Reading Paul Read Scripture

Reading Paul Read Scripture

I love reading Paul. Out of all the New Testament writings, I would venture to say that Paul’s writings are some of the most encouraging, challenging, and—dare I say it—confusing. All the same, reading Paul is always an adventure worth taking. But more than this, I especially enjoy reading Paul read Scripture. I have long been fascinated with how he read the Old Testament and how he incorporated their truths into his own writings. Without doubt, Paul read the Old Testament with care and precision—and with creativity.

It has often been said that, were Paul to enroll in a modern seminary course on biblical interpretation, he would fail miserably. That’s an odd thing to say, but I reckon it is true. The reason is because the apostle would not have recognized many of our modern methods of interpretation. To put it bluntly, Paul would not have been an ally to those who insisted on overly-literalistic and wooden readings of Scripture. This approach to interpretation, common among many evangelicals, tends to assume the so-called “historical-grammatical” method. This method of interpretation attempts to stay “objective” and seeks to simply “let the text speak.” As a result, there is a strong tendency to equate textual meaning with historical exactness with little flexibility. As a result, the mantra that “the Bible will never mean something it never meant” is quite popular among many evangelicals. However, I’m not sure the New Testament authors would agree with it.

Take Paul, for example. Many of his interpretations of the Old Testament are, to say the least, quite extraordinary. Paul often gave himself a lot of wiggle room in how he applied biblical texts. With an intriguing amount of creativity, he would often read fresh meaning into them, ignoring (seemingly) the original context at times.

I do not believe, nor am I suggesting, that Paul was a textual relativist, that is, someone who believed the biblical text could have any meaning he wanted it to have. To the contrary, I firmly believe there was a certain logic and care that governed the ways in which he interpreted the Old Testament. (There is so much more to say about this, and for you academic types, feel free to read my PhD thesis, “Intertextual Chaos?” In my research, I tackle the issue directly, focusing on Paul’s revisionary use of Hosea in Romans 9:25-26.)

To illustrate both the creativity and the logic of Paul’s interpretive practices, let’s look at 2 Cor. 6:18. In this verse, Paul quotes from 2 Sam 7:14. He does so in a way that I think reveals his commitment to read Scripture creatively and respectfully. 

In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul expresses concern about believers being “unequally yoked” with non-believers (vv. 14-16). He wants the church to take seriously the fact that they—as a fellowship of believers in Jesus—are the dwelling place of God. “We are the temple of the living God,” he says (v.16). To reinforce this idea, Paul strings together a collection of quotations from the Old Testament—namely, texts like Leviticus 26:11-12, Ezekiel 37:27, Isaiah 52:11, Ezekiel 20:34, and 2 Samuel 7:8, 14. It is this last quotation (2 Sam. 7:14) that I want to focus on.

In its original context, 2 Sam 7:14 was a key part of the so-called “Davidic Covenant,” which was a promise God made to King David. The promise was that, one day in the future, God would raise up for David a son who would have an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam. 7:16-17). Many Jews found this passage to be a wonderful promise of hope that God would send a king from the line of David who would restore the Kingdom of God’s people (see Hos. 3:5). Here’s what God says to David about this coming “son,” whose kingdom would last forever:

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son…”

2 Sam. 7:12-14

Clearly, the original context concerns a specific person, namely, the son of David. God promises to be “a father” to this person. Thus, the original meaning—as determined by the text’s grammar and historical setting—was that this promise was focused upon one person—the son (singular) of David.

However, when Paul interprets this same passage, he does so in a rather creative way. In fact, he deliberately alters the text in order to get the meaning he believes is the true, more complete meaning. In this way, then, Paul seems to expand the original meaning. To the Corinthians, Paul writes:

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty”

2 Cor. 6:16-18

Here are the two verses side-by-side:

NB: For Greek and Hebrew nerds, I’ve supplied the LXX, MT, and GNT below for comparison.

