The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (1)

Isaiah 53 in the “Great Isaiah Scroll” from Qumran (Dead Sea scrolls)

Isaiah 53, also called Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song, is one of the best known chapters in the Book of Isaiah. It describes God’s suffering servant. For Jews it is a metaphor for the nation of Israel which has been frequently and repeatedly persecuted and oppressed. For Christians it is a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. In this post I want to take another look at how the New Testament makes use of the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’), with specific reference to this chapter in Isaiah. In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in the context of the book of Isaiah, and will ask the questions “who wrote it?” and “why?” Finally I will look at various interpretations of the “suffering servant”.

Isaiah 53 is frequently quoted by Christians to show how the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind was predicted by the prophet. The New Testament quotes various parts of this chapter in the following ways:

  1. According to Luke 22:37, Jesus himself quoted from Isaiah 53:12 to say that he would be “counted among the lawless”: 

    35 He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” 

    Some argue that the positioning of this saying in Luke, at the beginning of the events in the garden of Gethsemane leading to Jesus’ arrest the night before his crucifixion, reveals that Jesus saw himself as the one destined to fulfill the whole of Isaiah 53, and therefore identifying himself as the suffering servant. However, in its immediate context it is part of Jesus’ explanation about the need for his disciples to buy swords, which is picked up again just a few verses later (v.49) when they literally draw swords. In other words, it appears that Jesus was telling his disciples that he – and they, because of their solidarity with him – should henceforth expect to be regarded by the authorities as “lawless” or as criminals. If the intention is to identify Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant, it seems to be an odd place to cite these words as being fulfilled when a more logical place would have been in 23:33 where he was literally “counted with the lawless”: “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” Some manuscripts, no doubt made by some scribe or scribes coming to the same conclusion, insert this quote from Isaiah 53 at Mark 15:27-28 “They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘He was counted with the lawless ones’.” Various scholars have suggested this and several other places during the passion narrative as the point when this Isaiah 53 prophecy was more properly fulfilled, which highlights the problem that we cannot be certain what Jesus (or Luke) meant by citing Isaiah 53 here.
  2. Matthew 8:16-17 cites Isaiah 53:4 in the context of Jesus’ healing ministry: “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’.” These verses are applied to Jesus in two ways in the NT. First, Matthew cites them with reference to Jesus’ work as a healer. The Hebrew word (מַכְאוֹב) translated “diseases” (sometimes also translated as “sorrows”) means physical pain and suffering, while “infirmities” translates חֳלִי which means “diseases”. Matthew’s “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” is an accurate translation of the Hebrew. The Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation, however, used the word ἁμαρτίας sin instead of “diseases”. The second citation of these words in the NT is by Peter (1 Peter 2:21-24) who quoted Isaiah 53 to encourage his readers to follow in Jesus’ steps: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’ [from Isa 53:9]. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.” After undoubtedly quoting Isaiah 53:9 – “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” – he may have gone on to allude to another part of the same Isaiah passage: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” This may be an allusion to the words in the LXX that the suffering servant “bears our sins and suffers pain for us” although he does not specifically make this connection (although there was no real need to do so – having already quoted Isaiah the similarity in phrasing suggests quite strongly that he is further alluding to the same chapter). Peter may have been following the Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation which used the word ἁμαρτίας sin rather than the Hebrew. In any case, the Hebrew and the Greek translation have quite different meanings, and Matthew follows the Hebrew while Peter seems to follow the Greek. Matthew applies them to Jesus’ work as a healer, while Peter gives them a different meaning and applies them to Jesus carrying sins on the cross.
  3. The Acts of the Apostles has a pericope where an Ethiopian official was reading from Isaiah, and came to a verse in chapter 53 which said: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32-33, quoting Isaiah 53:7-8). The Ethiopian asked Philip: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Philip’s answer does not provide any explanation of the specifics, but says simply “starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (v35).

These quotations, or allusions, in the NT to Isaiah 53 tell us several things about how the NT writers used the Hebrew Bible (or its Greek translation).

  • First, different writers could use the same text in the Hebrew Bible in different ways, and give them different meanings. One writer could use the Hebrew, with one meaning, while another writer used the Greek translation, with an entirely different meaning. Or they could use the same text in the HB and apply them to different events, saying both events fulfilled the same prophecy.
  • Second, although Isaiah 53 seems to be the ideal prophecy to quote with respect to Jesus’ sufferings during the crucifixion the NT writers, and Jesus himself, quote it primarily with reference to Jesus and his disciples being regarded as lawless criminals, and to Jesus’ non-retaliation. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion would have been the ideal place to quote Isaiah 53, yet the Gospel writers don’t take this opportunity and are silent. In fact, later generations of Christians have made more of Isaiah 53 than the writers of the NT, and found applications to Jesus which weren’t made by the NT writers.
  • Third, it seems that the first Christians did not think of Isaiah 53 in quite the same way later Christians did – as a prophecy of Jesus suffering as an atonement for the sins of the world – or at least Peter is the only NT writer who gives it this meaning, and even then his emphasis was on Christians following Jesus’ example of non-retaliation.

Going back to the first of those three points, we should note that when NT writers used HB/OT texts they often re-appropriated them or re-interpreted them for a new situation, and in doing so they weren’t necessarily implying that the whole passage applied in every detail to the ’new’ situation. A good illustration of this is the way Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) is used in Matthew 2:15 (This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”) This reads (in Matthew) as though the Hosea text was primarily about Jesus. However, if we continue reading in Hosea the very next verse says “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” The writer’s shift from the singular “my son” to the plural “they sacrificed to the Baals” makes it clear that God’s “son” there is the nation of Israel and the words cannot primarily refer to Jesus or to his taking refuge in Egypt. The Hosea text has been wrenched from its context and appropriated by Matthew because the words in just one verse fit the situation with Jesus. However, the Hosea text in its context cannot by any reasonable stretch of the imagination apply primarily to Jesus. We should therefore be careful in thinking that because a NT writer refers to a text in the HB that the passage must therefore refer primarily to the ‘new’ situation. With respect to the Isaiah 53 text, even though the NT quotes it and applies it to Jesus this is not its primary meaning.

In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in its context to determine its primary meaning.

Continue reading … part 2

The Sign of Jonah

jonah-and-the-whale.jpgThe New Testament doesn’t say much about the prophet Jonah, although the little it does say has made him an important figure in Christianity, his time spent inside the fish prefiguring the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The only references to Jonah in the New Testament are in a saying by Jesus recorded in both Matthew and Luke. The two accounts are similar although different so I put them both below with the words they have in common highlighted in red.

