The Tanakh in the New Testament

התנך בברית החדשה

 

The New Testament opens with these words: “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1, NASB). With these first words from the first book of the New Testament, it is made clear that Yeshua (Jesus) is part of the Jewish people, the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham and to David. These words also make clear that the New Testament has a deep connection to the Tanakh (the Hebrew name for the Old Testament). Even more so, that the way of thinking found in the New Testament is saturated with that of the Tanakh, and the literary connection between the two is deep, rich, and multifaceted. Anyone interested in reading the New Testament and truly understanding it, must be aware of this significant connection and, while reading, to notice the ways it is displayed.

The goal of this article is to point out the main ways that the New Testament is connected to the Tanakh and to provide tools to the reader in order to identify these connections and their importance. The purpose here is to bring to light the depth of these connections; some of the explanations will be further explored in future articles.

1. Quotations and paraphrases

The clearest way for a text to refer to a different text is by including an excerpt or quotation from said text. A quotation is written in the same way as was originally expressed and includes a clear sign that points to the source. An example from Matthew’s Gospel is the comment made when Yeshua moved from Nazareth to Capernaum:

This happened so that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, on the other side of the Jordan, Galilee of the GentilesThe people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, And those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, Upon them a Light dawned.’” (Matthew 4:14-16; see Isaiah 9:1-2, 60:1-3)

There could be varying reasons for the use of quotations, perhaps interest in clarifying a certain point, interpreting a familiar situation, or providing authority from an acknowledged source. The authors of the New Testament quoted very often from the Tanakh and it is clear that they viewed it as a source of authority and inspiration. The Tanakh in their eyes was the word of God – although written by human beings, it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. A clear illustration of this can be found in Matthew 1:22-23, on the subject of the virgin birth of Yeshua:

“Now all this took place so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘Behold, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and they shall name Him Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” (See Isaiah 7:14; emphasis mine)

Another example is the quotation from Psalms in the disciples’ prayer in Acts 4:23-30. They opened their prayer in this way:

“Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything that is in them, who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said,Why were the nations insolent, And the peoples plotting in vain? The kings of the earth took their stand, And the rulers were gathered together Against the Lord and against His Christ.’” (Acts 4:24-26; see Psalm 2:1-2; emphasis mine)

In these two examples it is clear that although a certain person wrote the words found in Scripture (in these examples, Isaiah or David), at the same time, the words are treated as the living words of God.

This position is also expressed clearly in situations where Yeshua is teaching His disciples from the Tanakh about Himself. An example of this is found in the story of the happenings on the third day after Yeshua’s crucifixion. On that day, two of the disciples were walking on the path from Jerusalem to a city named Emmaus. Brokenhearted, they were discussing the recent occurrences. When another man joined them on the way (whom they only later recognized as Yeshua) they told him that they had even heard that Yeshua had risen from the dead. At this point, Luke the author writes:

“And then He said to them, “You foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to come into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the Prophets, He explained to them the things written about Himself in all the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:25-27)

These quotations found in the New Testament reflect the extensive use of the Greek translation that was in popular use among the Jews of the first century A.D. – the translation commonly called the Septuagint. Most Bible readers of that time also spoke Greek and were used to using this translation.

There are also some places in the New Testament where the author does not quote word-for-word, but rather, after referencing the source in the Tanakh, the message or content of the text is given in paraphrase. A good example of this is in Matthew 2:5-6, where the priests and scribes are asked by Herod where the Messiah will be born. Their answer is a paraphrase of Micah 5:1,3:

“They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for from you will come forth a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’’” (Matthew 2:6)

Though this is clearly a paraphrase it is important to note the understanding that the source is authoritative. It may also be worth noting here that this particular example is evidence of the understanding of the spiritual authorities in Yeshua’s days that the Tanakh was an authoritative source.

