Jesus’ use of the Old Testament

by John Howard.

Working in the Holy Land the question of the biblical understanding of the “Land” is a very significant one. In Naim Ateek’s latest book “A Palestinian Theology of Liberation,”[i] he draws attention to the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28 10-17) and the use Jesus seems to make of it in John 1 verse 51.

In the dream the writers of Genesis describe a ladder stretching from heaven to earth with angels going up and down. The story leaves Jacob conscious of the holiness of the place. Of at least equal significance is the words God in the dream says to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, your father, the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring….” It is a very familiar passage, a part of the Jewish identity with the land of the western Levant.

In John 1 verse 51 Jesus says to Nathanael “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God descending upon the Son of Man.” There does seem here to be a conscious echo of the Jacob’s ladder image but there is a very unexpected difference. Where as the ladder has its “top,” heaven and its “base,” the earth, in Jesus’ words the place of the “land,” so special and sacred to the people Jesus is speaking to, is taken by “The Son of Man.” The ladder to heaven, or rather the ladder between heaven and earth is now the ladder between heaven and Jesus – not the land.

I leave aside the question of whether the change above, and the one looked at below are those of the Gospel writers or of Jesus himself, I would accept the arguments that these are very likely passages that go back to Jesus – but don’t have the space to argue that here.

Another place where Jesus adapts the Old Testament is in the passage in Luke 4, 16-19. This is the passage sometimes referred to as Jesus’ manifesto. In it Jesus is fundamentally quoting Isaiah 61verses one and two. He makes some slight changes of emphasis towards the ending of verse one, very likely conflating Isaiah 58 verse 6 with the word from 61 1. The structure of the passage is however clear – as his direct quoting of the beginning of verse two “to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favour,” makes clear. What is remarkable here is where he stops. The flow of the verse in Isaiah continues with the words “and the day of vengeance of our God.” This is a very well known passage to Jesus’ listeners. They could have quoted it to Jesus, and no doubt were doing so in their minds as Jesus read it to them. They would have continued beyond where Jesus finished – and the absence of these words from what Jesus spoke, would have spoken much more clearly than the words said themselves. Jesus it surely seems – consciously missed off the words “and the day of vengeance of our God,” as it didn’t fit into his self understanding – it was not “a part of Jesus’ manifesto.”

The common ground in these two passages is the way that Jesus seems to use two passages, very well known by his audience but adapts them for the sake of communicating his own message. He clearly feels free to change quite fundamentally what these passages mean, in the first example by placing himself – or rather “the Son of Man,” in the place of the “Land,” and by omitting the ending of the passage from Isaiah reshaping the very nature of the God the people are dedicated to – not a God of vengeance (so often this seems to be the Old Testament character of God), but it seems Jesus is having no part of it. If we have any doubt about this then we have an echo again of this a few chapters later in Luke, when in chapter 7 verse 22 Jesus again goes back to Isaiah 61 (this time in response to the questions John’s disciples ask Jesus) and again he avoids the phrase “and the day of vengeance of our God.”

There is, of course, much more to study in Jesus’ use of the Old Testament, and such more extensive studies are available. My issue in this essay is the ability of Jesus to take well known passages, adapt them and as a result make very different theological points than the original passage indicated, while at the same time asserting an orthodoxy through associating with the passages at the heart of the orthodoxy of the faith. Is there here perhaps a lesson for us in the use of Scripture for issues such as same sex marriage – that seem to need a radical departure from the understandings of the past without a loss of the orthodoxy of the subject?

[i] Naim Stifan Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict (2017, New York: Orbis Books)

One thought on “Jesus’ use of the Old Testament”

  1. The Holy Spirit always brings new understanding.
    J B Philips likened it to rewiring a new house, if you remember.


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