Did New Testament Writers Misquote the Old Testament?
Did New Testament writers rip Old Testament texts out of their context just to suit some Jesus is Messiah campaign?
by Paul Copan
You are probably familiar with books such as All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible.1 They list hundreds of Old Testament “prophecies” and their New Testament “fulfillments.” But when we look more closely, we are disappointed because many of them do not seem to predict that Jesus is the Messiah of Nazareth. No wonder many charge that New Testament writers unfairly mined or sloppily plundered the Old Testament for prooftexts to demonstrate Jesus is the Messiah. These critics believe New Testament authors make these texts say something Old Testament authors never intended; in fact, some charge that New Testament writers even fabricated stories such as the Virgin Birth.
So what is going on? Did New Testament writers really rip Old Testament texts out of their context just to suit some Jesus-is-Messiah campaign? As we will see, this just is not so.
First, Two Examples
Let’s look at two sample passages. First, Matthew 2:15 cites Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Anyone looking at the original context can see Hosea is referring to Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt. Indeed, “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). The prophet was not making a future prediction of Jesus’ departure from Egypt once Herod was no longer a threat.2
The second is Isaiah 7:14, which Matthew cited in 1:23. Around Christmas, we hear the sounds of Handel’s Messiah about a virgin conceiving, bearing a son, and calling him “Immanuel.” Isaiah predicted Mary and Jesus here, right? Well, it does not seem so when we look at the context of Isaiah 7:14, which clearly refers to an eighth-century B.C. setting. The prophet Isaiah is addressing Ahaz, king of Judah, who fears an invasion from the northern kingdom of Israel and its partner, Syria. God’s message to Ahaz is this “sign”: “A maiden will be with child [i.e., conceive] and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (author’s translation). Yet the context indicates the child will be born in Ahaz’s day — not hundreds of years later. Moreover, Ahaz would recognize this sign-child: “before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken” (7:16, NASB3).
Who, then, is this young woman of marriageable age? Some scholars believe she might be Isaiah’s wife: “I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived and bare a son” (8:3, KJV) — which sounds a lot like 7:14. His name is Maher-shalal-hash-baz (“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”). This son is a sign of God’s protective presence with the people of Judah and Jerusalem and is called “Immanuel” (“God with us”).4 So, “before the boy knows how to cry out ‘My mother’ or ‘My father’… the wealth of Damascus [Syria] and the spoil of Samaria [Israel] will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (8:4, NASB). God will extinguish the threat of these two kings through the Assyrian army. Earlier in Isaiah 7:3, we come across Isaiah’s first son, Shear-jashub (“a remnant will return”) — a reminder that exile will not finish off God’s people. Both of Isaiah’s children are “for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts” (8:18, NASB).
Guidelines for Understanding the Old Testament in the New
If Isaiah and Hosea were not predicting Jesus’ birth and departure from Egypt, then where is the fulfillment? How should we understand “prophecy” and “fulfillment” as New Testament Christians did? Let me offer a few guidelines for understanding the New Testament writers as they quote the Old Testament.
1. “Fulfillment” in the New Testament is much broader than “completion of a prediction”: This is key: Not all prophecy is predictive. Not every mention of “fulfillment” implies “completing a prediction.”The Greek verb “fulfill” (plēroō) means something much broader than this.5 In fact, most instances of the word “fulfill” do not imply prediction. When Jesus came to fulfill “all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44, NASB; cp. Matthew 5:17), He was bringing to fruition the significance of the entire Old Testament, much of which was not predictive — Adam (Jesus being the second Adam), sacrifices, the high priesthood, Jonah’s being in the fish’s belly for 3 days, and so on.6
2. New Testament writers saw Jesus living out Old Testament Israel’s story. This covers most of the passages they allegedly took out of context. How so? Whereas national Israel failed in faith and obedience to God, Jesus is the true Israelite who reenacted and faithfully lived out Israel’s story. God called His greater Son, Jesus, out of Egypt. In baptism, He reenacted Israel’s exodus from Egypt (cp. 1 Corinthians 10:1–4). Jesus, tested in the wilderness for 40 days and nights, proved obedient, unlike ethnic Israel. As Old Testament Israel consisted of 12 tribes, Jesus began a new community by choosing 12 apostles. On the cross, He took on the curse of exile, dying on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). Jesus’ bodily resurrection began a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) — a foretaste of the new heavens and earth when we will receive immortal resurrection bodies. Through this obedient Israelite, Jesus, (the Light of the World, a light to the nations), all the families of the earth now realize Abrahamic blessing, and Jews and Gentiles now comprise the people of God — the true Israel (Romans 2:28,29).
