The Bible and Culture

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Below you will find an excerpt from the second of my two large volumes studying the whole of  NT Theology and Ethics.  The first volume entitle ‘The Indelible Image: The Individual Witnesses’  will be out next month at some point and is already selling on Amazon.  Interspersed you will find footnotes as I had to copy this directly from a pdf to here, so you may ignore those if you like.  In any case, the subject is well worth a good discussion.  See what you think.


Relating the Old Testament and the New Testament Thought Worlds

Although it is possible at this juncture to discuss the relationship of the Old Testament to
the New Testament, that subject belongs in a discussion of the canon, which is not the
focus of this study, and in any case I addressed it somewhat in the first volume of the
present work.3 Here our interest is the relationship of Old Testament theology and ethics
to the theology and ethics that we find in the New Testament. The reason for this
distinction is simple: the documents of the New Testament existed in the New Testament
era and are expressions of the thought world of that era, long before there was a New
Testament canon. The thought world of the New Testament speakers and writers was
enormously influenced by the thought world exhibited in many books now found in the
Old Testament, although certainly they were also profoundly influenced by
intertestamental Jewish literature and thought.

I say “many” books because some books of the Old Testament seem to have exerted little
or no influence on the early Christians. An obvious example is the book of Esther, which
seems to have made no impact at all, and perhaps this is not surprising, since the Old
1C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 2001 [1952]), p. 65.
2Morna Hooker, “The Nature of New Testament Theology,” in The Nature of New Testament Theology:
Essays in Honour of Robert Morgan, ed. Christopher Rowland and Christopher Tuckett (Oxford:
Blackwell, 2006), p. 90. Her argument is essentially the same one that I am making here for narrative being
the larger rubric in which one can best understand New Testament theology and ethics.
3See Ben Witherington III, The Individual Witnesses, vol. 1 of The Indelible Image: The Theological and
Ethical Thought World of the New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

Testament canon was not fully closed in the New Testament era, and one of the debated
books was Esther. In fact, several of the books that later made up the third part of Tanak,
the Writings, are missing in action in the New Testament, as are various other Old
Testament books (e.g., Nehemiah). And it is not simply that they are not quoted; they are
not even alluded to. It therefore is better, on the whole, to talk about the influence not of
particular books, although we could do that (the most heavily cited in the New Testament
are Isaiah and Psalms), but rather of the influence of the thought world.

And here we note a remarkable fact. The Old Testament, taken as a whole, has precious
little to say about the afterlife and only somewhat more about eschatology. And indeed, it
is mostly the very latest Old Testament books, including especially the more apocalyptic
prophets, that have anything of consequence to say on this subject; and sometimes, even
when talking about the Yom Yahweh, they are talking not about some final
eschatological judgment on the world but rather about a temporal judgment on Israel
and/or the nations after which there can be redemption for God’s people and further
mundane life.

By comparison, the thought world of the New Testament writers is overwhelmingly
eschatological in character. In this respect, the New Testament thought world is far more
like the thought world of some of the intertestamental Jewish literature than that of the
Old Testament. Of course, this could be said to create a problem for canonical
theologians, at least for those who want to limit the discussion within the parameters of
what is found in the Old Testament and the New Testament. But there are red flags right
within various New Testament books against taking this sort of approach as well.
For example, the little document called “Jude” clearly draws on extracanonical material
from the Enoch literature and probably from Apocalypse of Moses as well. And then we
have Paul, who shows the influence of Wisdom of Solomon, and James, who draws on
Sirach. Thus, we can focus on the relationship between the thought worlds of the Old
Testament and the New Testament, but we should not limit ourselves to that discussion,
not least because important ideas such as bodily resurrection of the dead, although they
did not germinate in the intertestamental period, certainly gestated in that period. When it
comes to the Old Testament itself, the concept of resurrection is barely mentioned, in
Daniel 12:1-2 and as a metaphor in Ezekiel (and see Is 26:19). Put simply, some of the
concepts most crucial and determinative for the early Christian thinkers are almost absent
from the Old Testament. Christian theology and ethics could never be done purely on the
basis of the careful interpretation of the Old Testament.

And indeed, some scholars have asked probing questions about whether one can even talk
about a unified Old Testament thought world, not least because the material found there
was produced and edited over an incredibly long period of time, in various places, in
different countries, in exile and in the Holy Land, and much of the literature is
anonymous, or at least we do not know who actually finally wrote it down. In any case,
the concept of books did not exist in the Old Testament era in the same way it did in the
first century A.D. By contrast, the gestation period of the New Testament is tiny, the
social networks are much more closely knit, and we know a good deal about various of
the New Testament authors, including that they either were, or were in touch with, the
original eyewitnesses of the events that came to be called the “good news.” Then too, all
the writers shared something vital in common: a vibrant faith in a recently crucified and
risen savior named “Jesus.”

