Ask the Rabbi
What do Jews believe about the Bible?
In this series I'm going to focus on perhaps the most foundational similarity between Judaism and Christianity - the Bible. More than just an historical record of the nation of Israel, the Scriptures have provided a spiritual compass for both Christians and Jews for thousands of years. But what exactly do Jews believe about the Bible?
The question may sound simple, but it could take an entire college semester to adequately respond. The story is told of a pagan who came to the house of Rabbi Hillel who lived in the first century, asking the Rabbi to teach him all about Judaism while standing on one foot. He wanted a quick fix, not a long dissertation. Hillel gently responded to the request by paraphrasing the Biblical adage and saying, "That which is hateful to you do not do to another." "That," said Rabbi Hillel, "is the essence of the entire Bible. The rest is commentary, go study it." This story reminds us how difficult it can be in a short period of time to deal adequately with the details and nuances of complex issues.
When Jews use the term "Bible", what they are referring to is the Tanach. The Tanach is an acronym for three things: T stands for Torah, namely, the 5 books of Moses from Genesis through Deuteronomy; N represents Neviim or the Prophets from Joshua through Malachi; and K is for Ketuvim or Writings, comprising Psalms, Scrolls of Esther, Ruth, Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah. (Of course, this spells "Tanak" - "Tanach" is simply an alternative spelling). In other words, what Christians refer to as the Old Testament is, for Jews, the Bible - and the same Old Testament writings form the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity.
Both Jews and Christians share a love and reverence for the Tanach which has guided both communities for centuries, and served as the cornerstone of Western Civilization. Indeed, we would all do well to remember that it was through the Jews that God gave the Gentiles both their Bible and their Lord. As Paul in Chapter 11 of the Book of Romans says, the Jewish rejection of Jesus resulted in a blessing for believing Gentiles who were thereafter grafted onto the rich Abrahamic olive tree. But Gentiles ought not to be haughty, for it is the root that supports the wild olive shoots, not the reverse.
Thus, I don't think it is either presumptuous or out of line to say that Christians owe the Jewish people a debt of gratitude for faithfully preserving this book, God's word, before Jesus or the church arrived. Often the Bible was saved at great cost in the face of terrible suffering and persecution administered by Hellenists, Babylonians and other nations. Such nations sought to turn the Jews away from the true God and the Bible to paganism.
We'll deal more with how Jews view the Bible, and the similarities between Christian and Jewish views of the Bible, in next week's installment of Ask the Rabbi.