Ancient Jewish Interpretation and NT Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures

During the first century A.D. Jewish interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures used the interpretive method of rewriting scriptural texts. In order to make the texts relevant for contemporary Jewish communities, interpreters and scribes would conflate, harmonize, modify or add to the base texts. The process consisted of random adjustments of the text to the formulation of a new written work.[1] Similar to the method of rewriting scriptural texts is the method of testimonia in which Hebrew texts are combined together  “thematically for apologetic, liturgical, and catechetical purposes.”[2]

The New Testament writers appear to use Jewish rewritten scriptural texts or testimonia texts at times while quoting Hebrew scriptures. For example, Mark 1:1-3 attributes the quote to Isaiah but the words are an amalgamation from Exodus 23:20; Malachi 3:1; and Isaiah 40:3. Another example in Matt 27:9-10 in which the quote is attributed to Jeremiah but the words are a conflation of Zech 11:12-13 and Jer 32:6-9.[3] While the New Testament writers do not use the method of rewriting scriptural texts in the same way as contemporary Jewish interpreters or scribes, they do revise narratives (e.g. Acts 7:2-34)[4] and use the method of testimonia (e.g. Rom 3:10-18; 15:9-12)[5] through the lens of the life and ministry of Jesus and as a means to better inform the church.[6]

Jewish interpreters also used a method called pesher which is described as a “citation plus comment”[7] technique meaning that a scripture was quoted and then a commentary was given focused on an interpretive formulation.[8] The aim of this method was to make known a solution to the God communicated mysteries and to show how texts fit in with the whole of sacred scripture.[9] Pesher says, “This is that,”[10] and so there was an emphasis on contemporizing prophecies and on claiming their fulfillment during the present time or at a time in the near future.[11]

NT writers use similar techniques to that of pesher by claiming that events in the life and ministry of Jesus fulfilled prophecies (e.g. Matt 1:22-23; 2:15, 17-18, 23; 12: 17-21; 13:14-15)[12] and that events by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17) actualized earlier prophetic utterances (Joel 2:28f).[13]

Philo’s allegorical method of interpretation was influential to Jewish interpretive traditions. Lidija Novakovic writes, “For Philo, Scripture has a twofold meaning, the literal and the allegorical, but only the latter reveals the true sense of the sacred texts, which is hidden below the surface.”[14] This emphasis in allegory was developed from the philosophy of Plato who taught that behind the physical appearance of things was a more true reality. Thus, when applied to literature, there is a deeper truth and meaning beyond the literal reading of the words.[15]

The NT writers do not interpret the Hebrew scriptures according the rules of Philo’s allegorical methods, but they do at times interpret them allegorically (e.g. Gal 4:22-31). Scholars have argued for Philo’s influence upon the epistle of Hebrews, the Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul. “However, the best conclusion is that no NT writing reflects direct dependence on Philo, and that observed similarities reflect instead the general milieu of Hellenistic ideas that pervaded the first-century Mediterranean world.”[16]

The interpretive method of midrash was most common among first century Jewish interpreters and its primary focus was to search out knowledge “through logical inferences, analogies, combinations of different passages, and the like.”[17] Midrash followed exegetical rules which began with seven and later expanded to thirty-two.[18] Midrash sought to explain the deeper meaning of a text for application and pastoral purposes. From this perspective, the text can be “interrogated to answer all kinds of religious questions.”[19]

The NT gospel accounts reflect midrashic principles and characteristics but are not considered midrashim.[20] The book of Acts and some of Paul’s epistles appear to use midrashic scriptural arguments (e.g. Acts 2:25-36; 13:32-37; Gal 3:8-14; 1 Cor 10:1-5; 2 Cor 3:6-16); however, much like the gospels many scholars argue that such midrashic similarities do not equate to midrash as in the distinctively Jewish interpretive method. Furthermore, they argue that while Paul was very familiar with rabbinic exegesis, midrash does not characterize or explain Pauline exegesis.[21]

Excursus on Matthew’s use of Pesher

In Matthew 2:15, 17-18 and 13:14-15, I think Matthew is taking the original passages and applying prophetic meaning to them beyond the original passages contextual meaning. Essentially, Matthew is adding other prophetic contexts to the original passages. Thus, Matthew is using pesher by claiming that the original passages were fulfilled in the passages original context, but they were also contemporary prophecies which found their fulfillment during the time of Jesus. While this is not a sound hermeneutic technique, God used Matthew’s practice of a common hermeneutic technique of the time and blessed it for his own inspiration purposes.


[1] Lidija Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts eds. Joel Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 91.[2] Kyle Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues eds. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 220.[3] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 220.[4] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 97.[5] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 220.[6] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 97.[7] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 92.[8] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 92.[9] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 218.[10] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 218.[11] William Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Third ed. (Nashville: TN:, Baker Academic, 2017), 73.[12] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 97.[13] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 218.[14] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 93.[15] William Klein et al., Introduction, 70-71.[16] D.A. Hagner, “Philo” in New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic, eds. Martin Davie et al., Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016.[17] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 94. [18] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 219.[19] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 95.[20] C.A. Evans, “Midrash: 4. The Gospels and Midrash” in DJG[21] M. Silva, “Old Testament in Paul: 3:3 Rabbinic Exegesis” in DPL