There was no singular sort of experience like the Christ-event, not even the exodus and
Sinai events, that generated the faith of all the Israelites. In some ways, then, it is unfair
to compare the Old Testament and New Testament thought worlds, and in any case the
Old Testament thought world reflects a long period of development with some
remarkable changes in and after the exile in regard to afterlife theology. We must talk in
terms of progressive revelation when dealing with the Old Testament thought world. It is
not at all clear that we need to do that with the New Testament thought world. And then
too, if we are going to speak at all about biblical theology and ethics, the narratological
necessities dictate that we talk about an ongoing tale that has a beginning, a middle, a
climax, and an end. The Old Testament does not include the last two elements of the
story, although especially its prophetic corpus sometimes foreshadows and foretells it.

Some will ask why is it so important to consider the theology and the eth
ics in the Bible
in a processive and progressive manner. One answer is that we cannot judge the meaning
of a story and the character of its actors before we get to the end. Consider for a moment
the example of J. R. R. Tolkien’s great trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. We cannot tell
whether Frodo will have the necessary character to do what is required with the ring until
we near the end of the story. Up to that point, we do not know whether he will pass the
test. Or even more tellingly, we cannot tell whether Gollum is going to end up being an
adversary or an assistant in the process of saving the Shire and the world until right near
the end. And what of Gandalf? Will he return in time or at all to help the human race
ward off evil? We do not know until many hundreds of pages into the story. The Bible
involves a similar, even more grand, epic story from creation through fall through various
acts of redemption to the final new creation. Viewing the whole story from the end
changes the way we look at the character of God, the character of God’s people, how
human history will play out, the nature of redemption, and a host of other subjects. The
truth is that we do not fully know God and the divine character sufficiently for eternal
salvation before Jesus turns up to reveal it. We do not fully understand the depths of
human depravity until Jesus shows up and dies on the cross to reveal and overcome it.
We do not fully understand the importance of creation to God’s eternal plan until we hear
near the end that God’s plan is that all of fallen creation be renewed and restored, and that
the resurrection of Jesus will be the harbinger and indeed catalyst of the final stage of
redemption for human beings themselves.

Sticking to Our Story

It is precisely because biblical history is told in the Bible as an ongoing story that a
narratological approach to theology and ethics is not merely useful but actually is
required to fully understand what is being claimed and taught. The first question to ask
about any theological or ethical remark in the Bible is “Where in the story do we find it?”
Is it near the outset, or is it in the middle or toward the end? During the administration of
which covenant was this or that teaching given? Most fundamentally, does this or that
theological or ethical remark come before or after the Christ-event? Does this point in the
story reflect the partial revelations of the earlier period or the fuller revelation that comes
in and after the Christ-event?

These are the right sorts of questions to ask when we are thinking about the theology and
ethics found in the Bible, and this is precisely why we cannot do biblical theology in a
manner that treats the Old Testament as if it provides as full a revelation of God’s
character, plan, and people as does the New Testament. It does not, nor did the New
Testament writers think that it did, even though it was the only Bible that they had. They
believed that they were the people on whom the ends of the ages had come, and they
believed that in fact the author of this whole story had finally stepped out onto the stage
in person to bring in the final chapters and explain the meaning of it all.

With this reminder about the narratological framework and nature of the thought world
that we are dealing with, it is appropriate to say some final things about some of the
major symbols in the symbolic universe that generate that sort of thought world and
story, but first we must note that we have now found a clue or two as to why the early
church completely rejected the so-called Gnostic Gospels when considering what
eventually would be their canonical texts.

The first reason is that the canonical Gospels do indeed focus heavily on the passion and
death of Christ; indeed, each of them can be viewed as a passion narrative with a long
introduction. By contrast, the Gnostic Gospels place no focus on the death of Jesus, and
indeed they actually avoid doing so. They see no great theological significance in that
event, or really any other similar event, which depends on historical reality and

Equally important, as Luke Timothy Johnson says, “None of the Gnostic Gospels take the
form of narrative. Rather, they focus entirely on Jesus as revealer, and take the form of
discrete sayings . . . with no narrative framework (Gospel of Thomas), or revelatory
discourses in response to questions (Gospel of Mary, Dialogue of the Saviour). Two of
the most important Gnostic Gospels (Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Philip) take the form of
teaching about Jesus rather than any sort of story.”4 In other words, the sensibilities and
4Luke Timothy Johnson, “Does a Theology of the Canonical Gospels Make Sense?” in Rowland and
Tuckett, eds., Nature of New Testament Theology, p. 103.
symbolic universe that formed those documents are very different from those Jewish ones
that formed our canonical Gospels. In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that most of
the Gnostic texts reject the God of the Old Testament altogether, the God of material

