Bible and Torah

This week, a break from my Ten Best Books list to start a new series of posts that I’ll label “Beginner’s Guides.”

In my discussion of Who Wrote the Bible? I noted the following:

It’s too bad the book is called “Who Wrote the Bible?” when it is really mostly about who wrote the Pentateuch; but I’ll have more to say on this topic another time.

As promised, here is that discussion. I’ll leave for yet another occasion the differences between the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic Bibles. What I’m writing about today is the fact that lots of Jews seem to use the words “Bible” and “Torah” interchangeably. The culprit here — if you’ll excuse the expression — is the word “Torah.” It can be used to refer to:
•  Jewish learning in general, including what I’ll have to say later this week on Torah Talk;
• the “Oral Torah”: the books of classical rabbinic literature: Mishnah, Talmud, and the various midrashim, as opposed to the “Written Torah”: the books of the Jewish Bible;
• the Pentateuch, a/k/a “Chumash,” that is, the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

In my Hebrew-English JPS Tanakh, those first five books — labeled “Torah” — take 454 pages out of 2023. That’s somewhere between 1/4 and 1/5 of the entire Bible. When I ask people to bring a “Bible” to class they often bring a Chumash instead by mistake. The reason, of course, is that every synagogue has dozens of Chumashim available. But it’s pretty hard to find a Bible in most synagogues. The Bible, however, contains not only the Five Books of Moses, but also (from a Jewish perspective) the Prophets and the Writings, or (from a Christian perspective) books of history, literature, and prophecy. (I’ll save the differences between the Jewish Bible and the Christian Old Testament for another Beginner’s Guide entry.)

Why is Friedman’s book called Who Wrote the Bible? rather than Who Wrote the Torah? or Who Wrote the Pentateuch? Don’t know whether it was he or his publisher who made the choice, but it seems obvious to me that this was a marketing decision. “Bible” is a far more recognizable word (and of course the subject of the book does have some bearing on who wrote other texts in the Bible than those of the Pentateuch). I’m just sorry that it adds to the confusion for those who can’t properly distinguish the two terms.

The potential confusion is somewhat worse in the case of Friedman’s later book, The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003), which bears the subtitle “A New View into the Five Books of Moses.” Again: the Five Books of Moses make up the Pentateuch, NOT the entire Bible; they are one part of the Bible, and a fairly small one at that. (This quibble aside, it’s a quite useful book, though not all of his source identifications should be taken as — you should excuse the expression — gospel.)

I add for those who don’t believe this confusion exists the story of a synagogue president in New England — told me by a friend who was hired as High Holiday rabbi there. The president opened the Ark to show my friend the synagogue’s three Torah scrolls. He apologized: “We don’t have a lot of money. But we’re hoping one day to have all five.”

(My friend assured him that each scroll had all five books of the Torah = Chumash = Pentateuch, but the synagogue president wouldn’t believe him.)

James Kugel’s book How to Read the Bible does something similar to Friedman’s, but for a different reason that’s worth thinking about. Kugel does talk about the entire Bible, but (as I pointed out) in far different proportions that did Marc Brettler in his book of the same name. As I said in last week’s post, Kugel is interested not merely in the texts that make up the Bible, but in “The Bible” as it has affected our cultural history. The stories of Genesis carry far greater weight in our culture than do those in the book of Kings. (Everyone understands that a drawing of a naked man, a naked woman, and a tree with a snake in it is about the “Adam and Eve” story.) That’s why half of Kugel’s book Traditions of the Bible is about Genesis.

In my Commentators’ Bible project, I began — in fact, it was at Marc Brettler’s suggestion — with Exodus, rather than Genesis, because it would be a little less intimidating. Now I’m continuing on with Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy before returning to complete the first part of the project with Genesis. I can testify that people have been asking me for five years, “When are you going to do Genesis?” and no one ever asked me, “When are you going to do Leviticus?” But Leviticus is as much as part of the Torah, and the Bible, as Genesis is.

By the same token, books like Habakkuk or Ecclesiastes may not be part of the “Torah” (if by that word you mean the Pentateuch/Chumash), but they are indeed part of the Bible. I mentioned last week that, for Kugel, all the texts are biblical, but some are more biblical than others. In fact, this is true for almost all of us. Even Bible-thumping fundamentalists will have parts of the Bible that they thump frequently and other parts that they read rarely, if ever, and that don’t figure much into their thinking. Part of what I hope will eventually happen on this blog is that I’ll begin to highlight some of the less familiar texts that are, nonetheless, also “Bible.”

[Note: If you have suggestions or requests for a “Beginner’s Guide” entry, send ’em in.]

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One Response to “Bible and Torah”

  1. Who Wrote the Bible? « The Bible Guy Says:

    […] the Bible?” when it is really mostly about who wrote the Pentateuch; but I’ll have more to say on this topic another […]

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