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OT Interpretation: The Myths We Just Know

christ-and-mosesWhen it comes to understanding the Old Testament, there are three mutually-reinforcing maxims that are followed to the letter in many evangelical circles. They are rarely challenged.  Everyone just knows them.

Trouble is they're not true.  Certainly not in the way that they're asserted.


Myth #1 - The prophets spoke better than they knew.

Take any text from, say, Handel's Messiah.  Try to use it as justification for Messianic faith in the OT and count the seconds before someone counters: "Ah, but they spoke better than they knew."

It's something we all know.  Because it's a myth that's been repeated so often.  Yet... which chapter of Hezekiah is it in again?  I forget.

Now think.  Why would we assume that the prophets were ignorant in the first place? Why shouldn't we presume that the prophets at least knew what they were talking about?  Wouldn't that be the most natural assumption?

Why would we think that Isaiah was ignorant of his own message? I mean, apart from a Darwinian belief in 'progress'.  Apart from what CS Lewis called 'chronological snobbery'.  But really, where have we got the idea that prophets - those whose job it is to enlighten the people - are themselves in the dark? Does the bible ever teach this "extreme dictation" model of prophecy?

Well, once.  Caiaphas.  The murderer of Jesus makes an unwitting prophecy in John 11:51. But is this one-off pronouncement our model for Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel?  That's a very long bow to draw.

Yet the myth persists: 'they spoke better than they knew.'  The myth is deployed selectively to be sure. Prophets are allowed to have certain levels of knowledge.  But anything too ... er... prophetic; anything properly christological gets referred to the "unwitting prophecy" category and we move on quickly.

The myth is so pervasive we manage to "find" it in verses that teach the very opposite.  Whenever I challenge someone who's asserted this myth to justify it, more often than not they'll point to 1 Peter 1:10-12.  It says:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.

Here we have Spirit-filled prophets eagerly searching for the suffering then glorified Christ. Notice that they aren't looking for two Christs (one suffering, one glorious) - that will be important for myth #2.  They know that the Messiah will come, suffer and be glorified. What don't they know? They don't know the time or circumstances.

All the prophets are like Eve who, having given birth to her first offspring, predicts him to be the Offspring - the LORD-Man (Genesis 4:1).  She got the time and circumstances wrong, but where was she fixing her hope?  On the Divine Offspring who would suffer (be struck) even as He would gloriously triumph (crushing Satan's head) - Genesis 3:15.

In all this, I'm not denying that there are many details which the prophets did not know.  Many aspects of the incarnation's 'time and circumstances' were not yet revealed in the OT (why would they be?).  But what they did know is what we all must know: they had an eager expectation of Christ and of His saving sufferings and glory. Whenever an OT prophet speaks in such terms, they are not speaking better than they knew.  They are articulating their own Christ-focussed faith.


Myth #2 - No-one expected the kind of Messiah that Jesus was

This myth is very common at a popular level.  Right now there's a bible study somewhere in the world in which someone is opining: "Well, of course, the people all expected the Christ to come on a war horse and overturn the Romans."

Well... it's a decent guess that some Israelites might have been of that persuasion.  But show me the verse that says all Israel conceived of the Messiah only in such terms.  Show me the verse that says an Israelite was in any sense justified in reading the OT that way.

Peter, as we've seen above, was adamant that the Spirit-filled prophets looked forward to Christ's suffering then glory.  Jesus, in Luke 24, was insistent that the Scriptures proclaimed suffering then glory, and that the disciples should have understood this (v25,46). Paul, on trial before Agrippa, maintains that the Hebrew Scriptures clearly portray a suffering then glorified Christ (Acts 26:23).  Someone might counter (and they usually do) that this is an apostolic re-reading of the Scriptures - but I'll deal with that when we get to myth #3.

For now, it seems to me like myth #2 is punching way above its weight relative to any supporting Scriptural evidence.  In fact, there's lots of Scriptural evidence that the people were well able to comprehend the kind of Messiah Jesus was.  At Christmas we remember Simeon holding the baby Jesus and rejoicing that he'd therefore seen salvation.  The kings from the east bowed to a child and the songs like the Magnificat are Scripture-full acknowledgements of what an upside down kind of king the Christ is.  Read on in John chapter 1 and you have Simon, Andrew, Philip and Nathanael perfectly able to comprehend that this carpenter was Messiah, King of Israel and Son of God.

