The Old Testament and the Historicity of the Gospels

John S. Roberts


Symposium: The Old Testament in the Church Today. The London Quarterly & Holborn Review (January 1965): 44-49.


Early Christian apologetic and doctrine were both developed with constant reference to the Old Testament scriptures. The primitive Church's explanation of its own existence and its evolving interpretation of the person and work of its Lord were influenced by the Old Testament more deeply than we can easily realize.

An assessment of the historicity of the gospels must depend upon the extent to which both the 'typology' and the 'testimonies to Christ' found in the Old Testament have led the evangelists to create, or at least to elaborate, events and sayings.

By 'typology' is meant explicit or allusive reference to the pattern of events and symbols associated with the dominating characters of the Old Testament, in particular Moses, Joshua, Joseph, David and Elijah.[1] The growing knowledge of Jewish writings of the inter-testament period has emphasized how deeply ingrained was such typology; a wealth of widely understood symbolic allusion was at hand for the evangelists to draw upon. By the 'testimonies' are meant those portions of the Old Testament, mainly in the Psalms and the Prophets, which were seen by the primitive Church as key passages where Christ's birth, baptism, ministry, cross and resurrection were pre-figured, sometimes in literal detail.[2]

The Influence of Typology

The more recent major commentaries on Mark, while fully recognizing the many detailed Old Testament parallels and allusions, do not appear to have done justice to the insight of Austin Farrer concerning typology in this gospel.[3] Thus Vincent Taylor comments only that Farrer 'exaggerates the extent and importance of this element' (of pre-figuring or typology) and Nineham refers to Farrer's work only by way of a few brief footnotes.[4]

Farrer, in the early 1950s, made a most convincing case that the key to Mark's scheme is to be found in the cycles of healings in the gospel; the scheme of these cycles involves the number and the types of the cleansings and restorations and prepares for the culmination in the Resurrection. Interwoven with the pattern of healings is the pattern of the calling of the disciples and both these patterns are linked with the symbolism of the tribes of Israel. Many features of Mark, for example the arithmetic of the loaves and the feeding of the thousands, are explained as part of the same scheme. Farrer also put forward, apart from his main thesis but with much convincing evidence, a detailed scheme of the tribal symbolism, in which the names of places and persons in the gospel are seen as 'tribal signatures'. It is probable that the evangelist was familiar with a compilation, probably


of the Maccabean period, of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs; this had enlarged imaginatively upon the characters of the patriarchs and the events and places associated with them and thus provided a rich background for Mark's typological allusions. One of the most important influences is the typology of Joseph:

... Joseph is himself a manifest type and token of the resurrection. Buried in an Egyptian prison and supposed dead by his kindred, he came upon the rest of the twelve as alive from the grave in the splendour of his royal power, and they were troubled at his presence, for they had betrayed him; but he comforted them and told them not to fear.[5]

The typology of Joseph (and his sons Ephraim and Manasseh) is shown to appear in a very concentrated form in chapters 5 and 6 of Mark. The story of the woman twelve years afflicted are seen to be pre-figured in the bers Jair - 'JAH' awakens' - was a Manassite judge) and the interwoven story of the woman twelve years afflicted are seen to be pre-figured in the story of the blessing of Joseph's sons; there are many other features in these chapters consistent with this typology. The Ephraimite typology provides a link with the important typology of Joshua, son of Nun, who belonged to the tribe of Ephraim.[6]

The symmetry and unity of the Marcon economy emerge most strikingly from Farrer's studies. It is notorious that a given typology can be extracted from almost any book by a determined advocate, but the whole atmosphere of Farrer's approach is far removed from such forced interpretation. At least the main patterns which Farrer discerns in Mark demand more serious consideration than most critics have accorded them. It seems most unjust of J. M. Robinson to imply that Farrer's work is one of the 'eccentric monographs on Mark' and to say that Farrer discovers 'complicated cycles and epicycles hardly discernible even to the initiated eye'.[7] Perhaps the very wealth of supporting detail has tended to hinder general acceptance of Farrer's main thesis. Those who do accept that thesis will probably be inclined to go further than Farrer himself in assessing the 'creative' influence of the Marcan typological scheme.

