Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament/ Introduction
From Gospel Translations
By D.A. Carson
About New Testament Studies
Part of the series Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
It might be the part of wisdom to say what this book is not, so as to clarify what it is and how it works.
Nowhere does this volume survey contemporary debates over the use of the OT in the NT. The many subdisciplines that contribute to this enterprise have not been canvassed. For example, we do not systematically compare non-Christian Jewish exegetical methods with the exegetical methods on display in the NT. We do not review the ongoing debate between (a) those who argue that the NT writers usually respect the entire context of the OT texts they cite or to which they allude and (b) those who argue that the NT writers engage in a kind of “prooftexting” that takes OT passages out of their contexts so as to “prove” conclusions that belong to the commitments of NT Christians but not to the antecedent Scriptures they cite. We have not summarized the extraordinarily complex developments in the field of typology since Leonhard Goppelt wrote his 1939 book Typos. We could easily lengthen this list of important topics that have not been systematically addressed in this book.
One of the reasons we have not surveyed these topics is that all of them have been treated elsewhere. Though it might be useful to canvass them again, we decided that it was more urgent to put together a book in which all the contributors would be informed by such discussions but would focus their attention on the places where NT writers actually cite or allude to the OT. Understandably, even elegant discussions of one of the subdisciplines, discussions one finds in other works—comparisons between Jewish and Christian exegetical techniques, for instance, or studies in typology—inevitably utilize only a small percentage of the actual textual evidence. By contrast, what we have attempted is a reasonably comprehensive survey of all the textual evidence. Even a casual reader of this volume will quickly learn that each contributor brings to bear many of the contemporary studies as he works his way through his assigned corpus, so along the way many of the contributors make shrewd comments on particular techniques and hermeneutical discussions. Accordingly, contributors have been given liberty to determine how much introductory material to include (i.e., prior discussions of the use of the OT in their particular NT book). Nevertheless, the focus of each contributor is on the NT’s use of the OT. All OT citations in the NT are analyzed as well as all probable allusions. Admittedly there is debate about what constitutes an allusion. Consequently not every ostensible OT allusion that has ever been proposed will be studied but only those deemed to be probable allusions.
The editors have encouraged each contributor to keep in mind six separate questions where the NT cites or clearly alludes to the OT (though they have not insisted on this organization).
1. What is the NT context of the citation or allusion? In other words, without (yet) going into the details of the exegesis, the contributor seeks to establish the topic of discussion, the flow of thought, and, where relevant, the literary structure, genre, and rhetoric of the passage.
2. What is the OT context from which the quotation or allusion is drawn? Even at its simplest, this question demands as much care with respect to the OT as the first question demands of the study of the NT. Sometimes energy must be expended simply to demonstrate that a very brief phrase really does come from a particular OT passage, and from nowhere else. Yet sometimes this second question becomes even more complex. Under the assumption that Mark’s Gospel picks up exodus themes (itself a disputed point), is it enough to go to the book of Exodus to examine those themes as they first unfold? Or are such OT exodus themes, as picked up by Mark, filtered through Isaiah? In that case, surely it is important to include reflection not only on the use of the OT in the NT but also on the use of the OT within the OT. Or again, how does the Genesis flood account (Gen. 6–9) get utilized in the rest of the OT and in earlier parts of the NT before it is picked up by 2 Peter? Sometimes a NT author may have in mind the earlier OT reference but may be interpreting it through the later OT development of that earlier text, and if the lens of that later text is not analyzed, then the NT use may seem strange or may not properly be understood.
3. How is the OT quotation or source handled in the literature of Second Temple Judaism or (more broadly yet) of early Judaism? The reasons for asking this question and the possible answers that might be advanced are many. It is not that either Jewish or Christian authorities judge, say, Jubilees or 4 Ezra to be as authoritative as Genesis or Isaiah. But attentiveness to these and many other important Jewish sources may provide several different kinds of help. (1) They may show us how the OT texts were understood by sources roughly contemporaneous with the NT. In a few cases, a trajectory of understanding can be traced out, whether the NT documents belong to that trajectory or not. (2) They sometimes show that Jewish authorities were themselves divided as to how certain OT passages should be interpreted. Sometimes the difference is determined in part by literary genre: Wisdom literature does not handle some themes the way apocalyptic sources do, for instance. Wherever it is possible to trace out the reasoning, that reasoning reveals important insights into how the Scriptures were being read. (3) In some instances, the readings of early Judaism provide a foil for early Christian readings. The differences then demand hermeneutical and exegetical explanations; for instance, if two groups understand the same texts in decidedly different ways, what accounts for the differences in interpretation? Exegetical technique? Hermeneutical assumptions? Literary genres? Different opponents? Differing pastoral responsibilities? (4) Even where there is no direct literary dependence, sometimes the language of early Judaism provides close parallels to the language of the NT writers simply because of the chronological and cultural proximity. (5) In a handful of cases, NT writers apparently display direct dependence on sources belonging to early Judaism and their handling of the OT (e.g., Jude). What is to be inferred from such dependence?
