Seeking the Shape of Paul’s Deuteronomy

Because Paul is convinced that Deuteronomy ultimately speaks to the people of God composed of Jew and Gentile who are welcomed by the one God on the basis of faith in Jesus the Messiah, he believes that the circumcision of their hearts by the Spirit now enables them to fulfill the law – not as an entrance requirement but as a guide to what is holy, just and good, though filtered through the shocking disclosure of the cross and resurrection of Christ.

See Also: Paul and the Early Jewish Encounter with Deuteronomy (Baker Academic, 2013)

By David Lincicum
Mansfield College, Oxford
July 2013

Does the apostle Paul read Scripture (i.e., the Greek Jewish Scriptures or the Christian Old Testament) with any sort of coherent strategy, or do we merely have evidence for his atomistic, opportunistic raids on the sacred text reflected in his letters?

Pauline scholars have debated these questions for some time, spurred not least by Richard Hays’s justly influential book, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1989). At times the debate has degenerated into an attempt either to exonerate or to condemn Paul, judged according to his concern for ‘context’ understood according to the standards of modern historical-critical sensibilities about the meaning of the Old Testament. Needless to say this is immensely problematic: Paul was a Second Temple Jewish author, trained not in the critical approaches of a Harvard or an Oxford, but in the Pharisaic schools of his day. Many of course now recognize this fact, and have sought to contextualize the apostle’s hermeneutics in the interpretative practices of his time.

This is often done, in an entirely justified manner, by noticing the individual verses that Paul cites and comparing how other Second Temple authors use the same verses. But what happens if we zoom the camera out and ask about how Paul construes books as a whole? After all, the meaning ascribed to the same sentence by two different authors may at first blush seem very similar, until it is set within their larger hermeneutical projects. For a few of Paul’s favorite scriptural books – notably Isaiah, Psalms, Genesis and Deuteronomy – we may well have enough evidence to reconstruct elements of a larger construal. It is just such an attempt I have recently made for Paul’s reading of Deuteronomy.

In speaking of such a construal, I rely on a point made by David Kelsey in his examination of “the uses of Scripture in modern theology.”1 He writes, “Close examination of theologians’ actual uses of scripture in the course of doing theology shows that they do not appeal to some objective text-in-itself but rather to a text construed as a certain kind of whole having a certain kind of logical force”. In this case, we are interested not in Scripture as a whole but in the book of Deuteronomy. Even to pose the question is to acknowledge that Deuteronomy is not always the same Deuteronomy to each of its readers, but that one can speak meaningfully of Josephus’s or the Temple Scroll’s or the Gospel of Matthew’s Deuteronomy as much as Paul’s Deuteronomy. In this sense, the shape of a particular author’s construal of the book must be ascertained differentially and deictically, and so inevitably in a somewhat discursive fashion.

To be concerned with Deuteronomy as in some sense a whole arguably corresponds in important ways to the realia of its encounter in antiquity. Deuteronomy enjoyed a widespread popularity during the Second Temple period, a popularity that is probably both occasioned by and reflected in its liturgical prominence. The material exigencies of books and reading, the public recitation of the Torah in worship, the practices of tefillin and mezuzot (all too often neglected in studies of the use of Scripture in literary texts), contribute to the basic force Deuteronomy comes to bear in this period.

A liturgical setting provides a viable Sitz im Leben for considering Paul’s initial encounters with Deuteronomy as a book (i.e., a roll). All of our early Greek manuscripts show evidence of being designed for public reading, and the importance of such an act of public reading is strengthened when approached via the more sociological concerns with low literacy rates and an interpenetration of the oral and the written on the one hand, and from the more particularly archaeological and literary attestation to the synagogue and its activities on the other. Deuteronomy was an emphatically public book, and one that specifically commended its own internalization and memorization. Given Paul’s background and what we can surmise of his education, and especially in light of the liturgical setting in which he would have encountered Deuteronomy in the regular rhythm of Sabbath worship, that he had followed Deuteronomy’s cues and pondered it deeply, quite possibly committing it to memory in its entirety, seems entirely possible. This gains support in the rather broad distribution of his quotations across the book, though admittedly he does have certain preferred loci.

