The use of Genesis in the New Testament
Published: 24 August 2010 (GMT+10)
This is the pre-publication version which was subsequently revised to appear in Creation 33(2):16–19.
I am often asked why someone specializing in the New Testament would care about the “Old Testament” issue of creation. After all, one’s view on the first chapters of Genesis seems peripheral at best when it comes to interpreting the New Testament. But I believe that one’s interpretation of Genesis has implications for many doctrines which are taught most clearly in the New Testament.
First, a New Testament scholar’s view of creation matters because Genesis was important to the New Testament authors. Every New Testament author quotes or alludes to Genesis. The New Testament has a total of 60 allusions to Genesis 1–11 specifically, and when we widen the search to include all of Genesis, the number grows to 103. For such a tiny body of literature, the New Testament has a staggering amount of references back to Genesis (see the list below).
But simply giving a list of references to Genesis proves nothing—we must look at how the New Testament authors used Genesis in order to discern their view. Overwhelmingly, it is presumed to be a historical document; the only place where it could even be argued that it is not necessarily used historically is in the borrowing of Edenic symbols in Revelation to describe the New Jerusalem (depending on one’s eschatological view1). But this is the exception, and in any case, even a symbolic use has an underlying literal reality—the figurative “strong as an ox” would mean nothing unless an ox were literally strong, and the allusion to an Edenic paradise underscores the reality of this pre-Fall world without a curse.
Jesus and the Gospels
Jesus’ use of Genesis sets the tone for how it will be used in the rest of the New Testament. He uses it both to explain doctrine and to draw historical analogies. An example of the former use is in Matthew 22:15–22 (parallels in Mark 12:13–17 and Luke 20:20–36) where the Pharisees and Herodians questioned Him about taxes. For Jesus, because the coin bears Caesar’s image, it is Caesar’s property and should be rendered to him—but He adds the command to give to God what is God’s. In the context, the image on the coin determines who owns it, so specifically what is in view here is that which is in God’s image. Jesus is referring back to Genesis 1:26–27:
“In the present, proper humility before God requires the payment of Roman taxes, but if it is true that some of one’s money should go to the Caesar, it is so much more true that all that one is needs to be handed over to the God in whose image one is made.”2
Of course, if humanity had not actually been made in the image of God like Genesis teaches, the whole precedent would fall apart.
In Jesus’ day, there was a debate about whether divorce was allowed for any reason, or only for adultery. When asked to weigh in, Jesus essentially goes beyond the Law back to creation and quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to establish that God made man male and female and intended marriage to be between a man and a woman for life. This bond of loyalty transcends all other loyalties, even to one’s parents, except loyalty to God. The Pharisees ask why Moses commanded that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce to send her away. Jesus retorts that Moses allowed (never commanded) divorce because of rebellion (hardness of heart). But divorce violates the will of God which is expressed in the created order itself, and that overrides even the Law.
This quote of Genesis reveals Jesus’ thoughts on the timeline of creation, as well, because He said that it was this way “from the beginning of creation.” If Jesus is speaking on a timescale of 4,000 years from creation to His day, it makes sense to refer to something which was instituted on Day 6 as “from the beginning of creation.” But it makes no sense to refer to it as “the beginning of creation” if there were millions of years before the creation of mankind. See also Jesus on the age of the earth.
Often Jesus compares the people in His own day to people from Genesis. Capernaum is worse than Sodom, because Jesus said that the Sodomites would have repented if they’d seen the miracles performed in Capernaum (Matthew 11:23–24). Jesus’ contrasted Abraham’s eager expectation of His day with the rejection of the Pharisees who claimed to be his descendents (John 8:33–41)—as well as contrasting Abraham’s coming into existence with His own eternal pre-existence (v. 58). And He predicted that the end days would be like the days of Noah and of Lot—destruction would come swiftly and without warning (Luke 17:26–29). In every case, there is no hint that Jesus is taking these events in less than a historical manner.
