Volume Twenty-Three — Article 2 Volume 23 | Home

The Background of the New Testament

The New Testament throbs with one awe-inspiring, joyous theme — the Christ event. This event is called the gospel — a word which means good news. It is news so overwhelmingly good that those who tell it are obviously irradiated and radically transformed by it. They are so caught up in the wonder and joy of what this event means that they can scarcely say anything about their own subjective experiences and religious feelings.

There are two aspects of the gospel as presented by the apostles:

1. The description of the Christ event — that is to say, the account of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is given by the four gospels. A third of their narrative is devoted to describing Christ's passion.

2. The interpretation of the Christ event. Paul, for instance, spends almost no time writing about the details of Christ's life or death. He is concerned with interpreting the event.

When, with the apostles, we seek to understand the significance of the Christ event, we are driven back to the Old Testament. For it is the united witness of the New Testament writers that the entire Old Testament — the law and the prophets — find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In a word, the Old Testament was a promise. For long centuries the Hebrew people had waited for its fulfillment. Both law and prophets helped the Hebrews keep the promise alive. The New Testament bears united witness that Jesus is the One of whom "Moses. . . and the prophets, did write." John 1:45.

In order to appreciate the breathtaking vastness of this fulfillment in Jesus Christ, we must know what had been promised in the Old Testament. That is why in the very nature of the case, the New Testament drives us back to the Old Testament.

The New Testament message, therefore, cannot be understood in isolation from its Old Testament background. Not only is the subject matter directly related as promise and fulfillment, but the distinctive terms which the apostles use to interpret the Christ event are taken right out of the Old Testament. We cannot understand or appreciate the real force of these expressions unless we go back to the Old Testament.

For years some scholars gave the church the "runaround" by interpreting the New Testament more in the light of the Greek philosophies and religions which prevailed in the first and second centuries A.D.  Paul's message, it was said, was orientated not to the Hebraic-Judaistic background, but to Greek-Hellenistic thinking. These scholars tried to derive various leading motifs in Paul's preaching from the literature and world of Greek philosophical thinking. Other scholars tried to understand Paul in the light of "the popular religious views and phenomena of the Hellenistic period, in particular to the religious syncretism of that time as this had arisen under the influence of eastern and western religiosity and manifested itself in the mystery religions and cults." — Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Eerdmans), p.36.

This sort of scholarship has now passed over the hill, for recent scholarship has been able to demonstrate quite conclusively that the apostle's religious concepts, and even the main expressions with which those concepts are clothed, have their background in the Old Testament. This not only applies to Jesus and the unlearned fishermen, but to that learned Hebrew lawyer, Paul. Says Ridderbos:
    In order to understand Paul, therefore, one must not call in the assistance of the gnostic Systems, the mystery religions or the Hermetic writings, but rather seek in the knowledge of God in the Old Testament the source from which Paul has drawn even for the formulation of his proclamation. — Ibid.
This is not to deny, of course, that Paul was familiar with Hellenistic religions and philosophy, nor that he used some expressions that show that. But what we need to be clear about is that the fundamental structures of Paul's preaching and doctrine, as well as his distinctive ideas and modes of expression, are drawn from the Old Testament. And the same thing may be said for the other New Testament writers.