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).