Criswell Theological Review 3.2 (1989) 341-351.
Copyright © 1989 by The
INTERPRETED HIS BIBLE
E. EARLE ELLIS
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Biblical Christians have always taken the Gospels as their trust-
worthy guide to the teachings of Jesus. There are today strong his-
torical and literary grounds supporting that confessional commitment
which enable one with considerable confidence to synthesize from the
Gospels Jesus' views and teachings on a number of themes. They
include (1) the identification of the books composing the Lord's Bible,
(2) his attitude toward these scriptures and (3) the methods and
emphases of his interpretation of them.
About a hundred years ago a theory was popularized that the
Jewish Bible--our OT--was canonized in three stages: the Pentateuch
about 400 B.C., the Prophets about 200 B.C. and the Writings, including
the Psalms and wisdom literature, at the Council of Jamnia about A.D.
90.1 This theory left the content of the Hebrew Bible in Jesus' day an
uncertain quantity as far as its third division was concerned.
While the three-stage canonization theory continues to be widely
followed, in the past two decades it has been seriously critiqued by
Jewish and Protestant scholars and, in my view, has been effectively
demolished.2 The theory failed primarily for three reasons. (1) It was
* This is the second of two lectures read at the Criswell Lectureship Series,
1 H. E. Ryle, The Canon of the Old Testament (
2 E. E. Ellis, "The Old Testament Canon in the Early Church," Compendia
Rerum Judaicarum ad Novum Testamentum (edd. S. Safrai et al.; Assen and Phila-
delphia 1974-, II i ) 653-00. Cf. S. Z. Leiman, ed., The Canon and Masorah of
342 CRISWELL THEOLOGICA.L REVIEW
not based on specific evidence but rather on inferences, some of
which can now be seen to have been clearly mistaken.3 (2) For certain
OT books it assumed a late dating, for example, for Ecclesiastes and
Daniel, that can no longer be entertained. (3) It assumed without
justification that the Council of Jamnia acted to canonize certain
books, but the evidence suggests only that it reaffirmed books long
received but later disputed by some.4
It is significant that the OT apocryphal books, received by Roman
Catholics as canonical (or deuterocanonical), were never included in
Jewish canonical designations and are never cited in the 1st century
tian canonical list, is not cited in the NT and was questioned by some
rabbis and Christian writers.5 To summarize briefly, one may say with
some confidence that the Bible received and used by our Lord was,
with the possible exception of Esther, the OT received today as
sacred scripture by Jews and Protestants.
Jesus' use of the OT rests on his conviction that these writings
were the revelation of God through faithful prophets, a conviction
that is decisive for his interpretation of scripture and that surfaces
explicitly in a number of places in the Gospels. Let us look at five
examples of this: Matt 19:4f., Mark 12:24, Matt 5:17f., Luke 4:3-12 and
Two examples of Jesus' attitude to scripture appear in his debates
with rabbis of other Jewish religious parties. In a question on divorce
posed by the Pharisees Jesus cites Gen 1:21 and 2:24 as the conclusive
The one who created them from the beginning
Made them male and female
And said, “ . . . The two shall be one flesh."
the Hebrew Bible (
Hebrew Scripture (Hamden, CT 1976); R. T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon
of the New
3 For example, the testimony of Josephus (ca. A.D. 90; Ag. Ap. 1.38-42) to a long-
settled, universally recognized Jewish canon of scriptures cannot simply be dismissed
as a sectarian viewpoint.
4 Cf. Leiman, Bible, n. 2; R. C. Newman, "The Council of Jamnia and the Old
Testament Canon," WTJ 38 (1976) 319-49.
5 Lacking Esther is the list of Melito, Bishop of Sardis (ca. A.D. 170), cited in
Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 4.26.13f. For criticisms of Esther among the rabbis, cf. Megilla 7a;
Ellis: How JESUS INTERPRETED HIS BIBLE 343
Noteworthy for our purposes is the fact that, according to Matthew,
Jesus identified the editorial comment of the author of Genesis as the
utterance of God. That is, the word of God character of scripture is
not limited to "thus says the Lord" passages.
