The New Testament proclaims its indebtedness to the Old Testament on the very first page. Matthew begins with an Old Testament genealogy that makes sense only to those who are familiar with the people and events to which it refers ( 1:1-17 ). Thus the New Testament signals at the start an engagement with the Old Testament that touches every page and makes great demands on its readers.
Statistics and Styles of Quotations. The New Testament does not simply express its dependence on the Old Testament by quoting it. The fourth edition of the United Bible Societies' Greek Testament (1993) lists 343 Old Testament quotations in the New Testament, as well as no fewer than 2, 309 allusions and verbal parallels. The books most used are Psalms (79 quotations, 333 allusions), and Isaiah (66 quotations, 348 allusions). In the Book of Revelation, there are no formal quotations at all, but no fewer than 620 allusions.
As far as the styles of quotation, sometimes the New Testament authors employed techniques current among first-century Jewish teachers. These include midrash, a style of expanded narrative with interpretive comments inserted (e.g., Stephen's speech in Acts 7:2-53 ); pesher, a style found particularly in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which Old Testament texts are connected with specific contemporary events (e.g., Acts 2:16 ; Rom 10:8 ); and gezerah shawa, a style in which two or more verses that use the same word in different parts of the Bible are interpreted in the light of each other (e.g., Heb 4:3-7 ). But generally the New Testament authors show considerable independence in forging wholly new ways of reading the Scriptures, based on their revolutionary experience of Jesus the Christ. For instance, Paul's conversion experience revolutionized his attitude toward the Law. After all, obedience to the Law had led him to persecute the Messiah! Following this, he could not continue to read and interpret the Scriptures as before. "Through the law I died to the law, " he exclaims ( Ga 2:19 ). New styles of exegesis resulted, as we shall see below.
New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament: Legitimate? New Testament "Awareness" of the Old Testament. Many New Testament scholars maintain that the New Testament use of the Old Testament works within a closed logical circle: it depends on Christian presuppositions and reads the Old Testament in a distinctly Christian way (even if employing Jewish methods of exegesis), often doing violence to the true meaning of the Old Testament texts employed. Thus, New Testament arguments based on the Old Testament, it is held, would generally be convincing to Christians but hardly to Jews. If this is true, it will be hard to vindicate the New Testament authors from the charge of misusing the Scriptures.
This approach, however, ignores several crucial features of the use of the Old Testament by the New Testament authors. As numerous studies have now shown, these authors generally assumed knowledge of the Old Testament context from which quotations were drawn. They were concerned to communicate with and convince their fellow Jews, not just to nurture a private faith. They did not want simply to jettison their Jewish heritage, but sought genuinely to understand how the "word" spoken through the prophets related to the new "word" now revealed in Christ (this applies even to Paul, whose "not under law, but under grace" [ Rom 6:15 ] looks at first sight like wholesale rejection of the Old Testament ). Finally, they sensitively explored the Old Testament for points at which its very inconsistencies or incompleteness pointed ahead to Jesus as the answer. It is worth giving some examples of this latter point.
Matthew has a special fondness for the messianic prophecies in Isaiah ( 1:23 ; 2:23 ; 4:15-16 ; 8:17 ; 12:17-21 ) and other prophets ( Matthew 2:6 Matthew 2:17 ; 21:5 ; 26:31 ). He clearly regarded these as incomplete without Jesus.
John focuses his presentation of Jesus around the figure of Moses. One of the arguments he deploys is that even the mighty Moses was unable to deliver Israel from her most powerful enemies: death ( 6:49 ; 8:51-53 ) and sin ( John 8:12 John 8:31-34 ). But Jesus does!
Stephen's powerful speech ( Acts 7:2-53 ) turns on the thought that the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-14 paraphrased by Stephen as "you will worship me in this place" (v. 7)has never yet been fulfilled. Stephen traces a history in which all the significant encounters with God occurred away from "this place, " and then points to the ambivalent Old Testament traditions concerning the temple, the "place" above all where God was meant to be worshiped yet a "place" where by definition he cannot dwell (vv. 48-50)!
Paul is naturally drawn to the Old Testament prophecies concerning the blessing of the Gentiles. In connection with these he discerns a tension at the heart of Old Testament theology, between the exclusivism of the covenant and the central covenant confession, the Shema: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" ( Deut 6:4 ). But if God is one, reflects Paul, then he cannot be just the God of Israel, but must treat all his creatures equally. Is he not the God of Gentiles too? ( Rom 3:29-30 ). And in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 Paul employs an argument about Moses similar to that in John 6: for all his glorious status, the effect of Moses' ministry was condemnation and death.
