A Word in Edgewise

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How Paul Read His Bible

Paul was not trained in a modern seminary to read Scripture.  As a man of his day, he read Scripture like the rabbis he had heard in the synagogue or studied under in the academy.  Often the ways he reads and interprets Scripture seem odd to us.  Still they were the strategies his teachers and other biblical writers were using at the time.

Midrash is a term used to refer to how Jewish teachers approached and explained the biblical texts.  It begins with a healthy respect for the Scriptures as divinely inspired, as God’s Word to the world.  Yet as God’s Word the books of the Bible must do more than tell about what happened back then, they must be read against our current questions, crises and moments.  Whenever you hear a sermon about timeless truths or life principles from the Bible, the teacher is engaging in midrash.  One way to think of it is to say these ancient texts also speak to modern problems.rembrandt-saint-paul-in-prison

For Paul there are many ways of realizing the significance of the Scriptures in his day.  The allegory of Sarah and Hagar (Gal 4:21-31) is one of them.  Paul offers a figural reading of Abraham’s two sons, one born to Hagar, the other to Sarah, his wife.  For him, these two women serve as representative figures of the current problem Paul is addressing in Galatians.  Now, this does not mean that Paul discounted the literal, historical meaning—a memorable story of how God had been working out his promises to Abraham and his family—he just sees in the conflict within Abraham’s family a correspondence between the conflict that he was trying to work out among believing Jews and Gentiles in his day.

Like Hillel, one of the great rabbis of his day, Paul often made use of catch words to link one text to another so that they become mutually interpreting. You might call this “stringing pearls.”  In Gal 3:6-9 Paul mixes his own commentary (midrash) with Scripture:

Text (Gen 15:6) Abraham put faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness

Comment           Those who put faith (in Jesus) are the sons of Abraham

Comment           Scripture foretold that God would makethe Gentiles right by faith

Text (Gen 12:3) in you, Abraham, all the Gentiles would be blessed

Comment          Those who put faith (in Jesus) are blessed with Abraham who had faith

The story of Abraham provides Paul with a Scriptural image for how to address the predicament in Galatia.  Abraham’s “faith” became the occasion for how the patriarch was reckoned by God as “right/righteous”; but what was true for Abraham is also true for all the sons of Abraham, defined by Paul as those, including the Gentiles, who put faith in Jesus.  As Paul continued to think through the story of Abraham, his mind shot back to the initial promise itself where God promised Abraham that he and his kin would become a blessing universally to all the nations/Gentiles.  These keywords within Abraham’s story (faith, right/righteous, blessing, Gentiles) became the pearls by which the apostle could string together his Scriptures to include this new chapter, the climactic chapter of God’s story in the world.

Household Codes

Household codes (Eph 5:21—6:9; Col 3:12—4:6)

Paul is not starting a conversation about house management—that had been going on for centuries—he is however joining the conversation from a new creation vantage point. Perhaps the most famous and influential commentator on family life had been Aristotle (Politics, 1.12-13). Aristotle and other philosophers of his day believed that man was more fit to rule than woman by nature. There were different kinds of rule, of course—a king’s rule of his subjects, a master’s rule of his slave, a father’s rule of his child, and a husband’s rule of his wife—but nature had equipped freemen to lead even as it equipped women, children, and slaves to be subordinate. Inequality, not equality, is the working assumption. From their perspective, preserving family order established good order in society. Keeping the masters, wives, and children in subjection to the paterfamilias (male head of household) was vital to the common good.romefamily


Now this probably rubs you the wrong way, but it was the social backdrop to everything Paul has to say on the matter.

Essentially, Paul’s directives to the family challenge Aristotle’s teaching and logic about the hierarchy. If there ever was a hierarchy imposed by nature or by the fall (Genesis 3), then Christ has effectively lifted it and given us an example of lordly service (Phil 2:5-11). The Christian disposition is one of mutual submission (Eph 5:21) and consistently looking out for the needs of others (Phil 2:1-4).

The new creation had radically redefined the social order and therefore family relationships (Gal 3:28; 1 Corinthians 7). This is more than “equal access” to God; it is the foundation of the new creation where God is Father, Jesus is elder brother, and all who are adopted in the family of God live as brothers and sisters.

The basis of this new order is not a hierarchy imposed by nature but the Lordship of Jesus. These instructions are to be lived out “in the Lord.”