Absolutely there were comprehension issues among the disciples. Massive ones, especially as the way of the cross was set before them (same with us right?).  But it's just not the case that first century Israelites were unprepared for the kind of Messiah Jesus would be.  The Spirit did a good job of authoring God's word and preparing God's people.  There was no good excuse for misunderstanding.  Jesus (and later the apostles) never countenanced any other true reading of the OT.  God's word has always held forth a theology of the cross. And the faithful among those 1st century Israelites (like Simeon and Anna) grasped this.


Myth #3 - The Apostles read Messianic meaning into Hebrew texts that weren't intended by the original authors.

Myth #1 is deployed whenever an Old Testament text threatens the system.  Myth #3 is deployed whenever a New Testament text threatens the system.  If you quote from the NT a verse about the OT's explicit, conscious Messianic focus, myth #3 is rapidly asserted:

"Ah yes, but Paul had apostolic warrant to reinterpret OT texts in ways not intended by the author."

This is a very difficult myth to engage.  Not just because of the lack of Scriptural support for it, but because  it actually insulates the whole position from Scriptural critique.  It simply doesn't matter how many times Jesus or an Apostle says that 'Abraham rejoiced in Jesus', or 'Moses wrote about Jesus' or 'Isaiah saw Jesus' glory and wrote about it', or 'Jesus saved the people out of Egypt', or 'That Rock was Christ,' or 'Moses embraced disgrace for the sake of Christ,' etc, etc - at every point we're told that this isn't actually a statement about Abraham's, Moses' or Isaiah's actual faith.  All these statements are re-readings of the OT text which, in their own context, would not have been recognised by Abraham and Moses, etc.  In their own context Moses and the Prophets had quite limited hopes and dreams but Jesus and the Apostles re-interpret them through "New Testament eyes." Somehow Jesus has retrospectively given Abraham an anticipation of His day - even though Abraham, if you'd asked him at the time, would have articulated a different hope (in land and progeny, or something).

It all sounds so strange.  And it flies in the face of Paul's plain words:

I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-- that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:22-23)

Think of the context in Acts.  Paul was engaged in debating Jews on an almost daily basis.  Nowhere do we hear him trying to give Moses a new meaning. If he did, he would have won none of the Jews.  As it was, Paul was concerned to teach his people "what Moses said would happen."

If myth #3 was true you would expect it to be taught explicitly in the New Testament. But it isn't.  There are three occasions when Paul speaks of "the mystery" kept hidden in the OT (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:26) but this mystery is clearly taught as the administration of Gentile inclusion in the people of God (see here for more).  This "mystery" is not a miscellaneous category into which we can throw every gospel truth we wish to preclude from OT consciousness.  It's about Gentiles coming into the covenant community and how that inclusion should happen.  This Gentile issue is the controversy of the New Testament.  No-one in the New Testament seems to have much trouble with trinity, incarnation, atonement, union with Christ - everyone struggles with the issue of Gentiles.  This is what is new about the New Testament.

So, yes, in a limited sense, there are new truths to be revealed about how Israel will go global.  There was no need to reveal the administration of this inclusion in the OT.  But to imagine that the Apostles are re-reading the OT is something that is never taught.  If it were, shouldn't there also be a mountain of verses telling us not to follow the Apostles in their exegesis?  Yet there are no warnings for us about their unrepeatable apostolic hermeneutic.  Instead - surely - we ought to follow them, just as they follow Christ.

Again, if we take a step back from these myths, wouldn't it be a lot simpler to take the Apostles' words at face value?  When they read the OT as proclamations of gospel truth, wouldn't it be simplest to think to ourselves "Paul models proper handling of the Scriptures."  If his handling of the text seems odd to us, wouldn't it be the humble option to consider our intuitions wrong and his to be right?  Since "sub-Christian" exegesis is never practiced by the Apostles - not even as a preliminary stage - wouldn't it be best if we followed them and abandoned that sub-Christian 'first step' we're always inserting?

When the Apostles seek to express the faith of OT saints, isn't the most straightforward approach to take them at their word? If Hebrews 11 attributes Moses' actions to "faith in Christ" (v26) wouldn't it save us a lot of headaches if we abandoned the attempt to retrospectively award Moses a faith in Christ he never had in the first place?  Why don't we just take the Apostles to be correct interpreters of the mind of Moses and the Spirit by whom he wrote?

I can't help thinking that the pressure to believe myth #3 is like the pressure to believe myth #1: it come not from biblical arguments but from the need to protect against biblical arguments. Given the OT statements of messianic faith and the NT statements about OT faith, I suggest that these myths are deployed as a last resort against the bible's teaching.

