Review of Moyise, Paul and Scripture

Steve Moyise, Paul and Scripture: Studying the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010. 151 pp. $21.99, paper.

Published in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15.4 (2011): 79–81.

The best thing about this book is its interaction with modern scholarship. The best thing about the book’s interaction with modern scholarship is the final chapter on “Modern Approaches to Paul’s Use of Scripture.” In this chapter Steve Moyise summarizes recent attempts to understand Paul’s use of the OT by describing scholars according to three categories: intertextual approaches, narrative approaches, and rhetorical approaches.

The intertextual approach of Richard Hays seeks to pay close attention not only to the texts Paul explicitly quotes but also to the ways other texts are alluded to, evoked, or echoed. Moyise reproduces the criteria Hays has set forth for assessing allusions, and he also discusses the work of Timothy Berkley.

The narrative approach of N. T. Wright holds that Paul taught people to read the OT “in the light of an overall narrative framework” (117). This seeks to put the fragments of Scripture that might be echoed or alluded to into the wider storyline Paul seems to assume. Here Moyise also discusses work done by Ross Wagner, Sylvia Keesmaat, and Francis Watson.

The rhetorical work of Christopher Stanly suggests that Paul’s audience would not have known the OT well enough to make either the intertextual or narrative explanations work, and Stanley seems to hold that Paul is simply trying to “enhance his stature among the Romans and increase their openness to his argument” (122). The work of John Paul Heil is briefly reviewed under this heading as well.

I am convinced that Paul is not simply out to score rhetorical points, and that he is saturated with the Scriptures (Hays), which he does read in light of a typological understanding of the narrative flow of Israel’s history (Wright).

As he discusses modern authors, Moyise is careful to understand what they are saying, and it is clear that he shares their general outlook and thought-world. As he discusses Paul, it is clear that Moyise is not trying to describe Paul’s worldview so that he himself can embrace that worldview and interpret the Bible and life in line with it. The chapters that precede the final one are driven more by the modern scholarly discussion than by a sympathetic attempt to trace the contours of Paul’s symbolic universe.

Moyise appears to think that Paul’s world-view is now defunct, and thus his arguments no longer work. He writes, “the advantage of ‘solution to plight’ for modern readers is that Paul’s arguments might still have value now that the theory of evolution makes it impossible – for most people – to believe in a literal Adam and Eve. If Paul is making deductions about Christ and salvation based on the facticity of the Adam and Eve story, it is hard to see how they can continue to command support” (29). Similarly, Moyise writes, “The early Christians lived in a world that was thought to be governed by gods and spirits” (52).

Moyise not only rejects Paul’s worldview, he rejects Paul’s own understanding of Scripture. Discussing Francis Watson’s views, Moyise writes, “Modern scholars recognize this as a reference to the exile, and written by those who witnessed it. Deuteronomy is not a unified book by Moses but a collection of traditions, some of which date from a much later time. But Paul would have read it as a prophecy that though blessing through obedience to the law is a genuine offer, it will in fact lead to curse” (70).

On a related point, if one were seeking a “rationale for Paul’s use of the Adam–Christ typology,” one might look to the OT itself. That’s not where Moyise looks. He looks to the scholarly guild. Moyise writes, “According to Wright, therefore, the rationale for the Adam–Christ typology is that Jewish tradition had already associated Israel with Adam . . . as far as we know, it was Paul’s innovation to connect Adam with Christ” (21). If Moyise had gone deeper into the OT itself, he would find that the biblical authors themselves viewed Adam as a prototype. Moreover, the authors of the OT present subtle indications that other characters are installments in the pattern of what happened with Adam. We find these indications with Noah, Abraham, Israel, Boaz, David (cf. Ps 8), and Solomon (1 Kgs 4:24, 33). If David is connected to Adam in Psalm 8 (and cf. Gen 1:26–28 with Ps 8ss and 8:6–8), then when Paul makes a connection from Adam to Christ, he is simply taking his cues from interpretive moves already made in the OT.

Moyise never says that the ideas of modern scholars are “strange,” “unusual,” or “arbitrary.” Rather than use these kinds of descriptors, he patiently tries to understand what these authors mean, seeking the inner logic of their claims. He could show Paul the same courtesy. Instead, he writes (italics mine):

  • “It is unclear what led Paul to describe Christ as the ‘last Adam’,” (20),
  • “Paul strangely talks about the effects of Adam’s sin on ‘the many’. . . (24)
  • “God then makes a covenant with Abraham, involving a rather strange ritual of fire passing between the carcasses” (32).
  • On Galatians 3:6–9, “What is surprising about this argument, from a Gentile Christian’s perspective . . .” (35). On the next page he presumes to offer Paul some help: “Would it not be more appropriate to say . . . ? Perhaps, but that does not appear to be Paul’s concern here” (36).
  • “Such an interpretive move could be seen as arbitrary” (37).
  • “Paul uses a quasi-linguistic argument . . . This is a strange argument for two reasons . . . it is fallacious since sperma (‘seed’ or ‘offspring’) is a collective singular, meaning descendants. Not only is it false . . . the context also makes it quite clear that a plurality was intended. . . . How can Paul think this argument is convincing?” (41).

If I were reading a book about the way that Virgil made use of Homer, I would not need the author to tell me Virgil’s outlook was different than my own. If I want to understand Virgil, what I am looking for in such a book is an explanation of Virgil’s agenda from Virgil’s perspective. If the author repeatedly told me that Virgil’s views were strange, if he told me that modern mythology is superior to Virgil’s, I might suspect that the modern author operates from the bias that his own way of viewing the world is superior to Virgil’s. This does not advance historical understanding. The modern author does not have to believe that Aeneas was descended from a goddess, but he can explain how that concept fit within Virgil’s worldview, what influenced the idea, and what significance it had in Virgil’s world. I want the scholar to show me how these things made sense to Virgil. I can decide for myself whether I think them strange, unusual, or unclear.

In addition to the issue of historical understanding, there are theological issues at stake for Christians thinking about the use Paul made of earlier Scripture. People looking for an explanation of Paul’s use of the OT that probes the primary sources for the deep structure of Paul’s understanding of the Bible and the world, an explanation that does not jump to the conclusion that Paul’s claims are “arbitrary” and “fallacious,” will have to look elsewhere. These matters are not morally and spiritually neutral. Christians believe that everything depends on the Bible being true. What hope do we have if Paul’s arguments do not make sense?