How new is the New Testament?

How new is the New Testament?

How is it that the Old Testament (OT) seems to predict the coming of Christ?  Was the OT inspired by the God revealed in the New Testament (NT)?  Could be, but an answer internal to the Bible itself is persuasive.  The Gospel writers looked backward more than they looked forward, reinterpreting the experience of Jesus, which none had firsthand, as the fulfillment of OT prophecy.  Almost any statement about a good man who suffered, such as the suffering servant songs of Isaiah 52-53, was put to this use.

The gospels were written no earlier than 40 years after the death of Christ.  Mark was written in about 70 CE, John about 100 CE.  Educated men wrote them in Greek.  The apostles were uneducated, probably illiterate, who spoke Aramaic.  The Gospels were written to make sense of the fact that the Messiah, who was supposed to be a mighty warrior who would liberate the Jews, died a miserable and degrading death by crucifixion. 

Even that seems to have been predicted by the OT, which says that if a man is guilty of a capital crime “you hang him on a tree.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23*)  Acts refers to this passage three times (5.30; 10.39; 13.29).  The principal goal of the NT was to transform a humiliating death into the liberation of humankind from the grip of death.  The OT provides plenty of evidence for this reinterpretation.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53.5)

Certainly sounds like the prophet Isaiah was talking about Jesus.  But was he? 

Hardly any passage of the Hebrew Bible is and has been of such fundamental importance in the history of Jewish-Christian debate . . . or has played such a central role in it, as has the fourth Servant Song of Second Isaiah.  Nor has any other passage experienced such different and sometimes mutually exclusive interpretations as this one. (Schreiner, p 419)

For example, it is said that the term pierced (כָּ֝אֲרִ֗י [karah] Strongs Hebrew 3738) is a metaphor for the ravages of leprosy (Zondervan).  About that, I can’t judge, but it’s worth remembering that the context of Isaiah is not that of the NT.  Or today.    

Almost everything Christ says or experiences is interpreted as the fulfillment of OT prophecy

The key OT sources that seem to predict a Christ-like figure are:

  • Isaiah 52-53
  • Psalm 22
  • Zachariah 1

Mark’s portrayal of the crucifixion alludes to Psalm 22.  The mocking crowds, their sarcastic suggestions that God should deliver him, the casting of lots over his garments, and Jesus’ final cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” are all taken from the Psalm.

They have pierced my hands and feet . . . they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.  (Psalm 22:16-18)

In the years following Christ’s crucifixion, Christian scribes composed what can only be called a midrashic or interpretive account of his death, portraying his suffering and death as the fulfillment of prophecy.

In fact, we know almost nothing about Christ’s death, only that he was crucified.  Not one word, not one act by Christ or his torturers, is known to us as an event in history.**  We know only how his death was reinterpreted by the NT, so that his abjection became a victory over death itself, a sacrifice made “according to the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Matthew: a Jew reinterprets scripture

Almost every important event in Matthew takes place to fulfill scripture.

By far the most prolific quoter among the gospel writers, Matthew is intent on certifying that Jesus is, beyond any possible doubt, the messiah foretold by the prophets. Writing as a Jew, for Jews, he seeks to bolster the identity of a sect that finds itself increasingly at the margins of Judaism. (p 88***)

The date of composition is around 85 or 90 C.E., after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple but before a definitive parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. Matthew sees the debate over Jesus as a debate within Judaism over whether Jesus is the Messiah.  His opponents are Pharisees, not Jews.  Matthew understands himself as involved in an internecine debate among Jews.  

This is seen most clearly in his comment that those who refuse to listen “be to you as a Gentile.” (Matthew 18:17)  Matthew’s self-identification as a Jew is taken for granted.  Those who disagree are like Gentiles and tax collectors.  In other words, only non-Jews would disagree.

Matthew still thinks like an observant first-century Jew.  He assumes that the Jesus movement is still Jewish.  Luke must argue for it. 

In his own day, Matthew wrote to resist attempts to disenfranchise his own, marginal form of Jewish belief. In the course of history, he turned out to have written the prescription for the church’s disinheriting of the Jews. (p 99)

Luke: disagreement over Jesus is like sibling rivalry

Luke treats the disagreement over whether Jesus is the Messiah as a case of sibling rivalry.  Jesus has gone about announcing God’s forgiveness to prostitutes and tax collectors, while respectable, elder-brother types like the Pharisees are offended.

As Mary (1:46-55****) stated, God “has exalted those of low degree, but the rich he has sent empty away.” Once again God lifts the lowly while restraining the proud.   

Throughout the gospel, Luke has finessed the problem of Jewish antagonism toward the Jesus movement by his theme of division within Israel: The Jewish people were not hostile to Jesus and his message. On the contrary, Israel was already divided between the humble, who were open to God’s message, and the proud, who rejected it. (p 121)

Not all Jews, but the arrogant were hostile to Jesus.  Israel was already divided between those open to God and those closed in by greed and hypocritical purity.  This is the true basis of the division among the Jews over Jesus.

