A Different Angle on OT-in-the-NT: How do the NT Authors ‘Access’ the OT?

Today in the Cambridge NT Graduate Seminar, I gave a presentation (or, rather, facilitated a discussion) on a topic that has become increasingly interesting to me as I have been working on my primary research.

The question of how NT authors use the OT when they cite it or allude to it is a fascinating area of study and should be part of every Christian’s toolbox when we read the OT. Why? Because the NT cites or alludes to the OT hundreds, if not thousands of times. You cannot understand the NT without knowing the OT well, because the OT dramatically shapes the NT.

Most Christians (myself included, at least before looking into it more deeply) probably think of the NT authors as in some sense carrying around a nice leatherbound OT with them, flipping through it as guided by the Holy Spirit, and selecting verses to use to prove their points in whatever they’re writing.

But is this really what is going on?

Overview of the “problem”

When you look at the historical situation in more detail, a more complex picture emerges than that simplistic one outlined above. What we have nicely bound in our ESVs or NIVs did not, strictly speaking, exist in the first century. The Hebrew OT existed in the form of multiple scrolls and was large, bulky, and expensive. Typically synagogues would be the only place that would have a complete set of OT scrolls. We do not know a lot about the form of the Greek translation of the OT at that stage. However, we do know that our earliest full copies of the Greek OT are massive! They weren’t handy pocket editions, but unwieldy and expensive tomes. So it is unlikely that Paul or Peter or whomever were walking around the Palestinian countryside wheeling a full Greek OT around with them, let alone a cabinet full of heavy Hebrew parchment scrolls.

A modern Hebrew Bible scroll. Not portable!
A modern Hebrew Bible scroll. Not portable!
Codex Vaticanus ... also not portable!
Codex Vaticanus … also not portable!

Moreover, when you look at the OT quotations in the NT and compare them to each other and the the OT itself, you start to notice a lot of variations relative to our known copies of the OT (Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic). Sometimes it is a word here or a word there, but in many other cases you have more significant transformations. And sometimes multiple passages from the OT are combined a certain way in one NT book, and a different way in another. Or one author may quote the same OT passage one way and another author quote it a different way. And how such quotations are attributed or introduced can vary, too.

In short, not only is it physically unlikely that NT authors were always using a full volume of the OT when they were writing, but the variations in the data itself do not suggest they did in every case, either.

So what explains all this data?

In the presentation I walk through the variety of hypotheses that attempt to explain not how the NT authors interpreted the OT (which is a separate issue),[1] but rather how they accessed the OT. In what form did they use the OT, and how can that shed light on the various phenomena we see?

For instance, did the NT authors use excerpts of the OT that circulated around in the early church (like a cliffnotes edition)? Did they make their own notes as they studied the full OT (e.g., in a synagogue)? Did they quote from early liturgies or hymns? Did they simply have large sections of OT memorized? Are they relying on oral traditions in some cases rather than written texts?

Ultimately I lean towards the view that different authors accessed the OT in a variety of ways. For instance, Paul most likely had large sections memorized, but he also probably made his own personal notebooks of key OT passages deemed important to his preaching ministry as he traveled around from city to city and studied in the synagogues (hence the request for Timothy to bring the “books” and “parchments” in 2 Tim 4:13). He may also have been familiar with pre-NT collections of key messianic proof texts, such as the famous “stone” passages that show up in a lot of places beyond Paul’s letters. And in several of his letters he alludes to pre-existing sayings or confessions or possibly even hymns that were in circulation.


If you’d like the full set of notes, shoot me an email.

Connecting to the pew

This kind of topic may make some folks uncomfortable, as it can stretch one’s previous understanding of the way the NT was written. Moreover, these kinds of apparent “discrepancies” in how NT authors quote OT texts are commonly raised by critics or skeptics against the integrity of the Bible.

However, I think the study is useful because it gives more robustness and depth to how we understand the process of inspiration. Historic orthodoxy and Reformed theology have affirmed (with Paul) that all Scripture is God-breathed. Yet humans also wrote, though under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who directly inspired the very words themselves. This process of inspiration did not negate the use of means, such as looking up a verse from the OT in a pre-existing collection or the whole scroll of Isaiah or even from memory. Rather, the Spirit superintended even this process of accessing the OT, just as the Spirit then guided the NT authors in how they used the OT in their writings. The NT did not drop out of the sky (the Mormon and Muslim views) but arose out of this mysterious confluence of divine and human authorship which, rather than invalidating the personal setting of the author and how they accessed their sources, instead makes divine use of them.

In short, this study shows the need for all evangelical Christians to, in a word, shore up their doctrine of inspiration (and, thus, inerrancy and infallibility). It’s not a matter simply of affirming or disaffirming some definition of inerrancy at the big-picture level. Rather, we need to think long and hard about how a specific view of inspiration works itself out in the actual data, whether it is something like this (strange phenomena in how the OT is accessed) or the Synoptic problem or what have you. That I hope that will be an ongoing theme of my work and a small contribution to the church.


[1] See, for instance, the excellent volume, D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2007).

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