The N.T. writers really complicated the situation!

I want to get back to some of my musings on inspiration, canon, and how we view the biblical text. I find one complicating factor in all of this the way in which the New Testament writers used the Old Testament. They violate most of the principles of biblical interpretation that I use.

  • The New Testament writers seem to value the words of the Old Testament above the intention of the original author. Take Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:16 for example:

    Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

    Frankly, if anyone tried to use that reasoning in a discussion with me, I’d merely laugh away their argument. Look at the promise from the book of Genesis:

    “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.” (Genesis 13:16)

    In context, it’s obvious that offspring is meant to refer to Abraham’s descendants. But Paul could ignore the original meaning and focus on the wording itself.

  • The New Testament writers paid little attention to context. Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) to refer to Joseph and Mary taking Jesus from Egypt to Nazareth ignores the fact that Hosea is referring back to the exodus from Egypt, not forward.
  • The New Testament writers freely spiritualized Old Testament passages. When Paul talks about the Israelites drinking water in the wilderness, he says, “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:4) There’s nothing in the Old Testament accounts that suggests that there was a single rock that followed them in the wilderness, nor that the rock was anything more than an actual rock.
  • The New Testament writers sometimes made points based off one translation of the text that couldn’t be made using other translations. There are myriad occasions in which the version quoted is the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, while the Hebrew version says something quite different. (A good listing can be found on this page, though it’s presented in a slightly argumentative way)

My solution has been to say that the New Testament writers were inspired in a way that I’m not, so they could do things with the text that I can’t. But that doesn’t keep these things from complicating how we view inspiration.

3 thoughts on “The N.T. writers really complicated the situation!

  1. Nick Gill

    Hmm… I’m not sure.

    — We know that “the promises” as they appear in Gen 13, et al, are not to ALL of Abraham’s “offsprings” so the ancient context is already self-limited – Paul’s argument seems to go along with that idea of the promises being limited to Isaac and taking it to its conclusion that the Christ is the ultimate recipient of the promises.

    — What if Matthew takes theological context as seriously as historical context? I don’t think Matthew is suggesting that Hosea wrote that with a forward-looking purpose, so much as he’s saying (a la Jesus to the disciples two different times in Luke 24), “Look at another part of the story of Israel that Jesus re-enacted! He is the representative Israelite because look at how many things Israel went through that Jesus too went through!”

    — The spiritual Rock has always intrigued me too, but I don’t think what Paul does in 1 Cor 10 is a “this is what REALLY happened” kind of statement that invalidates the historical writing. Yes, Moses struck the rock, and it became a source of life for the people. The leaders of Israel struck the Christ, and he became a source of life for all peoples. It’s seeing parallels, I think, rather than replacing one meaning with another.

    — The one about the Septuagint is so interesting, because we know that they believed that that was inspired translation. I don’t have any answers for that, except to say that perhaps we don’t take the Septuagint as seriously as we should? Again, not in a replacing way, but in a “this was THE Bible of the New Testament audience” way.

  2. Tim Archer Post author


    • What I’m saying about “offspring” is that the verse in Genesis 13 talks about the offspring being uncountable; because of that, we know that the word doesn’t refer to just one person. Yet Paul makes that argument. I think he had a right to do so, but I don’t feel comfortable analyzing the words of the Bible that way to make arguments.
    • Matthew’s statement is “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”” (Matthew 2:15). He doesn’t say “this was like that.” He says it was the fulfillment of that prophecy.
    • In “How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth,” the authors argue that Paul is saying metaphorically that Jesus was the Rock, which I think is basically what you are saying. I’m still not ready to spiritualize the Old Testament in that way (a la Jule Miller filmstrips).
    • In some way, both the Septuagint and the Hebrew text came to be “Scripture.” It’s interesting to me that the writers could make arguments based on the Septuagint that were impossible to make based on the Hebrew text. Reminds me of some of the KJV-based reasoning that doesn’t work with other versions.

    Much is solved by what I have heard called “double fulfillment,” where an Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled in its original setting and again at a later time. Makes me wonder if should expect the same with some of the prophecies concerning the fall of Jerusalem, for example.

  3. Nick Gill

    Totally agree with your discomfort with that kind of word analysis :)

    On Matthew and Hosea and Jesus, though: I think spots like this help us define what is meant by fulfillment. It doesn’t matter what *I* think fulfillment should mean or what Mr Vine says most Greek speakers meant by it – it matters how Matthew defines it and we learn that by how he uses it. And it seems to include a sense where the Christ fulfills what was written BY experiencing what was written about the life of Israel:
    — being called out of Egypt
    — wandering in the wilderness
    — passing through the waters of the River Jordan and entering the Promised Land as God’s Anointed
    — suffering like one of the anointed prophets

    So of course, “Out of Egypt I called my son” is about Israel. But the King is Israel. The Christ is the people.

    So yes – I think multiple fulfillment is much more effective at drawing meaning from the text than the either/or method that gets applied to the “fall of Jerusalem” texts.

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