How would Jesus would have experienced Scripture, and how similar was his Bible to ours?
Dr John D Meade
Dr John D Meade surveys the scrolls to ask how Jesus would have experienced Scripture, and how similar his Bible was to ours
Have you ever wondered if the Bible you take down from your shelf, or pull up on BibleGateway.com, is the same as the Scriptures Jesus would have read? We tend to think of what Christians term the Old Testament as the Bible of the Jewish people, but are the 39 books of today’s Protestant Old Testament synonymous with what Jesus would have considered Scripture?
And what would Jesus’s Bible-reading experience have been like? We’re used to having a wide choice of English Bible translations, so if we want to explore multiple interpretations of a given passage there are plenty of different editions to compare. What different versions of Scripture would have been available for Jesus to read?
Looking at the first-century evidence, a mixed picture emerges. Jesus’s “Bible” (if we can call it that) may not have had an absolutely fixed list of books in the way that a modern English Bible does. However, the concept of multiple translations was already in evidence by the time of Jesus. He would have been familiar with a popular Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture commonly known as the Septuagint, which had already been around for a long time, as well as other Greek and even some Aramaic translations. While it is difficult to compare Jesus’s Bible with any one English version of our own day, we could say that Jesus’s Scriptures in their different Hebrew forms and Greek translations were perhaps like a modern Christian bookshop with its plethora of English translations, each for different purposes.
What books were in Jesus’s Bible?
The ancient Near East had many writings and scriptures, but we don’t have a surviving list of Bible books, or a table of contents naming the works of the Hebrew Scriptures from before the time of Jesus. We can look at this period only as through a glass dimly, with few clues. However, a good place to look for what clues there are is at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. All the books that the Essenes — the Jewish sect which probably produced the scrolls — wrote commentaries on and cited as Scripture (with the words “it is written”) eventually became part of the Jewish canon. (There is one exception to this rule, a citation of a work known as Jubilees, which was very popular at Qumran if the many manuscript remains are any indication.)
Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who died in about AD 40, cited as Scripture the books from Genesis to Deuteronomy (the Pentateuch) as well as other texts that we would recognise from our modern Old Testaments, but he did not provide us with anything like a list of books. The closest statement to this effect from around the time of Jesus comes from the Jewish historian Josephus, who died in around AD 100. Although he doesn’t name the books, he tells us that Jews have only 22 books that are rightly trusted: five books of Moses, 13 books of prophets, and four remaining books of hymns and instructions for life. Although researchers debate the identity of some of these books, Josephus describes a closed canon and claims it had been so for some time (you can read this in his book Against Apion 1.37-42). His 22 books reflect early numbering where several individual books now in the English Old Testament are counted as one. For example, at the time of Jesus, the 12 Minor Prophets were thought of as one book or scroll.
However, perhaps the best witness to the books that Jesus would have considered Scripture is the New Testament, which cites and quotes the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), many books of the former and latter Prophets, Job, Psalms and Proverbs. The New Testament authors do not cite as Scripture books outside of the Jewish canon but neither do they cite every book of the Jewish canon. By the second century, when early Christians began to list their books, they included only the books of the Jewish Scriptures.
So we can see from this that Josephus was probably right in saying that by the time of his writing every Jew had long considered the 22 books to be divinely inspired. The evidence indicates that some Jews held as Scripture the texts eventually named and listed in the second century, but not all Jews agreed on the status of every book. Along with the great majority of Jews, Jesus would have had a more or less closed set of Scriptures that mirrors our own. It would have included the core books — the Torah, the prophets, the Psalter — but it’s difficult to say what he would have thought about the books at the edges of the canon (such as Esther, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes).
What versions did Jesus read?
By Jesus’s day, the Hebrew Scriptures would have long been completed, and ancient scribes would have already copied them seemingly countless times. In the first century they would have been translated into Greek, and those early Greek translations would have been in the process of revision. We know for certain that the Scriptures were in at least three languages in the Judaea of Jesus’s day. The Dead Sea Scrolls reflect this reality with their Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek manuscript remains. Jesus and his Apostles, therefore, lived in a time when the textual situation was quite complex.
The textual history of the Hebrew Bible on the whole shows remarkable care and preservation — but not uniformity. The Hebrew text that became the source for the Medieval manuscripts on which our modern Old Testaments are based — known as the Masoretic Text — was the dominant but not the exclusive form before and after the time of Jesus. Other textual forms existed at the time of Jesus, since some scribes copied that dominant text in freer and more creative ways for different purposes.
For example, by the time of Jesus, there was a revision of the Hebrew Torah now known as the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). In John 4:20, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and they discuss the difference between Jewish religion and Samaritan religion. She tells Jesus, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain [Mount. Gerizim]” indicating that she must have been familiar with Samaritan scriptures that located the altar for worship on Mount Gerizim (SP Exodus 20:17). Likewise, she knew that the Jewish Scriptures located the place of worship on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (for example Psalm 132:13).
In about 280 BC, around the time that the Samaritan Pentateuch was being produced, Jews in Alexandria were engaged in an innovative Greek translation of the Hebrew Torah, commonly called the Septuagint. After the translation of the Torah the Jews had rendered the rest of their Scriptures into Greek by around 100 BC, with some books such as Esther and Ecclesiastes being translated slightly later. Copies of these translations probably made their way to Qumran in the first century BC as we have evidence of Greek manuscript remains of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy there.
By Jesus’s day, the Hebrew Scriptures would have long been completed, and ancient scribes would have copied them seemingly countless times
Then the picture becomes more complex, because also in the first century BC some Jews began a tradition of revising older Greek translations to reflect better their interpretation of the Hebrew and to ensure their translations better accorded with the carefully copiedMasoretic Text, which was by then the dominant version. A significant scroll of the Minor Prophets was found at Naḥal Ḥever, a cave in the Judaean desert, which exhibits characteristics of revision. Members of this movement for revision, called the kaige tradition, revisited previously existing translations and also produced some new ones, such as Ecclesiastes.
What this shows us is that Jews before and around the time of Jesus and the Apostles were revising the older Greek translations and thus creating a complex of Greek versions that are quoted in the books of the New Testament.
In this context, some quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament reflect both the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Septuagint(for example Psalm 32:1–2 in Romans 4:7–8). In other places, the New Testament reflects the Septuagint and not the Hebrew (for example Isaiah 1:9 in Romans 9:29). However the New Testament authors clearly did not consider themselves bound to follow any specific translation, and at times either offer their own translation of the Hebrew (for example Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15) or quote a revision of the Septuagint (Isaiah 25:8 in 1 Corinthians 15:54).
What did Jesus’s Bible look like?
Jesus’s “Bible” probably mirrored the Jewish Scriptures, with some dispute over books such as Esther. The question of whether he and his followers read the text in Hebrew or Greek (Luke 4:17–19) is not straightforward. What does seem clear from the evidence is that, alongside the Septuagint, various translations of the dominant Hebrew text as well as revisions of older Greek translations would have been available. Jesus’s Scriptures in their various texts and translations probably resembled a Christian bookshop or the list of English translations available on a Bible app. The Jews had a central, carefully copied Hebrew text that had been adapted in Hebrew manuscripts for different audiences and purposes, and they also had Greek translators conveying its meaning.
Jesus’s experience of reading the Scriptures, while perhaps very different from our own in terms of the technology and language, would have had much in common. Opening up a scroll, he would see a text faithfully passed through careful traditions and scribes, not so different from the Bibles in our hands today.
Edmon L Gallagher and John D Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Greg Lanier, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to How We Got the Bible (Christian Focus, 2019).
Dr John D Meade is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Co-Director of the Text and Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary