Early Hints of a New Testament

One can easily make the case that a New Testament, or a canon of the new covenant Scriptures, was expected. When we examine the Mosaic covenant, we notice in Hebrews 9:18–21 the facets making up the first covenant that appears in Exodus 24:3–8, and among them is the book (Heb. 9:19). Unlike the first covenant, no tabernacle or vessels in the New Covenant are cleansed because the church and individual Christians are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). Nevertheless, we who comprise the church and are of the Way are sprinkled with the lamb’s blood in our baptisms, and in due course, a book would necessarily emerge. Now, this perspective isn’t accepted by everyone. Some scholars contend that the New Testament could not have been foreseen and wasn’t expected. Others contend that the canon wasn’t created until the end of the second century CE, but I tend to disagree with both of those propositions. 

The earliest hint of an emerging canon appears in 2 Peter 3:16. Peter recognizes Paul’s writings as on par with Scripture. What he has in mind when referring to Paul’s letters isn’t altogether clear because Paul wrote some widely accepted letters while others were questionable. Peter assumes that his audience knows what he’s talking about, and he likely expects that they receive his letter similarly, given that he addressed himself as an apostle (2 Peter 1:1; cf. 2 Peter 3:2). Another hint at recognizing authoritative writings in the first century is 1 Timothy 5:18, which is a quotation from Luke 10:7 and Deut. 25:4. The opening phrase, “For the Scripture says,” recognizes both passages as Scripture. This initial phrase comes from Deut, while the rest is identical to Luke’s wording. Thus far, Paul’s writings and Luke’s gospel account are considered Scripture based on internal evidence from the letters. 

Another aspect worth considering is the nature of public readings in the assembly. In several New Testament letters, we observe the command to have them read publicly, which indicates that they carried authority (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Cor. 10:9; Rev. 1:3). We’re able to base this conclusion, in part, on how portions of the Old Testament were read in synagogue meetings (Luke 4:17–20; Acts 13:15; 15:21). Other scholars have additionally pointed out that the Greek structure of Matthew and Mark lent itself to a liturgical structure—which means that they would have been used for year-round public readings. The fact that such letters were urged to be read publicly along with Paul’s command to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) may, in fact, suggest that he already believed his writings to have been such (cf. 2 Peter 3:2). 

The earliest historical source about a Christian assembly details the authority of the apostolic writings. 

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.3)

What’s clear from history is that Scripture was not exclusively read in early church assemblies. Some popular writings that were often read in the church but were not placed among the acknowledged books were The Shepherd of Hermas (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 3.3.6; cf. Rom. 16:14) and 1 Clement (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 4.23.11). Serapion, the Antiochian bishop (190–211 CE), wrote to dispel the Gospel of Peter that had been read in Rhossus because it had led some astray (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 6.12.2). Certain epistles were well esteemed because of the author, while others were forgeries.  

Some might find the notion of reading non-canonical letters in the assembly challenging. However, these writings weren’t ultimately included in the canon because they were not universally accepted. There were three criteria for canonicity: 1) universality, 2) apostolicity, and 3) orthodoxy. If a writing fit into all three, it was accepted into the canon. However, there’s debate over another point: did the church create the canon? If so, authority primarily rests with the church—which is what Catholics and Orthodox believe, their definition of “church” here meaning the priesthood. However, while it’s true that prelates assembled to formalize the canon, they didn’t “determine” so much as “acknowledge” what had, up to that time, been regarded as Scripture. From the latter point of view, Scripture is more authoritative. This is the great divide between Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox.


See Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 12; James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority and Criticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 12. 

 Lee Martin McDonald, “New Testament Canon”, n.p. [cited 25 Mar 2021]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/ask-a-scholar/new-testament-canon 

Michael D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974), 182–83; Phillip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Calendar: A Study in the Making of the Marcan Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952). 

Why Some Old Testaments Have More Books Than Ours

When we speak about the Old and New Testaments’ collected books, we use the word “canon.” This term is in Galatians 6:16 and appears as “rule.” When we speak about the canon of the Bible, we’re typically referring to the 66 books we have, but others have more books in their Old Testaments in other traditions. These extra books are the apocryphal books of the Old Testament (deutero-canonical to the Orthodox Church). They are considered canonical in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Apocrypha is a group of writings that date from 300 BCE to 100 CE. They consist of history (1 Esdras, 1 & 2 Maccabees), fiction (Tobit, Judith, and additions to Esther/Daniel), wisdom literature (Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, The Prayer of Manasseh), and apocalyptic literature (2 Esdras). While they appear with Scripture, Jews didn’t consider them to be canonical. Some people argue for accepting the apocryphal books as Scripture based on their inclusion in the Greek Old Testament’s earliest codices (Septuagint, or LXX) that date to the 4th–5th centuries CE. However, they were omitted when the LXX was initially translated in the 3rd–2nd centuries BCE and Jerome refused to include them when he composed the Latin Bible in 383 CE.  

They are, however, included in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, among which is the Codex Vaticanus. A codex is a way of saying “ancient book,” and the plural is “codices.” This book was found in the Vatican library and has almost all Old and New Testaments, plus other books therein. It dated to the middle of the fourth century and was used by Erasmus in the Renaissance to complete his Textus Receptus. In addition to the Old Testament books they have, 3 Esdras, Wisdom, Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiasticus, additions to Esther Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, and additions to Daniel are included. 

