Tanakh vs Old Testament | How do they Differ?

The Bible is the best-selling book in the world and contains a lot to be deciphered and understood. Since there are notable similarities between Judaism and Christianity, it is important to understand the differences in the religion and in its religious texts. The Tanakh and the Bible are related to each other in many ways. The Christian and Jewish religions stem from similar origins, but are two distinct faiths with different religious texts. Some mistakenly believe that the Hebrew Bible--that is, the Tanakh--is identical to what the Christians know as the Old Testament. But this is not the case. To help clear up some of the confusion we break down the two texts and provide you with their differences. 


The Tanakh is sometimes referred to as the Hebrew Bible. The name Tanakh or Tanak is an acronym for the three different parts of the Hebrew Bible. The three parts that make up the Tanakh are the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim, which make up the “T”, “N'', and “K” in the word. 

Tanakh bookThe first division of the Tanakh is named the Torah, which means “law” or “instruction” in Hebrew. The Torah contains the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. When we think of law today, we may think of getting pulled over for speeding, or a set of rules to follow. But law in this context shows how people of God are meant to live. While it does contain the Ten Commandments, the Torah is much more than a set of rules. Made up of narrative accounts as well as formalized guidelines for living, the Torah presents God’s plan for humanity and His relentless faithfulness to His people.

The next part of the Tanakh is the Nevi’im or “prophets” translated from Hebrew. This section of the Tanakh can be broken down into two major sections: the Former Prophets, which consist of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, and the Latter Prophets, which contain the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve, a single book which recounts the stories of 12 other prophets, such as Jonah and Hosea. The Former Prophets are mostly comprised of historical narratives documenting the time that after Moses’ death as the people of Israel enter into the Promised Land. The Former Prophets are important because they interpret the Torah for the people to understand. The Latter Prophets are further divided into the major and minor prophets. The designation of the prophets as either “major” or “minor” is not a statement of their importance or worth. Rather, the so-called “major” prophets are the longer prophetic books. The Twelve is the combined accounts of the “minor prophets” each of whom’s individual writings are shorter.

pages in Hebrew language

The last part of the Tanakh is the Ketuvim, or “writings” in Hebrew. This portion of the Tanakh contains the 11 books and consists of history as well as wisdom mostly in the form of poetic verse. The main parts of the Ketuvim are the poetic books, which consist of the book of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. The Ketuvim also contains the Megillot scrolls, the prophecy of Daniel, and the history books which consist of the books of Ezra-Nehemiah (considered a single book in the Tanakh), and Chronicles. The poetic books show commitment to God through words of wisdom. 

The poetic verse allows for people to more easily remember its teachings and messages, making them all the better to pass down. The Megillot scrolls tell various stories and were grouped together using the order of religious festivals. The next section of the Kevitum is the book of Daniel documents the visions he has which provide lessons for the reader. The final books of the Ketuvim focus on events occurring during Israel’s Babylonian captivity and exile, along with their subsequent return home.

Old Testament

The Old Testament is often mistaken as the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh because it contains similar books and has similar origins. Indeed, the Tanakh and the Old Testament do share many accounts and writings. However, there are notable differences between the two texts, specifically in terms of the way the various books are ordered and structured.

The Old Testament ContentThe Old Testament is the first major portion of the Bible and is generally agreed to contain 39 books, though the Catholic Bible contains 46. The Old Testament covers the period of time spanning from the creation of the world to just before the birth of Jesus and documents the ancient history of Israel and provides moral teachings. The Old Testament of the Bible consists of the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Wisdom Books, and the Prophetic Books.  

The Pentateuch, like the Torah, contains the first five books of the Bible which are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books document the history and the beginnings of the world as well as the creation of the people of Israel. One major distinction between the Torah and the Pentateuch is the way their respective religious communities understand them. For many Jewish people, the Torah is still seen as religious law to be followed today, whereas the Pentateuch is seen more as the basis and history of God creating the world and the love He has for it. The Christian perspective on the law laid out in the Pentateuch is directly influenced by our understanding of Jesus. Even though both contain the same first five books, they differ in the interpretation of the text.

The next two sections of the Old Testament are the Historical and Wisdom Books. As the name suggests the Historical and Wisdom Books share the prophetic history of the time and also share the wisdom of God's teachings through prophets. The Historical Books recount events spanning from Israel’s conquest of Canaan to the dissolution of the Kingdom of Israel and its people’s exile. Here we find the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Ezra, and Esther. One reason why the Old Testament has more books than the Tanakh is that certain texts are split up into different books. For example, in the Tanakh, Samuel is one book, whereas in the Old Testament it is split into two.

a person holding a Bible

The Wisdom Books which consist of the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. These are a collection of books made up of poetry, narratives, and moral sayings and teachings. Wisdom is seen as the ability to observe and apply that knowledge to everyday life. These books include reflections on worship, love, suffering, and life. 

Finally there are the Prophetic Books, including Isaiah and Jeremiah among others. Like the Tanakh, the Biblical prophets can be split into two major groups: the major and minor prophets. One main difference between the Tanakh and Old Testament prophets division is that in the Bible the twelve minor prophets are separated into individual books. The Prophetic books mainly consist of history told by the different prophets, or messengers sent to the people by God. They not only document the events of ancient Israel but also explain the lasting significance of the events that occur during this time. The Prophetic books offer accounts of the messages God commanded the prophets to share with the people.

Main Differences Between Tanakh and Old Testament

man holding his hands on the book

Now that we have gone in-depth over the two different religious texts, we will explore some of the main differences that set them apart. 

  1. Composition- The Old Testament separates some of the books that the Tanakh keeps together into two, resulting in a higher total number of books.  
  2. Order- Even though the Tanakh and Old Testament may share many of the same books, most versions are printed in a different order. This is due to a number of factors. For example, the books of Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are not included among the poetic books of the Ketuvim but are instead part of the Five Scrolls because of the connection they have to the Jewish festivals of Passover and Sukkot. In the Old Testament, Song of Songs and Ecclesiates both are considered Wisdom Books on the basis of their content.
  3. Translations- The two religions make use of different translations based on textual traditions which may result in varying interpretations between the two. The Bible is commonly translated from ancient textual traditions known as the Vulgate, the Septuagint, or some combination. The Tanakh is commonly translated using the ancient Masoretic textual translation. Even though the differences are minor, there are words or phrases that can change the interpretations of the text. 
  4. Interpretation- The way these two texts are interpreted by the two faiths differs greatly. In Judaism the Tanakh is seen as the foundational text that serves as instruction for living life as well as recording the history of God’s promise. The Old Testament for Chritsians is more of a basis for the beginnings of the faith and fulfilled through the person and ministry of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament.  


While similar, the Tanakh and Old Testament actually mean very different things to the religions of Judaism and Christianity. It is true that the two have much in common, but the book order, addition of certain texts, and interpretations of scripture are quite distinct. In order to fully understand the differences between Judaism and Christianity it is important to know the differences between the two religious texts they use. While commonly misunderstood, hopefully this guide is able to clear up some conflation between the two texts. As you’re deepening your faith and relationship with God, remember that the Bible you use to study can play a significant role in how much and how quickly you learn. Explore Alabaster's complete collection to see how the interplay of design and faith can help you along your journey.