I often tell people that if it were not for the Old Testament, I would probably still be a devout Christian. Based on my personal experience, it’s more common to find Old Testament scholars who are liberals or unbelievers than it is to find New Testament scholars of the same disposition (though the field is certainly filled with all kinds of scholars).
So what makes the Old Testament so difficult? There are lots of issues that are strange for the modern reader, ranging from moral atrocities and scientific absurdities, to strange rituals or customs. Yet it was not merely these elements of the of the Old testament that caused me to abandon the Bible as a “moral compass,” but also seeing how the New Testament authors interpreted and assimilated the ancient Hebrew text to the point of “taking it out of context.” If I used the same biblical hermeneutic that the NT authors used, I would fail every single bible interpretation course available today, from conservative and liberal seminaries. And that… just feels odd.
For example, if you grow up a Christian you will often hear these grand statements about ancient prophecies that were recorded in the Hebrew Bible and fulfilled in the Christian New testament, and yet, upon closer inspection all of these are completely taken out of context. In this post we will survey some of the popular places where the abuse of the OT by the NT writers creates a cacophonous disharmony in this book that is purported to be divinely harmonious.
Basically, there are many “oops” moments where a careful reader of the text can be nearly certain the NT writers made mistakes and misunderstood, misappropriated, misremembered, and very loosely paraphrased certain passages to the point of changing the meaning, and this bodes very unwell for claims that this book is without error.
OUT OF CONTEXT PROPHECIES
There are dozens of examples of this (in fact, if you’ve ever seen those famous lists of “300 prophecies Jesus fulfilled” you will find that Jewish scholars persuasively argue that every single one of them is clearly out of context or misunderstood). Since we don’t have time for 300, lets looks at some of the most well-known examples.
1. Oops, the wrong virgin
WHAT IT IS: In Mat 1:23, the Gospel author writes that Jesus’ birth fulfilled a famous prophecy from Isaiah. “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: The prophecy cited can be found in Isaiah 7:14. The problem is, it wasn’t a prophecy about the distant future, instead Isaiah was speaking to people in his own time. More specifically, in context the prophecy given was to King Ahaz of Judah, who was currently at war against the nations of Israel and Syria. Isaiah’s prophecy is that that the birth of this child would serve as a sign to Ahaz that his enemies would be destroyed swiftly.
- “In the days of Ahaz… Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it… And the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz… and say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two… “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass”… Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” (Isaiah 7:1-16)
The prophecy, in context, clearly states this child grows up during the life of King Ahaz, who lived 700 years before the New Testament era.
HOW THEY MESSED UP EVEN MORE: In fact, Hebrew scholars say the Hebrew word almah doesn’t mean ‘virgin’ but ‘young woman.’ This is likely due to the fact that the popular Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was available to Matthew, called the Septuagint uses a Greek word, parthenos, that often means ‘virgin’ even when the original Hebrew does not. However, even parthenos doesn’t always refer to a true virgin, for example in Genesis 34:2-4 Shechem raped Dinah and she is afterwards called a parthenos, even though obviously is no longer a virgin. In any case, modern Bible translations like the seminary standard, the NRSV, have started using “young woman” instead of virgin.
HOW THEY MESSED UP A THIRD TIME: To make matters worse, 2 Chronicles 28 tells us the rest of this story and it turns out that the two kings in question, instead of failing in their war against Ahaz, as Isaiah had foretold, actually succeeded in destroying Ahaz and taking over Jerusalem, causing 120,000 of his people to be slaughtered. Jerusalem was plundered, and 200,000 women and children were carried into captivity. “Isaiahs prophecy” in chapter 7 predicted the exact opposite, it failed to predict the future. (Christians reply that the reason this prophecy failed was because Ahaz did not trust the Lord, so you know, it’s all okay, this Immanuel child was unnecessary after all, and no one saw that coming?)
2. Oops, it was David, not Jesus
WHAT IT IS: In Mat 27:35, the author states: “they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, ‘They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: Matthew is quoting Psalm 22:18 as a prophecy, but in the original passage it is not a prophecy but rather David begging to be physically saved. There is no mention of a future messiah, but simply Davids plea for deliverance from physical death. Reading the full text makes this very clear; it refers to David and his brothers, not Jesus the son of God:
- “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
HOW THEY MESSED UP EVEN MORE: Most contemporary Bible translations have removed the latter part of the passage, deeming it a later addition, and it remains only in the KJV and other Textus Receptus based texts, including the Russian Synodal Translation.