MATTHEW 14:39-41; 16:4

But he [Jesus] answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  40For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

… 16:4  An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

LUKE 11:29-32

When the crowds were increasing, he [Jesus] began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation…32The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

It can be seen that the words in red are common to both Matthew and Luke, but in both accounts they are ‘split’ with different words in between. So which of the two accounts records the actual saying of Jesus? The most likely explanation in my view is that the words in red are the ‘actual’ saying of Jesus and that both Matthew and Luke have copied them from a source which they both accessed. There is a widely held view amongst New Testament scholars (known as the “two source hypothesis”) that when Matthew and Luke were written the writers had two written sources in front of them: one was the gospel of Mark, as large parts of Mark appear word-for-word in both Matthew and Luke; the other was an unknown source which scholars often call ‘Q’ which is an abbreviation of the German word Quelle, or ‘source’. If we compare Matthew and Luke in their entirety we discover that much of these two gospels are identical. If we extract those sections which are identical to Mark the remainder is what scholars call Q. An interesting thing about Q is that it consists primarily of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative. It appears that at some stage, before Matthew and Luke were written (although possibly after Mark) a document was written which listed many of the sayings of Jesus, and this is what we now call Q. It doesn’t exist any more, or at least it hasn’t been found anywhere. But who knows, maybe it will turn up some day in a monastic library (like some of the best manuscripts available of the New Testament) or in a Judean cave (like the Dead Sea Scrolls). It appears that another very early Christian text called the Didache, or teachings of the apostles, may also have used Q as a source, but that is another discussion to be had.

It would be a reasonable explanation then that the actual saying of Jesus which may have been sourced from Q went like this:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

The problem is, this leaves the reader to guess what this “sign of Jonah” was. Both Matthew and Luke inserted their own explanations into their accounts. This isn’t uncommon as we see this kind of thing happening quite a bit in ancient texts which quoted from earlier ones. In this case, however, Matthew and Luke provide different explanations for Jesus’ saying. Matthew says the sign would be “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Luke on the other hand says “as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” We don’t have a case of the two writers recording Jesus’ saying differently (and hence one or both of them ‘misquoting’ Jesus) but of them both recording the same saying but inserting their own explanations, and these explanations differed.

The modern reader is still left to wonder what the “sign of Jonah” meant as the two explanations are different. Luke’s explanation isn’t that different from the saying of Jesus as it focussed on the people of Nineveh and their reaction to Jonah’s preaching. But Matthew’s explanation steps right away from this and offers an allegorical interpretation of the story of Jonah. It is not surprising that a story as strange as Jonah’s which has a host of unusual features (such as someone surviving inside a fish for three days) would attract an allegorical interpretation, and there is evidence in Rabbinic sources that this method of interpretation was applied from an early time. One interpretation, for example, is that Jonah represents Israel and as he was vomited by the fish so Israel was ‘vomited’ from their land when they went into captivity. Leviticus 18 uses precisely this kind of language to describe the land of Canaan vomiting out its inhabitants (18:25) and threatens the same for Israel if they do not keep the statutes and commandments God has given them: “lest the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (18:28).

Jeremiah 51 portrays Nebuchadnezzar and Bel the god of Babylon as sea monsters that have “swallowed up” Israel: “he has swallowed me like a monster; he has filled his belly with my delicacies, he has spewed me out” (Jeremiah 51:34). Jeremiah use the same word that occurs in Jonah 1:17 for the fish swallowing Jonah (although it uses a different word for vomitting, and “sea monster”), and this may be further evidence that Jonah presents an image of Israel being vomitted out of captivity after being swallowed by the Babylonians. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should interpret Jonah allegorically, although it seems that some of the early Rabbis and Matthew did to some extent. It could be an allusion by the writer of Jonah to both the Leviticus and Jeremiah texts recalling the experiences of Israel being “spewed” from place to place as they go into exile and then being disgorged again by Babylon.

Matthew’s interpretation is similarly somewhat allegorical and adds another level of meaning. This is not to suggest that this was the original intention or meaning of Jonah, as we have clear evidence in the way the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible (and also in the way some of the Dead Sea Scrolls quote the Hebrew Bible) that later writers often re-interpreted earlier texts, giving them ‘new’ meanings which were appropriate to their own circumstances and relevant to their audiences. So Matthew gives a new meaning to the Jonah story for his audience. He saw a connection to Jesus’ resurrection while Luke apparently didn’t make the same connection. It suggests there is no ‘right’ way to read many of the stories in the Bible. For Matthew there was one way, for Luke another. Perhaps we can learn something from this when we try to make an argument from the Bible; that even the writers of the Bible read earlier biblical books in different ways.

The patience of Job

The Patient Job, Gerard Seghers (1591–1651). In the public domain, wikimedia commons.

There is a popular expression that someone has “the patience of Job,” probably based on a reference in the New Testament letter of James: “You heard about the patience of Job” (James 5:11). Job’s patience had apparently become proverbial by the time the letter of James was written, probably around the middle of the first century CE. But when we read the biblical book of Job we are hard-pressed to find much evidence of Job’s patience. The Greek word (ὑπομονή hypomonē) translated “patience” in James could equally mean “endurance” or “steadfastness”, but these are hardly major themes in Job either. Job is hardly a paragon of patience or endurance. In fact, he even protests that he has every right to be impatient! “Why should I not lose my patience?” (Job 21:4 NJPS). He constantly protests his innocence, complains that he is suffering without cause, and demands justice. The only time the word ὑπομονή hypomonē appears in the Greek version of Job is to say that God is wearing out Job’s patience, like water wears down rocks (Job 14:19LXX)! So where did James get the idea that Job was a model of patience or endurance?

David deSilva [1] argues convincingly that, rather than quoting from the biblical book of Job, James was more likely  referring to the Testament of Job (hereafter TJob), a pseudepigraphical work probably written in the first century BCE or first century CE.  TJob is based on the canonical Job but the emphasis is different: this Job is a model of endurance, and the word ὑπομονή hypomonē used by James occurs several times throughout the book. DaSilva points to linguistic similarities between James 5:7–11 and TJob and argues that James learned a version of the story of Job from a tradition beyond the canonical Job that came to written expression in TJob, which “presents a fully developed picture of Job as an athlete of endurance, holding on to his commitment to obey the One God and empowered to bear any temporal loss by God’s promise of a future reward for the righteous”. James’s brief reference to the patience/endurance of Job would presume that his audience knows the reshaped Job story from a version such as  TJob and that it is this tradition, rather than the biblical book of Job, to which he refers.

[1] “The Testament of Job: Job Becomes an Example of Patient Endurance”, chapter 9 in The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 237-251.

Which biblical manuscripts are ‘right’: Qumran, the Septuagint, or the Masoretic Text?

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (7)

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.” (ESV)

Commentaries usually propose two possible sources for this quotation in the New Testament from the Hebrew Bible:  Psalm 97:7 and Deuteronomy 32:43. Psalm 97 looks to be the closest match for this phrase, especially once we realise that the Septuagint occasionally translates the Hebrew word elohim with the Greek word angelos (the Hebrew MT of Psalm 97:7 reads השתחוו־לו כל־אלהים worship him all you gods [elohim] whereas the Septuagint reads προσκυνήσατε αὐτῷ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ worship him all his angels), and it is generally thought that the writer of the NT book of Hebrews usually quotes from the Septuagint (but more about this shortly).

But why Deuteronomy 32:43? If we are reading the King James Version (or one of many others) there doesn’t appear to be any connection. This is how the KJV translates the verse:

Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.

