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  • Apr16Fri

    Did the New Testament Writers Shape Their Interpretation of Jesus to Fit With the Old Testament?

    Reading the Old Testament backwards. April 16, 2021 by Donald E. Burke
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    The journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus probably seemed longer on that Sunday after the Crucifixion of Jesus. The two followers of Jesus walking toward Emmaus were astonished that the stranger who joined them appeared to be oblivious to the tragic events that had occurred over the previous days. It was bad enough that Jesus, who they had thought was the Messiah, had been executed, and now some of the women among Jesus’ followers claimed that they had encountered a living Jesus. The roller-coaster ride of the past week—from the ecstatic entry into Jerusalem to the agony of Golgotha—seemed incomprehensible. The two disciples of Jesus were trying to make sense of what they had seen and heard.

    The stranger who met them on the road began to expound the meaning of the Old Testament texts that were so important to them. From Moses to all the prophets, the stranger reinterpreted the Old Testament in light of the events that had unfolded. The travellers listened intently but didn’t quite grasp all that the man was saying. It wasn’t until they had sat down for their evening meal that their eyes were opened. Only when they saw the crucified and resurrected Jesus for who he truly is could they see more clearly the meaning of the Old Testament texts he had expounded (see Luke 24:13-35).

    This story illustrates how the first Christians and, later, the New Testament writers approached the Old Testament. They read the Old Testament as their story and the events of Jesus’ life as a continuation of that same biblical story. Recent events, however, with Jesus crucified and now resurrected, simply did not fit with their understanding of the Old Testament story. It was this gap between the events of the past week and the way they had always interpreted the Old Testament and the hopes it expressed that created their confusion. How could they make sense of Jesus’ death and reported Resurrection as part of this larger biblical story?

    This Changes Everything

    As Luke tells us, the sudden revelation of Jesus at the dinner table changed everything. Now these followers of Jesus could see new connections between the Old Testament and his life, death and Resurrection that no one had seen before. The result was not a new story; it was a reinterpretation of the Old Testament story through a new lens. Now they interpreted the Old Testament through what they had seen, heard and experienced in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. This new lens brought into focus everything they read in the Old Testament.

    From this point on, they approached the Old Testament in new ways, looking for connections with the life of Jesus. The earliest Christians—as we do today—read the Old Testament backwards, interpreting it in the light of their experience of Jesus. For them, his was not a new story; it was the next chapter of the continuing story of God’s efforts to save the world. They read back into the Old Testament meanings that had previously remained hidden, finding connections between Old Testament texts and Jesus that no one had imagined just months earlier.

    But most of these connections were not evident to everyone. They required a measure of faith, a sharing in the experience of Jesus’ Resurrection presence and power. They required guidance from those who had known and lived with Jesus. They required the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to see things not evident to everyone else. Only then could their eyes be opened.

    Reinterpreting Messiahship

    This story from Luke provides a perspective from which to answer a question that I am asked sometimes: Did the New Testament writers shape their accounts of the life of Jesus to fit with the Old Testament? Because of stories such as that told by Luke, my response goes something like this: It seems clear to me that the early Christian community came to understand Jesus through the filter they inherited from their Jewish background and from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). As a result, they interpreted Jesus as the Messiah, the one who would bring the kingdom of God. That was the category into which he could fit.

    Jesus’s life continued the story they imbibed from their Jewish heritage. But this required significant reinterpretation of the Old Testament because, as it was read commonly at the time, the Old Testament did not envision a crucified Messiah. The usual interpretation was that the Messiah would rid Israel of its foreign rulers and re-establish a vibrant, powerful Davidic kingdom as a product of God’s rule. Thus, while the first followers of Jesus came to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Crucifixion of Jesus forced them to reinterpret what his messiahship meant and how it was to be implemented.

    A Messianic Mission

    This need to reread the Old Testament in light of Jesus’ suffering, death and Resurrection is clear in the Gospel of Mark. The second half of Mark reinterprets what it means to confess Jesus as “Messiah” in the light of his execution by the Roman authorities. Rather than being established with power and force, Jesus’ messianic mission was to be manifest in weakness, suffering and service. But according to Mark, the shape of Jesus’ messiahship is not simply a matter of historical record; it is also a matter of discipleship. That is, while the disciples thought that following Jesus would give them places of authority in the kingdom of God (see Mark 9:33-34; 10:35-37), Jesus had to teach them that it rather would lead them to serve others, to suffer—and even to die—in service to others. Contrary to their expectations, the message that Jesus is the Messiah is not about power, but about service; it’s not about glory, but about suffering. The disciples had trouble with this. That’s why Peter objected when Jesus first spoke of his approaching suffering and death; it didn’t fit within Peter’s understanding of his great confession that Jesus is the Christ (see Mark 8:32).

