QUOTING THE OLD TESTAMENT

Something else that modern Western Christians find strange is how the New Testament writers sometimes altered the Old Testament text that they were quoting.  They had enormous respect for the authority of the Old Testament.  But often that didn’t stop them changing the wording to make it more relevant for their purposes.

Comparing Acts 2 with Joel 2

There is an example of this in Acts 2:17-21, where Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32.

The Greek words in this passage of Acts correspond very closely to the Greek words in this passage of Joel in the Septuagint, i.e., the standard Greek Old Testament translation of the first century.  And this correspondence shows that Peter is quoting Joel in these verses, not paraphrasing it.  What is more, the first Greek words in Acts 2:17 – kai estai – are the same as the first words of this passage in the Septuagint, which shows that the quotation starts at the beginning of Acts 2:17.

In the Septuagint this prophecy begins:

‘And it will be after these things . . .’

Very similarly, in the original Hebrew underlying our English translations of Joel the prophecy begins:

‘And it will come to pass afterwards . . .’

In Acts 2:17, by contrast, in Peter’s quote, the prophecy begins:

‘And it will be in the last days . . .’

‘In the last days’ is not in the Old Testament text.  Luke (and also Peter, if the quote is strictly historical – see the discussion on history below) has correctly understood that Joel’s prophecy applied to the last days that began with Jesus’ crucifixion/resurrection/giving of the Spirit.  But instead of just realising this, he actually alters the Old Testament quotation to make this connection clear!

This is another example of how the Jewish mindset of the first century could allow imprecision in a way that a modern Western mind finds problematic.  (Even if Luke wasn’t a Jew himself, he was certainly very influenced by Jewish ways of thinking, as scholars agree.)

Comparing Galatians 4:30 with Genesis 21:10

Another example can be found in Galatians 4:30, where Paul cites Genesis 21:10.

In the Septuagint, Genesis 21:10 reads:

‘Expel this slave woman and her son.  For the son of this slave woman will not be an heir with my son Isaac.’

The original Hebrew underlying our English versions of Genesis 21:10 has a virtually identical meaning.

In Galatians 4:30, however, Paul writes:

‘But what does the scripture say?  “Expel the slave woman and her son.  For the son of the slave woman will not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” ’

Apart from the last few words, the words Paul uses correspond very closely to the Septuagint translation.  And this shows that Paul is quoting Genesis, not paraphrasing it.  His initial question, ‘But what does the scripture say?’ also suggests quotation.

Note, however, the big change at the end of this passage.  ‘My son Isaac’ in Genesis has been changed to ‘the son of the free woman’ in Galatians.

Paul has altered the Old Testament text that he received in order to help him further his argument in Galatians.  At this point in the letter he is rounding off his allegorical treatment of Sarah and Hagar.  And he wants to emphasise that Christians, whose allegorical mother is Sarah, are free.  He therefore modifies the text of Genesis to aid him in making his point.

It is, of course, true that the points that are being made from the Old Testament in these examples from Acts and Galatians are legitimate ones.  Nevertheless, it tends to strike us as a bit dishonest to alter the text in this way.  But Luke and Paul apparently didn’t think it was dishonest at all.  And, more importantly, apparently neither did the Holy Spirit who inspired the text!

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EXCEPTIONS TO THINGS

Another way in which Jesus and the authors of the Bible tended to be more imprecise than we are used to concerns exceptions to things.  This actually overlaps with the issue of hyperbole.

First century Jews often didn’t mention that there would be exceptions to something, even when there might be many exceptions.  Here are a couple of New Testament examples:

Matthew 5:42

In Matthew 5:42 Jesus teaches:

‘Give to the person who asks you, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow from you.’

There are in fact obviously many situations when we shouldn’t give to someone who asks us for something or wants to borrow from us.  For example, if someone asks us for money to buy illegal drugs, we should certainly not oblige!

Jesus, in line with ancient Jewish cultural habits, sees no need to mention the fact that there will be many exceptions to the principle that He is outlining.  We wouldn’t speak like this in our culture.  We would express the same concept differently.

Luke 16:15

Luke 16:15 is another example.  Here Jesus states:

‘That which is highly valued by people is detestable in God’s sight.’

Actually, we can think of many things that would have been highly valued by people in Jesus’ day but which wouldn’t have been detestable to God.  For instance, helping someone who has been hurt in an accident is just one of a multitude of examples that could be given.

Again, in line with His Jewish culture, Jesus takes it for granted that there will be numerous exceptions to the principle He is outlining, although He doesn’t refer to these exceptions.  We wouldn’t speak like this in the modern West.  We would probably express the same concept by saying, ‘Much that is highly valued by people is detestable in God’s sight.’

Failing to recognise unexpressed exceptions

Sometimes, failing to recognise unexpressed exceptions to things causes difficulties for modern Western Bible readers.

For example, in Mark 10:2-12 Jesus teaches that whoever divorces his wife and ‘marries’ another woman is in fact committing adultery.  That might seem to conflict with Matthew 5:32; 19:9, which allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of sexual immorality.

However, once we understand that first century Jews often allowed for unexpressed exceptions to a principle, the difficulty disappears.  Mark provides a general principle whose exceptions have been left unexpressed.  Matthew then goes into a bit more detail, specifying exceptions to the principle in Mark.  There is no need at all to see a conflict between these passages.

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HYPERBOLE

In comparison with how modern Westerners speak about things, the lack of precision in Matthew 12:40 is truly amazing.

1 Corinthians 1:14-15

Consider also 1 Corinthians 1:14-15.  In this passage Paul tells the church in Corinth:

‘I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say that you were baptized in my name.’

