What Scriptures Did Jesus Know?

The Jewish scriptures (the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament) were not finalized in their current form until the end of the New Testament period, about A.D. 90. Before this time, various Jewish groups or sects held differing views about which of the Jewish writings were authoritative.

Virtually all groups accepted the five books of Moses, known as the Law (Torah). However, the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, also accepted the books that constitute the “Prophets” and the “Writings,” books such as Esther, the Psalms, and Job. Jesus Christ refers to this threefold division – Law, Prophets, and Psalms – during a post-resurrection appearance (see Luke 24:44).

Outside Jerusalem, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews read their sacred writings in translation. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, eventually played a much more significant role in the early Christian church than it did in Judaism. It contained more material than what is found in the Hebrew texts. The additional material found in the Greek Bible, but not in the Hebrew Bible, is now found in the Apocrypha.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, beginning in 1947, gave scholars a rare opportunity to study the process of transmission and selection of the Jewish writings that eventually were placed in the Hebrew Bible. Additionally, the scrolls included a variety of other documents, indicating that during this period of creativity, the Hebrew canon was still open, at least for some Jewish groups.

In the Holy Land at the time of Jesus, Greek was the language of the marketplace and Jews commonly spoke Aramaic, the language they learned while in captivity in Babylon. Scribes were learned men who spoke Hebrew. They could write and translate contracts, but they could also expound on the Hebrew scriptures by teaching them in Aramaic.

Many people thought Jesus was a scribe when they first heard Him teach. Jesus referred to many scriptures during His ministry, especially those that prophesied of Him. The people understood, because they had memorized these prophesies that were most important to them.