In a debate with the Sadducees on the resurrection6 Jesus identi-
fies their error thus:
Not knowing the scriptures
Nor the power of God
Matt 22:29 = Mark 12:24
Two points are to be observed here. First, since these trained scripture-
scholars memorized the Bible by the book, Jesus is not ascribing their
theological error to an ignorance of the words of scripture but to a
lack of understanding of its meaning. That is, the "word of God"
character of scripture, its divine truth, is not to be found merely by
quoting the Bible but by discerning its true meaning. Second, the
Sadducees' ignorance of the scripture is tied together with their skepti-
cism about the power of God to raise those who have returned to the
dust in death. Not unlike some liberal Christians today, they appar-
ently allowed (Epicurean) philosophical dogmas to block their minds
from the teaching of the prophets.7
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus contrasts his teaching with
what his audience has heard before. For example,8
You have heard that it was said to those of old
You shall not kill. ..
But I say to you
That everyone who is angry with his brother
Shall be liable to judgment
Sanh. 100a; among a few Christian groups, cf. T. Noldeke, "Esther," Encyclopaedia
Biblica (4 vols.;
ed. T. K. Cheyne;
6 Matt 22:23-33 = Mark 12:18-27 = Luke 20:27-40. Assuming Luke's indepen-
dence of Matthew, those two Gospels rely on a second source, a Q tradition, in addition
to their (presumed) use of Mark. This is evident from the agreements of Matthew and
Luke against Mark in this episode.
7 The rabbinic tradition associates the Sadducean denial of the resurrection with
Epicurean philosophy. Cf. m. Sanh. 10:1; Ros. Has. 17a; K. G. Kuhn, ed., Sifre zu
According to Rabbi
Judaism and Hellenism (2 vols.;
The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. New Edition (3 vols. in 4;
of OT conceptions, not even of Ecclesiastes (cf. 12:14).
8 Cf. Matt 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43.
344 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Jesus is thought by some to be setting his authority against that of
scripture,9 but several considerations exclude this understanding of
the matter. First, (1) as we have seen in the illustrations above, Jesus
never understands scripture as words of the Bible in the abstract but
as the message in its true meaning and application. Thus, in the
debate on divorce (Matt 19:3-9), which is also one of the antitheses in
the Sermon (Matt 5:31f.), he counters the Pharisees' appeal to Deut
24:1, 3 by arguing that Gen 1:21 and 2:24 are the governing texts for
the principle involved. In doing this, he follows good rabbinic prac-
tice, not denying the "word of God" character of either passage but
arguing against the traditional use of Deuteronomy 24 as the regulative
passage for the marriage relationship.10
So also in the command, "you shall not kill," Jesus argues not
against God's command through Moses but against the traditional
limitation of that command to literal murder. If someone objects,
"But the text says 'kill,'" I shall reply as a certain rabbi once did to his
pupil: "Good, you have learned to read. Now go and learn to
A second objection to taking the antitheses in the Sermon to
mean that Jesus opposed or transcended the scripture is (2) the
introductory formula used to introduce the biblical texts: "You have
heard that it was said to those of old." As far as I know, this formula is
never used in Christianity or Judaism to introduce scripture as such,
that is, in its true force as the word of God.12 The words, "You have
heard," point to the oral reading and interpretation of scripture that
the audience of Jesus heard regularly in synagogue,13 and they show
that in the Sermon Jesus is contrasting his teachings with traditional
interpretations of the Bible known to his hearers. This is a character-
istic feature of the Lord's teachings which perhaps reaches its high-
point in his accusation against certain Jewish churchmen and theo-
9 So, apparently, R. A. Guelich, The Sermon on the
10 It is not that one passage is right and the other wrong but that both are right in
different senses. The permission of divorce (Deut 24:1, 3) was God's word to a
particularly evil situation, because of "the hardness of your hearts;" but to employ it as
a regulative principle for marriage was a misuse of the text.