Luke was a consummate historian, and his Gospel gives us more precise chronological details than any other one. Luke sees Jesus’ life and ministry as rooted in history. While Matthew’s genealogy emphasizes Jesus’ Jewishness and His claim to the throne of David, Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3) goes further back, to Adam, who is called a son of God (not the son of ape-like creatures or pond scum). There is absolutely no evidence that Luke takes the earliest ancestors to be less historical than the more recent ones; his inclusion of Adam to Abraham in the genealogy affirms the historicity of those characters, and identifies Christ as related to all of humanity.3 Interestingly, the “most historical” gospel4 has the most references to Genesis.
John’s Gospel is the most overtly “theological” in that he liberally inserts his own commentary about the meaning of the events he records. Instead of a birth narrative like Luke’s and Matthew, he goes back to creation to begin his Gospel. “In 1:1–5, John traces his account of Jesus farther back than the beginning of the ministry, farther back than the virgin birth, farther back even than the creation. The account must reach back to the eternal, divine Word, God’s agent in creation and the fount of life and light.”5 John’s opening “in the beginning” is an unmistakable reference to the opening verse of Genesis,6 but the creation of heaven and earth comes in only in v. 3 in John. To understand Jesus’ mission, we have to understand His identity, and to John, He is nothing less than the divine Word who was pre-existent with the Father in the beginning.
The Earliest Church’s Preaching
When the apostles and earliest Christians preached to a Jewish audience, they preached from the foundation of the Jewish Scriptures; Jewish history and the Abrahamic and Davidic promises are prominent (Acts 2:14–41; 7:2–14). But when they preached to Gentiles who did not have this background in the Jewish Scriptures, they went back to creation as a foundation for their preaching (Acts 14:15–17; 17:24–31). They take creation and the ancestry of all men from Adam to be historical (v. 26), and it is their basis for leading in to a proclamation of the Gospel.
Creation and the Fall are woven into the entire theology of Romans. God’s power is revealed through creation, and men are condemned because they do not recognize this (Romans 1:19–20). The Gentile is condemned because of idolatry and immorality, and the Jew is condemned because of failure to perfectly keep the Law, which was always intended only to multiply transgressions, never to save. Having painted an overwhelmingly bleak picture, Paul is able to contrast it with the good news of Christ: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21–22). Paul explains that Jesus was an atoning sacrifice for sin. But when Paul is explaining how the sacrifice of one man can make many righteous, he goes back to Genesis, and reasons that since death came through a man, Adam, it follows that the gift of righteousness should also come through one man, Christ (5:12–21).
This comparison is very significant for discerning Paul’s use of Genesis, because “Paul is not simply comparing Adam to Christ, but rather the effects of Adam’s actions on the human race with the effects of Christ’s action.”7 But Paul is not comparing as much as contrasting the two actions; “this is not intended to be a comparison of exact equals but is a way of highlighting both misdeeds and good deeds and their effects.”8 Paul is arguing that these two individuals acted in ways that affected all who came after them—Adam’s sin affects all who are descended from him, and Christ’s obedience affects all who believe in Him. But only historical people and historical actions can have real world consequences. A mythical Adam whose disobedience is only an allegory for human sinfulness cannot be a type of Christ. See also Romans 5:12–21: Paul’s view of literal Adam.
In Romans 8, Paul teaches that not only humanity, but all of creation has been subjected to futility because of man’s sin, and awaits liberation from its bondage to decay (19–22). Commentators on Romans, regardless of their view of Genesis, agree that Paul believed that it was God who subjected creation to futility at the Fall. See Cosmic and universal death from Adam’s fall: an exegesis of Romans 8:19–23a.
1 and 2 Corinthians
The letters to the Corinthian church are good examples of how Paul used Scripture when he was writing to Gentile churches. It is no surprise that Paul refers back to the created order many times. The Corinthian believers are to refrain from sexual immorality because it is improper to join part of the body of Christ to a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:12–20). His sole reference to Scripture in support of his argument is a quote of Genesis 2:24. Regarding the issue of head coverings in worship, apparently unconnected to creation, Paul cites the created order—man was created first, and then woman—in defense of his ruling that men should pray and prophesy with their heads uncovered and women9 should pray and prophesy with their heads covered.
