When biblical scholar Elsie Stern lectures about the ancient world at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the first thing she does is hold up a Bible and tell her students, "For most of the first 3,000 years that these words were around, if you said 'Bible,' no one would have any idea what you were talking about."
What most of us know as the Bible began as a collection of ancient teachings and manuscripts that, starting roughly between the 15 th and 14th centuries BCE, were gradually codified by a series of unknown authors working in different locations over the course of 16 centuries. Like most other ancient works, it did not have a name. In short, the best seller of all time is also the greatest untitled work in history, which gives rise to a modern conundrum: What should we call it?
The earliest known name for the ancient Hebrew writings that comprise the Jewish canon is Torah. Stemming from the Hebrew root y-r-h-literally meaning "to shoot," or "to hit a mark"--Torah is understood to mean "teachings" or "instruction." In the most limited sense, Torah refers to physical scrolls or to the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But the word "Torah" can also indicate the complete canon of Jewish texts, also called the Tanakh, which is an acronym of the first Hebrew letter of each of the groupings of texts: Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Nevi'im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). Most broadly, it can refer to the entire Jewish worldview and lifestyle. "Torah doesn't just mean the Five Books of Moses, but an embrace of the whole Jewish tradition," says Modern Orthodox Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg.
The names we use for these writings sometimes reflect the convoluted process of their canonization, says Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Among the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah exiled to Babylonia in 586 BCE were scribes and scholars who edited and collated both the Five Books of Moses and a large number of other Hebrew and Aramaic texts to ensure survival of their national identity. When they returned to Zion in the 5th century BCE, they brought these texts with them, and Ezra the Scribe instituted the practice of public readings of the Torah. These texts began to be called the Mikra, meaning "that which is read"--a term still used in modern spoken Hebrew.
Beginning in 3rd-century Alexandria, Hellenistic Jews translated the...