Johnson puts it this way: “Insofar as the God of Israel is the God who creates the material
world, the Gnostic texts resist that God. A Gnostic sensibility that finds the world to be a
corpse and blessedness in detachment and solitariness (see the Coptic Gospel of Thomas)
is far both from the sensibility of Torah and of the canonical Gospels.”5 All the writers of
the New Testament probably were Jews or God-fearers,6 not Marcionites or Gnostics, and
so we would expect them to devalue neither the Old Testament thought world nor the Old
Testament vision of God and creation, and they do not disappoint us in this regard. The
changes that we find between the Old Testament and the New Testament symbol systems
are christologically, ecclesiologically, and eschatologically engendered, but all of those
categories (the discussions of a messiah, of God’s people, of the future in connection with
the messiah and God’s people) are Jewish and must be seen as a further development of
Old Testament and early Jewish thinking on such subjects in a particular direction in the
light of the Christ-event.

The Old Testament Thought World and Its Relevance to Christian Thought
At the center of the Old Testament symbolic universe and narrative thought world lies a
singular God, Yahweh. Scholars have come to call what they find in the Old Testament
“ethical monotheism,” and this is an appropriate label. Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is a
hands-on deity constantly involved in the affairs of the world and his people, and he is
constantly making demands of them in regard to their behavior especially, but also in
regard to their beliefs. The Shema frequently is seen as the core credo of the Old
Testament God: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one” (Deut. 6:4). Here “one”
presumably means “as opposed to many gods.” In other words, this is a statement against
polytheism, not about the composition or complexity of the biblical God.7

What was believed about this God can be deduced fairly easily from a close reading of
the Pentateuch and the first few Historical Books. As the only real God in the cosmos, the
biblical God was believed to be the creator of all things and all beings. No other being or
thing existed before this God decided to create the universe and all that is within it. This
view stands in stark contrast to other ancient Near Eastern views about how the universe
was created out of a struggle between various deities. The Old Testament writers will

5Ibid., p. 105.
6The author of 2 Peter ma
y be an exception to this rule, but Luke probably was a Gentile God-fearer.
7On which, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the
New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

have none of that. There is only one God, and there is only one universe, which was
created by this God and reflects the divine character. The way this is expressed in the
beginning chapters of the Bible is that God created all things and made them tov
(“good”), indeed made them tov mu’od (“very good”). A good God made a good creation
and good creatures to fill it.

This idea of monotheism created enormous problems when it came to the issue of the
origins of evil–the study of theodicy. Polytheism could always explain that evil came
about through one or another of the bad deities or through cosmic struggle, but
monotheism could not go that route. Some other explanation for evil had to be suggested.
What is most interesting in Genesis 1-3 is that we are not told where evil comes from; it
simply lurks in the presence of the snake in the garden. It appears that the Old Testament
writers were much more interested in talking about how to cope with evil than in
debating its source.

However, the Old Testament writers did repeatedly emphasize that the one and only God
was not evil, had no dark side, no shadow of turning, nor did this God do evil things. The
blame for the “fall,” as it came to be called, is placed solely on human beings, not on God
for making defective merchandise. This pattern of thought is seen not only in various
places in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament. As Paul puts it, Adam is the
head of the human race, and as a result all of us have sinned and died in Adam, and it is
also true that all of us, on our own, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (see
Rom 3:23; 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:20-28, 42-50). Not once in the Bible is there a discussion
about some flaw or ethical defect in God. The blame for the human malaise is always
placed at the door of human beings, however much they may have been beguiled or
bamboozled by the powers of darkness in the universe. God is holy, just, and good and is
not responsible for sin and evil.

This raises questions about the sovereignty of God, and the Old Testament does indeed
repeatedly insist that God is almighty. Sometimes this takes the form of insisting that
God is the maker and ruler of the universe, but more frequently, since the Old Testament
is the story of God’s dealings with a fallen and imperfect people, it takes the form of
insisting that God is almighty to save or rescue his people. God will not willingly let
them go down the path of ruin and self-destruction (cf. Gen 6 with Hos 11). At the very
heart of the Pentateuch is the story of the exodus and Sinai events, which becomes the
paradigm and indeed the litmus test of the character of God–Yahweh is a redeemer God,
who rescues his people time and time again. This brings into the picture God’s love,
compassion, and mercy, for there is no suggestion in such stories, not even in Exodus,
that these people earned God’s favor and deserved to be rescued and therefore that a
righteous God was obligated to extricate them (see Ex 34:6-7).