But without a doubt, Paul’s most important use of Genesis is in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul defends the physical resurrection of the dead.10 His argument, much like his argument in Romans 5:12–21, is that Adam and Christ constitute two heads of humanity. Death came because of Adam’s sin, but the resurrection came through Christ. Because believers are under Christ, believers will also rise. And because Christ rose as a man, we can be sure that our resurrection will be like His; it wasn’t a different sort of resurrection because of His deity. Again, the state of humanity is said to stem from the historical actions of actual people which actually affect those who come after them. And Paul is using this sort of argument to defend one of the cardinal dogmas of the Christian faith, the resurrection, without which Paul says we are without hope!
Other Pauline Letters
Paul’s other letters are sprinkled with references to Genesis; and the vast majority are to the reality of Creation and God as the Creator. This is reiterated in all sorts of contexts, with practical bearing on how the Church conducts itself.
The book of the Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians who are facing social pressure to renounce their faith and return to Judaism. The author’s view is that trading Christ for social acceptance has disastrous eternal consequences. It is not surprising that the author refers to the Old Testament scriptures that the Jewish Christians would know well; only Luke’s Gospel has more references to Genesis, and no New Testament book has more references to Genesis 1–11.
The rest that the persevering believer enters into is compared to God’s rest on Day 7 as well as the rest that was promised to the Hebrews coming out of Egypt.
The author refers to Jesus as a high priest, interceding before the Father for us. But Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi, and certainly not from the line of Aaron, through whom all the high priests of the Levitical order had to come. The author insists that Jesus is the high priest of a new order, which was brought about by the new law. This is the order of Melchizedek—the author refers back to an obscure figure in Genesis (14:18–20), who is referred to once in Psalm 110:4), to justify Jesus’ office as high priest.
Hebrews 11 lists Abel, Enoch, and Noah, from Genesis 1–11, as heroes of the faith without distinguishing them as less historical than the other members of the list. Just like Luke 3, the author moves seamlessly from Genesis 1–11 to the rest of the Bible, without the slightest hint, “now we are moving from allegory or myth to history.”
Peter’s epistles also show a firm belief in a historical Genesis. In 1 Peter he affirms that eight people were saved in the ark, and in 2 Peter he says that sinning angels were sent to Tartarus in close connection with the Flood as a judgment for ungodliness on the earth and saving Noah and his family in the ark. He also affirms that the earth was formed out of water, and was destroyed by water.
Jude is widely regarded as being very close to 2 Peter, and this one-chapter book has four references to Genesis. Like 2 Peter, he refers to the sinning angels, but this time it’s closely connected to the strange-flesh perversions of Sodom and Gomorrah. He also accepts Genesis 5 as a strict chronogenealogy without gaps, since Enoch is “seventh from Adam”.
The interpretation of Revelation is notoriously difficult, and end-times scenarios are a point of debate among even otherwise like-minded Christians. But while Revelation may pose unique difficulties of interpretation, it also gives us some important references to Genesis. First, there is a theme of “uncreation” as the earth is being destroyed—judgment in the Bible is commonly pictured as a reversal of creation, e.g. the Flood took the world back to its condition on Day 2, before the land and water had separated, so the land was totally submerged again; Jeremiah 4:23 alludes to an uncreation back to the state in Genesis 1:2—the judgment would be so severe that it would leave the final state as empty as the earth before God created anything.
But more importantly, the New Jerusalem is filled with Edenic imagery—the Tree of Life, river, and the continual presence of God in the New Jerusalem mark, if not a return to Eden, a restoration of redeemed humanity to unfettered access to and fellowship with God. There is no more curse and no more sin in the New Jerusalem—humanity and creation is returned to an unfallen state.
