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Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 4: The Shape of Biblical References

allusionWe’ve been considering the claim that Matthew’s appeal to YHWH’s historical deliverance of Israel from Egypt in Hosea 11:1 is proof positive that the NT writers cared little to nothing for the original context of the passages they quoted. They had, it is claimed, a Jesus hermeneutical lens (Christological Hermeneutic) by which everything was made to speak directly of him in some way.

I’ve countered by suggesting that what is needed instead of such a disastrous hermeneutic, is an actual investigation into why the NT writers use OT passages the way they do… one text at a time along seven avenues of investigation.

In step #1 a person needs to fully digest the Historical, grammatical and literary context of every referenced passage in its original setting.

In step #2 a person needs to fully analyze what the NT writer intends to accomplish by making reference to any given OT passage in its new context, knowing the difference between USE and INTERPRETATION, and being aware of the various goals a writer might have for appealing to an OT text.

Step #3 is deceptively simple. One needs to understand the forms of biblical reference being made, and their source if knowable.

This is a difficult step for those who do not know biblical languages, but an appeal to some critical commentaries should help. Let me recommend, Commentary of the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament edited by D.A. Carson and G. K. Beale.[1]

The sources for NT quotation and reference are fairly limited… coming down to the Qumran texts, Samaritan Pentateuch, LXX (i.e. Septuagint), Other Greek texts like Symmachus or Aquila, Targumic texts (which are Aramaic paraphrases used in the synagogues), and Masoretic readings (The most common Hebrew texts) can be an enlightening experience.

We also find loose renderings that approximate the readings from these texts. For instance, Jesus is known to paraphrase a lot of the texts to which he appeals as recorded in the gospels. Paul often seems to give what are called ad hoc renderings, meaning that he did his own translation.

The author of Hebrews for instance, seems to make a rather loose quote of Deuteronomy 29:18 (17 in LXX) in chapter 12:15 when discussing the root of bitterness. The Hebrew to English rendering of Deuteronomy looks a bit different than the Hebrew to Greek (LXX) to Greek rearrangement in Hebrews to English translation of Hebrews, but an analysis of the Greek of both the LXX and of Hebrews leaves the intention in no doubt. The author of Hebrews quotes Deuteronomy 29:18 (17 in LXX), but does so in such a way that he also interprets the passage. The root of bitterness is not “resentment,” but is, rather, a person, family or tribe that abandons the covenant of God to both pursue pagan worship of idols, and to draw their neighbors into their sin as well. This corrupting influence is brought out over time in the Deuteronomy context but is made immediate in the Hebrews rearrangement.

Things get really fun when the LXX and Hebrew texts differ radically from each other and the NT writers oscillate between making points using each in different contexts. Isaiah 6:9-10 are quoted many times in the New Testament, but have radically different focuses in the LXX and Hebrew texts.

(ESV) Isa 6:9  And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10  Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

(Brenton English Translation of the LXX) Isa 6:9  Ye shall hear indeed, but ye shall not understand; and ye shall see indeed, but ye shall not perceive. 10  For the heart of this people has become gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.

The Hebrew texts look at the hardening, deafening and blinding of Israel as God’s sovereign action in order to bring judgment, while the LXX blames it on specific willful choices by the people to be blind, and deaf and hardened, preventing repentance. The New Testament writers quote both at different times.

It’s not about which one you like best theologically, but which one is original and intended, and, whether the shift in emphasis is important for any points being made in the New Testament contexts.

Finally, though more difficult to articulate are the myriad of allusions to biblical passages. These can be difficult, particularly when lost inside the language jumping fog created by moving from Hebrew to English in one place and Hebrew to Greek to English in others. Even so, it is always important to keep one eye on the Old Testament when reading the new, aware that these writers are making a constant use of OT texts on a variety of levels.

Let me illustrate one… though I could illustrate this all day long. When Mark tells his version of Jesus’ calming of the storm he builds two powerful typologies into his telling.

He casts Jesus in the image of Jonah, asleep in the boat, but also casts him in the image of YHWH by intoning YHWH’s words over the sea in Psalm 107: 25-29 “For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. 26  They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; 27  they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end. 28  Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 29  He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Do I need an exacting quote from the LXX to know that this text is in view? Some would say, “Yes.” I would say, “No.” Jesus is made to play the role of YHWH in the Psalm.

The YHWH typology is not done, however. Mark intones the request of the captain of Jonah’s ship in the words of the disciples. Jesus like Jonah is asleep in boat during the killer storm. Jesus like Jonah is awakened and questioned. The words of the disciples echo the words of the Sailor waking Jonah… but with important changes. Jonah 1:6 says, “So the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.’” What, however, do the disciples ask? “Do YOU not care that we are perishing.” Divine concern is found in the shadow of the disciple’s question. This is, of course, followed up with an identical contrast of fear in both Jonah and Mark. The sailors and disciples are afraid of the storm, but they are terrified of YHWH and Jesus who demonstrate power over the storm.

We need to be able to recognize reference when we see it, and need to show some skill in understanding the nature of it and its sources if knowable.

[1] Commentary on the NT’s Use of the OT


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