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New Testament use of The Old

In Luke 4:16-20 Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and was called on to read the Scripture portion for the day. When he opened the scroll and began to read, he was at Isaiah 61:1-2. But if we compare what Jesus read, as recorded in Luke, with what is actually written in Isaiah 61:1-2, we find that he did not quote it (or read it) exactly. For example, right after Jesus says, “. . . to preach the gospel to the poor,” he leaves out “he has sent me to heal the broken-hearted” (or at least this is not in most ancient manuscripts). Furthermore, after “preach deliverance to the captives,” Jesus inserts “and recovering of sight to the blind,” which is not in this Isaiah passage but is found in other Isaiah passages, such as 42:7.

There are other instances where the NT quotation of the OT is not exact. Another example is where Mark and Luke, describing the ministry of John the Baptist, supposedly quote Isaiah 40:3 but do not quote it exactly, the difference being the second part of the verse where the writers say, “. . . make his paths straight” whereas Isaiah had originally said, “. . . make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

In this age of technology where we want everything to be exact and precise, what are we to make of this rather inexact NT quotation of the OT? There are several observations that may help our understanding of this:

*First of all, believe it or not, the Old Testament at the time of Christ was still somewhat in a state of flux, and there was more than one version of a number of books and passages. We know this by comparing the Septuagint (Greek OT) and the Massoretic text (the Jewish authorized text), and we also know it from the fact that at Qumran different versions of certain OT books have been found (for example a longer and shorter version of Jeremiah).

*The Aramaic targums (translations made for those who could not understand Hebrew) were often embellished somewhat with homiletical material; these were not seen to be mistranslations but rather interpretations which brought out the real meaning of the OT text.

*We know that in some cases NT writers were following neither the Massoretic nor the Septuagint (Greek) text. In that case they are probably following an interpretive tradition. In other words, certain passages were deemed to have certain meanings, and those meanings were sometimes brought out in the quotation. This did not cause people to feel it was being misquoted; rather they thought the underlying meaning was being revealed.

When the NT quotes from the OT it does not always quote exactly. Sometimes it is quoting neither the Septuagint (Greek version) nor the Hebrew Old Testament. I suggested the writers might be quoting either a targum (Aramaic translation) or an “interpretive tradition.”

The Old Testament that Jewish rabbis use today is called the “Masoretic text.” It is so called because a group of Bible scholars called Masoretes, who arose in the 6th century AD and continued their work into the 10th century, finalized and standardized a text of the Old Testament, complete with vowel readings and a division of the text into discrete (separate) words and sentences (as opposed to the original wording which was all run together). The Masoretes studied and used a number of OT texts in order to define this standardized text, which became the “authorized” version for all Jews.

In NT times, as alluded to in the last article, there was more than one version of the OT. True, most of the differences in the various texts were minor, but sometimes there was a major difference (such as the longer and shorter versions of Jeremiah, and differences in the Psalms). Dead Sea Scroll scholars have discovered that there were at least 3 groups or “families” of texts circulating in NT times. These families of texts appear to have originated in different geographical localities---Palestine, Egypt, and Babylonia. Palestinian texts would have their family characteristics, while the Babylonian group had their characteristics, etc.

Sometimes one group of OT manuscripts would have a characteristic that another group did not have. Here is an example: Psalm 22:16b says, “They pierced my hands and my feet,” and of course in the NT this is applied to Jesus on the cross. However, the Jewish Masoretic text does not have this reading; rather it says, “like a lion, my hands and my feet.” The Septuagint and Syriac versions both say “they pierced my hands and my feet,” and this reading has been corroborated by texts discovered at Qumran.

Now in Hebrew, believe it or not, the difference here is only one letter. K’ari means “like a lion,” whereas karu means, “they pierced.” In Hebrew the “yud” and the “vav” can sometimes look almost alike if they aren’t written carefully. The first word, k’ari, ends with a yud while the second, karu, ends with a vav. At one point a copyist, squinting at the Hebrew text, thought it looked like a “vav” whereas another copyist thought it was a “yud.” So they copied it accordingly. One of them, therefore, copied “k’ari,” like a lion, while the other one wrote “karu,” they pierced. Using their manuscripts, then, other copyists copied the text, so that two families of manuscripts were created: one set reading “like a lion” and the other one reading “they pierced.” All from a difference of one letter!

Later, when the Masoretes were editing their OT, Christianity was already strong, so of course they would not be likely to use those manuscripts that read, “they pierced.” Instead, they no doubt selected the ones that read “like a lion.” So we have the difference remaining today. But, as already mentioned, our reading of  “they pierced” has been corroborated by Hebrew manuscripts from Qumran, and this probably shows that “they pierced” was the original reading (and this harmonizes with the rest of the messianic psalm).


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