The Significance of the Old Testament

Before we begin our study, I would like you to be enthusiastic about the Old Testament. I stress this at the very beginning of this course because on occasions we hear statements suggesting that the New Testament overrules the Old Testament, that the Old Testament is out of date since Jesus, that the Old Testament is only concerned with waging battles. That sort of thinking is superficial that I would suggest any person stating that should ask themselves do they really know the either the Old or New Testament. For anyone who knows and prays the New Testament will also know the value of the Old Testament. If we run down the Old Testament that may be revealing our lack of knowledge and love of the New Testament also. You know from attending Mass that the first reading during Mass, except during the seven weeks of Easter, is taken from the Old Testament. How does the reader finish reading the excerpt? By saying, “This is the Word of the Lord.” The Old Testament is also the Word of God just like the New Testament. God speaks to us also through the Old Testament. God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament did not lose significance for us with the Incarnation (God becoming human in Jesus). 2 Tim 3:16 says “All Scripture is inspired by God.” When that letter was written to Timothy what were the Scriptures? The Books of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is inspired by God just as the New Testament is inspired by God. Because the Old Testament is inspired by God it is of value to us; we come to know God through the Old Testament just as through the New Testament.

The Old Testament books were the Scriptures Jesus read and prayed

To understand Jesus who was a Jew, and Paul who was a Jew, we also need to understand their Jewish past and their Scriptures. What Bible did Jesus read? What Bible did Paul read? When Jesus read the Bible in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-20) obviously he could not read from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts or Paul or any other New Testament writing since they were not yet written. What we call the Old Testament was not the Old Testament for Jesus, for Jesus it was the Bible. In those Scriptures Jesus found sustenance for his mission, ministry and prayer. You have your favorite passages in the Bible through which God speaks personally to you. Jesus would also have had his favorite passages, one of them thought to be the passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 quoted in Luke 4:18-19. To know Jesus better sooner or later will lead us to reading the Old Testament since that was his Bible.

What was Jesus’ prayerbook? It was the book of the Psalms. In the Psalms Jesus would have found his own thoughts and emotions reflected, from joy to fear, from despair to thanksgiving, and would probably have known most of them by heart and could resort to a Psalm to suit his needs in prayer at any particular time. For example on the cross Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) which is a quotation from Ps 22:1 and Jesus also prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) which comes from Ps 31:5. At the time of Jesus, Jews had a set morning and evening prayer which was a biblical prayer. It began with what we call the Shema (Deut 6:4-9) and was followed by Deut 11:13-21, then Num 15:37-41 and ended with a lengthy blessing. The Shema is so called because shema is the first word in Deut 6:4 in Hebrew and means ‘hear’ or ‘listen.’ Knowing that the Old Testament was the source for much of Jesus’ prayer, naturally leads us to want to discover the riches of those Scriptures which nourished Jesus spiritually.

We understand Jesus better by reading the Old Testament

Many people agree that the Temple in the Old Testament has been replaced by Jesus in the New Testament (Matt 12:6) and Israel in the Old Testament has been replaced by the Church in the New Testament. In that sense, we see the Jews as our spiritual ancestors. To understand the New Covenant made in Jesus we need to know the Old Covenant with Moses.

It might appear ridiculous but not all committed Catholics know that Jesus was not baptized at birth, as we are, but that he was circumcised instead. Knowing about God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:1-14), and the Jewish obligation of that covenant being circumcision, is the background necessary for understanding this detail in Jesus’ life. This shows why there was such debate in Acts 15 over the dropping the requirement for Gentile (non-Jews, i.e. pagan) converts to Christianity to be circumcised.

We would miss out on the significance of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1 of his Gospel if we did not know the Old Testament characters to whom he refers. We would fail to grasp that Jesus' ancestors were a mixed bag as ours are, that the women mentioned there were Gentile either through birth or marriage (probably deliberately inserted by Matthew since the Church at his time was composed of those who had been Jews and Gentiles).

The Old Testament Prophesied Jesus and is Fulfilled in Him

Another reason for the importance of the Old Testament is its prophecy of a coming Messiah. To put it another way, parts of the Old Testament are understood best if read as referring to Jesus. When we read part of the Old Testament as referring forward to Jesus, even if the authors did not know their writing had this second meaning, we call this a christological interpretation of the Old Testament. This is the spiritual re-reading of the Old Testament. In this course we will read parts of the Old Testament christologically, i.e. as referring forward to Jesus. Part of the Nicene Creed which we pray at Sunday Mass states, “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.” This phrase was taken by the fathers of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD out of 1 Cor 15:3-4 which reads “...that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried; and that on the third day, he was raised to life, in accordance with the Scriptures.” Christians in the early Church scoured the Old Testament for references to Jesus, and read the Old Testament as implicitly referring to Jesus. Jesus himself saw the Old Testament referring to himself and being fulfilled in him. For example, on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:27 Jesus “starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the Scriptures that were about himself.” According to Luke 18:31-32 Jesus saw his passion, death and resurrection predicted in the Old Testament, “everything that is written by the Prophets about the Son of man is to come true” and likewise in 24:46-47, “So it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead...” Jesus believed that Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days anticipated his own three days in the tomb (Matt 12:40). See also John 5:39.