11 Cf. D. Daube, The New Testament and
Rabbinic Judaism (
He notes a number of sayings that are similar to this although not the one that sticks in
my memory and that I cannot now locate.
12 The term, "it was said" (e]rre>qh) at Matt 5:31 is so used elsewhere (Rom 9:12)
but the preceding clause, "you have heard that" makes clear that here the word is only
an abbreviation for the longer formula. Cf. Daube, (n. 11) 62.
13 Cf. Daube, (n. 11) 55: "In Rabbinic discussion shome’a ‘ani, 'I hear' 'I under-
stand,' or rather 'I might understand,' introduces an interpretation of Scripture which,
though conceivable, yet must be rejected."
Ellis: How JESUS INTERPRETED HIS BIBLE 345
logians: "For the sake of your traditions you have made void the word
of God."14 This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the quotations
in the Sermon sometimes include an explicit non-biblical interpreta-
tion, for example,
You shall love your neighbor
And hate your enemy
The second command is not found in the OT but is part of the
interpretation of the Bible at Qumran.15
A third and perhaps the most important objection to the proposed
interpretation is (3) the passage at Matt 5:17f., which is prefaced to
this section of the Sermon:
Do not suppose that I have come
To annul the law and the prophets
I have not come to annul (katalu?sai)
But to fulfil [them]
Truly I say to you
Until heaven and earth pass away
Not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law
Until all things be accomplished
Matthew doubtless knew that some readers could misunderstand the
antitheses in the Sermon as setting Jesus over against the holy scrip-
tures. To preclude that, he includes this explicit declaration of the
Lord on the inviolate character of the biblical teaching. This verse is
very similar to Christ's word in the exposition at John 10:35: "The
scripture cannot be broken of its force" (luqh?nai).16
"The law and the prophets" represent here, as elsewhere,17 the
whole OT. Jesus is revealed not only as the proclaimer of God's word
but also as the proclaimer of himself as the one in whom that OT
word is to find fulfilment.
Jesus fulfils the OT in two ways. By his interpretation of it he
unveils its true and final (eschatological) meaning. In his person and
14 Matt 15:6 = Mark 7:13. Possibly (but not likely) Jesus here also rejects a view
expressed by some later rabbis that the oral tradition originated at Sinai and thus was a
divinely sanctioned interpretation of Scripture. Cf. W. D. Davies, "Canon and Christ-
ology," The Glory of Christ in the New Testament (ed. L. D. Hurst and N. T. Wright;
15 1QS 1:3f., 10.
16 The term "broken" (luqh?ai, John 10:35) has this significance. Cf. Str-B 2.542f
7); C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to
17 Cf. Rom 3:21 with 4:7; "The law" can refer to the whole OT (cf. Rom 3:19 with
3:10-18; 1 Cor 14:21); so also "the prophets" (cf. Acts 13:27; 26:27).
346 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
work he fulfils the true intention of its prophecies and the goal of its
history of salvation.
The great rabbi Hillel (ca. A.D. 10), who taught scripture about a
generation before our Lord's ministry, established seven rules or prin-
ciples for interpreting the Bible. Some of them, for example, interpret-
ing according to context (Rule 7), come down to us today virtually
unaltered. Hillel's Rules drew inferences and analogies from scripture,
and some of them were used by Christ in his interpretation of his
Bible. Consider the following examples:18
Rule 1: rm,OHva lqa, inference from minor and major, a fortiori.
Consider the ravens they neither sow or reap. ..
And God feeds them (Ps 147:9)
Of how much more value are you
Than the birds
Is it not written in your law
"I said you are gods" (Ps 82:6)
If [God] called "gods" those to whom the word of God came. . .
