Background to the Gospels: Part 1 – The Hebrew Bible

In the previous posts on the Gospels, I talked about historical and literary context. But in order to understand the gospels, it is also important to place it in a biblical context. Christians reading the Gospels tend to bracket out world history, imagining the stories something like an epic Hollywood production from the 1950s. While this is the “Greatest Story Ever Told,” I cannot think of a worse way to place the Gospels in their proper historical context!  For this reason, I plan several posts on the “background” to the Gospels.  In Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright covers much of this material and calls is a “perfect storm” of conditions which result the events of 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. Jesus interprets the Hebrew Bible in his teaching, the writers of the Gospels interpret Jesus through the lens of the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. In the apostolic period (Acts, Epistles), the Hebrew Bible is the foundation for doing theology and evangelism.

The “plot” of the Hebrew Bible is assumed by Jesus and the writers of the Gospels. I find the “creation – fall – redemption” summary adequate, although there is a great deal more to the story than those three words can express. In the Hebrew Bible, God is working to deal with the problem of fallen humanity through Israel. But his chosen people are far from perfect, often “falling short of the glory of God.” Since their leaders rarely responded properly to God’s revelation, the nation went into exile in 722 B.C and 586 B.C. Since that time, Israel and Judah have lived among the Gentiles. Even those who lived in the land of Promise still lived under foreign domination.

As N. T. Wright has (frequently) pointed out, the real exile never really ended.  By the first century there were some Jews at least to thought of the exile as ongoing and looked forward to an ultimate Son of David who would end the exile and re-establish some sort of kingdom for the remnant of faithful Jews. That conclusion to the story of the Hebrew Bible is found in texts like Ezekiel 37, or Daniel 9 and was well known in the first century. If Wright is generally correct, this expectation of the nearness of the restoration of Israel is important for understanding both John the Baptist and Jesus, since they proclaim that the “kingdom of God is near.”

The Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament have been historically downplayed by Christian scholars until very recently. In the art the Church produced for nearly 2000 years, Jesus is usually a white European. There was a general ignorance of Hebrew and a real hatred for the Jewish people which hindered anyone who wanted to study the literature of the Hebrew Bible. To a large extent this prejudice has lessened in the last fifty years, but there is still some resistence to understanding the Gospels in the light of the early Scripture.

I think that reading the Gospels in the light of the Hebrew Bible makes more sense of the data we find in these books.  More importantly, the theology of the Hebrew Bible is the proper context for the stories, not later Christian theology.

What are some other ways the Hebrew Bible helps us understand the Gospels?

17 thoughts on “Background to the Gospels: Part 1 – The Hebrew Bible

  1. Phil: You say: “I think that reading the Gospels in the light of the Hebrew Bible makes more sense of the data we find in these books. More importantly, the theology of the Hebrew Bible is the proper context for the stories, not later Christian theology.” So true. Your post is a great primer. What you say here is now a “basic” for serious students and scholars, but I still don’t hear much of this Hebrew context in the teaching and preaching for the people in the pews.

  2. The Hebrew Bible provides us with the framework essential to understanding humanity’s relationship to God, to Creation, and to one another. In the Old Testament God gave Israel the Law in order to set them apart as a nation. As we read and begin to understand this Law more, we realize it is a revelation of God’s character. We read about God’s heart for the less fortunate (Ex. 21), His definition of land ownership (Lev. 20), and rules for social responsibility (Lev.19) to name a few. Turning to the New Testament and the life of Jesus we find that Jesus was concerned with the same things. Although Christ’s work brought with it freedom and fulfillment of Law, Jesus’ life was also the perfect emulation of the heart of God. In Matthew 5, Jesus delivered a sermon that proves He cared for the same things as God the Father. I believe studying God’s relationship with Israel, found in the OT, is the only way we can fully understand the Gospels and what Jesus accomplished while He was here. And, equally as important, what that means to us now.

  3. “The Hebrew Bible provides us with the framework essential to understanding humanity’s relationship to God, to Creation, and to one another.” I really liked what you said there Scott. The Hebrew Bible is where we find our framework of our worldview. Understanding the Hebrew Bible also helps us understand the worldview of the world that Jesus lived in. N.T. Wright connects the worldview and hopes the Jews had from their scriptures with the world events and actions of the people during the time of the Gospel. Part of the perfect storm was the expectations of the Jewish people for a coming king to conquer the Romans and set things back to right, just as they were promised in the Hebrew Bible. The Jews were waiting for a second Exodus. Wright explains that the Jews were living in a world of exile from their world. Jerusalem and Israel had been devastated for over 600 years by the time of the Gospels. God had left the Temple and had not returned yet. The Jews were waiting for a rescue. This is the world in which the Gospels took place. To understand this requires an understanding of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, an understanding of the Hebrew Bible brings all new levels of understanding and depth to the story of the Gospel and puts it into proper perspective with the rest of God’s redemptive plan.

  4. The Hebrew bible gives the framework or foundation of the gospels. As Ty stated, the Jews were living in a world in which they were in exile. The Hebrew bible gives understanding and helps us realize the gospels message and this world of the Jews. Christ was to be the messiah and lead them to their final rescue. Everything has a beginning or a foundation and that is what the Hebrew bible offers to the detailed stories that are the gospels. The relationship that we have with God is a process that we are continually working on and discovering more about each day. We need to continue working on understanding this and learning from it.

