When the New Testament Writers Quote the Old Testament, … Uh… Are They Crazy?

Saint Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot among the original 12 apostles, following Judas' death, as described in Acts 1. The Bible tells us nothing more about Matthias, but one tradition says that he founded the first Christian community along the Caspian Sea (credit: Simone Martini, Wikipedia)

Saint Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot among the original 12 apostles, following Judas’ death, as described in Acts 1. The Bible tells us nothing more about Matthias, but one tradition says that he founded the first Christian community along the Caspian Sea, before being martyred. (credit: Simone Martini, Wikipedia)

Have you ever wondered why the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament, the way they do? Sometimes, it looks rather strange, if not outright crazy. Is there an explanation for this? Let us explore an example from the Book of Acts.

In Acts 1:15-22 (ESV), we have come to the point in Luke’s story, just after the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The disciples are waiting in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, when Peter stands up and convinces the rest of the group that they must replace the position, among the apostles, vacated by Judas Iscariot, after Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Luke records what happens, as follows:

(v.15) In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, (v.16) “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. (v.17) For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (v.18) (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. (v.19) And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) (v.20) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;

“‘Let another take his office.’

(v.21) So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, (v.22) beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”

Let us ignore the whole question of how Judas died, and instead, focus on what I have highlighted, namely Peter’s statement, “the Scripture had to be fulfilled,” in v. 16. In v. 20, Peter quotes from two psalms, Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8.  But if you read either of those Psalms in the Old Testament, say Psalm 69, you will notice that this psalm says absolutely nothing about Judas Iscariot, and nothing directly about Jesus as the Messiah. How does this have anything to do with replacing the apostolic position left open by the death of Judas? How can prophecy be “fulfilled” in Acts, when neither psalm appears to be predicting anything?

So,… Is Peter’s use of the quotations from the Old Testament, a bit…. uh…. crazy???? Was Peter suffering from some form of “post-Ascension” stress?

The answer to that is “no,” but it requires taking a closer look at the original context of the Biblical speakers, writers, and their audience.

Predictions, Patterns, and Prophecies

First, both Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 are songs of lament, prayers put to lyrical verse.  Attributed to King David, Israel’s ideal king in the Old Testament, David is praying for his enemies and the friends who have betrayed him. In Psalm 69:25, David is praying that his enemies may no longer live, that their “camp” will become “desolate.” In Psalm 109:8, David is praying that his betraying friend’s position, or “office,” be filled by someone else.

Okay. But how does this get “fulfilled” in the New Testament Book of Acts, with the replacement of Judas by Matthias (as we learn later in Acts 1)?

When we think of “prophecy” in the Bible, we often think of predictions that some “prophet” has made, as in how a financial guru might predict how the Wall Street stock markets will behave, or how a political analyst might predict who will win an election. Sure, we have some instances of these prophetic predictions in Scripture, but most of the time, Bible prophecy does not operate like that.

Technically speaking, both Psalm 69 and 109 are not prophecies, particularly of the “predictive” kind. Rather, both psalms illustrate an interpretive technique used by the New Testament speakers and writers to identify patterns in the Old Testament that point forward to some event described in the New Testament.

David had his enemies and friends, who ended up betraying David. But Judas Iscariot was also a friend of Jesus’, in the New Testament, who ended up betraying Jesus. Furthermore, a large chunk of Jewish thought in the first century anticipated that the coming Messiah would be a “Son of David,” and the Gospels constantly remind the reader that Jesus was a “Son of David” (see Matthew 1:1, as just one example among many).

The Jews were hoping in the New Testament era, and many still hope today, for a coming Messiah, a “Son of David,” who will restore the ideal Jewish kingdom. However, unlike the original David, who had his flaws and foibles, this coming Messiah will get the job done, ultimately and finally, vanquishing evil once and for all.

Peter, therefore, is identifying a pattern found in the Old Testament that gets “fulfilled” in the New Testament. Just as King David was betrayed, so would the future Son of David, Jesus, be betrayed by a friend. In a sense, the betrayal of David looks forward to the ultimate betrayal of Jesus, by the hands of his friend, Judas Iscariot. By quoting these psalms, Peter is reminding his fellow disciples that Jesus really is the true Messiah, who was promised to come, to complete the work of restoring God’s Kingdom rule, following a pattern established by the original King David.

A model of a car helps you to envision, and anticpate, what the actual car really looks like.

A model of a car helps you to envision, and anticipate, what the actual car really looks like.

As I have written elsewhere on the Veracity blog, this is an example of Bible typology, whereby the Old Testament expresses a “type” that finds its fulfillment in the “real thing” found in the New Testament. In first century Jewish/Christian thought, a typological interpretation of the Bible was a valid way to understand God’s unfolding purposes revealed in history. In fact, you see this method of interpreting the Old Testament employed numerous times by the writers of the New Testament. 1

Put briefly in another way, imagine you are an automobile engineer, designing a car. Before you build the car, you come up with a model, or prototype, of what you are trying to build. Having a prototype handy gives you the ability to properly identify a “pattern” of what you are attempting to build, anticipating what you might expect as the car gets built. Much in the same way, the Old Testament has all sorts of patterns, models, prototypes, or simply, “types,” that point toward the real fulfillment of God’s purposes, as taught in the New Testament. This seems to be the preferred way for the Holy Spirit to telegraph truth across the timeline of Scriptural history.

Oh, here is one other thing to keep in mind….. just in case you noticed it….

The New Testament speakers and writers are not required by any sound theory of inspiration to quote the Old Testament exactly.  For example, in Acts, Peter quotes Psalm 69 in the singular sense, “May his camp become desolate,” as opposed to the original Psalm that has the subject in the plural, “May their camp be a desolation.” 2  The quotation is not exact, but there is a reason for this. Peter is trying to identify a pattern, so he adapts the Old Testament quote regarding enemies, in the plural, to the situation at hand, namely the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, the singular defector among the disciples.

If your theory of Biblical inspiration requires you to think that the Old Testament can only be quoted in the New with the exact phrasing, you may need to recalibrate your expectations. The New Testament speakers and writers are mostly concerned about getting the essential gist of something communicated, instead of getting bogged down in the minutia, exact details that do not add anything to the current point being discussed. This way of handling the Bible did not seem to bother people like the Apostle Peter, therefore, it should not bother us today either.

So, men like the Apostle Peter were not really that crazy after all, when it comes to quoting the Old Testament. We need to have a better appreciation of the original Biblical Jewish and Christian context to grasp what was going on. As we read the New Testament with these insights in mind, it will help us to gain a greater depth of understanding of how Bible prophecy actually works in the Bible.3


1. Now, this method of interpretation is pretty unconventional in today’s standards. Bible students today can easily get out of control with this method of Scriptural analysis themselves. It is one thing for the Apostle Peter, a companion of Jesus, to read the Bible this way, but it is totally different for people living twenty centuries later to try to do the same thing (Of course, this does not prevent some people from writing New York Times Bestsellers to promote their latest prophecy hypothesis, but that’s another story.) In other words, folks, please do not try this at home 🙂 

2. The traditional Masoretic text of Psalm 69:24, when translated into English reads, “May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents (ESV).”  The Greek Septuagint (LXX) reads, “Let their habitation be made desolate; and let there be no inhabitant in their tents.” In Psalm 109:8, the Masoretic reads, “May his days be few; may another take his office! (ESV)” the LXX reads, “Let his days be few: and let another take his office of overseer.”  

3. For more information on this topic, you follow this interesting discussion, as well as an article by the wonderful Bible scholar, D.A. Carson. I also appreciate the notes for Acts 1 in the Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible: The Gospel and Acts

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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