How the NT Writers Used the OT

I will not attempt to provide an in depth analysis here, but one of the major things claimed by the New Testament in support of Jesus’ life and mission is that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (Luke 24:26-27; Acts 3:17-24). I believe early Christian preachers simply went into the Old Testament looking for verses that would support their view of Jesus. They took these Old Testament verses out of context and applied them to Jesus in order to support their views of his life and mission. None of the them proves much of anything significant with regard to Jesus' nature or mission.

Many of the claimed prophecies came from the book of Psalms. But the Psalms are simply devotional prayers. Among other things in the Psalms we find prayers for help in distress, for forgiveness, and wisdom, and so on. They declare praise to God, and they express hope that their enemies will be defeated. There is nothing about them, when reading them devotionally, that indicates they are predicting anything at all! But the New Testament writers quoted from several of them and claimed they predicted several things in the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus (i.e., Psalms 2, 16, 22, 40, 69, 110, and 118).

Psalms 2 expresses hope for the Messiah, the anointed one. But any Jew writing about his hope for a future Messiah could have said these same hopeful things. A hope is not a prediction. Besides, Psalms 2 and 110 were most likely to be read at the coronation of Jewish kings. Psalms 110:1 reads: “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for you feet.” The New Testament writers make a big deal out of the fact that David wrote this Psalm in which he calls someone else “lord.” This supposedly refers to David’s future Messianic son, Jesus--his divine nature and mission. But it’s fairly obvious that if David wrote this Psalm he did it on the coronation of his son Solomon, whom he subsequently called, "lord." He did this because of Solomon’s new status, which placed him as a ruler even above the aged David himself. The Jews of that time would not have understood it any other way.

The other Psalms do not predict anything at all. They are prayers to be interpreted within the range of the writer’s experiences alone. Any extrapolation of them to Jesus is reading Jesus into the text, and not justified by the text itself.

It is more probable that the New Testament writers were influenced in the construction of their stories about Jesus by making his life fit some of these details. That may also explain Luke’s concoction of a census in order to get Mary to Bethlehem so that Jesus could be born there, according to “prophecy” (Micah 5:2, Matthew 2:6).

Matthew even constructs a small detail based upon a misunderstanding of prophecy. Matthew 21:2 has Jesus requesting both a donkey and also a colt to ride into Jerusalem on, based upon a false understanding of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice…your king comes to you…gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah’s prophecy is an example of Hebraic parallelism in which the second line retells the point of the first line. There is only one animal in Zechariah, but Matthew thinks he means there is a donkey and also a colt, so he wrote his story based upon this misunderstanding in order to fit prophecy! [Mark (11:1) and Luke (19:30) both say it was a “colt.” John (12:14-15) says it was a “donkey”, and then quoted Zechariah 9:9 as saying: “your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

How Matthew’s gospel uses the Old Testament is a case in point for us. How he uses Isaiah 7:14 to predict the supposed virgin birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:23), is simply fraudulent. In Matthew 1:20-23 the author claims that Isaiah 7:14 refers to Jesus’ virgin birth: “Immanuel with us.” The context for the prophecy in Isaiah tells us that before any “young woman” (not virgin) shall conceive and bear a son who grows to maturity that Syria, the northern kingdom of Israel, along with the southern Israelite kingdom of Ahaz would all lie devastated. The prophecy in the original Hebrew of Isaiah says nothing whatsoever about a virginal conception. And it says nothing about a messiah, either. God will indeed be with Ahaz, but not in salvation, but in judgment.

Let’s just look at three more from Matthew. What exactly does the word “fulfill” mean in Matthew 2:14-15: “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” According to The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures, “This is a reference to Hosea 11:1, which does not seem to be a prophecy in the sense of a prediction. Hosea was writing of God’s calling Israel out of Egypt into the Exodus. Matthew, however, gave new understanding to these words. Matthew viewed this experience as Messiah being identified with the nation.” According to J. Gnilka, "The total disassociation of that the quotation from its context is completely at odds with our own exegetical preferences." [in Das Matthausevangelium I Kommentar zu Kap 1.1 – 13.58 (HTKNT, 1.1; Freiburg: Herder, 1986), p. 55]. According to U. Luz, "Matthew naturally understands his quotation from Hosea as prophetic; he did not share the insight, common since Zwingli... and Calvin... that his interpretation does not correspond to the original meaning." [Das Evangelium nach Matthaus I Mt 1-7, p. 129].