The KJV follows the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Initially it looks like it has no connection to the quotation in Hebrews. However, several modern translations (such as the ESV below, with footnotes) include the additional words which I have underlined:

“Rejoice with him, O heavens;[a]
bow down to him, all gods,[b]
for he avenges the blood of his children[c]
and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him[d]
and cleanses[e] his people’s land.”[f]


  1. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text Rejoice his people, O nations
  2. Masoretic Text lacks bow down to him, all gods
  3. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text servants
  4. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text lacks He repays those who hate him
  5. Or atones for
  6. Septuagint, Vulgate; Hebrew his land his people

It is evident from the footnotes in the ESV that there are several differences between the Masoretic Text and other ancient translations such as the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls and the Latin Vulgate. Just to complicate things further, Romans 15:10 may also be quoting this verse in Deuteronomy:

And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

If Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32:43 in Romans then he is following the Masoretic Text with Gentiles or nations,  where  the Septuagint has “rejoice O heavens“. There could be a clue here that the writer of Romans is not the same person as the writer of Hebrews, but having said that, one Qumran version (think ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’) of this text reads “Praise, heavens, his people” (1QDtb) while another reads “Praise, nations …” (4QDtq) so we have two different Qumran-Hebrew texts of this verse and the Masoretic Text represents one Hebrew text while the Septuagint corresponds to another. Romans follows one version, while Hebrews appears to follow the other. The ancient Aramaic version known as Targum Onkelos has an Aramaic equivalent to the Masoretic Text with “Praise, Gentiles, his people”. The Samaritan Pentateuch has the same reading as the Masoretic Text.

Interestingly, in an article by George Howard published as early as 1968 he argued that Hebrews may very well have been following a Hebrew text which was different to the Masoretic text, rather than following the Greek Septuagint, and that Hebrews 1:6 is closer to Qumran Deuteronomy than to the Septuagint. He found that some quotes are actually closer to the Aramaic versions (Targum Onkelos and the Peshitta) than to either the Hebrew or Greek.

“It has been popular in the past to begin a commentary or an introduction to the Epistle by stating that the writer always uses the Septuagint version of the OT (sometimes in the form of Codex Vaticanus, but more often in the form of Codex Alexandrinus) and never shows acquaintance with the Hebrew). Since the discovery of the Qumran Literature and the impetus given by it to the study of the pre-Masoretic text, it is now probable that the text used by the author of Hebrews is, on occasion, closer to a Hebrew recension more ancient than the Masoretic Text.”[1]

But what about Psalm 97:7? If the writer of Hebrews is quoting from this psalm then we can forget the difficulties with Deuteronomy. There are some problems here too, although possibly not as much as with a Deuteronomy source. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the main difference between the two texts is that the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Psalm 97:7 reads השתחוו־לו כל־אלהים worship him all you gods [elohim] whereas the Septuagint reads προσκυνήσατε αὐτῷ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ worship him all his angels). To many scholars this isn’t much of a difficulty because we know that the Septuagint translators sometimes used ἄγγελοι angels in place of אלהים gods. However, Hebrews has “angels of God” rather than simply angels and this suggests the writer was tranlating from Hebrew בני אלהים sons of God rather than simply “gods” [elohim]. Interestingly, 4QDtq from Qumran has “sons of God” in Deuteronomy 32:43, so this may steer us back to a Deuteronomy source and away from Psalms.

It looks like a bit of a mess! At least two versions of one biblical text, with the New Testament writers quoting from both versions. How can they both be ‘right’? The problem is actually a modern one. Timothy Law, in an interview with  Peter Enns, has concluded rather well: ‘We know now that there were many other variant forms of the Hebrew scriptures circulating before the time of Jesus … the existence of multiple forms of scripture (Greek and Hebrew) in antiquity, both before, during, and after the time of Christ, did not bother early Christians. The search for an “original text” on which to ground one’s faith is a distinctively modern worry’ (his emphasis). It seems to me that the New Testament writers reflected current and earlier scribal practices where it was not necessary to copy or translate the exact form of words, but rather to faithfully transmit the ideas and the essential message.

[1] George Howard, “Hebrews and the Old Testament Quotations”, Novum Testamentum, Vol. 10, Fasc. 2/3 (Apr. – Jul., 1968), pp. 208-216

How the Dead Sea Scrolls help with New Testament studies


“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (6)

Pesher HabakkukSeveral scrolls found at Qumran (‘Dead Sea Scrolls’) are commentaries on earlier biblical texts and are called pesharim because of their characteristic use of the Hebrew word פשר pesher which translates as ‘this means’, or ‘the interpretation is’, or similar. These commentaries typically quote a biblical text and then add a commentary beginning with פשר pesher ‘this means …’. There are some characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which are replicated in some New Testament quotations. However, while pesharim tend to be sustained verse-by-verse commentaries (although individual pesher-style interpretations are found embedded in other works) the New Testament writers interpret only small selections from the prophetic writings; there are no sustained verse-by-verse commenatraies in the New Testament. Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Joseph Fitzmyer argues that a pesher is a unique type of midrash and has no exact counterpart in the New Testament.[1] He concluded from his analysis, however, that “the exegetical practice of the New Testament writers is quite similar to that of their Jewish contemporaries, which is best illustrated by the Qumran literature.”[2]

Timothy Lim[3] has identified characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which enable us to recognise some of the quotations in the New Testament in that style. Identifying a specific fulfilment of prophetic oracles is one characteristic of a pesher. So when Matthew introduces a quotation with the formulaic “that it might be fulfilled” he is effectively interpreting the biblical text in much the same way as the writer of Pesher Habakkuk who could quote the prophet and then apply his words to a contemporary person or event. So when the author of Pesher Habakkuk wrote  פשרו על מורה הצדק  “this refers to the teacher of righteousness”[4] he was using a similar formula to Matthew’s “this is fulfilled [by Jesus]”.  While God instructed Habakkuk to write down what is going to happen, according to Pesher Habakkuk he hid from him how the prophecy would be fulfilled, but revealed it later to the Teacher of Righteousness (1QpHab col vii lines1-5). In this way, argues Maurya Horgan, the pesharim function as companions to the biblical text, “unravelling section by section the mysteries that were believed to be contained in the biblical text”.[5] The initial mysteries revealed to the prophet and the interpretation through the Teacher of Righteousness were both revelations by God. The New Testament quotations function in the same way. The initial texts are reinterpreted according to new circumstances in ways that, by modern standards, might seem to be misquoting or using texts without any regard for their primary meaning and setting, yet finding meaning in the words themselves that would not have been understood in their first context. Not only did the interpretation give new meaning to the words, it claimed to be the true hidden meaning.

[1] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament”, New Testament Studies 1961;7(04):297-333, p. 298

[2] Ibid, p. 330

[3] Timothy H. Lim, Pesharim (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002, p. 82

[4] For example, in 1QpHab column vii, line 4

[5] Maurya P Horgan, Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books, (Washington: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1979), p. 259

Does Matthew quote from the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint?