3. Oops, the missing third day
WHAT IT IS: In Luke 24:46, the gospel author narrates Jesus as saying: “Thus it is written and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day.”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: Yet, there is no prophecy, or even purported prophecy in the Hebrew bible that states this, whether explicitly or implicitly. The closest possibility is Hosea 6:2 “After two days will He revive us: on the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live before Him.” However, there is a slight problem with this passage, it is patently clear that this does not refer to Christ but to the Hebrew nation repenting of sin and being restored. Christ after all, never had to repent.
4. Oops, did Jesus sacrifice to idols?
WHAT IT IS: The author of Matthew writes of Jesus escaping to Egypt “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt… This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: However, the original “prophecy” wasn’t something that could be “fulfilled” in the first place, instead it’s a song about the sinful nation of the Hebrews, who are collectively called “son.” If this passage was a prophecy about Jesus, it would also mean that Jesus sacrificed to idols.
- “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.” (Hosea 11:1-2)
5. Oops, the dead children aren’t dead
WHAT IT IS: The author of Matthew (2:16-18) writes that: “Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem… Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah (31:15) a voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: Matthew claims the “prophecy” of Jeremiah a fulfillment of the murder of children in Bethlehem. However, a careful reader of the Hebrew bible will note that in the original passage from Jeremiah, there is a section that speaks of the children returning from captivity in Babylon:
- “Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.“Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.”
Dead children do not return “from the land of the enemy” and thus clearly the Jeremiah passage speaks of captivity, not the murder of babies.
6. Oops, the missing prophet
WHAT IT IS: The author of Matthew writes “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, The voice of one crying in the wilderness:‘ Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: Herein Matthew claims that Johns ministry is prophesied in the Hebrew Bible? Is it? When you read the original passage you can see, manifestly clear, that it speaks of Jerusalem’s repentance after receiving double payment for sin, not about a “he” but about an “it.” There is nothing at all that is specific about (a) the future, (b) the Messiah or (c) John, but only about Jerusalem’s iniquity/forgiveness:
- “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” (Isaiah 40:2-5)
Also, note how Matthew changes “a voice” in the wilderness to “the voice of one” to make it refer to an actual person, when originally it refers to an impersonal sound.
7. Oops, the wrong book of the Bible
WHAT IT IS: Matthew 27:9-10, which summarizes Judas’ betrayal of Jesus ends the story by claiming that:
- “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: And yet, there is no clear mention of this prophecy in the book of Jeremiah. The closest one is Jeremiah 32:9 which states that “I bought the field which was at Anathoth from Hanamel my uncle’s son, and I weighed out the silver for him, seventeen shekels of silver.” Ironically enough, the famous Christian biblical scholar/apologist, Gleason Archer, tries to argue that this is the passage it refers to, but he does so dishonestly. Archer uses the phrase “a certain number of shekels” instead of quoting the text directly as “seventeen shekels” in order to hide the big discrepancy from his readers (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 1982, p. 345).
The Matthew passage is actually much closer in structure to a passage in the writings of Zechariah, however, this passage is unmistakably about Zechariah writing of his own experiences, not a future prophecy about a betrayer named Judah.
- “And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter. Then I broke my second staff Union, annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel. (Zech 11:12-13)
But what about Midrash or Pesher hermeneutics?
So how do Christians respond to all this? Conservative bible scholars point to a category of “prophecy” called pesher. The basic gist of it is that this kind of prophetic interpretation includes a (1) primary contextual fulfillment and (2) secondary “hints” and glimpses.
For example, say we have a prophecy “Thus saith Thor, during the reign of Vijzerog, there will be a war between our people and the enemy, and we shall win the war.” The primary context is a war between two nations that happens during the reign of a specific ancient ruler who lived 1000 years ago. Using a pesher interpretation of prophecy we could take the ancient Germanic phrase “we will win the war” out of context, and use it to say “See, our current US regime was prophesized ‘to win the war’ in Iraq that we are fighting today!”
So basically, one can take anything out of context, and use it to say anything they want.
