A Book Review of Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation” (Part 5): The Old Testament and Its Interpretation in the New Testament

In his final chapter of Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns devotes his time addressing a topic that most Christians, if they admit it, really don’t get: how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament.

Now, many Christians may think they know how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament, but I’m sorry to tell you, they really don’t. Basically, most Christians tend to think that the Old Testament simply contains a number of “500-year-old- plus predictions” that finally came true in the life of Jesus, and the New Testament writers were basically saying, “Look at this prediction! Jesus did it!” That’s basically what I thought, well into my 20s, and I think it’s safe to say that’s what many people, not just Christians, think the New Testament writers are doing.

Well, Enns goes into some very detailed explanations, spanning 50 pages, that show the New Testament writers were doing something quite different. Now, there is absolutely no way I will be able to provide a point-by-point overview of the entire 50 pages, so what I hope to do is to sketch the big picture of what Enns discusses, and then look at a handful of his numerous examples to help illustrate what he says.

It’s All About Christ
To put Enns’ chapter in the most basic terms, what he points out is this: “…the New Testament authors were explaining what the Old Testament means in light of Christ’s coming (106). Simply put, what they encounter and experienced, both during Christ’s earthly ministry, but also his crucifixion, death, and ultimate resurrection caused them to look back on the Old Testament and interpret it in a different way. Or more specifically, as Luke 24:44-48 tells us, it was the resurrected Jesus himself who had to teach them how to re-interpret the Old Testament, because even after the resurrection, it was pretty clear that the disciples still were pretty clueless about as to what just happened.

And I don’t know about you, but if a man resurrects from the dead says to me, “Listen, you’re not really understanding your Bible, let me teach you what’s really going on,” …well, I’m going to listen and take notes. And so, as I like to put it, what we find in the New Testament is basically the way the resurrected Jesus taught his disciples about how to interpret the Old Testament and apply it to what he said and did.

And so with that, let’s look at one of the first examples Enns discusses: Jesus’ claim in Luke 24 that “the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead.” Where’s that in the Old Testament? Some have tried to say its Hosea 6:2: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.” But Enns correctly states that looking for a specific verse that Jesus was referring to is simply missing the point and borders on the absurd. The key thing to realize is that the resurrected Jesus was teaching his disciples that the whole Old Testament is ultimately about him, because “he is the climax of Israel’s story” (110).

If there is one fundamental thing to take away from this chapter, that’s it. If you realize that, you’ll see that the Gospel writers, for example, emphasize that Jesus is the climax and fulfillment of Israel’s story all over the place: Jesus comes up out of the water of his baptism, then immediately goes out into the wilderness for 40 days, where he is tempted by the Devil, and each time he responds by quoting a passage out of Deuteronomy. Now, what other story in the Old Testament involves (a) going through water, (b) being out in the wilderness for a period of 40? That’s right: the Exodus! Jesus is basically “re-enacting” the Exodus. And here is where the Deuteronomy thing comes in to play. If you look up those three verses Jesus uses when he resists the Devil, you’ll see they refer to three specific times when Israel failed to put their faith in God—yet Jesus succeeds where Israel fails. He is thus the fulfillment of Israel’s story.

Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period
After making that basic point about how the entire Old Testament is ultimately about Christ, Enns then goes into great detail about how the New Testament writers went about related various Old Testament passages to Christ. And they clearly weren’t claiming the Old Testament was just a bunch of “predictions.” Take for example Matthew 2:15’s use of Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Matthew claims that Hosea 11:1 was “fulfilled” when Joseph, Mary and Jesus came back from Egypt to Nazareth.

The only thing is that when one reads the greater context of Hosea 11:1-3, it’s clearly not a passage that is predicting anything. Rather, it is looking back to when the Hebrews came out from Egypt during the Exodus. And furthermore, it’s a complaint about how they were unfaithful and continued to worship false gods. So how on earth can this be about Jesus? Again, just like my previous example with Jesus in the wilderness, Matthew isn’t so much saying Hosea 11:1 was a prediction of Jesus, as he is pointing out that “Jesus fulfilled the ideal that Israel was supposed to have reached but never did. Jesus is the true Israel” (124).

Enns spends countless pages discussing other instances of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. Although I cannot go into detail about all of them, I will share which examples he discussed: Paul’s use of Isaiah 49:8 in II Corinthians 6:2; his reference to “Abraham’s seed” from Genesis 13:14-17 in Galatians 3:16, 29; and his use of Isaiah 59:20 in Romans 11:26-27. Each one of these discussions is truly fascinating. But again, the thing to remember is that the New Testament writers were engaged in using the interpretive methods of the time in their application of various Old Testament passages to Christ. They weren’t engaged in a simple “this is a prediction of that event” type of thing.

Hey, Where’s THAT in the Bible?
Enns also points out various instances where the New Testament writers aren’t even referring to the Old Testament, but rather various interpretive traditions of the time. For example, in II Timothy 3:8, Paul refers to two magicians in Pharaoh’s court by name as Jannes and Jambres—but that’s nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. So where did Paul get those names from? Well, one of the names was found in one of the scrolls at Qumran, and both names are found in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan. Simply put, Paul was referencing other writings that weren’t directly found in the Old Testament.

