For most New testament authors, Scripture at the time was the Old Testament. The way early Christians treated scripture is importance for understanding the nature of biblical inspiration. The NT will sometimes freely cite its words and at other times loosely reinterpret the Old Testament to make it say things its original authors did not intend to. They had very different standards than we do as the examples below will delineate.
Out of Egypt I called My Son
In the Matthean infancy narrative we find Joseph taking Mary and Jesus to Egypt to hide from King Herod until his death. Matthew 2:15 says "this was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I have called my son.'" When we look this verse up, we find it in the Old Testament in Hosea 11:1 but we here I also quote verse two for illumination:
Hosea 11:1-2 "When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols." [NRSV]
This passage clearly refers to the Jews and their Exodus from Egypt. If it applied to Jesus are we to believe the more God called Jesus, the more he went away from him? Matthew saw a parallel between Jesus's birth and the Jewish liberation from the yoke of Egyptian bondage and slavery. Jesus, who is a new and greater Moses, will provide a new and greater Exodus for the people of Israel that will lead to its restoration and fulness. But we can scarcely imagine Jesus as fulfilling
a prophecy here in the modern sense. Clearly, Matthew's exegetical practices are far removed from our own.
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
Another example occurs in Mark 1:2-3:
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord make his paths straight,'"
What is attributed to Isaiah is actually a combination of Exod 23:20/Mal 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 which probably explains why some manuscripts have "the prophets" instead of "Isaiah." Shirley Jackson wrote
"Mal 3:1 (in the Septuagint), "I send my messenger and he shall prepare a way before me," becomes "I send my messenger before thee, who shall prepare thy way" (Mark 1:2; Matt 11:10; Luke 7:27). In the original God was speaking about his own coming "unto his temple." The gospel writers, in order to make use of the passage for their purpose, had to disregard the original content and change the person of the pronoun from first to second. The list of such examples might be greatly increased." [The New Testament Writers' Interpretation of the Old Testament Source: The Biblical World , Aug., 1911, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Aug., 1911), pp. 92-102]
Isaiah 40:3 reads: "A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." In context, this passage is about Israel's return from Babylonian captivity. The Jewish Study Bible writes: "The Presence of God left the land of Israel along with the exiles (cf. Ezek. chs 8-11); now it will return with them (cf. Ezek. 43.1-5)."
The synoptic Gospels freely apply this verse to a new context, namely, John the Baptist ( Mark 1:3, Matthew 3:3, Luke 3:4) who paves the way for Jesus. Originally it has absolutely nothing to do with John the Baptist and Jesus. There is also a change of the Septuagint version of making straight a path for "our God" to making straight "his path" in reference to Jesus. Mark takes two separate scriptures that had nothing to do with Jesus and John the Baptist, and puts them together in that context, both under the heading of Isiah.
Matthew and Micah on Bethlehem
"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days."
[for so it has been written by the prophet] 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'
There is a small change here. Matthew rejects Micah lowly view of Bethlehem as evidenced by his emended citation of the passage. Dale Allison writes:
Early Christian literature also contains examples of the reversal of scriptural subtexts, and many of these are often ironic. Matthew 2:6 inserts . . . "not at all," into its quotation of Mic 5:2, so that Micah remarks upon Bethlehem's insignificance whereas Matthew - who elsewhere affirms the continuing authority of the Law and the Prophets (5:17-20) - outright denies it. [Resurrecting Jesus]
Two other Examples from Dale Allison
In Rom 10:6-8, Paul transmutes the exhortation to do the law in Deut 30:11-14 ("It is not in heaven Neither is it beyond the sea No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe it") into a statement about his law-free gospel. [Resurrecting Jesus]
A less obvious but still striking example occurs in Revelation, if one considers the book in its entirety. The Apocalypse throughout "draws extensively on the temple chapters of Ezekiel 40-48, while denying the existence of the very thing these chapters are about," a new temple (see Rev 21:22). [Resurrecting Jesus]
Hebrew Text or Septuagint?
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. It was translated into a Greek edition known as the Septuagint. Translations — especially of such a large work - are hardly perfect. Most of the Old Testament citations in the New Testament are clearly from the Septuagint. Even Paul, who could probably read the Hebrew text himself utilized this Greek translation. The problem withing the New Testament usage of the Septuagint is immediate: the point made in a few of these passages appears to rely on a mistranslation of the Hebrew original! Paul J. Achtemeier wrote,
"For example, the point being made in Heb. 10.5-9 depends on the Septuagint reading of Ps. 40:6-8, which says: "A body you have prepared for me" rather than the Hebrew original, which reads: "you have given me an open ear." The same is true of the quotation of Ps. 16:10 in Acts 2:26-28. Whereas the Hebrew speaks of God keeping the faithful servant from the "pit," the Septuagint translation speaks of keeping the "Holy One" from "corruption," a change that lies at the heart of the point Peter is making in this sermon. The prophecy of Jesus' resurrection depends on the Septuagint translation, which is again different from the Hebrew original When Paul quotes "Scripture" in Rom. 4:3, what he quotes is closer to the Septuagint than to the original Hebrew version of Gen. 15:6" [Biblical Inspiration, pg 64]
The same thing may have happened in Psalm 8:5 and Hebrews 2:7:
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. [NRSV]
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, [NRSV]
Hebrews also appears to make humans temporarily lower than the angels as a parallel to Jesus's temporary incarnation. But this lower nature is eternal in the Psalm because it used the word "Elohim
" which should be translated "God." We will always be ontologically lower than God. The Jewish study Bible writes:
"As in Gen. 1.26-30, humans are the climax of creation (contrast Job 17.17-18 and ch 26). "'Elohim" is properly translated as divine; this explains why people are adorned ... with glory and majesty, typically divine qualities. The tradition that "'elohim" should be rendered here as angels (LXX, Tg., Radak) is the result of the discomfort of depicting humans as too God-like-a discomfort not shared by this psalmist."
