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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