Did New Testament Writers Accurately Use the Old Testament?

THESIS

            Beale stated the thesis of his 1994 work The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? when he stated that “no subject is perhaps more important for the understanding of the Christian faith than the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.”[1]  The importance of that thesis and an evaluation of the differing views on the subject are the focuses of this paper. 

 

INTRODUCTION

            The heart of Christianity for many believers is the New Testament with its story of the Gospel told through and around the life of the Savior, Jesus Christ.  Jesus and the apostles quoted the Old Testament many times.  When doing so, understanding the context from which Jesus and the apostles spoke or wrote of the Old Testament passage gives great insight into the meaning of their words and writing.  The study of whether the New Testament’s writers were true to the original meaning and context of the Old Testament’s writers is the focus of this paper.  “Did Jesus and the apostles quote Old Testament texts with exegetical respect for the broader context” intended by the Old Testament writer?[2]   Did they treat the Old Testament text with respect or did they change or edit it to help serve their own purposes?  These are valid and worthy questions.

            One may ask why these questions even exist.  As Kyle Snodgrass pointed out, many of those living in New Testament times would have understood the original Hebrew of the Old Testament texts.[3]  At the same time, many did not.  They knew the Old Testament writings from the Greek translations available.   While learning it from different sources, all early Christians “used the Old Testament to prove their Christian theology and solve Christian problems.”[4]  Understanding their views and context of the Old Testament is the only way to truly understand their New Testament writings. Those writers based all of their Christian beliefs theologically in some way on their personal understanding and context of the Old Testament.  Although the subject is deep with theological detail and history, it breaks down basically into two points of view.  These two points of view will now be presented.

 

VARIOUS VIEWS ON THE RESPECT OF NEW TESTAMENT WRITERS OF THE CONTEXT OF OLD TESTAMENT PASSAGES

 

NEW TESTAMENT WRITERS RESPECTED THE ORIGINAL CONTEXT

 OF THE OLD TESTAMENT WRITERS

            The point of view that New Testament writers respected and accepted the original context and intention of the original Old Testament writers is presented in Beale’s work by C.H. Dodd, Howard Marshall, David Seccombe and by Beale himself.  Dodd’s essay is very convincing.  His position is that while many scholars of this period used the allegorical method to interpret older texts, this was not the case for the New Testament writers.[5] This method takes an established text and ignores the historical setting and intention of the original writer.  It uses the original text for supplying just the “imagery through which an idea may be forcibly presented.”[6] More simply stated, the original text would just provide the backdrop for a story that would be rewritten or reinterpreted by the contemporary, in this case New Testament, writer.

            While this was a common practice of Greek scholars and teachers of New Testament times, Dodd’s position is this was not the case for Jesus and the apostle New Testament writers.  New Testament writers held the original text in great reverence and were careful of their use in contemporary writing.  This is the reason that few Old Testament passages are quoted in the New Testament at length and why only a few New Testament writers quoted them at all.  Some Old Testament passages were especially well known and respected by New Testament writers and were quoted by more than one writer in more than one book.  They were also only partially quoted, showing the great care taken by the New Testament writer to insure their credibility.

            This is seen in Psalm 69:9, “For Zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me.”[7]  John quoted the first part of the passage in John 2:17, where “Jesus’ early ministry in John’s Gospel commences with Jesus calling his first disciples.”[8]  Paul quoted the second part of the passage in Romans 15:3, where “Paul speaks immediately of the hope that the Scriptures impart to us.”[9]   This passage was most likely so well known among early Christians that John and Paul would have been very careful to protect its original meaning and context to avoid bringing question and lack of credibility to their own writings.

            Dodd speculates on the possibility of a commonly accepted list of Old Testament passages, commonly taught to young Jews and widely accepted by all.  This would have been a sort of Old Testament primer, used for youngsters in their early education.  He speculates that these sources did exist and were used by the New Testament writers to give their work credibility.  In this case, New Testament writers, under the guide of the Holy Spirit would have been very careful to protect the original context and meaning of the original passage.