Here's my closing challenge.  It might sound melodramatic, but I stand by it:  If we abandon these myths and read the bible from Genesis to Revelation as explicitly and consciously Christian Scripture, the bible will come alive in our hands, Jesus will take on the epic proportions proper to His divine Person and our faith will grow from strength to strength.  If we embrace these myths, the Scriptures will be fitted into a straitjacket, principles and promises (not Christ Himself) will take centre-stage and our joy in Jesus will be diminished.

Myths 4 & 5 here...

24 thoughts on “OT Interpretation: The Myths We Just Know

  1. Michael Baldwin

    Nice and direct- I like it! I've found it fruitful but also very frustrating going through Carson's first volume of 'For the love of God'. Very frequently he will say something like, "of course there's no way __ could have known that Jesus would fulfill this" or "he spoke *much* better than he knew", even when the context doesn't call for it. It's really strange! Like it's a really important heresy to avoid or something!
    With regard to 2), I thought that the whole 'political expectations of the messiah' was, among other things, the key to understanding why so often Jesus tells people not to tell others about him?

  2. Glen

    Hey Michael, I know what you mean with those frustrations!

    As for (2) - certainly Jesus doesn't want the disciples to teach a cross-less Christ and certainly the disciples baulk at the cross and need Jesus to spell it out again and again. But I'd say A) that's the same for all of us. We all baulk at the way of the cross - that's not because the Scriptures aren't clear, it's because our flesh craves comfort. And B) no-one could claim that the OT Scriptures weren't clear about a suffering Messiah (hence those verses from Jesus, Peter and Paul about suffering then glory). We all (often wilfully) miss things in the bible that are uncomfortable for us, and the disciples were very often guilty of understanding Christ via a 'theology of glory', but Jesus is always exasperated by this and condemning of it. A theology of glory has never been a legitimate reading of the OT - not now and not then - that's my point with (2).

    God bless

  3. Si Hollett

    Ah, but clearly, despite no contemporary evidence, it's clear that Ps110 is a coronation song for Hezekiah, and when Jesus says that it can't possibly be as no Jew would have a mere son of David as David's 'Lord', he's lying!

    Likewise the Deuteronomic history (Josh, Judges, Sam, Kings) is history and not 'Major Prophets' like the Jewish Bible has it. So the attempts at allegory with serpentine Goliath are wrong as these are mere descriptions and the author wasn't implying any kind of typology*.

    And again, when God says to Abraham "your only son", it's some sort of deliberate airbrushing Ishmael out of existence by the source that wasn't corrected by the redactor, who also wanted to use the story to justify Israel as the true heirs of Abraham. Clearly not about echoing forward to what Yahweh will provide on the mountain...

    *We so balk from allegory these days that we struggle to allow the possibility of intended allegory! Jim Hamilton here in Christanity magazine talks about how what he's about to say - discussing the possibility of an allegorical intention of Solomon isn't on modern scholarship's radar at all and they never really talk about anything but what the Song is 'primarily' about (and unlike Jim, who uses them to suggest that it's a weasel word to not exclude any spiritual meaning while never talking about such a thing, I'm using quotes because they aren't talking about what the Song is primarily about).

  4. Mike Walker

    Well written. I long for the day when these myths are gone for good. I can testify to the truth of your last paragraph personally. Nice one Glen.

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  8. Ed

    Can you talk to #2 a little bit more? Israelites might not have been justified in reading the OT that way, and some of them clearly understood the kind of Messiah Jesus was, but don't the crowds in the Gospel always assume Jesus has come to Jerusalem to overthrown Rome? That's why Jesus is surrounded by a crowd when He enters the city, but He's by Himself when he enters the Temple?

    Isn't this misunderstanding the reason behind the question in Acts 1:6? Lord, now you've defeated death, can we finally go and defeat the Romans and restore the Kingdom?

    Not so much a question of what the OT teaches, but how it was mis-interpreted by the teachers/readers of the time?

  9. Theo K

    Thank you Glen,

    Indeed, the hearts of believers are 'burned' (like it happened to the disciples on the road to emmaus) when Jesus is seen in all His beautiful glory in the OT!


  11. thetotuschristus

    Hi Glen,

    I seldom ever meet these misunderstandings and am not sure whether you're not exaggerating a bit.

    Number 1 for example, could be read as meaning that the prophets didn't know what they were talking about. But noone seems to believe this. However, many Christians (including myself) would argue that a lot of OT passages (eg Isaiah 7:14) have an early fulfilment then a later Christocentric fulfilment which would not necessarily have been recognised by all believers living at the time, but is more obvious now since the coming of Christ in the flesh.

