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The Bible Jesus Read

One of the most characteristic features of the ministry of the Lord Jesus was His dependence upon Scripture. When He encountered the devil in the temptation in the wilderness, thrice He quoted the book of Deuteronomy to answer the enemy’s wiles (Luke 4:4, 8, 12). When He inaugurated His ministry, He quoted Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2). When He answered His critics, He often quoted Scripture. In His most famous sermon (Matthew 5), He actually exegeted the second half of the Decalogue. Even His words on the cross reflect His reliance on the Scripture. But what Bible did Jesus use? Did He have a leather-bound printed copy? This brief article examines the Bible that Jesus used—how it looked and which books it contained.


The world ought to be eternally grateful to Johannes Gutenberg, who created the first movable type and printed the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. Before his day, printed materials were expensive, hard to obtain, and in short supply. Though there are several thousand portions of Scripture from the testaments preserved today, they had been copied over the previous 14 centuries and were in differing states of preservation. The Old Testament in particular had been painstakingly copied by the Jews; in fact, a body of scholars called Sopherim had specific rules for copying that ensured the accuracy of the work.

Early texts were copied onto clay tablets with a stylus and then baked (entire libraries from the ancient world preserve thousands of these tablets). Another way writing was preserved was on papyrus. The Egyptians took papyrus reeds, stripped them, pressed them together into sheets, and created papyrus (from which the word “paper” comes). They made ink of soot or oil (when they had it), and wrote on the papyrus. Papyrus documents are so numerous that many have not even been catalogued, much less translated; by the time of Jesus, papyrus documents recorded everything from wills to shopping lists. A third material, vellum, was the tanned skins of animals rubbed smooth and then written on. Several existing copies of the Bible are on vellum. These copies were prepared for use either by rolling them into scrolls or by sewing the sheets together into codices. A codex is the forerunner of the modern book.

They copied the text from an accepted manuscript when it began to come into disrepair (that manuscript could not be destroyed; it had to be stored or buried in a specific box or jar). They counted the letters on each page to make sure that the middle letter in both pages agreed, and they had to say out loud each word as they wrote it. In spite of this care, errors crept in; Mark F. Rooker wrote, “Except in the case of photographic reproductions of the same text, no two printed editions of the Hebrew Bible (or any ancient document for that matter) are identical”¹ Because so many different manuscripts exist, however, scholars are able to ensure that the English text available is an accurate representation of the ancient text; in fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in the Qumran caves in Israel in 1947, have a degree of agreement with the Masoretic Text (MT)—the agreed text of the scribal tradition—that Michael A. Grisanti called “amazing.”² Comparisons between the MT, the DSS, and the Greek translation of the Bible (the Septuagint or “70” because it was supposedly produced by 70 Jewish scholars in 70 days between 250-200 bc) provide an accurate Bible that believers can trust as the Word of God. 


By the time of Christ, synagogues throughout Israel (and indeed, wherever Jews went and established synagogues) had copies of many books of the Bible. The synagogues in other countries used the Greek version (Septuagint), while synagogues in Israel used the Hebrew or Aramaic versions. The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that the Old Testament Scriptures (copies of all books except Esther have been found in the caves) were being copied and used at least 200 years before Christ. 

A canon—a prescribed list of inspired books—existed before the time of Jesus. The basic fact of canonicity was divine inspiration; that is, the readers could tell that God spoke through the book. The earliest Jewish canons did not have the Apocrypha.³ The Jews referred to the Scriptures in the way the Hebrew Bible preserved them, “The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings” (see Luke 24:27, 44, for Jesus’ use of these terms—the fact that He said, “Psalms,” reflected the idea that the Psalms made up the largest section of the “Writings”). In the Hebrew order, 2 Chronicles was the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures, so when Jesus referred to Abel and Zachariah as the first and last prophets (Matt. 23:35), they were indeed—in His Bible. He believed in and used the Scriptures and knew which books belonged in that Bible. R. Laird Harris wrote, “The evidence clearly indicates that a fully developed canon existed in the second century b.c. That this canon was accepted and approved by Christ and the apostles in the New Testament is clear from the New Testament statements.”4

Jesus knew and loved the Old Testament, and the Old Testament that He read, memorized, and loved is the same Old Testament that believers use today. It was Jesus’ only Bible, and the Bible from which Paul defended both his ministry, his gospel, his calling, and his missionary activity. Believers today can read the Old Testament with confidence, knowing that they are reading the Bible Jesus used. And read it they must, for its story is the only context to understand God’s salvation, His churches, and His work in the world today. As one scholar wrote long ago, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” 

Stan May, PhD

¹Mark F. Rooker, “The Transmission and Textual Criticism of the Old Testament,” Chapter 7, in The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament, Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2011), 109.

²Michael A. Grisanti, “The Text of the Old Testament,” in The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament, Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2011), 75.

³R. Laird Harris, The Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible: An Exegetical and Historical Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 62.

4Harris, 154.

~Stan May

Posted by Blog Archive at 09:39
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