THE FOLLOWING POST IS WRITTEN BY CORY BARNES, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR AND THE CHAIR OF CHRISTIAN STUDIES AT SHORTER UNIVERSITY
Determining the relationship between the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) has long been a difficult issue for Christians. The Second-century heretic Marcion understood such a disconnect between the OT and the NT that he proposed the creator God of the OT and the redeemer God of the NT were separate deities. This view of God led Marcion to propose that the OT (and the majority of the NT) should be rejected by Christians. Ever since Marcion originally proposed his belief, the vast majority of Christians have condemned his teaching as heresy, however, the struggle to determine the relationship between NT and OT persists into our current context.
While there is no resurgent Marcionism in our churches today, there are few issues more complicated or controversial than determining the role of the OT in Christian teaching, liturgy, and life. While no contemporary Christian teachers argue for Marcion’s view of the radical separation between the character of God in the OT and the NT, the majority of Christian churches are in a tacit state of functional Marcionism. What I mean by functional Marionism is that most churches do not use the OT in their teaching, preaching, and liturgy—unless, perhaps, they read an OT passage in order to proclaim how the passage was predicting something fulfilled by the NT.
The problem with this sort of approach to the OT is that we risk missing the blessing of the majority of God’s words to the church. No orthodox Christian group denies that the OT is inspired by God, yet few Christian churches take seriously how God speaks to his Church through the OT. I believe the reason for such a disconnect between the people of God and the OT text is that we do not know what we are to do with the OT. What I would like to do in the remainder of this essay is to argue for understanding the relationship between the OT and the NT in a way that honors the contexts of both testaments and embraces them equally as Christian Scripture. If God’s people can understand a connection between the testaments, then perhaps we can come to embrace the OT as God’s precious words to us, not only in our theology but also in our doxology.
Understanding First Century Judaism(s)
One of the reasons that we have such a difficult time understanding the relationship between OT and NT is that we begin on the false assumption that all Jewish people in the First century thought the same way. The reason that First century Judaism matters so much to the relationship between the OT and NT is that First century Judaism is the environment from which the NT arose. The majority of authors of the NT are First century Jews and nearly all of the characters in the NT are Jewish people living in the First century. Our tendency when reading the NT is to group all of the Jewish characters we encounter into two groups. The “good guys” are Jews who accept that Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT predictions and become his followers. The “bad guys” are the Jews who reject Jesus. We tend to assume that this second group rejected Jesus because they were legalistic religious xenophobes who corrupted the teaching of the OT to fit their worldview. Such a view of First century Judaism is one of the chief causes of antisemitism, but also creates a particular difficulty in understanding the relationships between the testaments.
If we assume that all Jews understood their Scriptures in the same way, then we create a notion that the ones who followed Jesus (a.k.a the “good guys) were the ones that correctly followed the OT. We then assume that the Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah (a.k.a. the “bad guys”) rejected what they knew to be the clear message of the OT. Were this the case, we should be able to move on with little difficulty. Interpret the OT in the right way and you will read it just like those First-century Jews who followed Jesus and everything in the OT will show you how Jesus was right and the “bad guys” like the Pharisees and the Sadducees were sinful and idiotic. This is the way most Christians view the interpretation of the OT by non-Christian Jews in the First century.
First century Jews, however, did not all think the same way about the OT. When we read ancient historians (and the NT!), they tell us about multiple groups of Jews. In the First century, there were Sadducees who were willing to capitulate to Roman authority as long as they could control the worship at the Jerusalem temple and also Zealots who wanted to cast off Roman rule at all costs. Pharisees centered their lives around living according to the Torah, the prophets, and the other writings, and the Essenes withdrew from typical Jewish life and worship to lead aesthetic lives in preparation for an eschatological battle to come.
All of these groups of Jews read the texts included in what we now call the OT and found radically different applications of the OT text because they understood radically different expectations in the OT texts. When we look back at First-century Jewish literature, we find that Jewish interpreters were doing the same thing with their Scriptures that we tend to do with ours—focusing on particular texts and interpretations of those texts and tailor making their expectations of what God was doing in their time. Many of the NT author’s, therefore, are challenging their fellow Jews to understand the OT text as setting a particular expectation realized in the work and person of Jesus. To understand the relationship of the NT to the OT, we must consider how the NT author’s used OT passages to convince their audience that what God was doing in Jesus was the realization of OT expectations.
How the New Testament Connects Jesus to the Old Testament
The use of OT texts—whether in quotations, allusions, or echoes—in Jesus’s ministry is so prolific that I could not begin to even scratch the surface in such a brief essay. However, taking a brief look at the way Jesus uses and/or responds to titles from the OT can give a snapshot of the expectations of the OT realized in Jesus.
