ABSTRACT: The New Testament authors quote, allude to, and interpret the Old Testament in a great variety of ways — and sometimes in ways that seem illegitimate to modern readers. But the apostles’ use of the Old Testament becomes clearer as we grasp the distinct practices and postures they brought to the Scriptures. Such practices and postures reveal not only how the apostles understood the Old Testament, but also how it shaped and saturated everything they wrote. In the end, the apostles not only thought about and interpreted the Old Testament; they also thought with and through the Old Testament and were interpreted by it.
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.
—1 Thessalonians 1:6
Paul famously declares, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Again, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). For Paul, Scripture is an inestimable gift for our life and good. But as Peter acknowledges, it is possible to “distort . . . the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16 NASB), to hear but not hear, to study the words but miss the Word, resulting in destruction. Mere hearing/reading of Scripture is not advantageous. Fitting, faithful hearing/reading of Scripture is what we are after. And I believe we can find no better help in this pursuit than in the models provided by the biblical writers themselves. “Be imitators of me,” Paul exhorts (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1). Might we include imitation of reading habits and sensibilities in the call?
With this possibility in view, I want to ask after the mystery and manners of apostolic reading of Scripture. In what ways did the New Testament (NT) writers wield the sword of the Spirit? How did they read and respond to their Bible? Of course, for the apostles in the texts cited above, the “Scripture” firstly in view is what Christians normally call the Old Testament (OT). Thus, a subset of our larger concern is a much-attended-to matter known as “the NT use of the OT.” For reasons that will become apparent below, I want to move beyond the category of use. But we can begin with it.
New Testament ‘Use’ of the Old Testament
The challenge that arises here is that NT writers use the OT in incredibly varied ways. One of the most obvious ways is to flag some fulfillment of a direct OT prophecy, frequently signaled with a formula like “This was to fulfill the word of X” (Matthew and John have a penchant for this). Closely related are NT claims, explicit and implicit, of indirect prophecy or types being fulfilled. Typological (figural) reading is on high display among the NT writers, who viewed OT events/narratives (e.g., exodus, exile), institutions (e.g., marriage, Levitical offerings), and persons (e.g., barren patriarchal wives, the Davidic king), for example, as divinely ordained “shadows” (Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 10:1) cast backwards from, or realities bearing the imprint of, the person of Christ and his worshiping, missional body of the last days.1
Shifting the focus, a NT author may use an OT passage as something of a literary template. It is arguable, for example, that Revelation 4–5 is modeled on the vision of Daniel 7,2 and that Isaiah 52:7–53:12 forms the literary-theological substructure of John 12.3 More broadly, Romans 6–8 may be said to mimic the movement of the Pentateuchal narrative of Israel being delivered from slavery through baptism in the sea (Romans 6), to receiving the law at Sinai (Romans 7), to being led by the Spirit through suffering in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land (Romans 8).4 Still more sweepingly, Matthew’s Gospel arguably copies the framing of the whole Hebrew Bible (in contrast to English ordering; see Matthew 23:35), which begins with the “book of the genealogy” in Genesis 2:4 (LXX; see also 5:1; cf. Matthew 1:1) and concludes with the decree of Cyrus in 2 Chronicles 36:23 (cf. Matthew 28:18–20).5
Differently, NT writers may use OT texts as illustrations of general principles (Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9–106). They may cite or allude to the OT ironically, inverting the point of a statement in view of the new work of God in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:557). They may appeal to an OT text less with the intention of giving its “one right interpretation” and more by way of proof-texting a doctrinal point (Jude 5–7), or providing moral exemplars (1 Peter 3:5–6), or strengthening a practical exhortation (Hebrews 13:5–6).
