Further Thoughts on Why Old Testament Correlations do Not Cast Suspicion on New Testament Passages
Recently, I wrote a post arguing that a New Testament passage's similarity to an Old Testament passage is an insufficient basis to cast doubt on its authenticity. I provided several examples of confirmed historical events that Christians chose to describe in terms reminiscent of the Old Testament, such as Eusebius' description of Constantine's battle against Maxentius which harkens back to the Pharaoh's charioteers being cast into the sea. Given how important the Old Testament was to Christians, and given their belief that the same God is working through human history, Christians were given to recounting actual events in ways that reminded them of the Old Testament. Which events in an episode to highlight, what terms to use to describe those events, how to summarize events or speeches, and how to translate certain words, all could be used to emphasize the continuity of actual historical events with the Old Testament.
Another explanation for such similarities is coincidence. For example, Paul's escape from his enemies in Damascus by being let down through a window in the city wall sounds a lot like Joshua being let down through the wall of Jericho and King David being let down through the through the wall in Jerusalem to escape their enemies. Of course, when one is trying to escape from a walled city whose gates are being watched, the options are limited. The moral of this example is that sometimes a coincidence is a coincidence. The Old Testament covers a lot of ground and has many diverse stories. Though there had been improvements in technology and society by then, the worlds were still quite similar in many ways. The cultures were largely agrarian, the governments authoritarian, and the cities laid out similarly (including having walls to prevent raids or attacks). Not only is it unsurprising to find similarities in the narratives of the New Testament, it should be expected.
There is yet another reason that Christian narratives might describe events in terms reminiscent of the Old Testament. Most Christian narratives involved Jewish or Christian actors who were just as aware of the Old Testament as we are. They also believed that God worked through human history. Knowledge of Old Testament prophecies or stories lead many to cast their own actions or teachings in the terms or narratives of the Old Testament.
From Josephus we have the example of the Theudas. He gathered Jews followers by claiming to be a prophet. He lead them to the Jordan River and promised to divide it so they would have an easy passage across. Sound familiar? It should. God did just that to the Jordan River for the Jewish people in Joshua 3:1-4:24. It did not work out nearly as well for Theudas (the Romans caught him and cut his head off). Antiquities 20:97-98. In any event, Theudas was a real guy who thought he would accomplish God's purpose, or perhaps prove himself, by acting out events found in the Old Testament.
One example from the New Testament that I mentioned in my original article was Jesus' selection of an inner circle of twelve disciples -- obviously driven by the symbolic value of the twelve tribes of Israel. But there is another example I want to make which I believe highlights this phenomenon well. In Mark 11, Matthew 21, and Luke 19, there is the story of Jesus sending two disciples before him to secure a colt (in Matthew, a colt and the mother donkey), which he then used to ride into Jerusalem. There is a clear correlation here, though only Matthew makes it explicit, with Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Does that mean the gospels simply invented the episode based on this Old Testament passage? There seems to be no reason to think so -- and good reason to doubt such was the case. Such an action would be a claim to be a king, which would help explain one of the most assured facts of history -- that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. And that above his cross was his indictment--"King of the Jews." For riding into Jerusalem in this manner, reminding the Jews of a passage about their king coming, would no doubt cause some political ripples. Additionally, the way in which Jesus' disciples secure the colt is consistent with an ancient practice known as "angaria," "the temporary procurement of resources on behalf of a leader, either rule or rabbi." Darrell L. Bock, Jesus according to the Scripture, page 312.
James Dunn finds the story in Mark to be particularly trustworthy:
Despite various doubts to the contrary, it is likely that the episode is rooted in disciples' memories of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. (1) Noteworthy are the local details at the beginning (Bethphage, Bethany, and the Mount of Olives in Mark 11:1). (2) The acclamation itself evidences the characteristics of oral transmission: the core is constant in all four Gospels ('Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'), but in each individual performance the core has been elaborated differently. (3) 'Hosanna' is firmly embedded (in John too), but appears nowhere else in the NT. (4) Mark's account is surprisingly low key.
Dunn, Jesus Remembered, page 641.
So what is going on here?
Jesus once again is intentionally using an Old Testament passage to make a statement -- he is the expected Messiah. But he is coming in a humble and peaceful way. There is nothing at all remarkable about supposing that Jesus believd he was the Messiah. Jesus was hardly the only Jew of his time to think that about himself (remember Theudas).
The secular historian Michael Grant helpfully frames the issues:
In light of this passage, Jesus' entry into Jerusalem can be interpreted in three different ways. The first possibility, for those prepared to believe it, is that Zechariah miraculously foresaw what Jesus would do: but that is a supposition of which the historian can take no cognizance. The second possibility is that Jesus' entry never took place in this fashion, but was invented by the evangelists or their sources in order to fulfil what Zechariah had foretold. The third possibility is that the entry did take place like this, because Jesus designed it to harmonize with Zechariah's prophecy.
Since Jesus believed his mission would fulfil the scriptures, the last of these suppositions remains the most probable.
Michael Grant, Jesus, An Historian's Review of the Gospels, page 143.
Though some have speficially targetted Matthew's inclusion of the colt and its' mother as representing creativity out of OT prophecy, the assertion is unpersuasive. As Robert H. Gundry notes:
It is hard to think that Matthew misunderstood Zecharaiah's synonymous parallelism in making its first line refer to a mother donkey; for his diagreements with the LXX show consultation of the Hebrew text; and a misunderstanding of the common Hebrew word [for male donkey], as a mother is unlikely.... That the male colt had not been reidden (though he may have carried other kinds of burdens) opens the possibility of a historical reimiscence in the mention of two animals. For the sight of an unridden donkey colt accompanying its mother has remained common in Palestine up to modern times.
Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Legendary and Theological Art, page 409.
So, after examining evidence from the New Testament and Josephus' Antiquities, we can safely conclude that we should expect to find correlations between later actual events and the Old Testament because some Jews and Christians were intentionally trying to fulfill or mimic Old Testament passages.
To summarize, we have established three reasons to expect actual events to be described by ancient Christians in terms reminiscent of the Old Testament: 1) the Christian author used Old Testament terms and themes to retell an actual historical event; 2) given the broad range of Old Testament narratives and similarities in societies, we should expect such coincidences; and 3) many Jews and Christians intentionally attempted to mimic Old Testament events or fulfill Old Testament prophecies. Of course, some times -- perhaps more often than not -- we may see a mixture of these reasons as the cause of such correlations.