I became a believer and began reading the Bible not long before I turned eighteen. It didn’t take long before I recognized that the writers of the New Testament often seemed to be reading a different Old Testament than I was. The gospels or epistles would cite a passage, and like an earnest first-time Bible student, I would look it up, expecting to find basically what the New Testament author said I’d find, but with more detail.
Instead, I often found completely different wording, sometimes completely unrelated or completely opposite what the New Testament author is saying. Other times the quote is correct but lifted completely out of context, the very next verse modifies the meaning. Other times the quote is correct but the original author is clearly referring to something that had already happened or was currently on-going.
When I went to university and began working on my theology and then my literature degrees, I learned the categories of explanation for this. Ancient readers understood texts differently than moderns do; employed different techniques of persuasion or explication. The writers of what became the New Testament looked for the sensus plenior, or fuller meaning, of the Judaic texts. Further, the first category of cases is easily accounted for when you realize the history of transmission. By the time the New Testament was composed, the Old Testament had been translated into Greek, and the Greek and Hebrew versions stood side-by-side, complementing each other. Often writers would draw on a nuance of the Greek text to make their point, while the Hebrew said something quite different. English-speaking pastors do this with translations of the Bible constantly.
But there is one category of scriptural misuse that still gets my attention, and that’s when the Christian writers seem to deliberately misuse passages from the Hebrew scriptures. Sometimes the writers draw the opposite meaning from a passage from the original author. Kenneth Bailey, in his must-read Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, observes that Jesus leaves two crucial verses out of his quotation from Isaiah.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching in a local synagogue (a practice often open to itinerant lay preachers, as it were). It’s unclear whether he chose the passage, or whether the synagogues were already following a lectionary by this point, but Jesus read from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
But Jesus angered the gathered crowd by omitting what history shows us was their favorite part of the passage, which goes on to say, “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort those who mourn.” Luke records that they were so angered by this omission, and perhaps his self-designation as a prophet, that they attempted to put him to death.
Of course, the passage does not say so clearly that this is why the crowd was angered, which has left the story somewhat bewildering to anyone not as familiar with the Isaiah passage as Jesus and his audience were. It was subversive, the same way removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance is subversive.
But there are broader examples. One of the most commonly cited psalms is Psalm 110. This is an enthronement psalm that proclaims:
The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”
2 The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
“Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
3 Your troops will be willing
on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendor,
your young men will come to you
like dew from the morning’s womb.
4 The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek. ”
The Gospels, the book of Acts and the book of Hebrews make frequent use of this psalm, but consistently skip over verses 2 and 3, which are never alluded to, even where verses 1 and 4 are used together. This leads D. Stephen Long to point out that “Sometimes doctrine arises as much from what we must forget as what we affirm.”
What this demonstrates is that the way Christ conquers his enemies and is enthroned is both similar to and different from what the psalmist intended. Christ has conquered and is victorious, but he has not conquered as one who has “led forces on the holy mountains.” That theme from Psalm 110:3 disappears. He has conquered as a priest offering sacrifice, and that sacrifice is his own blood.
In the end, when scripture gets scripture wrong, it often gets it more right.