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Earl Doherty on Christian Use of the Hebrew Bible

By Christopher Price


Jewish Use of the Hebrew Bible
Christian Use of the Hebrew Bible


In his book and on his website Doherty often dismisses seeming references to a historical Jesus because of their relationship to the Hebrew Bible. Because he finds connections between how Jesus is described and Hebrew Bible passages, Doherty determines that they are not describing an earthly figure. In his article on Hebrews, Doherty dismisses the reference that Jesus was "was descended from Judah" because "[t]he verb anatellein, to spring (by birth), is also the language of scripture. It is used in several messianic passages, such as Ezekiel 29:21 (“a horn shall spring forth”), and Zechariah 6:12." Doherty also claims that Gal. 4:4 ("born of a woman") is derived from Isaiah 7:14 ("a young woman shall be with child and give birth"). Similarly, Doherty finds significance in Jesus being "wounded" (Isaiah 53:5) and "pierced" (Psalm 119:120). Most significantly, Doherty claims that Zech. 12:10, is "the source for the 'fact' that Jesus had been crucified." (Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle, page 81). Some, such as John Dominic Crossan, might call such methodology the search for "prophecy historicized." Doherty has taken this idea to new levels, probably unforeseen by Crossan. He seems to think that when one finds a New Testament passage referring to some event, especially about Jesus, that relates to an Hebrew Bible passage, it should be seen as creativity, not history.

Such a methodology, however, is untenable. Of course the value of the Hebrew Bible to Jews and Christians at that time cannot be understated. For both groups it was the only scripture they had. Because of its centrality to Jewish and Christian thought, it would be foolish to deny it influenced their writings. However, it is going too far to assert that these writers only used it to invent stories. Far from it. Jews and Christians were almost obsessed in their belief that God had acted and would continue to act in human history. The stories in the Hebrew Bible were not just stories, they were types showing how God might act in the future. They included prophecies of future events. As a result of this, and their belief in a God very active in human affairs, Jews and Christians saw recent historical events in terms of the Hebrew Bible. This perspective caused them to describe recent events in Hebrew Bible terminology and pursuant to Hebrew Bible themes.

To illustrate my point I decided to offer examples of Jewish and Christian use of the Hebrew Bible from a variety of sources. They reveal that Jewish and Christian authors often used Hebrew Bible themes and terms to recast recent historical events or expected future "historical" events. Sometimes the use was tacit, sometimes it was explicit.

Jewish Use of the Hebrew Bible

1. Josephus and Vespasian

Josephus, not even a particularly religious Jew, tied historical events into Hebrew Bible prophecy. The most notable example is his discussion of the Jewish War and Vespasian's ending it:

What did the most to induce the Jews to start this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth. The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea.

Flavius Josephus Jewish War 6.312 - 313.

The "oracle" Josephus refers to is Numbers 24.17 - 19:

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also will be a possession, While Israel performs valiantly. One from Jacob shall have dominion, And will destroy the remnant from the city.

When Josephus describes the Roman Emperor Vespasian as the Messiah, he is of course referring to a real person and real events. Not fiction. Not myth. Nor a heavenly entity doing things in a heavenly sphere. Rather, Josephus was scripturalising history. He took the history before him and sought to cast it in Hebrew Bible terms. This was simply how Jews viewed current events. The early Christians did the same.

2. The Dead Sea Scrolls Community

The DSS community offers many examples of using Hebrew Bible language to describe their own beliefs, and expected events. They had a very prominent place for a Messiah of the "house of Aaron" and another for the Messiah "of the house of David." (1QS, IX II; 4Q285; 4Q161; 4Q266). Where did they get this idea? Obviously from the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, the very idea of two messiahs may be traced to Zechariah 6.12 - 13: "Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two."

Despite that (or, more accurately, because of it), the Essenes still believed that the priestly Messiah and the royal Messiah would come to earth as human beings to perform his role in God's salvation plan. So too the Christians. Even if it is true that the early Christians saw the events surrounding them as prophecy fulfilled and therefore described them that way.

3. The Bar Kochba Rebellion and the Talmud

The Talmud, of course, also contains many descriptions of historical events couched in Hebrew Bible terminology or seen as fulfilments of Hebrew Bible prophecy. For example, a Jewish man lead a revolt against Rome in 132-35 CE. His name was bar Kosiba. The Talmud records that his adherents referred to him as the "son of the star"--from the messianic prophecy found in Numbers 24:17-19 and Palestinian Talmud, Ta`anit 4.5. The actual phrase was "Bar Kocbha" and was given to him because of its similarities to his own name and his military successes against the Romans. There is also evidence that his followers found Biblical significance in the 70 year time period that had almost elapsed since the destruction of the Temple. NT Wright provides the following description:

Simon ben Kosiba began a revolt which quickly roused the whole land. He himself was hailed as Messiah by the great rabbi Akiba, among others, and given the title Bar Kochba, 'Son of the Star' (referring to the prophecy of Numbers 24.17). Documents and coins from the period indicate both that Ben Kosiba and his followers saw the start of the revolt as the beginning of the long-awaited new age, and that he was as concerned with the maintenance of Jewish religious duty as with revolution against Rome. Nearly seventy years had passed since the destruction under Vespasian, perhaps this was the moment when Israel's god would at last liberate his people.

(NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, page 166)

Obviously, many Jews of that time were eager to describe current events by reference to the Hebrew Bible.

4. First Book of Maccabees

The First Book of Maccabees is widely regarded as a reasonably accurate work of history. "1 Maccabees' sober account of events has won much respect from historians; if it does not contain the whole truth, it contains enough of it for a fairly clear picture of these years to be reconstructed. The author is careful with dating, and apparently well-informed." (John R. Bartlett, The First and Second Books of Maccabees, pages 16-17). Although he is writing history, the author of 1 Maccabees often draws on the Hebrew Bible to explain the history he is recording.

When discussing the battle between Judas and Apollonius, 1 Maccabees records that:

But Apollonius gathered together Gentiles and a large force from Samaria to fight against Israel. When Judas learned of it, he went out to meet him, and he defeated and killed him. Many were wounded and fell, and the rest fled. Then they seized their spoils; and Judas took the sword of Apollonius, and used it in battle the rest of his life.... And again a strong army of ungodly men went up with him to help him, to take vengeance on the sons of Israel. When he approached the ascent of Beth?horon, Judas went out to meet him with a small company. But when they saw the army coming to meet them, they said to Judas, "How can we, few as we are, fight against so great and strong a multitude? And we are faint, for we have eaten nothing today." Judas replied, "It is easy for many to be hemmed in by few, for in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between saving by many or by few. It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from Heaven. They come against us in great pride and lawlessness to destroy us and our wives and our children, and to despoil us; but we fight for our lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us; as for you, do not be afraid of them." When he finished speaking, he rushed suddenly against Seron and his army, and they were crushed before him. They pursued them down the descent of Beth horon to the plain; eight hundred of them fell, and the rest fled into the land of the Philistines.

1 Maccabees 3:10-24.

As Dr. Bartlett points out, "Judas and his battles are described in terms which remind us of Saul and David and the battles against the Philistines in 1 and 2 Samuel." (Bartlett, op. cit., page 15). The allusion to taking the sword of a fallen enemy can be compared to 1 Samuel 17:50-51:

Thus David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, and he struck the Philistine and killed him; but there was no sword in David's hand. Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.

When his soldiers are concerned about being outnumbered, Judas alludes to 1 Samuel 14:6-7:

Then Jonathan said to the young man who was carrying his armour, "Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the Lord will work for us, for the Lord is not restrained to save by many or by few. "His armour bearer said to him, "Do all that is in your heart; turn yourself, and here I am with you according to your desire."

The same phenomenon occurs later in 1 Maccabees 3:42-60.  Verse 44 tells us of the Jews praying before battle, as depicted in 2 Chronicles 20:5-12. Verse 45 offers a lament reminiscent of that found in Isaiah 1 and Psalm 79. The references to Nazirites in verse 49 would remind the readers of Samson, a champion of Israel against the Philistines. The battle beginning with the sounding of trumpets in verse 54 is a Jewish tradition in the Hebrew Bible (Num. 10:9; Judge 7:18, 22). Judas "appointed his officers" in verse 55 just as Moses did in Deut. 1:15. He also sent home categories of men as Moses did in Deut. 20:5-8 and Gideon did in Judge 7:1-8. His speech is similar to those described in 1 and 2 Chronicles (e.g. 2 Chronicles 20:15-17).

Another example from 1 Maccabees is 7:15-17:

He spoke with them peacefully and swore to them, 'We will not try to injure you or your friends.' So they trusted him. But he arrested sixty of them and killed them in one day, according to the text of Scripture: 'The flesh of your saints they have strewn, and their blood they have shed round about Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.'" (Psalm 79:3)

In sum, 1 Maccabees offers numerous examples of how the Hebrew Bible can influence, or at the very least, appear to influence a Jewish (or Christian) author discussing recent historical events.

Christian Use of the Hebrew Bible

1. Eusebius and Constantine

Another prime example of using scripture to describe or characterize more recent historical events is found in Eusebius' description of Constantine's victory over Maxentius in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. While there is no doubt over the historicity of this battle and its outcome, Eusebius steeps his record of it in Hebrew Bible language. Indeed, Eusebius has recast Constantine as Moses, Maxentius as the Pharaoh, the Christians as the enslaved Israelites, and the battle as the defeat of Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea.

