The New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament on a Scale of 1 to 10

My friend Matthew Barrett edits a fantastic webzine, Credo Magazine. In the latest issue, four scholars – Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Robert Plummer, and Andrew Hill – were polled with the following question: How much should the OT influence our interpretation of the NT? I was a bit surprised at the responses, or at least the first two. Robert Plummer and Andrew Hill both gave it a 10, with Plummer giving a canonical explanation and Hill relying more on inspiration and the Grand Narrative. I agree with both their responses.

Blomberg’s and Bock’s, though, were to me quite confusing. First, Blomberg only gives it a 6, and says that

Because all the NT writers were likely familiar with all of the OT, the OT becomes an important subset of the more general category of historical background that should always be taken into account in interpreting texts.  Sometimes there may be an explicit quotation, or an allusion, or a mere echo.  Other times, the OT is simply part of the pervasive worldview of the NT writer.  Thus I choose a number above the half-way mark between 1 and 10.  But I don’t go very far above a 5, because the New Testament writers regularly use the OT creatively and flexibly, under the inspiration of the Spirit.  The immediate context of any NT passage and its meaning interpreted on its own can always trump historical background if the evidence pushes us in that direction.

This response, to me, is convoluted at best in thinking through how the NT writers use the OT. For one thing, the NT authors not only “sometimes” quote or allude to the OT, but they consistently and pervasively use the OT narratives as the grid by which they interpret the life of Jesus, the nature and mission of the church, and the second coming. For another, the idea that the NT authors use the OT creatively and flexibly has come increasingly under pressure in evangelical biblical scholarship (and indeed, in broader non-evangelical biblical scholarship) in the last decade and, in my mind, is only tenuously tied to a close reading of both the OT and NT contexts of the quotation.

Bock’s response is more palatable and closer to the mark for me. He says:

We have to pay attention to the Old Testament and the background it gives us, but we also must recall that Jesus and the apostles have the right to build on that material. I believe they do so in ways that complement what God has already committed himself to do.

Bock is right to acknowledge the NT authors’ reliance on the OT, but I am curious about the latter half of his statement. I do not understand why the fact that the NT authors “build on [OT] material,” or as I might say, “interpret the life of Jesus in light of the OT,” means that they have somehow relied on it less (i.e. on an “8″ instead of a “10″ rating). The character of Christian Scripture (to borrow from Seitz’ new book title) is that it continually interprets fresh works of God in light of previous Scripture. This is no different with the life of Jesus, although it is the fresh event of God in history.

Check out the post to see what Plummer and Hill say, and definitely check out Credo Magazine.

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5 thoughts on “The New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament on a Scale of 1 to 10

  1. Matt:

    The answer to your query about my response is rather simple. Jesus himself is the Word and makes revelation of the promise progress. For example, knowing there are two comings is a function of His life and ministry not from a clear indication from the OT itself. So the OT sets the stage and explains, but the NT adds to its trajectories.

  2. Dr. Bock, thanks so much for stopping by and for your response. Having read your work on the NT’s use of the OT elsewhere I had a feeling this may be where the 8 came from, although since it’s not in the paragraph in Credo I didn’t touch it. I would agree that the NT certainly expands on what the OT has to say and clarifies it in light of the life of Christ and the makeup of the early church. I think we may disagree, though, over what exactly that means in terms of the NT’s use of the OT, and especially in reference to whether or not the NT authors always interpret the OT on its own terms or whether they instead rely on their Christocentric presuppositional grid to interpret it. Nevertheless, I appreciated your thoughts both in Credo and here. Thanks again for commenting!

    • Matt: For me, it is sometimes one and sometimes the other, depending on the text. I think the church saw the OT in a fuller light in light of Christ. Sometimes they draw on that; other times they take the text as it is. It is all legitimate because each stage is revelatory. Great to interact!

  3. Matt,
    Good thoughts. Interesting to see the dialogue between scholars! I’m sure you’ve read Wright on some of these matters. I find that many of his interpretations rest very heavily on the use of OT. I find much of his work on Jesus as fulfillment very helpful on this issue.

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