Do you say, "You blaspheme"
Because I said, "I am 'the Son of God'" (Ps 2:7)
From the biblical verse teaching that God cares for the least of his
creatures, Jesus infers a fortiori that the passage also applies to his
disciples. From the verse addressing as "gods" the whole people of
God, he infers a fortiori that the title "Son of God" is appropriate for
the One God has sent into the world.19
Rule 2: hvAwA hrAyzeG;, an equivalent regulation, an inference drawn from a
similar situation (words and phrases) in scripture.
18 For Hillel's Rules and their exposition by the rabbis cf. Tosefta, Sanh. 7:11;
JAbot R. Nat. 37, 10. Cf. The Tosefta, ed. J. Neusner (6 vols., New York 1977-86);
Neusner (n. 7); M. Mielziner, Introduction to the Talmud (New York 1968 )
H. L. Strack, Introduction
to the Talmud and Midrash (
93-98. For other NT examples, cf. Ellis (n. 2); ibid., Paul’s Use of the Old Testament
19 That Jesus had (reportedly) identified himself as "the Son of God," that is, the
Messiah, is also presupposed by the high priest's question at Mark 14:61f. = Matt
26:63f. Peter's confession of some similar teaching of Jesus to disciples had apparently
become common knowledge. Cf. S. Kim, The Son of Man as the Son of God (
Ellis: How JESUS INTERPRETED HIS BIBLE 347
On the Sabbath. . . [Jesus'] disciples plucked and ate grain. . .
The Pharisees said, "Why do you do that which is not lawful" (Exod
20:10) . . .
Jesus said, . . ."[David] took and ate the bread of the Presence
And gave to those with him (1 Sam 21:1-6)
Which is not lawful to eat except for the priests (Lev 24:9) . . .
The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath"
David, who received a kingdom from God (1 Sam 15:28), was blame-
less when he and those with him violated the Law in eating the bread
of the Presence; the Son of Man, who has also received a kingdom
from God (Dan 7:13f.), is equally blameless when those with him
violate the Sabbath law in similar circumstances.
Rule 3: dHAx, bUtKAmi bxa NyAn;Bi, constructing a family from one passage, a
general principle inferred from the teaching contained in one verse.
Moses showed that the dead are raised. . .
He calls the Lord “the God of Abraham” . . . (Exod 3:6, 15)
He is not the God of the dead but of the living
God is not the God of the dead, yet he affirmed his covenant relation-
ship with the dead Abraham. Therefore, Jesus concludes, he must
intend to raise Abraham out of death. From this one passage one may
infer the resurrection of all the dead who have a similar covenantal
relationship with God.20
Rule 7: OnyAn;fim; dmelAhA rbADA, an interpretation of a word or a passage
derived from its context.
He who made them from the beginning
"Made them male and female" (Gen 1:27)
And said, . . ."[A man] shall be joined to his wife
And the two shall be one flesh" (Gen 2:24)
Therefore, what God has joined, let no man separate
[The Pharisees said], "Why then did Moses command
That he give her a bill of divorce. . ." (Deut 24:1-4)?
[Jesus said], "For the hardness of your hearts. ..
But from the beginning it was not so"
At the creation God established marriage as an indissoluble union.
This context, Jesus concludes, takes priority over the later provisions
20 Further, ct. E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke (
348 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
We have given no examples of a general principle derived from
the teaching of two verses (Rule 4), of an inference drawn from a
general principle to a specific example and vice versa (Rule 5) or of
an inference drawn from an analogous passage (Rule 6). But the
above are sufficient to show how Jesus employed, for the most part
implicitly, Hillel's Rules in his exposition of scripture. Not all of
Hillel's Rules are clearly attested in the Gospels and the Rules in Jesus'
usage appear less stylized than in the later rabbinic writings. But they
are present and do form a part of the hermeneutical framework for
our Lord's interpretation of scripture.