            Another good example of this practice is found in the New Testament quotations of Isaiah 53.  It is quoted almost extensively in Acts 8:26-40 and also in all four Gospels, Romans, Philippians, Hebrews and 1 Peter.  The New Testament passages are almost a perfect copy of the original text.[10]  Contemporary readers of the New Testament writings would have easily recognized the text and held with its original context and meaning where Isaiah used the story to describe “God’s servant, who will be exalted and honored even by kings and yet is subjected to intense humiliation and suffering like a societal outcast.”[11]

            Dodd’s point of view is convincingly presented in examples of the concept of the Son of Man presented in the New Testament that originated in the seventh chapter of Daniel.[12] “Unmistakable allusions to this chapter are found in all four gospels, in the Pauline epistles and in the Revelation.”[13]  Other presentations of the Son of Man concept are also presented in the New Testament, but the references to Daniel are direct and unmistakable. 

            Dodd is not alone in the point of view that New Testament writers based the premise of their work on the original Old Testament texts available to them at that time.  Howard Marshall adds “his view that the Old Testament is the greatest single influence on the formation of New Testament theology.”[14]  Marshall’s work is to support Dodd’s conclusions in great detail.  He is particularly supporting of the idea that the original context of the Old Testament writers was accepted and respected by New Testament writers.  While there may have been “shifts in the application of the Old Testament passages in different parts of the New Testament,” the use of Old Testament writings in the original versions of the New Testament is “clearly documented.”[15]

            Beale’s presentation of the position of contextual respect is finished with detailed work by Seccombe and Beale himself on particular New Testament passages, primarily in 2 Corinthians, Luke and Revelation.  In each case, a clear path from the original Old Testament passage and its New Testament quotations are mapped and shown to be holders of the original context and intent of the Old Testament writers.

            As with any good theological question, there are at least two sides to every position.  This is certainly the case in the question of the respect of the New Testament writers toward the Old Testament passages used in their writings.  A presentation of the opposing view, that New Testament writers did not respect or use the original context of Old Testament passages will now be presented.

NEW TESTAMENT WRITERS DID NOT RESPECT THE ORIGINAL

CONTEXT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT WRITERS

            If it is true that the New Testament writers did not always respect the context or intent of the original Old Testament writers, understanding why that may have occurred is a valid question for study.  There are other possible issues as well.  One question is if the New Testament writers actually had the complete Old Testament to use as a basis of support for their writing.  The timing of the availability of the complete Old Testament canon is not absolutely certain.  Barnabas Lindars is one of Beale’s contributors that do not support the concept of New Testament writer respect of Old Testament writers.  But he does not accept that the Old Testament may have not been available to the New Testament writers.

            Lindars is firm in his position that “it would be quite wrong” to suggest that the canon available was not the complete Old Testament.[16]  His view is that the early Christians had the complete Old Testament as a reference.  While it was generally available, “individual writers may not have had personal access to all the books of the Old Testament.”[17]  Luke may have had access to only Isaiah, Minor Prophet and Psalms.  Some theologians believe he only had access to Isaiah.  The complete story of access of the Old Testament in regards to each New Testament writer is not clear historically.

            Given this uncertainty, it is difficult to reach the conclusion that the original contexts and intent of the Old Testament writers were fully followed by the New Testament writers.  If the early Christian writers did not each have complete access to the earlier texts, stating that they respected the context and followed the original intent of the original writers is difficult to do with certainty. 

            Typology may have also played a role in the New Testament use of Old Testament writings.[18]  It is possible that Old Testament passages or allusions were used more as attention getting devices than as theological foundation.  The Old Testament had great credulity for Jews of the early Christian period. Using it would add credibility to contemporary writing.  It is possible that “New Testament writers used the Old Testament for a variety of purposes, kerygmatic, apologetic, catechetical, hortatory, liturgical, et cetera,” but not necessarily for a theological foundation. 