The Codex Sinaiticus was found in 1859 by Count Tischendorf at the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. It dates to the later fourth century and has the entire New Testament with half of the Old Testament in Greek. It adds 1 & 4 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus to the Old Testament. A fifth-century codex, Alexandrinus contains the Old Testament in Greek as well as the entire New Testament, but the New Testament adds the first epistle of Clement of Rome. It adds 2 & 3 Maccabees. These three oldest codices agree on the inclusion of Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Ben Sira). Many have equated codices with canon, but it’s not the same.     

Josephus did not include the Apocrypha in his list of books:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death .… but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes [d. 425 BCE] very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time. (Against Apion 1.8) 

What does Josephus mean by, “has not been esteemed of like authority?” Jews didn’t believe a prophet lived among them during the Intertestamental Period. After the Gentiles defiled the altar, they tore it down and “stored the stones in a convenient place … until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:46). They later made someone their leader and high priest forever “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (1 Macc. 14:41). Between these two events, history even recorded that the distress arose in Israel so great since the prophets ceased appearing among them (1 Macc. 9:27). 

Melito of Sardis, a second-century elder, also failed to include them in his Old Testament list.

Accordingly when I went to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and I send them to you as written below. These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of Kingdoms, two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs or Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve [minor prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. (Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 4.26.14) 

The Council of Trent (Session IV, 1546) is historically the first point at which the Catholic Church formally recognized these books as “Divine Scripture.” They were not included in the original Hebrew Scriptures but were declared “genuine parts of Scripture” by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672). 

“The Septuagint contains in addition ten further books, not present in the Hebrew, which are known in the Orthodox Church as the “Deuter-Canonical Books.”…most Orthodox scholars at present day, however, following the opinion of Athanasius and Jerome, consider that the Deutero-Canonical Books, although a part of the Bible, stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.” (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. [New York: Penguin Books, 1993], 200)

These books, however, do have value for understanding first-century Judaism. When the voice of prophecy had ceased, these books voiced what happened between the Testaments religiously, literarily, and historically. The two books of the Maccabees detail the struggle of the Jews for religious and political freedom, and they record a heroic period of Hebrew history. These books also help us understand the spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual life of the Jews before Christ’s birth. 

The Intertestamental Hebrew Scriptures

Thus far, we’ve established that with Moses living around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to him date between 1450–00 BCE. These books were vested with authority  by the command that they are read every seven years (Deut. 31:10–13), and they were read by Joshua in the 13th century BCE (Josh. 8:34–35). The 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah urged the reading of prophetic books (Is. 34:16). By the 7th century BCE, King Josiah’s court had discovered a copy of the law, likely the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:3–20), and read from it and inquiring of Huldah what such things meant. Jeremiah (6th cent. BCE) urged something to read of his scroll as authoritative (Jer. 36:6–26). During Jeremiah’s tenure, Judah was exiled to Babylon. 

When the exiles returnedMaccabean Revolt’s time to their land after decades of absence, they did so under one journey where the scribe Ezra led them. Ezra was one who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10; cf. 7:6, 25; Deut. 16:12). Ezra’s knowledge of the Law enabled him to advocate for the Law in the reestablishment of Israel, so when the people assembled for a reading of the law, their response was remorse and weeping. The return from exile and covenant renewal did not prohibit a lukewarm response to the Law. By the prophet Malachi, the priests had turned from the Law (Mal 4:4). Their neglect of the Law, perhaps a response to unfulfilled prophetic expectations, led them to apathy towards religious observance. They were neglecting their duties manifested in the lack of reverence towards God so that instead of teaching the Law, they turned from it (Mal. 2:1–9).

The Law taking center stage is assumed to have been ongoing by the time of the Maccabean Revolt when the books of the Law were seized from the temple and any who possessed copies. The seizure was followed by a subsequent destruction of the law documents, which gave rise to Jewish zeal for the customs of their ancestors (1 Macc. 1:56–57). The Jews had formed the habit of searching the Law’s book when faced with national threats (1 Macc. 3:48), and they’d read from their holy books even before going into battle (2 Macc. 8:23). Following Ezra and Nehemiah’s example, they became stringent in their observance of studying the Law and turning to it. This was a dramatic shift from their pre-exilic mindset. 

The Essenes dwelt around the Dead Sea while some lived in cities. The Qumran community mandated a third of every night for reading the book and studying the law as a community. Their study and reading of the law were likely oral rather than silent because of the Maccabees’ customs.  

For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end. (2 Macc. 15:39)

In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. (4 Macc. 18:9–11)

Baruch read the words of this book to Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and to all the people who came to hear the book…. And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you, to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons. (Baruch 1:3, 14)

The Essene’s method of interpretation was to not depart from the commandments and not add anything to them. The preservation of God’s commands in their most accurate form was a significant concern for this community. Hence, they believed that their interpretation of the law was the last. Their proper, communal study of the Law was thought to atone for the land, whereas earlier generations had ignored the Law’s reading and hearing. Since the community also had priests and Levites as members, and these clerics read the text aloud in the assemblies that required a minimal number of ten. 

By the time of Philo, the Jews were regularly meeting in synagogues where they would read the scriptures and, after that, explain whatever was unclear. However, scripture reading was not restricted to the synagogue or scribal community. Among the Therapeutae, Philo recorded that scripture readings and the sermons that followed were common at banquets.

While the origin of the synagogue is widely debated as originating with Moses or sometime during or after the exile, the literary value of its activity as it is observed in the New Testament would give greater weight to sometime after the removal. Nevertheless, the synagogue rose during the Intertestamental Period. The earliest New Testament reference to a synagogue meeting came in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus read from the prophets and gave a sermon. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were institutions of religious education; to speak of synagogue worship negates the temple’s place in the life of the ancient Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, as well as Scripture read at times too.

