Wednesday, April 06, 2022

On the Supposed Misuse of the Old Testament

Online commentators argue that the apostle Paul misuses the Old Testament.

Some of these are garden-variety cranks, determined to prove all English versions of the Bible inaccurate. They insist reading the Jewish Tanakh is the only way to go. There’s really no placating people like that. Others set Paul against Jesus, maintaining that only the words of Christ really matter, and that the writings of the apostles are unreliable, inferior and downright wrong. Still others, like Pete Enns, object particularly to Paul, arguing that he read the Old Testament out of context, failing to respect what its authors intended to communicate.

How does the average Christian reply to such accusations?

The Argument from Inspiration

One tried-and-true method is to assert that Paul was an apostle in possession of direct revelation from God. The case is bolstered by the apostle Peter’s reference to Paul’s writings as “scripture”. If Peter is right, then Paul’s words were “breathed out by God”. He was “carried along by the Holy Spirit”.

Thus the man’s interpretive technique, or apparent lack of it, is beyond reproach. If we cannot follow his logic, that’s our problem. We will not be the first to find Paul “hard to understand”. And in any case, anyone who argues Paul misused scripture obviously does not believe in the doctrine of inspiration, so his opinion is worthless.

Hey, it’s a valid argument, if a bit dismissive.

The Argument from Usage

If we prefer to offer something a little more nuanced, we might broaden our understanding of how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament by reading David Gooding’s The Riches of Divine Wisdom, in which, as the jacket blurb puts it, Gooding “considers five different major thought categories of the New Testament’s interpretation that encompass the many insights that it employs as tools for harvesting the wealth of the Old”. There’s a great deal we can learn about interpretation and application from the writers of the New Testament, and Gooding’s very accessible book is a great place to start.

If Gooding is right that calling on the text of the Old Testament to provide direct evidence for the Christian faith is only one of many ways the writers of the NT used the OT, and I think he is, it seems to me one of our major problems in understanding how Paul approaches the Old Testament is that we assume he is doing something he is not actually doing, and then charge him with failing at a task he never attempted. 

Unpacking the Problem

But generalizations without specific evidence are notoriously unhelpful, and cases of alleged “misuse” can only be unpacked one by one. So let’s take Romans 10 as an example. Initially at least, those who argue Paul misquotes or misapplies scripture appear to have a case, when we compare Paul’s text to the words of Moses in Deuteronomy:

Paul in Romans 10 Moses in Deuteronomy 30
“The righteousness based on 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 abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim).” “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

While these passages are certainly similar, even if we leave out what at first glance appear to be Paul’s parenthetical explanations of Moses, it is evident the text in Romans is not the text of Deuteronomy. Paul has “descend into the abyss” where Moses has “go over the sea”. The standard explanation about such variations — that Paul is quoting the Septuagint (a respected Greek translation of the Hebrew OT in common use in the first century) rather than the original Hebrew — will not do in this instance; the English translations of the Hebrew and Greek of Deuteronomy are almost word for word.

Two Different Arguments

Moreover, Moses is very evidently not talking about a righteousness based on faith. If he is, he’s managed to be spectacularly unclear about it. Rather, he appears to be telling the people of Israel that God’s law is not impossible to keep. Christ is nowhere in view.

William MacDonald comments:

“The interesting thing is that, in their setting in Deuteronomy, these verses are not referring to faith and the gospel at all. They are speaking about the law, and specifically the commandment to ‘turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul’ (Deut. 30:10b). God is saying that the law is not hidden, distant, or inaccessible.”

Now, I disagree with MacDonald about the particular commandment to which Moses is referring; I believe he is probably looking back to 27:1 (which is a command) rather than 30:10 (which isn’t). But his observation is correct as it stands: anything in Deuteronomy about righteousness based on faith must be inferred. It is simply not there in any honest, straightforward reading of the text.

This being the case, there is a legitimate claim to be made that Paul is not only misquoting Deuteronomy, he’s misinterpreting his misquotation egregiously. We are not being “ignorant” or “unstable”, in the words of Peter, if we happen to notice and point out the problem.

A Problem That Is

But is there really a problem?

Our modern English Bibles certainly tell us there is, whenever they take New Testament text that is similar to Old Testament text and stick it in quotes for us. The ESV is particularly diligent about this, often putting words and phrases in quotes that I’m not sure were intended as strict quotations at all. But this is purely a late quirk of the English language. No quotation marks exist in the Greek. The translators of scripture, while knowledgeable and highly skilled, have no special insight into apostolic intent.

