Quoting and Referencing the OT in the NT

The authors of the New Testament (NT) quote and reference the Old Testament (OT) often. By looking at how the OT, the only scriptures that the NT authors possessed, is (and is not) quoted and referenced in the NT, we can get a clearer picture of how the early church viewed the scriptures. Here are some of my own observations and thoughts.

1. Word-for-word exactness was not an issue for those quoting, often taking liberty in their references to the OT. 

Now, if every word of the scriptures are inspired in the sense that God caused the exact wording of every passage (dictation theory or verbal plenary inspiration), then exactness is extremely significant, since paraphrasing it, as the NT authors often did when quoting the OT, would cause it to cease to be the exact wording given by God, thus nullifying its inspired status. That the authors were unconcerned about this hints that perhaps they did not view the bible as inspired in the way it is often thought to be today.

2. In the majority of cases where an OT passage is quoted, the NT authors quote it with a meaning other than the intended meaning of the OT author.

In other words, they never exegeted the OT; the OT was not used as a source from which to derive doctrine (which is today often assumed to be the purpose of bibles). Instead, the OT was quoted after making some claim in order to support it.

This begs the question: if their beliefs didn’t come from the OT, where did they come from?

For Paul, the most prominent of NT authors, we know that he wasn’t taught by other people (like the Pharisees were from the OT during that time) but received the good news by revelation from Jesus (Galatians 1:11-12). In other words, it was through his subjective experience of his relationship with Jesus. Since Paul went to confirm with the apostles that they were preaching the same gospel (Galatians 2:1-2), and since Paul taught many things that are not in the OT and that Jesus didn’t get to teaching while on earth (so the apostles must not have learnt them from Jesus during his earthly ministry, and thus could not have passed it onto Paul), we know that Paul didn’t get his revelation by reading the OT or from other people. Instead, he received revelation directly from Jesus.

We also can hear directly from God, whatever form that may take. There was nothing Paul had that we don’t have today, and God never changed. God still reveals things to people like he did to Paul.

Also, the bible doesn’t tell us what doctrine should be; that is backwards. Instead, we use the bible to support doctrine, according to what Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth, reveals to us. He can reveal things to us through reading bibles, but he doesn’t have to either; he can reveal things however he wants to, and it’s not hard for him to do so.

Further, since the NT authors discounted the “real meaning” (intended meaning) of passages, so can we. What’s most important is not the author’s intentions back then but what Holy Spirit is speaking now.

3. OT passages are sometimes reinterpreted in light of Christ and given a whole new meaning.

For example, Isaiah asks a rhetorical question in Isaiah 40:13 – “Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, Or as His counselor has informed Him?” The answer the author expects his readers to give is “nobody.” A similar idea is expressed in Isaiah 55:9 – “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah is basically saying that we can’t know what God is thinking.

Enter Paul. Paul paraphrases Isaiah 40:13 in 1 Corinthians 2:16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him?” Unlike Isaiah, however, Paul immediately follows this up with, “But we have the mind of Christ.” Paul’s answer to Isaiah’s question is “us”! We know the thoughts of God because his Spirit lives within us. (If you read the whole chapter you will see that this is what is communicating.)

As another example, in the following passage the author of Numbers says it was God who sent snakes to bite and kill people.

“And the people spoke against God and against Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.’ So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:5-6).

But Paul, referring to this story, reinterprets it:

“Nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer” (1 Corinthians 10:9-10).

Paul attributes the destruction not to God but to the destroyer, i.e. Satan.

(Some have tried to argue that the “destroyer” refers to God, but I couldn’t find a single example of this in the scriptures. “Destroyer” most often refers to nations that bring destruction and sometimes, as in this case, to demonic forces or Satan himself. As Jesus said, the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but Jesus came to bring life, and God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. For a similar confusion by another OT author on attribution of events to God and Satan, see the parallel stories in 1 Chronicles 21 and 2 Samuel 24. David is incited to take a census of Israel and Judah, and then later says that by doing this he had sinned against God. In 2 Samuel it says that God incited David to commit this sin, whereas in 1 Chronicles it says that Satan incited David to commit this sin. How do we determine which was right? We must discern in light of who we know God to be as perfectly revealed through Jesus. Yet passages such as these, where there are explicit contradictions, are not the only ones that should be discerned. Even if there is no passage that directly says something counter to what is written in another passage like the examples given, the author may still be wrong, especially OT authors who lacked a revelation of the person of Christ.)

