In his address to the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia Paul draws on three distinct passages from the Old Testament in order to say something about the resurrection of Jesus: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Acts 13:33; cf. Ps. 2:7); “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David” (13:34; cf. Is. 55:3); “You will not let your Holy One see corruption” (13:35; cf. Ps. 16:10). It cannot easily be claimed that any of the three Old Testament texts originally referred to the resurrection of a future Messiah. So, in a critical age, how do we make sense of Paul’s hermeneutic?
Alvin Plantinga makes reference to this passage and several like it in support of the argument that a necessary premise of biblical scholarship is that the Bible is a unified text of which God is the primary author. Plantinga writes: “the fact that the principal author of the Bible is God himself means that one cannot always determine the meaning of a given passage by discovering what the human author had in mind.”1 So whereas Isaiah “had in mind” penitent and chastened Israel when he wrote, “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David”, the divine author behind the historical Isaiah intended this as a reference to Jesus.
This seems to me an unhelpful and really quite unnecessary way of accounting for Paul’s apparent misuse of Old Testament prophecy. It’s an improvement on the traditional view that Isaiah or the Psalmist was directly prophesying about Jesus. But it still looks like just another way of preserving a false ideal of biblical integrity against the perceived threat of historical criticism. The whole package of the Bible gets wrapped up in the comforting, smothering bubblewrap of divine authorship in order to conceal the intrinsic, realistic historical situatedness of the texts.
This is not exactly the point that Daniel Kirk made recently in a post on The Miracle of Scripture, but it’s close:
The miracle of scripture does not consist in the fact that God kept the Bible free from taint of humanness, and especially of human limitation or sin.
Instead, the miracle of scripture consists, as in the salvation of humanity more generally, in the fact that God makes himself known through what is all too human, all too limited, all too often mistaken.
My concern here is less with the problem of error—I am not attributing “error” to Paul or Luke—as with the basic condition of historicality. God makes himself known through the fallible medium of human authorship. But he also makes himself known through the contingencies of human history—and the Psalms and Isaiah and Paul’s speech in Antioch of Pisidia and Acts 13 all share in the contingencies of history. This should not be a cause of anxiety. It is not something to be painted over with the big theological brush of divine authorship.
Evangelicals do not need to be so afraid of history. It is history that safeguards the prophetic otherness of scripture, but it does so on its own terms.
The “meaning” of Isaiah or of a Psalm is what the original author had in mind—or perhaps better, what the original community within which or for which the text was written understood by it. That is the case whether the writer was speaking on behalf of God (as in Is. 55:3) or not (as in Ps. 16:10). It is not altered by what Paul has to say about Jesus in Acts 13.
There are a number of important exegetical questions that we should then ask when we come to Paul’s sermon. Did Paul himself think that the Old Testament writer had a resurrected Messiah in mind? Is he using the Jewish scriptures in a rhetorical or polemical or even subversive fashion? Does he simply conform to midrashic convention? Is he invoking not merely atomistic “prophecies” but—by metalepsis—whole narratives through which he retells Jesus’ story as Israel’s story? These are essentially historical questions—to whatever extent Luke’s reconstruction of the events in Antioch can be trusted.
But however we explain Paul’s use of these texts, we have no need to resort to Plantinga’s dubious anti-historical stratagem of claiming that God was making the Old Testament texts mean something other than their human authors intended them to mean. Paul certainly would not have entertained that critical distinction—we can hardly imagine him explaining to Timothy that Isaiah said this, but God meant something rather different.
This is not to say that either the Old Testament authors or Paul were not inspired by God, that God was not speaking to their respective audiences through them. It is simply to insist that Paul was responsible—knowingly or unknowingly, constructively or carelessly—for making use of the quotations in a way that was literally inconsistent with their original context. Part of his meaning—historically speaking—was the odd or problematic use that he makes of the texts.
- 1. A. Plantinga, “Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship”, in C.G. Bartholomew, et al. (eds.), ‘Behind’ the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation (Zondervan, 2003), 26-27.