MISQUOTES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
Most Christians know that there are hundreds of occasions where the NT authors quote the OT, but they don’t know that most of these quotes read differently than the original citation. The majority of this is due to the fact that there were (at least) two versions of the Hebrew bible that NT authors had access to, the Hebrew Masoretic text, and the Greek Septuagint, and these two have many have significant differences. There are also other occasions where NT authors had agendas that shaped the way they quoted these passages. And perhaps, there were simple mistakes, misquotes, and instances of bad memorization.
Each of these examples, on its own, isn’t very substantial, but as a whole, seeing this trend cast some doubt on the claims of biblical inerrancy. If there are multiple versions of the same text, which one is truly Gods inerrant word? Let’s looks at a couple of examples.
1. Oops, going from ‘you’ to ‘me’
HOW THEY QUOTE IT: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” (Mark 1:2)
WHAT THE HEBREW ACTUALLY SAYS: Isaiah doesn’t have such a passage. The Old Testament passage that comes closest to Marks citation is written by a different prophet, Malachi: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 3:1)
Notice the biblical words “before me” are converted into “ahead of you” to fit the context.
2. Oops, not “praise” but “strength”
HOW THEY QUOTE IT: “said to Him, “Do You hear what these children are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have prepared praise for yourself” (Matthew 21:16)
WHAT THE HEBREW ACTUALLY SAYS: Psalm 8:2 “From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength because of your adversaries to make the enemy and the revengeful cease.”
The radical difference here is due to a divergence between the Septuagint and Masoretic texts (originally this was a mistranslation in the Greek, but since Matthew used a mistranslation we’re stuck with it.)
3. Oops, a voice becomes a person
HOW THEY QUOTE IT: “For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, ‘the voice of the one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the lord, make his paths straight'” (Matthew 3:3)
WHAT THE HEBREW ACTUALLY SAYS: ”A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
Notice “a voice” is altered to “the voice of the one” in order to make this into a prophecy about a person, rather than using the description of a sound. This is used to change this passage into a prophecy about John. There are also other textual differences. Which instance of this passage contain the original words of God?
4. Oops, is receiving different than giving?
HOW THEY QUOTE IT:: “Therefore it says, ‘when he ascended on high, he led captive a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men‘”(Ephesians 4:8)
WHAT THE HEBREW ACTUALLY SAYS: “You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men, Even among the rebellious also, that the LORD God may dwell there.” (Psalm 68:18)
“You have ascended” is changed to “he ascended” to change the context to be about Jesus, when in the original Psalm it spoke of Yahweh. A bigger difference is the changing of “received gifts among men” into “gave gifts to men.” Perhaps this is to account for the differences between Yahweh (who was served by receiving gifts) and Jesus (who was associated with grace and giving of gifts). Perhaps its something else, there have been various attempted explanations, but none are ultimately convincing.
5. Oops, now we’re just adding whole sentences
HOW THEY QUOTE IT: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:17-19)
WHAT THE HEBREW ACTUALLY SAYS: ”The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD And the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2)
Besides the fact that there are significant textual differences throughout the whole passage, Luke even inserts a whole new phrase missing from the Isaiah passage he is quoting.
6. Oops, confusing the afflicted with the humble
HOW THEY QUOTE IT: “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed ot the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
WHAT THE HEBREW ACTUALLY SAYS: “Though He scoffs at the scoffers, Yet He gives grace to the afflicted.” (Prov 3:34)
The differences here are “scoffers” which is turned into “proud” and “humble” which becomes “afflicted.” The latter significantly changes the meaning of the passage. One can be afflicted an not humble, one be humble and not afflicted.
7. Oops, caught sneaking in theology
HOW THEY QUOTE IT: “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:9-10)
WHAT THE HEBREW ACTUALLY SAYS: “There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:1-3)
Paul changes “no one who does good” to “none righteous” for a specific theological agenda, in order to speak of righteousness and sinful nature, rather than just good deeds. However, if you ask a modern day Christian, doing good and righteousness are not necessarily the same (according to the doctrine of original sin, a baby that is born before doing any deeds at all, is not righteous because of its sinful nature).
8. Oops, rewarded on the earth becomes scarcely saved
HOW THEY QUOTE IT: “And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?'” (1 Peter 4:18)
WHAT THE HEBREW ACTUALLY SAYS: “If the righteous will be rewarded in the earth, How much more the wicked and the sinner!” (Proverbs 11:31)
These passages are so different one would think they are completely separate verses. Peter quotes the Greek Septuagint, of Prov 11:31, while the above quote is based on the the Hebrew Masoretic text. This change works really well with Peters New Testament theology as the Hebrew is converted about rewards on the earth, and Peters language of salvation implies eternal life.
