What Did Jesus’ Bible Look Like?...Maybe Not Like You’d Think

Posted by Greg Monette on January 27 2014

Like Jesus of Nazareth, my late grandfather grew up in a time when oral storytelling and communication was done with style. My grandpa was a wonderful irishman who always had a poem to recite or song to sing in response to just about any topic that would come up. In an age before the internet, televisions, or widespread access to radio, my grandpa was raised listening to poems, stories, irish folk-songs, and riddles. My grandfather’s mental cupboard was chock-full of extraordinary amounts of colorful quotations and anecdotes that he never failed to bring forth in a fashionable manner. For Jesus of Nazareth, his mental cupboard was full of passages from Jewish literature found both inside and outside of the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”). He was a master storyteller and teacher who drew from many different Jewish sources. However, what did Jesus’ Bible look like? 

The quick and short answer to the question is, “We don’t exactly know.” However, I think most of us would be surprised. I should state at the outset that scholars debate whether the collection of the Bible as we have it today existed in the time of Jesus. It would appear that all the books later to be considered as sacred “Scripture” may not have been determined definitively at this time; and additional books may possibly have been considered “sacred” by many Jews in the first century (for example: there are many additional documents that were likely considered “sacred” by the Dead Sea Scrolls community at Qumran, Israel) that are not considered to be by Jews and Christians today.

At the end of the first century the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made reference to there being 22 books which made up the Jewish Scriptures, which he added were decided upon for quite some time prior to his writing (Against Apion 1:37-43). If these twenty-two books are the same thirty-nine books (re-numbered) which make up the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament today, this would provide evidence for an early closing of the canon at least in Josephus' community. (1) 

What is not disputed is that the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was recognized as being "sacred" prior to Jesus (ca. 700-619 BC), as well as some of the Former and Latter Prophets (500-200 BC). Thus, Jesus likely would have also recognized these same writings as "sacred." (1) This at least gives us somewhere to start.

However, as mentioned, the “Bible” as we have it today may not have existed in the time of Jesus. This is surprising news to those of us living in North America who own an average of 3.6 Bibles per household. It’s important to keep in mind that none of the 27 documents that make up the New Testament were written until many years after Jesus’ ministry. This means that whatever Jesus’ Bible looked like it certainly didn’t include any documents that were inspired by him and composed in response to his ministry. Also, the writings that make up the “Old Testament” (Hebrew Scriptures) were not uniformly decided upon until much later. The premier expert on the biblical canon, Lee Martin McDonald (President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament Emeritus at Acadia Divinity College), explains that:

 “there are no clear references to the three-part Hebrew Bible that now exists either in the New Testament or elsewhere before the mid-second century CE. The limited twenty-four sacred books of the Hebrew Bible [these are the 39 books of the current protestant Old Testament numbered differently] are identified for the first time only in a Babylonian baraita, b. B. Bat. 14b, where they are grouped into the three distinct sections identified as Torah, Nebiim, and Ketubim (or Hagiographa)…A tripartite biblical canon [Law, Prophets, and Writings] was probably in its early stages of development in the century before and during the time of Jesus, but there is no tradition that is clear on this matter before the mid-second century CE. There is no evidence that a majority of Jewish rabbis agreed on these matters even centuries later…” (2) 

The only reference to a three-fold collection of Jewish Scriptures in the New Testament is found in Luke 24:44 (“law of Moses, the prophets, and psalms”) and this passage does not provide scholars with confidence when trying to decipher which documents were included under the umbrella term “psalms.” The same goes for determining which books would have made up “the prophets.” However, if Steve Mason is correct, and Josephus did refer to the closing of the Old Testament canon by reference to the citation in Josephus, it's possible that Jesus shared this same view and that when Jesus cites other Jewish literature he does so like a pastor citing Tim Keller or Barbara Brown Taylor today. Because of all this, it’s difficult to know one way or another which books were considered “authoritative” by first century Jews, including Jesus.  

One thing is certain: Jesus never left a list of writings that he considered to be “sacred.” What is more, he appears to have drawn from a well of Jewish sources during his ministry that included many writings not considered to be “Scripture” by most modern-day Christians or Jews (i.e. 1 Enoch; Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach; Epistle of Jeremiah; 1, 2, and 4 Maccabees; and others). In fact, Jesus’ favorite self-designation for himself (“Son of Man”) as referenced in Matthew 19:29 and 25:31 (“the Son of Man sitting on his throne of glory”) finds its only clear parallel in 1 Enoch 62:2-3 (“The Lord of the Spirits has sat down on the throne of his glory, and the spirit of righteousness has been poured out upon him.”) It would certainly appear that Jesus viewed 1 Enoch in some sort of “authoritative” manner. 

