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Paul and Scripture Seminar

SBL 2006 Annual Meeting Seminar Papers

Stephen Moyise, University of Chichester UK

How does Paul Read Scripture?


The aim of this paper is to consider whether there is sufficient evidence for positing an overarching scriptural framework for understanding Paul’s use of scripture. I take it for granted that Paul is an intelligent writer who uses scripture as one of many rhetorical devices to influence the churches to which he is writing. In that sense, it is both natural and necessary to seek an explanation for Paul’s particular uses of scripture in the rhetorical function of the letters. However, my question is whether it is also possible to ‘connect the dots’ (as it were) and see a pattern behind Paul’s particular uses of scripture. Thus there is no need to deny that the particular ‘selection of dots’ visible in any one letter is significantly influenced by its rhetorical function. But it would deny that the contingent circumstances of the letter are a sufficient explanation of Paul’s use of scripture, in the sense of somehow determining it. The analogy that springs to mind is the way a magnet inevitably draws iron filings into a particular pattern. I do not consider the rhetorical situation of Romans, for example, to be a sufficient explanation for Paul’s choice of around sixty explicit quotations from scripture.

Part of my brief is to avoid encroaching on the topic of the second session, namely, the biblical literacy of Paul’s first hearers and readers. In conforming to this requirement, I do not wish to be ‘set up’ as one of those scholars who ‘routinely assume that Paul wrote for audiences with a high degree of biblical literacy’, to quote from Christopher Stanley’s abstract - especially as his paper comes after mine! In fact, I do regard this question as important, as can be seen from the paper I will be giving in the Pauline Epistles group on the function of Isa. 52.5 in Rom. 2.24. Nevertheless, I also think that it is valid to ask the question I am addressing here, even if it is unclear at this point whether it can be answered. In other words, from all of his extant letters, is it possible to ‘connect the dots’ in ways that the individual recipients possibly could not (at least initially)? Of course, Paul would be a poor communicator if his arguments depended completely on an ability that his recipients did not possess, but that is not quite the same issue. A generation of students were greatly influenced by Bultmann’s New Testament writings without ever having read Heidegger. But an account of Bultmann’s thought that omitted to mention Heidegger would be seriously deficient.

Crucial to our investigation is clearly the question of how much ‘fit’ will be considered necessary in order for a particular theory to be convincing. In the conclusion to Francis Watson’s Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, he suggests that Paul offers a ‘reading’ of scripture rather than an ‘exegesis’. The latter is obliged to account for everything (significant) in the text but a ‘reading’ is a ‘construal of the whole from a particular perspective’ (515). In the corresponding footnote, Watson quotes from David Kelsey’s book, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (102), followed by his own comment:

‘[W]hen a theologian appeals to scripture to help authorize a theological proposal, he [sic] appeals, not just to some aspect of scripture, but to a pattern characteristically exhibited by that aspect of scripture, and in virtue of that pattern, he construes the scripture to which he appeals as some kind of whole’… Kelsey shows that an implicit ‘construal of the whole’ may be reconstructed from a theologian’s actual use of scripture, in relation to which it serves as a kind of hermeneutical framework. There is no reason why this should not apply also to Paul (515, n.1)

Of course, had Kelsey not believed this, he would not have been able to write his book, which categorises theologians like Barth and Bultmann in terms of their overall ‘construal’ of scripture. Other scholars would be rather more sceptical about capturing the six million words of the Church Dogmatics (so I read somewhere) in a short summary statement. Indeed, Watson acknowledges that a ‘hypothetical objector’ might come to a very different assessment of Paul’s use of scripture, asserting that in Paul

intense engagements with particular passages are often succinct to the point of obscurity, and there is little attempt to co-ordinate what is said about one passage with what is said about another. In addition (this is still our hypothetical objector speaking), the relevant interpretations are scattered among various letters and are occasioned by a variety of contingent situations. The pieces at our disposal are simply not made to be fitted together: not surprisingly, as they belong to different puzzles. Given the nature of the material, a ‘Pauline reading of the Pentateuch’ will be an artificial construct, no doubt bearing telltale signs of some contemporary theological agenda but telling us little about the real Paul (515).

