Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? What’s the Difference, and Does it Matter?

The topic has tangentially been raised in the comments between Roy and myself on this post (Review of Routledge’s OT Theology) on the distinction between Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, more applicably, which is the basis for ‘OT’ theology (the name itself perhaps being a dead giveaway, but I don’t know that it is so clear).

Old Testament is obviously the Christian designation for the first collection of books in the canon.  It is a (purely?) confessional designation that speaks of a particular ordering of books (ending with Malachi) that bears a relationship, of some sort depending upon who you are reading, to the NT.

Hebrew Bible is the attempt to be more neutral, the idea being that “Old” in “Old Testament” belies some level of antiquated ethics, thoughts, morals, and texts that have been replaced and/or fulfilled in Jesus, and are thus of little, or less, relevance for informing Christian faith and thought.  The label “Hebrew Bible” also seeks to be more appreciative not only of the obvious Jewish roots of Christianity but of the contemporary Jewish community, to whom these Scriptures still serve as the foundation for Jewish faith and identity.  It is, in a way, an attempt to move beyond supersessionism/triumphalism.

Personally, I will more often than not employ “Hebrew Bible” for many of the reasons offered above.  But, I also see myself using Hebrew Bible because I am reading the Hebrew canon of books, which ends with 2 Chronicles and not with Malachi, and which belongs to the Hebrew people.  Of course, most scholarship reads the Hebrew text but assumes the Christian canonical order.  This is fine, but a bit untruthful to the reality of what one is reading.  Regardless, the canonical ordering often has little bearing on my scholarship to this point . . . . I am not a canonical interpreter.  I also find it amusing that when I do say “Old Testament,” some of my colleagues will immediately say “Ha!” and point out my apparent faux pas in uttering such a phrase.  I still don’t really know what they’re getting at there, beyond the simple idea of affirming for themselves that someone who knows the text better than they can still say “Old Testament,” affirming their own a priori methods of reading (I know that sounds terribly arrogant, but I do wonder if it is part of the issue).

“Hebrew Bible” has its problems.  Among the main arguments (and a silly one, if you ask me) is that it also includes Aramaic.  Ok, that’s fine, but the Aramaic also contains various loan words from other languages . . . . so should we call it the Semitic Bible?  Ridiculous.  And the Greek New Testament contains Aramaic (for instance, Jesus’ words talitha cum or eli eli lema . . . . , albeit in Greek characters).  This is a silly argument to me.  As an attempt to remedy this issue, some have proffered “Jewish Scriptures” or “First Testament.”  For reasons that should be obvious, these titles are also not without their difficulties. 

In the end, does such a difference truly matter?  What difference does it make?  The first footnote to Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy discusses this issue in a responsible way.  This brings up the attendant question of what is OT theology?  In the comments to the post cited above, I note that there is a dearth of Hebrew Bible theology, and much Old Testament theologyends up being almost entirely Christian.  Is this a problem?  Is there such a thing as Hebrew Bible theology?  Should there be?  Can there be?  And if so, is it–like OT theology–a purely confessional discipline that only Jews can do successfully?

A closing thought: in my Ph.D. admissions interview at Baylor, I was asked whether it was possible for a Christian to read the Hebrew Bible, or whether they are always reading the Old Testament.  This question bears significantly on the present discussion.  At bottom, my answer was a resounding yes . . . . as an empathetic, sympathetic, and intimate part of Israel (see Rom 9-11, as well as Boccacini, Segal, and Boyarin on the origins of early [Jewish]-Christianity), it was possible for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible.  I firmly believe this–indeed, I am trying to do it!   

What are your thoughts?  Which do you use/prefer, and why: Hebrew Bible or Old Testament?  How do you understand the difference?  And how might the decision bear on a theology of the TANAK (see how I evaded the issue there?!).



28 thoughts on “Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? What’s the Difference, and Does it Matter?

  1. Celucien Joseph says:

    Thanks pointing out the big difference between [the] “Hebrew Bible” and [the] “Old Testament.” It seems to me using the canonical title “Old Testament” somewhat robs Christianity of its Jewish Root and thus implies some sort of “triumphalist theology.” However, I’m comfortable using both “Hebrew Bible” and “Old Testament.” For me audience matters. For example, if I’m speaking to Christian friends I use “Old Testament,” whereas, with other people includings Jews and non-Jews, preferrably I use the term “Hebrew Bible.” Finally, I would like to stress that the reference, the “Hebrew Bible” does more justice to the Jewishness of the Christian faith.

  2. Rob Kashow says:


    You say,

    “Personally, I will more often than not employ ‘Hebrew Bible’ for many of the reasons offered above. But, I also see myself using Hebrew Bible because I am reading the Hebrew canon of books, which ends with 2 Chronicles and not with Malachi, and which belongs to the Hebrew people. Of course, most scholarship reads the Hebrew text but assumes the Christian canonical order. This is fine, but a bit untruthful to the reality of what one is reading.”