Much of the older form criticism of the Gospels assumed that
Jesus uttered pithy pronouncements and that the scriptural references
and expositions almost always represented postresurrection creations
of the church.21 In this respect it read the historical development
precisely backwards. In part this reflected a mistaken dichotomy
between Jesus the apocalyptic prophet and Jesus the teacher; in part
it simply lacked an understanding of the Jewish context of Jesus'
ministry. For example, Jesus' teaching against divorce would have no
force with his hearers unless it could be established from scripture
and could, thus successfully counter the traditional interpretation of
Moses' teaching on the matter. Deut 13:1-3, with its requirement that
succeeding prophets agree with Moses' teaching,22 was too much a
part of Jewish consciousness for a prophetic personality to gain a
following wandering about the country uttering pronouncements or
even quoting isolated biblical texts. What was required was a midrash,
an exposition, in which various scriptures were called upon to aid in
understanding a particular text.23 That Jesus did this and did it with
an authority that exceeded the usual scribe or "Bible teacher" evoked
21 For example, R. Bultmann, History of
the Synoptic Tradition (
) 46-50; cf. 16f., 26f., passim. Cf. J. W. Doeve, Jewish Henneneutics in the
Synoptic Gospels and Acts (Assen 1954) 178: "[The] classifications used by Dibelius and
Bultmann . . . are not cognate to the material. For they are derived from the Greek
world and not from the Jewish. . . ."
22 Deut 13:1-5 and the judgment on false prophets invoked there is reproduced in
applied to Jesus in Sanh. 43a; cf. Justin, Dialogue, 69. Cf. Str-B 1.1023f; A. Strobel, Die
Stunde der Wahrheit
1967) 47-57. The demand by the Jewish churchmen for "a sign" from Jesus (Mark 8:11)
also presupposes a suspicion or conviction that he is a false prophet and his miracles the
work of demons (Mark 3:22).
Rapids 1974) 277f.
23 Doeve, Jewish Henneneutics, 115f. (n. 19): To the Jewish mind it "is not the
detached passage, the separate text, that has weight, that proves something. ..." "The
word becomes a testimonium for something or other after one has brought out its
meaning with the aid of other parts of Scripture."
Ellis: How JESUS INTERPRETED HIS BIBLE 349
the astonishment of his hearers.24 Thus, it is, for example, the exposi-
tion at Matt 19:3-9 that represents the authoritative foundation of
Jesus' teaching on divorce which the pronouncement at Matt 5:31f.
summarizes and on which it depends. The biblical expositions of
Jesus elsewhere are likewise the bedrock of his teaching and of the
Synoptic tradition,25 and from a critical perspective they cannot be
regarded as creations of the Gospel traditioners.
Two commentary patterns found in rabbinic writings also appear
in expositions of Jesus which are, in fact, among the earliest extant
examples of this form of exegetical discourse. They are the proem
midrash and the yelammedenu midrash.26 An example of the former
type appears at Matt 21:33-46:27
33-- Initial text: Isa 5:lf.
34-41--Exposition by means of a parable, linked to the initial and final
texts by the catchword li<qoj (42, 44, cf. 35; Isa 5:2, lqasA); cf.
oi]kodomei?n (33, 42).
42-44--Concluding texts: Ps 118:22f.; Dan 2:34f., 44f.
The opening (proem) text has been reduced to an allusion and the
key word ("stone") omitted, but the reference to Isaiah 5 is clear. In
Mark one of the concluding texts (Daniel 2) has been omitted but is
retained from the Q Vorlage as an allusion by Matthew and Luke.
The pattern is looser than in the later, more stylized proem midrashim
in the rabbinic writings, but this common root is quite evident.
The yelammedenu rabbenu28 midrash is similar to the proem
pattern except that the opening is formed by a question and counter-
question. An example is found in Matt 12:1-8:29
24 Cf. Daube, "Rabbinic Authority," 212-213 (n. 11).
25 A number of Christ's expositions are found in both Mark and in Q traditions,
for example, Mark 4:10-12; 12:1-12; 12:18-27; 12:28-34; 12:35-37.