The critical question that arises from this is whether it can be refuted in general terms or only by accepting a particular scholarly proposal. In other words, Watson seeks to refute it by offering his particular proposal that Paul read scripture antithetically, hearing the voices of truth (Gen. 15.6) and falsehood (Lev. 18.5) in the Pentateuch. Ross Wagner (2002) seeks to refute it by offering a particular proposal about Paul’s reading of Isaiah, which emphasises continuity rather than antithesis. And Sylvia Keesmaat (1999) seeks to refute it by offering a particular proposal about the influence of the Exodus story on Paul and the different ways that he uses it in Galatians and Romans. It is not difficult to see why Watson’s ‘hypothetical objector’ might deduce from this diversity of explanation that: (1) if Paul is dependent on an overarching framework, he has not made it very clear; (2) reconstructions of Paul’s overarching framework largely depend on the object of focus (Pentateuch, Isaiah, Exodus); and (3) given that the latter is a matter of choice (or perhaps contractual obligation), the main reason that such studies differ is that each scholar brings a different ‘theological agenda’ to the task.

However, this is not the only conclusion that is deducible from multiple reconstructions. Just as some people argue that the existence of multiple religions shows that ‘God’ is a human construct, others point to the almost universal phenomenon of ‘religiosity’ as conclusive evidence for the existence of such a being. Similarly, we might ask whether each of the scholars just mentioned (along with many others) are simply seeing their own reflection at the bottom of the well (Tyrrell’s famous criticism of Harnack) or whether they are in touch with something important about Paul, however difficult it is to agree on how to express it. Put a different way, each of the above scholars finds it impossible to reconcile their studies with a hypothesis that asserts that Paul’s use of scripture is essentially contingent or ad hoc. Passages like Galatians 3-4, 2 Corinthians 3 and Romans 9-11 look like serious engagements with scripture, even if agreement on the precise reasoning is hard to achieve. We can thus pose our question of the degree of ‘fit’ to the opposing position: how random does Paul’s use of scripture have to be in order to justify the view that it is essentially ad hoc? The main evidence for the ad hoc position can be summarised as follows: (1) the presence of trivial quotations like 1 Cor. 9.9 (‘You shall not muzzle the threshing ox’), where even Paul admits that his interpretation has little to do with oxen; (2) the presence of quotations like Rom. 2.24 (‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’), which appear to mean something quite different in their original context; and (3) the fact that explicit quotations are entirely absent from some of Paul’s letters and even large sections of Romans and Galatians. The ad hoc position need not deny that Paul was occasionally forced to grapple with scripture when refuting Judaisers (Galatians 3-4; Romans 4) or the fate of Israel (Romans 9-11) but this is not sufficient to negate the evidence presented above. Just as the ‘overarching scriptural framework’ construal need not account for everything, so the ‘ad hoc’ construal need not demonstrate that every use of scripture is ad hoc; only that the majority are.

Opponents of the ‘ad hoc’ construal would counter the above points as follows: (1) quotations like 1 Cor. 9.9 are atypical and have little in common with Paul’s sustained engagement with scripture in Romans and Galatians, where the majority of quotations occur; (2) many of the passages which appear to be taken out of context (like Rom. 2.24) can be adequately explained once Paul’s scriptural hermeneutics are understood - they are out of context only in the light of a narrow (anachronistic?) historical-critical approach; and (3) letters like Philippians and 1 Thessalonians, as well as passages like Galatians 1-2 and Romans 5-8, are by no means devoid of scriptural engagement - it simply functions at an allusive level rather than by explicit quotation (e.g. Ciampa on Galatians 1-2). Advocates of an ad hoc view will of course regard this as special pleading, convincing only to those who already hold such a view. But advocates of an ‘overarching scriptural framework’ view will say, ‘Open your eyes and see’. And that appears to be a reasonable place to begin for it surely makes more sense to base a study of Paul’s use of scripture on passages where quotations are most in evidence than on passages where they are not. We thus focus on Romans and Galatians, beginning with Francis Watson’s magnum opus.

