F.F. Bruce: The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes

Few issues seem to trouble Bible readers more than that of the New Testament quotation of Old Testament texts.  At best, quotations seem arbitrary (a kind of proof texting), and at worst they seem like deliberate manipulations out of convenience.  This has led some scholars to conclude that NT authors deliberately alter the Old Testament to give credibility to their story about Jesus—like fudging the data to achieve the desired conclusions in a scientific report.  At the worst, this issue can create un-faith in believers, and, at best, doubt about the veracity and trustworthiness of the Bible.  After all, if Mark lies when quoting his sources, why should we believe he is telling the truth about the resurrection? If he is wrong about one thing, might he not also be wrong about the others?

Getting into, let alone figuring out, what was going on in the head of Mark or Paul appears, at first, to be a hopeless situation.  But it is not hopeless.  Enter F.F. Bruce, whose book The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes does precisely that: get into the heads of New Testament authors so that we can better understand their use of the Old.  Bruce’s underlying interpretive supposition is as follows: if one steps back and views the Old Testament passage in its broader context, that perspective will illuminate the New Testament use of the passage.  In other words, NT authors are, by quoting a passage, evoking a complex structure of thought rather than merely an individual text.  New Testament quotations are like keyholes through which the reader peers at a much broader room of thought.

These ‘rooms’ into which the reader peers are groupings of texts which constitute a kind of theology of the Old Testament, reflecting that body of literature’s interrelationship and self-commentary.  In light of this, Bruce selects a series of theological themes which are developed throughout the Old Testament.  It is to these themes, he argues, that the New Testament authors refer when they quote the scriptures, and we must come to see these quoted passages in light of these themes if we will rightly interpret the scriptures.

Seven such ‘themes’ are then the focus of Bruce’s book: The Rule of God treats of God’s governance over all creation.  The Salvation of God deals with the redemptive Exodus pattern which courses throughout the OT.  The Victory of God is Bruce’s understanding of God’s promises for a future victory of God over Israel’s enemies and the return from exile.  The People of God covers the role of the God’s covenant nation of Israel and the changing terms of the covenant.  The Son of David is a theme which surrounds the promises which God made regarding a permanent Davidic kingship.  The Servant Messiah addresses the OT hope of a messiah and focusing on the servant passages of Isaiah 40-55.  Lastly, The Shepherd King considers the shepherd motif in the OT, which culminates in oracles pronounced in the latter half of Zechariah.  Each of these themes involves a strong element of expectation; they express the unique longing of Israel.

These longings, Bruce argues, are precisely what the New Testament authors perceive to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ.  Therefore, the Rule of God is fulfilled in Christ’s kingship, the Salvation of God in Christ’s exodus through death and resurrection, the Victory of God through Christ’s victory over the powers, the People of God through Christ’s calling of twelve disciples to be his inaugural ‘New Israel’ (and also a letter such as 1 Peter), the Son of David through Christ’s unending kingship, the Servant Messiah through Christ’s self-understanding as God’s Isaiahnic servant, and the Shepherd King through Christ’s self-description as the shepherd of Israel.

Let me offer a specific example of Bruce’s study.  In his discussion of the Servant Messiah, Bruce observes that God’s anointed servant, his ‘messiah’, would be God’s chosen instrument to accomplish His purposes for Israel.  Cyrus of Persia had been such an anointed one, liberating the Israelites for God’s purposes (he is called a ‘messiah’ at Is 45:1).  However, the servant songs of Isaiah point to the fact that the service God calls for would be both unexpected and unusual.  The following is Bruce’s reflection on Isaiah 42:2-4, a song which points especially to the servant’s gentle power (pages 85-6):

Cyrus has served Yahweh unconsciously; here is one who will serve Him willingly and intelligently.  Cyrus has served the divine purpose by the temporary and limited methods of military conquest and imperial power; here is one who will serve it in a far different way—not my making a noise in the world but in obscurity and by patient obedience; not by the imposition of his will on others but by uncomplaining endurance of unjust judgment, contempt, suffering, and death.  Such a fate is the reward meted out to him by others for his obedience to God, but it is more than that: it is the crowing act of his obedience; it is the very means by which he fulfils the purpose of God in a more abiding fashion that Cyrus could ever achieve, and in consequence brings blessing and liberation to multitudes.

Therefore the Bible reader, approaching a New Testament passage in which one of the servant songs is quoted, should hear not merely the fulfillment of a prophecy but the evocation of a context.  This servant, Jesus, acting in the New Testament, is acting in accordance with our broader understanding of what is implied by the servant songs.  Such interpretation will give courage to the Bible reader as well as confidence regarding one’s witness in these matters.

In essence, the profundity of this book is grounded in its very simplicity.  Bruce is reading the Bible, considering what the Bible says about itself, tracing themes throughout passages, then comparing and contrasting these themes with the interpretive community at Qumran as well as the NT use itself.  All in all, this unpresuming course of action has the effect of rendering apprehensible the belief that, “what is emphasized throughout the New Testament is that these and other themes, and all the images and motifs of revelation and response, are fulfilled in Jesus” (page 21).  In light of this, a firm grasp of each of these seven themes, while not exhaustive, will grant any New Testament reader a profound interpretive advantage over the uninformed reader.  We are prepared, following our understanding of Bruce, to achieve a glimmer, perhaps, of what Jesus said on the Emmaus Road to his disciples, how he, “beginning with Moses and the Prophets, explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

One comment on “F.F. Bruce: The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes

  1. […] Related Post: F.F. Bruce The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes […]

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