How the Early Christians Read the Bible

How the Early Christians Read the Bible November 28, 2012

It is not unusual for a first-time Bible reader to encounter a New Testament author quoting an Old Testament author, for the reader to wander back to the Old Testament to read that text too, and discover — “Wow, that’s not quite what the Old Testament author had in mind.” One of my favorites is how Matthew sees Jesus’ parents taking him to Egypt and then back to the Land of Israel (to the Galilee in fact) and to see in that move a “fulfillment” of Hosea where it says “out of Egypt I have called my son.” In Hosea “son” means Israel and refers to the Exodus… well, that’s not quite the same as what Matthew was on about.

Have you ever explained to a Bible reader how the New uses the Old? What would you tell that person? What are the major ideas? Which text in the NT would you use first?

Which is why we need an introductory book to how the earliest Christians read the Old Testament. Greg Beale, in his book Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2012) provides for advanced college students and seminary students such a book. One does not have to know Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek to make use of this book even if it is rich in detail at times.

That problem of “non-contextual” readings of the Old Testament (remember, it was the one and only Bible for the earliest Christians) has a number of arguments in its favor though Beale thinks they arguments are often taken too far. Thus, there is the argument that the earliest Christians were using typical, non-contextual Jewish methods of interpretation, that the early Christians were using a “testimony book” which had quotes and not full contexts of the Bible, that their “christocentric” or “christotelic” approach permitted them to override the Old Testament context, that they were using the OT rhetorically but not contextually, and that postmodernity reveals that those authors were reading their ideas into the OT. Beale thinks much of this has been overcooked.

The issue is also over typology, something that gets abused in the church and therefore gets a bad name, but it’s something the NT authors clearly do — do the NT authors see analogies within their theology that would not have been seen in the original OT? We are drawn back into the salvation-history discussion: once one admits that Christ is the fulfillment, the Old begins to be read toward and in light of Christ. In other words, it is “contextual” exegesis.

What Beale can do for most any Bible reader is provide some method for anyone wanting know how to begin seeing how the NT appropriates and reads the OT:

1.Identify the OT reference: is it a quotation or an allusion? (He’s got criteria for determining allusions.)
2. Analyze the broad NT context where the OT reference occurs.
3. Analyze the OT context both broadly and immediately, esp thoroughly interpreting the paragraph in which the quotation or allusion occurs.
4. Survey the use of the OT text in early and late Judaism that might be relevant to the NT appropriation. [Requires some texts and some time.]
5. Compare the texts carefully, including the textual variants: NT, LXX, Hebrew Bible, targums, early Jewish citations of that text, etc.
6. Analyze the author’s textual use of the OT (which text does this author use?).
7. Analyze the author’s interpretive (hermeneutical) use of the OT.
8. Analyze the author’s theological use of the OT.
9. Analyze the author’s rhetorical use of the OT.

OK, this takes lots of work — for each text analyzed! But some of you are interested in this sort of thing, and this is a great place to start.

So, then, how does the NT use the OT?

1. To indicate direct fulfillment of prophecy.
2. To indicate indirect fulfillment of typological prophecy.
3. To indicate affirmation that a not-yet-fulfilled OT prophecy will assuredly be fulfilled in the future.
4. To indicate an analogical or illustrative use of the OT.
5. To indicate the symbolic use of the OT.
6. To indicate an abiding authority carried over from the OT.
7. To indicate a proverbial use of the OT.
8. To indicate a rhetorical use of the OT.
9. To indicate the use of an OT segment as a blueprint or prototype of a NT segment.
10. To indicate an alternate textual use of the OT.
11. To indicate an assimilated use of the OT.
12. To indicate an ironic or inverted use of the OT.

Complex indeed, but here is what is at work under it all:

1. They believe in corporate solidarity or representativeness.
2. Christ is the true Israel and church.
3. History is unified

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  • Percival

    And of course, Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, has a very helpful section on this question as well.

