Understanding the Bible

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'For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.' Romans 15:4

 

 

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE OLD TESTAMENT FOR CHRISTIANS

 

 

 

 

['The Old Testament consists not of a series of morality stories, but of God seeking to persuade a recalcitrant people that His way is best.']

 

[ Preamble: In the autumn (Fall) of 2003, the author was privileged to attend a very comprehensive and helpful course of 16 lectures at the Oak Hill Theological College in North London, given by the Dean, Dr. Paul Woodbridge1 , on how the Old Testament is used by the writers of the New Testament. It was that series that stimulated the intention to include this article, although the subject is a long-standing interest of the author. For example, the Bible Overviews page, many of the exercises on the Bible Gym page and the  Sermon/talk Outlines OT page all reveal the conviction that the two Testaments are a unity and that an understanding of the OT is essential for a fuller understanding of the Gospel and the NT. The article on this page will use notes from Dr. Woodbridge's course and they will be duly acknowledged. An attempt has been made to render the material accessible to the reader who has had little experience in theological study - both in terms of the language used and the lay-out of these notes.] 

1. Introduction.

Sadly, our present generation of Christians does not highly value the Old Testament. This is not a new phenomenon, but has been going on for many decades. It is understandable that we should concentrate on the New Testament since that is where we read of Jesus Christ; His ministry, His death, resurrection and ascension, and of the prime teaching about living the Christian life - life in the Kingdom that Christ came to open-up to us. But when Christ came, the Old Testament became a Christian book! It can offer so much to our fuller understanding of what God has achieved in the Gospel and why. It is true to say that there are a number of very important concepts in the NT that cannot possibly be understood as they should be understood, without the OT. But our disinterest is very deep-rooted.

Here are comments by Graham Goldsworthy2

       'Some people are still influenced by the intellectual climate of the nineteenth century, which did much to undermine a positive appreciation of the Old Testament. The philosophical standpoint of the time led people to conclude that the Christian religion, as found in the New Testament, was nothing more than the natural evolution of man's ideas about God. Consequently the Old Testament was regarded as a primitive, and therefore outdated, expression of religion. It was seen not only as pre-Christian because it failed by several centuries to be concerned with the events of the gospel, but also sub-Christian because it failed to reach the ethical and theological heights of the New Testament. Yet many people who are quite unaffected by such ideas about the Old Testament may in practice adopt a similar attitude. For they see it as no more than a background to the teaching of the New. Perhaps they would refuse to downgrade the theological importance of the Old Testament because of their convictions about the inspiration and authority of the whole Bible. But in practice such people can be even more neglectful of the Old Testament than other Christians who do not hold such a high view of inspiration. 

Ironically, the evangelical view of Scripture itself can make the problem worse. For the 'evolutionist' [he means those who see the NT as the evolution of man's ideas about God - see previous paragraph] is happy to dismiss as crude and primitive those parts of the Old Testament which he finds morally offensive. The 'conservative', on the other hand, has to find some way of reconciling his view of the Old Testament as the word of God with such things as ... Israel's slaughter of the Canaanites, the cursing of enemies in some psalms, or the wide prescription of capital punishment in the law of Moses. Even if parts of the Old Testament do not appear morally reprehensible to the 'conservative' Christian, other parts appear to be completely irrelevant.

For a third group of people, the problem with the Old Testament is simply that on the whole they find it dry and uninteresting; it is wordy, cumbersome and confusing. Whatever  their view  of Scripture, the sheer weight and complexity of this collection of ancient books (more than three times the bulk of the New Testament) leads to boredom, apathy and neglect rather than deliberately thought-out rejection.

There is a simple way to avoid all these difficulties. Our consciences are less likely to prick us for the neglect of the Old Testament if we are giving ourselves to the study of the New! After a while the Old Testament drops right out of sight and that does not cause us any pain at all.'

Well! I wonder if you identify with any of that?

John Goldingayalso draws attention to the curious ways in which people with different agendas and from different theological positions arrive at strange (for them) attitudes to the Old Testament. He cites the authors of the English Anglican report Faith in the City which while adopting the view that real authority comes only from the teachings of Jesus and not even from other parts of the New Testament, found that for teaching on social implications of the faith, they were obliged to turn to the Old Testament, which has much more to say on the subject. On the other hand it would be pathetic (he says) to base your theology of the poor on a minority concern of the New Testament (which has other major concerns), 'when the Bible that Jesus himself gave us overtly and indisputably majors on that topic in a book such as Deuteronomy.' He goes on 'It is amusing (though sad, too)  to find the report totally ignoring scripture when it discusses the gospel and other faiths, if this is because the conclusion it wants to come to finds little support from the Old Testament!'