The use of the OT in the NT is clearly wide and varied, and this just scratches the surface. G.K. Beale provides a catalogue of just the “primary” interpretive uses of the OT in the NT (i.e., not intended to be exhaustive), and still the list balloons to a dozen.8 This is to say nothing of the diversity of formal uses of the OT in the NT (e.g., quotation, allusion, echo), the contested definitions of these categories, or criteria for detecting them.9
To further complicate matters, uses overlap. First Peter begins with a focus on the new exodus in Christ (redemption through the blood of a lamb [1:18–19] and the sequel of a new temple/kingdom of priests [2:4–10]), but after 2:11 the concern is almost entirely the church’s present experience as aliens suffering in exile. Peter uses Israel’s OT plotline (from exodus to exile) as a structural paradigm. At the same time, exodus and exile find typological fulfillment in the work of Christ and the life of the church. Moreover, an ironic reversal of an OT theme has taken place: remarkably, our exile is not punitive as Israel’s was, but is rather for the sake of mission to the nations among which we sojourn, because our exodus is far greater than Israel’s was, delivering not from Pharaoh but from sin, death, and wrath.
We must also admit that sometimes the NT uses the OT in seemingly wrong ways. In Acts 4:24–30, the earliest church uses Psalm 2:1–2 as a liturgical form for corporate prayer. They appear to rip what was originally an enthronement psalm for Israel’s king out of historical-cultural context and connect it directly to contemporary events. And they lump “the peoples of Israel” opposed to Christ and his church in with the raging “Gentiles” of Psalm 2. This seems like anything but a straightforward reading/use of the psalm. Or consider James’s quotation of Amos 9:11–12 in Acts 15:16–18. Whereas Amos speaks of restored Israel possessing the remnant of Edom, James indicates a time when the remnant of humankind may seek the Lord. At first blush, the messages of James and Amos seem opposite, or at least very different. “To me, it almost seems like a mistake,” a member of my church once said to me. Did James just get it wrong, forgetting the original wording? Was something lost in the translation from the Hebrew to the Greek? Was James playing fast and loose with the prophet’s words (knowing that no one in his first-century audience was likely to have a calfskin personal study Bible on hand to fact-check)?
What can account for the wildly varied, complex, sometimes troubling nature of the NT use of the OT? What follows are a handful of concerns, sensibilities, and principles discernible in the most common uses of the OT by the NT writers, which, I hope, will provide some foundations for making sense of the varied specific instances of the NT use of the OT. At the same time, these more general considerations will also underline the ways in which the relation of OT and NT extends beyond authorial use.
Reading in Context and in Chunks
To begin, I am persuaded, with many others, that NT writers generally are aware of and draw on the context of the OT texts to which they make direct or indirect reference. The apostles are not in the habit of opportunistically capitalizing on superficial similarity of wording; crucial to their quotations and allusions is how the OT texts work in their original contexts.
Intriguingly, for as many OT quotations as there are in the NT, rarely are they of the same OT verses (important exceptions include Psalm 110:1; Isaiah 6:9–10; 40:3). But many OT quotations and allusions are drawn from the same OT contexts — sections like Deuteronomy 6–8; 28–30; Joel 2–3; Isaiah 6–11; 40–55; Zechariah 9–14; Psalms 2; 8; 110. Early Christians apparently had shared familiarity with such sections. In the 1950s, C.H. Dodd observed this phenomenon, arguing that it likely wasn’t the result of committee or coincidence but of Jesus’s influence on apostolic Scripture reading (Luke 24:25–27, 44–45).10 In any case, at least when NT writers refer to such OT sections, we may reasonably assume that their knowledge of the context bears on their reference.
