Quotations in the NT



Numbers and kinds.

Most of the quotations in the NT are drawn from the OT. The bulk of these occur in the synoptic gospels, the epistles of Paul, Hebrews, and Revelation. How many there are depends largely on the number of allusive OT quotations counted—and that is a delicate matter. The number of explicit OT quotations has been variously estimated in the range of 150-300, allusive quotations over 1,000. Revelation contains numerous allusive quotations, but none which are explicit.

The explicit quotations of the OT are easy to identify. Quotation formulas often introduce them. Allusive quotations are clauses, phrases, and sometimes single words that may easily escape notice; e.g., the unattentive reader might well miss that the words from the cloud at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt 17:5) came from three separate passages in the OT: “This is my beloved Son (from Ps 2:7), with whom I am well pleased (from Isa 42:1); listen to him” (from Deut 18:15). More easily overlooked is Matthew’s changing the description of Joseph of Arimathea as “a respected member of the council” in Mark 15:43 to “a rich man” (Matt 27:57) to conform with a prediction by Isaiah that the Suffering Servant would have “his grave...with a rich man in his death” (Isa 53:9).

There is the possibility that some coincidences of wording between the OT and the NT are fortuitous, as is probable in the narratives of the flights to Egypt by Jeroboam I (1 Kings 11:40) and the Holy Family (Matt 2:13-15). In most instances, however, there is justification in seeing conscious allusions, for Jewish education was steeped in OT lore. Because of rote memory, many of the rabbis were “living concordances.” The DSS have shown that an author’s weaving OT phraseology into his own words was a common literary practice in NT times.

Textual affinities.

In quoting the OT, the NT writers occasionally transliterate the original Heb. (or Aram.); cf. “Emmanuel” (Matt 1:23), and “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (Mark 15:34). Usually they follow the text of the LXX, frequently even when the LXX differs from the MT. The NT may disagree, however, with the LXX throughout an entire quotation or only in parts of a quotation. Sometimes the disagreement with the LXX will show agreement with the MT, the Targums, the OT Peshitta, Theodotion, and variant readings in Heb. MSS, the DSS, rabbinical tradition, and Josephus—and sometimes complete independence from any known OT textual tradition. Often combinations of different textual traditions occur within a single OT quotation. It is esp. well-known that this phenomenon characterizes the so-called “formula-citations” in Matthew, introduced by a statement such as “This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.”

The mixed text prob. does not derive from inaccurate citation by memory (as is often stated). That is made unlikely by the numerous agreements with various textual traditions and by agreement among different NT writers against all others (Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27 with Mal 3:1; Rom 9:33; 1 Pet 2:6 with Isa 28:16; see J. Scott, Principles of NT Quotation [1877], 93).

Scholars have put forward a number of hypotheses to account for the aberrant text of numerous OT quotations in the NT. J. R. Harris argued that the NT writers used a “Testimony Book,” i.e., a catena of OT (proof texts) (Testimonies [1916-1920]). Many of the textual variants are then traceable to the “Testimony Book,” as are also recurring combinations of OT passages, supposed misascriptions, and the known “Testimony Book” of the Early Church Father, Cyprian. Support for the hypothesis comes from the catena of Messianic texts discovered in Qumran Cave IV (see J. M. Allegro, in JBL, LXXV [1956], 186; LXXVII [1958], 350). Doubtless, early Christian evangelists and teachers drew on a common stock (oral and/or written) of favorite OT proof texts for tenets of the Christian faith. But there is little reason to think that a “Testimony Book” par excellence or any number of them are the reason for the frequent failure of NT writers to follow the LXX. One reason for not thinking so is that a number of the aberrant quotations do not convey the idea of Messianic fulfillment, and prob. did not, therefore, stem from a catena of Christian proof texts.