26 For rabbinic examples of these two types of midrash, see Pesikta de Rab
ed. W. G. Braude and I. J. Kapstein
passim; Pesikta Rabbati, ed. W. G. Braude (2 vols;
passim. Although collected later, these midrashim are largely the work of 3rd and 4th-
century rabbis. Cf.
Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Revised Edition (4 vols.; ed. G. W. Bromiley; Grand
Rapids 1979-1988) 4.18-25.
27 Matthew and Luke (20:9-19) utilize both Mark 12:1-12 and a Q tradition, as
their agreements against Mark show.
28 UnBera UndEm;.lay; 'may our rabbi teach us.' For a discussion of the origin of the
pattern cf. J. W. Bowker, 'Speeches in Acts: A Study in Proem and Yelammedenu
Form,' NTS 14 (1967-68) 96-111.
29 The parallels at Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5 have lost a part of the com-
mentary pattern, indicating that Matthew is (or has retained) the earliest form of the
350 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
2-- Pharisees' biblical question (Exod 20:10, allusion)
3f.-- Jesus' counter-question (1 Sam 21:7) and commentary
5f.-- Jesus' second counter-question (Num 28:9) and commentary
7a-- Concluding text (Hos 6:6)
Summarized here, using the yelammedenu commentary pattern, is an
elaborate and complex debate between Jesus and other Jewish church-
men about the true meaning of scripture for present conduct. Although
it cannot now be elaborated, (1) the eschatological and christological
hermeneutic of Jesus (Matt 12:6, 8) is at the center of the conflict
between his views and the traditional interpretation of scripture by
the Pharisees. At the same time (2) Jesus defeats the Pharisees on their
own ground by showing, exegetically, that the subordination and
relativising of ritual laws vis-a-vis the moral law was recognized by
scripture even for the OT time (Matt 12:4f., 7).
Jesus' interpretation of his Bible proceeds from his recognition of
the canon of sacred books accepted by the main-stream Judaism of
his day and from his settled conviction that these writings, rightly
understood, were the expression of the mind of God through faithful
prophets. The exposition of the received scripture is, then, the sum
and substance of Jesus' message, both in teaching his followers and in
debating his opponents. This is true even when the Gospel traditioners
and Evangelists, because inter alia of the limits of space, have sum-
marized, compacted or omitted the express biblical references that
originally formed the basis of Jesus' teachings.
Contrary to some misguided modern interpreters, there is never
any suggestion in the Gospels of Jesus opposing the Torah, the law of
God, the OT. It is always a matter of Jesus' true exposition of scripture
against the misunderstanding and/or misapplication of it by the dom-
inant scripture-scholars of his day. This becomes apparent in Jesus'
encounters with such rabbis in numerous debates, a number of which
the Evangelists are careful to retain.
tradition. For further examples ct. Matt 15:1-9; 19:3-8; Luke 10:25-37; E. E. Ellis,
Prophecy and Hermeneutic (Tubingen and Grand Rapids 1978) 158f. For rabbinical
examples cf. Pesiq. R., 1.3 (n. 26) and the Piskas cited. In the Gospels the pattern is
usually employed in Jesus' debates, with opponents, but it can also be used, as in the
rabbinic writings, in Jesus' instruction of his hearers; ct. Matt 11:7-15.
Ellis: How JESUS INTERPRETED HIS BIBLE 351
The Judaism of Jesus' day was a Torah-centric religion. To gain
any hearing among his people Jesus' teaching also had to be Torah-
centric. Thus it was necessary, not only from his own conviction of
the Law as the word of God and of himself as the fulfilment of that
Law but also from practical considerations, that our Lord show by his
teachings as well as by his acts that his message and his messianic
person stood in continuity with and in fulfilment of
word from God. It is in this frame of reference that one finds the
meaning of Jesus' interpretation of his Bible.
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