Farrer himself regards the arrangement of material in Mark essentially as a selection from the mass of material, such as healing narratives, available to the evangelist. It seems difficult, however, to account for the appropriateness of so many names and places in the narratives entirely by a process of selection; this appears to be a special case of the tendency for persons in the narratives to be named at a relatively late stage in the tradition.[8]

Farrer makes a distinction between two sorts of pattern in Mark, a 'pattern of event' and a 'pattern of exposition'; he insists that Mark's exposition was worked out within the framework of a pattern of event which was controlled by the historical knowledge of the apostolic community and was not allowed to grow unchecked. The difficulty lies in the vagueness of Farrer's definition of the essential pattern of events. How much detail can be eroded from the pattern before it loses the right to be called historical? Has Mark (a) simply changed the sequence of selected events which he believed to be factually accurate; (b) altered details, such as names and


places, to suit his typology better; or (c) sometimes created events to accord with his own patterns of 'what must have happened.[9] Such questions are raised by T. A. Roberts in what appears to be the only adequately detailed critique of Farrer's methods? Nineham has emphasized the difficulty of assuming the existence in the early Church of even a skeleton outline of the ministry of Jesus.[10]

The structures of Matthew and of Luke have been shown to be influenced by Pentateuchal typology. Matthew's arrangement of the teaching of Jesus into five discourses is immediately obvious; Farrer, however, sees Matthew's scheme not in these discourses but in a pattern starting with the genealogy (Genesis) and working in order through 'set pieces' of the type of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua.[11]

C. F. Evans has set out in detail the many parallels to Deuteronomy found in the central third of Luke (the most characteristic Lucan section of the gospel).[12] Not only are parallels and allusions found in almost all the events, sayings and parables in this section, but the order of themes in Deuteronomy is reproduced in the gospel; there can be little doubt that the material was arranged in a Deuteronomic sequence by the Evangelist. There is no difficulty in explaining such an arrangement of the teaching of Jesus - whether seen as fulfilment or as contrast the teaching would have natural links with Deuteronomy. It is more difficult to decide how Luke's scheme affects the historicity of the events in this section. Did Jesus, for example, send out the Seventy as a deliberate sign of the 'prophet like Moses' or was this incident created by the demands of the evangelist's scheme?

The typology of Moses (and the associated wilderness imagery) in the Fourth Gospel has recently been examined by T. F. Glasson, who shows how the Moses / Christ parallelism is a prominent, recurring feature throughout the gospel.[13] Several of the most important themes in John are open to typological explanation. The sign at Cana is reminiscent of the turning of water into blood in Exodus, and the scene at the well has echoes of the story of Jacob's well. The sign of the flowing water and blood, peculiar to John's Passion narrative, may have been influenced by the Rabbinical tradition which had elaborated the story of the striking of the rock by Moses. Glasson's opinion on the effect of the Moses typology on the historicity of John is similar to that of Farrer concerning typology in Mark. Thus Glasson considers that:

... the Evangelist is not necessarily inventing incidents to correspond with the Mosaic tradition; he rather selects those happenings which belong to this scheme. Moreover, it is probable that the Moses/ Christ parallelism did not originate with the early Church, but goes back to our Lord himself and to the way in which he regarded and interpreted his mission.[14]

The Moses typology in John emerges most openly in the scene of the feeding of the thousands in the wilderness and the sequel to that sign. A question here, not specifically raised by Glasson, is whether the sayings of Jesus associated with the sign are wholly the commentary of the evangelist or whether Jesus himself made explicit reference to Moses, thus consciously and deliberately drawing upon the typology which was so readily at hand.


Although this possible basis of historicity in the Johannine sayings cannot be dismissed, the more we are impressed by the evangelist's pervading use of typology, the more we shall be inclined to regard the 'claims of Jesus', in particular the 'I am' sayings, as the evangelist's own meditations.