  • Tim Atwater

    I’d like to read this.
    Am currently reading Judaism and the Interpretation of Scripture, Jacob Neusner.
    Any others who have read or are reading this, would enjoy hearing your takes on this too.
    Neusner’s basic thesis includes
    * The midrash is equally inspired by God as Tanakh — on par w written scripture
    * history is of little interest to Jewish reading method (not that history is itself not of great interest — but not much so in reading of Scripture)
    * the key in reading scripture is to hear it as a letter from God written to us today
    * then he runs the chord changes in a wildly fascinating way (for me) — different types of midrash, each with own emphasis —
    * and construction of typologies — that probably don’t correlate very closely with those heard/read/seen by even our best evangelical and mainline or any other categories of Christian scholars. A great example — from a single verse of Ruth, in the midrash on Ruth, six-fold allusions to the Messiah — in history and to come
    — which Neusner brilliantly (i think) compares with Norman MacLean’s midrashic analysis of an historic Montana fire in Young Men and Fire.
    (Aviva Zornberg goes much this same route in her equally brilliant, if difficult, The Particulars of Rapture…)
    point being —
    I want to read this book but I am going to be skeptical still about how well we Gentile Christian readers really understand the so-called OT (Tanakh)

    to be continued, in hopes…

  • EricW

    @2 Tim Atwater:

    So the Tanakh is a magic book, or a role-playing game in which the Text is the Game Master and the readers are the players.

  • Craig

    Beale’s work, as described, calls to mind the attempts of Christian apologists to neutralize difficulty problems in the faith. Does Beale present himself as a neutral scholar?

  • Larry Barber

    How many seminary professors would flunk Paul over his use of the OT if Paul was enrolled in their classes?

  • I think Scripture can be multi-dimensional. It can have more than one meaning, that’s part of what gives it a divine signature.

  • @Larry: haha, so true.

  • Thanks Scot for the very helpful summary and challenge. Makes me want to buy the book.

    I do wish we would drop the word typology and instead use the equally good parallel idea/translation “patterns.” I think this makes NT books like Matthew and Hebrews much more easily understandable. God is a good teacher/educator. So God uses patterns to create future opportunities to fill them with new and richer content and meaning. And, this was not limited to the NT use of OT; it is also an important part of NT use of NT. A simple NT example would be Jesus saying to his followers “take up your cross daily.” This was meant to become a pattern which neither discounts the original event nor means we are playing games when we re-apply it to another time and place.

  • Norman

    Having read some of Beale’s work I would think this book would be a good starter for many. However I would expect that those digging deeper are going to look for more than Beale may be comfortable expounding on.

    Part of the issue is that the formation of the early church appears to have come out of the tension between competing groups of Jews who had various views upon the purpose of scripture and what should be revealed to the masses. The camp that evolved into the Early Church appeared to possibly have more of an affinity for wisdom literature to play a larger role in the ideology and application of scripture; while the Deuteronomist camp had a penchant for Orthodoxy and Law adherence. You can find this tension within the scriptures itself and rolled over into a debate over what should represent scripture.

    The earliest church rejected the Legalistic Jewish camp that developed the Masoretic Text as opposed to the Greek LXX which had been the First Christians standard. The problem they said was that the Jews beginning around AD95 went about systematically altering scriptures from the OT that supported Christians OT interpretation regarding the coming of Messiah. That makes sense when you realize the convulsion that had just occurred between the two competing Camps that had been festering for centuries. So in effect the present day church has adopted a canon that the early church says was defective and lacking of wisdom and messianic prophecy. The discovery of the Qumran literature bears much of this tension out and allows us to investigate more accurately what differences there were before the Jews redacted what had been used by the formative church.

    I don’t know if Beale delves into these issues and if he doesn’t, those having a deeper appetite will want to expand and garner other views but again Beale is a good place to start.

  • EricW

    @8 Norman:


    chap. lxxi.—the jews reject the interpretation of the lxx., from which, moreover, they have taken away some passages.

    “But I am far from putting reliance in your teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another. And I wish you to observe, that they have altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders who were with Ptolemy, and by which this very man who was crucified is proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as being crucified, and as dying; but since I am aware that this is denied by all of your nation, I do not address myself to these points, but I proceed8 to carry on my discussions by means of those passages which are still admitted by you. For you assent to those which I have brought before your attention, except that you contradict the statement, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive,’ and say it ought to be read, ‘Behold, the young woman shall conceive.’ And I promised to prove that the prophecy referred, not, as you were taught, to Hezekiah, but to this Christ of mine: and now I shall go to the proof.”

    Here Trypho remarked, “We ask you first of all to tell us some of the Scriptures which you allege have been completely cancelled.”

    chap. lxxii.—passages have been removed by the jews from esdras and jeremiah.