Indeed, the evidence tells definitively against the sufficiency of testimonia theories that envision Paul’s encounter with Scripture in atomistic form. Such theories suggest either that Paul received as traditional some sort of pre-formulated collection of Christian proof-texts which he then used to his own ends in his letters, or that in the course of his study he jotted down individual texts in notebooks to use in his later letters, and so his primary source for the Old Testament quotations was his collection of decontextualized quotes. Both variations have a common emphasis on texts isolated and removed from their original contexts, though, admittedly, more stress is placed on this in the former. But both forms of the theory, especially when offered as global understandings of Paul’s engagement with Scripture, suffer from the weakness of ascribing to Paul a modern individualist’s modus operandi. A liturgical-anamnetic encounter with Deuteronomy, especially when seen alongside the positive evidence of the Deuteronomy citations in Paul’s letters, proves to be a much more viable global option for understanding Paul’s encounter with the sacred text.

But the evidence also suggests that liturgical interest was not evenly distributed across Deuteronomy’s thirty-four chapters, but especially centered on some key texts. The tefillin and the mezuzot, along with the recitation of the Shema‘ and collections of excerpted texts from Qumran, all demonstrate a sustained interest in Deut 5:1–6:9, 10:12–11:21, and 32:1–43. This selection of texts corresponds to a significant portion of Paul’s quotations from Deuteronomy (see Rom 7:7; 10:19; 12:19; 13:9; 15:10; 1 Cor 8:4–6; cf. Rom 9:14; Gal 2:6; Phil 2:15). While our actual knowledge of Paul’s own liturgical praxis, both before and after his commission as an apostle, is decidedly slim, this suggests that whether Paul abandoned some of his prior liturgical commitments or decided to continue in them as far as possible (as Acts seems to suggest), he shared with the Judaism of his time a penchant for reflection on the texts that were central to the life of the worshiping community. Paul counts himself among those on whom the words of Deuteronomy sovereignly impose themselves as divinely authoritative, received in a liturgical act that constitutes Paul as less an interpreter than a servant of the viva vox dei.

This liturgical koine suggests that other rough contemporaries of Paul will also have encountered Deuteronomy holistically, and so can be brought into critical comparison with the apostle and his reading of the last book of the Pentateuch. In fact, a broad tradition of subsequent interpretation and re-appropriation of Deuteronomy was virtually assured in light of two factors: Deuteronomy served as a fundamental and normative text expressing to its recipients the will of God, and the conditions in which Deuteronomy later came to be read and heard no longer aligned with those to which it originally addressed itself. Thus, if Brevard Childs is correct in claiming that Deuteronomy “instructs future Israel on the manner in which past tradition is properly made alive in fresh commitment to the God of the covenant”, it is equally true that the manner in which these instructions were followed varied widely among those who considered themselves addressed as Israel. We might say that Deuteronomy was therefore widely encountered as both constraint and possibility – as constraint, in that its normativity was granted as binding; as possibility, in that its very consciousness of resourcing posterity lent itself to multiple and irreducibly diverse interpretations.

This dual aspect of Deuteronomy’s reception, therefore, makes possible a comparative investigation. If all interpreters agree on the sheer givenness of Deuteronomy’s authority as Torah, the precise interpretative goals with which they approach the end of the Pentateuch differ in intriguing ways. Examining this broader effective history of Deuteronomy led me to sketch a succession of engagements with Deuteronomy, ranging chronologically from Tobit and the Temple Scroll to the Targums.

My hope has not been to offer an exhaustive and archival catalogue of every place where a quotation from Deuteronomy appears in Second Temple Jewish literature, but rather to arrive at a representative typology of reading strategies as discerned in various corpora. This should, I think, clarify Paul’s own employment of Deuteronomy by supplying not simply parallel instances of citation of the same passage, but also some indication of the overall shape and function of Deuteronomy in authors and texts from a variety of standpoints.

