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Reading Jesus’ Bible: How the New Testament helps us understand the Old Testament by John Goldingay

08 December 2017

John Court on a new way of understanding the Bible with the help of hindsight

AT THE start, I must declare two special interests: first, John Goldingay and I were together as students in the Classical Sixth in Birmingham. He proposed a change to Theology at university that effectively marked out both our careers. And, second, both of us have written quite extensively on the relation between the Old and New Testaments.

The book under review reveals a significant and interesting difference between us. My book New Testament Writers and the Old Testament, published by SPCK in 2002, contained a tabulation of passages from the Hebrew Bible which are quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. Where a modern Bible may lack marginal cross-references, with this resource we may “learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the Old Testament” (in some words of Richard Hays). Goldingay has a different emphasis, effectively putting the process into reverse. “We learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels.” He symbolises this by referring not to the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible, but preferring the term First Testament.

This is no mere change of fashion in terminology or reading method. Effectively, it transforms the attitude of the Christian reader who tends to neglect or largely ignore the first part of the Bible. A window of fresh understanding to a multiplicity of puzzling books is opened up, with the New Testament as visionary guide. Modern readers look at the NT which looks at the OT.

This sounds like a tall order, involving the overcoming of historical social and cultural differences between the worlds of ancient Israel and imperial Rome. Historical tradition evolves with time in echoes and allusions, but it is not so easy to put the process into reverse. Goldingay offers a structure of interpretation to provide us with an exhilarating and illuminating solution. The Old Testament can be opened anew for the Christian reader. And he even begins from a most challenging example: the genealogy at the start of Matthew’s Gospel.

The first Gospel (Matthew) provides a framework of five ways for reading the First Testament: story, promise, images, relationship with God, and a foundation of moral teaching. Matthew’s opening provides a schematic summary of the narrative history of Israel, for which Jesus is the climax. The story of Jesus’s birth in Matthew demonstrates the prophetic promises in the past of which Jesus is the fulfilment. The beginning of Jesus’s ministry with his baptism by John shows, in God’s words from heaven, the concepts in the First Testament by which we can understand who Jesus is. The nature of a relationship with God, and its problems for Israel, can be seen in Matthew’s account of the temptations in the wilderness, and in the opening of the Sermon on the Mount. And, finally, the First Testament provides the foundation for Jesus’s moral teaching, as in Matthew 5 he speaks like a prophet filling out what has gone before, “inviting us to study what the scriptures have to teach us about the way we should live”.


Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.


Reading Jesus’ Bible: How the New Testament helps us understand the Old Testament
John Goldingay
Eerdmans £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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