What to Do When the New Testament Quotes the Old
When a NT author quotes the OT, he believes the OT passage has an argument to make that he now commandeers for his own use. The quotes are not window dressing, with the real argument coming before or after the quote. No, the quotes are a fundamental part of the argument. The quotes contain the premises upon which the conclusion stands. We might misunderstand the conclusion if we haven’t identified the premises (in their original context).
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” (Matt 1:23)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)
“Not one of his bones will be broken.” (John 19:36)
“You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” (Heb 5:5)
Since the Bible had no verse divisions until the 16th century AD, we ought to consider what this implies about how to read and study the Bible. Ancient readers had no map or reference system to pinpoint particular statements. They could not speak with precision about a textual location such as Isaiah chapter 7 verse 14.
Instead, they referenced Scriptures by broad indicators such as:
- “…in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush…” (Mark 12:26)
- “…the scroll of the prophet Isaiah…He found the place where it was written…” (Luke 4:17)
- “the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah…” (John 12:38)
- “he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way…” (Heb 4:4)
They did not quote things the way we do. They did not have MLA- or APA-style citations, word-perfect precision, or bibliographical indices.
In fact, most people didn’t read their own copies of the Scripture. Most of what they knew about Scripture came through oral delivery, repetition, and memorization.
So if we read our Bibles only like 21st century students at institutions of higher education, we will not be reading them like 1st century commoners, or even nobility, receiving these remarkable works of literature from the hands of Jesus’ first followers.
What does this mean?
1. NT quotes of the OT are referencing passages, not verses.
Often there’s a verbal connection to the exact verses being quoted. For example, when Peter wants to make a point about being “living stones” (1 Pet 2:5) he grabs a few key statements with the word “stone” in them (1 Pet 2:6-8). But his goal is not to produce sound bytes fitting for a radio interview, or back-cover blurbs promoting a book.