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting — one from the Law and the other from the prophets. The latter was followed by the synagogue ruler asking if anyone had a message after the reading. The Law was read on a liturgical calendar and in its entirety every three years. Had a priest or Levite been present, and they would have been given preference over an educated Israelite reading, so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both. The reading of the prophets formed the conclusion of the synagogue service known as the Haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read.

When the church was born, it was not considered distinct from Judaism, so synagogue and temple meetings continued until apostolic preaching went to the Gentiles. Upon conversion of the Gentiles and before their conversion, the early Christians primarily met in houses. Within, the worship of the early church became defined as separate from the temple or synagogue. Still, the early church’s house meetings shared many organization and style practices with those of the synagogue. 

Writing the Old Testament

The first instance of recording Scripture occurs at Moses’s hand at the covenant’s inauguration between YHWH and Israel (Exod. 24:4–8). Scholars mostly agree that the Book of the Covenant mentioned there entailed chapters 21–23 of Exodus, but opinions vary. Moses’ upbringing in Egypt explains how he became a scribe in the first place, because they placed a high amount of esteem and respect on the scribe. They believed that a scribe was his own boss and the highest of trades to which one could aspire. Moses obviously had scribal training in Egypt in the first forty years of his life in the higher echelons of society, and that skill would serve him well as the leader of Israel. 

Even in Israel’s later history, we see the scribe as one moving in royal circles ( 2 Chron. 24:11; Esth. 3:12). The scribal chamber was within the palace (Jer. 36:12), and their work often detailed the exploits of the monarchs they served (1 Kings 11:41) as well as the reign of the monarchy itself (1 Kings 14:19, 29). They also served by writing the decrees ordered (Dan. 6:8) and taking dictation (Jer. 36:32). Some might be sent to record the military skirmishes the realm was engaged in (Jer. 52.25), and a useful skill for the scribe to possess in later times was to be bilingual (2 Kings 18:26). Following the station of Moses as a prophet were other prophets who recorded books or records here or there (Josh 24:26; 1 Sam 10:25). Later, we even read about some later holy people referring to what had been written (Dan. 9:2; Neh. 8:1). 

This process led what we know as the Old Testament to be formed around 400 BCE, with some arguing that the Law, or Penteteuch (first five books of the Bible), itself was authoritative by that time if not earlier. By 200 BCE or earlier, the prophets were canonized (cf. Is. 34:16; Jer. 36:6ff). Unlike our Christian Bibles where the Old and New Testaments are major divisions, the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) grouped its books differently. There are three groupings of books: 

  1. The Law (Torah)
    1. Gen–Deut. 
  2. Prophets (Nevi’im)
    1. Josh, Judg., Samuel and Kings (Former Prophets)
    2. Isaiah, Jer., Ezek., and the Twelve (Latter Prophets)
  3. Writings (Ketuvim).
    1. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (Five Megillot)
    2. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles. 

This tripartite division is reflected from Ben Sira, who was the first to refer to it in this way (180–175 BCE), but may be earlier than him. 

Centuries before this time, King Josiah (622 BCE) found a copy of the Law in the temple, and his subsequent reverence of it as such demonstrates its authority in the life of Israelite society (2 Kings 22:3–20). After captivity, Ezra had a copy of the Law in which to lead the nation (Ezra 7:6; Neh. 8:1ff). Centuries before them, Joshua (13th century BCE) read the same (Josh 8:34–35), and King David was to have had a personal copy (Deut. 17:18–20; cf. Deut. 31:9, 25–26). We know David consulted it after Uzzah died (2 Sam. 6:1–10; cf. 1 Chron. 15:1–13), but it’s obvious that it wasn’t central at all times.  

The interlude from the reading of Joshua until the next reading is a noted period of silence of public readings. During that time, the united kingdom of Israel was divided, and the northern kingdom following an idolatrous path while the southern kingdom sinned as well, but with periods of reformation. The next public reading came after the high priest Hilkiah found the Book of the Law in the temple during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Hilkiah took the book to the king’s secretary who then took it to the King. Upon hearing the words of the Book of the Law, King Josiah grieved and sent to inquire of the Lord because all the curses of the book were to be rendered to the unfaithful people of Judah (2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chron. 34). When Josiah assembled the people to have the Book of the Law read in their hearing, Josiah led a covenant renewal to which the people consented. However, because of so many years of apostasy that began with King Solomon, changing the trajectory of Judah was unrealized because of so many years of neglecting to read the Law. Therefore, the land was purged of its inhabitants so that it could undergo a period of cleansing (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22).

This points us to the authority the Law and Prophets had. What we find was that those who were well regarded, adhered to the Law. We also note that the absence of it from the life of Israel resulted in an ignorance that permitted apostasy.  

The Genesis of the Bible (for the average Christian)

We have in our possession a sacred book that is nonetheless a book. Scripture was written over 1,400 years by various authors. The Bible wasn’t put together until centuries after all the writings were collected, but some writings remained together as a corpus (e.g., Torah). How did this process occur? That’s what many wonder. How and who created the Bible is remarkable and something that isn’t required to know but is very enlightening. 

Allow me, first, to give you a timeline of pertinent events as it relates to writing altogether and the Bible.  