The author of Hebrews employs this kind of argument frequently. The string of quotations from the psalms in 1:5-13 are applied to Christ because they say things about the human Davidic king that actually could be true of no mere human being. Similarly, Psalm 8:4-6 ( Heb 2:6-8 ) says things about "man" that are not true of any man except one. The author also discerns tensions within the Old Testament theology of priesthood. How can priests save people from things to which they themselves are prey ( 5:2-3 ; 7:23 )? But Jesus makes up this deficiency ( 7:25-28 ). And alongside the levitical priesthood another priesthood inexplicably appears in the Old Testament, that of Melchizedek. Similarly, the tabernacle itself harbors contradictions: it was meant to be "the tent of meeting, " and yet it was structured to keep God separate! "The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed" (9:8). And, above all perhaps, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament proclaims its own inadequacy by the requirement of constant repetition ( 10:1-4 ). In passages like Jeremiah 31:31-34 ( 8:8-12 ; 10:15-17 ) and Psalm 40:6-8 ( 10:5-7 ), the author finds, within the Old Testament itself, the expectation of something better.
Do such arguments distort and wrench the Old Testament? Many argue that, even though they arise from Christian faith, they nonetheless show true sensitivity to its inner dynamic. Rabbinic Judaism in the post-New Testament period sought to "complete" the Scriptures by filling out the body of its case law, reinterpreting the sacrificial legislation ethically, and gently downplaying the significance of the messiah (in the main). The New Testament authors, by contrast, focus the whole "story" of the Old Testament onto Jesus, as summarized below, using even its tensions prophetically, to point toward the Christ who is Jesus. Undoubtedly, the New Testament authors believed that their Christian faith enabled them to make better sense of the Old Testament than they ever could as Jews.
Patterns of Use. The New Testament authors both use the Old Testament to explain Jesus and use Jesus to explain the Old Testament a circular process in which each is illuminated by the other. This circular relationship may be helpfully summarized under the following five headings.
Old Testament Theology Confirmed. The authority of the Old Testament is nowhere questioned in the New Testament, even at the points wheredramaticallythe authority of Jesus is set alongside or even over it (e.g., Matthew 5:17-18 Matthew 5:27-30 ; Mark 7:19 ; Heb 1:1-3 ). Thus, all the great themes of the Old Testament are confirmed, even when they are also developed in various ways: God as the one creator and ruler of the nations, the election of Israel to be the light of salvation for the world, the presence of God with his people, the possibility (and actuality) of revelation through appointed instruments, history as moving toward God's purposed goal for the world.
But the New Testament is no mere restatement of Old Testament themes, because of its vital focus on Jesus. So, for instance, the "wisdom" theme of Proverbs and Job, which had already been considerably developed in the intertestamental period, is used by both John and Paul to help explain Jesus, who is both God and separate from God ( John 1:1-14 ; Php 2:5-11 ).
Old Testament Prophecy Fulfilled. All the New Testament authors (except James) pick up messianic and other prophecies from the Old Testament and locate their fulfillment in Jesus and in the church. Some prophecies are quoted frequently especially those relating to the Davidic Messiah, the Son of Man, the prophet like Moses, and the "Servant" of Isaiah (see examples below). But it is possible to discern particular interests:
- Matthew finds prophecy fulfilled in several individual features of Jesus' ministry (e.g., Matthew 2:6 Matthew 2:17 Matthew 2:23 ; 4:15-16 ; 8:17 ; 10:35-36 ; 12:18-21 ; 13:35 ; 21:5 ).
- Mark focuses particularly on the prophecy of the suffering "servant" in Isaiah 53 ( 10:45 ), which he links to the "Son of Man" prophecy of Daniel 7:13-14.
- Luke adds an interest in the prophecies concerning Israel (e.g., Luke 1:68-73 ; Acts 2:17-21 ; 15:16-18 ; 26:22f ).
- John finds special importance in the prophecy of Deuteronomy 15:15-18, that God will raise up a figure like Moses to speak his word to his people ( 1:45 ; 5:46 ; 6:14 ; 7:40 ; 8:28 ; 12:48-50 ).
- Paul draws especially on the prophecies of the blessing of the Gentiles (e.g., Rom 10:19 ; 15:9-12 ; Gal 3:8-9 ).
- Hebrews makes prominent use of the "new covenant" prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34 ( 8:7-13 ; 9:15 ; 10:15-18 ).
