contain more interpretation on the part of translators. Examples of translations that tend toward dynamic equivalence include the NJB, NAB, and several other translations produced by Protestant groups, such as the Good News Translation (GNT); also known as the “Good News Bible” and as TEV – Today’s English Version) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV). These translations should be distinguished from resources such as the Living Bible or Amplified Bible. The latter are not direct translations of the Hebrew and Greek texts, but paraphrases or expansions of other translations. For example, the Living Bible is a paraphrase of the nineteenth-century American Standard Version. Such paraphrase subtly adds yet another level of interpretation between the reader and the original text and is not helpful for academic work on the Bible.

One more way that contemporary Bible translations vary is in the extent to which they aim to use gender-neutral language, such as “humanity” instead of “mankind.” Though older writing conventions endorsed the use of “man” for “human” or “he” for “he or she,” many now argue that general use of such male-focused language reinforces male domination of women. This has led to two levels of revision of older translations that used such male-specific language. In some cases, past English translators had used male-specific words to translate Hebrew or Greek expressions that were gender neutral. The recent revision of the NIV translation, Today’s New International Version, aims to correct such mistranslations to what is termed “gender-accurate” English expressions. Some other translations revise yet other references to people toward gender-neutral English terms, even in cases where the original biblical languages use masculine nouns. Examples of such translations include the NRSV, NJB, and the Contemporary Torah, a “gender-sensitive” revision of the NJPS. I generally follow that policy in this Introduction, using “God” rather than “he” or “him” and preferring gender-neutral references to human beings. Nevertheless, the Bible was formed in a culture that privileged masculinity and conceived its God in largely masculine terms, and this is reflected at points in the translations included in this textbook.

Finally, readers should recognize that all these translations are published in different editions, each with its own perspective and added resources. For example, the New Oxford Annotated Bible and the HarperCollins Study Bible are not different translations, but different editions of the NRSV. Each one has a different introductory essay, introductions to the biblical books, and brief commentary on the biblical text written by biblical scholars commissioned by the publisher. Indeed, whenever you use a given translation, it usually includes many other elements that were added by the publisher of the particular edition that you are using: headings for different sections of the biblical text, marginal references to other biblical passages, maps, and other additions. These can be helpful resources. Nevertheless, users of such editions should be aware of how these additional elements – none of which is actually part of the Bible per se – can subtly influence how one reads a given biblical passage. They should be used critically.

As time allows, it is often a good idea to compare multiple good translations with each other to see where there are significant differences. Some like to use online resources for this, such as Crosswire’s “Bible Tool” ( or the Bible Gateway (, though these resources are generally limited to older, out-of-date translations. Better alternatives are The Complete Parallel Bible, which contains four recent translations of the whole Bible (NRSV, NJB, New English Bible [NEB], and NAB), or a Bible software tool (such as Accordance, Bible Works, or Logos) that is equipped with multiple, recent translations. Such comparison can reveal major differences between translations, and the more one finds such differences, the more one wonders how to decide between the alternatives. This is ideally solved by learning biblical languages! Many students, however, lack time and /or interest in going that far with biblical studies. For those lacking knowledge of biblical languages it is important to know where a given translation is but one possible rendering in English of a phrase in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek that could also be rendered, perhaps better, in another way. Comparison of Bible translations shows this.


1. Know the meaning and significance of the following terms discussed in this chapter:

bullet apocrypha

bullet canon and canonical

bullet conjectural emendation

bullet deutero-canonical boosks

bullet dynamic equivalence translation

bullet formal correspondence translation

bullet Hebrew Bible

bullet King James Version

bullet Koran

bullet LXX

bullet manuscript witness

bullet Masoretic text

bullet MT

bullet Old Testament

bullet Pentateuch

bullet Septuagint

bullet supersessionism

bullet Tanach or TaNaK

bullet textual criticism

bullet Torah


Editions of translations

The first edition listed provides an overview of several translations; some good editions follow.

The Complete Parallel Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

The New Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1985. This is the NJB.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible (3rd edition), eds. Michael Coogan et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This contains the NRSV.

The Jewish Study Bible, eds. A. Berlin et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. This contains the NJPS.

The HarperCollins Study Bible (fully revised and updated), eds. Harold W. Attridge et al. San Francisco: Harper-SanFrancisco, 2006. This contains the NRSV.

One-volume commentaries

Mays, James L., ed. HarperCollin’s Bible Commentary (revised edition). San Francisco: Harper & Row, 2000.

Newsom, Carol A., and Ringe, Sharon H., The Women’s Bible Commentary (2nd edition). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

The formation of the Jewish and Christian scriptures

Barton, John. How the Bible Came to Be. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

Bible software packages for searches and initial work with biblical languages

For Mac (and Windows with a free Mac Emulator): The “Introductory Level” of the “Scholars Collection” of Accordance software from Oaktree Software ( Be sure to specify that you want the NRSV, NJB, or other up-to-date translation. Otherwise you are given the King James Version by default.

Only for Windows:

Bible Works (

Bibloi (; this was formerly “Bible Windows”)

Logos (

You can also obtain free software for searching and reading the Bible at

Useful websites for translation comparison

Note that these mainly feature old translations.

Crosswire –

The Bible Gateway –

Studylight (more up-to-date translations) –