After 500 pages of erudite exposition and argument, Watson invites us to consider the fact that Paul’s argument in Galatians 3 depends on explicit quotations from Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, together with a reference to the giving of the law in Exodus. In the body of the book, he has sought to show that these are not isolated proof texts but represent a ‘broad complex of scriptural material’, to which he now adds the comment that they come from the ‘Torah’s beginning, its middle and its end’ (517). Though the order that these references appear in Galatians is Genesis-Deuteronomy-Leviticus-Exodus, Watson claims that it requires only ‘minimal intervention by the interpreter’ to turn this into the canonical order and that this ‘bears no obvious traces of that “contemporary theological agenda” darkly alluded to by our purely fictitious objector’ (517). He concludes that Galatians 3 clearly presents itself as an ‘interpretation of the Torah, a construal of the shape and logic of its fivefold form’.

Without wishing to immediately take on the persona of his ‘fictitious objector’, it is nevertheless worth saying that had these texts appeared in the canonical order and included a reference to Numbers, it would have constituted a much stronger argument. It is one thing to say that a ‘construal’ need not refer to everything in the text; quite another to omit reference to one of the five books. Indeed, it is more than just the omission of one of the five books for the omission runs from Leviticus 18 to Deuteronomy 27, over a third of the Pentateuch (39% based on page numbers). This does not refute Watson’s proposal but it does raise questions. However, according to Watson, the proposal is confirmed by its ability to explain ‘much if not all of the scriptural argumentation of Romans and the Corinthian correspondence’, which he summarises in six points (517-19):

  1. Romans 4 is largely an exposition of Gen. 15.6, including an argument based on the order of the scriptural narrative (4.9-12). The promise is taken up in Rom. 9.6-9, a passage that corresponds closely to Gal. 4.21-31.
  2. The relationship between the promise and the law is discussed in Rom 4.13-14. Though much briefer than in Galatians, Paul similarly concludes that ‘the law brings wrath’.
  3. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul uses the incident of the golden calf to show that the law brings death. In this case. Paul argues from the Exodus text itself, without waiting, as it were, for the latter chapters of Deuteronomy.
  4. In Rom. 10.6-10, Paul shows that Lev. 18.5 legitimates Israel’s ‘pursuit of law observance as the way of righteousness and life’ (518). Moses writes along similar lines in Deut. 30.12-14, a text that can only be ‘brought into line with the gospel when drastically rewritten by Paul’. In Romans 7, it becomes clear that these texts are only misleading in the sense that their promise of life was ‘immediately overtaken by the reality of sin’.
  5. ‘The role assigned to the deuteronomic curse motif in Galatians is taken over by the first person meditation on the realities of life and death under the law in Romans 7.7-25. As a comparison with 1 Corinthians 10 indicates, this meditation is informed by the Israelites’ experience of death in the desert… and in several of the post-Sinai stories in the book of Numbers, the law itself is instrumental in defining and enabling the sin that leads to their death’ (519). [This answers perhaps the question about the omission of Numbers in Galatians 3 – which is, after all, very brief].
  6. It is significant that the scriptural arguments in Romans 4, 7 and 9 are relatively free from direct christological interpretation: ‘Scripture is still wholly orientated towards God’s future, definite act of salvation, universal in scope; yet the difference must be marked between the prophetic writer’s antecedent knowledge of this event and the apostle’s a posteriori knowledge of it’ (519).

Interestingly, despite beginning this section by stating that the framework can explain ‘much if not all of the scriptural argumentation of Romans and the Corinthian correspondence’, he concludes by noting that there are a ‘significant number of scriptural citations that do not correspond closely to this outline; many if not all of them have been discussed, at least in passing, in earlier chapters’ (519). He anticipates that this could be an argument against his proposal but it is ‘not a question that can be answered in general terms, so two specific examples must suffice’ (520). The first is that Paul can quote a text that is remarkably close to Lev. 18.5, namely ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19.18), as summarising God’s will for the Christian. If Paul is practicing a consecutive reading of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where the earlier promises are displaced by the reality of sin and curse, how it is that this text remains valid while Lev. 18.5 does not? Watson’s answer draws on two analogies; seeing patterns and hearing voices. For the first, it is not to be denied that this is a tension (‘prima facie contradiction’) in Paul’s writings but Watson’s argument throughout has been that this simply mirrors the tension in the Pentateuch. Paul is not imposing it on scripture through some christological hermeneutic but finds it there already. Put another way, when Paul reads scripture, he hears a plurality of voices for

