Interpreting the Old Testament

A long time ago I noticed that when Jesus and the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament, they did not always do it literally or accurately, but often used translations and interpretations that did not seem to be present in the original.

I felt this was an important fact, so I researched the matter (the way to learn new truths is to examine difficult facts).

What I found

I analysed all the Old Testament references in the 4 gospels plus Acts and Romans (using only English translations). And I found that while about half quoted the Old Testament passage accurately and in context, about half did not. Some just changed a few words, but some changed a lot, or changed the meaning, or quoted out of context.

But while this pattern was clear, I didn’t really understand what was going on.

Enter Richard Longenecker

Then I discovered the book ‘Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period‘ by Canadian professor of New Testament Richard Longenecker, which examines this very question.

Book cover

Longenecker identifies four different style of interpretation used by Jesus and the New Testament writers:

  • Literal – the plain meaning of the text, more or less as a western scientific person would understand it;
  • Midrash – based on Jewish rabbinical rules of interpretation, and some subsequent christian emphases, that can lead to meanings that extrapolate way beyond the literal – for example, by linking passages on apparently quite different themes, because they contain the same word;
  • Pesher – understanding and interpreting the Old Testament passage in the light of later events, particularly finding messianic meanings where none were previously obvious, or even intended by the writer (though doubtless intended by God);
  • Allegorical – the passage is interpreted via symbolism.

Significantly, literal interpretation is not the most common approach in the New Testament. Jesus most commonly used Pesher analysis as he interpreted the Old Testament in non-literal ways based on his understanding of himself as the Jewish Messiah. Paul most commonly used Midrashic interpretation (perhaps because of his background as a Pharisee).

What does this mean for us?

This shouldn’t trouble us. We can well believe that Jesus had authority to re-interpret the Old Testament and choose between alternate translations, versions and understandings of the text as suited his purpose, and it appears the early christians who wrote the New Testament believed the Holy Spirit working through them could do the same.

But it does mean we have to be careful when we insist on literal interpretations in every situation. God’s truths can be conveyed through non-literal understandings – perhaps sometimes they can best or only be conveyed that way.

We need to pray for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to be given to the whole of God’s family, to enable us to understand the way he wants us to interpret the Bible and apply it in our lives.

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  1. Of course working in English creates some extra problems in comparing texts. Sometimes the NT appears to quote a translation of the Hebrew OT, whereas other times it quotes the Septuagint, the Greek OT in common use by the first century – and of course, the translations differ. But Longenecker is working from the original languages, so avoids these difficulties, and gets to the more substantial differences.

  2. There are three confirmed text families of the Hebrew Bible that were found in Qumran:
    the proto-Masoretic tradition, which was the strain that spawned the Masoretic texts on which the Hebrew Bible is based;
    the proto-Septuagint (or proto-LXX), which is the strain that spawned the Greek Septuagint;
    the proto-Samaritan texts, which became the basis of the Samaritan Bible.
    It seems these different families coexisted for quite a while.

  3. Forgot to make a point about that. 😛
    Anyway, there were differences in content between those traditions, often consistent differences in how something would be phrased but aside that rather similar, but also cases of some traditions having a longer version of a story.
    So yes, perhaps as you suggested some variations of the wordings you encountered were due to the fact that a different tradition was cited than the Masoretic tradition, which is the standard text for most Bible translations of the OT (and virtually all Protestant translations, whether direct or indirect).
    Did Longenecker also mention from what tradition a quote in the NT seemed to be derived?

  4. “Did Longenecker also mention from what tradition a quote in the NT seemed to be derived?”
    My recollection is that he addressed this question whenever it seemed pertinent in the discussion of a specific passage.

  5. I don’t see it as “proof texting”. Rather I think that (1) Jesus was bringing a new revelation that revised and added to the old revelation so I’d expect him to reinterpret many things, and (2) I think the ancient Jews had a more fluid concept of truth than we often do – truth isn’t always literal and factual, but may be expressed in many creative and sometimes non-literal ways.
    For example, if a significant event occurs, it is possible to describe the external details perfectly factually and never give the hearer any idea of the significance or meaning of the event. It may also be possible to explain less of the factual detail and more of the meaning, and give a better idea. This is important, for example, in interpreting the gospels, because arguably the synoptic gospels tell more facts and less meaning, whereas John gives more meaning but less factual information.

  6. Too unkleE
    I wouldn’t describe as a new revelation, I would prefer to think of it as Jesus fulfilling the law. After all that whats the bible says.
    However in saying ” truth isn’t always literal and factual, but may be expressed in many creative and sometimes non-literal ways.”
    U almost make it sound as truth may be relative and subject to interpretation. Then would you say truth is relative to the perception of the observer?

  7. G’day tbr, thanks for your comment.
    I wouldn’t see much difference between ‘new revelation’ and ‘fulfilling the law’, provided we understand fulfilling to mean (as I believe it does) ‘bring to completion’ or even ‘bring to a successful end’. There are plenty of example of Jesus or the Holy Spirit taking faith in a very new direction:
    * “You’ve heard it said … but I say …” (Jesus)
    *Jesus forgave people without any need for them to go to the temple and sacrifice
    * the Holy Spirit’s teaching to Peter about Cornelius, a gentile
    * “love your enemies” is a long way on from the OT
    * no longer law but Spirit (Jesus and Paul)
    I think sometimes truth is relative and sometimes it isn’t. For example, in the NT we no longer serve in the way of the written law, but in the way of the Spirit (Romans 7:6, 2 Corinthians 3:6). Paul says that to act without faith is sin (Romans 14:23). So there will be some actions that will be right for one person in one situation but wrong for another in another situation. That makes ethics in many ways relative (relative is not necessarily a dirty word – the Son is making us free!). But of course other truthful things are factual and objective – e.g. Jesus died and rose again, etc.
    But that wasn’t what I was getting at in the sentence you quoted. What I meant was this. No-one thinks the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Pharisee & the Tax Collector, etc, are actual events, they are just stories (that’s what parables are) but few would deny that they convey deep truths. In the OT, many believe Genesis 1-11, Jonah & Job are not actual events, but again, they wouldn’t deny they teach truths.
    I think modern western evangelical christianity has invented a few of its own shibboleths that are not always based on the NT – and pedantic literalism, legalism and a suspicion of relativism are among them. (I’m not suggesting you have these characteristics, but I think you may have come across those who have.) We need to read the NT with new eyes!

  8. […] led him to re-examine the way we interpret the Bible, and he found (as I have also done – see Interpreting the Old Testament) that Jesus and the apostles were freer in their interpretation of the Old Testament than […]

  9. Hi Wesley,
    I found the book very helpful, but very detailed, and a friend found that a little too much. If you wanted to go a slightly easier route, you might try Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation which covers some of the same territory more briefly, but if you want the detail then it is very comprehensive.

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