12/19/2014 02:18 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

7 Common Misconceptions About the Hebrew Bible

Everyone talks about the Bible, though few have read it cover to cover. This is not surprising -- some sections of the Bible are difficult to understand without a commentary, others are tedious and still others are boring. That is why annotated Bibles were created -- to help orient readers as they read through the Bible or look into what parts of it mean. In addition, it is helpful to think about common misconceptions that people have about the Bible so that we can read it better -- that is the goal of the following list.

1. The Ten Commandments are the most important part of the Bible
No biblical text calls them the Bible's most important part. Various prophetic texts such as Ezekiel 18 summarize righteous behavior, but most of these do not refer to the Ten Commandments. In fact, the English term "Ten Commandments" is a misnomer from a Jewish perspective, since in the Jewish enumeration, "I am the LORD your God..." is the first divine utterance in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, and it is not a commandment at all! Thus, Jews prefer to call these the Decalogue, "the ten sayings," which reflects the Hebrew aseret hadevarim (Exodus 24:38; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4).

2. We know what the original text of the Bible is
Like all texts transmitted in antiquity, the Bible in its earliest stages of transmission was fluid. Scribes changed books that became part of the Bible accidentally and on purpose; this is now clear from evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

3. The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are different names for the same books
The Jewish Hebrew Bible and the Protestant Old Testament contain the same books, but in a different order -- and order matters! The Catholic Old Testament is larger than the Jewish Hebrew Bible and the Protestant Old Testament. It contains the Apocrypha -- select Jewish Hellenistic [Greek] Writings such as Sirach, Tobit and Maccabees -- and in two cases, Esther and Daniel, the Catholic book is larger than the Hebrew book, containing material found in the Greek texts of these works, but not in the Hebrew.

4. We know the order of the biblical books
Different religious groups have different orders to the Bible. Christians typically divide the Old Testament into four sections (Law [=Torah], historical books, wisdom and poetic books, prophetic books), while Jews divide the Hebrew Bible into three sections: Torah, Nevi'im [prophets] and Ketuvim [writings]. Both of these ways of ordering biblical texts probably reflect different ancient Jewish orders that ultimately helped to define Jewish versus Christian identity. In addition, Jewish manuscripts show many different orders of the final section, Ketuvim and the Babylonian Talmud notes an order of Nevi'im that is different than the more commonly used.

5. Everything in a prophetic book is by that prophet
Many prophetic books contain titles or superscriptions, as in Jeremiah 1:1-3: "The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the LORD came to him in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign, and throughout the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, when Jerusalem went into exile in the fifth month." However, we never have the autographs of individual prophets, and often their disciples and others added material to early forms of prophetic books, in the names of the prophet himself!

6. The Bible is history
The modern concept of history, judged by whether or not it gets the facts right, is by and large a modern conception. In the past, all peoples told stories set in the past for a variety of reasons, e.g. to entertain, to enlighten, but rarely to recreate what actually happened. Archaeologists have uncovered many cases where the biblical account disagrees with the archeological account, or with what we might know from other ancient Near Eastern texts.

7. All of the Psalms are by King David
About half of the psalms in Psalms contain the word ledavid, "to/of David," in their first sentence. But many do not. Some are anonymous, while others are explicitly attributed to other figures such as Asaph (50, 73-81). We are not even sure how ledavid should be translated -- does it mean to attribute authorship to David, or might it mean "in the style of David"? Furthermore, none of the psalms reflects tenth century Hebrew, the Hebrew of the period in which David was purported to have lived, and several psalms refer to events long after that period (see e.g. Psalm 126:1). In fact, scholars do not attribute any of Psalms to King David! And at least in Jewish tradition, attributing all of the Psalter to David is not dogma, and several medieval scholars acknowledge the existence of later psalms.

Check out the new edition of the Jewish Study Bible, available now.