Over the past two thousand years, Christians have interpreted their Scriptures in many different ways. These different interpretive methods and traditions didn’t arise out of nowhere, however. For the most part, Christians have used the methodologies of the cultures in which they’ve lived. But, they have also done this within an interpretive trajectory that began within the Bible itself. For the New Testament is itself full of biblical interpretation. The New Testament demonstrates how the Christian tradition read the Bible from its earliest days and, therefore, it set the trajectory for all that was to come. And so it’s important to have at least a basic idea of how the New Testament writers understood their Bible. This is the question I’d like to look at today.
To start off, we have to ask ourselves just what ‘the Scriptures’ meant for the New Testament writers. It seems obvious to say that it’s the books Christians have called the ‘Old Testament’, but even this needs further clarification. When the New Testament quotes the Scriptures, it does so from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures that was the most common Bible among Jews in the Mediterranean at the time. This is more than just a question of translation; the Septuagint represents a distinct textual tradition from the ‘Hebrew Bible’ as we know it today. It differs in wording and details, in canonical structure, and in content. In terms of content, different Jewish groups in the first century accepted different books as ‘authoritative’ Scripture, with some accepting only the Law, some the Law and the Prophets, others (who eventually won the day) the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Some, such as the Qumran community and other apocalyptic groups, also had their own texts which functioned as Scripture. The Septuagint tradition accepted not only the Law, Prophets, and Writings, but also the later Greek-language books known as the Deuterocanonical books (AKA, the ‘Apocrypha’), which were largely additional wisdom texts (e.g., Wisdom, Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus), folk tales (e.g., Judith and Tobit, and additions to Daniel), and sacred history (e.g., 1-4 Maccabees).
The best way to think of the relationship between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text (which is largely dependent on a medieval rabbinic text called ‘the Masoretic text’) is as two independent witnesses to the textual tradition we call the Bible. (The Dead Sea Scrolls of the Qumran community are a third such witness). Because the New Testament follows the Septuagint tradition, we’re talking about a broad canon, with a broad understanding of sacred history, that was received in its Greek textual tradition.*
With this preliminary matter in mind, how does the New Testament interpret the Old? This is again not a straightforward question. The fullest description of an early Christian attitude towards ‘Scripture’ as a whole is found in 2 Timothy 3, which says:
… from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (vv. 15-17)
This text provides a helpful guide for how the New Testament uses the Old Testament, and each of these points is worth considering here.
First, Scripture is a teaching tool — not primarily for intellectual knowledge but for “reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” So, it’s for practical teaching about how to live. But, this does not mean the New Testament always applies Biblical instructions directly. For example, Jesus accepts the authority of the Law (”Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5.17)), but also reinterprets it and at times even contradicts it (”You have heard it said … but I say to you…” (five times from 5.21-43)). Additionally, for Jesus, neither Scripture nor tradition is a reliable arbiter of truth in and of itself: Something is true for Jesus if it produces ‘good fruit’ in people’s lives (Matthew 12). Paul likewise accepts the Law but also marginalizes it, calling it, essentially, a babysitter (Galatians 3.25 — the Greek word is paidagogos, which was a slave who accompanied a child to school and back). And so, the Scriptures are understood to be an authority for right living, but it isn’t a straightforward kind of authority: There’s something else going on that guides interpretation and application.
Second, Scripture is inspired by God. Unfortunately, 2 Timothy doesn’t explain what it means by this. The only window we have into how the earliest Christians understood inspiration comes from Hebrews, which says:
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4.12)
‘The word of God’ here doesn’t refer to the Bible itself, but to the words of God recorded in the Scriptures and, in the context of Hebrews’ argument, spoken by Jesus (who is the primary Christian referent for the expression ‘the Word of God’). These divine words are inspired inasmuch as they are alive and effective in their judgments and ability to dissect human personality and relationships. Inspiration means that God is at work within these oracles.
Finally — and most importantly for the purposes of this post — the Scriptures are there “to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” For the writers of the New Testament, the Scriptures — the Old Testament — are there to tell us about Jesus. If there is one single hermeneutical principle shared by the New Testament writers it’s that the Scriptures are to be read Christocentrically, that is, through ‘Christ-coloured glasses.’ So profound and world-altering was the experience of Jesus that he became the single lens through which all of history — and especially God’s activity within it — was to be understood. This point cannot be over-emphasized.