    In 2, you've got to think about how you interpret "Messiah, King of Israel and Son of God". In Jesus' day, none of these terms would have been interpreted in a Nicene/creedal way - "Son of God" simply meant Davidic king, as is clear from God's covenant with David in the Old Testament. The Old Testament does set forth a fully trinitarian understanding of God, but it's not clear that God would actually become a man. It's only after Jesus' resurrection that Jesus' full divinity and equality with the father became clear - as in Thomas's declaration "My Lord and my God!".

    In 3, you are partially right, but I think you misdiagnose the problem - it's our rather limited way of reading scripture. I think the coming of Christ can change the way we read, for example, the story about Yahweh providing water from the rock to Israel in the desert - it really can add a new perspective on an earlier story that wasn't as clear before. Isn't that the very nature of typology, that it's about the history of a text changing in the light of newer events?

    Overall, I think the Old Testament is not completely clear about "God becoming man". It's certainly foreshadowed, but never obvious. Everyone under the Old Testament was saved by trusting in the Son of God (who we now call Jesus Christ since his incarnation). No Christian would deny this - to say otherwise would be to say that they believed in a different God. They trusted in the second person of the holy trinity, so they trusted in the same person as we do, but they didn't necessarily know that he would become a man and die on the cross. It's only since the resurrection of Christ that this all becomes obvious.

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  14. Si Hollett

    thetotuschristus: reading 'Deep Exegesis' by Leithart today, he gives a view very similar to yours (even uses 'and the Rock was Christ' as a typology example*). Saying, like him (I'm paraphrasing), "Hosea didn't mean Jesus fleeing Israel as an infant when he wrote 'Out of Egypt, I called my son' but if he read the context in which Matthew uses it, he'd say 'That is what I was hoping for!'" he's still saying that the prophets spoke better than they knew - they were speaking to one thing and (without distorting the text) the NT writers reused it to refer to the better thing - Jesus. The Spirit's intention was for both meanings, of course.

    Leithart makes some very good points, and is even strong on Jesus' and NT use of the Prophets wouldn't have surprised the Prophets, even though it's not what they themselves meant or understood (ie that they did know what sort of messiah was to come).

    Those three kingly terms (the first one also being priestly as well) were associated with Yahweh-in-flesh in 1st century Judaism with the priestly term 'Son of Man' even more clearly so. While priestly messianic foci are much less common than kingly ones, they were there and were very explicit wrt divinity of the figure: in Essene, they worshipped the High Priest when appearing at the entrance of their temple (Jerusalem had been corrupted, so they had their own temple by the dead sea) chasing the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. This was because ex officio, he was Yahweh - because he was Yahweh's idol, his image (in a more focused way than all humanity is made as images of God - the HP is Adamic and Christic). God-in-flesh, explicitly human flesh, appears as early as Gen 1:26!

    And, of course, Yahweh is plural and singular, and everyone in the OT who meets him knew that the Angel of the Yahweh (and other titles used of the Eternal Son) was also fully and equally Yahweh, so while the language isn't refined into Nicene terms, Nicene Christology is held pre-incarnation. Hagar is the first person recorded as expressing Nicene Christology in Gen 16:13!

    *Interestingly he shows that Paul was just exegeting the text well and that Moses later talks of Yahweh as being the Rock, referring to that incident. Though he wants to not go too far and says that Paul was pinning that view down in a way that Moses didn't fully see (ie the switch from Yahweh to Christ), but would have wholeheartedly agreed with.

  15. Glen

    Hi Ed, I'd agree with you mostly - there were all sorts of misunderstandings about Jesus (though sometimes that gets over-egged), But I'd just say - as you do - that these misunderstandings are not justified by the OT itself and that Jesus (and then the apostles) thought that such a theology of glory was a case of hard heartedness and not a failure in revelation (or attributable to a primitive *stage* in revelation).

    Hi Chris, You're fortunate not to have come across folk who deny that saving faith is always conscious trust in Christ. I have come across much of this and consider Goldsworthy's position in the debate versus Blackham to be a classic example of this error.

    I'm glad you insist on faith in the Son of God in every age - that for me is the bottom line. But if I'm allowed to push beyond that base line, I would say that from Genesis 3:15 onwards it's the Son who is *Seed* and who will be *struck* that is the focus for this saving faith. Jesus (Luke 24), Paul (Acts 26) and Peter (1 Peter 1) take it to be utterly basic that the OT sets forth Christ as One who would suffer and to die. Today I was speaking with a six year old who made a wonderfully Athanasian point across the dinner table: "Jesus had to die and he had to be a man to die." Deep theology, but she's been raised on a diet of Christ in all the Scriptures!