            There are other indications that New Testament writers may have respected the intent of earlier writers, but may have altered the text to fit their desired objectives.  Matthew may be one example.  His treatment of the genealogy of Jesus may be one example.  He presented it “on a scheme with three subdivisions,” each equal in length.[19] He omitted Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah and Jehoiakim from the kings of Juddah.  He counted Jeconiah twice.  He “imposed an arbitrary pattern on the genealogy and adjusted the Old Testament data to fit the pattern” he wished to present.[20]  Matthew began his genealogy connecting his readers to biblos geneseos, the same language used in Genesis, then began to present the portions of the Hebrew text best suited to the message he felt led to present.[21]

            His presentation of the virgin mother of Jesus is another possible example of his alteration of Old Testament sources to fit his desired outcome.  He quotes Isaiah 7:14 to support the concept that it has been prophesized that Jesus would be born of a virgin mother.  The Hebrew word used by Isaiah ‘almah is more often translated as young woman than virgin.  Contemporary Greek theologians of Matthew’s day used this word as a substitute for virgin.  Old Testament writers would not have had this intent.

            Matthew interpreted at least one other event in the life of Jesus in a way unique to his writing.  Only his book details the flight of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to Egypt.  And only his writing interprets the return of the family from Egypt as fulfillment of the Old Testament’s Hosea 11:1.  His references to the early life of Jesus as a fulfilment of the Hosea passages are not consistent with any other New Testament writers and seem to be inconsistent with the original context and intent of the Old Testament passage.  It is difficult to definitely reach this conclusion but there is certainly evidence to support it.

            This is evidence of Matthew’s editorial freedom in the sayings and teachings of Jesus as well.  While this does not directly impact his possible use or misuse of Old Testament passages, it does show a possible pattern of the grouping or regrouping of available material to tell the story Matthew felt led to tell.  He grouped the sayings of Jesus into five groups.  These are The Sermon on the Mount, the Instructions to the Twelve, Parables about the Kingdom, a second group of Parables about the Kingdom and Teachings on the End of the World.[22]  May theologians feel that Matthew “picked up sayings of Jesus from various places and put them together in convenient collections.”[23] 

            While direct evidence to show that the New Testament writers did not respect the context or intent of the Old Testament writers is hard to find and document centuries after they were written, there is substantial evidence that various New Testament writers showed “varied degrees of respect for the Old Testament passages which they quote.”[24] A summary of two different approaches to the Old Testament by the same New Testament writer will now be presented.  

RELEVANT AND CONTROVERSIAL EXAMPLES

Paul’s writings can support both sides of the discussion, respect for and changing of what may have been the original Old Testament context and intent by the same writer.  In Paul’s writings found in 2 Corinthians both approaches may be found.  Paul was using this letter in part to justify his ministry and give it credibility that would in turn give his readers more relevance and credibility in their work.  He compared his work with Moses in several instances.  Using the Old Testament passages well known by his readers, he made the link that “Moses and Paul are both ministers of God’s word.”[25] 

Paul used the story of Moses, starting of creation, beginning “with the light of creation in Genesis 1 and moves from that to the story of Moses on Sinai in Exodus.”[26]  Using the exact words and context of the Genesis passages, both he and the writer of Genesis “are making use of a common tradition here, using the idea of wisdom, which has come to be associated in Jewish thought with the Law.”[27]  He draws a parallel between his and Moses’ ministry that shows that while the context of the law has changed, the relevance of the ministry is still strong.  Paul contrasts “the glory of Moses’ ministry, which was concerned with letters engraved in stone—a ministry which, he says, brought only death—with that of the life-giving Spirit,” the contemporary ministry in which Paul is involved.  Paul’s writings on the comparison of the Law of Moses and the Law of the Holy Spirit make careful and nearly exact use of the Old Testament passages.

