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How Jesus Used the Bible

February 5, 2014

Jesus and Scripure by MoyiseI still wonder what language(s) Jesus spoke. I know, I know. Easy: Aramaic…right? And possibly also Hebrew when he quotes Scripture?

I’m becoming increasingly open to the idea, however, that Jesus–at least on occasion–taught in Greek. At any rate, it is true that the Gospel writers that quote Jesus do so in Greek. There is also the fascinating question of what text form(s) Jesus used when he quoted Scripture, which he did frequently.

Last week I finished reading Steve Moyise’s Jesus and Scripture: Studying the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. It’s part of his de facto trilogy by Baker Academic on the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. (I reviewed the other two volumes here and here.)

How Moyise Approaches Jesus’ Use of Scripture

As Moyise sees it, the task of studying Jesus’ use of Scripture is two-fold:

First, we must study what each Gospel writer has to say about Jesus’ use of Scripture and seek to determine his method and purpose.

To do this, Moyise briefly (yet substantively) surveys how each Gospel writer presents Jesus’ use of Scripture. For each of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Moyise analyzes Jesus’ quotations of “the law,” “the prophets,” and “the writings.” For John he treats “the four explicit quotations” and scriptural allusions.

Moyise goes on:

Second, if we are to understand Jesus’ use of Scripture we must engage in historical criticism to decide what Jesus must have said to give rise to the various accounts we find in the Gospels.

To this end Moyise looks at three categories of scholars:

  1. Those with “minimalist views” on Jesus and history: Geza Vermes, John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg. They more or less “do not regard Mark as an accurate record of what Jesus said and did, which has implications for the accuracy of Matthew and Luke.”
  2. Those with “moderate views”: James Dunn and Tom (N.T.) Wright. The moderate view “accepts that real events lie behind the Gospel stories but believes that they have been embellished as each Gospel writer adapts the tradition to meet his readers’ needs.”
  3. Those with “maximalist views”: Charles Kimball and Richard (R.T.) France.” Jesus must have said all of the sayings and … each Gospel has been selective in what it records. …its strategy for dealing with differences between the Gospels is to seek harmony.”

Moyise lays out the issues in the synoptic Gospels and John clearly and succinctly. He raises as many questions as he answers, but this is a good thing. Reading Jesus and Scripture made we want to delve deeper into the topic at hand.

An Evaluation

While the volume is accessible, it does not oversimplify complexities where they exist. For example, after saying that Jesus’ Aramaic sayings “were translated into Greek, including his quotations from Scripture,” Moyise highlights the existence already of a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the LXX). He goes on:

The important question this raises is whether, when the translators recognized that Jesus was quoting Scripture, they translated his words for themselves or availed themselves of the translation already in circulation.

Gray shaded boxes throughout the book offer concise information about topics such as: “The text of the LXX known to Matthew,” “Hillel’s seven exegetical rules,” “Critical editions of Q,” and more.

Especially helpful for further study is Appendix 1: “Index of Jesus’ quotations in the Gospels,” which is listed in Old Testament book order. The select bibliography is short but a good starting point, too.

Of the three “views” he describes, Moyise writes about helping “readers decide for themselves which reconstruction they find the most convincing.” He excels here–phrases like “many scholars believe” are coupled with a fair spelling out of others’ views of Jesus and what he said. His even-handedness helps readers get the lay of the land in Jesus studies.

Phrases like “what Jesus actually said” got to be a bit tiresome to me after a while. Perhaps my maximalism shows through here, but I’m just not sure how productive or advisable a quest it is to try to ascertain what Jesus really said. (And if we did, wouldn’t we have to go back to retroverted Aramaic?) This is in part due to Moyise’s own “moderate views,” but he certainly does not push for them over France’s “maximalist views,” for example, which he describes charitably and even favorably. The reader can decide for herself or himself.

Jesus and Scripture would be perfect for a seminary course on the Gospels, or on the NT use of the OT. An advanced undergrad course would also do well to adopt this book. I’d also recommend it to a serious Bible reader–no biblical languages are needed here, and I found that even with my own knowledge gaps in historical Jesus studies, Moyise explained everything I needed to know.

Though this survey is short (less than 150 pages), Moyise gives plenty of sample passages and insights that have challenged me. I know this is a book I will come back to and want to read again in the future.

Thank you to Baker Academic for providing me with a review copy of the book. See its product page at Baker here. You can find it on Amazon here.

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