Bible Backstory 1: “The Bible” in Jesus’ Day

There was no “the Bible” in Jesus’ day. It simply didn’t exist. Rather, what did exist was a variety of mostly independent texts, many of which existed in different versions and obviously had undergone (or were undergoing) change. Some would say that the texts that later were deemed “canonical” were, during the mid to late Second Temple period, pluriform and fluid.[1]

I repeat, there was no “the Bible” in Jesus’ day (i.e., the early 1st century C.E.). The texts that existed that were considered by at least some Jews as authoritative (e.g., the Torah, the Prophets, and some of the Writings). However, there wasn’t any officially approved or recognized collection of texts that was called “the Bible.” The collection of texts that make up the Tanakh was not officially recognized until 150-200 years after Jesus. [And, of course, the texts that were canonized in the mid-late 4th century C.E., as the New Testament, were not yet written.]

All the textual evidence we have clearly indicates that the texts, that were deemed authoritative (by Jews and later by Christians), existed in many different forms and were in a state of flux. I hope, through spaced repetition that I’m being clear. The collection of texts discovered in the mid-20th century C.E. in the desert of Judah (commonly referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls) establishes clearly that the texts that would later make up the Tanakh (Jewish) or the Old Testament (Christian) were, for sure, not “set in stone.”  

Thus, when we refer to “the Bible” of Jesus’ day, we are referring to something that did not exist. That is not to say that there weren’t any texts that were considered scripture, but even which ones were regarded as authoritative varied from sect to sect. And many of those texts existed in different versions.

It amazes me how that in conservative evangelical and fundamentalist circles both Josephus and Philo – 1st century C.E. Jews; the former living in Rome, the latter living in Alexandria, Egypt – are quoted as if their writings accurately and authoritatively record the understanding of all Jews everywhere at that time.[2] The numbering of books by Josephus (22), and the “hinting” of broad categories by Philo (the law, prophets and psalms), and even in Gospel attributed to Luke (the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms), do not tell us exactly which books were included and by whom those books were accepted as authoritative. Conservative evangelical and fundamentalist scholars love quoting Josephus and Philo when it suits their already established views, but also do not quote them when it doesn’t.  

The textual evidence, however, is to my mind very clear, that most of the books later chosen to be included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible, and later in the Christian Old Testament, existed in various forms/versions in the days of Jesus. To refer to “the Bible” of Jesus’ day is absolutely anachronistic.

Many are not aware that there isn’t even “the Bible” today. To test that, question numerous people about what books comprise “the Bible” today. A Jewish person will say it is the Tanakh and includes 24 books (5 in the Torah, 8 in the Prophets and 11 in the Writings).[3] A Catholic would say that the Bible consists of 73 books,[4] whereas a Protestant would reply, “No, the Bible has 66 books.” A member of the Greek Orthodox church would declare that the Bible has 76 books. And we could go on, but I think the point is illustrated. Even today, there is no one biblical canon that is accepted by all as authoritative scripture. And, BTW, based on the oldest biblical codices (from the 4th and 5th centuries C.E.), “the Bible” then was larger than the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, today. Several of the so-called apocryphal books, those beyond the 39 of the Protestant Old Testament, were present in the Codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus and Alexandrinus.   

So, what should we say when referring to the texts that were considered authoritative by 1st century C.E. Jews or by the early Jesus’ followers? I think it is probably most accurate to refer to them as “scripture” as long as we understand that which texts comprised “scripture” varied from time to time and from group to group. For example, the author of 2 Timothy stated,

  • But you hold to the things you were taught and were convinced, knowing from whom you were taught and that from an infant you have known the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be qualified, having been completely equipped for every good deed (3:14–17).

Which “sacred writings” had Timothy known from infancy? Which “God-breathed writings” was the author referring to that were useful to fully equip the person of God? They were, no doubt, the Jewish writings that would later be canonized and thus included in the Tanakh, probably translated into Greek. To understand these to be the 66 books that make up the Protestant Bible is absolutely anachronistic.

In a similar way the author of 2 Peter refers to Paul’s letters which contain “some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other writings” (3:16). Again, there is no absolute clarity as to exactly which other writings he refers. However, he does, interestingly, include Paul’s letters. However, to exactly which of Paul’s letters he referred, we simply don’t know.

My point in this post is that we have to be very careful to not read back into the days of Jesus and his early disciples that they held as sacred writings every one of the exact texts that we do today. There was no “the Bible” as a fixed collection of writings considered sacred or God-breathed by all, whether Jews or Jesus followers.


[1] Pluriformity – existing in many different forms; Fluidity – the quality of being likely to change repeatedly and unexpectedly.

[2] See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-biblical-canon/ and https://arcapologetics.org/the-canon-of-scripture-in-jesus-day/. Contrast conservative evangelical and fundamentalist dogma of canonical certainty with more objective and majority scholarly understandings of the process of canonicity: https://www.britannica.com/topic/biblical-literature/The-process-of-canonization.

[3] https://torah.org/learning/basics-primer-torah-bible/

[4] https://catholicism.org/many-books-bible.html

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