The New Testament Use of the Old Testament

By James M. Rochford

Christians often skim over the sections of the New Testament (NT) which are written in all capital letters that cite from the Old Testament (OT). Instead of looking up these OT passages, they breeze by them, without a second’s notice.

However, when we do the hard work of looking up these OT citations (of which there are roughly 600 in the NT!),[1] we find that this becomes one of the most complicated areas of theology which confronts us. How did the NT authors handle the OT? Did they use a grammatical-historical hermeneutic? Did they use the methods of other first-century rabbis? Most importantly, did they rip these passages from their original contexts, twisting them to fit their theological agenda?

Scholar Darrell Bock states that there are at least four different schools of thought in understanding this complicated issue:[2] (1) the full human intent school, (2) the divine intent—human words school, (3) the Jewish hermeneutics school, and (4) the NT priority school. Let’s consider each:

1. Full Human Intent School

The leader of this school is Walter Kaiser.[3] This perspective believes that an OT passage has one meaning with many applications. It rejects the view that a NT author would see a second meaning in an OT passage. Whatever God chose to predict in a given OT passage is also the OT prophet’s intention. The NT might reveal what was present in an OT passage, but it would never reinterpret its meaning from the intent of the original author.

Advocates of this view do not believe that all of the allusions in the OT are predictions, but sometimes, these are more like promises—whereby God works through the nation of Israel to bring about his promised Messiah. This school rejects double meaning in prophecy, double fulfillment, or sensus plenior (pronounced census-PLEN-ee-er) or a “fuller meaning.” It holds that the human prophet knew everything about their prediction with the exception of perhaps their timeframe (1 Pet. 1:10-12). Advocates of this school refuse to prioritize the NT revelation. Instead, they try to build their case from the OT. Afterwards, they show how the NT is consistent with this OT understanding.

Positives of this view

This perspective is noble in that it tries to keep authorial intent in the hands of the OT author. In fact, many OT citations are one-to-one predictions (e.g. Dan. 9:24-27; Isa. 52:13-53:12; Ps. 22; Mic. 5:2). Thus for most passages in the OT, this view works just fine.

Negatives of this view

Kaiser’s view is perfectly acceptable for many NT citations of the OT. However, it is too rigid to allow for a few difficult passages, which require a broader definition of what it means to fulfill the OT.

Moreover, the Bible itself rejects the idea that the OT authors knew the meaning of everything that they were writing. For instance, Peter writes that the OT prophets “made careful searches and inquiries” about their own predictions of Christ (1 Pet. 1:10-12). Likewise, the prophet Daniel didn’t understand the prophecies in his own book (Dan. 12:8-10). It’s possible that God could conceal the meaning of a prediction from the prophet in question, as is the case with the high priest Caiaphas (Jn. 11:49-51). God could conceal mysteries in the OT prophets that would later be revealed through Christ (see McCallum, “The Mystery Hidden for Aeons Past”).

2. Divine Intent—Human Words School

J.I. Packer,[4] S. Lewis Johnson,[5] and Elliot E. Johnson hold to this view. This school believes in sensus plenior (“fuller sense”), whereby God’s meaning in a text goes beyond what the OT author could know. However, a “fuller sense” of a passage never contradicts the author’s intent. Instead, it surpasses the author’s understanding. J.I. Packer writes, “The point here is that the sensus plenior which texts acquire in their wider biblical context remains an extrapolation on the grammatico-historical plane, not a new projection on to the plane of allegory. And, though God may have more to say to us from each text than its human writer had in mind, God’s meaning is never less than his. What he means, God means.”[6]

Another perspective is the reference plenior, which is the same sense with a different referent. For instance, the lamb of God in the OT was an actual lamb that was innocent and suffered for the people’s sins. Jesus is a different referent (God’s son), but he was sacrificed in the same sense.

Positives of this view

Since God is the ultimate author of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16), it’s possible for him to communicate through an original author, without them knowing the full ramifications of their own words. Consider Dr. Seuss’ children’s book The Butter Battle Book. In the book, the Yooks (Western democracy) fight the Zooks (the USSR), and the Wall refers to the Iron Curtain. As a child, the book seems to be about two groups who disagree on how to butter their toast. But when we study the Cold War, we discover the fuller meaning (or sensus plenior). Similarly, after Jesus arrived, these OT passages took on a fuller meaning.

