What Did Jesus Believe About the Old Testament?

Most often, when the question that titles this post is phrased in that way that is meant to articulate what either the person asking the question or the person being questioned has certain beliefs that are either being forwarded or being inquired about.

And I realize that opening sentence is rather long, even somewhat run-on, but it captures a reality with regard to how most people often approach the Bible: they often have beliefs that are being imposed upon the text of Scripture rather that drawing their beliefs from the text of Scripture. That’s a fact that should make rational people very uncomfortable.

It’s often why there’s so much heat produced in discussions rather than light, because most beliefs are held by traditional rather than through rational means, without any reflection on what the tradition is based upon.

It’s why believers, like myself, who take various positions that is drawn from a historical, cultural, and linguistical analysis of the text often get painted as “unbelievers” because we just disagree with an interpretation of the text that simply doesn’t represent what can be demonstrated with a consistent application of rules of exegesis. So when we ask a question about what Jesus might have believed about the Bible, the motives of both the questioner and the answerer can be, and should be suspect because what is often being implied is, what do you believe that Jesus believed about the Bible (ie the Old Testament)?

The question is meant to be something of a purity test rather than a genuine question about whether anyone has actually engaged with the text and what it says. To this end, I think that it would serve us well to consider this recent post written by Michael Kruger over at his blog Canon Fodder, wherein he tackles the question.

He begins by writing,

“The Old Testament has run into some hard times as of late. It’s seen by many as a curmudgeonly, legalistic, violent, confusing, and, maybe most of all, boring sort of book. As the atheist Richard Dawkins famously opined, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.”

Aside from Dawkins’ problem of assuming what he doesn’t prove, we can look at pushes even within what has become the current state of evangelicalism, such as so-called “Red Letter Christians” and something that I have come to describe as a kind of neo-Marcionsim. Kruger continues his opening,

“On top of these sorts of complaints are questions about the historical veracity of the Old Testament. Are we really supposed to believe in a literal Adam and Eve? A global flood? Sodom and Gomorrah? People struggle to believe these sorts of things really happened.

Now, while I’m not exactly sure where Kruger himself comes down on these questions and his reasons for holding those beliefs, and frankly I don’t think that their necessarily relevant to the article that he writes. I’ve articulated where I stand on Adam and the Flood, and I think that there’s good reason to believe that Sodom and Gomorrah not only existed but had a relatively bad reputation, and were destroyed, the reasoning behind such are limited to the data that we posses. And while important in one sense, they can be ultimately irrelevant to other matters.

Kruger points out that such questions come from both believers and unbelievers, which tells us that these questions are somewhat normal. However what concerns Kruger is evangelicals who indicate either by implication or direct assertion that the Old Testament doesn’t matter. To that end he asks,

“Would [Jesus] agree with concerns above? Should we bail on the Old Testament?

Kruger then proceeds to give three reasons that he believes can be derived from the text that gives us insight into what Jesus believed about the Old Testament. Those 3 points that he makes are that Jesus saw the Old Testament as historical, authoritative, and inspired.

With regard to it’s historical character, Kruger notes that,

“…Jesus understood the historical portions to be, well, historical.

Now there’s two ways that this point can get portrayed, depending on where one looks because someone who is a brutish YEC literalist, would, well celebrate that, while a raving liberal believer might just say that Jesus was just playing to the expectations of the crowd. It’s very easy for someone to just throw up their hands in victory depending on how the word “historical” is understood in that sentence. It’s almost like it wasn’t known to the average Israelite/Jew that their Bible (the Old Testament) had a history itself. Connect with this that Jesus, the God-man, would not only know how the texts were composed, but would also be cognizant of them as the driver for their composition.

Something that upsets a number of believers, especially those who reject theological concepts of lordship salvation, is that the Old Testament is seen as authoritative by Jesus. Kruger writes,

“In all of Jesus’ disputes and debates (and there were many), the highest court of appeal was always what Scripture had to say. Curiously, this was even an agreed-upon reality with Jesus’ enemies. Despite all their theological disagreements, they never disagreed about the role of Scripture as the ultimate authority.

This is something else that troubles many Christians, as well as provides fodder for unbelievers in that Jesus was not nearly as “original” in his teaching as some might have one believe. Much of Jesus teaching, especially in the example of the “Sermon on the Mount” is drawn out as explication on the Mosaic code. In fact, if one doesn’t have a background that is thoroughly soaked in the Torah, as well as later rabbinic interpretation and application, when Jesus says, “You have heard it said…but I say…,” in that context one would miss that he is appealing to the authority of the law in Scripture to make application. None of what Jesus says makes sense without assuming the authority of the Old Testament when he makes application.

Keyed to it’s authoritative nature is why Kruger then argues that Jesus would have seen the Old Testament as inspired, writing,

“…Jesus affirmed most plainly that the Old Testament contains the words of God himself. When it speaks, God speaks. Take, for example, Matt 19:4: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother…’

What makes the text authoritative is the Sovereign God speaking through them via the means of inspiration, which is evidence of God’s action in time, and the means by which God intends to speak to subsequent generations (eg Matthew 22:31).

Simply put, I agree with Kruger’s conclusions about what we can derive from the Gospel presentation what Jesus believed about what we refer to as the “Old Testament”. The primary error that modern believers engage in is that because we call it “Old” that it is somehow irrelevant and all that we need is the “New” Testament.

Modern believers need to get a holistic about Scripture. We need to treat the Bible not merely like a reference book that we can use to justify our beliefs in a post hoc method. We need to get into the text and endeavor to understand it in its original, historical context so that we can properly derive a meaningful interpretation that can be applied rightly in every circumstance in life.

Also, on this episode of The Dividing Line, Dr. White discusses a similar need to understand the authority of the Old Testament to the early church as he looks at Peter’s Pentecost sermon.