We can also demonstrate contextual, non-atomistic reading habits with specific examples. In James 5:17–18, James claims that Elijah prayed fervently for the Lord to withhold and then send rain. Now, the text of 1 Kings 17–18 never explicitly says that Elijah prayed for drought or rain. Prior to the drought, Elijah declares the Lord’s intention to withhold rain in 17:1, and at the conclusion of the drought, we find the ambiguous statement in 18:42 that Elijah “bowed himself down on the earth.” This is slim pickings for a theology of prayer. Does James take some questionable liberties? When we look beyond these isolated verses, reading the Elijah narratives as a larger literary section, we find Elijah praying all the time: for the widow’s son to be raised to new life (17:20–21), as a means of conquering the prophets of Baal (18:36–37), in voicing lament and protest to God (19:4, 10, 14). James’s inference that Elijah prayed fervently for drought and rain seems sensible and appropriate on the assumption that he read and heard the Scripture not just as individual verses here and there, not just as so-called pericopes, but especially in large chunks and sections.11 I think all the NT writers did the same, and before them Jesus.12
This means that study of OT texts in their original contexts will typically illuminate how the NT writers use them. Indeed, such an awareness can help explain surprising adaptations to quoted material and seemingly strange interpretive moves that the NT writers make.
Overarching Plotlines and Streams of Tradition
Sometimes differences between NT quotations of OT texts and the original forms (e.g., Amos 9 in Acts 15) can be somewhat accounted for by the fact that early Christians often quoted from translations (Greek, Aramaic, etc).13 John 12:38 quotes Isaiah 53:1, but the initial “Lord” doesn’t appear in the original Hebrew. John quotes directly from the Greek translation, where “Lord” appears.14 Other times, NT writers mix and match between versions. Isaiah 6:10 in John 12:40 likely makes use of Hebrew and Greek versions, at least.15 Utilization of a translation is likely part (but only part) of what’s going on in Acts 15:16–18 — James capitalizes on the Old Greek translation to make his point.
This implies that NT writers engaged individual OT texts not in a vacuum (as if that were ever possible) but as mediated in streams of interpretive tradition, since every translation also necessarily interprets. Of course, traditions of interpretation come to expression not only in translations but also in other texts. When the NT refers to an OT text, we do well to consider how that OT text has been understood and developed elsewhere.
I believe the most important place to look in this respect is elsewhere in Scripture.16 Mark 1:2–3 is a fairly well-known example.17 When Mark quotes what is “written in Isaiah,” why does he first relay a conflation of Malachi 3:1 and Exodus 23:20? It’s because he understands, and wants readers to understand, Isaiah 40:3 (which is finally quoted in Mark 1:3) as it is developed by, or otherwise meaningfully related to, the words of Malachi and Exodus. That is, Mark 1:2–3 understands Isaiah 40:3 as part of a stream of biblical narrative and interpretation starting in Exodus and moving through the OT canon.
In a sense, this is the above point about reading in context broadened to the level of canonical context, location, and trajectory. In Acts 15:16–18, this point may be signaled, in that James expressly cites not Amos but “the prophets” (Acts 15:15). Perhaps James’s “quotation” sums up not simply Amos 9 but the collective testimony of “the prophets” about the future fate of the nations and the nature of the temple (see, e.g., Jeremiah 12:15–16; Isaiah 45:20–21 LXX; Zechariah 8:22).
It is helpful to know that NT writers bring to the table certain theological presuppositions that govern how they read Scripture.18 Six presuppositions, in particular, are significant:
- There is oscillation of the one and the many due in part to corporate solidarity and federal-liturgical representation (Q: is the Servant in Isaiah 40–55 corporate or individual? A: yes19).
- Christ is true Israel, thus many Israel texts may be applied to Jesus; by extension, the church is also true Israel inasmuch as it is united to and identified in Christ.
- History is ordered and unified according to God’s sovereign plan so that earlier parts can be expected to correspond to later parts (this is central to the notion of typology).
- Inseparable from the preceding point but distinguishable from it: Scripture (the text itself, not just the history it testifies to) is unified, inasmuch as it is the product not simply of human authors but also of the divine author. So, when there is, for example, repetition of a striking word or phrase in different OT books, there may be interpretive and theological significance to it, and we may do well to press upon that repetition.
