Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Hints, Allegories, and Mysteries -- The New Testament Quotes the Old

This series of essays comes from a complete paper available on this web site. I am serializing it on this blog to both advertise it and to invite discussion. You can read the entire paper by clicking here.

This first essay presents the problem of how the New Testament authors quote and use the Old Testament.

The Ideal

Although its detractors use terms like “hyper-literalism,” the grammatical-historical method of Bible study has much to commend it. Who can fault a system that strives for objectivity in its pursuit of the knowledge of God? The grammatical-historical method encourages us to read and study without predefined doctrinal lenses. It encourages us to seek out, recognize and put aside long held presuppositions about Christianity and the Bible. Consequently, with the Holy Spirit, an open mind, and hard study anyone can discover important truths and discern the amazing internal consistency of the scriptures. There is no need to read from more enlightened scholars to know what the Scriptures say and mean.

The grammatical-historical method reads poetry as poetry, history as history, and prophecy as prophecy. At every juncture, the common idiomatic sense of language is what rules. In other words, the primary meaning of a passage of scripture is never an allegory, unless it is so declared by the author. It is not an exact science. Certainly the discernment of which images in the Bible's apocalyptic sections are literal or figurative will always be an interesting debate.

The Dilemma

Although one might be an ardent practitioner and defender of the grammatical-historical method, it must be recognized that it has a fundamental problem. That problem, simply stated, is this, “If grammar and historical context are so vital to correctly dividing the word of truth, why did the New Testament authors sometimes violate it?  Should they not have been the very models of scriptural correctness?”

Apparently not: for the very first Old Testament reference in the New Testament has no direct connection to its original Old Testament context. And the third and fourth quotes are no better!  As we read and compare the New with the Old, we uncover usages that sometimes strike us as odd. To see this, take a look at some New Testament quotes of the Old Testament.

The Example of Matthew 1:22,23

Compare Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 and the extended quote from Isaiah which follows:

Matthew: Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22,23)

Isaiah: Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken. The LORD will bring on you, on your people, and on your father’s house such days as have never come since the day that Ephraim separated from Judah, the king of Assyria. In that day the LORD will whistle for the fly that is in the remotest part of the rivers of Egypt and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. (Isaiah 7:14-18)

Isaiah’s prophecy really outlines a timetable for the destruction of two troublesome foreign kings named Rezin and Pekah. Isaiah says to Judah’s king Ahaz, in effect, that by the time a particular maiden[1] marries, has a son, and sees him through his “Bar Mitzvah”, these two kings will be gone. Some commentators try to say that Isaiah is not speaking to Ahaz, but to the whole “House of David.” They take this mental handle and try to stretch the meaning to make it fit the true virgin birth to come. But verse 16 ties the prophecy to the two kings and verse 18 calls upon Egypt and Assyria to be the instruments of their destruction. What have Egypt and Assyria to do with the conception and birth of Jesus?[2]

Note how the New English Translation phrases Isaiah 7:14:

For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, the young lady over there is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young lady, will name him Immanuel[3]. (Isaiah 7:14)

The NET Bible completely captures Isaiah’s original sense. So what was Matthew thinking when he so boldly proclaimed the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14?

The Example of Matthew 2:15

Now compare Matthew 2:15 and Hosea 11:1

Matthew: He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:15)

Hosea: When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son. (Hosea 11:1)

Hosea’s prophecy specifically refers to the nation of Israel and the Exodus from Egypt. Whereas, Isaiah 7:14 has some interesting handles to grab and stretch, Hosea 11:1 just doesn’t!  His words are what they are and cannot possibly be said to predict that a future Messiah would spend any time in Egypt. Why would Matthew say that Hosea’s words were fulfilled?

The Example of Matthew 2:17,18

Matthew: Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.” (Matthew 2:17,18)

Jeremiah: Thus says the Lord, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Thus says the Lord, “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord, “And they will return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future,” declares the Lord, “And your children will return to their own territory.” (Jeremiah 31:15-17)

Jeremiah refers to the land weeping for the Israelites who have been dispersed to foreign lands. Following the verse about weeping, Jeremiah says, “‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for your work will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord, ‘And they will return from the land of the enemy.’”  There is nothing about a king slaughtering children, because of the birth of Messiah. Rather the tears are a precursor to joy; not the hopeless despair of the young mothers whose children Herod destroyed.

The Example of John 13:18

Even Jesus abandoned strict grammatical-historical usage when He quoted Psalm 41.

John:  “I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’” (John 13:18)

Note the broader context of Psalm 41:

Psalm 41: As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” My enemies speak evil against me, “When will he die, and his name perish?” And when he comes to see me, he speaks falsehood; His heart gathers wickedness to itself; when he goes outside, he tells it. All who hate me whisper together against me; against me they devise my hurt, saying, “A wicked thing is poured out upon him, That when he lies down, he will not rise up again.” Even my close friend in whom I trusted, Who ate my bread, Has lifted up his heel against me. (Psalm 41:4-9)

It is difficult to conclude that this Psalm’s author intended it to refer to Jesus the Messiah, because verse 4 reads, “As for me, I said, ‘O Lord, be gracious to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.’” Did Jesus have some secret sin in His life? To ask the question is to answer it. Of course, He didn’t.

Thursday: The Jewish Connection

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>.

[1] The word translated “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 is “almah” rather than the stronger and clearer “betulah.”

[2] One possible reconciliation between Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew1:22, 23 lies in a remark that Isaiah makes in the section that extends from Isaiah 7:1 through 9:7. Briefly, in 8:18, Isaiah says, “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.”  Assuming that Maher-shalal-hash-baz is the son promised by Isaiah 7:14 for the short term prophectic fulfillment, Isaiah 8:18 leaves room for a second and more substantive fulfillment by a true virgin bearing the true Immanuel.

[3] The New English Translation  (Biblical Studies Press, 1996)  [On-line]. Available: http://www.bible.org/netbible



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