In the same passage, Paul also uses another approach. He seems to reinterpret a part of the passage dealing with Moses as he “descended from Mt. Sinai after the second giving of the law.”[28]  The face of Moses was shining with the Glory of God and Moses veiled his face.  “Both the Masoretic Text and later Jewish tradition agree that it was to protect the people in some way,” possibly from the potential destructive impact of direct exposure to the Glory of God.[29]  This would have been the accepted context and intent of the writer of the original Hebrew Old Testament passage, both in Paul’s time and today.

            But Paul presented it differently.  Paul asserted that “both that the glory on Moses’ face was fading and that Moses thus veiled himself to hide this fact and/or its implications from Israel.”[30]  His presentation of this Old Testament text would have “been construed not only to be internally inconsistent but also inherently anti-Jewish in its apparent attribution to Moses of duplicitous motives and deceptive activity, while Paul portrays himself as both forthright and honest.”[31]

            These are the interpretations of Paul’s intent by Scott Hafemann, Beale’s contributor to this portion of the class text. We cannot truly know the real intent of Paul from the facts we have available.  We will all have to ask him someday!  But by applying the same methods of analysis to this passage as to the others presented in the summary of Beale’s work it does appear that Paul may have used two different approaches to the Old Testament text, both in the same letter to the Corinthians.  Using the facts presented so far, pro and con to the idea that New Testament writers respected the original context and intent of the Old Testament writers, a brief evaluation of the various views on the subject will now be presented.

EVALUATION OF THE VARIOUS VIEWS

On this subject, the most comfortable and conventional view would seem to be that all biblical writers respected the original context and intent of all others.  This subject “must surely make any twentieth-century preacher uncomfortable.”[32]  Would the early Christian writers truly “contradict the plain meaning of the text, find references to Christ in passages where the original authors certainly never intended any, and adapt or even alter the wording in order to make it yield the meaning they require?”[33]  This is the question under examination.

This student offers another position.  While the Holy Spirit inspired all scripture, he also inspired all writers.  It is the meaning of the written scripture that is most important.  And that meaning “can never be limited to the intentions of the author.”[34]  Moses was inspired by God to write the Old Testament passages used by Paul in the same way Paul was inspired to write the New Testament passages that seem unaligned.  Paul used the “exegetical methods” of his day and time.[35]  While we read and are led by these passages, hundreds of years later, he wrote them primarily for the early Christians of his time.  The question may not be whether he followed the original context or intent of the Old Testament writer but “what was his underlying hermeneutical principle?”[36] Both positions to the discussions may be true all at the same time.  The intent of the writer of each passage seems to be the most important question to be asked by the biblical student.

CONCLUSION

            To completely answer the thesis question is not possible. We cannot know the true intent of the New Testament writers in regard to their respect for the intent and context of the Old Testament text until we have the opportunity to meet them in person.  An objective examination of the evidence suggests that they largely did give that respect while at times editing or evolving the available Hebrew text to better fit the message they were called to give.  In the end, it is the intent of the writer that matters, Old or New Testament.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beale, G.K., Editor, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?, Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker,          1994.

 

Beale, G.K. and D.A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament,        Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 2007.

 



[1] G.K. Beale, ed., The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts:, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 1994), p29.

[2] Ibid, p7.

[3] Ibid, p29.

[4] Ibid, p29.

[5] Ibid, p168.

[6] Ibid, p169.

[7] Ibid, p171.

[8]G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 2007), p431.

[9] Ibid, p687.

[10] Beale, p172.

[11] Beale and Carson, p574.

[12] Beale, p173.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, p195.

[15] Ibid, p203.

[16]Ibid, p138.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid, p143.

[19] Ibid, p147.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Beale and Carson, p2.

[22] Beale, p150.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, p153.

[25] Ibid, p289.

[26] Ibid, p288.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid, p298.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid, p279.

[33] Ibid, p279.

[34] Ibid, p280.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

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