Paul has clearly been concerned that some of the Corinthian Christians were putting him on a pedestal and regarding him more highly than they should.  And he is implying that he baptized so few of them to counter this.  But the way he refers to why he acted as he did is astonishing in comparison with what modern Westerners are used to.

Paul speaks as if the Corinthians had said to themselves:

‘This guy Paul is amazing.  You know what, when I was baptized, I think I was actually baptized in the name of Paul.’

But Paul cannot possibly have thought that Corinthian Christians who had been baptized in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, would really have thought this!  Yet he speaks as if they had!

The difference between the concern that Paul really has and the words used to describe that concern is amazing in comparison with modern Western ways of speaking about things.

I have given these two examples to set the scene for what follows by showing to what extent the biblical authors could be imprecise about things in a way that we wouldn’t be.  I am in no way criticising this imprecision.  I am just noting that it is a way of speaking that is very different from what we are used to.

Let’s look now at some specific types of imprecision in the Bible.

HYPERBOLE

First, there is the issue of hyperbole.  This is a figure of speech that uses deliberate exaggeration for effect without any intention to deceive.

Modern Western culture uses hyperbole very frequently.  For example, someone might pick up a bag and say, ‘That weighs a ton!’  In this case, ‘a ton’ is not meant to be taken literally, and both speaker and hearers understand this perfectly.  The idea is that the bag is extremely heavy, and the exaggeration is used to stress this.

Although we commonly use hyperbole, first century Jews used it more often and in ways we wouldn’t.  Here are some New Testament examples:

Mark 10:29-30

In Mark 10:29-30 Jesus promises:

‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, who will not receive a hundred times as much in the present time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields . . .’

In comparison with the way Westerners use language today, the hyperbole in this passage is really amazing.  We can note too that Jesus even emphasises this promise by beginning it with ‘Truly I tell you’, yet the promise can hardly be taken literally.  Jesus is promising blessing before death to those who give up things for His sake.  But the language used to describe this blessing is astonishingly exaggerated when compared with what we are used to.

Mark 1:5

Another example can be found in Mark 1:5.  Here Mark tells us:

‘And all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to [John the Baptist].  And they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.’

Actually, we know that there were many Jews, including Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t do this.  The point is that large numbers of people went to be baptized by John.  But this is stated in very hyperbolic language.

Hyperbolic ‘every’ and ‘all’

In fact, there are many places in Scripture where ‘every’ or ‘all’ is used hyperbolically.  In addition to the example I have just given, see, e.g., Luke 6:30; Acts 3:24; 17:21; Hebrews 4:15.  There are also numerous places in the Old Testament where the phrase ‘all Israel’ doesn’t literally mean all Israel.  See, e.g., 1 Samuel 7:5; 25:1; 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chronicles 12:1; Daniel 9:11.

Failing to recognise hyperbole

Failing to recognise hyperbole can sometimes lead to misinterpretation of a biblical passage.

One such text is Revelation 5:9, which refers to those who receive salvation as coming from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’.

It is a fact that there have been tribes that have existed and died out during the Christian era without ever having heard the gospel.  And it is often claimed that because this verse says that the saved come from every tribe, some members of these tribes must therefore have been saved without faith in Christ.  This also means, the argument goes on, that we can expect significant numbers of people today to be saved without faith in Him.

However, once we recognize that ‘every’ in Scripture is often used hyperbolically, it immediately becomes clear that this verse doesn’t prove this at all.  It could easily just mean that those who are saved come from a huge diversity of ethnic groups.

 

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ATTITUDES TO PRECISION

Most Christians are well aware that although the Bible is divinely inspired, this hasn’t stopped its human authors from expressing their own writing styles.

What Christians often fail to recognize, however, is that the inspiration of Scripture has also allowed the authors, and Jesus, to express the particular ways of thinking and speaking that were present in ancient Jewish culture.

Often, modern Western Christians approach the Bible assuming that the authors thought and spoke like we do, when in some key respects they actually didn’t.  This frequently leads to puzzlement and mistakes in interpretation.  Many of the problems that modern readers of Scripture experience when reading it can be solved by taking account of the authors’ cultural ways of talking about things.

ATTITUDES TO PRECISION

One important difference between the authors of the Bible and us concerns attitudes to precision.  The biblical writers (and Jesus Himself) often spoke much less precisely about things than we do.  They also tended to be less concerned about precisely sticking to traditions that they held in high esteem.

To be sure, when it was important, the authors of the Bible could be very precise.  But often they were imprecise in ways that we find strange, at times even amazing.

In what follows, I will highlight some areas in which this difference in attitude to precision reveals itself in Scripture.  I will concentrate on the New Testament, since that is the part of the Bible that I know the most about.

GENERAL EXAMPLES OF IMPRECISION

To begin with, here are two general examples of how first century Jews could use astonishingly imprecise language by our standards.

Matthew 12:40

First, there is Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 12:40:

‘For just as Jonah was in the sea monster’s stomach for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.’

Being in the heart of the earth here refers to the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And three days and three nights, at least on the face of it, is approximately 72 hours.  Yet Matthew himself, who records the words in this verse, portrays the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection as roughly 36 hours (Matthew 27:46-28:7)!

In Matthew 12:40 the three days and three nights must be referring to three consecutive Jewish calendar days.  Jewish days began and ended at sunset.  So the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection fell on the last part of the day before the Sabbath, all of the Sabbath day, and probably a bit less than half of the day after the Sabbath.  Therefore the time between His death and resurrection fell on part or all of three consecutive calendar days.

Matthew clearly regarded it as true to say that this period of about 36 hours was three days and three nights!  But in modern Western culture we couldn’t possibly truthfully describe a period of about 36 hours as three days and three nights!

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