How Jesus and the apostles interpreted the Old Testament


This is the fourth in a series of posts on Understanding the Bible in the 21st century. We have seen that the Bible doesn’t claim as much for itself as some christians do.

Now I test these conclusions by examining how Jesus and his apostles treated their Bible – our Old Testament.

Non-literal interpretations

In a previous post (Interpreting the Old Testament) I pointed out that Jesus and his apostles don’t always quote the Old Testament precisely and apply it literally. As often as not, they draw meanings out of passages that were not in the original, and seem to our literal western minds to be quite fanciful at times.

Some examples

  • In Luke 4:18 Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, but omits a couple of phrases and inserts one from Isaiah 58.
  • At the last supper (Mark 14:27), Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7, but changes the words from “strike down the shepherds and draw out the sheep” to “I will strike down the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered”. This appears to change the meaning.
  • When Paul quotes Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8, he changes the wording from “you took many captives; you received gifts from people” to “he took many captives and gave gifts to his people” Again the meaning is thereby changed from God receiving gifts to giving them.
  • Matthew 27:9-10 quotes Zechariah 11:12 (but ascribes it to Jeremiah), which mentions 30 pieces of silver as part of a narrative, and turns it into a prophecy of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus – this is a significant change in the original meaning.

What does this tell us?

None of these, and the many other examples, are all that shocking, but they do suggest that:

  1. Jesus and the apostles were not concerned to use the exact words of the Old Testament. One can conclude that either they didn’t think the exact words were given by God, or they felt free to change the words given by God.
  2. Likewise, they felt quite free to re-interpret or change the meaning of some Old Testament passages if it suited their purpose.
  3. Interpreting literally and in context, which are very important to us today, was not always necessary.

Therefore 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.


5. The Bible as story

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  1. It is the direct literal interpretations that I have the most criticism of… this is not to say that direct literal interpretations aren’t proper (“Do not murder” seems pretty safe to take literally) but there must be some serious discernment in making such distinctions.
    One thing about Jesus and Paul (and, perhaps, even some of the other apostles) is that they were steeped, not just in the OT books that we have but the Talmud and oral traditions of Judaism which are like our Christian commentaries on steroids. We cannot divorce the OT texts we have from the Jewish understandings. Nor can we remove them from the context, both at the time they were written as well as in the context of the readers of Jesus’ time. They were written to a people for a time in a place and so those must be taken into consideration when discerning God’s truth.

  2. As you know, these are some of the reasons that I don’t think the Bible is inspired at all. Nevertheless, I appreciate your willingness to address these issues directly and not make excuses for them. It’s not the approach that most Christians I know would take, and frankly, I find it refreshing. I’m glad you’re doing this series, and I look forward to reading more of your perspective.

  3. Another thing to keep in mind when comparing NT citations of OT passages is that sometimes the NT writer/speaker is using the Septuagint, as in Acts 8 when Philip offers to help the Ethiopian official understand the prophecy in Isaiah.

  4. Thanks for your comments guys.
    Nate, I don’t have any problem dealing with these issues, because I am happy to go where the evidence leads. I have been thinking about these ideas for many years now. A lot depends on what “inspiration”, or “God-breathed” means. The experts aren’t really sure, so I can easily accept that it may mean that the Holy Spirit gives inspiration as we read (see What does the Bible say about itself?). But even on the other meaning (that God breathed the words out), I don’t think we can necessarily infer that it is inerrant – after all, God created people and we are far from perfect. Conversely, I don’t this matter of quotation necessarily implies that the Bible is not inerrant, though I think it suggests this.
    Tim, yes this is true. There are actually three OT texts Jesus could have quoted from (Hebrew, Septuagint and Aramaic), but the examples I gave are when the wording doesn’t follow any of them.

  5. Thank you for breaking this down for me. I have been mulling this over for quite some time. I consider myself a Christian but often wonder how much of the bible is too be taken literally and how much should be considered as fable.

  6. Hi Jared, I’m glad you found this helpful. Of course we can’t be certain exactly how much is literal and how much legendary, but I find it helpful to have both possibilities in mind when reading the Old Testament.

    You may find it helpful to read Reconstructing how we see the Bible.

    Is there anything you’d like to discuss?

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