9. Oops, the Gentiles added in the Gentiles
HOW THEY QUOTE IT: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:20-21)
WHAT THE HEBREW ACTUALLY SAYS: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isaiah 42:3)
This is another case where the Septuagint (a Greek, therefore “gentile” translation”) causes the differences to appear in our modern Bibles. The Septuagint version adds “and in his name the Gentiles will hope” which is a radical addition, absent from the original Hebrew, and Matthew incorporates this into the New testament.
SLOPPY KNOWLEDGE OF THE HEBREW BIBLE
1. Oops, Mathew got his Zechariahs’ confused
WHAT THEY SAID: In Matthew 23:35, the gospel author depicts Jesus saying “so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: As it turns out, that’s the wrong Zechariah; The one who was stoned in the temple by the faithless Jewish people was Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:20-21). The prophet Zechariah, was actually the son of Berechiah, and he was certainly not murdered between the temple and the altar.
2. Oops, Luke can’t count?
WHAT THEY SAID: “after this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all.“ (Acts 7:14)
HOW THEY MESSED UP: Luke quoted the Greek Septuagint, which differs from the Hebrew Masoretic text, and while that may get Luke off the hook, it does nothing good for biblical inerrancy.
- “The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.” (Exodus 1:5)
- “With the two sons who had been born to Joseph in Egypt, the members of Jacob’s family, which went to Egypt, were seventy in all.” (Genesis 46:27)
3. Oops, Mark confuses two high priests
WHAT THEY SAID: In Mark 2:26 Jesus is described as quoting the Old Testament. “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: As anyone can easily confirm by reading 1 Samuel 21:1-6, it wasn’t Abiathar but Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech, who was high priest when David did this. But just in case you don’t believe me, here is a direct quote: “Then David came to Ahimelech the priest.”
4. Oops, John quotes “the Scripture”, when no such scripture exists.
WHAT THEY SAID:In John 7:38, Jesus quotes scripture to describe the rewards promised to his followers: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: And yet, theologians and biblical scholars must admit that there is no such scripture in the Hebrew Bible. Did the author of John misremember? Perhaps he used one of the many ancient texts that have been lost? And if this refers to some text that has been lost, can “Scripture” be lost?
5. Oops, Mathew also quotes passage a nonexistent “Scripture” that doesn’t exist.
WHAT THEY SAID: Matthew claims that Jesus’ living in Nazareth “fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene” (Mat 2:23).
HOW THEY MESSED UP: And yet, to the great dismay of conservative apologists, there is no such prophecy in the Bible. But you can’t take away credit from them for a lack of trying, there have been dozens of attempts to find something to fit into this prophecy. The most interesting one I’ve read attempts to make the case that “he will be called a Nazarene” just means there are prophecies that vaguely say the Messiah will have the characteristics of a Nazarene, not that there is an actual prophecy that says “he shall be called a Nazarene.”
6. Oops, Luke doesn’t want to be left behind, also quotes “Scripture” that doesn’t exist.
WHAT THEY SAID: In Luke 24:46 we are given a picture of Jesus predicting his own death, “He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day”
HOW THEY MESSED UP: Those words don’t exist anywhere in the Hebrew scripture. As before, apologists have tried to come up with all manner of explanations. The most common is to trace this back to Hosea who wrote: “After two days will He revive us: on the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live before Him” (Hosea 6:2). Anyone can clearly see the Hosea passage is not at all “the Christ will suffer” but speaks of a sinful Israel being restored.
7. Oops, Matthew is confused by poetry, and claims Jesus rode two donkeys at once
WHAT THEY SAID: An ancient poem in Zechariah 9:9 states “Behold, your king is coming to you … humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey” The last two lines repeat the same thing in a different way; this is a form of Hebrew poetry called parallelism.
HOW THEY MESSED UP: The author of Matthew believed this was a prophecy about Jesus and attempted to follow it literally, thus he wrote about two separate donkeys.
- “Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me… brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their coats on them; and He sat on the coats.” (Matthew 21:1-11)
Yes, Matthew literally dictates that Jesus rode the donkey and the colt at the same time. (The other gospel authors who write about this, Mark and Luke, only mention one donkey).