Jesus embodies and brings to completeness themes, persons, and theological pictures foreshadowed in the Old Testament: the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the Davidic kingship, the feast days, the Jubilee year, the Sabbath, Solomon’s wisdom, the sign of Jonah, and so much more.7 Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross (Matthew 27:46) was originally the cry of David, who felt abandoned and was himself mocked (Psalm 22:6–8). Psalm 22 mentions divided garments, casting lots for clothing, (verse 18), and pierced hands and feet (verse 16). These were not predictions of Jesus, but they reflect David’s experiences as a righteous sufferer. However, as one scholar puts it, it is not clear that David “would always have been aware of the ultimate significance of his language; but God could have so ordered his experiences and his recordings of them in Scripture that they become anticipatory of the sufferings of ‘David’s greater son.’ ”8
So when we read in Matthew, “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet,” Matthew means, “This was to bring to completion what was spoken by the prophet.” Fulfillment does not exclude prediction, but it presents a much broader, richer understanding. We should think more in terms offoreshadowing or prefiguring rather than predicting.9
We must more often than not think of fulfillment in terms of types or foreshadowings of things to come. What we see fulfilled in the New Testament are Old Testament historical events, acts, or persons — usually related to ethnicIsrael; these then serve as patterns that are repeated in New Testament events, acts, or persons (which are centered around Jesus), and they make a theological point.10 In the words of R.T. France, “Jesus uses persons in the Old Testament as types of himself (David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jonah) or of John the Baptist (Elijah); He refers to Old Testament institutions as types of himself and His work (the priesthood and the covenant); He sees in the experiences of Israel foreshadowings of His own; He finds the hopes of Israel fulfilled in himself and His disciples, and sees His disciples as assuming the status of Israel; in Israel’s deliverance by God He sees a type of the gathering of men into His church, while the disasters of Israel are foreshadowings of the imminent punishment of those who reject Him, whose unbelief is prefigured in that of the wicked Israel, and even, in two instances, in the arrogance of the Gentile nations.”11
The charge that New Testament writers ripped verses out of their Old Testament context largely dissolves in light of Christ’s living out Israel’s story and mission. Jesus is the true Israel; the true Son of God that Israel failed to be; the true (genuine vine) that national Israel was not; the Good Shepherd Israel’s leaders weren’t; the True Bread from heaven that gives eternal life (unlike manna given to Israel in the wilderness).
3. New Testament writers handled the Old Testament as did many Jewish rabbis of their day.12 Jews in Jesus’ day would quote the Old Testament in different ways to make a point. Here’s a brief review. First, there was the literal approach — taking a text in its most straightforward sense. For example, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4 in Mark 12:29: “Hear, O Israel! the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God. …” The New Testament interprets this passage just as it was used in its original context.
Jews also used a second —pesher (or “this is that”). In Matthew 15:7,8, Jesus chastised religious leaders who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from Him. He cited Isaiah 29:13, declaring that Isaiah prophesied about these leaders. Clearly, Isaiah did not prophesy predictively regarding Jesus’ opponents; rather he spoke of his own contemporaries. Jesus is saying that the situation in which Isaiah found himself parallels or is comparable to/identical with Jesus’ circumstances.
We call a third approach midrash — discovering a thought or idea not seen on the surface of the text. This method sought to go beyond the literal sense of the text to the spirit of the text. This approach begins with a passage or phrase, extends its meaning, and draws out its implications. For example, Hebrews 3 and 4 elaborates on the word rest found in Joshua and Psalm 95 to stress our rest in Christ and the ultimate rest that is to come.
A fourth approach is allegory (“that person/situation represents this person/situation”). New Testament writers, who were very sane and sober in their handling of the Old Testament, rarely used this fanciful method.13 In Galatians 4, Paul stepped out of character when dealing with the Judaizers, who claimed that circumcision and food laws were boundary markers for God’s people. To beat them at their own game, Paul used the Judaizers’ favorite allegory, but he said Hagar represented the Mosaic Law while Sarah symbolized the divine promise to Abraham.14
4. The New Testament authors read the Old Testament Christocentrically, and sometimes they go beyond what the human author originally intended. The New Testament writers see the content of the Old Testament becoming clear in light of Jesus’ claims and work. Paul referred to the “mystery” of Christ and the fulfillment of God’s purposes through Him (Romans 11:25–27; 16:25–27; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 15:50–55; Ephesians 3:1–11; etc.). This mystery is rooted in the Old Testament though previously hidden — until Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection brought these anticipations to completion. The New Testament writers see their arguments firmly rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, but enough obscurity remains that only Christ’s incarnation and redemptive, but shameful death on the cross — acts of self-humbling to shatter human pride and pretension — could make them clear.
