Read This Book 3: How Paul ‘Misuses’ the Old Testament

Wayyyyy back at the beginning of the semester, we started reading Peter Enns‘ Inspiration and Incarnation, a book that honestly tackles the problems posed by a traditional literalistic reading of the Bible, the Old Testament in particular. He first focused on the creation question, then moved to internal contradictions or “theological diversity” and, after meandering through all of the other required readings in the class, we finish with Enns’ final chapter: How the Old Testament is used by New Testament writers.

He argues, rightly I think, that if we heard a preacher using the Old Testament the way Paul, Matthew and even Jesus did, we would say he or she was misusing, even abusing, the text.

For example, in Galatians 3:16, Paul says this:

The promises were made to Abraham and to his descendant. It doesn’t say, “and to the descendants,” as if referring to many rather than just one. It says, “and to your descendant,” who is Christ.

Most translations say “seed,” rather than descendent, and the Hebrew word similarly can be used in both singular and plural contexts. But no matter. The fact is in all the passages promising land to Abraham and his seed, the context is clearly plural, not singular. (Gen. 13:15: “All the land that you see I will give to you and your descendants forever.”)

Why would Paul do this? If a preacher said such a thing, we’d question why he wasn’t telling the truth.

In Romans 11:26, Paul quotes the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah:

In this way, all Israel will be saved, as it is written:

The deliverer will come from Zion.
He will remove ungodly behavior from Jacob.
This is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.

Except the relevant passage, Isaiah 59:20, actually says:

A redeemer will come to Zion
and to those in Jacob
who stop rebelling,
says the LORD.

It’s a small change, but it completely changes the meaning of the prophecy. Paul simply adapts it for his purposes, seemingly disregarding its actual meaning.

That’s one class of interpretive creativity on the part of New Testament authors. Examples also can be found in Matthew, quoting Hosea, and Hebrews, quoting the Psalms. The other class of creativity is the addition of facts not found in or supported by the Old Testament text.

  • In 2 Timothy 3:8, Paul casually names the Egyptian magicians opposing Moses as Jannes and Jambres, but they are never named during the exodus story or anywhere else.
  • In 2 Peter 2:5, Noah is called the Preacher of Righteousness, but nowhere does Genesis say Noah preached while he built the ark, reasonable assumption though this might be.
  • Jude 9’s recount of the dispute between Michael and the devil over Moses’ body is a little more famous. Jude also quotes 1 Enoch, a noncanonical book, in verses 14-15.
  • Acts 7:53, Galatians 3:19 and Hebrews 2:2 all describe the law as having been put into effect “through angels,” which no reasonable reading of the Pentateuch could support.
  • In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul repeats offhand a noncanonical tradition in which the Israelites benefited from a moving water source while they wandered in the desert.

Enns goes through great pains to point out that while, yes, we can argue these New Testament authors received special divine revelation of these new facts or ways to interpret the scriptures they had, that becomes much more difficult a case to make when we consider how often noncanonical authors from the same period did the same thing, and when we note how casually they include this information, as if their readers already know these extrabiblical stories.

The Jewish Second Temple period (520 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.) featured a rich literary tradition; the ancient Jewish writings to come from that era include not only much of the New Testament (especially the writings of Paul), but also theological and historical works by Josephus and Philo and many of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books, some of which are found in alternate versions of the canon that us good Protestants have been taught never to even think about reading.

These noncanonical works often do the exact same things to the Hebrew Bible that the canonical ones do. They include extrabiblical information or they twist the meaning of a prophecy to help it better suit their theological argument. Much like we should use the ancient Near Eastern view of the cosmos to understand the imagery of Genesis 1-2, Enns argues we must use the Second Temple literary traditions to understand the mindset of the New Testament authors, who are a product of that culture and engaged in practices that were entirely normal for the time and not at all considered unethical or untrue to the text they were using. Once again, Enns is arguing the extent to which we find “problems” with this use of the text is the extent to which we are imposing modern notions onto ancient ideas.

In the case of rewriting Hebrew prophecies to make them fit a Christian narrative, Enns calls this “apostolic hermeneutics.”

The driving force behind their Old Testament interpretations was their belief that Jesus of Nazareth was God with us and that he had been raised from the dead. … The apostles did not arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is Lord from a dispassionate, objective reading of the Old Testament. Rather, they began with what they knew to be true – the historical death and resurrection of the Son of God – and on the basis of that fact reread their Scripture in a fresh way.

Enns calls this a christotelic rendering of scripture – that is, Christ is the end of the story the Old Testament is telling.

The Old Testament is a story, compiled over time, that is going somewhere, which is what the apostles are at great pains to show. It is the Old Testament as a whole, particularly in its grand themes, that finds its telos, its completion, in Christ.

Their use of their scripture grew naturally out of their belief that it led to Christ, spoke of Christ and pointed to him, even if the original authors were unaware of it. Some scholars say this was OK for the apostles, because they were inspired to do so, but that we cannot do the same today. We must be confined to straight historical-grammatical exegesis of the text.

Enns disagrees somewhat by saying we should separate what the apostles did from their goal in doing so.

The apostles’ hermeneutical goal, the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ, must also be ours because we share the same ‘eschatological moment,’ that is, we too live in the post-resurrection universe. … This is not a call to flatten out the Old Testament so that every psalm or proverb speaks directly and explicitly of Jesus. It is to ask oneself, ‘What difference does the death and resurrection of Christ make for how I understand this part of the Old Testament?’

Reading the Old Testament “on its own terms” is not a Christian reading, Enns argues, because it fails to account for the revolutionary existence of Christ. This means what I call the “bludgeon texts” like Lev. 18:22 or 20:13, which condemn homosexual behavior, must be read, not just in their historical context, but also in their theological context. What do they mean now in a world in which Christ said he fulfilled the law and the prophets, which he then further summarized not by selecting one of the many prohibitions they contain but by choosing two positive commands about love?

Throughout his book, Enns compares the Bible to Christ. Both are described as the word of God, and as such both are divine revelations made human. As a result, both were shaped and defined by the culture in which they lived.

For the apostles to interpret the Old Testament in ways consistent with the hermeneutical expectations of the Second Temple world is analogous to Christ himself becoming a Second Temple citizen. If identifying Christ himself as a first-century Jew is the great demonstration of the lengths to which God will go to redeem his people, the great manifestation of God’s love, is there any reason to shy away from identifying the New Testament, the written witness to Christ, as likewise defined by its first-century context?

And if this is true for God, it should remind us that our own understanding of the Old Testament – and the gospel – has a contextual dimension as well. … Perhaps we should think of biblical interpretation more as a path to walk than a fortress to be defended.

This certainly has ramifications for how we read the Bible. Hopefully, such knowledge makes us more humble, more willing to acknowledge the possibility of being wrong and more open to the possibility that our understanding of scripture can indeed be shaped by the evidence uncovered by those outside the world of theology.

Perhaps the best line in Inspiration and Incarnation is this:

Fear cannot drive theology. It cannot be used as an excuse to ignore what can rightly be called evidence. We do not honor the Lord nor do we uphold the gospel by playing make-believe.

Enns’ call for humility is convicting, and his argument against fear-based theology is inspiring. Unfortunately, the deep irony is that writing this book – despite its many efforts to affirm the rightness of scripture and its relevance for today’s world – cost Enns his job at the seminary where he taught. It’s an unfortunate coda to a truly reorienting work.

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