True enough, it is stressed that the Hebrews were victims of horrible oppression, but there
is no suggestion in these stories that God rescued them because their character was so
much better than that of the Egyptians (see Deut 7:7-8). Indeed, as the traditions of the
wilderness wanderings that followed were to demonstrate, these people had some severe
issues in regard to both their behavior and their beliefs about the true God. Golden calves
and immorality came as neither total accident nor total surprise from these people. In
other words, although God was just in punishing the Egyptians, he was also gracious in
rescuing the Hebrews. And here we come upon a crucial point.

Salvation in the Old Testament is, almost exclusively, a this-worldly proposition. It is
something that God does in space and time to rescue, redeem, restore, and aid the return
of his people to their rightful place or condition or character. There is in fact hardly
anything of a doctrine of heaven in the Old Testament (although occasionally an Enoch
or an Elijah gets “beamed up” into the living presence of God), and so whatever justice or
redemption that happens must happen in the here and now, in space and time. To be sure,
in the later and apocalyptic prophecies we begin to see an afterlife or at least a theology
of new creation, as in Second and Third Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, but clearly enough
Sheol is the dominant concept of the afterlife in most of the Old Testament. But nowhere,
apparently, do we find any New Testament writers who merely conjure with Sheol after
death for anyone.8

There is considerable insistence in the Old Testament on God’s holiness and righteous
character. This, of course, is one reason why we talk about ethical monotheism. The
biblical God is not running around committing immoral acts or, like various pagan
deities, attempting to mate with mere mortals. Notably, when we have a story such as
Genesis 6:1-4, in which angels (called “sons of God”) come down from above and violate
the creation order by mating with mortals, the heavens break loose and a flood judgment
comes upon the earth. The biblical God will not tolerate, never mind perpetrate, a breach
of the creation order, much less blur the line between Creator and creature in this regard.
Thus, when we hear God say, “Be holy, for I am holy” (e.g., Lev 11:44), we are
beginning to get to the root of the matter in terms of the Old Testament symbolic
universe. God is one, and God is holy, and God’s people should be both one and holy as
8On Old Testament eschatology and apocalyptic, see Bill T. Arnold, “Old Testament Eschatology and the
Rise of Apocalypticism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, ed. Jerry L. Walls (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2007), pp. 23-39. This excellent survey of the relevant data shows that there is some
eschatological and apocalyptic material in the Old Testament, particularly in the later prophetic material,
and it demonstrates that there is a connection between the earlier promises of God about land, monarchy,
and the like and their final fulfillment in a this-worldly restoration or balancing of the scales of justice. This
conclusion is seen not as a natural development of historical processes but rather as a result of divine
intervention, whether in connection with the Day of the Lord or by some other means. See also Ben
Witherington III, Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999). What
Arnold, quite rightly, does not say or suggest is that in the Old Testament this conclusion of things is
closely or regularly linked to a human messianic figure intervening or returning.
9Here the reader will profit from reviewing the critique of Francis Watson’s view of such matters and
biblical theology in general in Witherington, Individual Witnesses, pp. 000-000.

And here is where I say that just as theology and ethics are bound up in the character of
God and one could talk about the theological story of an ethical God acting ethically, so
also theology and ethics are intertwined in what is expected of God’s people. The
character of God is to be reflected in the behavior (and belief) of God’s people. Put
another way, when one knows and believes in the true character of the biblical God and
has experienced God acting “in character” on behalf of his people, the only appro
response is to mirror that character in one’s own community and life. “Be holy, for I am
holy” is a mandate not merely to set oneself apart from the behavior patterns of the larger
culture but rather to model oneself on the divine character. And interestingly, such
imitation is never seen to violate the distinction between Creator and creature or to lead
to a human being’s apotheosis. It is the voice of the snake, not of God, that promises,
“You shall be as gods.” Yet it must be stressed that the primeval story insists that human
beings are created in the image of God, created with a capacity for a special relationship
with God, and thus in some ways the story of salvation history throughout the Bible is the
story of God’s efforts to bring about the renewal of that indelible but effaced image. Only
so could human beings once more be said to be, as in Psalm 8:5, “a little less than God”
(or at least than the angels, depending on how one reads )e6lo4h|<m in this verse).

A further feature of the Old Testament thought world that strongly shapes its contours is
the notion of covenant. The God of the Bible is a God who cuts covenants with both
individuals, such as Noah or Abraham, and also with a whole group of people–a chosen
people. Covenants are agreements, and the biblical ones mostly take the form of
covenants between suzerain and vassal, not parity treaties. Yahweh dictates the terms in
these covenants, and they contain not only stipulations but also sanctions involving
blessing and curse. They are ratified by a sacrifice and also have a covenant sign, such as
circumcision or even a rainbow. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of
covenant in the relationship between God and his people as described in the Old
Testament. God made demands, not only ritualistic but also ethical, of his people in a
fashion similar to an ancient dowry or betrothal agreement. To fail to live up to the
stipulations resulted in the curse sanctions being enacted on God’s people.