4. What textual factors must be borne in mind as one seeks to understand a particular use of the OT? Is the NT citing the MT or the LXX or a Targum? Or is there a mixed citation, or perhaps dependence on memory or on some form of text that has not come down to us? Is there significance in tiny changes? Are there textual variants within the Hebrew tradition, within the tradition of the Greek OT, or within the Greek NT textual tradition? Do such variants have any direct bearing on our understanding of how the NT is citing or alluding to the OT?
5. Once this groundwork has been laid, it becomes important to try to understand how the NT is using or appealing to the OT. What is the nature of the connection as the NT writer sees it? Is this merely a connection of language? One of the editors had a father who was much given to communicating in brief biblical quotations. His mind was so steeped in Scripture that Scripture provided the linguistic patterns that were the first recourse of his speech. If one of his children was complaining about the weather, he would quietly say (quoting, in those days, the KJV), “This is the day the L78; hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” In fact, he knew his Bible well enough that he was fully aware that the original context was not talking about the weather and our response to it. He knew that the verse occurs in one of the crucial “rejected stone” passages, and the “day” over which the psalmist rejoices is the day when the “stone” is vindicated (Ps. 118:22–24; note v. 24 in the TNIV: “The L78; has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.”). Nevertheless the passage provided the verbal fodder for him to express what he wanted to say, and granted what the Bible does actually say elsewhere about God’s goodness and providence, he was accurately summarizing a biblical idea even though the biblical words he was citing did not, in their original context, articulate that idea. Are there instances, then, when the NT writers use biblical language simply because their minds are so steeped in Scripture that such verbal patterns provide the linguistic frameworks in which they think?
On the other hand, are there occasions when a NT writer uses an expression that crops up in many OT passages (such as, say, “day of the L78;,” especially common in the prophets), not thinking of any one OT text but nevertheless using the expression to reflect the rich mix of promised blessing and promised judgment that characterizes the particular instantiations of the OT occurrences? In this case, the NT writer may be very faithful to OT usage at the generic level, even while not thinking of any particular passage, that is, individual OT occurrences may envisage particular visitations by God, while the generic pattern combines judgment and blessing, and the NT use may pick up on the generic pattern while applying it to yet another visitation by God.
Alternatively, NT writers may be establishing some sort of analogy in order to draw a moral lesson. Just as the ancient Israelites were saved out of slavery in Egypt but most of the adult generation did not make it into the promised land because they did not persevere in faith and obedience, so believers contemporary with Paul and with the writer to the Hebrews need to persevere if they are to be saved at the last (1 Cor. 10:1–13; Heb. 3:7–19). But when is such a formal analogy better thought of as a typology, that is, a pattern established by a succession of similar events over time?
Or again, is the NT writer claiming that some event or other is the fulfillment of an OT prophecy—a bold “this is what was spoken by the prophet” (e.g., Acts 2:16) sort of declaration? Soon, however, it becomes clear that the “fulfillment” category is remarkably flexible. An event may “fulfill” a specific verbal prediction, but in biblical usage an event may be said to “fulfill” not only a verbal prediction but also another event or, at least, a pattern of events. This is commonly labeled typological fulfillment. In that case, of course, a further question arises. Are the NT writers coming to their conclusion that this fulfillment has taken place to fulfill antecedent events simply out of their confidence in the sovereign God’s ordering of all things, such that he has established patterns that, rightly read, anticipate a recurrence of God’s actions? Or are they claiming, in some instances, that the OT texts themselves point forward in some way to the future?
