How Do the Christian and Jewish Bibles Differ?


Sean and Josh McDowell examine the differences in the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

The Christian Bible contains both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some people say the Jewish Bible is the Christian Bible without the New Testament. Is that true? What is the Jewish or Hebrew Bible, and how does it differ from the Christian Bible?

The Jewish Bible is often referred to as the Torah. In the narrowest sense the Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible. In the broader sense, the Torah includes all Jewish law and tradition.

Contemporary Jews do not consider that they have an Old Testament. What Christians refer to as the Old Testament, the Jewish people would call the Written Torah or the Tanakh. Christians often refer to the Written Torah as the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew Bible contains the same text as our Old Testament, but in a slightly different order. The Hebrew Bible ends with the historical books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. The Christian Old Testament ends with the prophecies of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

Jesus read and taught from the Written Torah or Hebrew Bible. But at that time the Jewish religious leaders also quoted the Oral Torah. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day believed that it contained the unwritten instructions given to Moses by God to help his people understand the laws and regulations and how to interpret and apply them. These traditions were then passed down orally from one generation to another.

The Pharisees taught that the Oral Torah carried the same authority as the Written Torah. And in Mark 7 we have an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees about the Oral Torah. Jesus said, “You ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition [Oral Torah]…You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition [Oral Torah]” (Mark 7:8-9). Jesus didn’t necessarily condemn all aspects of the oral law, but he made it clear that the God-inspired Scripture (the Written Law) gave context to the Oral Law and that Scripture superseded the Oral Law.

By AD 200 the Oral Torah was written down in a document called the Mishnah. Additional commentaries elaborating on the Oral Torah or Mishnah were continually being added to by rabbis. These commentaries were known as the Gemara. They were written down and completed by AD 500. The Gemara and the Mishnah together are known as the Talmud. The Talmud deals with widely diverse subjects like agricultural laws, financial laws, issues of marriage, divorce, and contracts, laws dealing with ritual purity, impurity, sacrifices, and the temple. Today the Talmud contains more than 6000 folio pages and references and gives credit to over 2000 scholars or teachers.

So the Jewish Bible is more complex and expanded than the Christian Bible. Yet if you narrow the focus of the Jewish Bible to just the Written Torah, our present Old Testament is the equivalent to the Jewish Hebrew Bible.

*This chapter originally appeared in 77 FAQs About God and the Bible by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2012). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers.

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