And this brings up another crucial point. God’s people, either individually or collectively,
are not immune to judgment. Their chosenness does not exempt them from God’s justice;
indeed, judgment, according to the Old Testament, begins with the household of God. It
is a singular mistake to muddle up the concept of chosenness or election and the concept
of salvation. As we have noted, the Old Testament has very little to say about
“everlasting life,” and when it speaks of “chosenness,” it does so not in terms of eternal
benefits to particular individuals.

Indeed, chosenness in the Old Testament normally has to do with God picking someone
or some group for a specific historical purpose, such as the choice of Cyrus to release
God’s people from exile in Babylon. But even when the concept is applied collectively to
Israel, it normally has the sense that God has chosen this people to be a light to the
nations, bearing witness to God’s character and demands, and to be a blessing to the
nations (e.g., the promises to Abraham). Election, then, has historical purposes in the Old
Testament, and little or nothing is said about personal eternal fringe benefits. The
corollary of this should be clear: later Christian concepts of election and salvation
(especially as blended together into one idea) ought not to be read back into the Old
Testament willy nilly. When dealing with the relationship of the Old Testament thought
world to the New Testament thought world, one must have a sense of progressive
revelation and the progress of a developing understanding of concepts such as election
and salvation. Missional election, however, is a concept carried over into the New

Nurturing a Sense of Progressive Revelation
This brings us to another important, indeed crucial, point. Biblical or canonical theology
and ethics, if they are even going to be attempted, should not be done in an ahistorical
manner, as if the Bible could be treated flatly as a thesaurus of theological and ethical
ideas in which “salvation” in Exodus means exactly the same thing as “saved by grace
through faith in Christ” means in Ephesians. If there is no sense of or sensitivity to the
way ideas develop over time and concepts are modified and change across the biblical
witness, if there is no sense of understanding of progressive revelation, then attempts at
biblical or canonical theology and ethics should be forsaken because such attempts will
run roughshod over the historical character and givenness of these wonderful texts. Don
Carson makes this helpful observation: “Precisely because God’s self-disclosure has
taken place over time, New Testament theology, as part of the larger discipline of biblical
theology, is committed to understanding the constitutive documents within the temporal
framework. In this respect, New Testament theology differs widely in emphasis from
systematic theology, which tends to ask atemporal questions of the biblical texts, thereby
eliciting atemporal answers.”10 But is the latter a legitimate exercise? If we denude New
Testament theology of its historical givenness, is such an exercise possible without
serious distortion and transformation of the New Testament material into something other
than it was intended to be and to say?

It is true that the same God is revealed in the Old Testament and the New Testament, but
it is not true that God’s Old Testament people and New Testament people had the same
level of understanding or even the same understanding of that God. This is made quite
clear by comparing the Shema with its Christian modification in 1 Corinthians 8:6:
Christians refer the term “God” to the Father and the term “Lord” to a different person,
Jesus, yet paradoxically, they do not deny the oneness of God. What one could say is that
these various witnesses had compatible understandings of God.
10D. A. Carson, “New Testament Theology,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its
Developments, ed. R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 808.

As the author of Hebrews reminds us in Hebrews 1:1-2, the revelation was partial and
piecemeal in the Old Testament era, but now God has revealed himself fully in his Son.
This means that any biblical or canonical theology worth the paper it is written on will
have a clear sense of development, of before and after, of partially and more fully
revealed, of promise/prophecy and fulfillment, and of typology. In other words, we must
have a historical way of thinking about these theological and ethical concepts and their
development, and we must conjure with the fact that some things that God revealed to
and demanded of his people in one era were either partial or took account of what Jesus
calls “the hardness of the human heart.” This is what it means to think in a selfconsciously
Christian manner about the Old Testament, to think christologically and
ecclesiologically about it, to think historically about it.

From the Christian point of view, Christ is both the climax of all God’s revelation to
humankind and the hermeneutical key to understanding all of what has come before,
which was only preparatory for the coming of the Christ. This is not to say that God’s
love for Israel was mere prolegomena for what was to follow. Indeed not. It is to say,
however, that God always had in mind to save the world through the Jewish messiah, so
God’s love for Israel was not the end of the story or an end in itself; rather, it was the
means by which Israel could come to fulfill its destiny in the person of Jesus, who would
be the light of the world.

