Jesus and the Old Testament, Part II: How the New Testament uses the Hebrew Bible

Picking up my discussion from the previous post, I will explain the terminology used in Isaiah, how it was appropriated for the Gospel of Matthew, and why it is a mistranslation. Before I begin this discussion, please note that the New Testament writers were likely familiar with the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible. The significance of this will be apparent shortly.

Isaiah 7:14, quoted again in Matthew 1:23, is used to predict the virgin birth of the Messiah. The text states, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel…’” (Matthew 1:22-23, NRSV). In the MT, the Hebrew word used for “virgin” is הָעַלְמָה. The issue with this term is that it does not really mean “virgin” in the biological/technical sense, but rather refers to a young woman who is of marriageable age; not necessarily a “virgin.” The Hebrew term בְּתוּלָה means “virgin” in the more technical sense of the word, i.e. a person (woman) who has not engaged in sexual intercourse. See Isaiah 62:5 for this usage.

The problem is that in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (known as the Septuagint; the version the NT writers were most familiar with), these two Hebrew terms combine into the single Greek term Παρθένος (Parthenos). Of course, this is a universal issue when a text is translated from one language to another. Thus when the New Testament writers read Isaiah in the Greek translation, they pointed to this text as a prophecy of a virgin birth, even though this concept is not supported in the original Hebrew (see also my argument regarding the verb tenses in Part I).

My main premise for this part of the series is this: The New Testament appropriated the Old Testament in an effort to explain Jesus, possibly for Jewish audiences. By rooting Jesus in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament writers gave legitimacy to Jesus as the Christ.

This makes sense when one considers not only the Jewish context of Jesus himself, but also the Jewish community that comprised the early Christian movement. The early Christians did not consider themselves a separate religious faith as it is today, but rather a part of Judaism.

If we take the account of the New Testament at face value, then we may assume that Jesus’ ministry lasted a short time before his eventual crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire. After this time, the followers of Jesus began their ministry and spreading of this Gospel. One method of accomplishing this came from Paul, who traveled to various communities and whose writings (although not all in the NT) are preserved. Others took the route of composing Gospels, four of which are preserved in the New Testament canon.

So if you are a Christ follower, how do you go about convincing your community as to the divine nature of Jesus? You do this by seizing on the wave of Messianic fervor of the first century C.E in certain Jewish communities and you tie your savior to the Hebrew texts. After all, the first century CE is also a time of “miracle workers” running rampant in the Roman Empire, thus Jesus’ followers needed to ground him in a textual basis. It is evident reading through the New Testament that the text of the Hebrew Bible and various Jewish traditions were in play in order to build this portrait of Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah for the Jewish people, and eventually as we see with Paul, with Gentiles as well.

Another important part to keep in mind is that even with the Old Testament lacking prophecies concerning Jesus of Nazareth himself, this does not negate the legitimacy (whatever that means) of the New Testament. Honestly, the prediction of Jesus in the Old Testament does not give the New Testament its authority. Without sounding Marcionistic (see Marcionism), understanding the New Testament does depend on knowledge of the Old Testament, hence why more Christians should be familiar with its material. Relegating the Old Testament to nothing more than a collection of material predicting Jesus completely robs it of its historical narrative, theological underpinnings, poetry, and literary genius.

I will end this segment with the question of what we do now from a theological perspective, given the historical and linguistic analysis. Answering that question (again, from my own point of view) will be the subject of part III of this series. Thank you for reading.

–   Andrew

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