the text that derives from the Sinai event is multiple and not singular in its origin (cf. Gal. 3.19-20). From one angelic voice we learn that the person who does the these things will live by them; from another we learn that all who are of works of law are under a curse; a third instructs us to love our neighbour as ourselves; a fourth is concerned with the observance of sacred times and seasons (Gal. 4.9-10) (520).

As a result, Watson rejects the view that Paul was either a deeply confused (citing Räisänan) or a profoundly dialectical thinker (citing Hübner) since ‘tensions and anomalies are built into the basic Pauline construal of the Torah, and that the citation of certain commandments as still normative is in complete harmony with it’ (520-21). This is clearly a strength when compared with other scholarly positions that primarily argue for either continuity or discontinuity and then have to explain (away) evidence to the contrary. But is it also a weakness? Does it mean that Watson’s view is so broad and flexible that it can accommodate anything? It will be useful at this point to reflect on what would be required to refute Watson’s view:

  • Exegetical decisions: For example, if Lev. 18.5 does not constitute a conditional promise of life in Leviticus, was not understood to be so in later Judaism(s), and was not quoted by Paul in order to refute it (so Wakefield, 2003); if pistis Iēsou refers to the ‘faithfulness of Jesus’, as many scholars now believe (Hays, 2002), then Paul does begin his scriptural exposition in Romans with an overtly christological interpretation/imposition of Hab. 2.4; if the ‘significant number’ of quotations that do not immediately fit his proposal but cannot be discussed further, reveal a sizable problem.
  • Hermeneutical decisions. Since it is unlikely that Paul read scripture antithetically prior to his conversion (‘as to righteousness under the law, blameless’), it follows that his (new) antithetical perspective was triggered by his conversion/ discipleship/ experience etc. Watson is correct to point out that this ‘reconfiguration’ (my word) did not take place in a vacuum but in a mind that was thoroughly saturated with scripture. But it is a hermeneutical (perhaps ideological) decision to give priority to either scripture or Paul in this interaction. Since Paul’s contemporaries do not appear to have arrived at such a view (many of which are discussed by Watson), it is at least plausible and perhaps even probable that priority (though not exclusivity) should be given to Paul’s Christian experience.

As the purpose of this paper is to stimulate discussion on whether Paul interpreted scripture from the standpoint of an overarching framework, it will be useful to contrast Watson’s ambitious project with Ross Wagner’s more limited proposal that Paul wrote Romans ‘in concert’ with Isaiah. Isaiah plays a very limited role in Watson’s proposal but there are more explicit quotations from Isaiah in Romans (~18) than any other Old Testament book (Psalms ~13; Genesis ~9; Deuteronomy ~8).  Since half of the letter’s sixty or so quotations occur in Romans 9-11 (an average of one quotation every three verses), that is where Wagner begins his investigation. He concludes that Paul read Isaiah as a three-act play of rebellion, punishment and restoration and ‘locates himself and his fellow believers (Jew and Gentile) in the final act of the story, where heralds go forth with the good news that God has redeemed his people’ (354). This involves a two-fold strategy: (1) Paul read prophecies of Israel’s deliverance as prophecies of his own gospel and mission; and (2) Paul read texts that denounce Israel’s idolatry and unfaithfulness as referring to Israel’s current resistance to the gospel. However, this is not simply an imposition on the text for in

claiming that God will be faithful to redeem all Israel, Paul does not lean on the isolated testimony of a few verses from Isaiah. Rather, he taps into a broad and deep stream of thought that is characteristic of Isaiah’s vision – a stream of thought, moreover, that is shared by numerous other prophetic texts and that is kept vigorously alive in later Jewish literature. Paul could probably assume that many of his listeners in Rome would be familiar with the broad outlines of this widely-diffused eschatological hope for God’s coming to deliver his people and to establish his reign over the cosmos (297).