Or how about Peter’s calling Noah “a preacher of righteousness” in II Peter 2:5? That’s never mentioned in Genesis—but in his Jewish Antiquities, Josephus says something similar about Noah; and there are a few other ancient Jewish writings as well.

How about Jude’s reference (in Jude :9) to Michael’s dispute with the Devil over Moses’ body? That’s not in Deuteronomy. Or how about Jude :14-15’s mention of Enoch’s prophecy? That’s not in Genesis…but it certainly seems to be a reference to the apocalyptic writing of I Enoch, specifically I Enoch 1:9.

Where in Exodus are we told that Moses “was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action,” like Stephen claims in Acts 7:21-22? Where in Exodus does it claim that the Torah was “put into effect through angels,” like Galatians 3:19, Acts 7:52-53, and Hebrews 2:2-3 state?

Enns’ point is that in their efforts to show how the entire Old Testament was ultimately about Jesus, the New Testament writers would sometimes reference general beliefs and assumptions that were “floating around” among the Jews of that time. It would be like if I talked about “the three wise men” who came to the baby Jesus—Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. Now, nowhere in the Bible are we told their names, and for that matter, nowhere in the Bible does it say three wise men came. Yet, that has become a general assumption and tradition among Christians. Therefore, when pastors often deliver their Christmas messages, they will say “the three wise men.” That doesn’t invalidate what they say; it just reflects a general belief that everyone is familiar with. In the above examples, we see the same sort of dynamic.

Finally, the most interesting example for me is in I Corinthians 10:1-4, where Paul equates Christ with the “spiritual rock” that gave the Israelites water in the wilderness for 40 years, and that “accompanied them” during their time in the wilderness. Where in the Old Testament does it suggest that?

It doesn’t. But here is where that belief came from: there are two stories of a rock giving water in the wilderness—Exodus 17 (at Rephidim, near the beginning of their wilderness travels) and Numbers 20 (at Kadesh, near the end of their wilderness period). Hence, some early interpreters equated the two as the same rock and concluded, “that the rock must have rolled along with the Israelites throughout their forty-year wilderness period” (141). So there you have it—Paul’s seemingly odd reference was a reference to that interpretive tradition that the Jews and Christians at that time would have been familiar with.

To Conclude
To sum up, Enns makes the point that the New Testament writers were not necessarily engaging in the modern method of “historical-grammatical exegesis.” They were interpreting the Old Testament according to the methods and traditions of their time. And basically, their hermeneutic was, as Enns calls it, Christotelic—meaning, they saw everything in the Old Testament as having their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Christ was the “end game,” so to speak. In addition, the New Testament writers’ hermeneutic was also Ecclesiotelicmeaning, it focuses on the Church as the body of Christ.

And here’s the thing: the way they interpreted the Old Testament and applied it to Christ and the Church was ultimately creative. They weren’t engaged in an academic method; they were creatively showing how everything in the Old Testament, everything in the story of God’s dealings with Israel, found their ultimate meaning and fulfillment in Christ and the Church. Or as Enns says:

“What drives apostolic hermeneutics is not adherence to a method. Rather, the coming of Christ is so climactic that it required the New Testament writers to look at the Old Testament in a whole new light” (149).

So how does all that apply to us? Well, we need to engage in the historical-grammatical method if we are to make sure what they were saying and teaching. Nevertheless, we need to remember that biblical interpretation, as Enns says, “is at least as much art as it is science” (151). Or as I would like to say: once we do our best to understand what the original intent was of the biblical writers, and particularly how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament, we need to strive, both individually and as church communities, to be creative in the ways we translate and apply the Bible to today’s culture and society.

Enns’ book is a challenge, and it is quite an eye-opener. For some reason, this is a book that sparked controversy throughout many areas of modern evangelicalism, and that is too bad, for it is one of those books that engages and inspires the reader to become a better reader and lover of the Old Testament.

And so, allow me to end with the way Enns’ ended the chapter: “The reality of the crucified and risen Christ is both the beginning and end of Christian biblical interpretation” (152).

6 Comments

  1. Great posts! I realized by myself that verse of Hosea about Egypt. I remember that I was thinking about how it can be a prophesy. And then I realized that our Lord Jesus is the embodiment of Israel and filled everything in the Old Testament with His presence. Everything is a shadow, type and image of Christ. Peter Enns is an orthodox christian?

  2. I like the word Christotelic. That does put Christ at the center of the Bible. That is much more than the usual “predictive” narrative. There is more to it than, “the Old Testament predicted that such and such would happen, and Jesus did it so the Bible is true.” Unfortunately a lot of preaching is less about Christ and more about the Bible (as if the Bible is mainly about itself).

    1. Yes, I think most people, both Christians and non-Christians alike, tend to just view the OT as a giant “prediction book,” more akin to Nostradamus than what the OT actually is. When I learned more about how the NT writers used the OT, it made so much more sense and was infinitely more fascinating.

  3. This has been a very interesting series! It really does sound like most of Enns’ points are pretty common sense, or at least very defensible. It’s just a sign of how knee-jerk reactionary most evangelicals are that this could be considered controversial to the degree that it is.

    1. Yes indeed. That being said, some of Enns’ conclusions about things like the “conquest” of Canaan, I think, are not convincing, and I think he does go too far with some things. But, that’s going to happen when you honestly wrestle with tryibg to understand the Old Testament. Hopefully in the near future I’ll write a couple of posts where I disagree with him.

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