3200 BCE — Writing began in Sumer through pictographic means. 

3000 BCE — Egyptian hieroglyphs were developed. 

2100 BCE — Abraham lived around this time. 

1800 BCE — An alphabet is created in Egypt. 

1500 BCE — Moses lived around this time. 

1200 BCE — Ugaritic, a language from Ugarit—a northwestern area in Syria—is used, and Exodus 15 and Judges 5 have stylistic patterns that resemble them. These similarities lead linguists to conclude that these two chapters are the oldest in the Bible and date to 1100–1200 BCE. 

1000 BCE — The monarchical period of Israel’s history begins. 

1000–900 BCE — The earliest Hebrew inscription on a potsherd is discovered (Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon). 

516→ BCE — We have manuscripts dating to this time period, known as the Second Temple Period, with the oldest dating to the late 4th century BCE. 

250→ BCE — Dead Sea Scrolls 

This timeline provides us a rough idea and overview of what we know about written communication. This information results from linguists, philologists, archaeologists, and other related areas of study.  

Materials used in writing were stone (Exod. 34:1, 28; Deut. 27:2–3), clay (Ezek. 4:1), wood (Is. 30:8; Hab. 2:2), and leather (Jer. 36:23). Additionally, papyrus leaves were mostly that upon which the New Testament was written. These plants grew along the Nile River and had been used as far back as 3000 BCE, but became common among the Greeks and Romans for making a book (codex) or books (codices). The average roll was 30 feet long and 9–10 inches high. Scribes would write on one side mostly and occasionally on both sides (cf. Rev. 5:1). Animal skins, referred to as either vellum or parchment, were another common material used in making a letter. 

Whenever you hear about the discovery of a manuscript or something that scholars date to thus-and-such a period, they base this off the material upon which it was written, the language, dialect and syntax, and even carbon dating. Because we know that certain materials were used by particular people during a specific time period, this allows archaeologists to pinpoint a general time frame that contributes to our overall knowledge of the history of a text. 

The Birth of the Bible

It’s difficult to fix a date when the Bible was written or began to be written. Believing that Moses lived around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to his authorship would have been written sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, with redactions throughout the centuries (cf. Num. 12:3; Deut. 34:5–6). However, the book of Job is believed to have been written in the second millennium BCE, or it at least is about that period if it was written later. To put it in perspective, Job is believed to have been a patriarch akin to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in their time. 

Regarding what’s extant, the tenth-century BCE potsherd known as Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon is the eldest. This dates to the reign of King David and was found on the north side of the valley of Elah (1 Sam. 17:1–3). Differing interpretations of what it says exists, so suggesting it is Scripture may not be altogether true. However, this discovery also can’t be ruled out as unreflective of Scripture. The Ketef Hinnom amulets, however, are among the oldest finds that contain language akin to the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24–26 and date to the seventh century BCE. Since many scholars believe that the Old Testament is primarily a product of Israel’s post-exilic period, these two finds cast that conclusion into doubt, given the language they each demonstrate.

Behind these fragmentary pieces, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest full-manuscript evidence of our Old Testament. They are a collection of over 900 manuscripts discovered around Qumran from 1947–56. Copies of every Old Testament book except Nehemiah and Esther were found in 11 caves around the Dead Sea, and the oldest dates to the third century BCE. Before this discovery, the Leningrad Codex was the oldest Old Testament manuscript, dating to 1008 CE. Scholars compared the two texts, being greater than a millennium apart, and found that little had changed. This attests to the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible transmission. The notion supported by Bart Ehrman and company that we can’t fully trust Scripture because of the lack of original copies is a bit of a farce when one considers the accuracy between these two texts.  Stay tuned!

From Prison

Matthew 11:2–30; Luke 7:18–35

John the Baptist is next depicted as imprisoned, and the reason given is detailed in Mark 6:17–20. As a man who preached the message of repentance, John the Baptist was sure to know the law and point it out. Perhaps John’s resolution stemmed from his sense of duty as a prophet (Ezek. 3:18–19). John was right to warn Herod. The law prescribed that a man not marry his living brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21), and both Herod’s wife and Herodias’ husband were still living when they married (Antiq. 18.5.4 [136]). Jesus would later preach that if one married another after divorcing for any reason other than infidelity, they were an adulterer (Matt. 19:9). This relationship was adulterous. John pointed that out to his disparagement.

The result of John pointing out that Herod and Herodias were sinning was imprisonment. While in prison, John heard about the works of Christ and sent his disciples to Him. However, his inquiry was odd given that John had previously acknowledged Christ as Messiah: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; cf. 1:32; 3:30). John’s inquiry may have been legitimate for several reasons: it may have been for the benefit of his disciples. They chose to remain with John after the revelation of Jesus being the Messiah (John 3:26). John may have wanted to continue to point to Christ while decreasing himself (John 3:30). Secondly, the expectation of Jesus doing the works John said He would perform may have created impatience within John. Perhaps John wanted to know when Jesus would fulfill the prophecy he had proclaimed (Matt. 3:7–12). A final possibility may rest within John’s humanity. The Baptist may have wanted to confirm what he already knew. Given the pressure of imprisonment on John, it is possible that he had a moment of weakness.

John’s scriptural knowledge was so excellent that Christ used scripture to answer John. When in prison, the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus who he was. When Jesus answered John (Luke 7:22), he quoted Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming age of the Messiah and those things that would accompany His coming (Isaiah 29:18–19; 35:4–6). To John, Jesus’ usage of this passage would have communicated what John expected from the Messiah. 

When the disciples of John left, Jesus addressed the crowd. “A reed shaken in the wind” speaks of John’s character in one of two ways: 1) Israel is described as a reed easily uprooted (1 Kings 14:15), and John was undeterred in his commitment to God’s mission, or 2) King Herod’s insignia on coins of his minting was a reed so that John couldn’t be bought. Either interpretation fits John’s character because he was a true prophet, not a straw man.