2 Sam. 7:14  2 Cor. 6:18  
I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son  

ἐγὼ ἔσομαι αὐτῷ εἰς πατέρα, καὶ αὐτὸς ἔσται μοι εἰς υἱόν
(2 Kgdms 7:14 LXX)  

אֲנִי֙ אֶהְיֶה־לּוֹ֣ לְאָ֔ב וְה֖וּא יִהְיֶה־לִּ֣י לְבֵ֑ן    (MT)
and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me  

καὶ ἔσομαι ὑμῖν εἰς πατέρα, καὶ ὑμεῖς ἔσεσθέ μοι εἰς υἱοὺς καὶ θυγατέρας (ΝΑ28)  

Do you notice anything different? In the original context, the third person (him, he) is traded out for the second person plural (you). This makes sense because in the original text, God is talking about one person (i.e., the son), while in Paul’s context, he is talking to more than one person (i.e., the entire church). Because there is a change in audience (from David to the Corinthian believers), certain words also need to undergo change. Paul therefore alters the original words in order to personalize the promises of 2 Sam. 7:14 so that they are applicable to the Corinthian believers.

This leads us to the second difference. Notice how Paul pluralizes the singular recipient of the Davidic promise. In the original text, the promise is to one person, namely, a Jewish descendent of David. In Paul’s reconstructed quotation, the promise is broadened to include more than one recipient—namely, the Corinthian church as a whole. This is a bold thing to do given that the church consisted of Jews and Gentiles. The promise of 2 Sam. 7:14 only spoke of a (singular) coming Jewish king, but Paul applies the verse to many Torah-less Gentiles.

The third difference is, perhaps, even more striking. In Paul’s revamped quotation, he adds in “daughters.” This is odd considering that the original text of 2 Sam. 7:14 mentions nothing about “daughters” whatsoever. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Paul simply throws it in. Once again, he does this in order to personalize the text for the Corinthian church. Given that the church is comprised of both males and females, Paul deliberately alters the text so that it could speak to women as well.1

I suppose that someone could respond by saying that Paul’s insertion is not technically an “alteration” or “insertion.” After all, terms like ‘sons’ and ‘brothers’ can be understood to be gender-neutral, including both male and female (sort of like when we say, “Hey, guys” to refer to both genders). Could it be, then, that Paul understood “son” in 2 Samuel in this way? The answer is no. While it is true that words like these are often employed in a gender-neutral sort of way, this does not account for Paul’s flexibility with the text. In other words, Paul is not merely saying the same thing in a different way; he is saying something different altogether.

After all, nothing in the original context of 2 Sam. 7 allows for “son” to be taken as gender-neutral precisely because it’s original focus was on an individual person—namely, a coming historical king. In other words, if Paul was merely reading the original text in its historical and grammatical context, he would not be able to interpret “son” as being gender neutral precisely because the historical and grammatical context would not have allowed for it. True, the prophecy was cryptic, but this much seems clear. For Paul, something else is going on. He truly is reading an old text in a fresh way. But why and how is he doing this?

Paul, like other early Christians, believed that Jesus was the promised son of David—the fulfillment of 2 Sam. 7. Paul’s own statements about Jesus’ relationship to David in Rom. 1:3 and 2 Tim. 2:8 seem to verify this. But how did he (or any early Christian) come to believe that Jesus was David’s (and God’s) long-awaited son? Paul actually answers that question for us. He says that, “Christ Jesus…. was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:1-4). Elsewhere, Paul remarks that Jesus was “manifested in the flesh, vindicated [lit., “justified”] by the Spirit” (1 Tim 3:16; “vindicated by the Spirit” seems to be a reference to the resurrection).

Here is the point: Anyone can claim to be “son of God,” but nobody—save the true son of God—can raise himself from the dead. It was through his resurrection that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God” before the whole world. The resurrection vindicated Jesus, it verified that he really was who he said he was. What all this means is that Jesus’ resurrection was a hermeneutical event in its own right. It brought to light the truth of his identity. And if that is so, then old texts could be re-read and re-contextualized. Indeed, all of life should be re-contextualized around Jesus. For Paul, this meant going back to the stories of Israel and re-situating them around Jesus. To be sure, this was not a one-way street such that Paul could merely read into the Old Testament his convictions about Jesus. The Old Testament, Paul says, actually foretold (however cryptically) Jesus’ life and work (see Rom. 3:21-22). For Paul, the Old Testament stories and texts helped him to understand who, exactly, Jesus was and is—the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, the Son of David. The opposite was true as well: Jesus’ life and work helped him to understand what, exactly, those texts truly and fully meant for him in his own time.