It is in Luke’s account of the crucifixion that the theme of Israel’s division based on status is most apparent.  The “chief priests and rulers” hand over Jesus to the Romans, but “a great multitude of the people” follow weeping as he goes to the cross.  In general, the people follow Jesus, while those in authority loathe him. 

Jesus points out that he fulfilled all that prophets had foretold

Unique to Luke’s account is the appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25).  Jesus reproaches them not only for not recognizing him but for failing to see that all that happened to him had been foretold in the OT.  “Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (24:44) 

Luke’s rhetoric is a tour de force of the first order. He has moved from arguing that Jesus fulfills the biblical prophecies about the Messiah (one can understand Jesus by seeing how he conforms to the model of scripture) to having the resurrected Jesus explain the “prophecies about him” in the Bible (one understands scripture when one sees how it conforms to the model of Jesus). (p 123)

No longer does scripture set the standard.  Jesus sets the standard for scripture.  Indeed, Jesus supplants Torah, which is now measured by how well it conforms to his life. 

John: the trauma of exile

While Matthew and Luke blame a certain group of Jews (Pharisees, or the proud), John blames the Jews, who become children of the devil (8:44).  Yet, it’s a little complicated, for John’s is the only gospel in which there are no gentile converts.  If every Christian was once a Jew, then presumably Jews are not beyond the reach of persuasion, what John calls “coming to the light.”  In other words, Jews are subject to the same God that was Paul on the road to Damascus.   

Despite the well-known opening of the last Gospel, as well as Jesus’ striking statement “before Abraham was I am” (8:58), for the most part Jesus does not identify himself with God.  On the contrary, immediately prior to his “before Abraham” statement, Jesus says “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.” (8:54).  Elsewhere in John’s gospel Jesus prays to the Father, goes to the Father, and is close to the Father’s heart. 

Jesus has a special relationship to the Father, but whether he is the Father’s only begotten son, as the Nicene Creed has it, remains unclear.  John 10:17-18 is not decisive.  Jesus remains in John a Jewish prophet, albeit one whose followers have left Judaism behind.  Or is it that the Jews have rejected the followers of Jesus?  If you’re a Christian, it’s the latter experience that John reflects.

What to conclude from all this

The NT is not so new.  It’s built on a reinterpretation of the old to predict the events of the New.  The NT transforms events described in the OT, such as the suffering servant of Isaiah 52-53, into a preface to Christ.  From the Gospels, we learn much that is new about Christ.  However, the outlines of his life and death are those laid out in the OT.     

Consider the root and branch analogy of Paul in Romans 11:13-24.  Paul compares  Gentile Christians to branches that have been grafted onto the tree that is Israel. Paul is warning Gentile Christians that although Israel may reject the salvation that God has offered through the messiah Jesus, Israel is not to be devalued. The Gentile Christians are a branch that lives and grows only by drawing its life from the trunk and root, that is, from Israel.

Christians who wish to avoid supersessionism—the claim that Christianity has made Judaism obsolete, are keen on this metaphor.  However, it’s a complicated image, for at the same time it suggests that Christianity is a more developed religion, higher up on the evolutionary scale (p 243).  

A better image might suggest that the NT was knitted from the yarn of the Old, so that they really cannot be separated.  Of course, Christianity developed into something quite different, but its Bible is best read as a reinterpretation of, rather than an addition to or replacement of the OT. 

This analogy is hardly perfect, but it is better, suggesting not only the dependence of the NT on the Old but also that the OT frames the NT’s account of the experience of Jesus.  As noted above, there is virtually no independent historical evidence of the life of Jesus.*****  We remain almost entirely dependent on the gospels and Paul. which means we can’t step outside the OT either. 

_______________________________


Notes

Almost all quotations from scripture are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

**  Not only the details of his death, but the entirety of Jesus’ life is without independent historical attestation.  A brief mention by the historian Josephus (93-94 CE), and an even briefer mention by Tacitus in his Annals (116 CE), are about all.  Jesus lived in Judea at the time Herod was ruler, and it is there he was crucified is all that seems historically certain. 

***  Unless otherwise noted, page references refer to Galambush’s book, The Reluctant Parting.  I depend heavily on it. 

**** These verses are generally known as The Magnificat. 

***** Biblical scholars use several internal criteria to evaluate the historical likelihood of an event or saying in the gospels, such as the criterion of embarrassment, which says that the authors of the gospels would have no reason to invent embarrassing events, such as Peter’s denial of Jesus (Ehrman. pp 90-91).  A clever criterion, it assumes that the Last Supper took place, for which there is no independent historical evidence.

References

Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.  Oxford, 1999.

Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book.  HarperCollins, 2005. 

Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ.  Baker Academic, 2008. 

zondervanacademic.com/blog/suffering-servant-isaiah-53. 

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