More generally, do the NT writers appeal to the OT using exactly the same sorts of exegetical techniques and hermeneutical assumptions that their unconverted Jewish contemporaries display—one or more of the classic lists of middoth, the “rules” of interpretive procedure? The most common answer to this question is a decided “Yes,” but the affirmation fails to explain why the two sets of interpreters emerge with some very different readings. One must conclude that either the exegetical techniques and hermeneutical assumptions do not determine very much after all or else that there are additional factors that need careful probing if we are to explain why, say, Hillel and Paul read the Hebrew Scriptures (or their Greek translations) so differently.
6. To what theological use does the NT writer put the OT quotation or allusion? In one sense, this question is wrapped up in all the others, but it is worth asking separately as it highlights things that may otherwise be overlooked. For instance, it is very common for NT writers to apply an OT passage that refers to YHWH (commonly rendered “L78;” in English Bibles) to Jesus. This arises from the theological conviction that it is entirely appropriate to do so since, granted Jesus’ identity, what is predicated of God can be predicated no less of him. In other passages, however, God sends the Messiah or the Davidic king, and Jesus himself is that Davidic king, thus establishing a distinction between God and Jesus. The subtleties of these diverse uses of OT texts meld with the complexities of NT Christology to constitute the essential building blocks of what would in time come to be called the doctrine of the Trinity. Other theological alignments abound, a few of which are mentioned below. Sometimes, more simply, it is worth drawing attention to the way a theological theme grounded in the citation of an OT text is aligned with a major theological theme in the NT that is treated on its own without reference to any OT text.
These, then, are the six questions that largely control the commentary in the following pages. Most of the contributors have handled these questions separately for each quotation and for the clearest allusions. Less obvious allusions have sometimes been treated in more generic discussions, though even here the answers to these six questions usually surface somewhere. Moreover, the editors have allowed adequate flexibility in presentation. Two or three contributors wrote in more discursive fashion, meaning they kept these questions in mind, but their presentations did not separate the questions and the answers they called forth.
Five further reflections may help to orientate the reader to this commentary.
First, one of the reasons for maintaining flexibility in approach is the astonishing variety of ways in which the various NT authors make reference to the OT. Matthew, for instance, is given to explicit quotations, sometimes with impressive formulaic introductions. By contrast, Colossians and Revelation avoid unambiguous and extensive citations but pack many, many OT allusions into their texts. Some NT writers return again and again to a handful of OT chapters; others make more expansive references. To this must be added the complications generated by NT books that are literarily dependent on other NT books or are, at very least, very similar to others (e.g., 2 Peter and Jude, the Synoptic Gospels, Ephesians and Colossians). The contributors have handled such diversity in a variety of ways.
Second, in addition to the obvious ease with which NT writers (as we have seen) apply to Jesus a variety of OT texts that refer to YHWH, so also a number of other associations that are initially startling become commonplace with repetition. NT writers happily apply to the church, that is, to the new covenant people of God, many texts that originally referred to the Israelites, the old covenant people of God. In another mutation, Jesus himself becomes the eschatological locus of Israel—an identification sometimes effected by appealing to OT texts (e.g., “Out of Egypt I called my son,” Matt. 2:15; Hos. 11:1) and sometimes by symbol-laden events in Jesus’ life that call to mind antecedent events in the life of Israel, for example, Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, Matt. 4/Luke 4, closely connected with Deut. 8 and the forty years of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. This example overlaps with another pregnant set of associations bound up with the “son” language that abounds in both Testaments. In fact, it is likely because of conceiving Jesus as representing true Israel that NT writers began to conceive of the church this way as well, since Christ corporately represents the church, and what he is in so many ways is likewise true of the church.
Third, one of the distinctive differences one sometimes finds between the way NT writers read the OT and the way that their non-Christian Jewish contemporaries read it is the salvation-historical grid that is often adopted by the former. Some kind of historical sequence under the providence of a sovereign God is necessary for almost any kind of typological hermeneutic, of course, but there is something more. In Galatians 3, for instance, Paul modifies the commonly accepted significance of the law by the simple expedient of locating it after the Abrahamic promise, which had already established the importance of justification by faith and which had already promised blessing to the Gentiles. Thus instead of asking an atemporal question such as, “How does one please God?” and replying, “By obeying the law,” Paul instead insists on reading the turning points of OT history in their chronological sequence and learning some interpretive lessons from that sequence. That sort of dependence on salvation history surfaces elsewhere in the NT (e.g., Rom. 4), and not only in Paul (e.g., Heb. 4:1–13; 7). Thus, eschatological fulfillment has begun with Christ’s first advent and will be consummated at his last coming. Ostensible parallels in Jewish literature preserve (especially at @umran) a sense of what might be called “inaugurated eschatology” (several texts insist that the Teacher of Righteousness brings in the last times), but that is something differentiable from this sense of historical sequencing within the Hebrew Scriptures being itself a crucial interpretive key to the faithful reading of those Scriptures.
