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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.
One of the common objections raised against the New Testament (NT) is that its writers seem to misquote or misuse Old Testament (OT) Scriptures to construct their theology. The critics often argue that the NT writers lift OT passages out of context to claim prophetic fulfillment. This objection merits careful scrutiny, primarily because it raises questions about the credibility and inspiration of the NT Scriptures.
Context is Key: Understanding Fulfillment
The first issue arises due to a misunderstanding of the term “fulfillment.” The term in the NT is plēroō, which does not solely imply a future prediction being realized but often points to a broader, more nuanced concept. In the biblical context, “fulfill” can imply the full realization of a concept, the actualization of a pre-established design, or the perfect embodiment of a role or function. For example, when Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17 ESV), He is not suggesting that He has come to complete a series of predictions. Rather, He is saying that His life and teachings bring the principles of the Law and the Prophets to their highest expression.
The Issue of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:22-23
Isaiah 7:14 states, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (ESV). Matthew cites this verse, applying it to Jesus’ virgin birth (Matthew 1:22-23). Critics often point out that the original context in Isaiah was God giving King Ahaz a sign. However, it is important to note that Matthew is utilizing this passage not in a ‘proof-text’ manner but as an embodiment of God’s ultimate sign to humanity. Matthew’s use of the Isaiah text reflects the Jewish understanding of layered fulfillment, wherein a prophecy can have both a near and far fulfillment.
Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:15: Recontextualizing Israel’s Story
Hosea 11:1, which says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” is cited in Matthew 2:15 to explain the return of the infant Jesus from Egypt. While Hosea was reflecting on the nation of Israel, Matthew applies this to Jesus, seeing Him as the ultimate embodiment of Israel. In doing so, Matthew is not so much quoting a prediction as making a theological point: Jesus is the ‘Son’ who perfectly completes Israel’s incomplete story.
Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18: An Emphasis on Typology
Matthew 2:18 refers to Jeremiah 31:15 to speak about the lamentation following Herod’s massacre. While Jeremiah was referring to a different historical event, Matthew sees the broader thematic connections and spiritual implications. Jesus’ life and mission often coincide thematically with the experiences of Israel. In a way, He is the epitome or ‘fulfillment’ of those experiences.
Varied Methods among NT Writers
If NT writers were haphazardly ‘plundering’ the OT for messianic proof texts, we might expect more uniform usage of these texts. For instance, why doesn’t Luke, who also speaks of the virgin birth, quote Isaiah 7:14 as Matthew does? The variety of methods among NT writers indicates a nuanced, rather than a forced, interaction with the OT texts.
A Christo-Centric Reading
The NT writers and Jesus Himself read the OT in a Christo-centric manner. They saw the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings not just as a collection of predictions waiting for literal fulfillment but as a complex tapestry woven with themes, designs, and patterns that find their highest realization in Christ.
The charge that the New Testament misquotes the Old Testament is often based on a misunderstanding of what “fulfillment” entails in a biblical context. NT writers were neither ignorant nor deceptive; they were steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures and operated from a framework that Jesus was the fulfillment, not merely of isolated predictions, but of the grand narrative of Scripture. Therefore, while it is essential to recognize the initial historical context of OT passages, it is equally important to appreciate the theological depth the NT writers bring to these texts, viewing them through the lens of the life, mission, and person of Jesus Christ.
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.