Because Paul believed that Jesus was the son of David, he came to believe something else. Paul concluded that all followers of Jesus—regardless of gender—were incorporated into Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 3:14, 28). In light of this, he determined that all the promises that found their fulfillment in Jesus could also, mysteriously, be applied to all Christians as well—regardless of gender (2 Cor. 1:20-22).

This is how Paul could read a text like 2 Sam. 7:14 and alter it to refer to male and female believers at Corinth. By doing so, he does no violence to the text itself. That said, we must realize that Paul’s interpretation does, in fact, go beyond the original meaning of the text. But none of this implies that Paul’s interpretation goes against the original meaning. It means, rather, that his interpretation was not bound to just the original meaning. This is an important point to make. If all we had were the historical-grammatical details of that original text, we would never arrive at Paul’s interpretation. The reason is because Paul had re-contextualized the passage such that, now in light of Christ’s work, it can take on a meaning it never had before. In many ways, then, for Paul, the Bible could mean something it didn’t mean before. True, from a divine perspective, the Davidic promise always meant to refer to all the followers of Jesus—male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. But Paul, being a finite interpreter (and hence lacking a God’s-eye point of view), could only find this meaning after his experience with the resurrected Christ. In this way, then, Paul’s reading was revisionary (humanly speaking). It was new, surprising, and—for many of his Torah-observant Jewish colleagues—it would have been immensely controversial.

After all, the only way Paul’s interpretation of 2 Sam. 7:14 works is if Jesus really was who said he was. Was Jesus really the Son of David/the Son of God? The answer to this question is determined by asking yet another question: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? This is the most important hermeneutical question we can ask, I think. If Jesus did rise from the dead, then the logic of Paul’s fresh reading makes perfect sense. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Paul’s words in a previous letter to the Corinthians ring louder still: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God” (1 Cor. 15:14-15a).

For Paul, Jesus Christ—the crucified and resurrected Messiah—is the enthroned Lord of all. And this revelation profoundly impacted not just his life in a general sense but also his interpretive life specifically. Paul’s christological convictions shaped and guarded his own interpretation of the Old Testament—allowing the scriptural text to speak afresh to all of his churches.

What can we conclude from these observations? Should we read the Bible the same way Paul did—creatively, not least? As we wrestle with this question, we should recognize that Paul’s readings were not a “free-for-all.” As I said above, he did not think they could have just any meaning. He respected the scriptural texts, after all. His readings were creative, yes, but they were disciplined by his Christological horizon. In this vein, Paul always sought to bring Scripture’s authority and power into the lives of his congregations. He wanted the text to speak to the people—to be situated and contextualized in their communities. A better way to put it, I think, would be to say that Paul sought to situate his “in-Christ” congregations into the story of Scripture.

In many ways, Paul simply did what pastors do—helping Christians find their place in the redemptive story, weaving that story into their lives—a messy process for Corinth (like it is for all of us). This weaving process, moreover, takes knowledge and wisdom. It requires knowledge of the text—its stories, its aims, its ends. It also requires knowledge of people—their stories, their challenges, their situations. Finally, it requires wisdom to bring these two together. It is a Spirit-guided process rooted in respect (for both text and congregant) and creativity (in application of the text’s truth for the congregant).

When Paul became a believer in Jesus, everything changed—from the way he interpreted Scripture to the way he interpreted his life’s circumstances. For example, Paul’s beliefs about Jesus enabled him to re-interpret prisons as opportunities for, and not hindrances to, Gospel advancement (Phil 1:12). They enabled him to re-interpret times of hardship as teaching moments about the “God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:8-10). They even enabled Paul to take an old story about a coming male, son of David and re-interpret that story in such a way that it could now, in his own time, refer to many male and female Corinthian believers.

This passage has given us a snapshot of Paul’s invitation to all the Corinthian believers—Jews and Gentiles, males and females. He invited them to creatively re-read the story of David’s Son in light of their unity with Christ. So far as we know, the Corinthians accepted the invitation. The real question is what about you? Will you accept the invitation? Do you see yourself in the story, too? If not, what are you waiting for?

1. In terms of the specific situation at Corinth that motivated Paul to insert “daughters” into the text, Christopher Stanley thinks Paul did so in order to “make explicit his conviction that women and men stand on an equal footing as children of God.” Stanley thinks Paul’s motivation was to address “specific disagreements” about women’s activities in the church. See Stanley’s, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline Epistles and Contemporary Literature (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 229–30.

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