To P. Kahle, the non-Septuagintal elements in NT quotations of the OT reflect written Gr. targums widely used before the church adopted the LXX as its standard VS of the OT (The Cairo Geniza, 2nd ed. [1959], ch. on the LXX). The mass of variant readings in MSS of the LXX—variants that Kahle uses along with the aberrant text of OT quotations in the NT to prove the existence of Gr. targums—present a discernible pattern of development from an archetype, not a hodgepodge of unrelated variants from independent Gr. targums. Furthermore, the DSS have shown that many of the variants in the Septuagintal MSS were the result of progressive assimilation to the Heb. text of the OT, not the result of amalgamation of differing Gr. targums utilized by NT writers.

K. Stendahl proposes that Matthew emanates from a Qumran-like “school” that practiced pesher (interpretative) selection and adaptation of known variant readings in the quoted OT texts (The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the OT [1954]; cf. the treatment of the OT text in the DSS, esp. the Habakkuk Commentary). This hypothesis, however, labors under two basic weaknesses: (1) the DSS have shown that in NT times the OT text contained mixed readings that later became isolated in separate streams of textual tradition, so that the variants in OT quotations may be due to the mixed OT text used by NT and Qumran writers rather than to deliberate selection and adaptation by them; (2) an aberrant text is frequently an OT quotation where no hermeneutical motive for changing the LXX (or MT) is apparent. The same objections militate against the view of B. Lindars that the aberrant text of many OT quotations in the NT stems from reworking of the texts according to apologetic needs as the church confronted Judaism (NT Apologetic [1961]).

In the synoptics, only the explicit quotations of the OT in the Markan tradition are purely Septuagintal (or nearly so). On the other hand, some of Matthew’s formula citations are wholly or partly Septuagintal as well as non-Septuagintal, showing affinities with the MT, the Aram. targums, etc. This same sort of willy-nilly mixture occurs in the other OT quotations, including those that are allusive. It would appear, then, that the explicit quotations in the Markan tradition were conformed to the LXX because they stood out, and because their grammatical independence in context subjected them to easy assimilation, and that the mixed text in other OT quotations stems partially from the mixed state of the OT text in NT times and partially from the Jewish practice of free translation in “targumizing” (see Targum). Agreeing to the mixture of Heb., Aram., and Gr. textual traditions in many NT quotations of the OT is the archeological evidence that these three languages were commonly used in 1st cent. Pal. (see R. H. Gundry, The Use of the OT in St. Matthew’s Gospel [1967], 172-178; id., in JBL, LXXXIII [1964], 404ff.). Divergences from the LXX in OT quotations outside the synoptics (as in John and the Pauline epistles) are likewise best explained as the result of loose, ad hoc renderings in the targumic style (cf. E. D. Freed, OT Quotations in the Gospel of John [1965]; E. E. Ellis, Paul’s Use of the OT [1957]—although both of these writers see more interpretative changes of the OT text than the present writer is inclined to see; and Ellis hypothesizes that Christian prophets engaged in oracular adaptations).

The style of OT quotations.

The formulas by which explicit quotations are introduced are varied. “It is [or stands] written” emphasizes the permanent validity of the OT revelation. “That it might be fulfilled” points up the consummation of the OT revelation in NT events. The OT passage may be attributed to the human author (“Isaiah says”) or to God Himself (“God says,” “saith the Lord,” “the Holy Spirit says”). Other formulas are “the scripture says,” “the law says,” “the prophet says,” “it says,” and numerous variations. These introductory formulas exhibit the highest possible concept of OT inspiration on the part of Jesus and the NT writers. Not only does God often appear as the author of Scripture; the identification is so close that sometimes the Scripture is personified. At the same time the references to Moses, David, Isaiah, and others show recognition of the human element.

The NT writers often quoted an OT text without indicating the source. The ancients had no feelings about plagiarism in such a practice. Nor did they sharply distinguish between direct and indirect quotations. To weave interpretative phraseology into a quotation (making it inexact) was not to disregard its sacredness, but to honor that sacredness by treating the text as supremely important for interpretation and application. By the same token, it does not really matter that the text of the quotation differed somewhat from that of the Heb. OT. It is the meaning that counts. Only if the point of the quotation may rest on a change of text does a serious problem arise. That is a matter of judgment in each claimed instance. For an example, see the commentaries on Hebrews 10:5 (“a body hast thou prepared for me,” versus “thou hast given me an open ear,” Ps 40:6).

