How is the Hebrew Bible different from the Christian Old Testament?

I've encountered many Bible believing tourists in my over 17 years living in Israel. This happens often in bookshops.

I once encountered a tourist who wanted to buy a Bible from the Holy Land and after learning I was a believer and had lived here for many years, he began to ask my opinion.

'Which Bible has a real "holy land" feel?' he asked.


'Well, why not a Hebrew Bible, which was the Bible which our Lord Jesus made reference to in Luke 24: 44-45?' I answered.

'A Hebrew Bible? What is that?' he asked.

Then I proceeded to explain that a Hebrew Bible contains the exact equivalent to what Protestant Christians call the 'Old Testament'. I also explained that this is the Bible that observant Jews accept as the Word of God today. They call it in Hebrew, the TANAK, which is an abbreviation taking the first letter from each of the following words for: Torah (Law of Moses), Nevi'im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Holy Writings).

This interested my tourist friend very much. 'Can you recommend one?' he asked.

Then, I gave him a very nice edition to look at called The Jerusalem Bible published by Koren Publishers here in Jerusalem.

'This is a Hebrew Bible, but I do need to point out that while this Bible has the same books that are found in the King James Version and all other Protestant Bible versions, you will note that the design is different,' I said.

When I gave my new friend the Hebrew Bible, he first noticed that the front cover was where he expected the back cover to be. I then explained that all books that are written in Hebrew like this one was (it also had an English translation) the writing is from right to left and the books are designed opposite to our Western styles.

Then he opened the Hebrew Bible and the first thing he saw was the book of Genesis, then Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. 'This doesn't appear any different from my King James Bible at all,' he said.

I agreed. 'Yes, the first five books are the same, but in the next section of the Hebrew Bible, known as the 'Prophets' section, here you will notice some differences to your King James Bible,' I said.

He began to look at this section and he was surprised. He noticed that there was no I and II Samuel or I and II Kings, just two books called Samuel and Kings. Then he expected I and II Chronicles to be next in order, but instead he found Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and then the Twelve Minor Prophets found in the King James Bible from Hosea to Malachi in the order he expected.

'Wow. This is different!' he exclaimed. 'Yes, it is. But, in fact, this is the Bible that our Lord Jesus referred to in Luke 24:44-45.

Continuing on, we then looked at the last section known as the Writings (or called sometimes the Psalms section because the book of Psalms is the first book of that section).

Here he found Psalms, Proverbs, Job, then Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther followed by Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah (as one book) and the two books of Chronicles also merged into one.

After seeing the final section, my friend was relieved to find all of the precious books of the Old Testament that he knew so well, but this relief was replaced with a little confusion over this unfamiliar design.

'Do you know why it is so different than our King James Bible in design?' he asked.

I answered that when the Hebrew and Greco-Roman civilizations some 300 years before Christ came into closer contact with each other, a Greek translation of the Bible was made and the Greeks had a tendency to classify things according to subject, like an encyclopedia, so all of the books of history would be in one section, all of the books about prophecy in another and all of the wisdom books in another.

Later, when the Christians began to make their first complete Bibles in the 4th century, early Latin versions relied on these earlier Greek translations from the Hebrew and they had the tendency to retain the new organisation and numeration.

So instead of the original 22 books (which became 24 books in current Hebrew Bible versions by separating several books into two and combining others), now Christians had 39 separate books that we call the Old Testament and we also had a new design for the books.

'What an amazing story,' he said. 'This Hebrew Bible will make a lovely gift and perfect show and tell for Sunday School. Thank you for sharing God's truth.'

Samuel Martin is an internationally known Christian practical theologian living in Israel. His book on corporal punishment of children in the Biblical context (free via his website) has received international acclaim for its conclusions. See Connect with him on Twitter: @byblechyld