When Herod the king ordered all boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem to be killed, Matthew sees this as a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15. Jeremiah is mourning for those who will be cast into Babylonian captivity. According to R. Schnackenburg, "it seems far-fetched to quote this text as fulfillment of prophecy." [Das Mathausevangelium 1.1 – 16.20 (Die Neue Echter Bibel, 1.1; Wurzburg: Echter Verlag, 1985), p. 27].

Look at Matthew 2:22-23: “Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” Again, according to the conservative The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures, “The words ‘He will be called a Nazarene,’ were not directly spoken by any Old Testament prophet, though several prophecies come close to this expression. Isaiah said the Messiah would be “from [Jesse’s] roots” like “a Branch” (Isaiah 11:1). “Branch” is the Hebrew word nezer, which has consonants like those in the word “Nazarene” and which carry the idea of having an insignificant beginning.”

Contextually Matthew’s use of Scripture is an apologetic to the Jews. Therefore, in some way his contemporaries must have seen such a use of Scripture as evidence of the nature or mission of Jesus. The question we must ask is how does his interpretation confirm these facts? What is the point of the quotations? What does it add to Matthew’s narrative? What does it confirm about Jesus? Contextually there is simply no way on grammatical-historical lines that Hosea 11:1 could be used as evidence of the nature or mission of Jesus in Matthew 2:15. It just isn’t there. Matthew uses the verse so loosely that it would show evidence of nothing at all to us today were we the ones weighing the claims of another Messiah. It teaches us nothing at all about the Messiah that Matthew hasn’t already told us. We today would be extremely puzzled by Matthew’s interpretation of it.

And Matthew’s claim that Jesus is a “Nazarene” isn’t specifically quoted from any OT source, and even if the Messiah was to be a “branch” from David, that could only mean to the OT reader that he would be from David’s blood line, not that he would live in Nazareth!

Our methods for discerning exactness and correctness have changed. If we were to judge the NT writers by our standards of hermeneutics today they wouldn’t measure up. Another way to put this is that if we would employ the same methods in scholarly studies today as they did, we would be laughed at by our contemporaries—just try it and see!

What was Matthew’s intention? Matthew’s gospel reads as if he was making a case for Jesus as the Christ. Dunn stated in The Living Word (Fortress Press, 1987) that Matthew’s use of the sayings of Jesus is similar to the way he used the O.T. in that: “the texts used were often significantly different in sense from the original. It was evidently quite an acceptable procedure in Matthew’s time to incorporate the interpretation into the saying itself by modifying the form of the saying.” (pp. 115-122). Today we think this way of interpreting the O.T. is wrong. And yet we are supposed to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of OT prophecy? Hardly!


The Jewish Freak said...

You would be amazed at some of the deliberate mistranslations of Hebrew words in the christian versions of the Jewish Bible (OT). For just a few examples see here.

Anonymous said...

Here's another amusing misuse of scripture from Matthew. In reference to the suicide of Judas and what the temple priests did with the blood money, Matthew says this:

"And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value; and gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me." (27:5-10)

The only problem is that there's no such verse in Jeremiah. On the other hand, there is a verse about buying a potter's field with thirty pieces of silver - in Zechariah (11:12-13). Matthew got his citation wrong. So much for inerrancy, eh?

Lord Timothy said...

*sigh* this is what happens when we try to project OUR idea of prophecies and prophecy fulfillment on other cultures.

Anonymous said...

But wait just a moment Lord Timothy! Let's say someone comes along today and claims to be the fulfillment of OT prophecy. Let's say he uses the same kinds of methods employed by the NT writers to show he is fulfilling prophecy as a second Messiah, or prophet or apostle or something? You would laugh at double-fulfillment type prophecies, anything from the Psalms, pesher, midrash, and so on. But that's how the NT writers did it. Why the double standard, Tim? Why?

D. A. N. said...

Yawn! Doubt does not = FAITH

Counter your claim

Roger Sharp said...

>I believe early Christian preachers simply went into the Old Testament looking for verses that would support their view of Jesus.<

How come you assume this motive? It is the premise for your entire flawed argument....