    And I said, “I shall do as you please. From the statements, then, which Esdras made in reference to the law of the passover, they have taken away the following: ‘And Esdras said to the people, This passover is our Saviour and our refuge. And if you have understood, and your heart has taken it in, that we shall humble Him on a standard, and9 thereafter hope in Him, then this place shall not be forsaken for ever, says the God of hosts. But if you will not believe Him, and will not listen to His declaration, you shall be a laughing-stock to the nations.’10 And from the sayings of Jeremiah they have cut out the following: ‘I [was] like a lamb that is brought to the slaughter: they devised a device against me, saying, Come, let us lay on wood on His bread, and let us blot Him out from the land of the living; and His name shall no more be remembered.’11 And since this passage from the sayings of Jeremiah is still written in some copies [of the Scriptures] in the synagogues of the Jews (for it is only a short time since they were cut out), and since from these words it is demonstrated that the Jews deliberated about the Christ Himself, to crucify and put Him to death, He Himself is both declared to be led as a sheep to the slaughter, as was predicted by Isaiah, and is here represented as a harmless lamb; but being in a difficulty about them, they give themselves over to blasphemy. And again, from the sayings of the same Jeremiah these have been cut out: ‘The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation.’1

    chap. lxxiii.—[the words] “from the wood” have been cut out of ps. xcvi.

    “And from the ninety-fifth (ninety-sixth) Psalm they have taken away this short saying of the words of David: ‘From the wood.’2 For when the passage said, ‘Tell ye among the nations, the Lord hath reigned from the wood,’ they have left, ‘Tell ye among the nations, the Lord hath reigned.’ Now no one of your people has ever been said to have reigned as God and Lord among the nations, with the exception of Him only who was crucified, of whom also the Holy Spirit affirms in the same Psalm that He was raised again, and freed from [the grave], declaring that there is none like Him among the gods of the nations: for they are idols of demons. But I shall repeat the whole Psalm to you, that you may perceive what has been said. It is thus: ‘Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord, all the earth. Sing unto the Lord, and bless His name; show forth His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all people. For the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised: He is to be feared above all the gods. For all the gods of the nations are demons but the Lord made the heavens. Confession and beauty are in His presence; holiness and magnificence are in His sanctuary. Bring to the Lord, O ye countries of the nations, bring to the Lord glory and honour, bring to the Lord glory in His name. Take sacrifices, and go into His courts; worship the Lord in His holy temple. Let the whole earth be moved before Him: tell ye among the nations, the Lord hath reigned.3 For He hath established the world, which shall not be moved; He shall judge the nations with equity. Let the heavens rejoice, and the earth be glad; let the sea and its fulness shake. Let the fields and all therein be joyful. Let all the trees of the wood be glad before the Lord: for He comes, for He comes to judge the earth. He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth.’ ”

    Here Trypho remarked, “Whether [or not] the rulers of the people have erased any portion of the Scriptures, as you affirm, God knows; but it seems incredible.”

    “Assuredly,” said I, “it does seem incredible. For it is more horrible than the calf which they made, when satisfied with manna on the earth; or than the sacrifice of children to demons; or than the slaying of the prophets. But,” said I, “you appear to me not to have heard the Scriptures which I said they had stolen away. For such as have been quoted are more than enough to prove the points in dispute, besides those which are retained by us,4 and shall yet be brought forward.”

    You can read the footnotes at the online version at (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I).

  • I find that MOST people in evangelicalism have been raised in the church on a steady diet of either a) sermons based on a verse (or part of a verse) disconnected from any chapter or book context (let alone in relation to the parallel testament), or b) heavily systematized readings of extended texts that seem to flout genre and historical issues. So Beale sounds like what the doctor ordered, or at least he is hovering around a major problem. Curious Scott if there are any competing volumes you would recommend, or if this is one-of-a-kind?

  • Norman

    Eric W,

    Yes that would represent some examples but as I said this issue was formenting for centuries between the two camps. Christ was the culmination of this Jewish theological Civil war and it lead to His Death. The exclusion of the highly prophetic and Messianic 1Enoch is one of the most significant deletions from the canon as it is extremely vivid against the ruling legalist Jews.