It frequently is charged that the NT writers misinterpreted the OT text. Many times, however, they point to typology in the OT passage without meaning to deny the original meaning in its historical setting. Beyond that, scholars are dealing with matters of judgment—and each place where it is claimed that misinterpretation has occurred has to be considered separately. For example, does Paul’s argument that the sing. “seed (or offspring)” in God’s promise to Abraham (“and to thy seed,” Gen 13:15 KJV) must refer to one person, Christ, wrongly overlook the use of “seed, offspring” as a collective sing.? Hardly, for the context of the quotation shows that Paul is thinking of Christ as a collective sing.—the corporate Christ, or Jesus Christ plus all those united to Him by faith. Or does Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 (“The righteous shall live [have eternal life] by faith [trust in Christ]”—Rom 1:17 ASV) violate an original meaning, “The righteous shall physically survive by virtue of their fidelity to Yahweh”? Again, one must answer negatively, for the verb “to live” in Habakkuk 2:4 carries the full meaning, “to enjoy divine favor,” and fidelity to God is rooted in trust. Indeed, the OT passage seems to contrast the arrogant self-confidence of the wicked with the patient trust of the righteous, so that trust is the primary connotation rather than (or at least arising out of) fidelity.

Concerning the OT quotations in the gospels, it is also charged that Christian desire to find fulfilled prophecies has resulted in the warping and creation of tradition about Jesus to fit OT texts. Against such a view are the facts that Christians failed to exploit many OT passages easily susceptible to the motif of fulfillment and that many of those they did exploit were not, so far as one can tell, Messianically interpreted in Judaism at that time. Some of the quotations are so out of the way that it is doubtful a Christian writer would have thought to create a corresponding tradition about Jesus (cf. Matt 2:15, 18). Or the tradition is so realistic that derivation from the OT is unlikely. Not even among the DSS, where the desire to find fulfillment was so strong that the OT text is tortuously treated, does one meet creation of tradition to fit prophecy. For these and other reasons, one is to accept the priority and trustworthiness of the tradition concerning Jesus, and view the attached OT texts as later accretions rather than sources.

The purposes for which the OT is quoted.

The motif of fulfillment in OT quotations is very strong. Quotations that fall under the category of fulfillment have to do with both direct predictions of future events and typological significance beyond the intention of the OT writers. The main motifs of these quotations in the NT are as follows: Jesus acts as Yahweh Himself. He is the foretold Messianic King, the Isaianic Servant of Yahweh, and the Danielic Son of man. He culminates the prophetic line, the succession of OT righteous sufferers, and the Davidic dynasty. He reverses the work of Adam, fulfills the divine promise to Abraham, and recapitulates the history of Israel.

The priesthood of Melchizedek and Aaron both prefigure (the latter sometimes contrastingly) the priesthood of Christ. The paschal lamb and other sacrifices represented the sacrificial, redemptive death of Jesus, and also Christian service. Jesus is life-giving bread like the manna, the rock source of living water, the serpent lifted up in the wilderness, and the Tabernacle-Temple abode of God among men.

John the Baptist was the predicted prophetic forerunner. Jesus inaugurated the foretold eschatological period of salvation and the new covenant. Judas Iscariot fulfilled the role of the wicked opponents of OT righteous sufferers. The Church is (or individual Christians are) the new creation, the spiritual seed of Abraham by incorporation into Christ, the new Israel, and the new Temple. The Mosaic law prefigured grace both positively and negatively. The Deluge stands for the last judgment and for Christian baptism. The passage through the Reed Sea and circumcision also picture baptism. Jerusalem stands for the celestial city. Entrance into Canaan prefigures the entrance of Christians into spiritual rest. Proclamation of the Gospel to all men fulfills the promise to Abraham and prophetic predictions of universal salvation. That OT quotations fall under a limited set of recognizable themes sharply contrasts with the piecemeal treatment of the OT text in the DSS and rabbinical writings. The early Christians must have learned their OT hermeneutics from Jesus Himself (cf. Luke 24:27, 32).

