Paul and the “Gold” Testament
Dr. Joseph Dodson, Dr. Craig L. Blomberg Endowed Chair of New Testament
Originally published in Engage Magazine, Fall 2022
My son once heard me talking about the Old Testament. He looked at me funny and said, “Old Testament? I think you mean Gold Testament, because there’s treasure in there!” He’s right. So many precious gems remain hidden in plain sight throughout the pages of the “Gold” Testament. Numerous citations and allusions to the Hebrew scriptures surround our favorite New Testament proclamations. They serve as a treasure map inviting us on an adventure to discover their fuller meaning in light of the original context.
Few, if any, understood this more than the apostle Paul. In an unprecedented move, Paul claims that the boundless treasure of the Gold Testament belongs to the New Testament Church. He declares: its events occurred, and its words were written “for us,” believers in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1–13).
So also, in letter after letter, the apostle points to the Old Testament as foundational for us in understanding our identity in Christ, our vocation as God’s people, and our holy calling to walk according to His Spirit. Although there are several ways Paul uses the Hebrew Bible to do this, he often weaves into his arguments quotes from Scripture, serving as an “X” that marks the spot. Therefore, if we want to collect fully on the Bible’s riches, we can begin with the apostle’s citations of the Gold Testament in his letters.
In the quest to find this prize, it helps to know that Paul introduces these quotations in three significant ways: with (1) standard and (2) alternative formulae, and with (3) personification citations. Noticing not only that Paul is citing Scripture, but also recognizing how he is citing it has valuable bearings upon our interpretation of a passage. Once we take this into account, old, familiar, threadbare texts often gain renewed life resulting in fresh insights and more pointed applications.
Here, I will discuss the first two formulae together before explaining the third—each of which provides a particular exegetical nugget for the eager explorer.
Standard and Alternative Citations
In Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, Francis Watson delineates the differences between the phrase “it is written,” which he refers to as the standard formula, with other citations to Scripture, which he classifies as alternative formulae (43–47). 1Corinthians 1:31 is an example of the former.
“Therefore, as it is written:
Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
According to Watson, the standard formula like we have here in 1:31 is an anonymous citation that does not require the audience to recognize the phrase cited or the person who originally spoke the words. Rather, Watson argues, with this formula, “all that is necessary [for the reader] is an understanding of the concept of a normative body of writings, and an acceptance that the words cited are to be found in it— somewhere” (45). Therefore, from this perspective, the standard formula intends to underline the representative character of Scripture— Scripture as a whole.
While a small minority in the Corinthian church might be able to recall what biblical writer first said, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord,” or the original context of it, most in this predominately Gentile church probably had no clue. I suspect few in our churches today could identify these words as coming from Jeremiah 9:24 and even fewer able to detail its context.
Years ago, a former student popped into my university class during a break to introduce her toddler to me. Thrilled to meet the child, I forgot about my undergrads and plopped down on the floor to crawl around with the toddler. One student—uncomfortable seeing his tenured professor on all fours—blurted, “Dr. Dodson, that’s not very professional.” But I immediately retorted: “As it is written, ‘I’ll become even more undignified than this!’” A small number of students, mostly Old Testament majors, laughed (or rolled their eyes). They got the joke because they recognized I was citing King David’s words after he was rebuked for dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. Since the reference was lost on the rest of the students, they either giggled nervously or stared at me confused. Nevertheless, even though the second group of students failed to recall the chapter and verse of my quotation, they gathered I was quoting Scripture to justify my actions. Beginning my citation with the authoritative “it is written” was enough to impress upon them that I was claiming to have the Bible on my side.
In contrast to the standard formula, Watson proposes that the alternative formula attributes an Old Testament quotation to a specific author to highlight the individuality and distinctiveness of a text. For example, Paul uses an alternative formula in Romans 10:5 to cite Leviticus 18:5.
Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them. ”According to Watson, in this category, knowledge of the original context and the author of the citation is important—if not essential—for following Paul’s line of reasoning. Therefore, with the alternative formula, the apostle does not seek to draw on Scripture as “a representative whole,” but expects the audience to consider the narrative and arguments surrounding Leviticus 18:5. Furthermore, rather than the completed “written character of the text,” which the standard formula underscores, Watson asserts that the alternative formula stresses Scripture’s present or spoken character, making the citation more contemporary and immediate to the audience. For example, rather than the authorized-yet-static nature of “it is written,” the alternative formula infers that “in what they wrote, Moses, David, and Isaiah still speak here and now” (45). Whereas the written word confronts us in a definite form handed down from the past, with the alternative formula, these authors address us in the present—right here and now. So, over against the “it is written” reference to Jeremiah 9:24 that Paul uses to cinch his argument and end the debate with the Corinthians, in Romans, Paul introduces Moses as writing Leviticus 18 to place the patriarch before the audience in a present debate with Righteousness and Scripture, who in response to Moses, also quotes the Bible,
“But the righteousness that is by faith says…” (v. 5)
“As Scripture says…” (v. 11)
This introduction of quotations in Romans 10 from Righteousness and from Scripture is a “personification citation.” A personification citation is when Paul has an inanimate object, abstract concept, or impersonal being quote Scripture. At first blush this formula may resemble how we use the phrase, “the Bible says.” Paul’s personification citations, however, are more developed and stirring than our dead metaphor. For instance, in Galatians, when Paul uses Scripture to quote Scripture, he does not just say “Scripture says.” Rather, before Scripture cites the biblical verse, the apostle has “her” foresee God’s plan and prophecy about it.
Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham:
“All nations will be blessed through you” (Galatians 3:8).
What is more, the personification citation seems to blend the characteristics of both standard and alternative formulae. For instance, in Galatians 3:8, the speaking personification also stresses the representative character of Scripture— as in the standard formula. Yet, as with the alternative formula, Paul considers it important for the audience to understand the context of the quotation: who Abraham is, along with the surrounding narrative couching this pivotal promise made to the faithful-but-uncircumcised patriarch. As Paul goes on to argue, the fate of the Galatians’ faith depends on it! (See Galatians 3–5.)
Returning to Romans 10, there, Paul has Righteousness cite Scripture amid a conversation about God’s faithfulness and the redemption of Israel. The personification citation underlines for us the way to righteousness and salvation— emphatically by faith, not through the Law. In juxtaposition to what Moses writes in Leviticus 18:5, with the personification citation, Righteousness stands up as the apostle’s witness to up the ante by quoting back Moses’ own words spoken in Deuteronomy 30.
But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame” (Romans 10:6–11).
Not only does Righteousness one-up Moses by having the last word, Paul uses the personification to show that while Moses writes, Righteousness speaks. Moreover, instead of the apostle just citing Scripture, he has Righteousness quote Scripture so that—to borrow from Richard Hays—the text’s “latent sense is alleged to be identical with the manifest claims of his own proclamation.”1 Such is the nature of Paul’s appeal to the authority of Scripture: to reject his gospel is to disagree with divine Righteousness herself, who correctly interprets the text and proclaims God’s truth.
Once again, in comparison to the alternative formula in 10:5, the personification citation here in 10:6 is anonymous (as with the standard formula). That is, it does not cite the original author (i.e., Moses) or the context of the quote (i.e., Moses’ address to Israel about their continuous failure to keep the Law). In this case, the citation is even placed over against the original author and radically applied to a new context. But, as with the alternative formula, the word is being spoken in the present. For a person unfamiliar with Deuteronomy, there is little to indicate Righteousness is quoting from it.2 But those familiar with the Torah would have observed that what Righteousness now speaks to the Church through this citation outshines the original setting, making the original text and context a pregnant foreshadowing of the Law’s ultimate goal—to point to the future salvation for Jews and Gentiles through the incarnation and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Follow the Treasure Maps
Growing up, I heard an axiom about how when you rake, all you get is leaves, but when you dig, you might find gold. When it comes to Bible study, most people (and maybe many pastors’ sermons) end up with the same stale pile of leaves instead of the life-changing gems that come from digging deep. For those interested in the latter, following the treasure maps Paul provides with standard and alternative quotations and personification citations is a good place to begin.
1Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (London: Yale University Press, 1989), 82–83.
2Stanley, Christopher D. Arguing with Scripture: The Rhetoric of Quotations in the Letters of Paul, T & T Clark International, New York Etc., 2004, pp. 38–61.