Last Updated: Apr 22, 2009
O.T. Quotation Structure - what is it?
Everyone who has studied the Gospels has probably attempted to list all the O.T. references. The margins of most bibles offer a good head start. Yet one of the difficulties of trying to get a complete picture, is that sometimes an Evangelist will actually quote an easy to recognise OT scripture, and yet at other times will only vaguely allude to an OT scripture or event.
On the surface this toggling between quote and allusion appears random and unpredictable. Unfortunately, if we stop our investigation at this point, we will miss one of the most profound features of the Gospels. For it turns out that each Gospel writer had a pattern, a blueprint in mind when choosing to quote specific O.T. passages and pass over others of equal importance.
All four Gospel writers created elaborate structural patterns in their choice of quotations. These structures have deep meaning, for they collect and organise the incidents and speeches of the Gospel into great themes and logical sequences of development. If we miss these contexts and thematic associations, we also miss important clues as to the literary and didactic purpose of each Evangelist.
O.T. Quotation Structures - Meaning and Purpose
And yet for all its sophistication, the O.T. Quotation Structure embedded in each Gospel is a model of clarity and simplicity. We only need list the quotations in order, note who they are quoted by, and what they are quoted about, to see beautiful thematic patterns unfold. These patterns were not meant to be hidden, but rather to be discovered by those who truly seek truth and labour to discover it.
While this structural patterns serve a very important purpose in preventing or at least exposing severe tampering of the Gospels by the ignorant, we are convinced this was not their only purpose, nor their main one. Instead, these structures were meant to be found and appreciated by Bible students everywhere, and to convey to them deep significance regarding the content and pattern of each Gospel.
We first began our study of O.T. Quotations in the NT (Gospels) in the late 1970s, when we were exposed to a booklet entitled, The Attitude of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Old Testament, which was distributed by the Trinitarian Bible Society (TBS). In it they attempted to list every clear quotation by Jesus in the Gospels, and carefully noted when Jesus diverged from either the Hebrew Massoretic Text or the Greek O.T. (the Septuagint, the LXX) .
The main point was the great authority that Jesus and the Gospel narrators assigned to the O.T., even when they appeared to correct the LXX translation, or diverged from the Hebrew text preserved by the Jews in the Middle Ages.
In listing and analyzing the quotations however, I began to notice patterns, depending upon who quoted the passage, and what or who the passage was being quoted about. When organized into tables, it became apparent that the NT Gospel writers were not random or haphazard in their use of the O.T. Quotations. Each Gospel writer had a clear plan, which seemed to have a special purpose and meaning, meant ot clarify the Gospel itself.
I was fascinated, but I had to carefully tighten up my methodology to avoid reading too much into the patterns. Several issues and aspects of the problem became apparent.
Clear Quotations: It was obvious that my immediate task was to focus on clear quotations, duly marked by the Gospel writers. The other category of evidence, "allusions" and vague references, could be mis-identified, mistaken in intent, or even imagined in cases where the author may have had no conscious intention whatever.
By happy fortune, the Gospel writers themselves assist us by carefully demarking quotations with introductory formulas or finishing notices, such as:
"It is written, (in the Prophets/ your Law,) ..." (e.g. Jn 6:45, 8:17) and
"These things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled..." (etc.) (Jn 19:36)
This makes the plain O.T. Quotations a very stable and firm group of instances, not under any serious dispute, except perhaps as to exact wording (due to harmonization) or interpretation (i.e., contextual significance).
In some cases, the actual O.T. source being quoted may be in dispute, because similar sayings are found in more than one place in the O.T., but this is rare, and not a serious problem in the main results, i.e., the discovery of patterns in the NT Gospels themselves.
All in all, the O.T. Quotations are ideal for studying the question of whether the Gospel writers wrote with careful planning, and what kind of structures they consciously embedded into their work. This is an important point, because an author or narrator has a rather free and obvious choice in deciding whether to use an overt quotation or an 'allusion', and so there is a great flexibility possible in the execution of his plan and style. The proof of this is of course the glaring fact that each Gospel writer has an entirely different, yet clearly recognizable pattern and plan in his usage of O.T. quotations.
Why directly quote here, and merely allude over there? What motivates a Gospel writer to flip-flop between modes of connecting to the O.T. prophecies and allegories? One reason appears to be the necessity of sticking to a pre-chosen set of quotations, and a plan for presenting them, and this seems to take precedence over style, content, and even chronological structure.
When we approach the problem with a minimal amount of presuppositions, and let the O.T. Quotations speak for themselves, the picture they give shows an organization of thought and purpose beyond a simple recital of Jesus' public ministry. Deeper meaning for the intention and impact of Jesus' ministry can be perceived.
We may dispute some of the details, the method of layout, and even aspects of the structure of these groups of quotations, but there remains a plain sense of order, of organization, and of structure, which seems to have been consciously selected by each Gospel writer, sometimes in the full knowledge of the choices of his predecessors, i.e., previous Gospels in circulation.
These alterations in the structure and 'plan' of others, is one of the most important keys for interpreting the purpose of the later Gospel writers.