2. Allusions

The allusion also purposefully turns our attention to a certain previous text. But in contrast  to the quotation, the allusion’s connection to the original text is not made known explicitly but is only alluded to or implied. This allusion to another text creates a connection between the two texts. The allusion shows connections to previous texts in inexplicit ways, such as repeating specific words in a manner that indicates a connection. In this way the allusion “activates” the text that it is pointing to. The allusion may provide commentary on the alluded text. Sometimes it may bring further clarity to its own message in light of the alluded text or add extra depth or authority. Often, something that doesn’t seem clear in the alluding text is clarified at once when the reader identifies the allusion. In these cases  the text alluded to acts as the key to understanding the alluding text.

A good example of allusion is found in John 1:4. In this passage, we read about the “Word” (v. 1), which is used as a description of Yeshua (v. 14). “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of mankind” (v. 4). These words clearly allude to Psalm 36:9 – “For the fountain of life is with You; In Your light we see light.” Now, although John did not explicitly quote from the Psalms, he wrote in a way that clearly shows this connection. In this way, he attributes to Yeshua (called here the “Word”) things that were written about God in the psalm.

Another example, also from John’s Gospel, is Yeshua’s repeated use of the words “I am”, used about Himself. In one place in particular it is especially clear how Yeshua’s phrasing carries great meaning, and how one must find clarification beyond the immediate context. At the end of a long discussion with the scribes and the pharisees, Yeshua declares: “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). From this declaration, it is clear that the words “I am” carry crucial significance about Yeshua’s identity. The scribes’ and pharisees’ sharp response – they want to stone him – points to the fact that they attached serious weight to Yeshua’s declaration and understood clearly how He was purposefully using those words. Not surprisingly, the declaration “I am” appears in the Book of Isaiah multiple times as spoken by God, when He declares His exclusivity and eternalness (Isaiah 41:4, 43:10,13, 46:4, 48:12, 52:6). Furthermore, these words in Isaiah allude to the Song of Moses! “See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me” (Deut. 32:39). From the way that Yeshua uses this phrase, it is clear that He is alluding to these parts of the Tanakh and through this is attributing to Himself a declaration that belongs to God. In order to understand the power of Yeshua’s declaration in the New Testament, we need to identify the allusion and the connection to the Tanakh, where these are God’s declaration.

3. Motifs and conceptual connections

In the broad subject of motifs, there is a strong connection between the New Testament and the Tanakh. A motif is an idea that repeats itself in different ways, like a sequence of notes repeated throughout a musical piece. A clear example of this is the motif of the exodus out of Egypt. It is clear that in the Tanakh this a central motif, not only as a reminder of Israel’s past deliverance and all that had to do with the wandering in the desert for 40 years until the entrance into the land of Canaan, but also as a prototype for future deliverance (see, for example, Isaiah 11:15, 43:16-21, 51:9-11). This is also an extremely important motif in the New Testament, as anyone  who reads the New Testament will very quickly discover. The Passover holiday is one of the main motifs related to this, as seen, for example, in John’s Gospel. The importance of this festival is highlighted by how often it is mentioned, and by the emphases and accompanying meanings that are related to Passover and the Exodus – Yeshua  is described as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:20); during the Passover holiday He provides food for the multitudes in a desolate area (6:1-15); He controls the sea (6:16-21); and declares that He Himself is the bread (or manna) that is sent down from heaven (6:32-33). In the second half of the Gospel, Yeshua’s conversations with His disciples are described in the context of the festival with the events of the last Passover during Yeshua’s life (see John 11:55, 13:1), and in this way the meaning of His death and resurrection are connected to the motif of the Exodus out of Egypt.

An additional motif in the New Testament that develops and builds on a central motif in the Tanakh, is the motif of God’s Shekhinah (His residing presence), His Mishkhan (dwelling place) and the Temple. This motif, that is so important in the Tanakh, is displayed as the essence of Yeshua’s nature as Immanuel, as the dwelling of God with mankind (see for example, Matthew 1:23, John 1:14). However, it also comes to play in the New Testament, in describing the way in which the believer in Yeshua is filled with the Holy Spirit and himself becomes a dwelling place for God (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19; Ephesians 2:21-22). The future hope for God’s dwelling with mankind (Revelation 7:15, 21:3) also continues the way in which the Tanakh already developed this motif (see Isaiah 4, 60:18-21).