  16. thetotuschristus


    You've got me! I'm a huge fan of Leithart.

    Regarding the three ttitles, I'm not sure that they were necessarily divine titles as you insist. I can't see that being well verified by the Old Testament, so I'm not really convinced. Son of God is mostly kingly (David), Son of man is mostly priestly (Ezekiel) and Messiah/Christ/anointed almost certainly has both connotations (like Melchizedek). Also, I agree that Old Testament faith was conscious faith in the triune God - I just don't agree that everyone knew that God would become man, in other words, it was not clear that the angel of Yahweh was the same person as the messiah.


    I don't think it was necessarily clear that the the Angel of the Lord/Word of the Lord was the same person as the messiah prior to the incarnation and resurrection. I agree that they are, I just don't think it's necessarily obvious from reading the OT on its own (though it's probably hinted at). How would you know from the text of Genesis that the seed and the son are the same person? I agree about Paul and Peter's death/resurrection stuff, but this is about the messiah, which the saints under the Old Covenant didn't necessarily think was the Angel of Yahweh.

  17. Glen


    Well there are dangers on both sides of the question "What did they know, when?" But it seems to me that the safest default position is to treat OT saints the way the NT treats them - as believers in *Christ*. If we are to avoid myth #3, the *Christian* interpretation of the OT is the *basic* interpretation of the OT and to insert a preliminary primitive stage to OT revelation is the unsafe option.

    I just remembered this, from the Targum of Jonathan on Genesis 4:1 (I first read it in a John Owen essay):

    "And Adam knew his wife which desired the Angel, and she conceived and bare Cain, and said, 'I have obtained THE MAN, the Angel of Jehovah.'"

    Here is an OT interpreter without any knowledge of the incarnation who simply reads Genesis with his OT theology. He takes it as completely natural to identify the Angel with the LORD with 'THE MAN'. In fact, it seems to me, he adds the stuff about the Angel, not to crowbar in a jarring extra detail, but simply to explain what Eve must have meant within her own context.

    Within the OT, think of the way Malachi 3 understands the Angel of the Covenant - He is the Lord whom the people desire who will visit His temple. Think of how naturally Hosea 12 identifies the Angel with the God who was the Man who wrestled Jacob. Even within the OT, the saints were using this language with understanding and nuance.

    If we reject myth #3 then I reckon we should just read the OT with the same expectations for trinitarian nuance that we have when reading the NT. When we do that, it's perfectly reasonable to attribute to Eve (etc) a high level of theological understanding - and as corroborative evidence, the Targum of Jonathan shows that just such an understanding existed BC.

  18. Glen

    PS - when I say that Jonathan had no knowledge of the incarnation, I mean that he was not interpreting the OT in the light of an acquaintance with Jesus of Nazareth. (I think he had a great anticipation for the incarnation)

  19. Si Hollett

    Chris - I'm a huge fan of Leithart too. I see your point (and his), but I think that Jewish literature suggests otherwise on the depth of the knowledge of Christ by BC saints and how their Christological interpretations of the OT were very strong. Leithart uses a weak form of myths 1 and 3 to defeat a strong form of the three myths combined. He clears Glen's baseline but can't press on further.

    Glen - great quote. When I've done writing my essay (on this topic, to some extent - though I'm going to struggle to go into any depth on this particular debate) tomorrow, I'll have some lectures, sleep for most of the day Tuesday and then dig out some other cool ones that show that BC saints had a rather Christian Christology...

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  21. trutherator

    (1) Christ told the apostles plainly what the scriptures said about his death, burial and resurrection, both before (when he told Peter to "get behind me, Satan") and after on the road when he showed them from the scriptures.

    Herod killed ALL the young children of Bethlehem based on information from the priests. No royalty there, I don't think. No palace birth.

    With John chapter 3, the priests and rulers STILL knew who Jesus was, because Nicodemus TOLD Jesus outright they knew he was of God. Read Isaiah 53 to a Jew not too versed in Pharisee comebacks, they'll protest you're reading from the NT!

    The OT plainly predicted the Jews would REJECT him.

    Daniel 9 said *plainly* that Messiah would be "cut off", which of course would have to be before his glorious reign.

    AND the O.T. scriptures --even the Pentateuch, or Torah-- plainly said that the Jewish (by the flesh) possession of the Promised Land --and of God's blessings-- would end one day because of their rebellions.

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