Where Did The Hebrew Bible Come From?

The origins of the term “Hebrew” remain a mystery. The Biblical term Ivri, meaning “to traverse” or “to pass over,” is usually rendered as “Hebrew” in English, and it comes down to us from the ancient Greek Ἑβραῖος and the Latin “Hebraeus.” The Biblical word Ivri has the plural form Ivrim, or Ibrim.

In addition, the word “book” is somewhat mysterious, as well. It comes down to us from the Middle English, via the Old French from ecclesiastical Latin for “biblia”, which comes from the Greek “biblia” meaning ‘(the) books’, from biblion ‘book’, originally a diminutive of biblos meaning ‘papyrus, scroll’, of Semitic origin. It may refer to the ‘people of the book,’ the ancient Hebrews.

The Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, is the canonized collection of books, divided into 24 scrolls, that has come down to us from ancient times. The modern 24 scrolls have been canonized from the Masoretic text (developed in the medieval period which is the primary source for the Hebrew and Aramaic language texts in the Hebrew Bible, and confirmed with certain texts found at Qumran). However, much earlier the canon was divided into three main sections: the Torah,  or “Teaching,” also called the Pentateuch in Greek or the “Five Books of Moses”; the Neviʾim, or “Prophets”; and the Ketuvim, or “Writings.” Since we cannot possibly know the true origins of the Hebrew canon, we can only point at the “likely story,” to quote Plato’s Timaeus. A popular theory is that Ezra and Nehemiah were the faithful scribes who returned the Torah to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, which ended in 539 BC when Cyrus conquered Babylon and freed the Jewish slaves.

Many of the early books of the canon were cited by rabbis, particularly books of the Torah, among other apocryphal Hebrew texts, such as in the book of Sirach or also in the writings of Philo and Josephus. The contemporary Hebrew Bible was likely set somewhere between the Hasmonean Dynasty in Judah or even as late as the 2nd century, though the Torah was likely assembled much earlier.

The Hebrew canon survived near constant imperial domination of Israel and was thankfully absorbed into the Hellenic world. The scrolls were adopted into the library at Alexandria and they were translated as the Septuagint (transliterated and latinized from the Greek meaning the “the translation of the seventy” -in reference to the 70 Jewish scholars commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to produce an identical translation). The Pentateuch (meaning something like “five books”) is the Greek term for the Torah. The Septuagint is the earliest Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the one most commonly used during the time of Jesus. As Christianity developed, the Hebrew canon was transformed into the “Old Testament.” In the late 4th century, Jerome translated the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible, and gradually the Bible became widespread as it was translated into the common tongues of people the world over. In Islam, the Torah (“Tawrah”) is believed to be a revelation to Moses, and the Psalms (“Zabur”) are believed to be a revelation to David. Therefore, the Hebrew Bible, its collection of ancient scrolls, have been interpreted and reimagined the across the world, spawning three monotheistic religions.

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