Technically speaking, I'm a New Testament scholar, but over the last couple of years I've found myself repeating a maxim that goes something like this: "The reason we don't understand the New Testament is because we don't know the Old Testament like the first Christians did."
It actually makes a lot of sense if you think about it. The apostles and earliest Christians didn't have the NT—they were writing it! To be sure, by the early 50s A.D. Paul's letters were probably beginning to circulate among the churches, James may have even been written well before that, and by the mid-60s at least one of the gospels was composed. However, that leaves a significant gap between Acts 2 and the composition (let alone canonization) of the earliest NT documents.
So, if you were to walk up to one of the earliest Christians—let's say Ananias—and ask him what his Bible was, he would have probably first looked at you inquisitively and then responded: "The Scriptures!" by which he would have meant what we now call the OT. The Bible of the apostles and the New Testament church was the OT, interpreted through the lens of Christ.
For this reason, I find it ironic that many Christians regard the OT as obsolete and discard it in favor of reading the NT. Little do we know that in ignoring the OT we are not only depriving ourselves of two-thirds of God's inspired word; we are also dooming ourselves to misinterpreting the one-third we do read.
Let me explain: When the NT authors penned their writings, they did so as people whose minds had been thoroughly steeped in the Scriptures, which for them meant the writings of the OT. They also assumed a certain knowledge of the OT on the part of their audience. Even in NT documents that are clearly pointed at substantially former-Gentile audiences—e.g., Luke-Acts, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and 1 Peter just to name a few—there is an incredible amount of OT woven into the discourse. This suggests that even Christians who came from pagan backgrounds were educated in the OT and likely knew it better than most Christians today.
So when we try to read the NT without the OT, it is like trying to watch Act II of Les Misérables without watching Act I. As the curtain opens on Matthew we wonder, "Who are these characters? What is the problem? What is the solution?" and so on and so forth. Although we don't have the necessary knowledge to answer these questions (we didn't see Act I), we have to answer them, so we use our existing categories to do so and since we don't have a box for a seventeen-verse genealogy, Israel being in exile, or any number of other things the NT authors are assuming, we end up thinking these bits are irrelevant and putting the emphasis on what makes sense to us. Consequently, we end up with a view of things that is skewed at best and potentially damaging at worst.
To illustrate how the OT can really help make sense of the NT, let me give a few examples from a particularly impenetrable book: Revelation. John's Apocalypse is not exactly known for its reader-friendliness; many a would-be interpreter has been sent running in terror from the dragons and beasts and prostitutes (oh my!) found therein. However, what most readers don't realize is that the vast majority of John's crazed imagery is pulled directly from the pages of the OT, often with a twist or two thrown in:
We could multiply examples, but the point is clear: For the reader who, like John and probably like his original audience, is familiar with the OT, these are familiar biblical images connected with OT contexts that help triangulate their meaning. Now granted, identifying the OT references does not tell us exactly what John meant by employing them, but it gets us a lot further down the hermeneutical road than assuming that apocalyptic locusts are Apache helicopters.
The bottom line is this: The OT was the only Bible the first Christians knew, and the NT authors assumed this when composing their inspired writings. To truly be a "New Testament Christian" today means to love and diligently study the OT as Christian Scripture. When we read the whole canon the OT comes alive and the NT comes into focus.
Interested but don't know where to start? Here are a couple of ideas for application:
Enjoy! Next week I'll be posting on the Septuagint—the Greek OT that most of the first Christians would have read—and how it's been factoring into my devotions lately.