The most common way Jesus refers to himself is as “The Son of Man.” The title comes from Daniel 7 where the author of the text states, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Dan 7:13–14). Jesus is connecting himself with an expectation manifest in multiple places in the OT but made quite clear in Dan 7: God will one day place an eternal ruler over his people. The “Son of Man” title is found in other Jewish literature often used in the First century, so we know that it is an expectation with which Jewish people in the First century are concerned. Jesus’s use of the title “Son of Man,” connects him with the OT expectation that God will establish his reign upon the earth through giving authority to an eternal ruler. Jesus is saying, “I’m the guy, I’m God’s appointed ruler you have been awaiting.” Jesus’s early followers were clearly drawn to such a message.
Jesus’s use of the title “Son of Man” is more nuanced than his early followers were comfortable with, however, because Jesus used other OT passages to further develop the expectation of his ministry. Mark tells us that after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah—i.e., he is the one anointed in whom the OT expectations are realized—Jesus then tells Peter and the others “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). Peter’s response is to rebuke Jesus (Mark 8:32). Peter’s reaction to Jesus’s statement that he will suffer comes from his failure to accept the fullness of the expectation Jesus is creating from the OT texts. Peter is comfortable with Son of Man expectations, but now Jesus is bringing in expectations from other passages, notably the “Suffering Servant” song of Isa 52:13–53:12. Jesus’s understanding of how his ministry realizes the expectations of the OT is bringing together more than just the imagery of a conquering king.
Jesus’s use of the OT expectations of both conqueror and sufferer illustrate something we will find if we consider the breadth of the gospel writer’s use of the OT in describing Jesus’s ministry. The writers of the gospels (and Jesus himself as presented in the gospels), are making an argument from multiple passages of the OT that Jesus is the realization of the expectations of the OT. Not just one or two passages, but all of the expectations we have for what God will do in the OT are realized in the work of Jesus.
Expectations vs. Predictions
Please note that I am using the words expectation/realization to refer to the relationship of Jesus to the OT rather than prophecy/fulfillment. I am using these words by design. The result of our misconceptions about First century Judaism and the way in which the NT connects Jesus to the OT is that we come to believe the OT gives us predictions and the NT fulfills them. Christian culture has a catchy little maxim to drive home this point: “The Old is in the new revealed, the New is in the Old concealed.” Understanding the OT as having function primarily as a prediction to be fulfilled in the NT works great until you read the OT!
When you read the OT, you find that it is not a convenient package of predictions all stacked up to tell you how stupid you were if you did not understand Jesus was the Messiah. Instead, the OT is a kaleidoscope of stories, prophecies, poetry, genealogy, songs, and law addressing God’s relationship to his covenant people, Israel. The simplistic view that the primary purpose of the OT is to predict the coming of Jesus cannot stand if you actually read the OT Scriptures. Since the OT doesn’t meet our expectation of simplistic prophecies concerning Jesus, we put it aside—and thus become functional Marcionites.
We also need to ask what the function of such predictions might be. All orthodox Christians must profess that God was more than able to predict the coming of Jesus to the people of Israel, but what would be the purpose of such a prediction? If the primary purpose of the OT was to predict what Jesus would do, why didn’t God just inspire someone to write the gospel of Matthew when he called the Israelites out of Egypt? The fact is the OT is doing something much better than simply predicting what Jesus did; the OT sets the expectations for what Jesus has done and for what he is doing.
The OT contains the precious, infallible words of God to his people, and these words create in us tremendous expectations. The stories of the OT tell us that things are not the way they are supposed to be, the world is broken and the people of God flounder in their attempts to make it right. These same OT stories create an expectation that God is bringing his people into a restored world, one in which he sets things right. The OT prophets speak of justice and compassion that the people of God have never achieved and cannot find in this world, yet we come to expect when reading these prophecies that God is overcoming all barriers to such justice and compassion. The Law speaks of a strange and wonderful holiness that we fail to obtain, but these ancient texts fill us with an expectant hope that one day such holiness will be achieved. Expectation of restored space, lives, justice, hope, communion with God—these expectations consume our minds when we drink deep from the OT Scriptures and cause us to plead “When will such expectations be realized?” And we turn the page to the NT and find that in Jesus all these expectations are met and superseded!
The OT is Scripture in its own right. God is gracious to us to give us these precious words to create in his people a sense of expectation of his work among those whom he loves. If we neglect these words, then we neglect the words God himself speaks to his people, the Church. These words create in us a craving to be God’s people. These words set the expectation for the story we are living. When these words come together with the words of the NT, we experience the fullness of God’s good words to his Church. To neglect the OT, therefore, is to neglect the very words of God. To neglect the OT is to miss an opportunity to have your heart set afire with expectations for the people of God realized in Jesus and perfected in us in his kingdom that is and is yet to come.
 If you are interested in reading more about the use of the OT in the gospels see two recent works of Richard Hays. Reading Backwards (Baylor University Press, 2016) and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2017).