When recounting how Maxentius and his army (vastly superior to Constantine's) was defeated on the river Tiber, and how he and many of his soldiers were drowned after their boat bridge broke apart, Eusebius refers to Exodus and the Psalms:

In the time of Moses himself and the god-fearing nation of the ancient Hebrews, 'The chariots of Pharoah and his hosts He hurled into the sea; His picked horsemen, his captains, He swallowed up in the Red Sea; With the deep He covered them.' (Exodus 15:1-4). In just the same way Maxentius and his bodyguard of infantry and pike men, 'When down into the depths like a stone' (Exodus 15:34-5), when he turned back before the God-given might of Constantine, and began to cross the river in his path, having himself constructed a perfectly sound bridge of boars from one bank to the other, contriving thus an instrument for his own destruction. And so we might say, 'He made a pit and dug it, And shall fall into the ditch that he fashioned. His labour shall return on to his own head, And on his own crown shall his unrighteousness come done.' (Ps. 7:15-16)  In this way, through the breaking of the floating bridge, the crossing collapsed, and in a moment the boats, men and all, went to the bottom, and first the prime villain, then his bodyguard of picked men, in the way foretold by the inspired sayings, 'Sank like lead in the mighty waters.' (Exodus 15:10) Thus, if not in words at any rate in deeds, like the great servant Moses and his companions, the men who with God's help had won the victory might well sing the same hymn as was sung about the villainous tyrant of old: 'Let us sin to the Lord, for gloriously has He been glorified; Horse and Rider He threw into the Sea. The Lord became my helper and protector, to my salvation. (Exodus 15:1-2) And, 'Who is like Three among the gods, Lord? who is like thee? Glorified among saints, marvellous in praises, doing wonders?' (Exodus 15:11)

Eusebius, Church History, Book 9, Chapter 9

2. Gospel of Luke

The Gospel of Luke provides ample New Testament evidence of the Christian tendency to describe historical events in Hebrew Bible language and themes.

Luke describes John the Baptist in terms of Isaiah 24:3-5 at Luke 3:1-6.

Luke refers to the Twelve, which are obviously symbolic of the Twelve Tribes of Israel described throughout the Hebrew Bible at Luke 9:1-2.

Luke refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in terminology gleaned from the Hebrew Bible (Daniel 9:26 and 12:7) at Luke 21:22.

Luke, confirmed by Paul himself, describes Paul being let down through a wall, in a story similar to the Hebrew Bible (Joshua 2:15 and 1 Samuel 19:12) at Acts 9:25 (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:33).

Luke describes a successful ministry to the Gentiles, explicitly citing Amos 9:11-12 at Acts 15:16.

3. Paul and His Letters

In his own letters, Paul adds to the evidence of this Christian tendency as he describes events from his own life in Hebrew Bible themes and/or language.

First, his conversion.

But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother's womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus.

Galatians 1:15-17

Paul is drawing on two Hebrew Bible verses here: Isaiah 49:1, 6 and Jeremiah 1:5.

Listen to Me, O islands, And pay attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called Me from the womb; From the body of My mother He named Me.... He says, 'It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.'

Isaiah 49:1, 6.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.

Jeremiah 1:5

After noting Paul's use of "mother's womb", being "called", to the "nations", Jerome Murphy O'Connor states that the similarities "cannot be coincidental. As in the case of his two great predecessors, Paul saw his conversion as the working out of a plan devised much earlier by God." (Jerome Murphy O'Connor Paul: A Critical Life, page 80).

Second, his escape from Damascus.

In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.

2 Corinthians 11:32-33

Paul is drawing on Joshua 2:15 and 1 Samuel 19:12.

So the men said to her, "Our life for yours if you do not tell this business of ours; and it shall come about when the LORD gives us the land that we will deal kindly and faithfully with you.' Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the city wall, so that she was living on the wall.

Joshua 2:14-15

As they went up the slope to the city, they found young women going out to draw water and said to them, 'Is the seer here?' They answered them and said, "He is; see, he is ahead of you. Hurry now, for he has come into the city today, for the people have a sacrifice on the high place today.

1 Samuel 9:11-12

Third, the state of the Jewish mission.

In Romans 9-10, Paul discusses the failure of Christianity to achieve widespread success among his Jewish brethren. "For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh." (Romans 9:3). In Romans 9:30-32, Paul draws heavily on the Hebrew Bible to describe the present state of Jewish' unbelief:

Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: 'Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.' (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16).


As these examples show, Jews and Christians alike used the Hebrew Bible to describe recent historical events. Indeed, though reporting events they believed to be true--and usually were--these writers would often couch their reports in Hebrew Bible terms and themes, showing the relationship of the old to the new, or attempting to show how ancient prophecies had come true in recent events.


Bartlett, John R The First and Second Books of Maccabees University Press, 1973

Early Doherty The Jesus Puzzle Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999

Eusebius Church History Penguin, 1981

Flavius Josephus Jewish War Penguin, 1989

Murphy O'Connor, Jerome Paul: A Critical Life Oxford University Press, 1998

Wright NT The New Testament and the People of God London, 1996

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© Christopher Price 2003.
Last revised: 08 December, 2009