What Did the Old Testament Writers Know and When Did They Know It?
May 05, 2016 | Justin Taylor



Writing in 1936, J. Gresham Machen wrote:

The writers of the Bible did know what they were doing when they wrote.

I do not believe that they always knew all that they were doing.

I believe that there are mysterious words of prophecy in the Prophets and the Psalms, for example, which had a far richer and more glorious fulfillment than the inspired writers knew when they wrote.

Yet even in the case of those mysterious words I do not think that the sacred writers were mere automata.

They did not know the full meaning of what they wrote, but they did know part of the meaning, and the full meaning was in no contradiction with the partial meaning but was its glorious unfolding. (J. Gresham Machen, “Do We Believe in Verbal Inspiration,” in The Christian Faith in the Modern World [1936; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947], 55; my emphasis)


Greg Beale, in an article for the Westminster Theological Journal on “The Cognitive Peripheral Vision of Biblical Authors“—adapted as an appendix in the book co-authored with Ben Gladd, Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery (IVP Academic, 2014)—agrees with Machen and offers an evocative metaphor to describe the relationship:

Machen is referring to meanings of Old Testament authors that lie at the “edges” of the widest part of their cognitive peripheral vision. There is a blurring at these edges, just as there is with the peripheral vision of our literal eyes.

Because of this blurring, one can, therefore, say that these authors may not have been very aware at all of these meanings; but God, who inspired them, was explicitly aware, and when this meaning becomes explicit in the New Testament, the “blurred vision” becomes clear and it is truly something that is organically “unfolded” from the Old Testament author’s original meaning. (364)

Beale, writing in The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Apollos/IVP, 2004), argues that

We should want to follow an interpretive method that aims to unravel the original intention of biblical authors, realizing that that intention may be multi-layered, without any layers contradicting the others. Such original intentions may have meaning more correspondent to physical reality (hence so-called ‘literal interpretation’) while others may refer to ‘literal’ spiritual realities. . . .

This means that…

the progress of revelation certainly reveals expanded meanings of earlier biblical texts. Later biblical writers further interpret earlier biblical writings in ways that amplify earlier texts. These subsequent interpretations may formulate meanings that earlier authors may not have had in mind but which do not contravene their original, essential, organic meaning. This is to say that original meanings have ‘thick’ content and that original authors likely were not exhaustively aware of the full extent of that content. In this regard, fulfilment often ‘fleshes out’ prophecy with details of which even the prophet may not have been fully cognizant. (289)

To illustrate this, Beale asks us to imagine a father in the year 1900 promising his young son a horse and buggy when he grows up and marries:

During the early years of expectation, the son reflects on the particular size of the buggy, its contours and style, its beautiful leather seat and the size and breed of horse that would draw the buggy.

Perhaps the father had knowledge from early experimentation elsewhere that the invention of the automobile was on the horizon, but coined the promise to his son in terms that his son would understand.

Years later, when the son marries, the father gives the couple an automobile, which has since been invented and mass-produced.

Is the son disappointed in receiving a car instead of a horse and buggy?

Is this not a ‘literal’ fulfillment of the promise?

In fact, the essence of the father’s word has remained the same: a convenient mode of transportation.

What has changed is the precise form of transportation promised. The progress of technology has escalated the fulfillment of the pledge in a way that could not have been conceived of when the son was young. Nevertheless, in the light of the later development of technology, the promise is viewed as ‘literally’ and faithfully carried out in a greater way than earlier apprehended. (352-53)


Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2012) identifies five assumptions or presuppositions of the New Testament which affects how they understood and use the Old Testament:

(1) There is the apparent assumption of corporate solidarity or representation.
(2) In the light of corporate solidarity or representation, Christ as the Messiah is viewed as the true Israel of the OT and the true Israel—the church—in the NT. [Thus, e.g., Isa. 49:3-6 and the use of Isa. 49:6 in Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:23; note how Christ and the church fulfill what is prophesied of Israel in the OT. Beale notes, “one can hold to the notion of Christ as true Israel and still have room for a hope that the majority of ethnic Jews will be saved as some point in the future. Any such salvation would be in their identification with Christ as true Israel.”]

(3) History is unified by a wise and sovereign plan so that the earlier parts are designed to correspond and point to the later parts (cf., e.g., Matt. 5:17; 11:13; 13:16-17).

(4) The age of eschatological fulfillment has come in Christ. [See, e.g., Mark 1:15; Acts 2:17; 1 Cor. 10:11; Gal. 4:4; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; 9:26; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:3; 1 John 2:18; Jude 18.]

(5) As a consequence of the preceding presupposition, it follows that the later parts of biblical history function as the broader context for interpreting earlier parts because they all have the same, ultimate divine author who inspires the various human authors. One deduction from this premise is that Christ is the goal toward which the OT pointed and is the end-time center of redemptive history, which is the key to interpreting the earlier portions of the OT and its promises. [On this, cf. 2 Cor. 1:20; Matt. 5:17; 13:11, 16-17; Luke 24:25-27, 32, 44-45; John 5:39;20:9; Rom. 10:4.]
For a full-scale commentary along these lines, see the Beale and Carson edited volume, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2007).


Justin Taylor blogs at BETWEEN TWO WORLDS.


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