Another Consideration for Inerrancy: The NT Author’s Quotation of (or Alteration of) the OT

Posted By on September 9, 2008

In three previous posts I sketched out three principles I think are important to keep in mind for an accurate and honest statement of inerrancy. I list them here for review:

1. Taking the Bible on its own terms.

2. The idea of divine accommodation.

3. Distinguishing literary techniques in the text from a modern, empirical sense of inerrancy / errancy.

4. Fictional content in the Bible (I used the example of dialogue which no one recorded, and for which there is more than one [divergent] recounting).

Let’s jump into number five — the way NT authors handle the OT. This is a bit technical, but it’s ground that needs covering.

Now, one might assume this is merely a question of which text (MT or LXX or something else) a NT author decided to use. But that is too simplistic. What about when the NT author quotes a passage from the OT-LXX where the LXX disagrees with the MT precisely because the LXX fits the argument of the NT author (and the MT would not)? This goes to intent on some level and begs the question of whether the NT author thought the MT was incorrect. I’m not arguing for that way of expressing / parsing the issue, but I want to be clear about the issue before us.

Here’s a quotation from Peter Gentry in this regard. It helps frame the question, but I think the response (boldfaced) to the question raised is soft-pedaled:

The NT writers sometimes took the Septuagint wording and applied it to a new circumstance (e.g., Acts 14:11 borrowed words from Ps. 118:22; 2 Cor. 16:8a borrowed words from 2 Sam. 7:14 and other texts). At other times the NT writers corrected the Septuagint reading in order to bring it into greater conformity to the Hebrew texts (e.g., see the use of Isa. 28:11-12 in 1 Cor. 14:21, or the use of Isa. 63:10 in Eph. 4:30). The use of the Septuagint doesn’t imply that the NT writers thought that the original Hebrew was mistaken; rather, it means that they affirmed the truthfulness of that which they were quoting or adapting in their own writing.

Well, this is a bit evasive. Yes, they affirmed the truthfulness of the LXX they were quoting – but by doing so when the LXX disagrees with MT, they were NOT affirming the truthfulness of MT!  They couldn’t and still get to where they wanted to go.

Some clarification. This issue (in my mind) has nothing to do with the integrity of the NT authors. They are free to quote whatever text they want. In many cases, their selection of the text they’re quoting may indeed be a reflection of what is the best text (the original reading). But we can only give them that break when we know that there are two (or more) legitimately different readings in the manuscript traditions. In many cases it will be clear that the text of LXX was a different text than that of MT. But often the differences between LXX and MT are not that the Hebrew text translated into the LXX was different than the Hebrew MT text. Rather, the differences are because the LXX translator INTERPRETED his Hebrew text. When the NT author quotes something like that, does it mean that MT was wrong?  Note: I’m not saying the NT authors knew when they had an actually divergent text vs. an interpretive translation on their hands. I’m guessing they didn’t (how could they? – they didn’t have all the manuscript witnesses sitting there in front of them). Rather, did the Spirit guide the NT author to a BETTER reading since MT was mistaken – and if so, how do we frame that with respect to inerrancy?  I have a thought or two on this, but I’d like to hear from readers for now.

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3 Responses to “Another Consideration for Inerrancy: The NT Author’s Quotation of (or Alteration of) the OT”

  1. Rairdan Brannach says:

    Dr H —

    It seems to me that to think too much about the version that a particular author quoted, and reasons for quoting a particular version, is misguided.

    The NT authors were not textual critics.

    Chances are we have more textual information to hand than they did when they wrote. To understand quotation of a particular OT/LXX reading as support for the quality of the reading puts far more burden on these authors’ quotations than they merit.

    Evaluate the quotations in the context of the quoting author’s argument/purpose. To do anything more is to do too much.

  2. MSH says:

    @Rairdan Brannach: agreed – that the NT authors were not practicing TC (hence my caveat in the post).

  3. aeneas says:

    I’m only now catching up with perusing the blogs. This interests me very much because so many Christians today are not textual critics, and I don’t think the NT authors were practicing that either.

    However, if one way of interpreting both Old and New Testaments is to attempt to reconstruct, as best we can, the way contemporary audiences understood certain passages, can we not apply that to the potential problems raised here? Let’s say that a NT author reads one version of the OT that contradicts another manuscript’s reading. Should we not consider the audience of the NT author when he makes that choice while at the same time considering the audience for the manuscript that has a different reading? And not just the audience but the time period, circumstances, and anything else that goes into reconstructing context. Can’t both readings be right in the context of when, where and for whom they were written?

    I know that this demands textual criticism on the part of the modern reader, but I’m thinking more and more that all Christians today have to be engaged in TC to some extent.

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