Negatives of this view

It changes our view of confluence. Confluence means that God and man both spoke together in Scripture. If God and man wrote Scripture, but the human author didn’t really know what he was saying, doesn’t this change our view of inspiration and confluence? It certainly does. Yet this shouldn’t surprise us. In fact, certain portions of Scripture were directly dictated (Ex. 20:1; 32:16; Rev. 2:1; 19:9; Jer. 26:2; Jer. 36:23), which were wholly written by God and not humans at all. So, it shouldn’t surprise us to find portions of Scripture that weren’t understood completely by the human author, when some portions weren’t even written by them at all.

The OT authors could not have discerned the meaning of their texts through proper exegesis at the time. Critics charge that this would make sensus plenior “eisegetical” (i.e. reading into the text, rather than reading a meaning out of it). However, this is a false dilemma. While exegesis wouldn’t tell us the meaning of the passage before Christ, this doesn’t make it eisegesis by default. A hidden meaning is different than a subjective reading. To illustrate, when a person plays Wheel of Fortune, they continually guess letters that are revealed in a puzzle. Before they “solve the puzzle,” the letters could have multiple meanings. However, after all of the letters are revealed, the message is seen to have been concrete and objective from the beginning. Similarly, the NT progressive revelation often “solves the puzzle” of OT texts. However, this is far from eisegesis. The meaning was there the entire time, even if it was hidden to the original author when it was written.

This perspective robs prophecy of its apologetic value. While this is true for some passages, it isn’t for others (e.g. Dan. 9:24-27; Isa. 52:13-53:12; Ps. 22; Mic. 5:2). We shouldn’t try to make every OT prophecy a strict one-to-one fulfillment. Instead, we need to have a more robust view of what it means for Jesus to fulfill the OT. Sometimes, Jesus fulfills OT passages in a strict one-to-one correspondence, while other times, he fulfills them in a more general sense.

3. Jewish Hermeneutics School

This view is also called “The Historical Progress of Revelation School.” Advocates would include Earle E. Ellis, Richard Longenecker,[7] Martin Pickup,[8] and Walter Dunnett.

Under this school, the NT authors should be understood in terms of other contemporaneous rabbinic authors, as well as their hermeneutical methods. After all, the NT authors were largely Jewish, and they should be understood in this context. Richard Longenecker states, “The Jewish roots of Christianity make it a priori likely that the exegetical procedures of the New Testament would resemble, at least to some extent, those of Judaism of the time.”[9] These interpreters argue that we cannot understand the NT if we divorce it from its Jewish roots of midrashic interpretation. As a result, these scholars compare the NT use of the OT with common rabbinic methods of interpretation, such as midrash, pesher, and Hillel’s rules of interpretation.

Midrashic interpretation often noted word parallels, analogies, or other literary connections between authors. They viewed these as indicators of the Divine Mind speaking through all of the authors—not just individuals.[10] Martin Pickup writes,

The NT writers—like virtually all ancient Jewish interpreters—understood that, in a sense, there could be multiple meanings in the words of the OT, for a statement made in one context might convey another relevant truth when considered within another context that God had revealed. All of this was due to the intention of the omniscient God who gave the OT Scriptures to Israel as a partial unveiling, in the temporal realm, of his eternal plan.[11]

This school criticizes the grammatical-historical approach for exegeting a passage first (according to the author, audience, and historical circumstance), rather than considering the part in light of the whole. They argue that the OT documents are not simply scattered religious documents. While an individual passage should be interpreted grammatically and historically, advocates of this view hold that these parts should be interpreted in light of the whole narrative of salvation history. Since Jesus is at the heart of the entirety of the OT (Lk. 24:44), we should see him at the heart of all OT Scripture.

Of course, advocates of this view do not believe that we should use this method for the NT texts. Martin Pickup writes, “Midrashic exegesis and its process of recontextualization can be applied legitimately only to the books of the OT, not to the books of the NT. The authors of the NT use the midrashic technique to provide the final explanation of God’s OT mystery. One would not treat the explanation as if it were also a mystery. This is why Qumran’s sectarian literature midrashically exegetes the OT but not other sectarian literature, and why rabbinic midrash compilations ex­pound the OT but not other midrash compilations.”[12]

Positives of this view

This perspective can be commended for its desire to get back to the Jewish roots of the NT interpretation. Too often, interpreters divorce the NT authors from their Jewish roots. Moreover, it is admirable for emphasizing a systematic and coherent approach to individual texts.