It would require a book-length study to examine all the New Testament references in the depth that they deserve, but this brief overview should show how important a historical view of Genesis is for New Testament interpretation. It should also be noted that simply giving references to Genesis does not give the full picture—there are many doctrines which make no sense apart from their foundation in Genesis, and much of the New Testament teaching makes no sense unless one assumes that foundation.
New Testament references to Genesis
This list shows New Testament references by allusion or quotation to Genesis. Entries shown with parenthetical numbering show references to Genesis 1–11.
|1||Matthew 1:1–3||Ancestors of Jesus|
|3||Matthew 3:8–9||Abraham’s children|
|4||Matthew 10:15||Sodom and Gomorrah|
|6||(1) Matthew 19:4||Quote from Gen 1:27|
|7||(2) Matthew 19:5||Quote from Gen 2:24|
|8||(3) Matthew 22:21||Man in the image of God|
|9||Matthew 22:31–2||God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob|
|10||(4) Matthew 23:35||Righteous Abel|
|11||(5) Matthew 24:37–39||Days of Noah|
|12||(6) Matthew 26:52||Those who draw the sword will die by the sword|
|13||(7) Mark 10:6||Quote from Gen 1:27|
|14||(8) Mark 10:7||Quote from Gen 2:24|
|15||(9) Mark 12:17||Man in the image of God|
|16||Mark 12:26||God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob|
|17||(10) Mark 13:19||God created the world|
|18||Luke 1:25||Elizabeth’s reproach is taken away like Rachel’s|
|19||Luke 1:48||Mary will be called blessed like Leah|
|20||Luke 1:55||Abraham and his descendents|
|21||Luke 1:73||God’s oath to Abraham|
|22||Luke 3:8||Children of Abraham|
|23||(11) Luke 3:29–37||Jesus is descendent of Adam|
|25||(12) Luke 10:19||Treading on serpents|
|26||(13) Luke 11:51||Abel the first slain prophet|
|27||Luke 13:16||Daughter of Abraham|
|29||(14) Luke 17:26–27||Days of Noah|
|30||Luke 17:28–29||Days of Lot|
|31||Luke 17:32||Lot’s wife|
|32||(15) Luke 20:25||Man in the image of God|
|33||Luke 20:37||God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob|
|34||(16) John 1:1–3||God pre-existed and created|
|35||John 1:51||Reference to Jacob’s ladder|
|36||John 4:5–6, 11–12||Jacob’s well|
|37||John 7:22||Circumcision came from the patriarchs|
|38||John 8:33||Jews are Abraham’s descendents|
|39||(17) John 8:44||The devil a liar and murderer|
|40||Acts 7:2–14||History of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph|
|41||(18) Acts 14:15||God made heaven and earth and everything in them|
|42||(19) Acts 15:20, 29||Possible reference to Noahic covenant|
|43||(20) Acts 17:24||God made the earth and everything in it|
|44||(21) Acts 17:26||All nations descended from one man|
|45||(22) Romans 1:19–20||God’s power revealed through creation|
|46||Romans 4:1–25||Abraham justified by faith|
|47||(23) Romans 5:12–21||Death came because of Adam’s sin|
|48||(24) Romans 8:20–23||The entire creation was cursed|
|49||Romans 9:7–13||God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob|
|50||Romans 15:8||Christ fulfills promises made to patriarchs|
|51||(25) Romans 16:20||Satan crushed under believers’ feet|
|52||(26) 1 Corinthians 6:16||Quote of Gen 2:24|
|53||(27) 1 Corinthians 11:7–8||Man in the image of God, and woman created after man|
|54||(28) 1 Corinthians 15:21–22||Death comes through Adam|
|55||(29) 1 Corinthians 15:38||Each kind of seed has its own body|
|56||(30) 1 Corinthians 15:45||Quote of Gen 2:7|
|57||(31) 1 Corinthians 15:47||First man made from dust|
|58||(32) 2 Corinthians 4:6||Quote of Gen 1:3|
|59||(33) 2 Corinthians 11:3||Eve was deceived|
|60||Galatians 3:6||Quote of Gen 15:6|