He goes on: ' Evangelicalism has traditionally had the opposite difficulty. It is formally committed to accepting the authority of the Old Testament, but in practice does not do so. Its understanding of the church and of Israel is not significantly influenced by the Old Testament's understanding of Israel as the people of God; its praise and prayer is not significantly influenced by the Bible's own manual of praise and prayer, the Psalms; its understanding of redemption is not significantly influenced by that of a book such as Exodus (which invented the idea).'

So how do we determine the theological relationship between the two Testaments? 

It is clear from the plain reading of the OT that it regards the story that it tells as incomplete and unfulfilled. As Woodbridge1 details; there is an inbuilt future expectation eg Gen12:1-3, Ex.3:8, Deut.33, Amos 5:18-20. 

The OT speaks of a future person not yet revealed - Son of David (2 Sam.7; Is.9:7); the servant of Yahweh (Is.42, 49, 50, 53), Son of man (Dan.7) and the Shepherd (Ezek. 34). 

There is also a materialistic hope eg the return of paradise (Is.11:6-9; 25:8; Amos 9:13), expectation of a renewed holy land (Is.62:4; Jer. 30:3; Ezek. 20:42), and expectation of a renewed holy city (Is. 60-66; Ezek. 40-48).  

Woodbridge also outlines the hope of spiritual renewal  - after judgement, restoration (Jer.29:14; 30:3), the remnant returning from exile (Is.7:3; Jer.23:3, Micah 12:2),  a new exodus (Zech. 10:8-11), a new covenant (Jer.30-33), and God giving a new spirit (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; Hosea. 6:1-3). 

There is an expectation of a new age inaugurated by God. The OT looks ahead to an act of God; Jesus fulfils the hopes of the OT (1 Tim.3:16; 1 Pet. 1:20-21).

The NT clearly asserts that what it has to tell, particularly about Jesus Christ, is the fulfilment of  the future promises of the OT. The 'Day of the Lord' has arrived. In fact we can go further: the writers of the NT give us no option but to accept that the OT is the presupposition of the NT and that the NT cannot be properly understood without the OT. Woodbridge says 'When NT writers quote from the OT, they want us to read the whole context of that quote.' This is the measure of their confidence. The Book of Hebrews is a prime example. There, it is not that who Christ was and what he did were merely illustrated by the OT, but that what the OT had to tell us about those things was a necessary precursor to a proper grasp of the fullest meaning of them. And all this is not just for Jews. For instance, Paul is adamant about the role of Abraham and the basis on which he was accepted by God, giving the matter prominence in his letters to gentiles in Romans and Ephesians, in his argument in support of justification by faith.  

There is another illustration: as Goldingay indicates in the quotation above, the whole idea of redemption has its origins in the OT. God was careful to ensure that the concept of redemption was written into the religious and social life of old Israel. An understanding of how Christ redeemed us is only properly reached when its OT background (or rather 'source') is grasped.  Similar observations may be made about the whole concept of 'covenant'. The importance of covenant cannot be over-emphasised, yet we find its origin and development vitally portrayed in God's relationships with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jeremiah. For a further appreciation of this topic, please go to the Bible Overviews page and follow links to the Covenant Overview.  

It is sometimes said that the gospel is 'simple'. Certainly it can be simply expressed eg 'Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins and reconcile us to God.'  But that statement bristles with questions that the serious seeker/believer will want to have answered. Why was it necessary? How did Christ's death achieve it? (Who was Christ anyway?) What sins? Why do I need reconciling? 

The simple statement that 'Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins and reconcile us to God' invokes many questions the serious seeker will want answered.

And to which God?  It is impossible to answer those questions (especially the last one)  without referring to the OT!