Whether Paul could assume such things of his listeners in Rome is the subject of the following session; for our purposes, it is sufficient to ask whether this is a plausible explanation of Paul’s quotations in Romans. One can imagine at least three potential objections: (1) If the Isaiah framework is so important to Paul, why does he wait until chapter 9 before seriously engaging with it?; (2) are these christological/ ecclesiological interpretations a plausible reading of Isaiah or are they impositions?; and (3) can this Isaiah framework explain Paul’s use of other scriptures, especially when they are closely co-ordinated with Isaiah?

For the first point, Isaiah is of course quoted in Rom. 2.24 (‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ – 52.5) and Rom. 3.15-17 (‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known’ – 59.7-8). Both texts focus on the judgement aspect of Isaiah’s message but it could be argued that Paul is deliberately holding back the message of salvation until he has dealt with other issues. Wagner thinks this is confirmed by the fact that Paul quotes Isa. 52.7 in Rom. 10.15, showing that Paul is fully aware of the contents of Isaiah 52 and is evoking a judgement-salvation pattern. On the other hand, it does appear significant that Paul can spend five chapters outlining his understanding of salvation (Romans 4-8) without explicitly engaging with Isaiah. Watson’s view appears stronger at this point in that Romans 4 is undoubtedly a major engagement with the promise to Abraham, which is picked up again in Romans 9.

The second and third points can be usefully discussed together by looking at Rom. 10.16-21:

But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’ Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.’ Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.’

The double mention of Isaiah is certainly suggestive of Paul’s indebtedness to the great prophet, and the reference to Moses would seem to imply that Paul thinks the Pentateuch is in harmony with it. Wagner says that the aim of this section is to show how ‘God planned to pour out his mercy on Gentiles’ (191) and the quoted words appear to achieve this. However, there appears to be some ‘imposition’ on the meaning assigned to Deut. 32.21. The text lists a series of punishments (fire, disasters, hunger, pestilence, beasts, sword) that will come upon Israel as judgement for her rebellion in the wilderness. The mention of ‘not a nation’ is included because one of those punishments will be oppression by other peoples; it is hardly a reference to God’s mercy on the poor unfortunate ‘not a nation’. However, according to Wagner, this is to miss the essential point of Deuteronomy 32, which is that ‘the jealous anger of God at Israel’s unfaithfulness arises because of his commitment to Israel’ (197). The song begins with statements about God’s faithfulness (v4: ‘A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he’) and despite the severity of the judgement, Israel remains ‘his people’, ‘his servants’ (v36), ‘his children’ (v43). Thus in Paul’s reading of scripture, ‘the faithfulness of God that triumphs over Israel’s unfaithfulness and at the same time extends to all nations the blessings promised to Israel, encapsulates and brings to fulfillment the essential story, not only of Deuteronomy 32, but of Israel’s scriptures in their entirety’ (201).

Now it seems to me that Wagner has successfully demonstrated the importance of Isaiah in Romans 9-11. Not only does he have statistics on his side (quotations from Isa. 1.9; 8.14; 10.22-3; 28.16; 27.9; 29,10; 40.13; 52.7; 53.4; 59.20-21; 65.1; 65.2), his exegesis is by and large convincing. But two questions arise concerning his overall thesis (1) Is it legitimate to extend this to Romans 1-8, where quotations of Isaiah are largely absent?; and (2) Is it legitimate to read other texts such as Deuteronomy 32 in the light of this Isaiah framework? The first is of course an open invitation for Stanley to ask his question: how could the recipients in Rome have possibly deduced from Romans 1-8 that they should be reading it in the light of an overarching Isaiah framework? Though this is not the topic of our paper, Wagner’s answer has already been given and is germane to our discussion:  Paul is drawing on ‘a stream of thought… that is shared by numerous other prophetic texts and that is kept vigorously alive in later Jewish literature’ (297). This will not satisfy Stanley’s question of whether Paul could assume that his predominantly Gentile recipients would have known it but it could suffice as an explanation for what Paul is doing. If such a ‘stream of thought’ is not only characteristic of the prophets but also ‘kept vigorously alive in later Jewish literature’, we can probably assume that Paul knew it and indeed the evidence of Romans 9-11 could be used to confirm it. It is thus not unreasonable to suggest that it pervades Paul’s thought, even when he is not explicitly quoting Isaiah.