|61||Galatians 3:8||Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18|
|62||Galatians 3:16||Gen 12:7; 13:15; 24:7|
|63||(34) Galatians 4:4||Seed of the woman|
|64||Galatians 4:22–30||Abraham’s two sons|
|65||(35) Ephesians 3:9||God created all things|
|66||(36) Ephesians 5:31||Quote of Gen 2:24|
|67||(37) Colossians 1:16||All things were created by the Son|
|68||(38) Colossians 3:10||Image of the Creator|
|69||(39) 1 Timothy 2:13–14||Man created first|
|70||(40) 1 Timothy 2:14||Woman deceived|
|71||(41) 1 Timothy 4:3–5||God created everything good|
|72||(42) Hebrews 1:10||God created heaven and earth|
|73||(43) Hebrews 4:3–4||Quote of Gen 2:2|
|74||(44) Hebrews 4:10||God rested|
|75||Hebrews 5:1–10||Order of Melchizedek|
|76||Hebrews 6:13–14||Genesis 22:17|
|77||Hebrews 6:20–7:17||Order of Melchizedek|
|78||(45) Hebrews 11:3||Universe formed by God’s command|
|79||(46) Hebrews 11:4||Abel’s acceptable sacrifice|
|80||(47) Hebrews 11:5||Enoch taken away|
|81||(48) Hebrews 11:7||Noah’s ark|
|83||Hebrews 11:17–22||Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and Abraham’s descendents|
|84||Hebrews 12:16–17||Godless Esau|
|85||(49) Hebrews 12:24||Blood of Abel|
|86||James 2:21–23||Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac|
|87||1 Peter 3:6||Sarah submitted to Abraham|
|88||(50) 1 Peter 3:20||8 saved in the ark|
|89||(51) 2 Peter 2:4–5||God punished sinning angels and saved Noah|
|90||2 Peter 2:6–8||Sodom and Gomorrah punished and Lot saved|
|91||(52) 2 Peter 3:5–6||Earth formed out of and destroyed by water|
|92||(53) 1 John 3:11–12||Cain killed Abel|
|93||(54) Jude 6||Disobedient angels punished (reference to “sons of God”?)|
|94||Jude 7||Sodom and Gomorrah|
|95||(55) Jude 11||Cain|
|96||(56) Jude 14||Enoch the seventh from Adam|
|97||(57) Revelation 4:3||Rainbow surrounding the throne in Heaven|
|98||Revelation 5:5||Lion of Judah|
|99||(58) Revelation 6:12–14||“Uncreation” theme-sun, moon, and stars|
|100||Revelation 10:6||God created the heaven and earth and all that is in them|
|101||Revelation 20:2||The devil is the ancient serpent|
|102||(59) Revelation 21||New Jerusalem—Edenic city|
|103||(60) Revelation 22:1–6||River of water of life and tree of life|
References and notes
- As a non-denominational ministry, CMI takes no stand on eschatology except to affirm the future return of Christ, the physical resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment. Return to text.
- Nolland, J., The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster, p. 899, 2005. Return to text.
- Bock, D., Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 360, 1994. Return to text.
- “Historical” as in “conforming to the ancient conventions of historical writing.” Of course, all the gospels are equally historical in the sense of communicating events which actually happened. Return to text.
- Carson, D.A. , The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 113, 1991. Return to text.
- Köstenberger, A., John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 25, 2004. Genesis 1:1 (in the Greek Septuagint) and John 1:1 begin with Ἐν ἀρχῇ En arche. Return to text.
- Witherington, B., Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 141, 2004. Return to text.
- Witherington, p. 142. Return to text.
- In the context, Paul is most probably talking about married women. See Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 127–130, 2001. Return to text.
- See Cosner, L., Christ as the last Adam: Paul’s use of the Creation narrative in 1 Corinthians 15, J. Creation 23(3):70–75; creation.com/1-corinthians-15. Return to text.