Luke further shows the typology of John being likened to Elijah (cf. Luke 1:17) when he quotes from Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1. The latter passage is linked with Malachi 4:5, where Elijah is identified as the messenger. These passages, along with Isaiah 40:3, are commonly identified with John the Baptist though he denied that he was Elijah incarnate (John 1:21–23).

Those who rejected his baptism and message were those who Jesus likened to brats. They didn’t initiate the game so they won’t play. Those who play and abstain are bad, while those who play and partake are bad too. Moreover, the imagery is akin to a marriage, and this imagery has been used of Christ being the bridegroom (Luke 5:33–35). Either way, those who rejected John and Christ could not be satisfied because of their lack of wisdom. 

Next, Jesus denounces the places where he performed some of his miracles (Matt. 11:20–30).  He does this by comparing them to cities that suffered wrath at the hands of God in a time past. These evil cities, whose stories were infamous to the Israelites, were Tyre and Sidon—who worshiped Baal and were notorious for their immortality and corruption—and Sodom, which was destroyed for their wickedness. Had these evil cities seen what Jesus had done, they would have repented, unlike the cities that saw the good works of Christ and did not. The point is this: those cities that didn’t repent were cozy with sin and not burdened by it in the least. Twice in Jeremiah, the prophet says that God’s people didn’t know how to blush (Jer. 6:15; 8:12). Every one of us has somehow become desensitized to sin. When was the last time someone used curse words that did not bother me? Was I one of the hypocrites who quit watching a television show because of homosexual relationships while the same show otherwise was about fornication and adultery (e.g., Grey’s Anatomy)? Maybe those aren’t the sins we’re desensitized to, but we all likely have some that just don’t bother us, and they may be some in our lives.

Jesus’ invitation, then, follows a prayer. After rebuking the cities, He doesn’t stew or fixate on them but prays. Then, He explains the prayer to those present, inviting them to come: The invitation is to the one who labors under the heavy burden of manufactured religious traditions spurred by the law. No one can measure up no matter how hard they try. The invitation is to the one who labors under the heavy burden of their sins. Sin is exhausting because we then think we must use our resources to please God. 

A Centurion’s Faith and a Widow’s Son

Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–17

A centurion commanded 100 soldiers, but centurions fought alongside their men, unlike other commanding officers. Perhaps, for this reason, they enjoyed a specific bond with those they commanded. The structure of the Roman military was: legions (6,000 soldiers), cohorts (600 soldiers), and centuries (100 soldiers).  The centurion disciplined, recruited, and enforced orders among his men. They were often referred to as the “backbones” of the Roman army.

Soldiers weren’t stationed in Galilee until AD 44 (cf. Tacitus Annals 4.5). However, Herod Antipas could levy soldiers from outside his region since Capernaum was a garrison city and an import customs post. That this centurion is mentioned as having built their synagogue is contextual of a centurion’s pay, not to mention employing his troops as laborers.

This particular centurion loved the Jewish nation, so he was worthy of Christ to help in the eyes of the elders. The centurion loved the Jewish nation so much that he was aware of Jewish customs as they pertained to Jewish/Gentile relations. He was respectful not to breach the law and entertain a Jewish rabbi (cf. Acts 10:28; 11:12). Instead of Jesus’ presence, the centurion knew that as he commanded his soldiers, so too could Christ simply command the illness to be healed, and it would.

Some have suggested, based on Matthew’s account, that the “slave” (doulos) of Luke’s account should be interpreted in light of Matthew’s “servant” (pais) and that the term translated in Matthew was used in antiquity as the passive partner of a same-sex relationship. However, every other time Matthew uses this term, it’s translated as “servant” (12:18; 14:2), “child” (17:18; 21:15), or “young boy” (2:16). He wouldn’t have meant it as a homosexual relationship on this one occasion when he used it a certain way in all others. So the term Matthew used was indeed used of the passive partner of a same-sex relationship, but that was in classical Greek, whereas he wrote in koine Greek. For proponents of homosexuality, this would be a reasonable interpretation, but we take Luke’s later writing as an interpretation of Matthew’s. Therefore, Luke’s use of a word that indicates a servant or enslaved person is his interpretation of what Matthew wrote.

The following story very closely resembles Elijah’s raising of the widow’s son in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17–24): 

●       Both were widows

●       Both had lost their only son

●       Both sons were touched by men of God

●       Both sons were revived

●       Both sons were delivered to their mothers

●       Both resulted in exclaiming to the healers the powers of God

However, there are also some notable differences. The son of Luke’s account is being carried to his burial. The process of taking the dead to their burial is thus described: 

The corpse was…taken on a bier carried by “shoulders” in bare feet so that they would not trip. The shoulders had the right to trample over sown fields….The “shoulders” changed frequently, so as to give as many as possible the chance to share in the honour of carrying the dead. The conventional number of stops (or “stations”) was seven, and the burial places had a field to which the mourners would direct their procession. 

The strong point of Christ’s compassion likely came because he knew the destitution of a widow with no sons to care for her (cf. Jer. 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zech. 12:10). Therefore, as Ephrem the Syrian put it, “The Virgin’s son met the widow’s son” (Diatessaron 6.23).