    Mark makes it clear that unless one interprets Jesus’ messiahship through his Crucifixion, one will completely misunderstand the mission of Jesus as the Christ. We see this misunderstanding at work in Jesus’ disciples throughout Mark. But we also see the confirmation of Jesus’ suffering messiahship in the fact that in Mark’s Gospel, the only human character who correctly can proclaim Jesus as the Son of God is the Roman centurion who sees him crucified (see Mark 15:39).

    This critical observation forced the earliest Christians to reread their Old Testament in a new way. They saw in the songs about the suffering servant in the Book of Isaiah not the figure of Israel as a suffering servant, but rather Jesus as a suffering Messiah. This was new; it was a dramatic reinterpretation of an old prophetic text. It was possible only because of the cross; without the Crucifixion of Jesus, such an interpretation would have been inconceivable. Just as the eyes of the travellers on the Emmaus road were opened only when they saw the crucified and resurrected Jesus, so too, the New Testament writers came to an understanding of Jesus as Messiah only by seeing him crucified and resurrected.

    Finding Our Place

    So, my bottom line is that I do think the New Testament writers shaped their interpretation of Jesus in light of the Old Testament—and perhaps even to “fit” the Old Testament. Matthew was a master of this with his frequent references to the Old Testament prophets when interpreting the significance of events in the life of Jesus. But they also interpreted the Old Testament itself bearing in mind what they had come to know to be true about Jesus. I don’t find this at all troubling, because that is exactly how we all interpret the Bible. We read the Bible through the lens of our own experiences and our own context. That’s the nature of Scripture. Yes, it speaks the Word of God to us; but we also receive that Word as the Holy Spirit reveals and inspires us in our time, and as we find our place in this one, grand story of God’s redemptive love for the world.

    Dr. Donald E. Burke is the interim president of Booth University College in Winnipeg.

    Photo: Pearl/

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    On Tuesday, May 4, 2021, lorne pritchett said:

    Isaiah, thank you for your comment. It is helpful in the context of this discussion. I do believe that apostolic calling came with very deep and powerful anointing and authority. It was also unique. I have just finished a two year project of teaching through Galatians to a small group of people online. Just in that one book Paul clearly begins with his declaration, definition and defence of his apostolic authority because it was foundational to his authenticity. Obviously Paul was given a deep and divinely imparted insight into the Old Testament that not only transformed his own mind, but became the text from which he preached his main four or five sermons in the book of Acts - as did Peter. Paul, nor Peter, were ambiguous about their declarations - they were absolutely certain. 1 Corinthians 2 is a powerful and deep look at Paul’s understanding of how the church worked and why it doesn’t work for everybody. It is worth an hour of reflection in the context of this discussion.

    God bless all who have commented. Thank you!


    On Friday, April 23, 2021, Isaiah Allen said:

