Do Jews Read the Same Bible as Christians?

This is a multi-layered question.  At the first, most obvious level, the answer is certainly not! The Christian Bible contains the books of the New Testament which focus on Jesus Christ whereas Judaism rejects Christianity’s claim that Jesus is the Son of God and thus would obviously not include the New Testament as part of their scripture.

But what people usually mean when they ask this question is something less obvious: is the Christian Old Testament the same as Jewish Scripture?  The answer to that question is essentially yes – but the specific way you answer this question will depend on exactly how you ask it.  Is that confusing?  Let’s illustrate:

Do Jewish people use the term “Old Testament” when they talk about their scriptures?  Not among themselves!  When Christians speak of our Bible as divided into an “Old Testament” and a “New Testament” the clear implication is that the “Old Testament” is incomplete without the ‘New,’ and Jews obviously disagree strongly with that assessment.  Now most Jews are fairly tolerant of our habit of calling their scriptures the “Old Testament” but it would be more respectful if, when speaking with our Jewish friends, we simply called their holy book something like “the Jewish Bible” or the “Hebrew Scriptures.”  Or if you really want to be sophisticated, you can call it the Tanakh (but most of us non-Hebrew speakers have a lot of trouble making that final ‘chhh’ sound in the back of the throat).

Are the books of the Hebrew Bible the same as in our Old Testament?  Yes.  Every book we have in our Old Testament is found in the Hebrew Scriptures and vice versa.  (We are ignoring the so-called ‘Apocryphal’ books found in some Bibles which are not part of the Old Testament as such.)

But are the contents the Same?   If by “contents” you mean the texts in the original Hebrew, the answer is again yes.   Christian Bible translators universally rely on the same Hebrew texts as do their Jewish counterparts.

But are the English translations the same?  To a surprising degree, the answer is still ‘yes’.  Ancient Hebrew is challenging to decipher at times, and Jewish and Christian scholars are both dedicated to the most accurate translation possible, and there is considerable collaboration in that enterprise.  So, most of the time there is not more variability between Jewish and Christian translations than what you might find between various Christian versions. And although the chapter and verse divisions weren’t part of the original texts, Christian Old Testaments generally conform to the Jewish divisions, with only a few minor exceptions.  So a given verse will likely read very similarly in both Jewish and Christian Bibles.

So, you’re saying that If I picked up a Jewish Bible, I wouldn’t see much difference from the Christian Old Testament?  Well, that’s false!   Though the contents are highly similar, there are some important differences:

  • The most apparent difference is the organization. The Jewish Bible has three major divisions: Torah (‘law’ – the five books traditionally ascribed to Moses), Nevi’im (‘prophets’) and Kethuvim (‘writings’). So though the first five books are the same in our Old Testament, the order of appearance of all the other books is different.  Also, Jewish Bibles often use the original Hebrew names for the books (e.g., Genesis is Bereshit).
  • Though Jewish and Christian translations mostly agree rather closely, there are significant differences to be observed in certain passages that can be read in different ways. Jewish translators will naturally understand their scriptures in terms of Jewish history, whereas Christians will view many passages through the lens of the New Testament.  This sometimes results in significantly different choices of words (e.g., the last half of Genesis 1:2).
  • If you compare ‘study aids’ in Jewish and Christian Bibles, you will observe some very profound differences in the commentary – just as one would expect.

However, such differences not-withstanding, the somewhat remarkable reality is that when it comes to that part of the Bible which we Christians call the Old Testament, we and our Jewish friends do share the same body of writings as our sacred scriptures.

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