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Explore why critics claim the New Testament misquotes the Old Testament and how a proper understanding of first-century Jewish interpretation dispels this notion. Dive into the multifaceted concept of ‘fulfillment’ as understood by the apostles to gain a comprehensive view.
The charge that the New Testament (NT) “misquotes” the Old Testament (OT) is often levied by critics who view the apostolic writings through the lens of a rigid, anachronistic understanding of prophecy and fulfillment. However, when one grasps the theological and hermeneutical paradigms of the first-century Jewish world and the apostles, it becomes apparent that such charges are misplaced. Here are several key points to consider.
It’s essential to remember that the NT writers were living in a specific historical and religious context. The OT was their Scripture, and they read it in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Even the methods of Jewish interpretation at that time allowed for a multi-layered understanding of Scripture, which included not just the Peshat (literal sense) but also other senses. While Christians today, especially those with a conservative approach, might prioritize the literal sense, it is not the only lens through which the first-century Jewish community understood Scripture.
The Nature of Fulfillment
A common misconception is that the term “fulfill” (plēroō in Greek) strictly means the realization of a prediction. While it can mean that, its semantic range is broader. The term often indicates that something has been brought to its full meaning or realization. When Jesus says He came to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17), He was not merely saying that He would accomplish specific predictions. Instead, He was communicating that in Him, the deeper, fuller meaning of the Law and the Prophets would be fully realized.
Prophecy as Patterns, not Just Predictions
When Matthew cites Hosea 11:1 to describe Jesus’ return from Egypt (Matthew 2:15), the evangelist is drawing a theological parallel. Hosea originally spoke of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, but Matthew presents Jesus as the true Israel who recapitulates Israel’s history but without its failures. He was the true Son who obeyed Jehovah, contrasting Israel, which was often disobedient. In this case, “fulfill” doesn’t mean a direct one-to-one prediction and its realization, but rather that Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of what Israel was meant to be.
Case Studies: Isaiah 7:14 and Jeremiah 31:15
The examples of Isaiah 7:14 and Jeremiah 31:15 illustrate this well. Isaiah’s original prophecy had a fulfillment in his time, but Matthew sees the fuller significance of this “sign” in the virgin birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:22-23). The situation is similar with Jeremiah 31:15, which originally pertained to the Babylonian exile. However, Matthew finds a “fulfillment” in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:18). He’s not claiming Jeremiah predicted this event; rather, the experience of sorrow and loss, first felt in Jeremiah’s day, found a fuller expression in the sorrow felt at the time of Jesus’ birth.
First-century Jews often used a method known as Pesher, wherein a current event “fulfilled” or embodied the meaning of an older Scripture. This wasn’t seen as taking the older text out of context but rather as understanding its fuller meaning in light of later developments.
The Role of Jesus in Interpretation
The NT writers interpreted the OT in a Christo-centric manner. Jesus wasn’t just the fulfiller of a handful of predictions; He was the ultimate realization of the themes, hopes, and promises found throughout the OT. He was the true temple (John 2:19-21), the ultimate sacrificial Lamb (John 1:29), and the eternal King in David’s line (Luke 1:32-33).
In light of these considerations, the claim that the New Testament “misquotes” the Old Testament is untenable. Such an allegation fails to understand the multifaceted ways in which the concept of fulfillment functioned in the first-century Jewish world and within the apostolic writings. Instead of viewing the New Testament writers as having “plundered” the Old Testament for out-of-context proof texts, we should appreciate the theological depth with which they engaged their Scriptures. Their approach was rooted in a robust understanding of how Jesus Christ fulfilled, in the richest sense of the term, the complex tapestry of Old Testament law, prophecy, and wisdom.
Recap of New Testament Author’s Use of Old Testament
The New Testament writers used Old Testament writers in one of two ways. (1) The New Testament writer took the one grammatical-historical interpretation of the Old Testament passage. In this case, we are talking about a fulfillment of the Old Testament passage, and we are perfectly fine to word it that way. In other words, the Old Testament passage was written as a prophecy for that future event, not some immediate fulfillment. (2) The New Testament writer goes beyond what the Old Testament writer penned, assigning it additional meaning that is applicable to the New Testament context. In other words, the Old Testament writer’s grammatical-historical interpretation would have been a fulfillment for him and his audience, not just a hope. The New Testament writer then made the information applicable to his situation by adding to it which fit his context. With number (1), we have the New Testament writer staying with the literal sense of the Old Testament writer. With number (2), we have the New Testament writer adding a whole other meaning.
Dr. Robert L. Thomas calls number (2) “Inspired Sensus Plenior Application” (ISPA), which we will adopt as well. It is inspired because this is an inspired Bible writer, adding an additional sense or fuller sense than what had been penned in the Old Testament.
When interpreting the Old Testament and New Testament each in light of the single grammatical-historical meaning of each passage, two kinds of New Testament uses of the Old Testament surface, one in which the New Testament writer observes the grammatical-historical sense of the Old Testament passage and the other in which the New Testament writer goes beyond the grammatical-historical sense in using a passage. Inspired sensus plenior application (ISPA) designates the latter usage. Numerous passages illustrate each type of New Testament use of the Old Testament. The ISPA type of use does not grant contemporary interpreters a license to copy the method of New Testament writers, nor does it violate the principle of single meaning. The ISPA meaning of the Old Testament passage did not exist for humans until the time of the New Testament citation, being occasioned by Israel’s rejection of her Messiah at His first advent. The ISPA approach approximates that advocated by John H. Walton more closely than other explanations of the New Testament use of the Old Testament. “Fulfillment” terminology in the New Testament is appropriate only for events that literally fulfill events predicted in the Old Testament.
Most conservative evangelical scholars believe that some biblical prophecies possess more than the initial fulfillment, an extended fulfillment. This writer and many others would also point out that the prophecies in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament had meaning to those whom the prophecy was written; it served as a means of guidance for the initial audience, as well as for succeeding generation, down to our day. This is not to say that the prophetic message itself was applicable from then until now, but that its meaning is beneficial to all. In many cases, the fulfillment took place within that first generation.