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (5)


Francois-Joseph Navez, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” 1824

Jeremiah 31:15 is quoted in Matthew 2:17-18 using the introductory formula “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah …” The background to the quotation is the “massacre of the innocents” – Herod’s murder of children born around the time of Jesus’ birth in an attempt to eliminate a claimant to the title of “King of Israel”. Matthew presumably quotes Jeremiah 31:15 because the context of Jeremiah 31 is the grief experienced by Jewish mothers who watched their sons go off into battle or exile. [1]

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

If we compare the Hebrew and Greek texts of Jeremiah 31 with Matthew’s quotation we see that Matthew is closer to the Hebrew than to the Septuagint in a few ways and follows the order of words in the Hebrew more closely than the Septuagint. For example, Matthew’s ὀδυρμὸς πολὺς “much grieving” (or “loud lamentation” in the ESV) is possibly a smoother rendition of the Hebrew construct בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים “bitter weeping” than the Septuagint θρήνου καὶ κλαυθμοῦ καὶ ὀδυρμοῦ “of lamentation, and of weeping, and wailing”. The Septuagint omits Jeremiah’s first use of the phrase “for her children”, which Matthew retains, although he omits the second use of the term which is present in the Septuagint (it is not unusual for the Septuagint to omit repetitive phrases, or to reorder them, but the fact that Matthew’s order is different to the Septuagint suggests that he was using a similar translation technique but not copying directly from the Septuagint). I would argue that Matthew was making his own independent translation from the Hebrew of Jeremiah rather than quoting from a Greek (‘Septuagint’) translation. Richard Longnecker has pointed out that in the Gospel of Matthew the evangelist’s own quotations of the Old Testament usually follow the Hebrew reading, whereas the citations by Jesus “are strongly Septuagintal”.[2] This raises the interesting question of why Matthew would make his own translation from the Hebrew at times while using the Septuagint Greek translation when quoting the words of Jesus, especially since it is hardly likely that Jesus himself taught in Greek.

The most likely explanation in my view is that Matthew was using several sources when writing his gospel. We can be confident that one of his sources was the Gospel of Mark as Matthew quotes verbatim almost all of Mark’s gospel (approximately 90% of Mark is in Matthew). Luke also used Mark extensively. There is also a considerable number of sayings of Jesus which are in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. This has led many scholars to accept the theory that Matthew and Luke used at least two sources to write their gospels: Mark, and another gospel, or, more likely, a collection of sayings. This hypothetical second source is usually called ‘Q’ (from the German Quelle, meaning “source”) and many scholars believe that  Q was written in Greek. Jesus’ quotations from the Old Testament in Q appear to be from the Septuagint. If this theory is correct then it would explain why Matthew’s quotations of Jesus’ sayings follow the Septuagint (he was simply copying directly from his Q source) while his own quotations from the Hebrew Bible were his own translation. This argument presupposes that Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek, which is the view of many New Testament scholars, although there are some who believe that Matthew wrote originally in Hebrew or Aramaic and his gospel was later translated into Greek. Either way, there is strong evidence that Matthew used at least two sources for his quotations from the Old Testament: when Jesus was quoting the Bible the quotations came to Matthew via a Greek source which drew on the Septuagint, and when Matthew was quoting Scripture directly he drew on his own knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. Our text from Jeremiah 31 is in the second category and is quoted from the Hebrew Bible rather than the Septuagint.


LXX (Jer 38:15)


כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה

קֹול בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶֽנּוּ׃

οὕτως εἶπεν κύριοςφωνὴ ἐν Ραμα ἠκούσθη θρήνου καὶ κλαυθμοῦ καὶ ὀδυρμοῦ Ραχηλ ἀποκλαιομένη οὐκ ἤθελεν παύσασθαι ἐπὶ τοῖς υἱοῖς αὐτῆς ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν Τότε ἐπληρώθη τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ Ἰερεμίου τοῦ προφήτου, λέγοντος,Φωνὴ ἐν ῥαμᾶ ἠκούσθη, θρῆνος καὶ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολὺς, Ῥαχὴλ κλαίουσα τὰ τέκνα αὑτῆς καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν παρακληθῆναι, ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν

[1] Ramah was 10 kilometres north of Jerusalem on the road captives would have travelled as they were taken into exile. Rachel was said to have been buried in the vicinity of Ramah which was equidistant with Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

[2] Richard N. Longnecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 48

Misquoting the Old Testament (in the New)

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (4)

Jeremiah 18:2-3 cited in Matthew 27:9-10

ESV (OT Sources)

ESV (Matthew)

Jeremiah 18:2-3“Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. Matthew 27:9-10Then 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.”
Zechariah 11:12-13Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” 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.

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. Rembrandt (1630)

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. Rembrandt (1630)

Matthew 27:9-10 is the most puzzling citation of Jeremiah in the New Testament. In fact, it is possibly one of the most puzzling citations of any Old Testament text. Matthew introduces this ‘quotation’ with the formulaic “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying …” The most remarkable thing about this is that nowhere in any of our manuscripts of Jeremiah do the quoted words appear. The wording which is most similar is Jeremiah 18:2-3 which refers to Jeremiah being directed to go to the potter’s house. Both texts refer to a potter but there the similarity ends. In fact, Matthew’s quotation parallels Zechariah 11:12-13 more closely than any text in Jeremiah. Zechariah refers to thirty pieces of silver as well as a potter, but not to a field. Elsewhere in Jeremiah (32:6-9) the prophet bought his cousin’s field in Anathoth, but there the price is seventeen shekels. Matthew’s ‘quotation’ appears to be a composite of Jeremiah 18:2-3 and Zechariah 11:12-13 with a possible allusion to Jeremiah 32:6-9 and it is difficult to see how it is a ‘fulfilment’ of any specific prophecy. Craig Blomberg has argued that “Rabbis would sometimes create a composite quotation of more than one Scripture but refer to only one of their sources by name, often the more obscure one (though sometimes also the more important one) to ensure that others would pick up the reference”.[1]

Matthew’s quotation of Zechariah preserves a clause found in the Masoretic Text but missing from the Septuagint: “the lordly price at which I was priced by them”. His concluding clause (“as the Lord directed me”) is not in either source text, but could be alluding to Jeremiah 13:15 “So I went and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me”. Neither source text refers to a potter’s field, although this is a key item in the fulfilment of the prophecy to which he is referring. Later in the story about the potter in Jeremiah (19:2) the prophet is instructed to “buy a potter’s earthenware flask, and take some of the elders of the people and some of the elders of the priests, and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate”. We may be tempted to see a connection between the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (known as Gehenna in the Gospels) and the traitor Judas Iscariot but Matthew makes no such connection, nor does Luke when writing about Iscariot’s fate in Acts 1:18-20.

What is Matthew doing here with a composite quotation which he attributes to Jeremiah and how can he say that Iscariot’s actions ‘fulfil’ Scripture when there is no such prophecy? Joseph Fitzmyer has noted that “the use of well-known introductory formulae to cite a passage which is not found in the Old Testament (or at least which is not found in any of the known texts or versions)” is a phenomenon found both in the NT and in the Qumran literature” (think “Dead Sea Scrolls”).[2] He put this in the category of “modernized texts” rather than as a literal fulfilment of prophecy.[3] This could also be a case of what he later describes as an “accommodated text”, that is, one which is “wrested from its original context or modified somehow to suit the new situation”[4].

Archer and Chirichigno put this text in the category of quotations which give the impression that unwarranted liberties were taken with the Old Testament text in the light of its context. It would probably be even better, in my view, to categorise the Matthew quotation as a composite allusion rather than a quotation.

