The Hebrew Bible and its Reading Schedule
With Simchas Torah upon us, and the new TLV presently circulating among us, now might be a good time to consider how Jews actually got the Torah – and the Bible, on the whole. The book we call the Bible isn’t really a book in the classical sense, much as it is a collection of books–with the Old(er) Testament written over a thousand year period, by dozens of authors, dealing with issues and Israelites on three continents. Some of the Bible’s collections, themselves, are actually collections of collections–as is the case with Psalms and Proverbs. The Five Books of Moses (the Torah) serves as its core. The various prophetic books can be likened to planets, with the Torah likened to the sun–around which everything revolves. The Hebrew prophets shed light from the Mosaic literature and point Hebrews back to the terms of endearment attested within it.
How did we come by the Old Testament, and when did Jews start employing divisions to read through the Torah annually? Ezra “the Scribe,” so called, seems to have been particularly proactive in the canonization of the Hebrew Bible during the Judean exile in Babylon, and is understood to have established the practice of weekly Scripture readings amongst Jews. (Ezra 7:6-10; Nehemiah 8:1-8) Though the weekly reading practice floundered some, since the Maccabean period in the 2nd century BCE, public Torah reading seems to have been consistent, as with the arrangement of the Hebrew Bible itself.
Unlike the Christian arrangement of the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish version of the Old Testament begins in Genesis and ends with Second Chronicles–not Malachi. That Yeshua/Jesus worked with the standard Jewish reckoning is evidenced when He once commented “from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berechiah.” (Matt. 23:35b). These two very infamous murders bookend the Jewish Old Testament narrative: Cain’s slaying of Abel comes at the start of the Bible, in Genesis; Zachariah’s murder is the last at the end of the Hebrew Bible, in 2 Chronicles. Yeshua, in effect is saying, “from one of the Bible to the other” you did such and such. His acknowledgement of the storyline and the contours of the Hebrew Bible gives a credence to it that wouldn’t otherwise be there. So, too, does the New Testament’s attestation of Jewish Scripture practices in the first century.
Yeshua’s visit to the synagogue in Nazareth was punctuated by reference to His having been spontaneously handed a scroll, in Lk. 4:16-20. This presupposes a system of scheduled readings—another example of there being sacred text and a “tradition” of reading it for all to hear. Similarly, with Tabernacles as the backdrop, in John 7:2ff, Yeshua’s statement on the “last day”—or eighth day of the Feast—in v. 38, saying “as the scripture has said,” tacitly underscores the Jewish practice of celebrating the Torah at the end of the reading cycle, i.e. at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, or on Simchas Torah. Here, too, we see an example of an accepted, authoritative employment of the Hebrew Bible, attested in the New Testament.
It may surprise some that the New Testament gives such an excellent window into first century Jewish life and practices, and sheds light on ancient Jewish experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be as amply supported. With you, we on the TLV team are laboring to help people see that the “greatest story ever told” is a Jewish story. How the respective biblical Testaments compliment each other–as noted above–is but one such example. As we celebrate the Bible at the Jewish year’s end, let’s continue to carry its torch to a world that so desperately needs it.