- The coming of Christ has inaugurated (but not consummated) the eschatological age, the “last days,” which the OT frequently looks forward to. What’s more, the end of the story necessarily bears upon (but does not exhaust or obviate) the meaning of what precedes.20
- Christ is the key to understanding the Scriptures, even the subject matter of them.
Without at least some awareness of these presuppositions, many NT uses of the OT may seem cryptic and confused. Stated more strongly, without sharing these basic presuppositions, we might think what the apostles do with the OT is illegitimate.
Hearing the Music
Strange as it may seem, it’s a good time to play a game of Name That Tune. (This is much easier in person than through writing, but in the YouTube age the latter is just possible — click the hyperlinks to play along!) In 2015, Ryan Adams released a single that starts quietly with synth and a slight beat, on top of which are added the lyrics, “I stay out too late, / Got nothin’ in my brain. / That’s what people say, / That’s what people say . . .” The initial musical measures might not be readily identifiable, but when the lyrics begin, many recognize Adams’s song for what it is — a cover of Taylor Swift’s 2014 hit single “Shake It Off.” Covers are old songs realized or fulfilled in new ways. They can sound quite different from the original. But for the most part, if you know the original, identifying a cover is child’s play (due to simple melodies and lyrics).
It’s not always so easy to identify musical repetitions. Christians across the English-speaking world know and love “Joy to the World,” sung to the hymn tune Antioch. Antioch was arranged in the 1800s by Lowell Mason. Mason claimed that he wrote the tune under the influence of Handel’s Messiah. Hum the lines “And heaven and nature sing, / And heaven and nature sing,” and then listen to the opening two measures of “Comfort ye my people” from Messiah. Many of us were likely not aware that the last time we went a-wassailing, we were sounding Handel’s Messiah. But as Richard Crawford comments, “Those who know Handel’s Messiah . . . will hear echoes of it in Antioch.”21 Developing an ear for Handel’s Messiah, for the music of “Comfort ye my people,” not only helps us appreciate Messiah more but also results in our hearing more in “Joy to the World” (because there is more there). The old tune sounds forth there.
Sometimes the re-sounding of an old tune is astoundingly different. Consider Variation 18 of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a beautifully creative realization of a melody by Niccolò Paganini. At first hearing, or for those without ears to hear, Rachmaninoff sounds like different music entirely from Paganini’s original. In fact, Rachmaninoff intentionally builds on and develops, or realizes possibilities organic to, Paganini.22 What we have here is the same tune transformed and transfigured, a dramatic variation on an old theme. In this instance, you really need to know the original music well, to have the original melody sink down into your bones, as it were, to catch the later variation.
Have we strayed far from our topic? No. The point is that the NT repeatedly offers variations on OT musical themes. Some are rather obvious, as obvious as cover songs: (a) God redeems Israel from Pharaoh through the death of the Passover Lamb; (b) God redeems the church from sin, Satan, and death through the death of Christ our Passover Lamb. Some are not so obvious and noticeable at first hearing, like the strains of Messiah in “Joy to the World”: (a) God sends his exodus people Israel into exile as a punishment for their sins; (b) God calls his new exodus people in Christ, the church, to suffer in exile, not as punishment for their sins but as the context of mission for the life of the nations. Sometimes the variation is so surprising it seems like a completely different tune, when, in fact, it’s the same tune enacted by the Spirit’s power in a dramatic new way, such as Rachmaninoff’s variation on Paganini: (a) God raises up Solomon, son of David, to build a temple of stone in which only Israelites are allowed to enter; (b) God raises up Jesus, Son of David, to build a temple made of people that includes even Gentiles.