Watson offers a contrasting view here for he does not try and bolster his proposal by showing that an antithetical reading of scripture was common among Paul’s contemporaries. Indeed, according to Watson, commentators tended to bring Abraham into line with ‘law’ by stressing his obedience, and saw in the end of Deuteronomy a further conditional promise of life. This would appear to make Watson’s proposal more vulnerable than Wagner’s, for he wishes to assert that Paul holds a view that is without (close) parallel among his contemporaries but is nevertheless a genuine ‘reading’ of the text and not some christological ‘imposition’.

However, there is a further point to Watson’s proposal that I have not yet discussed. He thinks that Paul’s antithetical construal is signalled at the beginning of Romans by his exposition of Hab. 2.4. Rom. 1.17a, he says, is virtually a paraphrase of Hab. 2.4: ‘The one who is righteous (that is, with a righteousness of God, revealed in the gospel) by faith (since this righteousness is received by faith and is intended for faith) will live’ (48). The theme of ‘righteousness by faith’ will be picked up in Romans 4 but before that, Paul pursues an argument designed to demonstrate that ‘no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law’ (Rom. 3.20). Paul’s evidence for this statement does not come from the law itself but a catena of quotations drawn from the Psalms and Isaiah. In Rom. 3.10-18, Paul or someone before him, has amassed a set of phrases that condemn the wicked, probably understood as Gentiles, in contrast to the righteous. By beginning the catena with the universal statement of Ps. 14.1 (‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one’), these condemnations are subsumed into a universal condemnation, which Paul considers to be the verdict of the law (3.19). According to Watson, Paul would have considered the Psalms and Isaiah as commentary on the law and ‘insofar as the later writers are all saying the same thing as Moses, they too articulate the voice of the law’ (58). He concludes that the ‘juxtaposition of Habakkuk 2.4 and the catena of Romans 3.10-18 sets up an antithetical hermeneutic in which the voice of the prophet and the voice of the law represent the positive and negative side of the total scriptural testimony to the Pauline gospel’ (66).

Can Hab. 2.4 bear this exegetical weight? Watson thinks it can since: (1) Paul returns to it in another programmatic statement - Rom. 3.21-22; and (2) it was also very important to the Qumran pesherist. For the first, Watson regards Rom. 3.21-22 as a gloss on Rom. 1.17 and therefore as further comment on Hab. 2.4: ‘But now apart from law, the righteousness of God has been manifested, attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe’. The italicized phrases demonstrate the progression in Paul’s argument.

  • apart from law confirms the view that Paul sees in the ‘by faith’ of Habakkuk a corollary, ‘and not by law’. This has been the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 3.
  • The undifferentiated ‘it is written’ (1.17; 2.24; 3.4,10) now gives way to the law and the prophets. This is a traditional formula for referring to scripture but Paul probably has a more complex meaning in mind, for it suggests a voice of ‘law’ and a voice of ‘prophecy’. However, Paul can also hear the voice of law in Isaiah and Psalms and so the phrase ‘law and prophets’ not only points to different blocks of material but different voices within scripture.
  • Not only is the meaning of ‘faith’ interpreted by the gloss, ‘apart from law’, it is now specifically associated with Jesus Christ. Watson resists the trend to take this as a subjective genitive and insists that Paul maintains the gap between what he knows and what the prophet knew (specifically, because it was hidden from the prophet).