Widows were considered to be under the special care of the Lord (Deut. 10:18; Ps. 68:5; 146:9; Prov. 15:25), and care for them on the part of others was regarded as distinguishing of pure religion (Job 31:16; James 1:27). To exploit a widow was reprehensible to God (cf. Exod. 22:22; Deut. 24:17). Later in the New Testament, Paul wrote about the qualifications for widows which included their being provided for by their families (1 Tim. 5:4), but if they had no families, the church would be their portion and care (1 Tim. 5:16; cf. Acts 6:1ff).

That this widow had no one to care for her was a sad state. Gregory of Nyssa said that Luke had given us, in his portrayal of this widow, “the sum of misery in a few words” (quoted in Aquinas, Catena Aurea 3.1.238). To erase her misery was Christ and his compassion for her lot. Once Jesus touched the dead body, he would have been considered unclean according to Jewish law (Num. 6:6, 11; 9:6–13.), but for him who had the power over death, he reversed the authority of uncleanness.

That One Verse Everyone Knows and Misuses

Matthew 7:1–8:1

Everyone and their mother knows Matthew 7:1, and they use it—often inappropriately. Yet, there’s more to this passage than telling people not to judge. For example, just a few verses later, Jesus warns against false teachers. To dub a person a false teacher, you have to be willing to judge what they teach and how they live (Matt. 7:15–20). Notice what follows: how we judge is how we will be judged (7:2). This critical person sees only the fault in others but none in themselves (7:3–5). We’re to judge righteously (John 7:24). Unrighteous judgment is according to appearance. Righteous judgment, however, is with grace, mercy, and God’s will as the standard. There’s always what we see and reality. Sometimes the two are the same, but sometimes they’re not. When we look for the worst, that’s what we’ll find every time. 

In matters of righteousness, we’re to judge our brethren and not outsiders (1 Cor. 5:12). Judgment here isn’t a condemnation but discernment. When a Christian doesn’t bear fruits of the spirit but works of the flesh, unrepentantly, we’re to address the issue. When you read the thought uninterrupted, it flows into the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, which denounced lawsuits among brethren. This matter is one of discipline (cf. Deut. 17:6–7; Matt. 18:15–20).

Next, Jesus urges persistent prayer (7:7–11). Then he gives the golden rule, which was meant to guide interpreting the Law (7:12). The golden rule parallels similar statements from other civilizations. 

Watch yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. And what you hate, do not do to anyone. (Tobit 4:14–15; second century BC)

Let us show our generosity in the same manner that we would wish to have it bestowed on us. (Seneca, De Beneficiis 2.1.1; contemporary of Jesus)

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn! (Hillel, b. Sabb. 31a; 70 BC–AD 10)

Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you. (Confucius, Analects 15.23)

Anything that might seem as if we should treat another in a certain way must be turned on ourselves and asked whether or not we’d wish to be treated in that way. The two ways of verses 13–14 have parallels in other passages (Deut. 30:15; Ps. 1:1–2). 

The false prophets of whom Jesus speaks (7:15–20) must be set in the backdrop of how he said we should regard our enemies. In the decades following Jesus, prophets arose, leading revolts against the occupying Romans. Theudas (AD 44–46) led a band of people massacred by a squadron, the head of Theudas being paraded through Jerusalem. An Egyptian during Felix’s reign (AD 52–60) led several thousand people to the Mount of Olives, where he promised to command the city walls to fall and subsequently be installed as Israel’s king. Hundreds were killed, and hundreds were imprisoned, the Egyptian man having escaped. They could tell who the false prophets were by their fruits—if contrary to what Jesus taught them (non-violence), they were known to be false. 

Once more, he emphasizes proper action over confession (7:21–23). The false prophets would be known by their fruits. His disciples were to let their light shine through their good works (5:16). He wanted their righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes (5:20). At every turn, Jesus wanted his disciples to show, by their actions, fidelity to God. They’re not to make a show of it for others but to quietly serve God, trusting in him. Their house will stand if they heed his instructions (7:24–27). 

The response to Jesus’ teaching as having authority stems from his teaching coming directly from himself. Pharisees and rabbis would have cited the collective wisdom of the rabbis, the Law, or other Jewish writings. Jesus alludes to them but speaks with authority and settles the matter. He taught, unlike any other teacher that lived, citing other sources. 

You Have Heard It Said, But I Say To You

Matthew 6:1–34

Jesus addresses a concept exposing faults in the Pharisees and scribes. They did things to be seen (vv. 2, 5, 16). Verse one has “piety” or “charitable deeds.” The former is from a more ancient version of Scripture. The three acts of piety are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. A second-century BCE text highlights the relationship between the three.

Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their own worst enemies. (Tobit 12:8–10)

Each deed was to have been done privately, without drawing attention to oneself so that God receives glory (vv. 3–4, 6–7, 17–18). 

Almsgiving is commanded in the law (Deut. 14:28–29; 15:11), but it’s out of service to God and one’s neighbor that it is done and not for personal acclaim. The chests in the temple that people would place alms in were shaped like trumpets (shofar). The term translated as “hypocrite” is an old word for “actor.” One who plays a part or character that isn’t who they are is a hypocrite—an actor. 

Jews prayed three times daily: 9 a.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. (Ps. 55:17; cf. Dan. 6:10). The morning and evening prayers were at the same time as two of the daily sacrifices, so those living around Jerusalem would have heard the blast of the trumpets at the times of the burnt offerings (cf. 2 Chron. 29:26–30). Presumably, some would go about their day, and when the time of prayer came, they’d stop wherever they were to pray, drawing the notice of those present. The inner room Jesus speaks of here isn’t a closet per se but a storage room. The condemnation of vain repetition isn’t repetition altogether because Jesus did that (cf. Matt. 26:44). The idea here is showboating with too many words or bloviating. 