As I have suggested, the habituating impulse of liturgical recitation ensured that Deuteronomy would have a widespread influence. If Paul and other Jewish authors produced their literary output in their mature adult years, by this time they might have heard Deuteronomy in its entirety perhaps dozens of times. This, together with the sheer physical presence of the scroll of Deuteronomy itself, indicates that for these authors Deuteronomy is not a hypertext, an intertext, a fragment – rather it is a book that in its very physicality suggests a certain wholeness.

When we look at how Second Temple authors approach the book, we find that interest in Deuteronomy is well-attested across its span, though a number of texts concentrate especially on its closing chapters. This may simply be due to our relative lack of legal texts from the period, as some of the most substantial interest in Deuteronomy’s legal section stems from manuscripts recovered from the Qumran finds – the motivation to copy and preserve Second Temple legal texts is absent in later Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism for different reasons, but with the same result. It may also be that Deuteronomy is more difficult to distinguish from its parallel content in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers in certain instances. Nevertheless, in addition to the halakhic employment of Deuteronomy in the Temple Scroll, Damascus Document, 4QMMT, and the later Sifre, both Philo and Josephus spend proportionately at least as long expounding the legal sections of Deuteronomy as the narrative frame. In this light, we can draw attention to several instances in which Paul offers ethical instruction based on the last book of the Pentateuch, and so participates in this broad ethical interest of the Second Temple period. If the volume of his ethical recourse to Deuteronomy does not match that of all his Jewish peers, the particularity of the problems to which he addresses himself in his pastoral letters may provide some explanation.

Strikingly, several texts rearrange Deuteronomy’s precepts: the Temple Scroll rearranges and rewrites them from a first-person divine perspective, Philo gathers them under the ten headings supplied by the Decalogue, Paul further crystallizes the Decalogue by means of the love command, and Josephus arranges them in rough topicality to illustrate the constitution of Israel. Apparently the order and structure of Deuteronomy’s laws was less than clear, and there was some attempt to search for or impose an order on the scattered precepts. It is also worth noting that wherever legal exegesis occurs, except in the later Sifre, it demonstrates an actualizing or updating tendency.

In reference to the closing chapters of Deuteronomy (27-34), at least two different stances toward the material may be discerned. First, these chapters supply biographical material for the last words and actions of Moses, a unique contribution of Deuteronomy to the canonical portrait of Israel’s leader. A biographical interest may be discerned especially in Pseudo-Philo (LAB 19), Philo’s de Vita Mosis, and Josephus’s Antiquitates. Such biographical interest usually serves a larger interpretative goal of the author (e.g., for Philo, showing that Moses is a prophet; for Josephus, demonstrating the fame and virtue of the lawgiver, etc.). Paul, at least in his surviving letters, shows no interest in such biographical representations of Moses. Perhaps the single exception is drawn from Exodus rather than Deuteronomy: the story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32–34), which Paul interprets theologically at length in 2 Corinthians 3.

Second, interest in the final chapters of Deuteronomy stems from those seeking to understand Israel’s plight. These can be divided into two perspectives. The first employs a fictionalization to stand with Moses on the other side of the Jordan and consider Israel’s history in advance. This perspective highlights divine justice and also suggests that, since the predictions have been correct about the judgment, they must be correct about the restoration as well. In fact, similar conclusions can be drawn from those who stand at the current horizon and look back toward Moses’s words as retrospectively vindicated in light of Israel’s apostasy. Among the former, anticipatory perspective, we might place the Testament of MosesJubilees 1, LAB 19, and the Apocryphon of Jeremiah C fragments from Qumran (4Q385a, 4Q387a, 4Q388a, 4Q389, 4Q390);2 among the latter, retrospective perspective belong 4QMMT, Baruch, 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Philo and Josephus. What is more striking than any difference in perspective, however, is the widespread recourse to the final chapters of Deuteronomy to understand the past as well as to comprehend the future, individual differences in interpretation notwithstanding. This stands in contrast, for example, to Sifre’s reading of the Blessings of Moses that identifies them as already having been realized within biblical history, rather than partially realized and partially remaining. It is with this second group of authors, who consider that the final chapters of Deuteronomy shed light on Israel’s history in retrospect, that Paul may be fruitfully compared.