Some examples of the Old Testament re-read in the light of Jesus are the following. The Fourth Servant Song in Isa 52:13-53:12 is often said to refer in the first place to the suffering of the people of Israel during the Exile when they were enslaved by Babylon from 587-538 BC. But Christians reading the Old Testament, through the lens of the New Testament, see this poem as most fittingly referring to the salvation Jesus won for us. Matthew, more than the other evangelists, made efforts to show the Old Testament fulfilled in Jesus through the use of what we call formula quotations which occur in his Gospel at 1:22-23; 2:5; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 21:4-5; 27:9-10. By formula is meant “This was to fulfill (or “then was fulfilled”) what was spoken by the prophet...” after which comes a quotation from an OT prophet. But note that these are Matthew’s own re-interpretation of the Old Testament in the light of Jesus, for example, the quotation from Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:21 referred in Isaiah to a woman giving birth which would be a sign of hope for Ahaz during a time of crisis. The quotation in Matt 2:15 refers in the Old Testament to the Hebrews leaving slavery in Egypt, but Matthew uses it of Jesus, Mary and Joseph leaving Egypt after the death of Herod. Needless to say, Matthew did not see himself doing an injustice to the Old Testament, nor did the early Church since it included his Gospel in the canon of the New Testament. We cannot see every event in the Old Testament prefiguring Jesus, but the New Testament writers certainly saw Jesus written in many pages of the Old Testament. The patron saint of biblical studies, St Jerome, saw the OT as proleptic to (anticipating) Jesus and wrote, “When I read the Gospel and find there testimonies from the Law and the prophets, I see only Christ. I so see Moses and the prophets that I understand them of Christ. Then when I come to the splendor of Christ himself and when I gaze at that glorious sunlight, I care not to look at the lamplight. For what light can a lamp give when lit in the daytime? If the sun shines out, the lamplight does not show. So, too, when Christ is present, the Law and the prophets do not show. Not that I would detract from the Law and the prophets; rather do I praise them in that they show forth Christ. But I so read the Law and the prophets as not to abide in them but from them to pass to Christ” (Tract in Marc). That mention of the Law and prophets reminds me of Luke 9:31 where Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the prophets) were talking to Jesus about his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. In other words, they were talking about his passion and death. This symbolizes that the Law and the Prophets were anticipating Jesus and would be fulfilled in him.

The Continuity of Old and New Testaments

I mentioned earlier that some people unfortunately reject the Old Testament now. The outstanding example in history of rejecting the Old Testament is Marcion who was born in the latter half of the first century AD. He rejected the Old Testament claiming that the God of the Old Testament who was just could not be the same as the Father of Jesus who was loving. He rejected the Twelve Apostles and accepted only Paul as an apostle. He accepted as his Bible only one Gospel, Luke, and the letters of Paul. Is it not ironic that the most famous doubter of the Old Testament also rejected a large part of the New Testament along with it? Although heretical, his followers, called Marcionites, nearly outnumbered faithful Christians during the 160’s and 170’s.

It is obviously erroneous to suggest that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are different. It is the same God in both Testaments. Yahweh in the Old Testament is the Father of Jesus, whom Jesus calls Abba. As well as God’s justice in the Old Testament we also see his love, especially in marriage imagery in the Prophets (the marriage imagery is used to depict God’s justice in Hos 1-2; Jer 3,1; Ezek 16; 23 and portrays God’s love in Hos 2:16-25; Isa 62:4-5). As well as Jesus’ love in the Gospels we also see his justice in cleansing the Temple and in his polemics with the Pharisees as in Matt 23. If the depiction of God in the Old Testament is not to our liking that should arouse in us the virtue of humility, and not scorn, since God was working with the tools of the time, human authors with limited knowledge and influenced by the culture and customs of their age. Being conscious of some distaste for the Old Testament should be a personal challenge since none of us is fully Christ yet and we are called to be another Christ. Many people cannot accept that there are vengeance, curses and anger in the Psalms yet society around us is unfortunately tinged by these. If they are in the Psalms, they are there for a reason, that is, they reflect daily life. As individuals and society, we are called to grow from Old Testament type thinking, which permitted battles, to the New Testament thinking of Jesus, which challenges us to love our enemy.

Jesus Relativized the Old Testament

Having promoted the Old Testament up to now I must nuance my stance by admitting that there is a progression from the Old to the New Testament whereby legalistic observance is superseded by new perception of the spirit of love which underlies the Law and must be the true yardstick of its application. Dei Verbum 15 says the books of the OT show us authentic divine teaching although they contain matters imperfect and provisional. Jesus always presupposed the validity of the Ten Commandments but relativized the importance of the oral Jewish law. The Jewish cleanliness rules are to be found in the book of Leviticus, those on clean and unclean food in Lev 11. In dramatic contrast to the cleanliness rules in Lev, Jesus in Mark 7:14-23 pronounced all foods clean. Contact with a corpse made one unclean according to Num 19:11-19 but Jesus took the dead daughter of Jairus by the hand (Luke 8:54 and the parallel in Matt 9). Jesus also took liberty with regard to the Sabbath laws by curing others and allowing his disciples to pick corn on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3.6 and parallels in Matt 12 and Luke 6). According to Lev 13-14 leprosy and skin diseases made one unclean but Jesus touched the lepers when healing them (Mark 1:40-45 and parallels in Matt 8 and Luke 5). We do not see the laws about priests and sacrifices being observed in the New Testament, but the moral teaching of the Prophets is still considered valid. But most of the Old Testament does have a value on its own and should not be devalued merely because it is before Jesus. Of course the Ten Commandments were


If we never read the Old Testament we would miss out on fine pieces of literature. Most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, agree that the book of Job is the finest reflection on the mystery of human suffering. There are some OT passages which children especially love: think of how popular is the musical Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. If you have not already found your favorite passages in the Old Testament I hope you do during this course, and I hope you enjoy your reading of the Old Testament and that it strengthens you in your relationship with God. I conclude with Augustine’s beautiful description of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments “the New is concealed in the Old Testament, the Old is revealed in the New.” (Quaestiones in Exodum 73)

© Fr. Tommy Lane 2012