Rabbis often gave their disciples prayers to recite, so Jesus would have expected this prayer to be prayed verbatim. Outside the New Testament, Christian writing prescribes it to be prayed three times per day—presumably the times of prayer. 

And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” Pray thus three times a day. (Didache 8:2–3)

Many in the ancient world may have had little alternative to hunger, so to display fasting as an act of piety would have been rather insulting to those for whom hunger was common. This righteousness was often associated with mourning, repentance, and self-discipline. 

Wealth can change people. Most lottery winners go broke, and that’s after sometimes having millions of dollars. Others, however, become so changed by it that they cannot enjoy the little things. Where their treasure is, their hearts are as well (Matt. 6:21). Jesus has already warned about the eyes’ capacity to lead to sin (cf. 5:27–30), so what a person dwells on determines who they are in the inner person. If they are wealthy, they will be a slave to it. However, focusing on God and trusting in his provisions ensures their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (6:34).  

A New Way of Living

Matthew 5:13–48; Luke 6:27–36

When Jesus referred to his disciples as salt and light, the significance was not lost on them. They used salt to purify (Exod. 30:35; 2 Kings 2:19–22; Ezek. 16:4); thus, its ancient connotation symbolized purity and wisdom. Likewise, the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of “the children of light” who were on the side of God (1QS 2.3; 3.3.19–21). These two metaphors aren’t just representative of who Christians are but how their works were to be (Matt. 5:16). The works that demonstrate a Christian is acting as salt and light are partly given in Matthew 25:32–46. 

A common belief about Jesus was that he would abolish the law (Acts 6:14), so Matthew highlights that this wasn’t his intention, so much so that the most minute portions of the law would go unaltered. The jot is the Hebrew yod; it looks like an apostrophe. The tittle is even smaller but can change the entirety of the word, as seen in the differences between resh and dalet of the Hebrew alphabet.

No matter how minor a command seems, it’s still to be kept, and no one should ever minimize any law (cf. James 2:10). 

Highlighting what is said from this point onward, Jesus urges that his disciples behave more righteously than the scribes and Pharisees, known for being righteous. The first issue is murder: when committed, the Jewish court could judge the wrongdoer (Deut. 16:18; 21:1–9). Judgment can come to one who’s angry without cause (cf. 1 John 3:15). Insulting another was a legal offense, and the Jewish court could excommunicate a person for insulting a teacher (b. Ber. 19a). The progression is interesting: angry without cause = judgment; calling one “half whit” = council (Sanhedrin); calling one a “fool” = hell. Why, though? The type of anger here is long-lived and brooding over imagined or real injustices. This isn’t the type of anger that flares up and dissipates. Another term is used for the latter instead of what’s used here. In Jewish society, name-calling was a severe offense. Names indicate a person’s character or praise of God in some way, so to refer to someone as a half-whit or fool was to strip away the person’s significance by removing their name. Before offering a gift, something that might allude to Cain and Abel, God required reconciliation. 

Once more, going beyond the command, disciples are to avoid lust since it is as equal to adultery as the physical act. From here, Jesus doesn’t command self-mutilation but is speaking in hyperbole. Whatever it is that leads to the temptation should be severed. Finally, Jesus’ commands about divorce and remarriage were stricter than in most branches of Judaism at the time. The reason one may divorce is porneias. As the Old Testament used it, the related term was translated as “playing the whore.” In this case, let’s note a few things: 

  1. “Divorce” then was an exclusively religious act. In our time and culture, it is a civil action. When two people divorce today, they are unbinding themselves legally. Then, when a man gave his wife a divorce certificate, he said that he would no longer be responsible for caring for her, thus leaving her destitute if she didn’t have an adequate support system. People may legally divorce today, but the marriage has not dissolved in God’s eyes except for the condition Jesus attaches to it (Matt. 19:1–9).
  2. If a man divorces his wife for “playing the whore,” anyone who marries her commits adultery. Mind you: this isn’t limited to cheating. It can imply prostitution, incest, and other sexual sins, as Scripture defines. 

Oaths, retaliation, and resistance are forbidden. Roman soldiers could compel anyone to do something for up to a mile, but to go the extra mile demonstrates non-resistance. We’re also not to withhold but give, and we should love differently. Our love should extend to even those we would instead not love, as God loves all people. 

Appointing the Twelve

Mark 3:13–19; Matthew 5:1–12; Luke 6:12–26

Jesus selected twelve men from his disciples (cf. Luke 10:1–12) who became apostles. Christ made this selection after a night of prayer. The term translated for Christ’s all-night prayer is used only here in the New Testament, and it denotes “an all-night prayer vigil,” which suggests a complete trust in God’s selection of the twelve. These particular disciples would be the standard bearers of the church.

An apostle was one who was “sent forth,” like an ambassador. Apostles were head of the church in Christ’s absence (1 Cor. 12.28; Eph. 4.11); hence the early church devoted itself to apostolic teaching (Acts 2.42). That twelve was selected was probably to replace the idea of the twelve tribes of Israel and thus defined Jesus’ followers as the reconstituted people of God. The twelve had a special mission and were hand-selected by Christ. However, the twelve were not the only ones called apostles (cf. 1 Cor. 15:5–7). The term seemed to have been sometimes used regarding missionaries, too, when they were sent from particular congregations (Acts 14:14), though it cannot be said that these were of the same authority as the apostolic office. 