Scripture involves both human and divine authorship. So we should expect that the human authors’ intentions were narrower than what the divine Author had in mind as He inspired them. Like a full-grown oak, the New Testament canon understandably gives us fuller clarity than the acorn-like Old Testament by itself could.
The Old Testament text does not have a “deeper meaning” — one that we eventually “see” if only we sought hard or prayerfully enough. When John says that Isaiah in his vision (Isaiah 6) saw Jesus’ glory and spoke of Him (John 12:41), this is not something we would pick up just by reading Isaiah. Or when Romans 10:13 (citing Joel 2:32) refers to the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior (“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”), that kind of specificity was not on Joel’s mind. Paul sees Jesus as sharing in the identity of Yahweh (“the Lord”), but this is not clear in the Old Testament.15
Two Closing Observations
Having said this, we can make two closing points. We do not deny there are clear literal predictions of the Messiah in Scripture. For example, Micah 5:2–4 indicates where the Messiah was to be born — Bethlehem. King Herod’s own advisors told him of the prophet’s prediction (Matthew 2:5; cp. John 7:42). Also, Jesus is the Moses-like prophet to come (Deuteronomy 18:18,19; 34:10–12) and the promised “Son” on whose shoulders the government would rest (Isaiah 9:6). Isaiah 52:13–53:12 speaks of the coming suffering Servant (Acts 8:30–35; 1 Peter 2:23). The Triumphal Entry of Jesus on a donkey (John 12:14,15) is another literal fulfillment of a prediction (Zechariah 9:9). Jesus’ burial in a rich man’s grave (Matthew 27:57–60) fulfills the prediction in Isaiah 53:9.
Another point on the New Testament writers allegedly “plundering” Old Testament texts to fabricate messianic prophecies: Why do they avoid prime opportunities to do so? For example, if Matthew fabricated the Virgin Birth story (from Isaiah 7:14 in the Greek, parthenos = “virgin”), why doesn’t Luke, who also asserts a virgin birth, not quote this juicy Old Testament text? As N.T. Wright notes, this “plundering” argument “looks thin.”16
As we defend Christ’s uniqueness, we should not deny these prediction-fulfillment connections between the Old and New Testaments. But we should realize that “fulfillment” in the New Testament is more complex than we have perhaps realized.17 So if we come to terms with this, we will avoid much misunderstanding, and we will not weaken our case with skeptics when we claim that Jesus is the Messiah, Savior, and Fulfiller of the Hebrew Scriptures.
1. Herbert Lockyer, All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973).
2. Craig A. Evans notes that the context of Hosea 11:1 “makes quite clear” that it “is looking back to the Exodus, not to a future deliverance.” See “The Function of the Old Testament in the New,” in Introducing New Testament Interpretation, ed. Scot McKnight (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 174.
3. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard BibleÂ®, Copyright Â© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).
4. Herbert M. Wolf suggests that Shear-jashub’s mother (Isaiah’s first wife) may have died — perhaps in childbirth; thus Isaiah took on another maiden (‘almah) as his wife (called “the prophetess” in 8:3. See “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14–8:22,”Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972): 449–56.
5. See C.F.D. Moule, “Fulfilment-Words in the New Testament: Use and Abuse,” New Testament Studies 14 (1967/68): 293–320.
6. R.T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 168.
7. Moule, “Fulfillment-Words,” 314.
8. Douglas Moo, “The Problem of Sensus Plenior,” in Scripture and Truth, ed. D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 197.
9. John W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 104.
10. R.T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 38,39.
11. Ibid., 75 (my emphasis).
12. Taken from Richard N. Longenecker,Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975). There is another approach known as targum — or paraphrase. Once the Old Testament was canonized, it came to be paraphrased in Aramaic (the Targum). See also Craig Evans, “Function of the Old Testament,” 166.
13. Moisés Silva, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament” in Scripture and Truth, ed. D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 159.
14. See Richard N. Longenecker,Galatians WBC 41 (Dallas: Word, 1990), 197–219.
15. Taken from Jared M. Compton, “Shared Intentions? Reflections on Inspiration and Interpretation in Light of Scripture’s Dual Authorship,” Themelios 33/3 (2008).
16. In Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1999), 174.
17. A good introduction to the discussion of the use of the Old Testament in the New is Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde, eds., Three Views on the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008); a more comprehensive work is G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).