Fourth, here and there within the pages of this commentary one finds brief discussion as to whether a NT writer is drawing out a teaching from the OT—i.e., basing the structure of his thought on the exegesis of the OT text—or appealing to an OT passage to confirm or justify what has in fact been established by the Christian’s experience of Christ and his death and resurrection. This distinction is a more nuanced one than what was mentioned earlier, viz., the distinction between those who think that the citations bring with them the OT context and those who think that the NT writers resort to prooftexting. For the evidence is really quite striking that the first disciples are not presented as those who instantly understood what the Lord Jesus was teaching them or as those who even anticipated all that he would say because of their own insightful interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures. To the contrary, they are constantly presented as, on the one hand, being attached to Jesus yet, on the other, being very slow to come to terms with the fact that the promised messianic king would also be the Suffering Servant, the atoning lamb of God, that he would be crucified, rejected by so many of his own people, and would rise again utterly vindicated by God. Nevertheless, once they have come to accept this synthesis, they also insist, in the strongest terms, that this is what the OT Scriptures actually teach. They do not say, in effect, “Oh, if only you could experience Jesus Christ the way we do, you would then enjoy a different set of lenses that would enable you to read the Bible differently.” Rather, they keep trying to prove from the Scriptures themselves that this Jesus of Nazareth really does fulfill the ancient texts even while they are forced to acknowledge that they themselves did not read the biblical texts this way until after the resurrection, Pentecost, and the gradual increase in understanding that came to them, however mediated by the Spirit, as the result of the expansion of the church, not least in Gentile circles. This tension between what they insist is actually there in the Scriptures and what they are forced to admit they did not see until fairly late in their experience forces them to think about the concept of “mystery”—revelation that is in some sense “there” in the Scriptures but hidden until the time of God-appointed disclosure.
In other words, the same gospel that is sometimes presented as that which has been prophesied and is now fulfilled is at other times presented as that which has been hidden and is now revealed. This running tension is a lot more common in the NT than might be indicated by the small number—twenty-seven or twenty-eight—of occurrences of the Greek word mystērion. Galatians and John, for example, are replete with the theological notion of “mystery” without the word “mystery” being present. Transparently, this complex issue is tightly bound up with the ways in which the NT writers actually quote or allude to the OT—in particular, what they think they are proving or establishing or confirming. Nowhere is there a hint that these writers are trying to diminish the authority of what we now refer to as the OT Scriptures. After a while the alert reader starts stumbling over many instances of this complex phenomenon and tries to synthesize the various pieces. A favorite illustration of some in explaining this phenomenon is the picture of a seed. An apple seed contains everything that will organically grow from it. No examination by the naked eye can distinguish what will grow from the seed, but once the seed has grown into the full apple tree, the eye can then see how the seed has been “fulfilled.” It is something like that with the way OT passages are developed in the NT. There are “organic links” to one degree or another, but those links may not have been clearly discernible to the eye of the OT author or reader. Accordingly, there is sometimes a creative development or extension of the meaning of the OT text that is still in some way anchored to that text. But it would take another sort of book to gather all the exegetical evidence gathered in this commentary and whip it into the kind of biblical-theological shape that might address these sorts of questions more acutely.
Fifth, contributors have been encouraged to deploy an eclectic grammatical-historical literary method in their attempts to relate the NT’s reading of the OT. But it would not be amiss to point out (1) that such an approach is fairly “traditional” or “classical”; (2) that such an approach overlaps substantially with some recent postcritical methods that tend to read OT books as whole literary units and that take seriously such concepts as canon, Scripture, and salvation history (concepts that would not be entirely alien to the authors of the NT), though it allows for more extratextual referentiality than do most postcritical methods; and (3) that we sometimes need reminding that the NT authors would not have understood the OT in terms of any of the dominant historical-critical orthodoxies of the last century and a half.
Without further reflection, then, we devote this commentary to the study of the NT text as it quotes and alludes to the OT text.