Errors in quoting or interpreting the Old Testament

(a) What are charged as such are commonly interpretations of the meaning of the original Scripture by the same Spirit who first inspired it.

In Eph. 5:14, “arise from the dead, and Christ shall shine upon thee” is an inspired interpretation of Is. 60:1—“Arise, shine; for thy light is come.” Ps. 68:18—“Thou hast received gifts among men“—is quoted in Eph. 4:8 as “gave gifts to men.” The words in Hebrew are probably a concise expression for “thou hast taken spoil which thou mayest distribute as gifts to men.” Eph. 4:8 agrees exactly with the sense, though not with the words, of the Psalm. In Heb. 11:21, “Jacob.… worshiped, leaning upon the top of his staff” (LXX); Gen. 47:31 has “bowed himself upon the bed’s head.” The meaning is the same, for the staff of the chief and the spear of the warrior were set at the bed’s head. Jacob, too feeble to rise, prayed in his bed. Here Calvin says that “the apostle does not hesitate to accommodate to his own purpose what was commonly received,—they were not so scrupulous” as to details. Even Gordon, Ministry of the Spirit, 177, speaks of “a reshaping of his own words by the Author of them.” We prefer, with Calvin, to see in these quotations evidence that the sacred writers were insistent upon the substance of the truth rather than upon the form, the spirit rather than the letter.

(b) Where an apparently false translation is quoted from the Septuagint, the sanction of inspiration is given to it, as expressing a part at least of the fulness of meaning contained in the divine original—a fulness of meaning which two varying translations do not in some cases exhaust.

Ps. 4:4—Heb.: “Tremble, and sin not” (= no longer); LXX: “Be ye angry, and sin not.” Eph. 4:26 quotes the LXX. The words may originally have been addressed to David’s comrades, exhorting them to keep their anger within bounds. Both translations together are needed to bring out the meaning of the original. Ps. 40:6–8—“Mine ears hast thou opened” is translated in Heb. 10:5–7—“a body didst thou prepare for me.” Here the Epistle quotes from the LXX. But the Hebrew means literally: “Mine ears hast thou bored”—an allusion to the custom of pinning a slave to the doorpost of his master by an awl driven through his ear, in token of his complete subjection. The sense of the verse is therefore given in the Epistle: “Thou hast made me thine in body and soul—lo, I come to do thy will” A. C. Kendrick: “David, just entering upon his kingdom after persecution, is a type of Christ entering on his earthly mission. Hence David’s words are put into the mouth of Christ. For ‘ears,’ the organs with which we hear and obey and which David conceived to be hollowed out for him by God, the author of the Hebrews substitutes the word ‘body,’ as the general instrument of doing God’s will” (Com. on Heb. 10:5–7).

(c) The freedom of these inspired interpretations, however, does not warrant us in like freedom of interpretation in the case of other passages whose meaning has not been authoritatively made known.

We have no reason to believe that the scarlet thread of Rahab (Josh. 2:18) was a designed prefiguration of the blood of Christ, nor that the three measures of meal in which the woman hid her leaven (Mat. 13:33) symbolized Shem, Ham and Japheth, the three divisions of the human race. C. H. M., in his notes on the tabernacle in Exodus, tells us that “the loops of blue = heavenly grace; the taches of gold = the divine energy of Christ; the rams’ skins dyed red—Christ’s consecration and devotedness; the badgers’ skins—his holy vigilance against temptation”! The tabernacle was indeed a type of Christ (John 1:14—ἐσκήνωσεν. 2:19, 21—“in three days I will raise it up.… but he spake of the temple of his body”); yet it does not follow that every detail of the structure was significant. So each parable teaches some one main lesson,—the particulars may be mere drapery; and while we may use the parables for illustration, we should never ascribe divine authority to our private impressions of their meaning.

Mat. 25:1–13—the parable of the five wise and the five foolish virgins—has been made to teach that the number of the saved precisely equals the number of the lost. Augustine defended persecution from the words in Luke 14:23—“constrain them to come in.” The Inquisition was justified by Mat. 13:30—“bind them in bundles to burn them.” Innocent III denied the Scriptures to the laity, quoting Heb. 12:20—“If even a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned.” A Plymouth Brother held that he would be safe on an evangelizing journey because he read in John 19:36—“A bone of him shall not be broken.” Mat. 17:8—“they saw no one, save Jesus   V 1, p 235    p 235  only”—has been held to mean that we should trust only Jesus. The Epistle of Barnabas discovered in Abraham’s 318 servants a prediction of the crucified Jesus, and others have seen in Abraham’s three days’ journey to Mount Moriah the three stages in the development of the soul. Clement of Alexandria finds the four natural elements in the four colors of the Jewish Tabernacle. All this is to make a parable “run on all fours.” While we call a hero a lion, we do not need to find in the man something’ to correspond to the lion’s mane and claws. See Toy, Quotations in the N. T.; Franklin Johnson, Quotations of the N. T. from the O. T.; Crooker, The New Bible and its New Uses, 126–136.

(d) While we do not grant that the New Testament writers in any proper sense misquoted or misinterpreted the Old Testament, we do not regard absolute correctness in these respects as essential to their inspiration. The inspiring Spirit may have communicated truth, and may have secured in the Scriptures as a whole a record of that truth sufficient for men’s moral and religious needs, without imparting perfect gifts of scholarship or exegesis.

In answer to Toy, Quotations in the N. T., who takes a generally unfavorable view of the correctness of the N. T. writers, Johnson, Quotations of the N. T. from the O. T., maintains their correctness. On pages x, xi, of his Introduction, Johnson remarks: “I think it just to regard the writers of the Bible as the creators of a great literature, and to judge and interpret them by the laws of literature. They have produced all the chief forms of literature, as history, biography, anecdote, proverb, oratory, allegory, poetry, fiction. They have needed therefore all the resources of human speech, its sobriety and scientific precision on one page, its rainbow hues of fancy and imagination on another, its fires of passion on yet another. They could not have moved and guided men in the best manner had they denied themselves the utmost force and freedom of language; had they refused to employ its wide range of expressions, whether exact or poetic; had they not borrowed without stint its many forms of reason, of terror, of rapture, of hope, of joy, of peace. So also, they have needed the usual freedom of literary allusion and citation, in order to commend the gospel to the judgment, the tastes, and the feelings of their readers.”

 Strong, A. H. (1907). Systematic theology (pp. 234–235). Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society.

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