    Though you are not a canonical interpreter (are you sure your not quasi-canonical?), I like you a lot more for these statements and this post. 🙂 Thanks for this.

  3. Michael says:

    Like you, I prefer Hebrew Bible as an appelation for the first have of the Christian Scriptures. I do, however, wonder if in an effort to correct preceptions of supercessionism, we have oversimplified how ancient Israel understood the text themselves. I guess I still have a lot of unanswered questions regarding the content and extent of early canon(s).

    I’m sure Rob will demur. 😉

  4. John Anderson says:

    Thank you all for your comments!

    Celucien: I do agree with you that the immediate context one finds themselves in should dictate one’s usage. If one does not always use “Hebrew Bible” one certainly should use it in the company of Jews or of a mixed crowd. Similarly, I believe if one is praying in an open setting where there may be Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., one should not by default end the prayer “in Jesus’ name.” I have had some challenge me on both these points, stating that it just makes one be untruthful to who they are. My challenge is that I’d much rather show openness and comraderie with other faiths. Dare I say I have learned just as much, if not more, from Judaism and Islam about what it means to be a Christian than I have from Christian interpreters. Yes, I think I dare.

    Rob: Thanks. You are right, btw; it is highly likely I am quasi-canonical. I’m surely more canonical than I am historical-critical! When I say I am not a canonical interpreter, I simply mean I don’t (always) look for answers elsewhere in the canon. It is a very midrashic practice, and I love and deeply respect Midrash. I just don’t often interpret canonically beyond the fact that I am interpreting the final, canonical form of the text. Either way, I’m glad you’re pleased.

    Doug: Thanks for these links. I will read them with interest. The issue is not a tidy one, still.

    Michael: You bring up another interesting, related issue: the hitsorical element to all of this. Personally, my decision to use “Hebrew Bible” over “Old Testament” is attributed almost solely to more modern concerns (i.e., supersessionism, respect for contemporary Judaism which still holds these texts to be sacred). To be sure, there are historical concerns I have (appreciation for the Jewish roots of Christianity), but that too seems to have a bit of a modern flavor to it (i.e., I am still amazed how many people sitting in the pews are entirely unaware that Jesus was Jewish, as were his disciples, as were the gospel writers likely, as was Paul, and moreover that Christianity was [is?] a type of Judaism). I also don’t know how successful we can be in getting to any concrete sense of how ancient Israel understood these texts. At least not anything patent or overt, often.

    • Michael says:

      John: Yes. That’s the trouble with historical work. Certainty (and sometimes probability) is out of the question.

      I like to think of Christianity as a sect of Judaism, though I doubt our Jewish colleges would be found of that idea.

    • Rob Kashow says:

      John, one other comment. You said, “I simply mean I don’t (always) look for answers elsewhere in the canon.” Childs would agree with this. He was very big on hearing a book for its own voice. Have you read through IOTS?

      • John Anderson says:


        Indeed, I have. I own and display the book proudly. And I realize my initial statement is only one aspect of Childs’ method. But I do fashion myself more as a literary reader of texts (a la Alter) than I do a canonical critic, yet I do emphasize the final canonical form of the text.

  5. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    John, excellent summary of the issue! I hope I’ve never been one of those who immediately say ‘Ha!’ and point out your apparent faux pas in uttering “Old Testament.”

    From my stand point, the terms “Old Testament,” “Hebrew Bible,” “First Testament,” etc. are merely jargon, conditioned to meet the needs of various groups who have a sense of interpretative ownership of these ancient texts. Consequently, out of respect . . . as well as a desire to avoid looking pretentious . . . I find myself having to shift terminologies according to context. In all honesty, however, I too find myself being inconsistent; that is, failing to use the best term for the context. For instance, on occasion my wife has told me that I make myself look “stuck-up” when I use the term “Hebrew Bible” (or other jargon) in front of friends outside the discipline. Maybe she’s right; I must admit that most of the time she is. Nevertheless, it is difficult to be shift one’s terms consistently from one context to the next, and I at times I even feel that it is disingenuous to do so.

    All in all, however, I do prefer to use the term “Hebrew Bible” for the reasons you mention above, as well as the fact that it is increasingly becoming the preferred terminology within academic circles.

  6. John Anderson says:

    Clayboy: Thanks for your post engaging my thoughts. I have replied on your blog. I do think you misread ME at least in one part, which I do point out there.

