This article addresses the question of how Paul dealt with violent scriptures in the Old Testament (OT). Analyzing his usage of the OT, I’ll show that Paul intentionally referenced violent OT scriptures, flipped them around by omitting the violent part, and thereby used them to declare God’s mercy and not divine violence and wrath. This way of interpreting scripture bears witness to his own theological journey away from using violence in God’s name towards rejecting divine violence and retributive justice.
Saul was a perfect pharisee. He was zealous for the Lord, the scriptures, and the law. He obeyed the law so well that he saw himself as blameless (Philippians 3:6).
“For the first century Jew, zeal was something you did with a knife. Those first-century Jews who longed for revolution against Rome looked back to Phinehas and Elijah in the Old Testament, and to the Maccebean heroes two centuries before Paul, as their models. They saw themselves as being “zealous for YHWH,” “zealous for Torah,” and as having the right, and the duty, to put that zeal into operation with the use of violence.” (Wright, 1997:27)
Dunn describes this “zeal” as “an unconditional commitment to maintain Israel’s distinctiveness, to prevent the purity of its covenant set-apartness to God from being adulterated or defiled … expressed precisely in the slaughter of those who threatened Israel’s distinctive covenant status … [T]his must be what Paul had in mind when he speaks of himself as a ‘zealot’ and of his ‘zeal’ manifested in persecution of the church.” (Dunn, 2006:351)
Saul, who diligently had studied the OT, firmly believed that violence was the right way to serve God and to accomplish God’s goals. His reading of the OT led him to commit violence in God’s name, just as God, apparently, often had used violence in the OT to accomplish his purposes.
After his encounter with Jesus, “Paul needed to completely reassess how to understand the Scripture he had previously read in this toxic and violent way, leading him to a radically different understanding of God’s will, and a radically different way of interpreting those same Scriptures.” (Flood, 2014:60)
While Saul’s life was centered around the law, Paul understood the law as powerless to save (Romans 8:3). He started to read and interpret the OT in new ways. Love and compassion became the focus of his new interpretation of the OT (Romans 13:8-10). Just like Jesus, he started to prioritize love over rituals and rules. He turned away from the myth of redemptive violence. Paul started intentionally quoting violent OT scriptures, except he removed the violent parts, thereby reversing the meaning of them and used them to declare God’s mercy and not his violence and wrath.
Here are 3 examples:
Example 1: Romans 15:9 and Psalm 18:41-49
In Romans 15:9 Paul makes the point that the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy. The OT scripture he quotes to verify his statement is Psalm 18:49. Paul knew the context of Psalm 18. Psalm 18:41-49 is all about God empowering David to grind the Gentiles to dust and to crush them like clay (V.42). It’s about the violent defeat and submission of the Gentiles.
But Paul “ignores” these violent parts and with great liberty gives those verses a new meaning. He redeems them from the violent parts and interprets them in light of his encounter with Jesus who taught enemy love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Example 2: 1 Corinthians 15:55 and Hosea 13:14
In 1 Corinthians 15:55, Paul celebrates the victory of God over death: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Actually, he is quoting from Hosea 13:14 which has a completely different context. God is actually saying that he will not redeem Israel from death and that he will not have compassion on them. He will not relent to pour his death judgment on Israel.
Will I deliver them from the power of Sheol? No, I will not! Will I redeem them from death? No, I will not! O Death, bring on your plagues! O Sheol, bring on your destruction! My eyes will not show any compassion! (Hosea 13:14, NET)
Paul took this violent and vengeful portrayal of God, removed the violent part, and turned it into a declaration of God’s victory over death which leads to life for all (1 Corinthians 15:22).
“This was not good news when Hosea said it, but Paul has turned it around. He has taken a passage which in its original context was about violence and death being poured out on people, and transformed it into a declaration of how humanity has been liberated from death because of the Resurrection where Christ overcame and defeated death. Paul is reversing the original context, subverting it, redeeming it.” (Flood, 2014:68)
Example from Jesus: Luke 4:17-30
When Paul reinterpreted these violent OT verses, he followed the example of Jesus. In a similar way, Jesus reinterpreted Isaiah 61. When Jesus read Isaiah 61 in the synagogue he omitted the part about God’s vengeance (Isaiah 61:2). Thereby, Jesus made clear that he is about healing the brokenhearted and bringing good news to the poor. Jesus removed the part about violent vengeance because this part doesn’t truly reflect what God is like. God is not vengeful. God is merciful and compassionate. The Jews were eagerly waiting for God to come and pour his vengeance on the Romans. Jesus omitting their favorite part of Isaiah 61 was too much for them. Right away they got angry with Jesus. Luke 4:22 would be best translated as “All bore witness against him (Marshall, 1978:185) and were shocked (Greek: ethaymazon) at the words of grace coming from his mouth.” Jesus turning a text of God’s violent vengeance into a text of grace was too much for them, and they got enraged and tried to kill Jesus (Luke 4:28-30).
“Jesus and Paul are both confronting this common religious belief that God’s justice comes about through the violent destruction of the ‘bad people’.” (Flood, 2014:72). They both revealed that God is not like that, but that he is love and therefore compassionate and willing to forgive.
“Paul’s realization was that his own religious zeal had tragically led him to become “a violent man” in God’s name, and as a result “the worst of sinners” (1 Tim 1:13, 15). In other words, Paul had read the Bible extensively, religiously, zealously, and had gotten God completely wrong. It wasn’t until he was encountered by Jesus that he was able to go back and re-read Scripture in the light of Christ, consequently embracing a radically different narrative of grace and enemy love found in those same pages.” (Flood, 2014:68).
Realizing how Jesus and Paul interpreted the OT poses some difficult questions for us:
How are we to interpret and understand violent depictions of God in the OT?
What does it look like to take the Bible seriously in light of how Jesus and Paul dealt with the OT?
Are we reading the Bible like Saul or like Paul? Does our reading of the Bible lead us to love or violence?
Book recommendation on this topic: Disarming Scripture (Derek Flood)
Dunn, James. 2006. Theology of Paul the Apostle. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Flood, Derek. 2014. Disarming Scripture. Metanoia Books.
Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 185). Exeter: Paternoster Press.
Wright, N T. 1997. What Saint Paul Really Said. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
More articles related to the topic:
Leave a Reply