Whenever Judas was replaced, his replacement was to be one who accompanied them during the time that Jesus was among them from the baptism of John until his ascension (Acts 1:21–22). The only apostle whose office didn’t fit the requirements of Judas’ replacement was the apostle Paul, but we know that Paul was likely in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s ministry (cf. Acts 22:3; 26:4). We don’t know if he personally encountered Christ or heard him. Paul’s apostleship was disputed in the early church, but he contended that he was equal with Peter and the others (Gal. 2:7–9). 

Men would later call themselves apostles while claiming many characteristics of Jesus’ chosen apostles (2 Cor. 11:5ff; Rev. 2:2), but these were not to be obeyed. Once Jesus made his selection, he and they came down the mountain and stood on a level place. This doesn’t indicate that he came down but that he found a level place on the side of the mountain from which he could address his disciples. The crowd benefited from his teaching but was directed as his disciples (Luke 6:20). Jesus healed many at this point who were ill and those who were possessed. As they touched Jesus, they enjoyed his power.

While Luke’s Sermon on the Plain deviates in structure from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Matthew was a topical rather than chronological writer. Luke’s placement of Jesus’ sermon in his Gospel may be best understood from a chronological view. The difference between the mount and the plain may be understood as Jesus standing on the side of the mount, or a slope, which could technically be the mount.

The following sermon was intended not for the people but for the disciples of Christ. The beatitudes have been described as a way of life, while the woes have been described as a way of death (Didache 1.1–5), reminiscent of Deuteronomy’s blessings and curses. Ambrose understood the beatitudes as the four virtues of Greek philosophy: temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude (Luke 5.62-63). Ambrose’s interpretation ran counter to the Stoic philosophers of Jesus’ day.

The woes of Luke speak to those who have enjoyed their reward in this life. Jesus equated what was desired by men with what was base. What was base to men, Jesus equated with blessings: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8–9). The woes were woes, and the blessings were blessings because those who enjoyed the woes could not see the need for Christ, while those with the blessings could. Luke later proves this in his story of the rich man and Lazarus later in his Gospel (Luke 16:19–31). The rich man had all the comforts and wealth of the world, while Lazarus suffered daily. In the afterlife, the rich man was tormented while Lazarus was comforted. When the rich man adjured Abraham to send word to his brothers once he learned that he could not receive relief, Abraham’s words were that they heed Moses and the Prophets. The implication of this passage was that the rich man refused to give himself to a study of the Hebrew Bible, and because he lacked adequate knowledge of how to care for his neighbor, he was suffering as a result.

Healing on the Sabbath

Matthew 12:1–21; Mark 2:23–3:12; Luke 6:1–11

Jesus and his disciples were pulling grain and eating on the Sabbath, but the Pharisees took issue with what they interpreted as their “working” on the Sabbath. The apostle John gave a blunt explanation that summed up the Pharisaical animosity towards Jesus, which revolved around Christ’s Sabbath activity. The law regarding the Sabbath was one of observant cessation for holiness (Exod. 20:8). What they were doing was not a violation of the Sabbath. Instead, they violated the traditional keeping of the Sabbath as it was defined by the rabbis.

God permitted the Jews to eat grain as they passed through a grain field (Deut. 23:25; Ruth 2:2–3). Sabbath prohibitions were to not start a fire for cooking (Exod. 16:22–30; 35:3), gather fuel (Num. 15:32–36), bear a load (Jer. 17:21–22), or conduct business (Neh. 10:31; 13:15, 19). The rabbinical tradition, however, demanded thirty-nine particular restrictions, including reaping (Shab. 7.2). Therefore, the disciples picking grain was perceived by the Pharisees as reaping and thus a violation of the law.

Jesus proved the Pharisee’s inconsistency by exposing their veneration of David while neglecting David’s disobedience of the law while Jesus and his disciples were not breaking the law. Furthermore, Jesus, not the Pharisees, was “lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath does not indicate that Jesus violated the law. Some have categorized this narrative as one of situational ethics, but that is not the case. Jesus was not bending the rules or saying he could because of his lordship over the Sabbath. Instead, he was the legislator of the law and, bound by it (cf. Matt. 5:17–19), would not have broken it. Had Jesus defied the law, he could not have been called sinless (1 John 3:4; cf. Heb. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22). If Jesus sinned, he could not have been our sacrifice humanity would still be in sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Matthew adds the detail that Jesus pointed out that the priests broke the law, working on the Sabbath, but were blameless. Then, for the second time, he cites Hosea, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” 

Jesus is next faced with healing on the Sabbath. By this time, the Pharisees kept a steady eye on the Lord to determine whether he would violate their traditions. However, later rabbinic traditions attest to an answer to the question of Jesus: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or harm, to save life or to destroy it?” The rabbis agreed that preserving life overruled Sabbath restrictions when life was at stake (Yoma 8.6; cf. Shab. 18.3; 19.2). However, life wasn’t at risk in this story. Mark permits us a glimpse into how Jesus felt about their hardness of hearts: he “looked … at them with anger, bring grieved” (Mark 3:5). Jesus did this miracle publicly not to provoke but to persuade. The proof was required to attest to his identity to know that he was Lord. Once he healed the man, though, the Pharisees began plotting with Herodians, a detail unique to Mark, which makes for an ironic narrative. Since the Sabbath was meant for cessation, their plotting contradicts their ceasing. 

Jesus removes himself, healing those who came to him in Tyre and Sidon (Mark 3:7–12), Gentile cities that perhaps spoke to the offer of salvation even to Gentiles. Matthew cited Isaiah’s words as the explanation of being in Tyre and Sidon (12:16–21; cf. Is. 42:1–4).  

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