 

Some would want to point out the contrasts between the Testaments. For example, they say, the OT is primarily concerned with creation, the earthly, community, God's wrath, glory, and law; whereas the NT is primarily concerned with salvation (re-creation), the spiritual, individual, God's love, suffering, and Gospel. But this is much too simple an analysis of the main thrusts of each Testament. These contrasts are very much subordinate to their essential theological unity.  We can trace one aspect of this unified theme from OT to NT by the following ;

CREATION / NEW EARTH >>>> REBELLION >>>>SALVATION >>>> NEW CREATION / NEW HEAVEN AND EARTH

At the same time, we can readily appreciate that looking back at the OT through 'the lens' of the NT completely transforms what it is saying. It is in this sense that the OT became Christian scripture when Christ came.  Now it has to said, that of course the OT has an identity of its own. It conveyed God's message-of-the-time to the His People (and the world)-of-the-time, in ways tuned to the culture of-the-time  - in particular to the culture and religious life that He had given to His People. But the OT is not primarily about Israel; it is about God - the God who made the world (Genesis 1 stamps that on the Bible) - and the way He relates to mankind. Indeed that is the unity of the WHOLE Bible. It is all about the greatest question in all theology ...

"How can (a holy and almighty) God relate to (rebellious) man and how can this man relate to this God?"

This is the theme that unites the Testaments and enlightens our understanding of them. Ultimately the Bible tells us that the answer to that question is 'through His Son Jesus Christ'. Biblical theology is the united theology of the whole Bible: while noting the diversity to recognise the centrality of Jesus the Christ of the OT and the NT, whose person and coming unites the two Testaments into one Bible.

 

'These are the Scriptures that testify about me' John 5:39 

'And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself ' Luke 24:27

 

Indeed, as pointed out in the introduction to the Bible Overviews, it would appear from Luke 24:27,44  that Jesus himself believed that the OT was about Him and his ministry. These verses are re-iterated here.

He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms." Luke 24:44

 

From the way Jesus puts it and from even only a cursory investigation of what He might have meant, He is not referring just to predictions about his birth and life, but about the very essence of what He came to do and how He would need to accomplish it. 

So how do we handle the OT and in particular how do we handle the use of the OT in the NT? For example, and very importantly, how did Jesus and the Apostles use the OT? The rest of this article will be devoted to trying to answer these questions. 

2. In what ways does the NT use the OT?

Woodbridge provides a detailed analysis of the use of the OT in the New.  For example: quotations from the OT appear in the NT in various ways. Sometimes they are explicit eg 'That it might be fulfilled..' or 'This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet ...'. There are about 250-300 instances of this in the NT. In Matt.2:15, Matthew alludes to Hosea 11:1 when speaking about Jesus being taken to Egypt for his safety. 

Sometimes OT words or events are recalled and re-applied eg Matt. 3:17 - the words of God at Jesus' baptism - recalls Ps.2:7 and Is.42:1. This happens again in Matt.17:5. There are many quotations and allusions in the NT  - estimates vary from 600- 4000! But there are about 300 direct references: Woodbridge reckons about 10% of the NT consists of quotations from or allusions to the OT.

However, we do have a problem when we find NT writers being free with OT quotes eg Paul in Eph.4:8 quotes from Ps.68:18 but changes it from 'received gifts from people' to 'gave gifts to people'. How do we handles this? Let us examine some factors that Woodbridge provides:

1. NT writers had to translate the quotations 

The OT was available in two languages 

(1) Hebrew: this included some sections eg parts of Daniel and Ezra written in Aramaic which had many similarities with Hebrew but also some important differences. (It was not a derivative of Hebrew.) The Hebrew version became the 'Massoretic Text' (referred to as MT) as a result of the work of the Massoretes ('Transmitters' = scribes). 

(2) Greek: around 250 BC a group of 72 scholars from Jerusalem were invited to Alexandria to make a Greek copy of the then-existing Hebrew OT texts. They produced what is know as the 'Septuagint' - usually signified by LXX. The Greek of this version was not straight forward commonly-spoken Greek. It abounds with Hebraisms. The style varied from fairly good common Greek eg for Isaiah, to indifferent Greek for Chronicles and the major prophets. The Pentateuch (the first 5 books)  was generally competent and faithful. However, R.Nicole4 asserts that no interpretation based on the LXX seriously misinterprets the MT.

We have gone into this detail to illustrate that for the NT writers, translating and quoting from the OT was no trivial task.  Often when reading the NIV and following quotations back into the OT we find the words are not the same. It is likely that this is because the writer had gone via the LXX.

