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?