First-century Jewish Use of Scripture: Evidence from the Life of Jesus

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Through the window of a single New Testament episode we can gain insight into how Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries employed sacred texts with creative ingenuity to grapple with the complex issues of their day.

Through the window of a single New Testament episode we can gain insight into how Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries employed sacred texts with creative ingenuity to grapple with the complex issues of their day.

A great deal has been written about the importance of Jewish sources for our understanding of Jesus and the Early Church. Unfortunately, there remains a lack of corresponding recognition regarding the contribution of the New Testament to our knowledge of Jewish life and thought during the closing days of the Second Commonwealth. The New Testament serves as an invaluable historical witness, because it often is our earliest written record.

I cite only a couple of examples to illustrate. For archaeologists and historical geographers the New Testament provides seminal information because it possesses the earliest written references to the Jewish cities and villages founded in Galilee during the Hellenistic and Roman period —e.g., Tiberias, Capernaum, Chorazin, Bethsaida. On the other hand, Jewish and Christian students of the history of Jewish tradition rarely recognize that the earliest evidence for the common Jewish practice to name one’s son at his circumcision on the 8th day is the Lukan birth narrative about John the Baptist (Luke 1:63) and Jesus (Luke 2:21). Outside of the New Testament, the next mention in written Jewish sources appears in the seventh-century A.D. work, Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer:

The parents of Moses saw that his appearance was like that of an angel of God. They circumcised him on the eighth day and called him Yekutiel (chap. 48).[1]

For this study I want to investigate another primitive testimony preserved in the Third Gospel. Luke’s story of Jesus in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) is the oldest account of the Jewish custom to follow the public reading of the Torah in the synagogue with a reading from the Prophets (the Haftarah). Apart from Luke’s writings (cf. Acts 13:15ff.), the earliest Jewish reference to this practice is the third-century A.D. compilation of oral traditions in the Mishnah.

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  • R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley is professor of Biblical Studies at the New York City campus of Nyack College. A member and past director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Notley earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University (1993). He studied in Jerusalem…
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