This means that, when the New Testament writers quote the Scriptures, they aren’t really trying to understand them for their own sake or on their own terms. Rather, they are harnessing the language and stories of their religious and cultural heritage in order to understand, give meaning to, and articulate what they have experienced in Jesus. It’s Jesus that is the given, not the text. In order to do this, the New Testament writers used various interpretive strategies that were common in the Hellenistic world, among both Jews and Gentiles. These include recapitulation (where Jesus embodies the role of the people of Israel (e.g., Matthew 2.14f’s interpretation of Hosea 11.1)), allegory and typology (e.g, Galatians 4.24ff’s reading of Isaac and Ishmael), midrash^ (a ‘riff’ on a text, such as Hebrews 3-4’s use of Psalm 95), or simple literary allusion. But, critically, whatever tools they deployed, they did so in order for the texts to say something about Jesus.
This is obviously an ahistorical approach to these texts. Even if the Scriptures described historical events, those events did not matter for what the text meant for the New Testament writers. As much as this runs counter to the sensibilities of our culture, it must be noted that this was very much in keeping with the way ancient texts were used in the Hellenistic world: as context-free oracles open to wide ranges of interpretation. The most relevant example for our purposes is the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a rough contemporary of the New Testament writers, who used the Scriptures to demonstrate how Greek philosophy (specifically Middle Platonism) was consistent with and even dependent on Moses. The goal of these methods, whether deployed by pagan philosophers, Jews, or Christians, was to reveal the consistencies between received written traditions and contemporary experiences, beliefs, or concerns.
If we put this in terms of the ‘four quadrants’ of Integral theory, we can see how this way of looking at the Scriptures is essentially a feedback loop between the upper-left quadrant of personal experience (in this case, the personal experiences of Jesus of the New Testament writers) and the lower-left quadrant of community, tradition and culture: They have an experience, turn to the stories and language of their Scriptures to understand it, and subsequently understand those stories through the lens of that experience.
To summarize all of this, we can say that, despite the varied techniques the New Testament writers used to interpret the Old Testament, they shared the following principles:
- Scripture is about practical wisdom for living a good life
- Scripture is inspired and therefore is expected to continue speaking
- Scripture’s oracles have meaning apart from their immediate historical or literary context
- Scripture is to be interpreted through the filter of Jesus.
This is the hermeneutical trajectory on which the New Testament sent future generations of Christians.
What might all this have to say to us today?
The biggest impact this has is perhaps also the most obvious: As Christians, we read the Bible as Christians. We don’t approach the Bible (especially the Old Testament) with a blank slate and expect to neatly derive our theology from it. Instead we interpret it through our faith in Jesus. We read the story of creation through God’s revelation in Jesus (that is, we read Genesis 1 through the lens of John 1). We read Exodus through the story of the cross. We we apply the laws in Leviticus through the filter of Jesus’ teaching. We see in the ‘Word of the Lord’ spoken through the prophets echoes of ‘the Word of the Lord’ who is Jesus. As Christians, we don’t need to be ashamed of this.
But, at the same time, we need to be open and honest about what we are doing. This is not exegesis (reading out of a text) but eisegesis (reading into a text). These are different actions with different purposes. The New Testament writers were using the Bible to understand their experience of Christ; this is different from writing a commentary on Genesis or the life of Moses. An ahistorical, purely Christocentric, interpretation of the Old Testament may help us to understand our Christian faith better, and in so doing, help us to understand the continuities in the story of God and God’s people better, but it doesn’t help us to understand the Old Testament on its own terms. And while this approach was understandable for those early Jewish Christians, it runs the risk of denying the meaning of the original texts themselves. And, once the split between Christianity and Judaism was formalized, this did present a temptation for some Christians, which bore some very bad fruit throughout history. As followers of Jesus, who said that a tree should be judged by its fruit, we would do well to rectify this as much as possible. We don’t need to evacuate the Scriptures of their historical meaning in order for them also to speak to us today. In my experience, insisting on a substantial contextual interpretation only serves to increase, not decrease, the impact of the further Christocentric layer of interpretation. (For one example of how I do this in practice, see my post ‘Completely Prophetical’.)
In conclusion, the New Testament writers charted the course for Christian biblical interpretation. So great was their experience of Jesus that everything that came before him had to be, essentially, a commentary on him and was therefore to be interpreted through the lens of his life, teaching, death, and resurrection. They didn’t much care about which tools or strategies were used to interpret their Scriptures, as long as they were read through this Gospel filter. In the next post, we’ll look at the different ways the Church took up this task in the following generations.
* There are many great introductions to the history of Christian hermeneutics out there. For the purposes of this post, I recommend A History of Biblical Interpretation, Vol 1: The Ancient Period, edited by Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson, and in particular, Donald H. Juel’s essay, “Interpreting Israel’s Scriptures in the New Testament.”
^ The term midrash is anachronistic here, since the New Testament predates the rabbinic traditions which developed midrash. But, we can consider much of the New Testament’s use of the Bible as consistent with the non-contextual interpretive strategies used by contemporary Jewish thinkers out of which the midrash tradition developed. ‘Proto-midrash’ might be the most applicable term for what we see in the New Testament.