the-gentile-believers

4. The OT is often quoted to Jews but hardly ever to Gentiles. 

Paul quotes a lot in letters to Jewish churches (Romans, Hebrews) or churches dealing with Jewish infiltrators (Galatians), but hardly or never to Gentile churches (never in Colossians and Thessalonians). Peter quotes a lot (written mainly to Jewish Christians in Asia Minor), James a little, John never. Jude quotes two extrabiblical writings (the Assumption of Moses and the Prophecy of Enoch) but none from the OT. Revelation has some quotes. Matthew quotes the OT to show its fulfillment in Jesus, just as Jesus said it did. Mark and Luke do so too, but a lot less, and John hardly does so.

Jesus quoted the OT extensively to the Pharisees who knew it thoroughly, but hardly when teaching his disciples and the crowds, who were less familiar. Peter, Stephen, and Paul quote extensively when preaching to Jews in Acts in order to show that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Paul also shared the gospel with the Gentiles, but not through expounding the OT as with the Jews. Instead, he quotes their own poets and philosophers, reasons with them, preaches the “word of the Lord,” and demonstrates the reality of the good news through signs and wonders.

Overall, what we see is that the OT was mainly quoted to the Jews (who knew it) and it was considered much less significant for the Gentiles (who did not know it). The OT was used more as an instrument to reveal truth through convincing, not to discover truth through interpreting. (This explains when and where Paul and Jesus quote the most – usually after making some claim and then supporting it with some OT passage.)

5. The OT is never given as suggested reading to Gentiles.

Paul recognized that the OT possessed value primarily for the Jews because they were familiar with it. He never tried to push the OT on Gentiles who had no clue about Judaism and all its concepts, such as the Covenant, the Messiah, the Law, OT characters and stories. Instead, Paul spoke to them according to what they knew by quoting their poets and philosophers, talking about statues in their city, reasoning with them, etc.

“For in him we live, and move, and have our being [Cretan philosopher Epimenides]; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring [Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus]” (Acts 17:28).

“Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners [Greek poet Menander]” (1 Corinthians 15:33).

“One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies [Cretan philosopher Epimenides]” (Titus 1:12).

Today it is common for bibles to be given to unbelievers or new believers because it is thought that if they would just read the scriptures they would come to know God and become better people. But sometimes reading bibles do a person more harm than good. Reading them will not necessarily lead you to believe the truth. One reason for this is because people lack an understanding of the historical, sociological, and cultural backgrounds of the writings. Another is a lack of relationship with Holy Spirit. It is possible that reading the scriptures will create lies in peoples’ minds more than reveal truth.

The Jews took the OT as their basis for truth, so Paul used it extensively to convince them about Jesus. For most people the scriptures are not a basis for truth. In other words, they have not chosen to be immediately convinced by whatever is written. For such people, use whatever they trust in to convince them about Jesus (as Paul did). God is everywhere and in everything; he is not confined to a book, nor does he need a book to be demonstrated.

We never see the early church encouraging Gentiles to study the OT. They considered Holy Spirit, not the OT, to be the number one way God spoke to them. They also didn’t make any efforts to convince the Gentiles to believe doctrines about the OT such as its inspiration, inerrancy/infallibility, or authority. This brings into question whether the NT authors believed such things themselves.

Some people have failed to enter into a relationship with Jesus because they were made to think that if they wanted to “become a christian” they had to believe the inspiration, inerrancy/infallibility, and authority of the bible as well. They were thus prevented from encountering Christ by a matter of doctrine for which they had legitimate reasons for not accepting.

Truth is a person. Jesus is our basis, our foundation. Truth is personal and relational, not factual and intellectual. People must be convinced of who Jesus is through relationship with him, not studying a book about him.

*****

Also see:

How Paul Wrestled with Violent Passages in the Hebrew Bible: http://files.therebelgod.com/Paul-n-OTviolence.pdf

A table of all quotes in the bible: http://www.kalvesmaki.com/LXX/NTChart.htm

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6 thoughts on “Quoting and Referencing the OT in the NT

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