Negatives of this view

The midrashic view is often adopted by liberal theology. Originally, liberal theologians advocated for this view, claiming that the NT authors were alluding to “unhistorical literary creations.”[13] For instance, liberal theologian Peter Enns writes, “There is often a ‘disconnect’ between what an OT passage means in its context and how it is employed by NT writers.”[14] Of course, we shouldn’t critique a view based on its heretics. Some believing scholars have adopted more conservative versions of this view.

Jesus often criticized the view of the Jewish interpreters of his day. Why should we appeal to the hermeneutic of Jewish interpreters, if they drew severely different conclusions than Jesus?

The midrashic view suffers from eisegesis. The Greek preposition eis means “into.” Thus eisegesis refers to reading into the text. True systematic theology should constantly be corrected by biblical theology. The individual parts of Scripture should correct the whole, and vice versa. However, as faithful interpreters, we shouldn’t read our systematic theology into a text—like midrashists do.

At best, systematic theology usually tells us what a passage is not saying; it bars us from seeing contradictions with clear portions of Scripture. However, it doesn’t usually function to tell us what a passage is saying. In this way, the rules of systematic theology function like the laws of logic. They don’t tell us truth, but rather keep us from asserting errors. (For example, logic can tell us that a bachelor is an unmarried male. But this doesn’t tell us if bachelors exist.) Of course, systematic theology can give us insights into passages. For example, the sword in Jesus’ mouth (Rev. 1:16) is most likely symbolic for the word of God (Heb. 4:12; cf. Jn. 1:1 and 1 Jn. 1:1 to identify the “Word”).

Evangelical interpreters struggle to define midrashic principles. As Bock observes, “The definitions of these terms are not fixed even in the technical literature.”[15] Without clear and fixed rules in place to define what midrash even is, this system can easily slip into eisegesis.

Historical sources for midrashic practice come from AFTER the time of Jesus—not DURING his time. Beale argues that much of midrashic interpretation actually comes from sources in use after AD 70.[16] Thus these shouldn’t be retrofitted back into the NT. While there is some truth to this critique, we also believe that our history of the ancient world is sparse, and later documents could represent a way of thinking that preceded it. Of course, the Essenes at Qumran used pesher before the time of Christ. This caused them to see their Teacher of Righteousness all over the OT, but this should further alert us to the fact that this is a faulty method.

4. NT Priority School

This is also called the “Canonical Approach.” Bruce Waltke is one of the leading defenders of this view.[17] From this perspective, the NT overrides the OT in every circumstance where there is interpretive difficulty. Since the NT is the fuller revelation of God (Heb. 1:1-3), we should use it to discern the OT Scriptures as our authority. Waltke explains, “The Christian doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture demands that we allow the Author to tell us at a later time more precisely what he meant in his earlier statements.”[18]

Positives of this view

It is true that God’s ultimate revelation was in his Son (Heb. 1:1-3), and this surpasses the limited revelation of the OT.

Negatives of this view

This view purges meaning from the original OT author. This almost leads to a capricious view of God, whereby he can change the meaning of an OT text later on. Amillennial interpreters rely on this perspective to read the Church back into prophecies in the OT that refer to Israel, but this strikes us as unwarranted, purging the meaning from OT passages.


We can summarize these four views in this way:

Four Different Schools

Name of the School

Full Human Intent

Divine Intent—Human Words

Jewish Hermeneutics

NT Priority


Walter Kaiser J.I. Packer Richard Longenecker Bruce Waltke
Definition One complete meaning in the OT NT brings a “fuller sense” of the OT Jewish hermeneutical principles were employed in the NT

The NT authors can reinterpret OT passages


Reads the Bible from left to right (emphasis on OT authorial intent) Reads OT prophecy often as a mystery that is solved through Jesus Reads OT prophecy as an ancient rabbi would

Reads the Bible from right to left (emphasis on NT authority as those with fuller revelation)


Of all of the views expressed above, the Divine Intent—Human Words School is most preferable. It allows a more robust sense in which Jesus can fulfill the OT, which isn’t always in a one-to-one, correspondent way. But at the same time, it also aligns with the authorial intent of the OT author—even if the author was unaware of the fullness of his statements. Of course, we agree with the Full Human Intent school 90% of the time, but it is only with a small 10% of OT citations that we feel that this school is inadequate. We also feel that it is likely that OT authors were referencing OT passages—not as proof of prophetic fulfillment—but just to show allusions and similarities.