- The climax of Revelation draws on the climax of Isaiah: both conclude with the vision of a "new heaven and a new earth." Revelation also draws on Ezekiel's concluding prophecy of the rebuilding of the temple (Eze 40-48).
Old Testament History Reread. Claiming the fulfillment of specific, future-oriented prophecies is only a small element in the prophetic treatment of the Old Testament. Some basic features of the Old Testament "story" become prophetic in the light of Christ that is, they are discovered to have a forward-looking, predictive function because their provisionality is revealed by the appearance of something (someone) much greater and better. The word often used to describe this treatment of the Old Testament is "typology." This technique may be illustrated by the use made of the Exodus, which receives frequent typological treatment.
- Matthew suggestively applies Hosea 11:1 to Jesus' return from Egypt ( 2:15 ), highlighting the parallel between Israel, who failed the temptations in the wilderness, and Jesus, who came through them victoriously to form the heart of a renewed people of God.
- John 6 presents the feeding of the five thousand as a glorious repetition of the manna miracle, signaling a greater exodus from sin and death.
- Paul applies the exodus themes of "slavery" and "redemption" spiritually to the work of the cross (e.g., Rom 3:24 ; 8:23 ; Ephesians 1:7 Ephesians 1:14 ), and finds in the wilderness wanderings several typological foreshadowings of Christ and the church ( 1 Cor 10:1-13 ).
- Hebrews develops the theme of the political "rest" enjoyed by Israel in the promised land and applies it typologically to that spiritual sharing of the life of God himself, which is the fruit of the work of Christ for all believers (3:1-4:13).
- First Peter 2:9-10 uses Exodus 19:5-6, a central statement of exodus theology, to make Israel a type of the church.
- Revelation uses the Egyptian plagues typologically ( 8:7-12 ), and applies the numbering of the exodus tribes to the church ( 7:4-8 ).
These examples do scant justice to the extent to which the exodus is used as a "type" of the salvation now to be experienced in Christ. Other Old Testament features treated typologically include the temple, Jerusalem (and the associated ideas of worship, security, and the presence of God), the annual festivals, and kingship. This treatment is symptomatic of a fundamental "rereading" of the history of Israel.
Old Testament People Expanded. One of the most surprising features of the New Testament use of the Old Testament is the way in which the exclusivism of the Old Testament covenant (Israel as the elect) gives way to a new understanding of the people of God in which racial identity plays no role, and Jews and Gentiles have equal membership based just on faith and common possession of the Spirit. The movement from one to the other is a special interest of Luke (see especially Acts 10-11) and of Paul (see especially Romans 9-11), one of the most sustained New Testament engagements with Old Testament texts).
Many Jewish Christians did not want to "reread" the Old Testament understanding of "people" in this way. Paul had to labor hard to defend his conviction that Abraham was the father of all who believe in Christ, not just the father of the Jewish nation ( Rom 4:9-17 ; Gal 3:6-9 ). Certain Old Testament texts were especially important for him, but more important than particular texts was the conviction that the spiritual experience described by texts like Genesis 15:6, Psalm 32:1-2, and Habakkuk 2:4 was exactly that now being enjoyed by his Gentile converts: by believing in Jesus, they were being "justified by faith" just like Abraham and David ( Rom 4:22-25 ).
Old Testament Religion Renewed. The New Testament understanding of the Spirit builds on that of the Old Testament, but is surprising nonetheless. Only prophets and other leaders were anointed with the Spirit in the Old Testament. Hence the shocking nature of Jesus' encouragement actually to ask God for the Holy Spirit ( Luke 11:13 )! So now, possessing the Spirit in common, the whole church occupies a prophetic status, admitted like the prophets of the old covenant into the presence of God himself and is now enabled to share the worship of heaven by the Spirit, and to "worship in spirit and in truth" ( John 4:24 ), rather than through a program of ritual.
The worship of the Old Testament is focused on a physical temple on earth. New Testament worship focuses on its heavenly counterpart by the Spirit the heavenly temple where God truly dwells and Christ has gone before.
Bibliography. G. L. Archer and G. C. Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey; D. L. Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible: A Study of the Theological Relationship between the Old and New Testaments; D. A. Carson and H. G. M. Williamson, It Is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture; B. S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible; E. E. Ellis, Paul's Use of the Old Testament; R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament; R. B. Hayes, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul; K. Stendahl, IDB, 1:418-32; P. Stuhlmacher, Reconciliation, Law and Righteousness.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Old Testament in the New Testament, the'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".