The New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures

Reg Whittern draws attention to Jesus' use of the Old Testament (Tyndale Society Journal No.6 p.51), thereby opening up the whole question of the New Testament use of quotations from the Old Testament. My impression is that many readers and commentators are embarrassed by the New Testament handling of the Old Testament, as in these two examples, taken at random from The International Bible Commentary (Marshall Pickering/Zondervan 1986): 'This type of argument is uncongenial to the modern mind, but ...' and 'In a fashion typical of this writer, the OT is now called upon ... he feels free to apply to Christ the exalted language of the OT ...' (on Galatians 4:21-31 and Hebrews 1:5-14 respectively). But, with all due respect to the learned authors, this is not good enough: what the New Testament reader wants to know is whether the Old Testament really means what the New Testament writers claim, or whether they are twisting it for their own purposes. The present study does not claim to deal with this question exhaustively. It considers Hebrews 1:A-2:B [1:1-2:9], a short section which deals with the truth that Jesus is the son of God, and in which the Old Testament is quoted eight times.

Psalm 2:7, quoted at Hebrews 1:B [1:5a]: Faced with a threat from his enemies, David declares that his position is nevertheless secure, because God has, as it were, adopted him as his own son. David is writing about his own empire and his own problems; but as he writes he glimpses one who shall succeed him who will be the son of God in the fullest sense, whose rule really will extend through the whole earth, whose judgement will be solely the judgement of God against sin, and it is in this sense that our writer quotes the psalm.

2 Samuel 7 [7:14], quoted at Hebrews 1:B [1:5b]: Nathan tells David that the task for which God made him king was that of overcoming the people's enemies and establishing the new nation. This is to be continued by David's house, and especially by David's son and first successor. But the building of David's house is only a pointer to what God will do through the son of David whose kingdom will last for ever [2 Samuel 7:13b,161, and it is in this fuller sense that our writer quotes the passage.

Deuteronomy 32 [32:43], quoted at Hebrews l:C [1:6]: The writer quotes, as he usually does, from the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. Normally, like Tyndale, we prefer the traditional Hebrew text, but in this case the oldest manuscript, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, agrees with the Septuagint. Combined with the fact that this writer quotes the longer reading, it is clear that this is correct. Modern versions quote it in the margin, or incorporate it into the text. Moses calls on the people of God to praise God as their defender and avenger, and on the angels to join in; since our writer has already argued that Jesus is God, and the one who carries out God's good purposes towards his people (Hebrews 1:A [1:31), he quite consistently maintains that the praise of Deuteronomy 32 is due to him. Psalm 104:4, quoted at Hebrews 1:C [1:7]: According to the Hebrew text, the physical creation carries out God's will, with wind and flame acting as his messengers. The Septuagint (followed by Coverdale) turns this round, and says that the angels serve him as readily as these unstable elements. And in view of our writer's argument that Jesus is God, it is quite consistent for him to maintain that this service is given to him. Psalm 45:7.8 [45:6.7], quoted at Hebrews 1:C [1:8,9]: The psalm declares that David's kingdom will last for ever, because it was founded by God and is therefore based on justice and righteousness; but David and his successors, like all human rulers, were mortal. The ultimate glory of the house of David was that it would end in the coming of the Messiah, whose kingdom would literally last for ever. The writer to the Hebrews declares that this Messiah is the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and applies the text to him.

Psalm 102:25-27, quoted at Hebrews 1:C,D [1:10-12]: To this psalmist, who is in some trouble, the greatness of God's creation is the ground of his hope for the future. He looks back to gain the confidence to go forward; and when an Old Testament writer looks forward, it is natural for a Christian to believe he is looking forward to Jesus Christ.

Psalm 110:1, quoted at Hebrews 1:D [1:13]: This psalm is quoted more than any other in the New Testament, and especially in Hebrews, where the writer clearly regards it as central to everything he has to say about Jesus Christ. In v.1 God appoints someone to exercise lordship. He is in the place of honour and power, and is thus certain to overcome his enemies, who are God's enemies. This one is superior to David, for he is David's Lord. Our writer maintains that he can only be the coming Messiah, the saviour, the one we know as Jesus Christ, so he quotes this (having already alluded to it at 1:A [1:3]) to show that Christ's place in heaven is unique.

Psalm 8:4-6, quoted at Hebrews 2:B [2:8,9]: If Jesus has triumphed, as the writer maintains in chapter 1, this is not altogether clear from the way the world is. So he turns to another psalm to explain why. David asks why God should notice man, and concludes that there is no reason, except that God glorifies his own name in doing so. But he does more than notice man: he honours him. He made him the crown of creation, a little lower than the angels, and put the whole universe under his control. The teaching of the Old Testament is that the glory that God gave man at his creation was not enough: he fell into sin, and his rule of the universe has been a disaster. Only in Christ is this psalm perfectly fulfilled.

I conclude that our writer has added nothing to the passages he quotes. While he goes beyond the literal sense of the originals, he shows in every case that to a Christian they really do speak of Christ, because the spiritual principles underlying them are exactly the same as those underlying the faith of the New Testament. Christianity is based on Old and New Testaments alike, and Tyndale was right in his effort to provide scholarly and popular translations of Hebrew and Greek scriptures alike.

Philip Tait

[All references are to Tyndale's translations, except in the psalms, where I have followed Coverdale. KJV references are added in square brackets where this would be helpful.]

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