Paul, Bible Butcher?

I used to think Saint Paul was a really bad interpreter of the Old Testament.  Because whenever he uses Old Testament passages to make a point in his writings, he totally butchers it.  He does everything we’re taught NOT to do.

Let’s take Romans 15 as one example, where Paul is making an argument that God cares about Gentiles.  He supports this with some Old Testament passages:

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name” (Romans 15.8-9, quoting Psalm 18.49).

Paul is implying here that these Old Testament texts support his idea that God is on everybody’s side, not just Jews.  The problem is, these texts really seem to be saying something different.  Notice what Paul leaves OUT of his quotes.  Psalm 18 is about God killing Gentiles, not saving them.  The psalmist is singing about “crushing” Gentiles (v.38), “beating them into dust,” “trampling them like mud” (v.42), and “destroying” them (v.40).  Basically, because the psalmists feels secure in God’s ability to kill Gentiles, he is able to praise God even in their midst (v.49).

What are we to make of this and the many other examples of Paul’s “bad exegesis” of the Old Testament?  I asked my Hermeneutics professor about this, and he replied: “Paul is an apostle, so he can get away with it.  You’re not, so you can’t.”

I’m no Saint Paul.  Granted.  But is it possible that Paul is using a hermeneutic better than the one I was taught in seminary?  I am beginning to think the answer might be Yes.

Quite simply, Paul knows God better than the Old Testament writers did.  The Old Testament seems to be of two minds about how God feels about non-Jews.  There seems to be a long tug-of-war between different visions of God—the tribal Proprietary God Who Will Crush Israel’s Enemies versus the Universal God Who Saves the Whole World.  Paul, as a disciple of Jesus, seems to think this tug-of-war has ended.  And he has no qualms about reinterpreting the old texts in that light, even to the point of flatly contradicting the intent of the original authors.

What does this mean for my understanding of what I’m doing when I study the Scriptures?  Is my goal to be faithful to the original biblical authors?  Or is my goal to be faithful to God?

~ John Stonecypher

[By the way, much thanks to Derek Flood and his recent article that prompted me to start thinking in this direction].

13 comments so far

  1. tjbrassell on

    Par Excellence’, John!!!

    Every bible reading person and pastor needs to be educated in this! It certainly helps people to see FROM THE BIBLE how this kind of Christ-centered exegesis actually works IN THE BIBLE. This would have been of great help to me in helping a fellow pastor even better when I was trying to share in my own way what Paul was doing and why, and he finally said in a desperate way (that even he didn’t REALLY believe!) “Paul was lying!” Of course that would have ended “his” ministry right quickly had he really believed that!

    Not that people will believe it (as old habits die hard) but it certainly seems to me a better way of helping others see from scripture how translating it should work in the light of humanity’s slow but sure education of the Truth of Jesus, in time-space-and-grace, from the Father and by the Spirit!

    I certainly find it of help and will share it with those I proclaim the Gospel to! Thanks for pointing to the main article too!

    Peace, Love and Blessings!

    • Thanks Tim! I sometimes wonder if the psalmist will someday be able to forgive Paul for “twisting” his words, and if he will approve. I wonder if Paul will be able to forgive me?

  2. Jerome Ellard on

    Also helpful to me in resolving some of the statements of the OT was C.S. Lewis’ book “Reflections on the Psalms.” In it, he helps you come to term with things like the Psalmist promoting bashing babies to death. Lots of good used cheap copies on Amazon!

  3. Jerome, we are reading the same books! “Reflections on the Psalms” was maybe my first step into this way of thinking about the Bible. I remember being terrified, considering that a biblical author’s mind might contain anything that was wrong or untrue. If the Bible is the chain that binds us to God, then any such idea about the Bible is terrifying indeed.

  4. Boyd Merriman on

    Goes to show how much most of us really back track what Paul wrote to see if he actually quoted it correctly! Many Bible Thumpers don’t even go through his quotes as much as they go through ours, even when we quoted correctly.

    Thanks for bringing this up.


  5. Jeannine on

    Great post, John! I’ve read that the mind most of us bring to the Bible today is very different than the ones it was written for. We take everything literally – we miss the hyperbole and the tongue-in cheek sarcasm of some of the writers (Paul), and we seem unable to respect the fact that there is a great deal of mystery. I think our minds are much more closed today than they were when the Bible was written. I’ve also heard it said that we lack the ability to hold two separate, even seemingly opposing things as true. Take the Genesis account – I was fascinated to learn that the account was never meant to be taken literally – it was written by Moses (it is believed) as a way of giving his people a history and also to tell them truths about God. The facts may not have been true, but the truths were indeed true.

  6. Thanks Jeannine! You make a great point: So much of it has to do with the mind WE bring to the Bible. We can become very dangerous people when we are blind to our biases but still have great over-confidence in our understanding of Scripture. I’d love to hear more about what you’ve read or heard about Genesis. It’s such a fascinating topic.

    • Jeannine on

      I agree with you. I am increasingly unsettled by the lynch-mob mentality I see even within the Christian church – the one that says, the Bible says it, and I believe it (usually when it comes to pointing our fingers at certain groups). But what if the Bible means something different than what we read into it? And even that aside, I have seen with my own eyes cases where just ONE word has been added to or used incorrectly in most translations – and it makes ALL the difference. Yet how many instances are we not aware of? Add to that the fact that we don’t understand the context it was written in, and then suddenly, what we think we know, we can’t.

      If you follow this link, you will find Part 1 of the interview with Dennis Gordon entitled “Exploring Biblical Creation.” There is also a Part 2 and 3 on the GCI site, as well as transcripts for all three if you’d prefer to read them. Fascinating stuff!

      Just one quote here: “The same is true of Genesis 1. The context for the whole book of Genesis is the Exodus [of the Israelites out of Egypt]. If we really want to understand Genesis 1 or indeed the whole book of Genesis, we have to read it in the light of the Exodus. That’s the context. If we take Moses as the traditional author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and if he’s writing this at the time when a people who were formerly in bondage to slavery are now in the process of being redeemed and on their way to salvation and the promised land, that’s the context (much as our lives in terms of Christians are like that. We have been redeemed, and salvation for us is a process which will be fully realized at the return of Jesus Christ).

      So the context for Genesis is the Exodus. We have a fledgling nation who are going into a land of promise, and God, thorough Moses, is giving them a future in relation to their present. He’s also giving them a past. How do they come to be where they are? Much of which may have been retained, but some of which may have been forgotten through part of that slave population during the years of slavery and captivity. So that’s the context.”

  7. Len Joson on

    Great article! Thanks for sharing.

  8. St. Paul, Bible Butcher? « on

    […] Posted on March 28, 2012 by John Stonecypher (a.k.a., ShackBibleGuy) Originally published on the Trinity and Humanity […]

  9. John on

    I think everyone is forgetting two simple things here.
    1. We need to take into account a more contextual view of Paul’s other writings about the Gentiles.
    2. David was fighting against flesh and blood. We are not. He said he was destroying his enemies. But then he said he is a ruler over the heathens……..hmmmmm.
    Ummm, one more thing. Paul had an encounter with our Lord and wrote it down so the world could come to an understanding and ultimately a relationship with Him. Do we have encounters? Of course. But if all wrote them down what would we have? A confusing mess.

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