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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the Old Testament?

Don Stewart :: Why Do the Jews and Christians Understand the Old Testament So Differently?

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Why Do the Jews and Christians Understand the Old Testament So Differently?

Are the Correct Books in the Old Testament? – Question 20

From the evidence available, it is clear that the first-century Jews, including Jesus and His followers, accepted the books of the Hebrew Scripture as the divinely authoritative Word of God. This brings up an obvious question: “If the Jews and Christians have the exact same Old Scripture, then why do they understand it so differently?” Why didn’t the same sacred book unify them? What are the reasons for the differences between the Jewish view and the Christian view of the Old Testament?

A number of points need to be made.

1. The Problem Is Not with the Canon

To begin with, the problem does not lie in anything having to do with the number of books that make up sacred Scripture, their authenticity, their divine authority, or how the books originally read. In these matters, there are no disagreements. Therefore, the problem lies elsewhere. When Jesus came into the world, He, along with His followers, received the same books as God-given as did the religious rulers. While Jesus disputed with them on a number of topics, the extent and authority of the Scripture was not one of them.

2. The Old Testament Is All about Jesus

The reason for the differences centers on the Person of Jesus Christ. According to His own testimony, Jesus came to this world to explain who God is, as well as to properly interpret the Old Testament. In fact, the Old Testament could not be correctly understood apart from Christ. This is what divided the Christians from the Jews. While each believed in the divine origin of the Old Testament, the Christians saw it teaching about Jesus, while the Jews did not.

The church believed that the Old Testament was the divinely inspired Word of God because of the testimony of Jesus. Jesus claimed that the Old Testament was all about Him. He said to the religious leaders of His day:

You study the scriptures diligently, supposing that in them you have eternal life; their testimony points to me. (John 5:39 REB)

Peter said the same thing. When preaching the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius, he said that all the prophets bore witness to Christ:

It is to him that all the prophets testify, declaring that everyone who trusts in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:43 REB)

When Philip the evangelist proclaimed the good news to the Ethiopian eunuch, He said the prophet Isaiah was writing about Jesus:

So Philip began with this same Scripture and then used many others to tell him the Good News about Jesus. (Acts 8:35 NLT)

Peter wrote that the Old Testament prophets did not realize they were speaking of Christ when they wrote. He said:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that would come to you, searched and carefully investigated. They inquired into what time or what circumstances the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when He testified in advance to the messianic sufferings and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you concerning things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Angels desire to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:10-12 HCSB)

It was only those who lived at the time of Christ that understood this truth.

Therefore, the Christians read the Old Testament with the idea that it was entirely about Jesus. This is in contrast to the unbelieving Jews. While they still read the same Old Testament as the Christians, they did not see it referring to Jesus. Thus, while they were reading the exact same writings, the Jews and Christians interpreted these writings in a completely different manner.

3. Jesus Unlocked the Meaning of the Old Testament

There is something else. His coming unlocked the true meaning of the Old Testament. This understanding was given to His disciples.

Mark records Jesus saying the following:

You are permitted to understand the secret about the Kingdom of God. But I am using these stories to conceal everything about it from outsiders. (Mark 4:11 NLT)

The true meaning of the Old Testament is only understood by those who believe in Jesus.

4. The Understanding of Certain Commands in Scripture Have Changed

With the coming of Christ, many of the things taught in the Old Testament were no longer binding. For example, the Jews circumcised their male children, did not eat certain foods, and observed the Sabbath as well as other holy days. Christians did none of these things. They saw all these commands as something that belong to a previous age. They were no longer bound to observe them. Consequently, the Jews viewed the Christians as misinterpreting and perverting the Old Testament and its commands.

The Christians saw the Jews as being spiritually blinded to the truth. Paul wrote:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4 NRSV)

It is only the light of Christ that could cure their spiritual blindness.

5. The New Testament Explains Things Hidden in the Old Testament

There is something else. Certain things, which were hidden in Old Testament times, were now revealed by the coming of Christ. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote the following about the mission to the Gentiles, or the non-Jews:

I Paul, am a prisoner of Christ Jesus because of my preaching to you Gentiles. As you already know, God has given me this special ministry of announcing his favor to you Gentiles. As I briefly mentioned earlier in this letter, God himself revealed his secret plan to me. As you read what I have written, you will understand what I know about this plan regarding Christ. God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now he has revealed it by the Holy Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets. And this is the secret plan: The Gentiles have an equal share with the Jews in all the riches inherited by God’s children. Both groups have believed the Good News, and both are part of the same body and enjoy together the promise of blessings through Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:1-6 NLT)

This Gentile hope was not plainly taught in the Old Testament. However, it was indeed there. Paul wrote:

And he came so the Gentiles might also give glory to God for his mercies to them. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote: “I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing praises to your name.” And in another place it is written, “Rejoice, O you Gentiles, along with his people, the Jews.” And yet again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; praise him, all you people of the earth.” And the prophet Isaiah said, “The heir to David’s throne will come, and he will rule over the Gentiles. They will place their hopes on him.” (Romans 15:9-12 NLT)

While the idea of the Gentiles having hope in David’s Son was found in the Old Testament, this truth was not really understood, or fully revealed, until the coming of Christ. Therefore, Jesus’ hand-picked apostles not only properly understood the Old Testament Scripture, as opposed to the unbelieving Jews, they also revealed new truth to the world.

This is why there is such a difference in their understanding of the meaning of the Old Testament. The Old Testament became a Christian book when Christ came into the world.

Summary – Question 20
Why Do the Jews and Christians Understand the Old Testament So Differently?

When the church began, the Jews and Christians had the same Bible; the Old Testament. However, this same Scripture did not unify them; rather it divided them. This is due to the fact that the Christians saw the Old Testament as referring to Jesus Christ while the Jews did not. Believers, following the example of Jesus, interpreted the Scriptures as being all about Him.

In fact, it could not be correctly interpreted apart from Him. In one sense, the Old Testament became an entirely different Bible with the coming of Christ. It is now a book that has to be interpreted in light of Jesus.

The Jews reacted to this by accusing the Christians of misinterpreting the Scripture while the Christians accused the Jews of spiritual blindness. Therefore, the same sacred book became a point of division. As time went by, these divisions became deeper.

Apart from the New Testament, What Other Historical Evidence Exists for the Completed Old Testament Canon? ← Prior Section
What Can We Conclude about the Old Testament Canon? Next Section →
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