If a former P
harisee such as Paul can say of the Mosaic law that it was only a
“childminder” (paidago4gos) of God’s people until Christ came, and when Christ came,
God’s people reached their majority and moved beyond the childminder or guardian and
so on to a new covenant, then we know that it will not suffice either to say that the new
covenant is just the old one renewed or to assume that the continuity with what came
before is dominant and the new elements in the new covenant are subdominant. The
whole discussion about the obsolescence of the Mosaic covenant in Galatians and
Hebrews prevents us from overstressing the continuity and underplaying the radical new
character of the new covenant in so many ways, both theologically and ethically.
I frankly state that I, as a Christian, assume the truth of the New Testament witness, and I
assume also that the hermeneutic of the New Testament writers and their way of viewing
and handling the Old Testament constitute the way Christians should attempt to view it
today, namely, eschatologically, viewing what has come before in the light of the
inbreaking kingdom, the coming of the Messiah, and the like. And what that meant was
not merely “new occasions teach new duties (and ethics)”; it meant a new understanding
of God, reenvisioned in the light of the significance of the Christ-event.

Christ cannot be found under every rock of the Old Testament. Indeed, he cannot be
found under many, for there are few messianic texts in the Old Testament. A generous
estimate sees about 5 percent of the Old Testament having to do with messianism, the
longing for a future and more perfect ruler for God’s people. So when I say that we must
read the Old Testament in the light of the Christ-event, what I mean is not that we read
Christ back into the Old Testament at various junctures without a clear leading from the
Old Testament or New Testament itself (thus, e.g., Christ is not the angel of the Lord,
there was no incarnation of Christ before the incarnation), but rather that we have the
strong sense that that whole era was preparatory for the coming of the Christ to earth so
that “when the time had fully come God, sent forth his Son” (Gal 4:4).11 We can learn
much about the first person of the Trinity from the Old Testament itself, but not much
about the second and third persons of the Trinity; those two persons do not come fully to
light until and after the Christ-event. This way of studying the Bible not only prevents
Christian anachronism; it allows us to read the Old Testament with our Jewish friends
with profit and respect for the historical givenness and character of that text. After all, the
Old Testament was the Word of God for Jews before it ever became part of the Christian

When a covenant’s stipulations were broken in antiquity (and here we are talking about a
suzerain/vassal treaty), then it was entirely up to the ruler to decide what to do next,
besides exact the curse sanctions of the original treaty that had to be put into play once
the law had been broken. If the ruler decided to relate in a positive way with a people
again, then a new covenant would have to be drawn up, and various of the ideas,
stipulations, and sanctions of the new covenant could be a repetition to one degree or
another of various of the previous ones. For example, honoring parents is affirmed in
both the Mosaic law and in the law of Christ (the imperatives that Christ gives). The
reason why Christians obey such an imperative is that it is in the new covenant, not that it
was once in an old one, as if the old one was still continuing.

When a new covenant is cut, the old one becomes obsolete, if we are talking about the
same two parties doing the covenanting. In fact, when the curse sanction of a covenant is
enacted, that covenant is over.12 In the New Testament some of the authors seem to see
the death of Jesus as absorbing the curse sanction against sin in God’s people from the
previous covenants and thus as the end of that covenant. In Colossians Paul even calls
Jesus’ death a “circumcision,” associating it with the covenant sign, and Mark, with his
rending of the veil of the temple, signals the end of an era of God’s presence located in
what was becoming, so to speak, the temple of doom. And one more thing: were it the
case that election equals eternal salvation in the New Testament, how do we explain the
fact that Jesus, the one person whom God did not need to save from fallenness, is the one
11Similarly, Howard Marshall stresses, “The concept of a threefoldness in God is simply not present in the
Old Testament” (“The Development of Doctrine,” in Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to
Theology, with Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Stanley E. Porter [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004], p. 49).
12Nowhere does the Old Testament state anything to the effect that the Abrahamic covenant makes the
Noachic one obsolete or defunct. However, such a statement was unnecessary because the Noachic
covenant was not with the forebear of Israel, Abraham. It was a covenant with Noah and his family and
also with the earth. The Abrahamic covenant was the beginning of covenants with those who would come
to be called “Hebrews,” and the Noahic covenant was not. This is why, for instance, Paul says nothing
about the Noachic covenant but must talk about the Abrahamic and Mosaic ones.

person viewed as the Elect One in Ephesians and elsewhere in the New Testament?
Election and salvation, it turns out, are two different but related concepts in both
Testaments, but in no instance should we assume that the former idea simply implies
eternal salvation.

