Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Paul: Well, Technically Speaking, He’s Not REALLY “Winging It”

Paul's biblical interpretation

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works.Tweets at @peteenns.

Last week, I threw up on the worldwide interwebs a little post about Paul and the book of Romans, namely that, Paul seems to be winging it.

I say that for two reasons.

1. The gospel Paul preaches seems to back him into a corner, logically speaking, especially with his fellow Jews.

He relentlessly makes the case for placing Jesus and Gentile inclusion at the center of God’s plans all along, rather than the Law of Moses centered on Jews. In fact, he makes such a strong case that it looks like he is throwing his fellow Jews under the bus. So at several points, Paul seems to realize he might be going too far and steps back away from the ledge.

It seems we are watching Paul struggling to work out the ever-present Christian theological challenge of continuity and discontinuity between (1) the story of Israel (as told in the Old Testament and in Judaism thereafter) and (2) the gospel. Paul must hold in tension his unwavering belief that #2 grows out of #1 (Jesus completes Israel’s story) while dealing with the undeniable fact that #2 is a surprise ending to #1 (a crucified and risen Messiah who flings open the doors of the kingdom to both Jews and Gentiles by faith alone).

But I’m not going to talk about #1 here. I want to elaborate on the second point I made in the aforementioned post, which is:

2. Paul quotes the Old Testament a lot.

And it looks like Paul is riffing—at times it almost seems like he is grasping for a text, any text, that he can use to make his case stick, that all this unexpected Jesus business (discontinuity) is fully anticipated in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (continuity).

I want to tease this out a bit because saying that Paul is “winging it” doesn’t quite get at the dynamic. On one level, yes, Paul’s use of the Old Testament seems haphazard, but on another level it’s not.

Let me put it this way: it seems to us that Paul is winging it, playing fast and loose with the Old Testament, rummaging through it to find passages that sorta kinda work and then bending them to his will.

From our perspective—and I think it is crucial to acknowledge this—Paul is out there when it comes to Old Testament interpretation. But our perspective can’t drive our understanding of what Paul is up to and it can’t be the basis upon which we judge what Paul is doing.

From an ancient Jewish perspective, Paul isn’t winging it. And that’s my point.

Paul’s readers back then might have agreed or disagreed with what he was arguing, but not with how he argued.

They wouldn’t have given a second thought to the manner in which Paul handled his Bible.

A creative handling of scripture had by Paul’s time a long and honored history, going back to the Old Testament itself: the writer of 1 and 2 Chronicles creatively adapted Israel’s older history (in Samuel-Kings) in order to let ancient scripture speak into new circumstances that scripture did not address or anticipate (namely, exile in 586 BCE and return under Persian rule in 539).

For Judaism, this unexpected turn of events caused a lot of pain and questioning of God, which continued through Persian, Greek, and the finally Roman rule, and onto the cataclysmic destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

That wasn’t how Israel’s story was to have panned out, and so accessing Israel’s ancient story after the return from exile meant reading between the lines, beneath them, above them, and around them to see how God’s word back then was speaking to them right now.

Paul's biblical interpretation

What we might call a fast and loose use of the Old Testament was for Paul and his contemporaries a normal and expected approach to biblical interpretation—creatively connecting the past with the present.

What is interesting about Paul, historically speaking, isn’t his method of interpretation. What set him apart was his content.

For Paul, as for his Jewish contemporaries, scripture was malleable—like forging metal or shaping clay on a potter’s wheel. Scripture necessarily had to be “worked with.”

Paul’s faith in God’s dramatic inbreaking of the kingdom in the resurrected Christ, however, is what drove him to read his scripture in a particular wayto fill in the content by bending Israel’s past toward the Lord Jesus Christ and his kingdom, made up of Jews and Gentiles as fully equal partners.

This is why I absolutely never get bored reading Paul. Wrapping our heads around what exactly he is up to and why is an energizing and uplifting mental workout that takes us out of our stale modern expectations of how the Bible is supposed to behave.

In other words, for me, watching Paul at work (rather than judging or defending him) is interesting not simply for understanding Paul, but coming to terms with the nature of scripture: what the Bible “is,” what we should expect of it, and therefore what it means to read it today.

I’ve gone deeper into Paul’s use of the Old Testament in a few places, especially the entire second half of The Evolution of Adam. You can also check out chapter 4 of Inspiration and Incarnation and chapter 6 of The Bible Tells Me So. I blog about it a lot, too (search, for example, Paul and the Old Testament). Gee, now that I think about it, I sure do write a lot about this topic. Maybe I think it’s important or something.

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