Arguably the best way to hold together the disparate evidence we find in Paul is to extend the suggestion that Paul reads Deuteronomy backwards, in at least two senses. First, and perhaps most clearly, Paul reads Deuteronomy retrospectively from the standpoint of an apostle of the Messiah to the nations. The apocalyptic3 elements in Paul’s thought and experience have disrupted a straightforward appeal to Deuteronomy as law, at least as far as Gentile inclusion in the people of God is concerned and the attendant problem of Deuteronomy’s curse. So while Paul can share a Deuteronomic diagnosis of Israel’s history (even while in fact further redefining this notion), he does not show evidence of the Deuteronomic prognosis of so many contemporaries because, for him, in Christ the solution to the plight has already been disclosed – which is to say, his solution to the failure of Israel’s obedience to the law (as he construes it) is not simply to urge them to try harder. In this sense, to ask whether Paul argues from plight to solution or from solution to plight is something of a false dichotomy: plight and solution clarify one another; Scripture and gospel are mutually interpretive. What is more, because for Paul faith in the one Lord constitutes the people of God, Deuteronomy cannot have its entrance-keeping function any longer. The shift in reference Paul suggests in Deuteronomy’s word of Torah now discloses Christ as the law’s goal (cf. Romans 10).

But there is a second sense in which Paul reads Deuteronomy backwards: he presents the scroll to his fledgling churches through the lens of its final chapters first, and only then does he come to its ethical chapters. This is less a statement of epistolary presentation than it is of conceptual presentation. Because Paul is convinced that Deuteronomy ultimately speaks to the people of God composed of Jew and Gentile who are welcomed by the one God on the basis of faith in Jesus the Messiah, he believes that the circumcision of their hearts by the Spirit now enables them to fulfill the law – not as an entrance requirement but as a guide to what is holy, just and good, though filtered through the shocking disclosure of the cross and resurrection of Christ. In this sense, his ethical reading of Deuteronomy is grounded in his way of reading Deuteronomy in light of Christ and the Spirit.

It is in a particular dialectic of fidelity and radicalism – even if only seminally – that Paul must be sought. Paul’s reading of Deuteronomy in some ways reflects certain well-known Jewish strategies of his day, but in other places he refuses these strategies, takes them as his point of departure and presses them to radical ends, or infuses them with Christological meaning. Of course, it should be kept in mind that there are no universally agreed upon “Jewish strategies” that all interpreters share and that could somehow serve as the essence of Jewish engagement with the book. Nevertheless, to see Paul’s encounter with Deuteronomy as one particular instantiation of a broader Second Temple engagement with the end of the Pentateuch sheds interesting light on the apostle. The same experiment might be carried out with the other books in Paul’s functional canon.4


1 In fact, however, there may be certain analogues in the patristic notion of the σκοπός of Scripture, whether in its entirety or in discrete parts. Francis Watson’s work, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith (2004) makes use of a similar concept (he himself makes reference to Kelsey), though my application of it differs from his.

2 In fact, however, the Apocryphon of Jeremiah C fragments apparently attest both proleptic and retrospective perspectives.

3 The term “apocalyptic” is admittedly problematic. Though a full defense would be out of place here, in the present context, it is used with reference to the sudden revaluation of the existing order in light of the death and resurrection of Christ in the middle of history.

4 For more detail, see the book of which this brief essay is a summary: Paul and the Early Jewish Encounter with Deuteronomy, originally published by Mohr Siebeck in 2010 but reprinted at a more affordable price by Baker Academic in 2013.

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