About a decade ago, Wheaton College Graduate School professor Greg Beale had the idea to develop a one-volume commentary that would address every instance a New Testament writer quotes or alludes to the Old Testament. He sought the help of D. A. Carson at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and together they began soliciting the contributions of an all-star cast of biblical experts. Finally, in late 2007, they published the hefty Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker, $54.99, 1,152 pp.). CT editor-at-large Collin Hansen spoke with Beale and Carson to learn how this new volume will help Christians understand the Bible as one progressively unfolding story of redemption.
What might surprise readers about how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament?
Beale: It's evident in our book that the New Testament writers use the Old Testament with the context of the Old Testament in mind. That's a real debate between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, but it's also an in-house debate. Some evangelicals would say Jesus and the apostles preached the right Old Testament doctrine but from the wrong Old Testament texts. They believe that what the New Testament writers wrote was inspired, but their interpretative method was not inspired, that it was just as wild and crazy as the Jewish method at the time. Our book proceeds on the presupposition that of course their conclusions are inspired. But we also show that Jesus was not a wild and crazy Jewish interpreter like those at Qumran or elsewhere, but he interpreted the Old Testament in a very viable way.
If you want a good example of someone who would disagree with our method, there's a recent book by Peter Enns called Inspiration and Incarnation. In one of the concluding chapters, he contends that Jesus and the apostles preached the right doctrine from the wrong texts and that we should do the same. I have written a lengthy review of that chapter in the periodical Themelios. Enns responded, and then I wrote a surrejoinder just on this very issue.
Where does the New Testament make things difficult for modern readers in its use of the Old Testament?
Beale: Matthew has a number of them. For example, in Matthew 2:15 it says, "And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'" That's from Hosea 11:1. The problem is, when you go back to Hosea 11:1, it's not a prophecy. It's just a description of Israel coming out of Egypt hundreds of years earlier. If a student were asked on test, "Is Hosea 11:1 a prophetic statement?" many teachers would give them an F if they said yes. You can read Craig Blomberg's chapter on Matthew to learn more. Basically this falls into a category called typology, where the events of the Old Testament are seen as prefiguring events on a grander scale in the New Testament. For example, John 19 says Jesus is the greater Passover Lamb. Part of the presupposition of the Old Testament and New Testament writers is that there are two modes of prophecy, not just direct verbal prophecy but also what one might call "patterns of history" that point forward. All of a sudden it makes sense that the past exodus referenced in Hosea 11:1 is seen as an event prefiguring a greater exodus, Jesus coming out of Egypt.
I think a number of the contributors would say the more Hebrew exegesis you do in the Old Testament, the clearer the use is in the New Testament. The problem is, some New Testament scholars don't have much background in the Hebrew Old Testament. That's immediately a problem. There's such specialization in all fields today.
What is the most popular Old Testament passage or theme for New Testament writers?
Beale: Probably the Old Testament passage quoted and alluded to most is Psalm 110:1, where it says, "The Lord says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" It's referring not only to a kingly figure but also to a divine kingly figure identified as Jesus in the New Testament. Another is Isaiah 6:910 where Isaiah is commanded to tell the people, "you have eyes that can't see and ears that can't hear." Intriguingly, that text is quoted fully in all four Gospels, at the end of the Book of Acts, and alluded to at the conclusion of the seven letters of Revelation and again in chapter 13.
You and Dr. Carson describe how this commentary's contributors adopted an "eclectic grammatical-historical literary method." Briefly describe this method, and tell us why it leads to better understanding of the New Testament's relation to the Old Testament.
Beale: Historical-grammatical exegesis traditionally has been used to exegete a Hebrew or Greek paragraph. You try to interpret it contextually in the book, using word studies, grammar, and syntax. You try to understand the logical development of thought within the paragraph, historical background, and theological or figurative problems. You check for parallel texts. It's a whole array of things you bring to bear on a particular paragraph.
Eclectic and literary [method] extends grammatical-historical exegesis from just looking atomistically at the paragraph in the context of its book. In my view, part of exegetical method has to do with how the passage fits into the corpus of the author, how it fits in the New Testament, and how we relate it to the Old Testament. One would especially want to pay attention to Old Testament allusions and quotations, going back to see what's happening in the Old Testament. You might call that a biblical-theological perspective that really goes beyond the traditional understanding of grammatical-historical.
I like to use the phrases "narrow-angle exegesis" and "wide-angle exegesis," letting Scripture interpret Scripture, or "canonical-biblical exegesis." This lets later texts in the Old Testament interpretatively develop the earlier texts, and traces how the trajectory finds further development with the New Testament writers. They tend to be sensitive, when quoting one text, to other developments of that text in the Old Testament. That's a wider consideration than just looking at your paragraph in the New Testament book. You have to do both.
