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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.
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.
Here is a link to the second lecture I gave last year at Acadia Divinity School. The series title was “Paul’s KYRIOS Christology.” Thanks to Danny Zacharias and fleetwd1 for making this available.
Recently I sat down with N. T. Wright, Research Professor for New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.
The big idea is to see how Paul does something which I think he is not usually given credit for, which is that he basically invents something which in hindsight we could call Christian theology. Now that may seem rather odd, because didn’t the Jews have theology? Well they did and they didn’t. Didn’t the pagans have theology? Well not really. They talked about the gods but that wasn’t a big topic of analysis. Paul has this vision that because of who Jesus is, because who the Holy Spirit is, everything that they had known about God as in the Jewish Scriptures has to be reworked from top to bottom, particularly for this reason: that Paul believes that what has happened through Jesus, his death and resurrection has radically defined the people of God so that the people of God are no longer defined as they were in Israel by circumcision and the Sabbath and the food laws and the things which marked out Jewish people from their non-Jewish neighbors. So if you are going to have a community which is a single community which is very important for Paul, the unity of the church is very, very important for Paul–not for us and that’s a problem by the way but a topic for another conversation. If this community is to be united and holy but without those markers to keep it place, how are you going to do that when Paul’s answer is that the whole community needs to be involved in this prayerful, worshipful, Scripture-soaked reflection on who God is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for God’s world. So in a sense this book is about Pauline theology and I expound all the details of Pauline theology, but back of that is this sense that Pauline theology as a whole is something which he is doing with his congregations because he realizes that without that they are not going to be able to be the people they are called to be.
They way I put it is this. You know this saying: “Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” Paul isn’t content just to give people dogmas: “Here is a true doctrine which you ought to believe.” He does that and that will help for a while. What he wants people to do is to grow up in their thinking, to mature as Christians in their thinking, so that then they will be able to sustain their life and the life of the church in days to come because he won’t always be just to tell them: “believe this, don’t do that, whatever.” So teaching people to think Christianly which then emerges as Christian theology. That is the heart of it.
Paul’s theology developed in large part due to charismatic exegesis, i.e., Spirit-inspired interpretations and proclamations of Israel’s sacred Scripture. For the apostle the gospel of Christ fulfills God’s promises to Israel. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are “according to Scripture” (1 Cor 15:3-8). This does not mean that the OT predicts the death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah. It does mean that Paul finds the story of Jesus a compelling climax to God’s covenant with his people. In this sense all of Scripture finds it focus in the man from Nazareth.
Paul is a man immersed in Scripture. He speaks its language. He thinks, hopes and imagines in its symbols. He writes his letters with it resonating in his ear. Like a tuning fork it provides for him pitch, even as he produces the timbre. He situates his discourses within the symbolic world created by Israel’s sacred texts. But already these Scriptures are awash in intertextuality with fragments of earlier stories echoing in the later chambers of sacred words and promises. Paul continues the intertextual practices of his ancestors in faith, extending Scripture beyond their day to his own, finding its fullness in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s considered the Scriptures “holy” and prophetic (Rom 1:2). They are the oracles of God entrusted to Israel (Rom 3:1-2). He proclaims that all Scripture is God-breathed and beneficial for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). He appeals to Scripture at key moments as the final word (Galatians 3-4). When God speaks, that settles the matter.
When writing to his churches, Paul used the OT in three ways: (1) quotations, (2) allusions and (3) appropriations of theological themes. Some of these are intentional; others appear to be unintentional. But this is what you would expect from someone steeped in Scripture. Although it is not possible to distinguish accurately between a quotation and an allusion, most scholars have concluded that Paul cites the OT approximately ninety to one hundred times in his extant letters. He quotes from sixteen books altogether, but mostly from the Pentateuch, Psalms and Isaiah. The majority of his citations are found in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians. Allusions to Scripture are more numerous; sometimes just a few words can conjure up the appropriate biblical image for Paul to make his point. There are some letters without explicit citations; still one finds echoes of scriptural themes and appropriations of biblical imagery in nearly all the apostles correspondence.