The farewell discourse and prayer have always presented the greatest difficulty to those who would retain a clear historical basis for the sayings of Jesus in John's gospel. Glasson brings out the many parallels between the themes, and often the words, used in these chapters of John and the farewell discourse of Moses in Deuteronomy. There are also many detailed points of resemblance to the developed Rabbinical tradition about the last days of Moses.

The Influence Of The Testimonies

The association of the Old Testament testimonies with the events of the gospels may have had two opposite results: (a) the interpretation of the testimonies may have been changed to make the testimonies accord better with the known facts about Jesus; or (b) the detailed facts may have been changed to accord with a testimony originally used because of its appropriateness on more general grounds. There is also the question of whether some of the testimonies were actually used by Jesus himself as purported by the gospels.

C. H. Dodd, in collecting and systematizing the use of the testimonies, calls them the 'sub-structure of New Testament Theology'.[15] He considers that the testimonies were not quoted from an anthology of proof-texts but were drawn from those whole passages which the Church regarded as especially important. Dodd sees no reason to doubt that 'it was Jesus himself who first directed the minds of his followers to certain parts of the scriptures as those in which they might find illumination upon the meaning of his mission and destiny'.[16]

More recently the way in which the New Testament uses the testimonies has been analysed in detail by B. Lindars.[17] The opening verse of Psalm 110 ('The Lord says to my Lord; Sit at my right hand') is regarded by Lindars as 'perhaps the most important of the scriptures used with the argument from literal fulfilment'; the history of its use in the New Testament is traced as an example of the shift in interest in the application of a testimony. Originally this was used as a purely Messianic text (as in Acts in proclaiming the Messiahship of Jesus), but in the gospels it has become involved in the controversy about whether Jesus was of Davidic descent (Mark 12[36]). Lindars concludes, as does Nineham, that the incident in the gospel, where Jesus is represented as quoting this text, is a product of Christian apologetic and not part of the authentic gospel tradition. The Davidic controversy has clearly influenced the stories of the Birth and Infancy in Luke and Matthew, with the need to establish the connection of Jesus with Bethlehem. Another prominent testimony, quoted by Jesus in Mark (the stone that the builders rejected), also appears to be Christian proclamation rather than a genuine saying of Jesus.

Lindars examines the difficult question of the historicity of the predictions of the Resurrection (Mark 8[31], 9[31], 10[34]) and concludes that the use of


the prophecy did not lead to the tradition of the third day; rather it was the fact of Resurrection that caused the literal interpretation of the passage in Hosea (6) in which 'on the third day' need only mean 'in a little while'.

The testimony from Isaiah (7[14]) which came to be applied to the Virgin Birth was probably first used independently of this doctrine as part of the Messianic proclamation of 'Immanuel-God with us'.

Lindars observes that the series of incidents in chapter 2 of Matthew can be seen as 'portents presaging the great acts of redemption at the close of the Gospel. Jesus is treated as a king, yet rejected by Herod; he is thrust out to Egypt, the house of bondage and the symbol of death; but Herod's evil intentions are defeated, so that Jesus is able to return and live in Galilee.'[18]

This is one of the places where we cannot distinguish between the influences of typology and of testimonies; here we can almost watch the typology crystallizing into the more specific testimonies as the primitive Church searches the scriptures.

In his recent large-scale work on the historical tradition in the Fourth Gospel, Dodd has considered in some detail the bearing of the testimonies upon the historicity of the gospel narratives. The probability of elaboration of many narratives is admitted, but Dodd concludes that 'the extent to which the element of fulfilled prophecy has stimulated a legend-making tendency in primitive Christianity is strictly limited'.[19]