    Roy: As always, thanks. And no, you are not one of the ones who does so. It is more the ‘theology folk’ who are often troubled by much of what I say. They are troubled simply because I read the biblical text and they don’t (ha! ok, that’s maybe a bit unfair—but have a talk with a theologian and ask yourself it it isn’t at the very least a little tongue-in-cheek!). They like to point out inconsistencies; I guess it makes them feel better about their positions. I don’t know. It is a few individuals, and it doesn’t bother me. It is more interesting than anything. And, I find that by using Hebrew Bible universally I not only honor what I think about the issue in general, but also can truly be consistent and not have the glitches and gaffes.

  7. Rob Kashow says:

    lol @ Michael. This next statement is not pointed, so don’t take it that way. But you’re not reading the right books right now to have those questions answered. 🙂

  8. Doug Chaplin says:

    I’ve noted this at my place as well, but for what it’s worth (and I’d forgotten until looking for a different book) Marc Zvi Brettler’s introduction is of course entitled How to Read the Jewish Bible.

  9. Jill says:

    I don’t know this history well, but I’m curious as to why Christians interested in OT theology often use the MT as their main text? When did the MT or a proto-MT become part of the Christian Bible? Jerome? The Reformation? It seems to me that using some form of the LXX or the Vulgate for pre-Vatican II Catholic OT theologians would be reading a Bible that was actually used as Scripture by a Church or at least one prior to the Reformation. Unless its a distinctly Protestant project, for Christian OT theologies, why not use the LXX if thats what the early Christians did when it was still a form of Judaism? Wouldn’t that reflect that particular brand of Christianity’s Jewsh roots more clearly? These aren’t rhetorical questions.


  10. John Anderson says:


    Thank you for the thoughtful response. I will hazard a few replies.

    1) As I say, I would argue most Christians doing OT theology in fact use the Hebrew of the MT, but interpret in the canonical order of the Christian canon. It’s a bit of a work-around.

    2) Much of your question depends on how one construes the task of OT theology. Is one doing a theology that is relevant for contemporary faith? Most, I contend, are trying to do at least that. What you suggest–using the text from a particular historical period–may do little more than allow for a theology of that period. This applies also to your comment about the use of the LXX. One is then doing historical theology of a different sort, it seems.

    3) Even the most historically-minded OT theologies will often (save for those that assume the veracity of the Documentary Hypothesis) more or less assume the text being used. That text is the ‘final form’ or, bluntly, the canonized, received text. One must recognize that at least at some period, a community found these texts in this order and more or less in this ‘condition’ authoritative. Much OT theology, as I suggest elsewhere, is already overloaded with historical guesswork.

    Perhaps others will demur, but that’s my initial take on things.

  11. brian says:

    Don’t we get the whole Old Testament / New Testament thing from the book of Hebrews (Old Covenant / New Covenant, etc)? That’s my guess.

  12. John Anderson says:

    Dannii: This is a big question, with many answers. One answer, though focuses on the endings. The Old Testament ends with Malachi and contributes to an expectation of a coming (messianic) figure. The Hebrew Bible or Tanak ends with 2 Chronicles, leading to the expectation of a rebuild Temple and renewed Israel.

    Sabio: Indeed, as did I. I met with that prof recently, though, and was struck when I heard him say “Old Testament.” Things like that always stand out to me. Like hearing another of my former Jewish teachers pronounce the divine name.

  13. Pingback: Judaism « MyGod
  14. Lawrence says:

    OT…for one thing it affirms the doctrine of a triune God in Genesis 1:26 “Let ‘us’ make man in ‘our’ image”

    • John Anderson says:


      The interpretive issues are far more complex than that. Many Christians incorrectly assume that this mention of “us” and “our” in Gen 1:26 is a reference to the trinity. It certainly does stand out, and several attempts have been made to address the issue. The older response in scholarly circles was to call this a plural of majesty, i.e., that God is so majestic and incomparable that God must refer to Godself with a plural. More recent approaches provide a far more compelling response in my view and the view of many scholars, that being that this is a heavenly council scene, with God addressing various members of the divine council. We have a much clearer insight into this scene in 1 Kgs 22, and also somewhat at the outset of Job, among other places in the HB/OT. Regardless, though, I don’t think that is an adequate reason to affirm one title over another.

      • Terry says:

        Being more educated about my faith (christian) i find to be more frustrating then enlighting,i was raised catholic and always believed my faith was rock solid in steadfast docturine until i started reading the bible ,then saw all the wrongfull teaching s i was led to believe were docturine of Gods word and even now after being blessed with the drive to seek God have more questions than answers ,like is there a denomination that only follows docturine with out personal influences like(speaking in jibberish(tongues)or baptizing babys or Gods true name is jehowva .my question was do you think the jewish torah is more accurate then the old testament do to its age ,being closer to the time of the event because i read significant diffrences between the two

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