[1] Craig Blomberg, [“Matthew” in G.K.Beale and D.A.Carson (eds.) Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 95]. Unfortunately Blomberg doesn’t provide any sources for or examples of this Rabbinic practice. Archer and Chirichigno also claim that in combining elements from both Jeremiah and Zechariah Matthew is “simply conforming to contemporary literary custom when he cites the name of the more famous of the two” [Archer, Gleason L. and G. C. Chirichigno Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey (Chicago: Moody, 1983) p. 163]. but they don’t provide references for their claim either.

[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament”, New Testament Studies 1961;7(04):297-333, p. 304. Another example of this in the Gospels is Matthew 2:23 “he shall be called a Nazarene” while ‘As for that which it said, “Your own hand shall not avenge you”‘ (CD ix 8-9) is an example of a Qumran text quoting an unknown source.

[3] Ibid, p.315

[4] Ibid, p.316. Fitzmyer finds twelve examples of accommodation in Qumran texts.

Does the New Testament always quote from the Septuagint?

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (3)

I wrote earlier that ‘there is a popular misconception that the earliest Christians used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as their Scriptures, and that all the quotations from the ‘Old Testament’ in the New Testament are from this Greek translation, commonly known as “The Septuagint”.’ Before moving on to look at some New Testament quotes that are likely to be direct translations from a Hebrew manuscript I’d like to comment further about the use of the “Septuagint”. I put “Septuagint” in quotation marks because this term is somewhat of a misnomer because there are in fact several quite different Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible which are all identified as “Septuagint”. It would be more accurate to label these texts as “Septuagints” (plural), as many scholars do, rather than identifying any one text as “the Septuagint”. This multiplicity of Greek translations may account for why the New Testament quotations differ quite markedly from the popular Septuagint texts (such as the translation by Sir Lancelot Brenton: The Septuagint version of the Old Testament, according to the Vatican text: translated into English; with the principal various readings of the Alexandrine copy, and a table of comparative chronology, London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1844.)

But the differences between the New Testament quotations and the Septuagints could be explained on other grounds as well. The NT writer may have been making his own translation of a Hebrew text (or an Aramaic translation – a targum – for that matter), quoting or paraphrasing from memory, or making a deliberate change for his own theological reasons. I’d like to explore these possibilities with a few examples.

Mark 7:6-7 and Matthew 15:8-9 are parallel accounts which include a quotation from Isaiah 29:13.

 This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
   in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

In Beale and Carson’s “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” on Mark 7:6-7  the author (R.E. Watts) notes that Mark’s quotation “generally follows the tradition in the LXX” but is actually closer to the Masoretic Text than the Septuagint (p. 163). This suggests that Mark either used a different Greek manuscript which was closer to the MT, or he was translating directly from the MT. To illustrate this, if we compare the NT quotation with the LXX we see that the NT has the same words for the latter part of the verse but in a different order and omitting καὶ, demonstrating that Mark and Matthew were not dependent on the LXX.

διδάσκοντες ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων καὶ διδασκαλίας (LXX)

διδάσκοντες διδασκαλίας ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων (NT)

A careful analysis of the NT quotations of the OT reveals that practically every quotation has  at least minor variants from the Septuagints (or major ones) and is never verbatim. That is significant. Either the NT writers were using different Greek manuscripts to the extant versions of the Septuagints or something else was happening. If the Greek Jewish Scriptures were regarded so highly by the NT writers why do they appear to be so careless in quoting it (if they were indeed quoting it) so as to have so many variants? There isn’t a single quote in the entire New Testament which quotes verbatim from any Septuagint manuscripts that we have. I think the current scholarly consensus is that for at least the first two centuries of Christianity the church used a variety of Greek translations as well as Hebrew manuscripts. Some New Testament quotations of the Old Testament appear to be translations directly from a Hebrew text, while others are paraphrases, possibly from memory.

From this one example I think we could conclude that the NT writers were either using a different Greek text to our Septuagints, they were making their own translation from the Hebrew, or they were using a Septuagint but changing it or improving it as they went, but more examples will follow.

Testimonia – help from Qumran

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (2)

(Probably) Valentin de Boulogne (ca 1594-1632), Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1618-20)

(Probably) Valentin de Boulogne (ca 1594-1632), Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1618-20)

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

2 Timothy 4:13

In the period in which the New Testament was written the Jewish Scriptures were written on several large scrolls usually made of parchment, rather than in a single ‘book’ as we know it. These texts were not put into book form, or codices (singular codex), until considerably later. Codices/books were used in this period, but these were mainly made of papyrus and used for taking notes. Parchment was more expensive than papyrus and therefore reserved for more important texts. Notes might be written on papyrus, but valuable texts which were intended to last longer would be written on parchment.


Biblical scrolls were large and it would not have been possible to carry around the whole ‘Bible’ as we know it. There is evidence from the dead sea scrolls and later Christian literature that several biblical quotations were sometimes grouped together thematically and copied onto a single parchment. These are known as ‘testimonia’ or ‘florilegia’ and the dead sea scrolls includes two Jewish examples including one (4Q175 or 4QFlor, the Florilegium) which is a series of five quotations from the Hebrew Bible about a messianic or prophetic figure, with a pesher or commentary on the last quotation. There are good reasons to believe that some of the writers of the New Testament used similar testimonia as the source of their quotations rather than copying directly from a biblical scroll. For example, some scholars suspect that Romans 3:10-18, which appears to be a lengthy quotation from a single source (in fact, the lengthiest quotation in Paul’s letters), was actually making use of a testimonia. This ‘quotation’ is actually a chain of quotations from several biblical texts (a catena): Psalm 14:1-3, 5:9, 140:3, 10:7, Isaiah 59:7-8 and Psalm 36:1 (references are to the English versions as chapter and verse numbers differ in the LXX and MT). There are two possibilities for the source of Paul’s ‘quotation’: (1) this chain of texts was Paul’s own composition, or (2) Paul was quoting from a Testimonia which had been produced earlier by another writer. It is possible that among the “books and parchments” which Paul asked Timothy to bring with him were such testimonia which Paul had collected or arranged himself, or notes which he had taken at those times when he had access to actual biblical scrolls. Either way, this text in Romans 3 illustrates how that New Testament writers felt no sense of obligation to quote Scripture precisely, and it was even possible to ‘rework’ Scripture by bringing together several texts thematically to create something new. Remarkably, Paul could introduce his chain of texts with the words “it is written” even though that particular arrangement of biblical texts was not actually written anywhere in Scripture.

The Septuagint and the New Testament

Septuagint manuscript from The Schoyen Collection (#2649) containing a portion of Leviticus from second century Egypt - one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of this part of the Bible.

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (1)

There is a popular misconception that the earliest Christians used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as their Scriptures, and that all the quotations from the ‘Old Testament’ in the New Testament are from this Greek translation, commonly known as “The Septuagint” [1] . In later posts I plan to look at some quotations which are more likely to be drawn directly from the Hebrew (then translated into Greek by the New Testament writer) or from some other source, but first I will deal with some of the quotations which are most likely from the Septuagint. My purpose is to give an overview of some of the difficulties we face when the New Testament quotation doesn’t match up with what we find in our own Bibles, and to provide some explanations for why this happens (and perhaps some solutions).

In this post I will look at just one quotation which illustrates the problems quite well. During the early church meeting commonly known as ‘the Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:1-35) James quotes from ‘the words of the prophets’ (vv15-18), specifically from Amos 9:11-12. This quotation is closer to the Septuagint (LXX) than to to the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) [2] , although there are actually eleven differences between the version in Acts and the LXX [3] .