Dodd's main argument for limiting the influence of the testimonies is that a rigorous selection process has evidently been applied by the evangelists in making use of the testimonies material. Thus when a particular psalm is used as a quarry for testimonies much material is rejected and many likely prophecies are not, in fact, worked into the gospel narratives. Some of the examples of unused prophecies can, however, be explained in other ways. Dodd quotes Psalm 22 as containing the testimonies corresponding to the cry of dereliction, the division of the garments and the mockery of Jesus and points out that the Passion narratives do not contain an 'ideal scene' in which Jesus is exposed to wild beasts; such a scene would correspond to another possible prophecy which could have been extracted from the same psalm. In this case, however, it is clear that the psalmist is speaking metaphorically when he refers to the beasts that have beset him.[20] Even if an evangelist were more literally-minded than either the Old Testament writers or ourselves he would not have needed to introduce an encounter with wild beasts into the Passion narrative, because the 'ideal scene' already existed in the narrative of the Temptation (Mark 1[13]). Similarly, in considering the use of Psalm 69, another of the 'Passion Psalms', Dodd points out that the danger of drowning which appears in the psalm has not influenced the Gospel narratives. Here again, the deep waters and the floods overwhelming the psalmist would surely be well understood as metaphorical; the theme is used as such in the words of Jesus about his having a baptism to be baptized with.

The recurring dilemma in assessing the extent of the creative influence of the testimonies is that an evangelist, if he were simply creating incidents on the principle that the prophecies must have been fulfilled, would select incidents fitting the traditional outline in an unforced way. It is probable


that the influence of the testimonies is still underestimated, at least in so far as they affect incidents over which Jesus had no control; many of the details of the Passion narrative are in this category. On the other hand, a stricter selection process would govern testimonies applied to events over which Jesus did exert control, the selection being governed by the memory not only of the particular incidents but of the whole personality of Jesus.[21]

In assessing the historicity of the sayings of Jesus, full allowance must be made for the efficiency of the Rabbinic techniques of imparting teaching and preserving tradition in a pure form.[22] No doubt some of the Old Testament quotations and allusions attributed to Jesus do at least reflect his use of these passages in exposition and controversy.[23] Only a small proportion of the sayings are strictly 'testimonies' but in these instances the historicity must be acknowledged to be much more doubtful than that of the other sayings.[24]


[1] G. W. H. Lampe and K. J. Woolcombe, Essays in Typology, 1957; R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event, 1959.

[2] C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures, 1952.

[3] Austin Farrer, A Study in St Mark, 1951; St Matthew and St Mark, 1954.

[4] Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St Mark, 1955; D. E. Nineham, Saint Mark (Pelican Gospel Commentaries), 1963; this latter commentary, which must surely now become the standard work on the English text, deals fully with many of the problems of historicity.

[5] Farrer, A Study in St Mark, p. 333. On the typology of Joseph, see A. W. Argyle, Expository Times, 1956, p. 199.

[6] On the typology of Joshua, see F. C. Synge, Hebrews and the Scriptures, 1959.

[7] J. M. Robinson, The Problem of History in Mark, 1957, p. 12.

[8] C H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, 1963.

[9] A. Roberts, History and Christian Apologetic, 1960.

[10] D. E. Nineham (ed.), Studies in the Gospels, 1955, p. 223.

[11] Austin Farrer, Studies in the Gospels (ed. Nineham), p. 55.

[12] C. F. Evans, Studies in the Gospels (ed. Nineham), p. 37. On the typology of Luke see M. D. Goulder, Type and History in Acts, 1964.

[13] T. F. Glasson, Moses in the Fourth Gospel, 1963.

[14] Ibid., p. 83.

[15] C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures.

[16] Ibid.

[17] B. Lindars, New Testament Apologetic, 1961.

[18] Ibid., p. 218.

[19] C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel.

[20] Cf. Psalm 22[12] with Amos 4[1].

[21] T. T. Rowe, London Quarterly & Holborn Review, 1963, p. 46.

[22] H. Riesenfield, The Gospel Tradition and its Beginnings, 1957.

[23] C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, 1962, p. 57.

[24] On the 'claims of Jesus' see John Knox, The Death of Christ, 1959.

Reproduced by kind permission of Methodist Publishing House.
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