The 39 books of the Hebrew Bible are divided into three categories. The first five books, collectively called the Torah or Chumash in Hebrew and the Pentateuch in Greek, are, in English, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (their Hebrew names have different meanings). Genesis and exodus tell the story of creation, the Flood, God’s selection of Abraham as the Patriarch of the Jewish people, Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, the Egyptian captivity, Moses’ selection by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The last three books continue the saga of the 40 years of wandering in the desert, ending with the death of Moses and the entry into the Promised Land. More significantly, they contain the laws and ordinances covering the entire range of civil and criminal law, ritual and sacrificial rules, moral and ethical commandments.
Although tradition insists that Moses authored the Torah, modern scholarship has shown the books to be the work of at least four main sources and probably many other writers and editors over a long period of time. Different scriptural documents, the oldest of which date to the 9th and 8th centuries BCE, were cobbled together, traditionally by Ezra the Scribe in the mid-5th century BC, although the redacting process began before then and continued to some extent after the destruction of the Second Temple. A controversial recent book makes the case that, based on internal evidence, the author of a large portion of the original material was a woman. A number of other recent books by feminist scholars make the convincing argument that when the Hebrew Bible was given its final major redaction in the 5th century BCE, the scribes went out of their way to discredit the Goddess worship that had not been totally eradicated from the land they had occupied.
The two other groupings of books are the Prophets, or Neviim, and the Holy or Wisdom Writings, or Ketubim, which include the Psalms and Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. All of these were canonized under Rabbi Johanen ben Zakkai between 70 and 132 CE. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, or Septuagint, reputedly begun by 72 Jewish scholars brought from Jerusalem to Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy II (c. 270 BCE), was probably completed by the time of Christ, and varies only slightly from the Hebrew original, which is known as the Masoretic text.
As a spoken language, Hebrew had been supplanted by Aramaic sometime around the 5th or 6th century BCE — Jesus spoke Aramaic, as did most Jews of his day in Judea. During the Diaspora, Aramaic was replaced by Greek and later by many locally derived languages, especially Yiddish, as the common spoken language of Jews. Hebrew was reserved for liturgical purposes and sacred writings, and so remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. With the founding of Israel, however, Hebrew once more became a spoken language, the national tongue of Israel, and the process of evolution has recommenced.