Further, well-intentioned and wise commentators like Bill MacDonald imply there is an issue when they say things like “Paul first quotes from Deuteronomy 30:12-13”, all the while noting the many differences between the two passages. Sure, it is remotely conceivable Paul is indeed quoting Moses, but invoking his apostolic privilege to revise “go over the sea” to “descend into the abyss” in hope it might make his argument more compelling. But I think that scenario highly unlikely. Moreover, if Paul is quoting Moses to say the Old Testament explicitly teaches righteousness based on faith, then he’s setting Moses against Moses, for he begins the verse by saying, “Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” Does that sound like a smart (or a Pauline) way to construct an argument?

Then there’s Tertius, who actually put pen to paper for the apostle. Might not the good scribe have piped up and put in his two cents? “I say, old boy, is there any textual authority for that ‘abyss’ business?” And then there are the many, many readers of Romans who, within Paul’s own lifetime, might have put up their hands in church and said, “Hey, wait a cotton pickin’ minute …” or “Do you think you might want to rephrase that?”

If Paul was incorrectly quoting Moses or incorrectly applying Deuteronomy to the gospel, there was plenty of opportunity to correct him before today. Yet here we are staring at his words, pretty much just as he wrote them.

Strictly speaking, I don’t think Paul is “quoting” Deuteronomy at all.

An Alternative Proposal

Personally, I believe what we have in Romans 10 is Paul constructing a new and different argument.

He constructs his argument along familiar lines, using OT language with which his audience is comfortable. I suspect scholars like David Gooding would refer to this as the literary device known as allusion rather than a “quotation”. In this new argument, Paul is contrasting the righteousness based on faith with the righteousness based on law, not claiming the former was taught by Moses, or that Deuteronomy 30 means something it doesn’t. He’s writing new scripture that references old scripture and reframes its arguments for a new era in God’s dealings with man. In doing so he reveals both similarities and differences between the two approaches.

This righteousness does not require the sinner to work, either by bringing Christ down or by bringing him up (assuming such a thing were possible, which of course it is not), but rather to believe (“if you … believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”). But righteousness based on belief is every bit as present and accessible to the sinner today as righteousness under the law was to the devout Israelite, who Moses encouraged to “turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul”, rather than simply checking the requisite legal boxes.

In Conclusion

Thus when the Old Testament speaks repeatedly of “righteous” men, it is not mere flattery or exaggeration. A sort of relative righteousness was indeed attainable under the law. Men could indeed please God. When Moses told the people of Israel “you can do it”, he meant it. Sadly, most of them did not approach the pursuit of righteousness with a believing heart, and it became evident to those paying attention that something more was needed.

Paul is merely comparing the attainability of righteousness under the old economy to the attainability of righteousness under the new, and using the language of Deuteronomy to make his case. Some still fail to attain to that righteousness, but that does not mean it has not been legitimately offered to them.

With this reading in mind, when Paul asks in verse 8, “What does IT say?” the “it” in question is not Deuteronomy or Moses, but rather the righteousness based on faith, which in verse 6 is said to be “speaking” to us (“But the righteousness based on faith SAYS …”).

Because this is a completely new argument, Paul is perfectly free to modify the original, familiar construction to make his case as he pleases, hence “abyss” for “sea”, because he is speaking about Christ rising from the dead.

If we start our study of Romans 10 by assuming Paul is misquoting and misapplying the Old Testament, we can hardly fail to be unhappy with the implications. But I think there is compelling reason to give the old fellow the benefit of the doubt.


  1. Paul denies all righteousness in the old testament by misquoting the Psalms and using them to make up his new doctrines on sin.
    In Romans 3:10, Paul says that Abel was not righteous as Jesus said, Samuel did not understand, Moses did not seek God's face, that Abraham has turned away, that Elijah and Elisha were altogether worthless, that Boaz had no true kindness, that Enoch's throat was an open grave, the venom of the asp lay behind Jerrmiah's lips, Deborah's mouth was filled with cursing and bitterness, Esther's feet were eager to spill blood at any time, that Solomon knew nothing of peace, that they all deserve to burn in hell forever and ever. Jesus's instruction to keep the commandments were obsolete, that, but that it is faith alone without works that gets you into heaven, not loving attitude, not good intentions, not benevolence, but choosing the right religion. That's Paul's message, and it's nothing that Jesus taught, which was trusting that which is haShem of Jesus (righteousness and love), not intellectual assent that somehow magically makes you a new person.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I will definitely reply to it shortly, but it's worth a full post rather than a couple paragraphs.

    2. Reply will post Wednesday October 12.