WHY DOESNíT THE NEW TESTAMENT ALWAYS QUOTE THE
OLD TESTAMENT ACCURATELY?
IN MANY PLACES THE NEW TESTAMENT QUOTATIONS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT do
not match up with what we have in our English Old Testaments. There are a
number of reasons why this is so.
First, our Old Testaments are generally translated from the Masoretic text, the
traditional Jewish text, the earliest manuscripts of which are from around A.D. 900.
Naturally, none of the New Testament writers had this text. If they knew Hebrew
(as Paul did), they cited an earlier version of the Hebrew text, translating it into
Greek themselves. This text was not necessarily identical with the text that we
Second, we have tried to get our printed Hebrew Bibles as close to the original as
possible by comparing the Masoretic Text with manuscripts found among the Dead
Sea Scrolls at Qumran and the early translations of the Hebrew text into Aramaic
and Greek. None of the New Testament writers had this luxury. They simply
accepted whatever Hebrew text they had. In fact, it is unlikely that many of them
owned any parts of the Scripture personally, so they were happy whenever they
managed to get their hands on a copy of some part of the Scriptures.
Third, even when a New Testament writer knew Hebrew, he did not necessarily use
that text. He often used the text that his readers would be familiar with. For
example, Paul sometimes quotes the Greek version of the Old Testament, the
Septuagint, even though he knew Hebrew and had probably memorized the Old
Testament in that language.
Fourth, not all New Testament writers knew Hebrew. The writer of Hebrews, for
example, never quotes from the Hebrew text, so if he knew Hebrew, he has kept
the fact well hidden. Thus when we come to Hebrews 1:6, which quotes
Deuteronomy 32:43, we discover that the New Testament quotation does not
agree with our English Old Testaments (translated from the Hebrew), but it does
agree with the Septuagint. In many cases the Septuagint is so close to the Hebrew
that we cannot tell if an author was using it or translating the Hebrew himself into
Greek, but in this passage there is enough difference that we can tell that our
author must have been using the Septuagint.
Fifth, sometimes New Testament writers chose a particular version because it
made the point they wanted to make, much as preachers today sometimes
choose to quote from translations which put a passage in such a way that it
supports the point they want to make. For example, when we read Ephesians 4:8
we discover that it reads differently than Psalm 68:18 in English. This is not
because Paul used the Septuagint, for in this case that translation agrees with our
English Bibles. Instead, Paul appears to have used one of the Aramaic translations
(called a Targum). In many Jewish synagogues the Scriptures were first read in
Hebrew and then translated into Aramaic, for that is the language the people
actually spoke. Paul would have been familiar with both versions, and in this case
he chose to translate not the Hebrew but the Aramaic into Greek. The Hebrew text
would not have made his point.
Sixth, we must remember that New Testament writers rarely if ever had the luxury
of looking up passages they wanted to quote. Normally they quoted from
memory. They were satisfied that they had the general sense of the Old Testament
text but would not know if they were not exact in their quotation.
Seventh, in quoting the Old Testament an author at times combines more than one
passage in a general paraphrase. For example, Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:9 is probably
making a loose paraphrase of both Isaiah 64:4 and 65:17. In James 2:23 the
author joins Genesis 15:6 with the general sense of either 2 Chronicles 20:7 or
Isaiah 41:8. When one is moving along full speed in dictation and is concerned
about some issue in the church, a general paraphrase of the Old Testament often
did the job without stopping to remember just how the text went.
Finally, we must remember that there are some cases in which the New Testament
author did not intend to quote the Old Testament, but his mind was so filled with it
that it flowed out almost as if it were his own words. In these cases no quotation
formula ("it is written") occurs, but we may think that our author is quoting
because it is so close to the Old Testament text.
So what are we saying? We are noticing that New Testament authors were people
just like us, but lacking the scholarly tools which we have. They sometimes quoted
their favorite version or the version that fit what they were saying, just as we do.
They sometimes paraphrased and quoted from memory, just as we do. They
sometimes had limited resources available to them, just as is the case with some
modern Bible readers. Finally, many of them did not know Hebrew and so had to
be satisfied with whatever translation of the Hebrew they could read, just as is the
case with many of us. In this we see that God used quite normal human individuals
to write the New Testament. They did not have supernatural knowledge of the Old
Testament text but lived within the limitations of their own culture and abilities.
Yet it is the New Testament documents they wrote that the church has held to be
inspired. The teachings of the New Testament are not inspired because they can
prove from the Old Testament that what they say accords with that Scripture;
they are inspired because the Spirit inspired what they themselves wrote. None of
them are giving their readers lectures on the proper text of the Old Testament. In
fact, they are not even giving teaching on Old Testament theology. What they are
doing is teaching New Testament truth and showing that the Old Testament
supports the point that they are making. In general this is true, even though they
did not have the relatively accurate and carefully researched texts of the Old
Testament that we have today. When they appear to be "wrong" (allowing that
they interpreted the Old Testament differently then than we do now), we must
remember (1) that it could be that they may indeed have a better reading for the
text in question than we have in our Bibles and (2) that the Spirit of God who
inspired the Old Testament text has every right to expand on its meaning.
The point is that while we may understand why the New Testament writers cite the
Old Testament as they do, it is the New Testament point that they are trying to
make that is inspired in the New Testament document. Thus, while we may enjoy
understanding what is happening and why our Old Testament quotations differ from
what we expect, the real issue is whether we are obeying the New Testament
Taken from Hard Sayings of the Bible. By Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and
Manfred T. Brauch. Copyright © 2002 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Permission kindly
granted to Faith & Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.