The preceding sections provide the beginnings of an account of what we might call the “musical logic” and “musical sensibility” of the apostolic use of Scripture. The authors of the NT know that God loves to repeat himself, but they are also aware that God’s repetitions always offer something new, some variation, wrinkle, or development that completes the symphony. We can miss the variations (or feel qualms about them) for lack of familiarity with the basic melodies. The better we get to know those melodies, the readier we’ll be to discern variations on them in God’s music-making actions/ends in history (and the easier it will be to harmonize our present lives with God’s music). Understanding the NT use of the OT involves appreciating the ear of the apostles, or recognizing the ways in which OT melodies have sunk down into their bones.
Singing and Speaking in ‘Scripture’
But this sheds light on another crucial feature of the OT in the NT, one which transcends the category of mere “use.” It’s not just that the apostles discerned the melodies of the OT; the biblical melodies sank into their bones, cultivated them, transformed them. Their musical sensibilities were profoundly shaped by the OT so that the new songs they sang (i.e., the NT writings) were organic fruitions of the old, old tunes.
Nowhere is the shaping effect of the OT’s language and sensibilities on a NT writer more clearly discernible than in the Revelation of St. John. Almost every clause of the Apocalypse is packed with one and often several allusions, even several layers of allusions, to the OT. Already in the opening report of John’s vision of the ascended Lord Jesus in Revelation 1:9–20, we can begin to sense this. Here Jesus is presented in terms of the Son of Man (“one like a son of man”) and the Ancient of Days (having white hair) from Daniel 7:9–14, at the same time arguably also as a bridegroom in the mold of Song of Solomon 5:10–16,23 and simultaneously as a living temple.24 To understand what John is doing in this passage and throughout the book, we need to have some awareness of the biblical music that has preceded Revelation.
Whereas most of the NT sings songs about the OT, Revelation plays in the key of the OT. Whereas most of the NT exposits the OT, Revelation composes with it.25 We might say that the fundamental language of Revelation isn’t Greek or Hebrew, but Scripture. I’m persuaded that this isn’t an accidental use of the OT, as if John is so saturated with his Bible that he expresses himself reflexively in OT idioms without much thought or deliberate purpose. Instead, John’s language, images, and idioms are deliberate, forging connections with and completing earlier Scripture.26 Revelation is a purposeful speaking of the language called “Scripture.”
But this means that John learned the language called “Scripture.” The language, the possibilities inherent in it, the culture that it embodies, the drama developing in it, sank into his bones and transformed his outlook, his sensibilities, his musical competence. Scripture provided the mental furniture of his imagination. While John provides the most outstanding example, the same basic point applies to all the NT writers. The apostles did not just think about and interpret Scripture. They also thought with and through Scripture and were interpreted by it. Scripture was not just an instrument to use for the apostles, a tool to wield for their own non-scripturally formed agendas; it was something they submitted to as authoritative and was a transforming energy of God that shaped them.
The Nature and Authority of Scripture
Thus, considering the use by the NT of the OT unfolds into the shaping of the NT by the OT. A course in apostolic hermeneutics doubles as the beginnings of a doctrine of Scripture, demonstrations of the nature, authority, and proper functioning of Scripture in the life of God’s people. Attending not only to the use of the OT by the NT writings but also to the broader engagement with and shaping impact of the OT on display in the NT writings gives us guidance for faithful practices and postures today when we come to the word of God, OT and NT.27
Not everyone agrees with this point. At times, apostolic reading and responsiveness to the OT is written off as simply unintelligible, no sure guide for interpretive practice today. In a more pious form, we chalk up the apostles’ reading strategies and reactions to being uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit to do things with Scripture that we ought not try to duplicate. My conviction is otherwise. We have observed how the apostles read Scripture in varied ways, how they read with Christian convictions, how they read contextually with sensitivity to literary flow and musical sense, how they are apparently saturated in and submissive to the shaping power of Scripture. In these and still other forms discernible in Scripture but left unaddressed above (e.g., reading Scripture as a covenantal document, as an aurally received [publicly read] word, as a word of address to respond to with words of prayer), let us the church today become imitators of the apostles and of the Lord, receiving the word in much tribulation and with the joy of the Holy Spirit.