Underlying the fulfillment quotations is the concept of Heilsgeschichte (salvation-history). God directs history according to His redemptive purpose. He reveals what He will do through His prophets. Their predictive word has a potency to bring about its own fulfillment, for it comes from the Lord of history. Thus, when the fulfillment takes place, confirmation results. Confirmation also comes when, looking back, one sees predictive symbolism in the pattern of OT events, persons, and institutions—i.e., typology—not within the purview of the OT writers, but divinely intended.

One must not think that the early Christians searched haphazardly through the OT for any proof-text for fulfillment that they could find. In his book, According to the Scriptures (1952), C. H. Dodd showed that most of the NT quotation material relating to Jesus and the Church comes from fairly restricted text plots in the OT. These he outlined as follows:

I. Apocalyptic-Eschatological Scriptures—Joel 2; 3; Zechariah 9-14; Daniel 7 (primary): Malachi 3:1-6; Daniel 12 (supplementary).

Sometimes the OT may be quoted only for the purpose of literary allusion; but usually, if not always, closer examination will discover a deeper rationale, such as fulfillment. In other usages, the OT quotation becomes the basis of comment (as in Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce—Mark 10:2-9 and parallels), sometimes in an argumentative setting (as in Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees over resurrection—Mark 12:18-27 and parallels). Or the OT may be quoted preceptually (cf. the repetition of nine out of the Ten Commandments in scattered passages throughout the NT).

Quotations from sources other than the OT.

Apart from OT quotations in the NT, Matthew and Luke quote Mark and perhaps Q and other sources (see article Synoptic Problem and cf. Luke 1:1-4). Quotations of Jesus’ sayings appear (usually very allusively) in the epistles. Paul quoted an otherwise unrecorded saying (agraphon) of Jesus in Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” In Acts, Luke quotes a number of early Christian sermons and speeches. Of course, the evangelists quote large amounts of the teaching of Jesus—not always verbatim. The difference in the style of Jesus’ speech in John and in the synoptics is to be explained by at least three considerations: (1) in the process of tr. from Aram. and Heb. into Gr., John’s own Gr. style imposed itself more heavily than that of the synoptists; (2) John paraphrased more than the synoptists; (3) John deliberately preserved a strand of tradition not prominent in the synoptics—but that Jesus did speak in the Johannine style is proved by Matthew 11:25-27 and Luke 10:21, 22.


Besides the sources in the above discussion, see D. M. Turpie, The OT in the New (1868); C. Taylor, The Gospel in the Law (1869); D. M. Turpie, The NT View of the Old (1872); C. H. Toy, Quotations in the NT (1884); F. Johnson, The Quotations of the NT from the Old (1896); O. Michel, Paulus und seine Bibel (1929); B. F. C. Atkinson, “The Textual Background of the Use of the OT by the New,” JTVI, LXXIX (1947), 39-60; R. Gordis, “Quotations as a Literary Usage in Biblical, Oriental and Rabbinic Literature,” HUCA, XXII (1949), 157-219; B. M. Metzger, “The Formulas Introducing Quotations of Scripture in the NT and the Mishnah,” JBL, LXX (1951), 297-307; T. W. Manson, “The OT in the Teaching of Jesus,” BJRL, XXXIV (1951-1952), 312-332; C. H. Dodd, The OT in the New (1952); J. Doeve, Jewish Hermeneutics in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (1954); R. V. G. Tasker, The OT in the NT, 2nd ed. (1954); S. L. Edgar, “Respect for Context in Quotations from the OT,” NTS, II (1955-1956), 55-62; R. Nicole, “NT Use of the OT,” Revelation and the Bible, ed. C. F. H. Henry (1959), 137-151; J. A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit OT Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the NT,” NTS, VII (1961), 297-333; S. Kistemaker, The Psalm Citations in the Epistle to the Hebrews (1961); R. T. Mead, “A Dissenting Opinion about Respect for Context in OT Quotations,” NTS, X (1964), 279-289; see further the extensive bibliographies in the above cited books by Ellis, Gundry, and Stendahl.