Lee McDonald states that “in several instances he shows more awareness of some of the so-called noncanonical writings than he does some of the so-called canonical books.” (3) According to the four New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Jesus does not refer to or cite Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, or Haggai. This doesn’t mean he didn’t know about these writings, or that he didn’t consider them to be Scripture. We simply don’t know if he did. McDonald rightly comments that “It is unlikely that Jesus cited all of the literature that he and his followers acknowledged as Scripture since most of his teaching was ad hoc in nature and addressed specific concerns faced in his ministry.” (4) Because of this we must posit a question mark over the question being asked in this blogpost. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t know of some books that Jesus probably considered to be “Scripture.” He certainly appears to have had his favourites.   

Jesus’ top 3 favourite books of the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) appear to have been: 

  1. Isaiah (which he quoted 40 times) 
  2. Deuteronomy (15 times)
  3. Psalms (13 times)

Although Jesus appears to have favoured these books he also cited from Daniel and Zechariah frequently. It’s interesting to note that the same texts (canonical and noncanonical) that Jesus quotes from or alludes to appear to parallel many of the same books that were discovered in the caves of Qumran, Israel (in the famous Dead Sea Scrolls). The most represented biblical books among the Dead Sea Scrolls were the Psalms (37 manuscripts), Deuteronomy (30 manuscripts), and Isaiah (21 manuscripts). Sound familiar? These are the same three books from which Jesus quoted from the most according to the New Testament Gospels. I provide a list of the books both inside and outside of the Old Testament that Jesus either directly cites, or alludes to in his teaching and preaching: 

Old Testament Books From Which Jesus Cites: (5)

From the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Jonah, Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi. 

From John’s Gospel which many scholars believe was written independently of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus cites from: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 2 Samuel, 2 Kings, Nehemiah, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Obadiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical Texts Jesus Alludes to or Shows Familarity With: (6)

From the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke): 3 Ezra, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Susanna, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Psalms of Solomon, 1 Enoch.

From John’s Gospel: 1 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, Tobit, Baruch, 2 Baruch, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Psalms of Solomon, 1 Enoch.

In the end of the day, we simply cannot give a firm answer to the question of what exactly Jesus’ Bible would have looked like. If I’m guessing correctly I would say that Jesus may have included 1 Enoch within his collection of “Sacred Writings,” and possibly many more documents not recognized as “Sacred Scripture” today. I would also assume that most, if not all, of the books that make up the current Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) were considered authoritative by Jesus, but we can’t know for sure to what extent since he doesn’t cite or allude to all of them. It’s also quite possible that some of the extra books ("deutero-canonical") found in Roman Catholic Bibles were considered “authoritative” by Jesus. So... what do you think Jesus’ Bible looked like?

This is a question that I am going to continue to study from here on out!

(1) For more on this see, Steve Mason, "Josephus and His Twenty-two Book Canon," Pages 110-27 in The Canon Debate. Edited by L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002.

(2) Lee Martin McDonald, Formation of the Bible: The Story of the Church's Canon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012), 9.

(3) Lee Martin McDonald, “The Scriptures of Jesus: Did He Have a Biblical Canon?” in James Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus Research: New Methodologies and Perceptions, The Second Princeton-Prague Symposium on Jesus Research (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 841.

(4) ibid., 858.

(5) ibid., 828.

(6) For all the verses in the New Testament where these books of the Old Testament are cited from, see: ibid., 860-61.

(7) For all the verses in the New Testament where these books of the Old Testament Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha are cited from, see: ibid., 861-62.

 

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Recommended reading on the biblical canon and Jesus’ Bible:

D. A. DeSilva, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

L. M. McDonald, “The Scriptures of Jesus: Did He Have a Biblical Canon?” in James Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus Research: New Methodologies and Perceptions, The Second Princeton-Prague Symposium on Jesus Research (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 827-62. 

L. M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority 

L. M. McDonald, Formation of the Bible: The Story of the Church’s Canon

I provide some recommended reading for those who want to read some of the “other” Jewish texts that were not included in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”):

E. A. Engelbrecht, The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes 

J. H. Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols.) 

R. Bauckham, J. Davila, A. Panayotov (eds.), Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures

 

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