  5. As stated by Scott and Ty, the Hebrew Bible explains for us the relationship between God and man. We are able to see the heart of God and how that connects into the heart of Christ and how they both longed deeply for that loving relationship with man. And again, as stated by Mr. Clark, it helps us understand the world/worldview of the Jew’s, which for me is very important. Not only because we get this understanding of the Jewish culture/world, but we also come in contact with how God has a plan for the Nation of Israel, and for the Gentiles. The Hebrew Bible shows us the plan for Israel and how God had established that for them and then through the death of Christ on the Cross, how we were brought into a time of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, not of works. (Ephesians 2:8)

  6. I agree that keeping these things in context is something that most people lack. Especially as 21st century American Christians, we tend to allow our culture and experiences effect what we read in the Bible. We need to remember that the culture of the Bible is completely different than ours today. In order to have a better understanding and comprehension of the Bible, and the Gospels, we need to be able to understand the culture and what the influences of the time were. The Hebrew Bible allows us to do this. In the end, the better we properly understand the Scriptures, the better we can apply them to our lives today and situations we may find ourselves in–even if it does not seem applicable at first. Paul reminds Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you have learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:14-15).

  7. As Andrew said, “the Hebrew Bible gives the framework or foundation of the gospels.” The Hebrew Bible is like a base or starting point for every Christians interpretation and understanding of the gospels. If we understand this we can understand the lifestyle that Jesus had and the choices we made. We can learn more in depth about everything that everything the Messiah did and the relationships he had. The Hebrew Bible can be summed up into the creation, fall, and redemption, like P. Long said above, but studying the Hebrew Bible will give us so much more of a broad understanding.

  8. Not only would the Hebrew Bible help us make more sense of the facts we know now, but I think that it would be so interesting and eye-opening to read and view the Bible in the original form. I can imagine reading the stories in the original form and being amazed and really comprehending the stories with a more vivid picture. I like how Scott said we would realize it as revelation to God’s character. I think that sometimes we forget that the original text was told and reviewed in a different time, but at the same time, it is powerful to think that God is the exact same. God is God.
    I also agree with Jessica as she states that the better we understand the original contexts of the Bible, we will be able to apply it to our lives in a different, and even possibly a better way because we know the history and the background of the Bible.

    • Context is extremely important. Understanding the events leading up to Jesus and His ministry on earth is not only important, it is extremely helpful! How can we expect to fully comprehend Jesus and the gospels without starting with His historical, social, and religious context? And, as many have stated, the “framework” for our understanding is the Hebrew Bible. The story of God using His law in the lives of Israel to reveal to them their sin and depravity. Their stories, the stories of the Old Testament, are a great testimony to the need that we have for a savior, that savior being Jesus Christ.

  9. The Hebrew Bible is often overlooked by many Christians today, especially youth. Reasons for this vary and include: difficulty understanding the literature, lack of care because of time and culture difference, or simply arrogance towards the necessity. “The primary “background” for the Gospels is the Hebrew Bible.” I think P. Long states it simply, but also right on the money. We as Christians of the 21st century need to remember that the foundation for the Gospels is built in the Hebrew Bible. There a vast amount of reasons why the Hebrew Bible is vital to our understanding of the Gospels. Like stated in the original post without the Old Testament there is no Creation, Fall, and Redemption resulting in loss of crucial elements of a Christian worldview. But I think something that is really important is to try and think like the 1st century Christians of the early church thought. They didn’t have the New Testament. They still meditated on the Word of God, but only the Old Testament. When they faced trials, they quoted Scripture from the Hebrew Bible (Matthew 4). When there were situations concerning theology, they based their decisions on the Hebrew Bible, unless Jesus told them otherwise. It was important for the Jews in the 1st century to memorize the Old Testament which is why it’s vital for us to understand it as well.

  10. Think of a house or a building construction. Now, try to to imagine a house being built without having first laid down a foundation for the wooden frames to be set on. That’s how I view the Gospels without the Hebrew Bible. Without the beginning, we can’t have a middle or an end; simple as that. In the Hebrew Bible, as Scott stated “The Hebrew Bible provides us with the framework essential to understanding humanity’s relationship to God, to Creation, and to one another.” It gives us an understanding of what the Jews during their time of exile were managing. As Ty stated, the Jews were waiting for a second Exodus. They were waiting anxiously for a Messiah that would liberate them, allow them to go back to their homeland and obliterate their enemies. Without the Hebrew Bible, we wouldn’t have any idea of what God’s redemptive plan would be for them and for us.

  11. If you take the gospels, and read them as they are without ever referring back to the Hebrew Bible, you would miss out on so much background and understanding to the event that the gospels are written about. Jesus dying for our sins is the ultimate sacrifice, and the only sacrifice that could bridge the gap between humanity and God. That gap of course being sin. In the Hebrew Bible, man is given the Law, man is given the 10 Commandments. God give man rules on how to live a life pleasing to Him. The only problem is that God’s Law is perfect, and we are not perfect beings. No one (besides Jesus who was God himself) could hope to follow the Law completely without breaking it, and sinning in the eyes of God. Israel, God’s chosen people, are shown the divine might and power of God over and over, they are blessed and favored by him over and over, and they turn their backs on him over and over. And even though God shows them mercy time and time again, it was an endless cycle of failure, to forgiveness, to failure. Jesus came and ended that cycle. He took us out from under the curse of the Law (Gal 3:13).

    Without the Hebrew Bible, all we have are the couple of verse that people from the New Testament quote from the Scriptures. But even the fact that Jesus and others in the NT quote the Scriptures show us how important they are, and how they are the foundation of the story of the gospels.

  12. The old testament provides for us the cultural context that is so important and so often misunderstood by Christians today. Jesus did so many things that fulfilled OT prophecy or that had great significance to the Jews. However today we easily miss these things because many lack a strong knowledge of the OT and thus are missing the key piece which would clear up Jesus’ actual meaning or intent instead of our interpretation of these things as seen through the lenses of modern culture.

Leave a Reply