A useful line of questioning involves God’s sovereignty as depicted in the Old
Testament. How does the Old Testament depict the way God exercises that sovereignty?
Does the Old Testament suggest either that God so controls everything that nothing
contrary to his will ever happens or that everything that does happen is part of his plan?
Certainly, the answer to that question must be no. God is not the ultimate author of sin,
and the Old Testament nowhere suggests such a view. One test case can be considered by
reflecting on how God relates to his own people. There is no more poignant depiction of
this than in Hosea 11:1-11:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing
to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught
Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I
healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to
them and fed them. They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria
shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword
rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because
of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the
Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My
heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not
execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God
and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his
children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling
like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will
return them
to their homes, says the LORD. (NRSV)

What should we conclude from this poignant prophetic poem? In this poem God is
depicted as a parent who calls his children, but they do not automatically or always
respond in the way God desires. They continue to behave sinfully over and over again,
and with moral consequences as well, such as being overcome by their enemies. But God,
like a spurned parent, will not give up on Israel. God keeps calling them from exile and
does not express his wrath against Israel’s sin. Rather, God roars like a mighty lion, and
his cubs finally recognize the sound of his voice and come running back to their parent.

I submit that this reveals a great deal about God’s character. It reveals that God, who has
the power to simply organize all things and all the behavior of his people in a preordained
way, chooses instead to relate to his children in love and by means of love. He calls them
back, he does not compel or predetermine them to come back. There is something about a
love relationship that could not be predetermined anyway. Love can be freely given and
freely received only between personal beings. Love cannot be coerced, compelled, or
even just predetermined. And Yahweh had decided not to act like some humans would to
compel a response or to destroy those who do not respond according to the desired script.
The power of contrary choice has been given to God’s people, and they do not always
respond as they ought to do.

But even more impressively, God has chosen to relate to his people in a loving manner,
wooing and winning their response. This picture of God comports with texts such as John
3:16-17, which tells us that God’s heart is big, and that he does not desire (and has not
predetermined) that anyone should perish. It comports with texts such as 1 Timothy 2:1-
6, which tell us that not only did Jesus die as a ransom for all the world, but also God
desires that all people come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. Thus, accordingly,
the concepts of election and salvation look different when we understand that this is the
character of the gracious biblical God, and that his modus operandi is much as we find it
to be in places such Hosea 11:1-11 and 1 Timothy 2:1-6.

This brings us to a crucial point. The Old Testament says very little about the coming
messiah, and yet on almost every page of the New Testament, Jesus takes center stage. I
suggest that there could be no clearer proof that we are not dealing merely with the
gestation of religious ideas over time. New Testament theology is not merely a natural
development of Old Testament theology, though there is considerable overlap, and the
same can be said about the ethics in the New Testament compared to the ethics in the Old

Something happened in space and time to change the thought world of the early Jews
who ended up writing books of the New Testament. That something was the coming of
the historical Jesus and the impact that he had on these Jews. To study New Testament
theology and ethics and leave Jesus out of the equation or relegate him and his teaching
to a presupposition for, or addendum to, New Testament thought is a huge mistake, and I
have attempted to avoid that mistake in these volumes.

The person, work, teaching, and impact of Jesus are the chief reasons for the differences
between the Old Testament and New Testament thought worlds. Of course, the New
Testament writers, so to speak, pick up the Jesus ball and run with it in several different
creative directions, but it is Jesus who is the catalyst for all that is going on theologically
and ethically in the New Testament. This is why, in my view, it is beyond comprehension
that anyone would attempt to examine New Testament theology or ethics and leave Jesus
and the Jesus tradition out of consideration or treat it last, as Caird does, as if it had little
impact on figures such as Paul, James, and Peter, and as if they were simply doing
theologies all on their own after the fact, politely ignoring the teachings and life of their
founder. True, it is a challenge to show the relationship between the thought world of
Jesus and that of his followers, but it is not impossible, as I have tried to show in this

Relating the Old Testament and the New Testament Thought Worlds
Here, another Venn diagram may help us conceptualize both the relationship and the
overlap between the thought worlds of the Old Testament and the New Testament.


This purely symmetrical representation of the relationship is a bit lopsided if we are
talking about the historical realities of the situation. The overlap between the Old
Testament and the New Testament thought worlds is greater than the overlap between
those of the Old Testament and the ancient Near East or between those of the New
Testament and the Greco-Roman milieu, but still we get the picture. The overlap between
the Old Testament and the New Testament symbolic universes is considerable, but it does
not consist of a majority of the material that we find in the New Testament, precisely
because so much of the New Testament is generated out of the Christ-event, which of
course affected none of the Old Testament writers.

Or again, the overlap between the Old Testament and the ancient Near Eastern thought
worlds is considerable, as is the overlap between those of the New Testament and the
Greco-Roman milieu (in both theology and ethics), but it is less than the overlap between
the Old Testament and New Testament. What lies at the very center of the diagram,
where all the circles intersect? The answer is, of course, the profound concern for both
some form of God-talk or religion and some form of ethical norms related to the Godtalk.
Both the biblical monotheistic culture and the polytheistic culture were profoundly
concerned with the divine and its influence on the world of humanity and intensely
interested in what sort of behavior and belief satisfied the divine demands on human life.
In all of these cultures priests, temples, and sacrifices were at the heart of the divinehuman
exchange. Christianity offered something new in suggesting that the time had
arrived where literal temples and sacrifices, and the priests who attended them, were no
longer necessary. God had been propitiated once and for all, and sin had been expiated
once and for all, and a people had been delivered once and for all, and this changed the
whole concept of religious life and what amounted to true piety.