    We often want to whitewash what was actually occuring but the development of Christianity has deep Hebrew roots and the coming Mesiah was the projection of the terminus end point. After that the Christians declared that the Jews were excomunicated from the true covenant. And the same with the Jews against the Christians.

  • BradK

    Tim @2,

    “the key in reading scripture is to hear it as a letter from God written to us today”

    Wouldn’t this approach all but guarantee that the reader will misunderstand scripture? Surely Neusner doesn’t actually believe that scripture is a letter from God written to us today?

  • AHH

    Percival @1,

    As I recall, Beale wrote a quite negative review of Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation (full disclosure: I loved that book and it has been a boon to my faith). I don’t think I did anything more than skim the review or see a summay of it, but I think the basic issue was that Enns was seen as undermining the “inerrancy” doctrine of which Beale is a staunch defender.

    Which I suppose raises the question (Scot?) of whether there is any book that covers this ground from a Christian perspective that is NOT tightly bound to that fundamentalist approach to Scripture. Or perhaps this particular book is not very affected by the author’s inerrancy blinders?

  • EricW

    I have Neusner’s book (unread) in a box at home from a closeout sale at Mardel’s book store. I suspect Tim Atwater is listing Neusner’s description of traditional/historical Jewish ways of reading and interpreting the Tanakh, not Neusner’s personal use/reading of Scripture. Now I am interested in reading it!

    Re: Beale – I have his Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament by D. A. Carson (Editor), G. K. Beale (Editor).

    I would like to know how Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation at 192 pages relates to the Carson & Beale work at 1280 pages. Per one reviewer:

    “Baker has now published Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation. While some would have rather seen a more exhaustive treatment of the subject, Beale is clear that “the purpose of this handbook is to provide a short guide to the use of the OT citations and allusions in the NT.” (p. xvii) As a handbook, as opposed to a more detailed study, Beale is more general in his assessments of thoughts and a lot of the content is taken up with surveying the various views within the field of NT use of the OT. It is the guidelines laid out in this book that served as the basis by which all the contributors to the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament followed.”

    I may already have most of what I need of this in the massive Carson & Beale Commentary.

  • Norman


    Yes, your experience with Beale regarding his review of Enns left me with a similar taste. However I have come to the point where I can filter out various scholars extraneous suppositions and still appreciate much of their work. Beale performs a magnificent job in this particular work “The Temple and the Churches’ Mission” so I feel comfortable recommending Beale’s “basic” hermeneutic approach. However I also feel comfortable exhorting those so inclined who have progressed sufficiently beyond Beale’s inerrant restrictions to pursue further scholarly works. We all have to start somewhere as we work through the various stages of leaving the innerrantist approach behind.

  • TJR

    Norman #16 I agree with you and AHH about Beale and Enns. Did you know Beale went on to teach at Westminster? However, I would disagree with you about being comfortable recommending Beale’s “basic” hermeneutic approach. How can you recommend an approach that must find every text to be inerrant before the text is even studied. Is it because you like Beale’s conclusion that you overlook his hermeneutic approach.

  • Norman


    It depends on what I mean by “basic”. 😉

    There are some fundamentals that are worthwhile that allows Beale to clearly perform some good exegetical work ( even N. T. Wright has been impressed with the book by Beale that I referenced ). Some of the conclusions he may draw or the baggage he may attach is another matter though. I am no defender of Beale and I’m sure he would want to distance himself from me but I’ve learned to get past a lot of evangelical exuberance as I once dwelled there myself but perhaps not as exuberantly as Beale does.

    However I’m an equal oppurtunity critic as I also believe Enns brings some misconceptions to the table that may need to be more robustly challenged. What I generally like about Enns though is he is open to dialogue and differences of opinion and realizes that some of his work may have fresh light eventually revealed about it. Whereas Beal comes across more as the classical “Gatekeeper” idealogue circling the wagons.

    It also seems that Scot has similar thoughts concerning Beale’s credentials on “basic” hermenutics as I do. … “What Beale can do for most any Bible reader is provide some method for anyone wanting know how to begin seeing how the NT appropriates and reads the OT:”

  • Patrick


    The OT warned the Jews this would be their final status someday. Moses started the warnings in Deut 18:15 and they continue all over the OT and NT texts. It wasn’t Christians who “excommunicated” non believing Jews, it was God.
    Jesus said, “I will take the kingdom from you and give it to a nation bringing forth the fruit of it”. He did,not us.