The most significant differences are highlighted by the underlined words below:

Acts 15:15-18 (NRSV)

“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.”

Amos 9:11-12 (NRSV)

On that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair itsbreaches,
and raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old;
in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,
says the Lord who does this.

The difference is actually quite important in the context of the Jerusalem Council because it was specifically the words “all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called” to which James was appealing in accepting Gentiles into the church. However, these words are not in the Hebrew text although they are in the Septauagint. How, when and why were they changed? There are several possibilities:

  1. The translator who translated the Hebrew into Greek (the LXX) made a mistake, or a couple of mistakes, in reading the Hebrew and therefore made a wrong translation which James then uses.
  2. The translator was using a different Hebrew text to the one which eventually became the Masoretic Text (scholars call this ‘original’ text used for the translation the Vorlage). If so, there must have been at least two different versions of the Hebrew of Amos at the time when the LXX was translated. That is possible, and we have good manuscript evidence to indicate there were different Hebrew texts circulating in the first century CE, but which text then would be most faithful to the earliest or ‘original’ text?
  3. The translator deliberately altered the words to give it a different meaning for theological reasons.

For Christians who believe in the ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible any of these possibilities pose a problem: which text is ‘inspired’, the Hebrew Masoretic Text used for translating the Old Testament into English (which may include errors if we believe that the NT puts its stamp of approval on an alternative version), or the Greek Septuagint translation of a different Hebrew text (which is now lost), used by James and quoted in the New Testament? Either the MT is right, and the LXX and NT are wrong, or the LXX and NT are right and the MT is wrong. Do you see the problem?

So how could a translator or scribal copyist make a mistake in the first place? How does “that they may possess the remnant of Edom” become “all the Gentiles may seek [the LORD]”? Here is the Hebrew text of these words as they appear in the MT (without the vowel points, which were added later by the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries CE):

למען יירשו את־שארית אדום

The difference rests mainly on two words (highlighted above). The Hebrew word for ‘Edom’ is אדום and the ‘o’ sound is represented by the letter ו. Strictly speaking written Biblical Hebrew is consonantal, and most of the vowels were added much later by the Masoretes. However, the letter ו is one of the four letters known as ‘Matres lectionis’ which were also used to indicate vowels and during the Biblical period a word could be written with or without it. It is possible that in some manuscripts the word for ‘Edom’ was written אדם. Now this presents a problem, because this is the same word as ‘mankind’ and ‘Adam’. In most cases there is no problem because the context will determine which of the three words is meant (although this is precisely the kind of problem that caused the Masoretes to later add marks to indicate the vowels and to avoid the confusion). So now we have two possibilities for how ‘Edom’ became ‘mankind’ (or Gentiles): the manuscript from which the LXX translator was working had אדם without the vowel ו and he read it as ‘mankind/Gentiles’ rather than as Edom; or, a scribe copying a manuscript at some point read אדם=mankind as ‘Edom’ and added the ו vowel to avoid confusion (but making a mistake in the process), and it is from this copy containing the error that our MT has come down to us. Take your pick.

Paleo-HebrewThe second difference is slightly more complicated. The word translated ‘seek’ in the LXX (ἐκζητήσωσιν) translates ירש which means ‘possess’. This would be the only place where the LXX translates ירש as ‘seek’. Twenty nine times the LXX uses this Greek word for ‘seek’ to translate the Hebrew word דרשׁ which differs only by the first letter, and seventy three times it uses it to translate the word בקשׁ which has only one letter in common. Some scholars suggest that the translator misread דרשׁ (seek) as ירשׁ (possess) which is possible especially if the copy from which he was working was worn, faded or smudged. McLay says it is less likely that he misread it as בקשׁ as this would require him to confuse two consonants which don’t look very similar[4]. However, and this is where I think it becomes even more interesting, we need to know that the Hebrew system of writing began to change after the Babylonian exile from ‘Paleo-Hebrew’ to the ‘block’ or ‘square’ Aramaic or Assyrian style that is still in use today (with some further modifications). The earliest copies of the scroll containing Amos (‘the Scroll of the Twelve Prophets’) would most likely have been in Paleo-Hebrew, and in this script the words בקשׁ and ירשׁ are much more similar. The chart shows these words in the square script which is now used, the Paleo-Hebrew in which Amos was probably first written, and the early form of the square script which is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls Isaiah manuscript to show how it may have been written if the Aramaic script was already in use. While ר and  ק are not similar in the square script they could easily be mistaken in Paleo-Hebrew. Similarly ד י and ב could also be mistaken, especially if the text was faded, smudged or damaged. Many scholars understand that the LXX text arose from a different version of the Hebrew text through a misreading of this kind [5] .

Where does this leave us? We can see how an error may have crept in somewhere and this explains why we have two versions of the words of Amos in our Bibles. But which one is likely to be original? Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this and scholars are divided on the question. Most scholars tend to prefer one version or the other depending on which one they feel best fits the context and until another ancient manuscript is discovered to shed more light on the subject we will have to be content with that.


[1] The ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible are popularly called “the Septuagint”, although several different translations have all in fact been designated as such. There is probably no one translation which has a better claim to the designation than the others, so some scholars tend these days to speak of them as “Septuagints” (plural) and specify the particular manuscript to which they are referring, or collectively as the Greek Jewish Scriptures. Often when commentaries refer to “the Septuagint” (or by its abbreviation LXX) they mean the text and translation by Brenton (1844). For a good overview of current Septuagint scholarship see R.Timothy McLay The Use of the Septuagint in New Testament Research (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

[2] I. Howard Marshall, ‘Acts’ in G.K.Beale and D.A.Carson (eds.) Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) 589

[3] Gert J. Steyn Septuagint Quotations in the Context of the Petrine and Pauline Speeches of the Acta Apostolorum (Kampen, Netherlands : Kok Pharos, 1995) 252-3

[4] McLay, 23

[5] Marshall, 590

David, and God’s heart (2)

In a previous post about 1 Samuel 13:14 I suggested that the Hebrew כִּלְבָבֹו is better translated as “according to his own heart” rather than “after his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart [or, will]” meaning simply that Saul’s successor would be a man chosen by God rather than being a comment about the moral character or “heart” of the man so chosen.

Acts 13:22 records a speech by Paul  where he cites this text in 1 Samuel: ‘When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, “I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.”‘ (Εὗρον Δαβὶδ τὸν τοῦ Ἰεσσαί ἄνδρα κατὰ τὴν καρδίαν μου ὃς ποιήσει πάντα τὰ θελήματά μου). It has been suggested to me that Paul’s citation raises several interesting issues, the most obvious being that Paul is not actually quoting Scripture, or at least no Scripture that we know. These words do not appear anywhere either in the Hebrew Bible or the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint. They seem to be a conflation (or mix) of three different biblical texts:

  • Psalm 88:20 “I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him” (Septuagint: Εὗρον Δαυιδ τον δουλον μου εν ελαιω αγιω μου εχρισα αυτον. The corresponding Greek of Acts 13:22 is Εὗρον Δαβὶδ)
  • 1 Samuel 13:14 “The LORD sought a man according to his own heart” (Septuagint: και ζητησει κυριος εαυτω ανθρωπον κατα την καρδιαν αυτου. The corresponding Greek of Acts 13:22 is ἄνδρα κατὰ τὴν καρδίαν μου)
  • Isaiah 44:28 “[The LORD] says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose‘”. (Septuagint: ο λεγων κυρω φρονειν και παντα τα θεληματα μου ποιησει.  The corresponding Greek of Acts 13:22 is  ὃς ποιήσει πάντα τὰ θελήματά μου)

The words in blue are those loosely quoted by Paul. The first two texts are about David, and the third is about Cyrus, a Persian king. Paul does not quote any of the texts precisely but appears to loosely select words from all three and then blend them together to create a sentence which does not appear anywhere else in the Bible as we have it.