2. The NT writers had different rules for quotations

There were no punctuation signs. No quotation marks. 

Is. 64:4 'Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God beside you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him'

1 Cor.2:9 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.'

Paul's quotation of Is.64:4 in 1 Cor.2:9 is a typical example of where the actual words largely differ but the meaning is retained. There was no ellipsis mark (eg. dots '.....') to indicate omitted words. No brackets to facilitate editorial comments - see Eph.6:2. There were no footnotes to differentiate between quotations from different sources.  

3. NT writers sometimes paraphrased their quotations

They could be fairly free with their paraphrase to provide a better sense of the original and this sometimes changed the tenor of the OT passage. On occasions, the paraphrase used an expression to stir the reader's memory of where the quote came from eg God's words at Jesus' baptism. 

4. NT writers alluded to OT verses  

'The speakers or writers, in such cases, do not claim to give forth the precise words and meanings of former OT revelations; their thoughts and language were merely derived from these OT verses, the form and direction which they took; and it does not matter whether the portions thus used might or might not be closely followed, and used in connections somewhat different for those in which they originally stood.' Patrick Fairbairn5.

Sometimes the quotation is very close indeed but not exact. An example is Stephen's defence in Acts 7 and especially v.26 which should be compared with Ex.2:13. Here the essence of the story is clearly preserved. Certainly some freedom is legitimate; for example Paul in 2 Cor.4:6 does not reproduce the exact words of Gen.1:3 but the meaning is again definitely preserved.  Heb.6:14 and Gen.22:17 have the same relationship. Sometimes words of introduction are used to confirm that what follows is a formal quotation. Note the use of 'saying' to introduce the free quotation.

5. NT writers sometimes recorded quotations made by others 

There were three ways to do this. (1) translate from the original (2) Use the LXX  (3) translate from the Aramaic . Compare Luke 4:18ff with Is.61:1ff and also Acts 8:32ff with Is.53:7ff, which may go via the LXX.

So were the meaning of OT passages distorted by NT writers?

 1. We must be clear that alleged changes in meaning are far more important than only changes in wording but which retain the meaning.

2. There is clearly one purpose in the whole Bible - to focus on Christ - and the NT shows a clear understanding of the meaning of the OT.

3. OT writers saw beforehand events or principles that would characterise the new covenant. eg Psalm 132:11 foresees that which is spoken of in Acts 2:29,30. The OT prophets said more than they themselves understood.

4. We need to note that the NT interpretation does not necessarily exhaust the meaning of the OT quotations.

Woodbridge concludes that we do not need to solve all the problems and that indeed we must not assume that any particular problem is insoluble. For one thing the Dead Sea Scrolls have made a difference by confirming the text of much of the OT.

The following table also appears on the Information, Application and Implication page. On the same page, at Article 4, there is a comprehensive account of Jesus' use of the OT.

THE NUMBER OF OT QUOTATIONS IN THE NT

Matthew 45 Ephesians 5 Hebrews 37
Mark 28 Philippians 0 James  4
Luke 25 Colossians 0 1 Peter 12
John 14 1 Thessalonians 0 2 Peter 1
Acts 40 2 Thessalonians 0 1 John 0
Romans 60 1 Timothy 1 2 John 0
1 Corinthians 17 2 Timothy 1 3 John  0
2 Corinthians 10 Titus 0 Jude 0
Galatians 10 Philemon 0 Revelation* 0

* And yet the Book of Revelation depends heavily for its concepts on the Book of Ezekiel.

 

THIS PAGE IS UNDER CONTINUING DEVELOPMENT and will be extended in the near future

1. Lecture Notes issued with the evening lectures. Dr Woodbridge may be contacted via Oak Hill College, Chase Side, Southgate, London N14 4PS. The website is www.oakhill.ac.uk ; email mailbox@oakhill.ac.uk

2. G. Goldsworthy Gospel and Kingdom, pp.13-14, Lancer Books, NSW Australia and Paternoster Press, Exeter, UK.

3. J. Goldingay What is the place of the OT? Third way. Feb.1988, pp.14-15.

4. R.Nicole The NT Use of the Old in Revelation and the Bible, London 1959

5. Patrick Fairbairn Hermeneutical Manual, Edinburgh, 1885.

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