See further Frances Young, “Typology,” in Crossing the Boundaries: Essays in Biblical Interpretation in Honour of Michael D. Goulder, ed. S.E. Porter, P. Joyce, and D.E. Orton, BIS 8 (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 29–48. In general, I agree with Young that the modern taxonomy of “literal,” “typological,” and “allegorical” exegesis is inadequate to describe or analyze early Christian reading of Scripture; see esp., with a focus on patristics, Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). ↩
G.K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 80–81. ↩
Daniel J. Brendsel, “Isaiah Saw His Glory”: The Use of Isaiah 52–53 in John 12, BZNW 208 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014). ↩
Frank Thielman, “The Story of Israel and the Theology of Romans 5–8,” in Romans, vol. 3 of Pauline Theology, ed. D.M. Hay and E.E. Johnson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 169–95. ↩
Peter J. Leithart, The Four: A Survey of the Gospels (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2010), 118–20. See also G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 176–77, addressing the Chronicles connection only. ↩
Beale, Handbook, 67–69. ↩
What in the original context of Hosea is a divine summons of death and sheol to bring about retributive justice is wielded by Paul as a mocking of death. ↩
Beale, Handbook, 55–93. ↩
On which, see ibid., 29–40; and Brendsel, “Isaiah Saw His Glory”, 30–36. ↩
C.H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology (London: Nisbet, 1952). ↩
Cf. Mariam Kamell Kovalishyn, “The Prayer of Elijah in James 5: An Example of Intertextuality,” JBL 137 (2018): 1027–45. ↩
In fact, the Gospels give an example: when Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, each time Jesus responds with quotations from Deuteronomy 6–8. Apparently, Jesus was concertedly meditating on this section of Scripture. ↩
Imprecise quotation from memory is also possible. But the role, power, and accuracy of memory in the ancient world should not be overlooked. In this light, we might also entertain the possibility of intentional adaptation of well-known material rather than strict reproduction, something Hellenistic rhetorical schools invited (e.g., Menander, Treatise II.IX, 413.30). ↩
Brendsel, “Isaiah Saw His Glory”, 108–9. ↩
Brendsel, “Isaiah Saw His Glory”, 83–88. We might think of the NT writers exhibiting a kind of incipient text-critical awareness — or better, practicing something akin to Greco-Roman methods of diorthōsis and anagnōsis (cf. Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture, 82–84, 89–94). ↩
Interpretive traditions reflected in extrabiblical Jewish literature are also discernibly influential on NT engagement with the OT. ↩
Rikki E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, WUNT 2/88 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 53–90. ↩
This section summarizes, with one addition, the discussions of Klyne Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” and G.K. Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G.K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994). ↩
See Brendsel, “Isaiah Saw His Glory”, 37–64. ↩
For a helpful taxonomy and introductory assessment of approaches to the relation of OT and NT, see Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). ↩
Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History (New York: Norton, 2001), 143. ↩
For a delightful explication, see “Jeremy Begbie: Theology through the Arts,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlR3bOsoAdA. As Begbie explains, Rachmaninoff takes a line from Paganini, flips it backwards, shifts from a minor key to a major key, and transposes up. ↩
The Daniel 7 allusions are universally acknowledged. On the Song of Solomon allusion, see Peter J. Leithart, Revelation, 2 vols., ITC (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018), 1:103–4. ↩
See Leithart, Revelation, 1:102–3. Cf. David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, WBC 52A (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 96–97, who notes an allusion to Ezekiel 43:2 in Revelation 1:15b. ↩
Leithart, Revelation, 1:5. ↩
See further the illuminating discussion of Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (London: T&T Clark, 1993), x–xi. ↩
See further Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?”; and much more sweepingly and provocatively, Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009). In principle, I think the same dynamic pertains to the use of earlier OT Scriptures by later OT Scriptures, and the shaping of the latter by the former. ↩