So is Paul misquoting Scripture? It is highly unlikely that Paul had ready access to written copies of the Scriptures while travelling. We don’t know what scrolls the synagogue in Antioch may have had or what access Paul had to them, but we can be certain that Paul did not have the three different scrolls containing 1 Samuel, Psalms and Isaiah in front of him and he wasn’t able to turn up the pages of a Bible like we can. He was undoubtedly quoting from memory so it is not unexpected that his quotations were imprecise.

It would not be unreasonable, or unusual, in a homily to combine two or more different texts on the same subject. In fact, Hillel’s fourth rule of interpretation is known as בנין כתובים משנ אב ‘constructing a leading rule from two passages’. There are several examples of this rule being followed in New Testament texts. For example, Paul argued elsewhere by quoting two texts from the Pentateuch that Christian ministers should be supported financially: ‘For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” … Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:9,13-14 quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 and Deuteronomy 18:1-8). New Testament citations of the Hebrew Bible often follow exegetical methods which are similar to the rabbinic use of Scripture. However, in Acts 13:22 Paul seems to go beyond the rabbinic ‘rules’ for interpreting Scripture by adding a third text about Cyrus and applying it to David. The New Testament writers use Scripture in a similar way elsewhere. For example, Matthew quotes a text about Israel coming out of Egypt and applies it to the family of Jesus who were refugees in Egypt (Matthew 2:15, citing Hosea 11:1 ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’). This raises some interesting questions about quotations of the Hebrew Bible or the Greek Septuagint in the New Testament which are worth further exploration.

Who laid the earth’s foundation? Quoting Psalm 102 in Hebrews 1

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews opens with a series of quotations from the Hebrew Bible in support of the proposition that the Son of God is superior to the angels. The series ends with a quotation from Psalm 102, which appears to suggest that the world was created by the Son:

10 “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.” (ESV)

However, Hebrews appears to give this Psalm a different meaning to that which it had in its original context. This is not unusual of course. The New Testament writers often took texts from the Hebrew Bible and reinterpreted them in new contexts. We need to be cautious about taking the ‘new’ meaning attached to the words by the New Testament writers and reading it back into the earlier text, as though that was the intended meaning of the original author.

With that caveat I would like to look at the way Hebrews quotes Psalm 102. Understanding the Chiasm in Hebrews 1  might help to understand the purpose in quoting Psalm 102. I think the structure of the argument provides a clue as to what the writer meant. He quotes seven texts from the Hebrew Bible (mostly Psalms) about the superiority of the Son to the angels, and presents them in a chiastic structure (chiasm is common throughout Hebrews). The chiasm follows the pattern A, B, C, D, C1, B1, A1:

A. To which of the angels did God ever say “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”. Psalm 2:7

B. “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son” 2 Sam 7:14

C. “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Psalm 97:7 (“worship him, all you אלהים elohim” [or possibly Deut 32:43 LXX and DSS])

D. “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.” Psalm 104:4

C1. “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” Psalm 45:6

B1. “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

You will roll them up like a robe;

like a garment they will be changed.

But you remain the same,

and your years will never end.” Psalm 102:25-27

A1. To which of the angels did God ever say “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”. Psalm 110:1

The first clue to this being chiastic is in the recurrence of the words “to which of the angels did God ever say” in introducing the first and last of the seven texts, forming an inclusio. D is the central or climactic text and is consequently the only one to receive a commentary at the end (v. 14).

The other thing we should notice is that these quotations are mostly from Messianic Psalms. Psalm 2 (“You are my Son; today I have become your Father”) is actually about the enthronement of the King/Messiah in Zion, not his birth. It is followed by a reference to the promise to David about the Messiah-King who will sit on his throne (“I will be his father and he will be my son.”) Psalm 45 is also about the King-Messiah (“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever …) as is Psalm 110 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”). Psalm 97 is also arguably Messianic (e.g. the reference to the “lord [אדון adon a term referring to a human leader as distinct from אדוני adonai which is a term reserved for God] of all the earth” [v.4] whom the angels are called to worship).

There is a clear pattern here in the use of Messianic texts about the King enthroned in his glory. The exception is the central text about the angels (“He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire” OR “He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants”). As the commentary in verse 14 shows, this text is placed in the centre of the chiasm to highlight the inferiority of the angels to the Son and their subordinate position.

So where does Psalm 102 fit in with this structure? It is another Messianic Psalm (e.g. Ps 102:16 says “For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory”; verse 18 says “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD”; the Psalm up to verse 22 is speaking of the restoration of Zion and the Messianic Age) and in my view the mention of the heavens and earth has to be metaphorical within that context. That is consistent with the metaphorical use of these terms in similar texts (especially in Isaiah).

In Heb 2:5 he goes on to say that he has been speaking (in chapter 1) about the age to come.  I think the quote from Psalm 102 is best understood in that context as a reference to the Lord Messiah King in the age to come.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Canon of Scripture

In today’s Bible History Daily from the Biblical Archaeological Society there is an interesting review of a lecture by Sidnie White Crawford about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The article refers to the roughly 515 manuscripts found at Qumran and Masada and says: “Only one quarter of the religious texts found at Qumran are included in the current Hebrew Bible. Ancient Jews did not see the Bible as a single book; they viewed it as a collection, and the choice to preserve a wider range of religious literature suggests that the Qumran community considered a larger number of books to be sacred.”

The writers of the New Testament also cite or allude to several other books which are not included in our Bible, including: Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (or Wisdom of Ben Sira), 1 Enoch, 1 – 4 Maccabees, Psalms of Solomon, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Tobit, Susanna, Judith, and Bel and the Dragon. Lee McDonald (The Biblical Canon, Peabody, Mass., Henrickson, 2007) has a 13 page appendix of “New Testament Citations of and Allusions to Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings” which lists approximately 550 citations/allusions to this literature. McDonald has sourced and adapted his list from two places which he acknowledged: Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.; ed. B. Aland, K. Aland, J. Karavidopoulos, C.M. Martini, and B.M. Metzger; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 800-806; and C.A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies, Appendix Two, 342-409, (Peabody, Mass, Hendrickson: 2005).

4 Ezra 14:44-48 refers to 94 sacred books. “So during the forty days, ninety-four books were written. And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, ‘Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.’ And I did so.”

The 24 books refers to the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, which has only 24 (not 27) books when 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Chronicles are counted as three books, not six, as they are in the Jewish canon. That means that in the first century (when 4 Ezra was written) there were another 70 books which the writer(s) regarded as even more valuable.