    It might be helpful to point out a couple of very common but unnecessary assumptions. First, we take for granted a dichotomy between something divinely inspired and something relying on human personality and convention. I think that the analogy of the fingerprint of God is appropriate here. If we could brush the scene for Jesus’ fingerprints, would we see them as human or divine? According to classic, biblical Christian theology, the answer is both. This incarnational principle also befits scripture. Hebrews says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways” (1:1, NRSV). Of course, all such speech required translation from one human language into another. Yet, Hebrews continues, in Christ, “God has spoken to us” through a human life—one that “sustains all things by his powerful word” (1:2–3, not your average human life). By the way, Hebrews is an anonymous book that the church has embraced for centuries on its own intrinsic merits, not because of its attachment to a specific apostolic figure (see 2:3). Inclusion in the canon did not ultimately hinge on authorship. Because of human limitations, we cannot know God except through God’s own deliberate revelation. Further, for this revelation to be comprehensible, it must come in a way that we can understand. In Christ, God spoke—poverty, trust, loyalty, rejection, kindness, generosity, sacrifice, courage, grief, forgiveness, death, resurrection, faith, hope, and love—in a language that we can all understand. Human language, no matter how flawless we might imagine it to be, cannot convey divine revelation without remainder or ambiguity. This is not a concession; this is the nature of communication. It requires inference and, in the case of sacred scripture, the participation of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the interpreter as well as the writer (1 Cor 2:9–16). To say that human writing conventions and personalities—with their limited, culturally-bound practices—were used to convey a revelation from God is the glorious and gracious claim of divine inspiration, not an affront to it. Second, we often assume that the New Testament writers were not conscious “that they were writing ‘scripture,’” yet we typically do not consult them or understand this question from their perspective. It is safe to say that this is not a matter of consensus in scholarship. I shelve the related question of later canonization from the question of authorial self-consciousness for the sake of dialogue. We often don’t appreciate the fact that canon is about liturgy and edification for the church, not about establishing the Bible as a public book according to modes of modern inquiry, which is a quite recent phenomenon. Let me pose the question differently: Did the writers know details about the authors, audiences, genres, materials, languages, topics, order, or quantity of books in the canon? No. Those are descriptive surface features. Yet, did they understand themselves to be authoritatively writing messages that were applicable beyond their own initial audience under the inspiration of God? The evidence suggests that they did. Luke and Matthew both bear witness to Mark’s inspiration by using it as a source. Paul understood himself to have an authoritative role not only in his own congregations (1 Cor 4:15), but across the global church (Rom 1:13, Col 2:1; 4:16). His writings contest alternative claims and critique messages that contradict his accepted teaching (Gal 1:6–9; 2 Thess 2:2). John saw himself as a prophet culminating the Old Testament tradition with authority (and audacity) to uncover the contents of Daniel’s hidden scroll (apocalypse = remove the veil; Rev 1:1, 3, 9–11; 5:9–10; 10:2; 22:18–19; cf. Ezek 2:7; Dan 12:4–9). These writers were faithfully interpreting the Christ-event through the lens of the Old Testament in continuity with traditional modes of Jewish exegesis. The contents are Christian in the definitive sense of being true to the pivotal confession—”Jesus Christ is Lord” (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3). In these senses and others, I think a sound argument could be made that the New Testament writers were highly conscious of the weight (Heb. kavod) of inspiration. When I discuss the rich concept of the inspiration of scripture with students, I often ask the question, “What is the locus of inspiration?” Is it in the dictation, scribal writing, reading aloud of the ancient environment, in the collection, copying, recitation, memory, and adjudications of the pre-modern era, or in the reading, study, proclamation, and faithful embodiment of contemporary times? My question with respect to inspiration may be reduced to, “Are we bearing faithful witness to the crucified, risen, and exalted Lord Jesus Christ?” Full disclosure: I took OT courses under Burke during my time as a Booth University College student. More could be said.


    On Tuesday, April 20, 2021, lorne pritchett said:

    Hello David and thanks for weighing in. I am definitely not theologically modern and definitely not scholarly. But, I am an ardent student looking for proof and not opinion or theory. Has modern scholarship either proven or endorsed enmasse this view of scripture you are positing?? If so then, are the Gospels in the genre of propaganda? Is this a sales technique on the part anonymous writers? Were these anonymous writers deliberately deceptive or were they just ignorant of the truth? Were they afraid that the truth was not compelling enough so they just threw everything at the wall hoping something would stick? Was there no genuine apostolic authority or even integrity in ‘whoever’ wrote this or in those who were the early supporters? Must I now make a disclaimer before quoting scriptures that what I am reading may or may not be true and may have been written by someone more concerned with Messianic verification than the truth? Is there really any such thing as apostolic authority? Or can anyone write a treatise that may or may not have the same veracity as Scripture? At least with modern technology we can verify the author I suppose. Is it that you believe God did not preserve the integrity of scripture, or that He did not. If you believe He did not, are you going to simply not believe He did and back it up by a compelling case with supporting evidence to prove it?

    If I sound weary, you would have properly evaluated my tone. I am very weary and wary of historical/higher critics and those who are influenced by making broad statements as if they are they are empirically truthful rather than simply theoretical.


    On Monday, April 19, 2021, David Stam said:

    I think Dr. Burke is spot on with what modern historical scholarship now almost universally recognizes. Indeed, the concept of divine inspiration of scripture needs to be revisited. The anonymous writers of the gospels certainly did not think when they were writing that they were writing "scripture" on par with the Tanakh. Not at all They were simply writing down episodes that they had heard from the life of Jesus, and giving it the "gloss" they considered necessary.


    On Monday, April 19, 2021, Lorne Pritchett said:

    I have immense respect for Dr. Burke. His scholarship is beyond question. In this article, while Dr. Burke does not find it troubling to believe that the writes made the OT fit their experience with Jesus, I confess I would find it troubling if I believed that. It calls into question what we mean when we say that the Bible is divinely inspired. It humanizes the text to a capacity that can hinder confidence. If the writers were free to manipulate the text at will, for any self serving reason and in any regard, then of course the book must simply be regarded as at best, a result of a divine and human effort rather than a revelation of the heart and mind of God. The question then becomes how do we separate the human fingerprint from the divine at any given point in scripture? That can be a rather subjective analysis with very different and polarizing outcomes.


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