What Bible Did Jesus Use?
Four first-century authors, known today as Matthew, Mark, Luke & John, give us written accounts of a man from Nazareth named Jesus. These writings are often referred to today, as the four gospels. The gospels tell of a certain claim Jesus made regarding his own person: that he was God in the flesh, sent to redeem sinful humankind. According to these four accounts, many heard Jesus’ claim and believed him. Others, as described by the four authors, not only rejected his claim, but challenged it in light of their own belief system. Often, these challengers were of the Jewish ancestry and faith. They were people who believed Jesus’ claim was blasphemous (John 10:33). In order to prove their point and defeat what seemed to them a terribly unlawful statement (John 19:7), those who challenged Jesus often referred to their sacred writings (Matthew 22:35-36). Remarkably, we find in the four gospel accounts that Jesus seemed to refer to the very same sacred writings (Luke 24:44-46) to show that he was, in fact, who he claimed to be.
So what were these writings that Jesus referred to, and fluently used in his teaching and preaching? First, we can know what these writings could not be. They could not be any of the writings found in what we today call The New Testament, for these works were not written and collected until after the ministry of Jesus. We also know that the four gospels give us no record of Jesus teaching from the writings of non-Jewish religions. For example, although we read that Jesus spent a period of his early life in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-19), we do not find record of him preaching from an Egyptian manuscript of religion; furthermore, there is no record of Jesus’ critics accusing him of reaching beyond their accepted articles of faith. If then Jesus kept within the boundaries of Jewish writings, we must next know what those boundaries were.
In Luke 24:44, Jesus is recorded as telling his disciples that his ministry had been a fulfillment of what was written in “the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.” As noted by Josh McDowell in Evidence That Demands a Verdict (page 30), Jesus was making reference to the “three sections into which the Hebrew Bible was divided – the Law, the Prophets, and the ‘Writings’ (here called ‘the Psalms’ probably because the Book of Psalms is the first and longest book in this third section).”
Lou H. Silberman, in The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary On The Bible (page 1209), offers a concurring observation, as he notes that the Jewish collection of scripture was divided into three groups: The Torah (or Law), the Prophets and the Writings. On this same page, he comments that the “earliest clear evidence” that the division of the Jewish writings was being recognized, was from “Jeshua ben Sira, the author of Ecclus. (ca. 180 B.C.).” This would strongly suggest that when Jesus spoke of himself, as recorded in Luke 24:44, any disciple familiar with the Jewish books, would know these were the writings to which Jesus was referring. This scripture from Luke gives us an indication as to what “Bible” Jesus was using.
So what books were in these three collections of writings to which Jesus referred? Silberman notes (IOVC, page 1209), that the section of the Law contains “the 5 books attributed to Moses, i.e. the Pentateuch: Gen., Exod., Lev., Num., Deut.”
The section known as the Prophets, Silberman writes (IOVC, page 1209), is “subdivided into the Former Prophets: Josh., Judg., Sam. Kings, and the Latter Prophets: Isa., Jer., Ezek., and the 12.” That which is referred to as “the 12,” would be the “minor” prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
Silberman explains (IOVC, page 1209), that the category known as the Writings consists of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
As noted in Nelson’s Bible Dictionary (Copyright 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers), the formation of the Jewish collection of writings is “not easy to trace.” Nelson’s observes that the three divisions – the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings – may “reflect the three stages of its formation.” The Law appears to have been accepted first. The Prophets, Nelson’s notes, having been recorded “by their disciples, or by others who recognized the prophets as messengers of God,” were acknowledged next.
The Writings, as suggested by Nelson’s, may have remained unformed longer than the first two sections. Nelson’s indicates that, “scholars know less about the formation of this division than the first two.”
The three Jewish categories of writings that Jesus recognized during his ministry represent a sum of twenty-four books. The King James Version of the Bible lists a total of thirty-nine books in what we refer to as the Old Testament. The apparent discrepancy in these two numbers is explained by understanding that modern Bibles divide the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, and count “the 12” as twelve separate books.
With the exception of the first five books (the Law), the order in which the books appear in popular modern English Protestant Bibles (e.g., NIV, KJV, NASV, NKJV, Good News Bible and The Living Bible) does not coincide with the order in which Jesus and his contemporaries recognized them. Silberman, quoting from The Babylonian Talmud (pages 1209-1210), reports, “…the order of the Prophets is Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Twelve,” and the order of the Writings is: “Ruth, Pss., Job, Prov., Eccl., Song of S., Lam., Dan., Esth., Ezra-Neh., Chr.”
The above order seems supported by Jesus’ testimony in Luke 11:51. In this verse, Jesus makes reference to “the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah.” As McDowell notes (Evidence, page 31), Abel’s martyrdom is recorded in the book of Genesis, and Zechariah’s martyrdom is recorded in the book of Chronicles. It seems that Jesus was recognizing his “Bible” with the first book, Genesis, and the last book, Chronicles.
Having looked at the arrangement of books within Jesus’ “Bible,” we next examine the evidence indicating that these books were considered sacred by the Hebrews. As explained in the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE), Electronic Database, (Copyright 1996 by Biblesoft), the Old Testament does not explain, in itself, the process by which it was made scriptural, or canonized. We can learn, however, by reading the Old Testament, how meticulously the writings were preserved. The ISBE notes, however, that because a document was carefully preserved, that in itself does not mean it was inspired by God. But, the ISBE provides, the “two ideas are closely related for, when religious writings are sedulously preserved it is but natural to infer that their intrinsic value was regarded as correspondingly precious.” And it is apparent in the Old Testament that the Law was considered precious by the Hebrews (I Kings 8:9 & II Chronicles 34:32).
What process led to the forming of the canonical writings? Silberman in IOVC, records, “Traditional Jewish literature from the early rabbinic period (first 6 cents. A.D.) contains no direct report about the process by which books were included in the collection of Holy Scriptures.” Silberman notes that the Babylonian Talmud discusses more about the authorship of the books than the “process of canonization.” The ISBE agrees with this finding as it records, “How the ancient Hebrews expressed the conception of canonicity is not known; but it is safe to say that the idea, as an idea, existed long before there was any special phrase invented to express it.” According to the ISBE, evidence of early canonical regard of the Law occurred when Ezra not only read it to the people, but “accompanied it with an interpretation” (Nehemiah 8:8).
The three sections of Jewish writings, by the time of Jesus’ ministry, appear to have been widely accepted as inspired. As Silberman notes, “the status of these writings is expressed in rabbinic sources. …” However, they had not been brought formally together in a single work. As pointed out by McDowell in Evidence (page 29-30), the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. caused a decentralization of the Jews, and the need for something “definitive.” McDowell also writes that the growing Christian faith and the circulation of Christian writing, caused a desire among the Jews to expose “vividly” these texts by bringing together their own. This time frame is further supported by Silberman who reports, “… to all intents and purposes Judaism possessed its collection of writings, accompanied by its growing body of oral tradition, by the end of the first cent. A.D.” (IOVC, page 1212).
The evidences set forth above would lead me to answer the question of Jesus’ “Bible” in this way: Jesus’ “Bible” was not unlike my Old Testament copy. His “Bible” varied in number of books, and their order, but not in content.
<-- Back to Theological Works