It was Paul’s habit to address the “subordinate” members of the household along with the paterfamilias. This was uncommon because the typical pattern for most moral instruction outside of the NT was to address the male, head of house expecting that he would, of course, lead the slaves, children, and wives to proper conduct. So Paul’s direct address to wives, children and slaves is unusual if not unique. Margaret MacDonald calls it “a distinctly Christian innovation” (The Power of Children: The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014, p. 7-8).

The apostle’s direct address does two things. First, it demonstrates that Paul’s authority extended to the wives, children and slaves of other men. As such they are fellow members of the church and not just someone else’s property living in the shadows. Second, it confers upon the “subordinate” members of the family a kind of self-determining, moral authority. Wives, children, and slaves are responsible before the Lord for their behavior. In other words, Paul treats those deemed by society as lessers as moral agents equal to the greaters. Before we get carried away, we should probably recognize that these codes represent things as they should be not as they were in the rough-and-tumble of daily family life. Aspirations are seldom fully realized.

Why no hell fire and brimstone?

In writing Romans, before Paul gets to the good news of the gospel (Romans 3 and following), he lays out the bad news: the wrath of God is breaking in from heaven.  For Paul God’s wrath is a present reality not some distant, future threat. We are living in “the present, evil age” (Gal 1:4), where the proliferation of idolatries, perversions and corruption are the ambient human condition (Romans 1).  It’s just the way things are even as we know things are not the way they are supposed to be.  Evangelicals use “the Roman road” to highlight the threat of hell, but Paul doesn’t do that.  The bad news is not the threat of fire and brimstone in some afterlife; it is the fact that God’s wrath is already evident in the world in what is effectively God’s hands-off policy.  God has stepped back and given us up to idolatry, disillusionment, strife, sexual sins, fractured families, and wicked minds.  For the apostle, sin and depravity may be the cause of God’s fury, but they are also the effect.  The presence and spread of human vices throughout the earth make life miserable and wretched. Perhaps we can say it this way: we are not only punished for our sins, we are punished by our sins.

hell fire and brimstone

If salvation for Paul consists primarily of God’s invading presence, then divine wrath consists ultimately of God’s silence and absence in the midst of a counterfeit world.  God doesn’t step in and smash us with his powerful right arm; he steps back and says, in effect, “if that is what you want, that is what you will get.” That is heaven’s wrath.  Now we are not saying that Paul completely ignores any threat of future judgment (e.g., 2 Thess 1:5-12); what we are saying is that the threat of fire and brimstone is not the only way to frame the human plight.

Fortunately, Paul doesn’t stop with the bad news; he has good news too.

Morna Hooker on “the Faith of Jesus”

Earlier this year Michael Bird highlighted an article by Morna Hooker in the Scottish Journal of Theology: 

Morna D. Hooker, “Another Look at πίστις Χριστοῦ,” SJT 69 (2016): 46-62.

In that article she joins a chorus of scholars who agree that at key moments in his letters Paul relates that redemption is centered in the faith or faithfulness of Jesus.  This is a position argued decades ago by Richard Hays.  Now, I’m pleased to note, many scholars have begun to read Paul this way.  As Hooker notes, this new reading has deep implications for Paul’s theology.Morna Hooker

To read Bird’s blog post click here.


When I was working on The Voice translation of the Bible with Thomas Nelson, I made and won the argument that “faith/faithfulness of Jesus” is how these texts ought to be read on the fact that the King James Version (1611) got it right!  Here are two examples:

Romans 3:22-23:

22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:

23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

And Galatians 2:20:

20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

Most modern translations take this as an objective genitive and render it “faith in Jesus” or “faith in the Son of God.”  In The Voice we translated those key passages as subjective genitives: Jesus exercises faith/ trust/ faithfulness (to God).  Hooker is correct that Jesus is clearly an object of faith in Paul; but in these and other key places when Paul is describing the essence of the gospel he is clear that our redemption is due to God’s rightness and Jesus’ faithfulness.

Dan Wallace on NT Manuscripts

Recently, a friend sent me a link to this video of Dan Wallace speaking at Acadia Divinity College on New Testament manuscripts.  Dan is probably the best connected and most informed scholar on the state of NT manuscripts, in America at least.  His  organization continues to discover  manuscripts (hand-written documents) which scholars did not know existed.  There are over 2.5 million pages altogether of the known number of NT manuscripts, over 5800.  This is a remarkable number of manuscripts still in existence given (a) that pagan emperors and governors did their best (during times of persecution) to discover and burn Gospels and letters and (b) the writing material and inks they used are organic, which means they were subject to decay.  Dan’s organization, Center for Study of New Testament Manuscripts, is working feverishly to create digital images of these manuscripts before they degrade further.  It is a great resource for scholars of Christian history.


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