Does interpreting the Bible this way require a certain level of trust in the inspiration of the New Testament writers?
Beale: In the introduction we say that even if one does not believe in the inspiration of the Bible, one should at least grant the privilege to the biblical authors and respect that they did. If you're going to try to understand the New Testament as a historical document, you need to try and see what their presuppositions were. I don't think among evangelicals it's a matter of trust. You've got to show inductively through exegesis that in fact, what they're saying really does make sense of the Old Testament text. It depends on the inductive evidence.
Why does this commentary deserve a spot on bookshelves?
Carson: There is no other one-volume work that treats every instance where the New Testament quotes or clearly alludes to the Old Testament. At least for the quotations, we aim to understand the New Testament context, the Old Testament context, how Judaism uses the same Old Testament passage, any text-critical challenges (remembering that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic while the New Testament was written in Greek), the interpretive assumptions on display when the New Testament writer uses the Old Testament passage, and the theological significance of the quotation. Through the indexes, one can start at the other end: e.g., if you are preaching from, say, a passage in Job, you might be wise to use the index to see if anything in that passage has been picked up in quotation or allusion anywhere in the New Testament.
So while this is not the sort of book that all readers will read right through, it is the sort of book that most expositors and other serious readers of the Bible might find themselves referring to repeatedly. And some people, of course, will study this reference work more assiduously because they themselves are working on the broad subject of the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.
What gaps and opportunities in theological study make a project like this necessary and possible?
Carson: First, although there have been many specialist studies on particular Old Testament texts (e.g., the use of Ps. 110 in the New Testament) or on individual corpora (e.g., the use of the Psalms in Hebrews, or John's use of the Old Testament), no previous work has tried to put the fruit of these labors into one useful volume. Moreover, scholarship on this question has operated out of the assumption that the New Testament writers frankly abused the Old Testament texts ripping them out of their context, failing to understand what the Old Testament authors are saying, and so forth. We think that more attentive study unpacks deeper connections that are quite wonderful to understand, connections that prove helpful to our own reading of Scripture as we try to see how the Word of God hangs together.
What are some of the basic hermeneutical problems we must address when we see a New Testament writer quoting or alluding to the Old Testament?
Occasionally a New Testament writer is simply picking up Old Testament words without bringing the Old Testament context with those words in exactly the same way that a Christian who has been brought up reading the Bible constantly may incorporate biblical phrases into his or her speech without claiming that the context of those phrases is in mind. Sometimes the notion of the "fulfillment" of an Old Testament passage is not cast as an event that "fulfills" a verbal prediction, but as an event or person that "fulfills" a trajectory of earlier, similar events or persons this is one form of what is today called "typology."
Occasionally the New Testament quotes the Old Testament in a form of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) or some other rendering whose words are sufficiently different from the Hebrew that difficult choices must be made. One of the most complex hermeneutical issues is the way that the gospel itself, or some part of it, is, on the one hand, sometimes said to fulfill that which has been prophesied, and, on the other, said to disclose that which has been hidden. Glory resides in these complexities, of course, but it sometimes takes a bit of unpacking to begin to see them as something rich and wonderful, and not simply as a "problem." One could easily add other challenges. Yet it must be said that the really "hard cases" are relatively few in number compared with the large number of fairly straightforward uses that nevertheless open our eyes to the way God in his mercy has graciously given us his Word.
You and Dr. Beale write, "This tension between what [the New Testament writers] insist is actually there in the Scriptures and what they are forced to admit they did not see until fairly late in their experience forces them to think about the concept of 'mystery' revelation that is in some sense 'there' in the Scriptures but hidden until the time of God-appointed disclosure." How are Christian readers apt to misunderstand this notion of progressive revelation?
Carson: Sometimes Christians understand progressive revelation in a fairly mechanistic or linear fashion: More truth simply gets added to the pile, to make a bigger pile of truth. But this "mystery/revelation" tension shows that often something is actually there in the Old Testament text (according to Jesus and his apostles) that was not seen until the coming of Jesus made it clear. The most obvious example is the fact that interpreters of Scripture before the coming of Jesus did not happily put together the Old Testament promises of a Davidic king with Old Testament suffering-servant passages to anticipate a king who suffers, a king who would reign from a cross.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor-at-large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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Books & Culture published Susan Wise Bauer's review of Enn's Inspiration and Incarnation.
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