by Doug Ward

APRIL, 2012---Serious students of the Bible know that Jewish writings from the Second Temple Period provide valuable background information for understanding the New Testament.


The reverse is also true. The New Testament itself is a Jewish text and is a key source of data about Second Temple Judaism. In fact, New Testament passages give the first known written references to certain aspects of Jewish life and customs.


New Testament scholar R. Steven Notley lists three examples in a 2009 paper.1 The first of these examples is geographical: The New Testament gives the earliest known references to places in Galilee like Tiberias, Nazareth, Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida.


Other examples involve religious traditions. The custom of naming a son at his circumcision first appears in the Gospel of Luke in the cases of John the Baptist (Luke 1:59-63) and Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 2:21). Notley notes that the next known reference to this custom is in Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, a source from the seventh century A.D.


The synagogue custom of following a public reading from the Torah with a reading from the Prophets is also first attested in the Gospel of Luke. In the account of Jesus' visit to the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16-19).  After the New Testament, the next known reference to this practice comes from the Mishnah (m. Meg. 4.2) from the early third century A.D.


Notley mentioned two further examples at a seminar sponsored by the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies in Dayton, Ohio, on April 14, 2012. The practice of determining Jewish identity matrilineally-i.e., according to the identity of the mother-is first seen with Timothy, disciple of the apostle Paul. Timothy, the son of a Gentile father and a Jewish mother, was considered to be Jewish (Acts 16:1-3).


In addition, the custom of blessing God before a meal is first recorded in the New Testament (Matt 15:36; 26:26; Mark 6:41; 8:6; Luke 9:16; 22:19; Acts 27:35; I Cor 11:24).


In connection with blessings before meals, Notley observed that several centuries after Jesus, there is a discussion in the Talmud about the proper procedure for this practice. Should a blessing be recited, and then bread broken, or should a blessing be completed over a piece of broken bread?2 The New Testament weighs in on this debate, Notley noted, since apparently the bread is broken after the blessing in every New Testament example.


Examples like these underscore the historical authenticity of the New Testament text. Even in incidental details, the apostolic writings are consistent with traditions recorded in later extrabiblical sources. The New Testament is a valid-and valuable-historical resource.


1"Jesus' Jewish Hermeneutical Method in the Nazareth Synagogue," pp. 46-59 in Early Christian Literature and Intertextuality, Volume 2: Exegetical Studies, Craig A. Evans and H. Daniel Zacharias, eds., T. & T. Clark, London, 2009.


2b. Berakhot 39b.

Issue 27


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On 18 Apr 2012, 14:01.