The Lamb of God

The book of Revelation refers to the ‘lamb’ about 30 times.  The use of the lamb as a Messianic term is rare in the New Testament outside Revelation.  Paul referred to “Christ, our Passover” (while “lamb” is not stated it may be implied as he “has been sacrificed”).[1] Peter also used lamb imagery: “you were redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect”.[2]  Acts quotes from Isaiah:  “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”[3] The Fourth Gospel has John the Baptist saying of Jesus: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”[4] In Christian tradition the lamb is a frequent image for the expiatory work of Christ, drawing on these New Testament references. However, Geza Vermes  has pointed out that the title Lamb of God in John 1 does not necessarily refer to the metaphor of a sacrificial animal. He argued that in Galilean Aramaic the word טליא talya literally means “lamb” but had the common meaning of “male child”.[5] Vermes argues that in John it is a term of endearment where “Lamb of God” could have been a colloquial way of saying “Son of God”.[6] טליא can also mean “servant”, so there may be an allusion here to the servant of God in Isaiah 53 who was also a lamb. While Revelation does make use of a “slain lamb” imagery[7] it appears that  “the Lamb” is primarily used as a messianic title, rather than being a metaphorical reference to an atonement victim. For example, chapters 19 and 21 refer to the Lamb’s marriage and to his bride, with no hint of a sacrificial lamb analogy.

What are the origins of this prominent image in Revelation? The three New Testament references outside Revelation to Jesus as a “lamb” (excluding John 1 where it is possibly a term of endearment) suggest a sacrificial meaning although the writers are clearly not drawing on atonement imagery in the Hebrew Bible.[8] The emphasis in these texts is rather of an innocent victim. The Psalms of Solomon also used the lamb image with reference to the innocence of devout people:“God was proven right in his condemnation of the nations of the earth, and the devout of God are like innocent lambs among them” (8:23). From where did the author of Revelation get his lamb imagery, as it is not a popular New Testament term? Was he, like the writer of Acts, drawing his imagery from Isaiah 53? There is a possibility that the imagery came from pseudepigraphal sources, specifically the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and 1 Enoch

The Testament of Joseph has language very similar to Revelation:

“And I saw that a virgin was born from Judah, wearing a linen stole; and from her was born a spotless lamb. At his left there was something like a lion[9], and all the wild animals rushed against him, but the lamb conquered them, and destroyed them, trampling them underfoot” (19:8). “You, therefore, my children, keep the Lord’s commandments; honour Levi and Judah, because from their seed will arise the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world, and will save all the nations, as well as Israel” (19:11).

Charles[10] and Kee[11] argue for a second century BCE dating for the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs[12] and O’Neill argues that “lamb of God” was “a Jewish term before it became Christian”.[13] The honouring of Levi and Judah is a reference to the dyarchic messianic hope which is common in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, but this rules out these texts as Christian interpolations. The Testament of Benjamin also contains the lamb of God motif, however its provenance is less certain (the Armenian text of the Testament does not have the “lamb of God” reference, so this may be a Christian interpolation, although O’Neill argues for the possibility that “the Armenian represents a text earlier than a Christian interpolator had got to work”[14]):

“Through you will be fulfilled the heavenly prophecy concerning the Lamb of God, the Saviour of the world, because the unspotted one will be betrayed by lawless men, and the sinless one will die for impious men by the blood of the covenant for the salvation of the gentiles and of Israel and the destruction of Beliar and his servants” (3:8).

In the dream visions of 1 Enoch there is an extended metaphor known as the “animal apocalypse” (chapters 83-90), which is a depiction of history in which the key biblical characters are depicted as animals. Israel is depicted as sheep and the rulers of the seventy nations as shepherds. The “turning point of history comes when small lambs are born and horns grow upon them … The lamb with the big horn is clearly Judas Maccabee”.[15] In an ensuing battle the sheep are given a sword to kill the wild animals (representing the nations). 1 Enoch 90:8 describes how one of the lambs was killed and Collins takes this as a reference to the murder of the high priest Onias III.[16] While the book of Revelation (and possibly the Fourth Gospel) appears to be drawing its lion and lamb imagery directly from the apocalyptic testaments of Joseph and Benjamin, the use of similar imagery in the Animal Apocalypse to refer to both a militaristic leader (Judas Maccabee) and a slain priest (Onias III) may also have provided inspiration for the use of the lamb image in Revelation for a messiah who is both an innocent victim and a conqueror

The roots of this imagery in Revelation are therefore likely to be in the apocalyptic books of 1 Enoch and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

[1] 1 Corinthians 5:7

[2] 1 Peter 1:18-19

[3] Acts 8:32, quoting Isaiah 53:7 Strictly speaking, the reference here is to a  sheep/lamb being led to its shearers or for slaughter, but not necessarily being led to the altar as a sacrificial victim. The metaphor (“like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer“) were both in reference to the sheep/lamb being “silent“, “so he did not open his mouth”. We should not push the metaphor beyond what the writer clearly intended. The sheep/lamb was “before the shearer”, not “before the priest”. The metaphor here is about being silent like a sheep, not being sacrificed as an offering.

[4] John 1:29-35

[5] The feminine טליתא talitha, literally “ewe lamb” and figuratively “girl” is found in Mark 5:41.

[6] Vermes, G., The Changing Faces of Jesus, (London: Penguin) 2002, 16

[7] For example Revelation 13:8 has the “… Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world”

[8] Both 1 Corinthians 5:7 and 1 Peter 1:18-19 allude to the Passover lamb.  1 Corinthians refers explicitly to “Christ our Passover, an allusion to freedom from Egyptian slavery which Passover celebrates (and in the context of the 1 Peter reference it is probably freedom from “the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers”). The Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement or for the forgiveness of sins. The “slain lamb” metaphor could not be a reference to the Day of Atonement when Israel’s sins were forgiven and blood was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place, because it was a goat that was slain on the Day of Atonement, not a lamb. For the daily sin offerings bulls and goats were most frequently sacrificed. Hence Hebrews makes the point that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:14). If a lamb was offered it had to be a female lamb (e.g. Lev 4:32; 5:6). Lambs were also offered as burnt offerings, but when they were offered they were distinguished from sin offerings (e.g. Lev 12:6 “a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering”; Num 6:14 when a Nazirite completed his vow he was to bring “a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe [female] lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering …”). Burnt offerings and fellowship offerings were not for atonement or forgiveness of sins.

[9]O’Neill translates this “and he was at (her) left hand like a lion” (O’Neill, J.C., “The Lamb of God in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 1979 1: 2, 5).

[10] Charles, R.H., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, (Oxford: Clarendon Press) 1913, 289-291

[11]Kee, H.C., “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A New Translation and Introduction” in Charlesworth, J.H. (ed) The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson) 1983, 775-780, 775-780

[12] For a review of the evidence for the dating and reliability of the Testament of Twelve Patriarchs, and an alternative view, see “A Difficult Case: The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs”, Summary of a lecture by J. Davila on 20 February, 1997. Accessed 27 October, 2012

[13] O’Neill, 1979, 2

[14] O’Neill, 1979, 8

[15]Collins, J.J.  (ed), “The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity”, in The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism; v. 1.  (New York: Continuum) 2000, 140

[16] Collins, J.J. The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Second edition, 1998), 69