In these cases and elsewhere, in order to properly understand the usage of these motifs in the New Testament, it is essential to read them with the background given by the Tanakh.

4. Expressions, metaphors and similes, and imagery.

There are many expressions in the New Testament which reflect the terminology of the Tanakh. This extensive use of language, imagery, and characters from the Tanakh is another clear example of the New Testament understanding that the faith in Yeshua is based on the Tanakh and continues the train of thought found in the Tanakh. In the following section, examples will be given for different expressions, metaphors and similes, and imagery that show this extension of Biblical thought.

a.     Expressions

The New Testament was written in Greek, but the source of many expressions used in it are not Greek literature but rather the Hebrew Tanakh.

For example, when Yeshua calls Himself “the Son of Man”, this moniker is adopted directly from Daniel’s vision (see Daniel 7:13-14) that displays the building of God’s eternal kingdom by means of a character like a son of man, who comes before the Ancient of Days:

13 I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. 14 And to Him was given dominion, Honor, and a kingdom, so that all the peoples, nations, and populations of all languages might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14; emphasis mine)

Another interesting example is the usage of two verbs to introduce direct speech, like the common Hebrew usage: “and he spoke…and said [saying]…” (“וידבר…ויאמר” – see Matthew 23:1-2, 28:18, Mark 8:28, Luke 14:3). This, of course, is a stylistic language choice but demonstrates well how the expressions of the New Testament draw from those of the Tanakh.

b.     Metaphors and Similes

A metaphor presents something (an idea, a person, a situation, etc.) by means of a second, different thing, in a way that certain attributes of the second thing are used to describe the first. The general difference between a metaphor and a simile is that, unlike the metaphor, the simile uses a word such as “like” to compare between the things, for example: “The righteous person will flourish like the palm tree” (Ps. 92:12). However, there is not a large conceptual difference between the two and it is thus possible to cover both these literary devices together.

A fascinating metaphor in the Tanakh is the use of “Rock” to refer to God (for example, Deut. 32:4, 2 Sam. 22:3, 32, 47, Ps. 62:2, 6, 7). It is clear to all that God is not really a rock. However, when one calls Him “my Rock”, certain characteristics that belong to a rock are attributed to Him (strength, steadfastness, ability to provide shade and protection from danger, etc.). In the New Testament there are many metaphors that are drawn clearly from the Tanakh. One example is the use of “rock” to describe Yeshua (1 Corinthians 10: 4).

Another good example, that demonstrates the importance and necessity of understanding the Tanakh in order to understand the power of what was said in the New Testament, is when Yeshua says “I am the good shepherd.” In this declaration, Yeshua does two things at once. On one hand, he adopts for Himself a metaphor that is often used to describe God (see, for example, Ps. 23 – “The LORD is my shepherd”; Isaiah 40:11 – “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs…”; Ezekiel 34:12, 22) and to describe the future king from the house of David (Ezekiel 34:23 – “Then I will appoint over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd.”). In using this metaphor of Himself, Yeshua also starkly compares Himself  to the leaders of the people of that time, and to the way they are described in Ezekiel 34:2-9 as unfaithful and self-serving shepherds who think only of themselves instead of feeding and taking care of their flock.

Yet another example is the description of Yeshua as “the lion… from the tribe of Judah” in Revelation 5:5. The bond between the metaphor of the lion with the tribe of Judah is found in the Tanakh, in Genesis 49:9, with Jacob’s blessings for Judah (“Judah is a lion’s cub”). Then, in verse 10, comes a prophecy: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” In the ancient Aramaic targum (translation), the word “Shiloh” is translated as “the Messiah” or “the Messiah King”, and on this basis it becomes clear that the early Jewish exegetes understood that this prophetic passage was about the messiah. Therefore, when Yeshua is described as “the lion from the tribe of Judah”, a declaration is being made that He is the fulfilment of that same prophecy.