Finally, when we consider the complex subject of the NT use of the OT, we need to remember that the non-contextual reading of an OT passage is often greatly exaggerated. That is, most NT usages of the OT are contextual. As Beale observes, “It is often claimed that an inductive study of the New Testament reveals a predominately non-contextual exegetical method. But, in fact, of all the many Old Testament citations and allusions found in the New Testament, only a very few plausible examples of non-contextual usage have been noted by critics.”[19]

Difficult Passages

(Mt. 1:23) Did Isaiah really predict a virgin birth?

(Mt. 2:14-15) How could Matthew quote Hosea as a “fulfillment” of Jesus, when Hosea was referring to the nation of Israel?

(Mt. 2:18) Does Matthew quote Jeremiah 31:15 out of context?

(Mt. 2:23) Why does Matthew say this is from the Old Testament, when the Old Testament NEVER mentions “Nazareth” or “being a Nazarene?”

(Acts 2:16-21) Does Peter misquote Joel 2:28-32?

(Acts 2:25-28) Why does Peter cite Psalm 16:10 to demonstrate the resurrection of Jesus?

(Acts 15:16-17) Why does James cite Amos 9?

(1 Cor. 10:1-5) Did Paul allegorize the OT?

(Eph. 4:8) Does Paul accurately quote Psalm 68:18?

(Heb. 2:6-8) Why does the author cite Psalm 8:4-6?

(Heb. 8:13) Is the author of Hebrews claiming that the Church fulfilled this promise to Israel?

(1 Pet. 2:7) Did Peter properly cite Psalm 118:22 (c.f. Mt. 21:42)?

Further Reading

Beale, G. K., & Carson, D. A. Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic. 2007.


[1] Harris writes, “There are more than 600 allusions and about 250 strict quotations.” Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 316.

[2] Bock, Darrell. “Evangelicals and the Use of the Old Testament in the New.” Bibliotheca Sacra—October-December 1985.

[3] Kaiser, Walter C. The Uses of the Old Testament in the New. Chicago: Moody, 1985.

[4]  J. I. Packer, “Biblical Authority, Hermeneutics, and Inerrancy,” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, ed. E. R. Geehan (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977).

[5] S. Lewis Johnson, The Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980).

[6]  J. I. Packer, “Biblical Authority, Hermeneutics, and Inerrancy,” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, ed. E. R. Geehan (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977), 147–48.

[7] Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Age (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975.

[8] Pickup, Martin, “New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament: The Theological Rationale of Midrashic Exegesis.” JETS 51/2 (June 2008).

[9] Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Age (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975. 186.

[10] Pickup, Martin, “New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament: The Theological Rationale of Midrashic Exegesis.” JETS 51/2 (June 2008). 360.

[11] Pickup, Martin, “New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament: The Theological Rationale of Midrashic Exegesis.” JETS 51/2 (June 2008). 379.

[12] Pickup, Martin, “New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament: The Theological Rationale of Midrashic Exegesis.” JETS 51/2 (June 2008). 381.

[13] Pickup, Martin, “New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament: The Theological Rationale of Midrashic Exegesis.” JETS 51/2 (June 2008). 356.

[14] Peter Enns, “Fuller Meaning, Single Goal,” in Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 174.

[15] Bock, Darrell. “Evangelicals and the Use of the Old Testament in the New.” Bibliotheca Sacra—October-December 1985. 313.

[16] Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? An Examination of the Presuppositions of Jesus’ and The Apostles’ Exegetical Method.” Found here.

[17] Bruce K. Waltke, “A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms,” in Feinberg, Charles Lee., John S. Feinberg, and Paul D. Feinberg. Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg. Chicago: Moody, 1981.

[18] Bruce K. Waltke, “Is it Right to Read the New Testament into the Old?” Christianity Today (September 2, 1983): 77.

[19] Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? An Examination of the Presuppositions of Jesus’ and The Apostles’ Exegetical Method,” 388-389.