Secondly, Watson demonstrates the importance of Habakkuk in ‘The Twelve’ and the importance of Hab. 2.4 in the book as a whole. For both Paul and the pesherist, Hab. 2.4 represented the ‘divinely ordained way to salvation with a clarity and brevity unparalleled in the rest of scripture’ (124). Watson then mounts an argument that Paul and the pesherist have far more in common than is commonly recognised, noting for example, that both see in the faith/faithfulness of Hab. 2.4 the key to opposing the view of the law held by the (apostate) majority. Though they differ in their exposition, they belong to the same ‘intertextual field’. Indeed, Watson can say of the pesherist: ‘At this unique point at the heart of the book of the Twelve, the Qumran hermeneutic shows itself to be identical to the hermeneutic prescribed and presupposed in the prophetic texts themselves’ (112).

Thus although Watson does not try and bolster his case for Paul’s antithetical reading of scripture by suggesting that it was a well-known strategy among his contemporaries, he goes to great lengths to show that Habakkuk was held in great esteem among ‘The Twelve’ and that Paul was not alone in viewing 2.4 as its key verse. However, Watson’s view is quite different from that of Richard Hays (1989), who argues that Paul cites Hab. 2.4 in order to evoke its theodicy theme. Hays begins by noting that all of Paul’s key terms in Rom. 1.16-17 echo the language of the LXX. Thus before discussing the function of Hab. 2.4, he notes how such texts as Ps. 98:2-3, Isa. 51.4-5 and 52.10 promise a ‘future universal manifestation of God’s salvation and righteousness’ (37) that extends to the Gentiles.

This also explains Paul’s otherwise perplexing reference to not being ‘ashamed’. He is not referring to a natural human embarrassment when speaking about religion, as some commentators have suggested. Rather, Paul is echoing the language of the lament psalms and texts such as Isa. 50.7-8: ‘I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me (ho dikaiōsas me) is near’. It is from this background that the quotation of Hab. 2.4 must be understood. Hays notes that most commentators have assumed that Paul is using Hab. 2.4 as a proof-text for his doctrine of ‘justification by faith’, with almost complete disregard for its original setting. But against the background of the texts just mentioned, Hab. 2.4 is now seen as supremely relevant, for it is a locus classicus for the issue of theodicy. Facing the calamity of a Babylonian invasion, Habakkuk cries out, ‘why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?’ (Hab. 1.13). Demanding an answer from God, he positions himself on a rampart:

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.  Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith (Hab. 2.1-4).

The answer given by the Hebrew text is for the righteous person to remain faithful to God, despite such difficult circumstances. There is a vision for the end and it is presumably a vision of salvation but it is not for the present. Therefore the righteous person must wait with patience, demonstrating faithfulness or loyalty to God’s promises. The implication, of course, is that God will prove faithful and the LXX has made this more explicit by substituting the third person pronoun for a first person one (‘The righteous one shall live by my faithfulness’). By omitting either pronoun, Paul has allowed an ambiguity which, according to Hays, serves his purposes very well:

The ambiguity thus created allows the echoed oracle to serve simultaneously as a warrant for two different claims that Paul has made in his keynote formulation of the gospel: in the gospel God’s own righteousness is revealed; and the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Around these foci Paul plots the ellipse of his argument (40-41).

Hays recognises that there is a considerable difference between the context of Habakkuk and the context of Paul’s argument in Romans. Habakkuk is concerned about the ‘military domination of the Chaldeans … over an impotent Israel’, whereas Paul’s concern is the ‘apparent usurpation of Israel’s favored covenant status by congregations of uncircumcised Gentile Christians’ (41). In that sense, the echo is ‘off-centre’ and thus metaphorical (a trope). But there is sufficient similarity to deny that Paul is ‘circumventing the text’s original referential sense’. Instead, Hays maintains that Paul ‘draws on that sense – indeed, on at least two different traditional readings of it – as a source of symbolic resonance for his affirmation of the justice of God’s ways in the present time’ (41). 

