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The Bible : Tanakh

The oldest books of the Bible are the Pentateuch, also known as the Torah. They are written in Hebrew and are also called the 'Books of Moses'. Traditionally Judaism and Christianity held that these books were actually written by the lawgiver Moses, but many today believe that the current form of the Torah came about by a redactor bringing together several earlier, distinct sources. This idea is called the documentary hypothesis.

In addition to the Torah, as noted above, the Jewish scriptures include the Nevi'im ("prophets") and the Ketuvim ("writings"), the combined collection being designated by the Hebrew acronym "Tanakh".

The original text of the Tanakh was in Hebrew, with some portions (notably in Daniel and Ezra) in Aramaic. From the 800s to the 1400s, rabbinic Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes compared the text of all known Biblical manuscripts in an effort to create a unified and standardized text; a series of highly similar texts eventually emerged, and any of these texts are known as Masoretic Texts (MT). The Masoretes also added vowel points (called niqqud) to the text, since the original text only contained consonants. This sometimes required the selection of an interpretation, since words can differ only in their vowels, and thus the text can vary depending upon the choice of vowels to be inserted. In antiquity there were other variant readings which were popular, some of which have survived in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea scrolls, and other ancient fragments, as well as being attested in ancient translations to other languages.

By AD 1, most Jews no longer spoke Hebrew, but spoke Greek or Aramaic instead. Thus they made translations or paraphrases into these languages. The most important of the translations into the Greek was the Septuagint, though other translations were made as well. The Septuagint contains several additional passages, and whole additional books, compared to what was eventually compiled as the masoretic texts of the Tanakh. In some cases these additions were originally composed in Greek, while in other cases they are translations of Hebrew books or variants that the Masoretes did not accept. Recent discoveries have shown that more of the Septuagint additions have a Hebrew origin than was once thought. While there are no complete surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew text on which the Septuagint was based, many scholars believe that it was a different textual tradition than the one that eventually became the basis for the Masoretic texts.

The Jews also produced non-literal translations or paraphrases known as targums, primarily in Aramaic. They frequently expanded on the text with additional details taken from Jewish oral tradition.

Early Christians produced translations of the Hebrew Bible into several languages; their primary Biblical text was the Septuagint. Translations were made into Syriac, Coptic and Latin, among other languages. The Latin translations were historically the most important to the Church in the West, while in the Greek-speaking East, they continued to use the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament and had no need to translate the New Testament.

The earliest Latin translation was the Old Latin text, or Vetus Latina. Exactly who translated it is unknown, but internal evidence suggests it is the product of several authors over a period of time. It was based on the Septuagint, and thus included the Septuagint additions.

As a translation, the Old Latin was far from ideal, and so Jerome was commissioned to produce the Vulgate translation as a replacement. Jerome based his translation on the Hebrew rather than the Septuagint, except in the Psalms, where he preferred the Greek. He was of the opinion that the Septuagint additions were of doubtful value, but he included them due to the demands of the church. He did not, however, translate the additional books anew; the Vulgate for these books is identical to the Old Latin. The Vulgate became the official translation of the Roman Catholic church.