If we subscribe to models of scripture with factual inerrancy and mechanical-plenary dictation, we will encounter difficulties in explaining these away. Are we now extending inerrancy and inspiration to translations of the Bible as well? Is the Hebrew and the Greek translation both inerrant? Is only the source being used by the New Testament author, who sometimes makes use of the Hebrew text but more frequently the Septuagint, the inspired version?
We don't always see a slavish devotion to the text by the New Testament authors, as if they thought the exact words of the Old Testament were chosen by the Holy Spirit. The authors clearly did not see the Old Testament as the immutable and unchangeable word of God.
They freely quoted from the Greek translation of it and changed its words in places and reinterpreted it to fit their own Christological purposes.
If evangelicals claim the Biblical authors accepted the Old Testament as true in every detail like them, they fall victim to anachronism. While there can be no doubt these writers considered the Old Testament authoritative and true, how on earth can we ascribe the modern belief in inerrancy and verbal-plenary inspiration to any of them when they feel free to reword portions of the Old Testament and use it as evidence of their views, when historically speaking, it had nothing to do with them when it was written? If a liberal Christians interpreted portions of the New Testament in the same manner as the New Testament writers treated the Old Testament, the dissent would be loud and vociferous. The truth is the New Testament authors exist within the conventions of the time hardly do anything alien to what the Old Testament does to itself. Dale Allison wrote:
One possible way of accounting for the conflicting signals in the tradition involves thinking less about theology and more about rhetoric. Some of us are wont to think of ancient Jews, at least the pious ones, as though they were modern fundamentalists, so that they would never have sounded as revolutionary as Jesus sometimes does. But this is misperception. Some Jews not only felt free to rewrite Scripture - illustrative are
Jubilees and the Life of Adam and Eve, both of which freely transform Genesis - but some also were further able, in the words of Michael Fishbane, to use "authoritative Torah-teaching as a didactic foil." Indeed, "the Jewish device of twisting Scripture, of subjecting the earlier canon to radical reinterpretation by means of subtle reformulations, is now recognized as central to the Bible as a whole." When Job gripes, "What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them?" (7:17), is not he recalling the famous Ps 8, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" (v. 4) and thereby inverting and mocking the liturgy? Psalm 144, in rewriting Psalm 18, turns it from a thanksgiving into a complaint. Joel 3:9-10 ("Prepare war....Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears") prophesies war in the language of a famous prophecy of peace (Isa 2:4 = Mic 4:3: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks... neither shall they learn war any more"). Joel makes similar rhetorical moves elsewhere, as when he transfers prophetic threats against Babylon (Isa
13:6) and Egypt (Ezek 30:2) into warnings against Jerusalem (Joel 1:15), and when the prophecy that the wilderness will be turned into Eden (Isa 51:3; Ezek 36:35) becomes a prophecy that Eden will be turned into a wilderness (Joel 2:3). Jonah seems to revise the narrow understanding of divine grace within Joel 2:1-17 - unless it is Joel 2:1-17 that is narrowing the more universal understanding of Jonah. Isa 40:28 declares that God needs no rest, 45:7 that God creates darkness -- about-faces from the primeval history. "The oracular formula in Isa. 56.4 signals the announcement of a new word of YHWH, a word that annuls the legal stipulations of Deut. 23.2-9." Daniel 12:4 foretells that at the end, "many will be running back and forth, and knowledge will increase." This takes up Amos 8:12 - at the end 'pp, v. 2) "they will run back and forth, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it" - and so turns prophetic pessimism into words of hope. [Resurrecting Jesus]
We see that scripture was pliable and adaptable long before early Jewish-Christians got a hold of it. They are just continuing a tradition they inherited but that demonstrates my point here. Scripture is open to adaptation and change. Was scripture all mechanically dictated by God and absolutely true in every regard? No. We need not view it as immutable and innerant. Authoritative? Yes. Set in stone? No. I'd like to end this with a quote from Bruce Vawter that I find helpful:
"The Christian community's conviction that the prophetic spirit of the OT was the source of its own kerygma and its consequent disposition to re-read or to read into the OT in the light of the kerygma a message that the OT had not of itself possessed admittedly led to a relative lack of concern over historical human authorship and personality and literary form. But it also testified to the refusal to be governed by the letter of any text, however sacred, in the face of what was convinced that the Spirit was saying: through the witness of the Spirit it transformed the OT word into a living message for the Church of God. Clearly this was not done out of any belief that the prophetic word that it adapted so plastically was in any sense the oracular utterance of a delphic spirit, a word voiced from heaven fixed and immutable, once for all."[pg 16-17 Biblical Inspiration]
Scripture is very much able to "make us wise for salvation," to humble us, convict us, correct us, to train us in rightesounss and to equip us to imitate Christ so that we might perform every good deed in the service of God (2 Tim 3:16-17).