Paul’s use of Hab. 2.4 is instructive for our topic since he does not quote from any other verse or appear to show any interest in the book itself (NA27 lists two parallels – 1 Cor. 1.24/Hab. 3.19 and 1 Cor. 12.2/Hab. 2.18 – both of minor significance). For Watson, this is because the verse declares the ‘divinely ordained way to salvation with a clarity and brevity unparalleled in the rest of scripture’. Paul sees in its ‘by faith’ the corollary ‘not by law’ and this introduces his major hermeneutical stance toward scripture. For Hays, it triggers a theodicy motif since Habakkuk was a locus classicus for that theme. This is significant for Hays’ understanding of Romans and contributes to his interpretation of pistis Iēsou as ‘faith/fulness of Jesus’. Both scholars agree on what they are opposing: those who think Paul is ‘circumventing the text’s original referential sense’ and simply ‘reading in’ their own theological convictions. But they differ significantly on the function of the quotation in introducing Paul’s scriptural hermeneutic.


We began by asking what sort of ‘fit’ would be necessary in order to accept the view that Paul interpreted scripture via an overarching scriptural framework. In the course of reviewing the work of Watson, Wagner and Hays, we can now summarise some of the evidence that is offered for each particular proposal:

1. It was (well) known by others

  • Reading Isaiah as a three-act play of rebellion, punishment and restoration was part of an established ‘stream of tradition’ (Wagner).
  • Habakkuk was a locus classicus for the theme of theodicy (Hays).
  • Hab. 2.4 was also seen by the pesherist as encapsulating the ‘divinely ordained way to salvation’ (Watson)

2. It explains what follows

  • Romans 9-11 tells the story of rebellion, punishment and restoration (‘all Israel will be saved’) (Wagner).
  • Romans 2-3 is concerned with defending the divine justice (2.11; 3.3-8, 26), also the theme of Romans 9-11 (Hays).
  • Romans 2-3 aims to show that despite what the law promises, no one will be justified by ‘works of law’ (3.20). The antithesis is made explicit in Romans 10 (Watson).

3. It explains how Paul used other scriptures

  • Deut 32 is quoted in Rom. 10.19 because it shares the same three-Act story as Isaiah (Wagner).
  • The thrust of Echoes is to show how the literary context of Paul’s quotations have affected his interpretations (Hays).
  • The antithetical hermeneutic becomes explicit in Gal 3.11 where Hab. 2.4 and Lev. 18.5 are juxtaposed, along with Deut. 27.26 (Watson)

For some, this will be sufficient to show that despite their different interpretations, each is a witness to the fruitfulness of this approach and thus evidence for Paul’s use of scriptural frameworks. On the other hand, each scholar faces evidence that is not easily brought into line with their particular proposal:

  • Isaiah does not appear to play a significant role in Romans 1-8 (Wagner)
  • Habakkuk does not appear to play any role in Paul’s other writings (Hays)
  • Citing similarities with the pesherist should not disguise the fact that like every other Jewish interpreter, an antithetical reading of Hab. 2.4 (faith/law) would have seemed outrageous (Watson).

In conclusion, I hope I have not unduly misrepresented these scholars and have provided sufficient analysis to lead into the anticipated debate. To my mind, each has produced an analysis of Paul’s use of scripture that is both illuminating and fruitful. But I am also reminded of the words of Derrida, who said that a text ‘always reserves a surprise for . . . a critique which might think it had mastered its game, surveying all its threads at once, thus deceiving itself into wishing to look at the text without touching it, without putting its hand to the ‘object’, without venturing to add to it’ (71). All but the most conservative agree that some sort of interaction has taken place between Paul and scripture, whereby the old has affected the new and the new has affected the old. Why should it not also be the case with modern scholarly attempts to understand Paul?


Derrida, J., Positions (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1972).

Hays, R.B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

Hays, R.B., The Faith of Jesus Christ. The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (2nd edn; Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002 [1983]).

Keesmaat, S.C., Paul and his Story. (Re)Interpreting the Exodus Tradition (JSNTSup 181; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).

Kelsey, D.H., The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (London: SCM, 1975).

Wagner, J.R., Heralds of the Good News. Isaiah and Paul ‘In Concert’ in the Letter to the Romans (Leiden/Boston/Köln: Brill, 2002)

Wakefield, A.K., Where to Live. The Hermeneutical Significance of Paul’s Citations from Scripture in Galatians 3.1-14 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

Watson, F., Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith (London & New York: T&T Clark, 2004)