“Jesus and the apostles did appeal to Scripture, and we should mention how the term was used in Jesus’ day. The Greek word graphê originally just meant writing, especially a brief piece of writing, but in Jewish and Christian contexts it came to mean a holy writing, which is why it is often translated scripture.
Today we use this term to refer to the entire collection of holy books, saying things like, “Scripture contains the Old and the New Testaments.” But in the first century, when the term was used in the singular, it normally referred to a specific book or passage. Thus, in Mark 12:10, Jesus says:
Have you not read this scripture: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes”?
The passage Jesus is quoting (“this scripture”) is Psalm 118:22-23. By contrast, when people wanted to refer to all the holy writings as a group, they used the plural: “the scriptures.” Thus, Jesus tells his Sadducee critics they are wrong, “because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29).
Christians initially used this term for writings composed in the Old Testament period, for these were the only holy books at the time. Even when they began writing the books of the New Testament, they used “the scriptures” as a technical term for the earlier holy books.
There are a few exceptions, such as when Paul refers to Luke’s Gospel as “scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18; see Luke 10:7) or when Peter lists Paul’s letters alongside “the other scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16), but referring to the books of the New Testament as “Scripture” really didn’t catch on until the second century.
Jesus overturned many common religious ideas of in his day, but he didn’t challenge the authority of Scripture. As the incarnate Word of God, he acknowledged the authority of the written word. Thus, he declared, “Not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17); and, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
Jesus saw his ministry as fulfilling Old Testament prophecy. At the Triumphal Entry, Jesus rode a young donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 (see John 12:14-15); and when he was arrested, he declared, “All this has taken place, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56). Following the Resurrection, he spoke with two disciples, and “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
The Scriptures Jesus Accepted
If Jesus saw his ministry as the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures, which ones did he have in mind?
In the Gospels, he commonly refers to “the Law” and “the prophets” (e.g., Matt. 5:17; 7:12; 11:13). This was a common way of referring to the whole of the Old Testament, though it doesn’t tell us which specific books he saw it including.
From the evidence of the Gospels, we can tell Jesus placed more emphasis on certain books than others. The ones he quoted from most were Psalms, Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Isaiah. Depending on how you reckon what counts as a passage, he quotes fifteen passages from the Psalms, eleven from Deuteronomy, eight from Exodus, and seven from Isaiah.
The large number of quotations from Deuteronomy and Exodus are to be expected, given the prominence of the Pentateuch in Jewish thought, and it’s no surprise he also quotes from Genesis, Leviticus, and Numbers. When it comes to the prophets, Jesus quotes not only from Isaiah but also from Jeremiah and Daniel, as well as several minor prophets (Hosea, Jonah, Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi).
Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow us to say precisely which books he regarded as Scripture. The Gospels are only partial records of his words and actions, and the fact that they don’t record him quoting a book doesn’t mean that he never quoted it or didn’t regard it as Scripture.
When scholars commonly believed there was a “Palestinian canon” that all Palestinian Jews accepted, it was easy to claim—based on where He lived—that Jesus simply accepted that one. But as scholarship has advanced, it’s become clear there were multiple, fuzzy canonical traditions even in Palestine.
It’s likely Jesus accepted more books than the Sadducees. When they challenged Him on the resurrection of the dead (Matt. 22:23-32), he conspicuously used Exodus 3:6 (“I am the God . . . of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”) to prove that the dead will one day rise, though there are much clearer passages, such as Daniel 12:2 (“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”). Jesus elsewhere cites Daniel as a prophet (Matt. 24:15) and quotes from his book (Matt. 24:30; 26:64). This indicates that Jesus treated Daniel as Scripture, and He probably avoided using it with the Sadducees because they didn’t accept it.
Some have tried to shed light on which books Jesus accepted by appealing to the languages he spoke. From various Aramaic words and phrases in the Gospels (see Mark 3:17; 5:41; 15:34), it’s clear Jesus’ daily language was Aramaic. When he quoted Scripture, he likely did so in Aramaic, based on the targums read in the synagogues. But it’s also likely he used Hebrew, and some have argued he would have accepted a book as Scripture only if it was in Hebrew or Aramaic—excluding the deuterocanonical books.
There are several problems with this argument. One is that modern scholarship has shown most of the deuterocanonicals were actually written in Hebrew or Aramaic. These include Sirach, Tobit, Judith, Baruch, and 1 Maccabees, so language would not prevent Jesus from accepting them.
Also, Greek was an international language at the time, and it was spoken in Palestine. Modern scholars have taken seriously the idea that Jesus and his disciples may also have used Greek. In the Gospels, Jesus speaks to Gentiles on various occasions (e.g., Matt. 8:38-34; Mark 7:26), including the Roman governor (Matt. 27:11), who would not have known Aramaic; and a group of Greeks asked Philip to arrange an audience with Jesus for them (John 12:20-22).
We also have evidence that Jesus read and valued some of the deuterocanonicals. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus made a single petition contingent on our own actions rather than simply being a request made to God. He taught us to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12), following it up by saying, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15).
Scholars have noted that this expresses the same teaching found in Sirach 28:1-5, but not present elsewhere in the Old Testament. Thus, Sirach states, “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray” (Sir. 28:2).”