c.     Imagery

The usage of imagery is a distinctive element of the literary genre of dreams and visions. The visions found in Ezekiel or Daniel in the Tanakh, alongside John’s visions described in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, are characterized by descriptions of different figures. While reading in the Book of Revelation, one will discover that many of the characters are familiar from the Tanakh. For example, the description of the four creatures around God’s throne (found in Revelation 4:7) repeats the description of the four cherubim found in Ezekiel 10:14 (the faces of the human, lion and eagle are repeated in Revelation, and what in Ezekiel is called the face “of the cherub” is in Revelation the face that looks “like an ox”). Once the connection becomes clear our understanding of the descriptions in the New Testament takes on a whole new dimension.

5. Narrative analogies

The biblical researcher Joshua Berman defines the term “narrative analogies” as “a strong and salient similarity both in the language and in the motifs shared by two Biblical stories”.[1] The richness of connections between different stories in the Tanakh has also been demonstrated by other researchers, such as Moshe Garsiel, and Yair Zakovitch. This phenomenon also characterizes the connection between the New Testament and the Tanakh. There are, of course, always shared words between different texts, and consequently one must tread carefully when attempting to identify shared language that point to an analogical correlation between stories. In the identification of an analogical correlation it is important, for example, that the shared language has a similar function in each of the stories.[2] If one successfully identifies the correlation, it enriches the understanding of the message of the story.

A good example of a narrative analogy that connects the New Testament to the Tanakh and enriches our understanding of the New Testament story by means of the story in the Tanakh, is the description of Yeshua’s return as a child from Egypt, where He was taken by Joseph and Mary since Herod had a passionate desire to kill him. The phrasing of the story closely follows the story of Moses returning to Egypt:

Exodus 4:19-20

Matthew 2:19-21

19 Now the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons and mounted them on a donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt. Moses also took the staff of God in his hand.19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.

In Matthew 2, the one who sought to take Yeshua’s life (Herod) died in a manner that reminds us of how, in Exodus, the men who sought to take Moses’ life had also died. This already creates a comparison between Yeshua and Moses. In his presentation of the story Matthew emphasizes more parallels: he repeats, for example, nearly word for word the language of Exodus, “for all the men who were seeking your life are dead…”. The message of the deaths of those who were seeking to kill Yeshua did not come from a human source, but rather divine, just as the message of the deaths of those who were seeking to kill Moses (to Moses it was said directly by God, and to Joseph by an angel). Joseph takes Yeshua, and his wife Miriam, just the same way that Moses took his sons and his wife.

There are, of course, also differences – Moses returned at this stage to Egypt while Yeshua was departing from Egypt. But it is clear, from the way the story is presented in Matthew, that the author wants to compare between the story of Yeshua and its predecessor in the Tanakh. It is possible to think of different implications made by this comparison, but maybe the most important one is the parallel between Yeshua and Moses. This parallel is generated at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel and this starts a series of parallels that Matthew points to throughout the book. It is very important therefore to recognize the narrative analogy in order to pay attention to the message of Matthew’s Gospel – Yeshua is the prophet like Moses who, according to Deut. 18:15-19, was one day to come.

 

In summary, throughout this article we have briefly seen a few of the different ways that New Testament is connected to the Tanakh. Oftentimes the different ways appear side by side, and there are other ways that we haven’t discussed in this article. The goal was to point to some of the main ones, and to give a taste and awareness of the importance of this connection in order to understand the New Testament.

I would like to encourage you to read the New Testament with an understanding that much of its style, thought, and meaning are based on its deep connection with the Tanakh. It is important for the reader who desires to read the New Testament, and to understand it deeply, to be perceptive of and sensitive to the multifaceted literary connections between them in order to recognize the points of contact and to clarify their meaning. 

 


[1] Translation mine – Joshua Berman, “Establishing Narrative Analogy in Biblical Literature: Methodological Considerations”, in Beit Mikra: Journal for the Study of the Bible and Its World (53), 2008, p. 31; see the article in its entirety: pp. 31-46.

[2] Ibid, p. 38

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