Furthermore, there would be no more talk of a monarchial succession of kings. Jesus is
the final monarch, who would have no successors; he is the Son of Man, who would
personally rule forever in a forever kingdom (Dan 7:13-14). And last but not least, there
would not be a mere holy land. Christians were not worried at all about a doctrine of the
land or a particular holy place, for Christ was coming back to reign over the entire earth.
No doctrines of Torah, temple, or territory would be reaffirmed in their original senses in
the new covenant, and yet this did not mean that there was an abandonment of the
concept of laws and norms, or of temples or priests, or of a reign upon the earth.

What changes is that all these concepts are now processed through the Christ-event and
its implications. It will be the law of Christ, the people as his sanctuary/temple/dwelling,
and Christ’s return to rule the whole earth that will be the transmutation found in the New
Testament. What is interesting about this transformation is that it has both spiritual and
l dimensions. Clearly enough, it was believed that Jesus would literally
come back and literally reign upon the earth, though he would not be rebuilding any
temples. The sacred zone would extend throughout the earth, and worship in spirit and
truth anywhere would be true worship. Yet also, all believers, male and female, can be
said to be already, here and now, enlisted in Christ’s new priesthood, and they can indeed
offer spiritual sacrifices of self and praise to God, all the while viewing their own bodies
and the body of Christ as temples, the places were Christ dwells.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the Christian movement truly was something radical
in this regard in the eyes of a Greco-Roman person, for it placed far more emphasis on
belief and ethical behavior and far less emphasis on rituals performed correctly as being
at the heart of the religion. It also promised far fewer this-worldly benefits and far more
afterlife benefits, though most of them involve this world in its final transformed state.
Salvation in the New Testament is often spoken of in terms of the final state of affairs,
and not merely as some form of current healing, help, rescue, deliverance, though it could
begin with such things, sometimes at conversion. In other words, when the language of
“God” and “salvation” changes not merely in an eschatological direction but also in a
christological direction, then we are dealing with a profound refocusing of the symbol

In 1977 James Dunn wrote an important book entitled Unity and Diversity in the New
Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity.13 It essential thesis is
that a range of diversity is found within the New Testament canon. This is, of course,
true. But what is less well emphasized in Dunn’s study is the profound unity that is also
shared by the New Testament documents, especially when it comes to Jesus. But one
more point of importance is this: the diversity found in the New Testament is not
divergence or what might be called “dueling theological banjos.” Diversity, yes;
differences, yes; radical disagreements and contradictions, no. There is a unity that does
not amount to uniformity; it is a unity in harmony, not a monotone unity.

Thus, we do not have one author saying that Jesus is the Son of Man, and another saying
that he is not. We do not have one author saying that Jesus is the divine Son of God, and
another saying that he is not. We do not have one author saying that the kingdom is
breaking in, and others saying that it is not. We do not have one author saying that
Gentiles must keep all of the Mosaic law, and another saying that they must not. The
degree of diversity is not nearly so great as Dunn wants to make it, and the degree of
unity is more profound than he seems to allow. There is a reason for this. The authors of
the New Testament are, as we have noted, part of a small minority sect that is well
connected and highly networked such that there was a basic agreement on many things in
terms of theology and ethics, especially about the gospel and Jesus. There is already
manifest in the New Testament a shared proto-orthodoxy about a variety of subjects, not
least the importance of Jesus for salvation. We have no Marcionite or Gnostic authors of
New Testament books not because of the later orthodoxy of the fourth century, when the
canonizing of the New Testament became finalized; rather, it is because there were no
such Christian writers or groups in the New Testament era, or if there were, they were
13 A second edition was published in 1990, and a third edition in 2006 (London: SCM Press).

treated as false teachers even then (see 1-3 John), and their writings were not shared
among the Christian communities. More particularly, there were no apostles or original
disciples of Jesus of such persuasions.

In short, we should expect no more diversity within the New Testament documents than
we might find among the community documents at Qumran (by which I mean their
original documents, not merely their library books). All of the New Testament is written
by Jews who were part of this movement, with the possible exception of Luke, who
seems likely to have been a God-fearer, and perhaps the author of 2 Peter. In any case, all
of the New Testament books are written from a committed Jewish Christian perspective.
The range of opinion on matters of right belief is not great, nor is the range of opinion on
most ethical issues. The range of opinion on matters of orthopraxy is somewhat more

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