The Hebrew Bible as Background to the Gospels

Phillip Long is doing another good series, this one on Background to the Gospels.

The primary “background” for the Gospels is the Hebrew Bible. Anyone who approaches the Gospels without a knowledge of the history and culture of the Hebrew Bible will not appreciate fully the claims made by the Gospels.


At the end of his post (go read it, I’ll wait), he asks “What are some other ways the Hebrew Bible helps us understand the Gospels?”

Well, for one thing, Jesus sounds a lot like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. (Particularly Jeremiah, I’ve been told, by Jewish classmates who are much more familiar with the prophets than I am.) He frequently alludes to or quotes from or creatively combines passages from the Hebrew Bible. He preached to Jews who knew their bible, and if we don’t know that bible, we will not hear everything that he was saying.

We’ll also miss the things that helped convince the disciples that Jesus really was the one who was prophesied, and really was bringing about the age to come. The evangelists’ imaginations were thoroughly shaped by the Torah, the Prophets (especially Isaiah), and the Writings. If we don’t know those stories and oracles and sayings, we’ll be reading the gospels as if we were watching the fourth season of a TV show without having seen the first three.


Part 2 of the series, on Hellenism, is also up.

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6 Responses to The Hebrew Bible as Background to the Gospels

  1. Phillip J. Long says:

    “He frequently alludes to or quotes from or creatively combines passages from the Hebrew Bible.” This is true (and the main project of my dissertation, may it rest in peace). This sometimes is described as intertextuality, but is probably more of a typical Jewish Midrash, combining texts to create new ideas. I just read the Nazareth Synagogue scene in Luke for a class, there Jesus quotes Isaiah, applied it to himself, then alludes to Elijah and Elisha in ways that require the reader to really know the context of the original texts.

    thanks for the comments…!

    • I was really struck by this sort of thing in Paul, too – several of the commentaries I read this summer pointed it out as a typically rabbinic thing to do.

      This is one of the reasons I *really* appreciate the work of Jewish New Testament scholars like Amy Jill Levine: her ear is attuned to the characteristically Jewish things that Jesus says or does, and she can explain them to us Gentiles. 🙂

      • Phillip J. Long says:

        I think I have at least a shelf of this sort of material, Levine is there as is Brad Young. His Parables is good, I am not as happy with Jesus (or Paul) the Jewish Theologian. I also Like Kenneth Bailey on the Parables, he teases out the Mediterranean background and is a very easy / interesting read. But every publisher seems to have one or two “backgrounds” type book, Ferguson, Intro to Biblical Backgrounds is my favorite, that was a textbook for a Backgrounds course I took at later taught in seminary.

  2. Pingback: Knowing old sayings to understand the Bible « Belgian Biblestudents – Belgische Bijbelstudenten

  3. Pingback: A Religous Education

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