Was Paul an Exegete?


by Henry E. Neufeld

Paul is often held up as the prime example and the prime source of guidance for modern Christians. Often this is to the detriment of the teachings and writings of Jesus himself. I am not, however, interested in attacking Paul. I would rather simply suggest a balance in how we use the words of Jesus and how we understand Paul. Paul was an apostle, and apostles are human. Paul never thought he was writing scripture; rather, he was writing pastoral (or apostolic) letters to churches he had helped to found. His writings are extremely interesting and important. 

In this essay I want to examine Paul as an exegete. Did Paul ever engage in exegesis of scripture? Did he ever even intend to? It is my contention that he did not. In fact, what Paul did with quotations from the Hebrew scriptures is rarely exegetical in nature at all. Paul certainly felt that he was using the words within an appropriate theological system, but he was not using them in the context of, and with the same understanding as the original writers. He did not, in fact, intend to. 

Let’s look at some key Pauline quotations from the Old Testament and ask whether Paul’s view is similar to the intent of the original author. 

There is none righteous (everyone is under sin), Romans 3:9-20. I’m going to focus on the first part of the quotation (verses 10-12) that comes from Psalm 14:1-3 (also Ps 53:1-3). Here Paul quotes the Psalm: 

“There is nobody righteous, not even one.
There is nobody who understands.
There is nobody seeking God.” (My translation from Paul’s Greek)

Pretty dismal, eh? This is the proof text that, via Paul, has become the key reason why Christians are never allowed to feel that they have accomplished or attained anything. But what does the original passage actually intend? What is the context of the original? In context we find that the Psalm starts this way: 

1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is no one who does good.
2 The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind
    to see if there are any who are wise,
    who seek after God.
3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
    there is no one who does good,
    no, not one.
            Psalm 14:1-3 (NRSV) 

You may get the idea that Paul left something out of the context right from the first verse. (I suggest you read the entire Psalm.) This is a prayer for deliverance whilst under the power of an enemy. We are introduced first to the fool in the first verse, who is not an atheist, despite popular usage of this passage, but rather one who does not believe that God is watching and will take action, and then we find that the people described, the people God is looking at are the oppressors. If you are doubting that I’m right here, and think God is searching universally in verses 2 & 3, then look at the second half of verse 5 “…God is with the company of the righteous.” So God is there, there are righteous people and God is with them and working for them. But instead of continuing with that part of the quote Paul proceeds with a patchwork that comes from as many as six other passages continuing to talk about how evil everyone is. 

Now Paul, in Romans, is also not dealing with the kind of universal unrighteousness that many see here. Paul’s point is that both Jews and gentiles have failed to attain to the righteousness that God expects. Nonetheless the psalmist is not making Paul’s point in this passage. To continue, the next portion (verse 13) is quoted from Psalm 5:9, and in the Psalm it is specifically spoken of the psalmist’s enemies, and has no intent of describing the moral condition of the entire human species. Read all of Psalm 5, and see if you would get the idea of universal unrighteousness from that passage apart from Paul. 

The potter and the clay, Romans 9:20. In this passage Paul alludes quite clearly to Jeremiah 18:6, in this case arguing that God can use anyone for whatever destiny he desires as a potter uses the clay. In particular, Paul wants to focus on the undeserved nature of God’s election. The potter and the clay has become a kind of Christian cliché, spurred on by the hymn, “Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” And yet in Jeremiah, this image has quite a different meaning. If you continue reading in Jeremiah 18, you will find that the point is quite different. God is telling the Israelites that he can change his promise of blessing or his promise of judgment according to the behavior of the people involved. 

It is the word of faith which we preach (Romans 10:8). In verse 8, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 30:12-14 in part. “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” And then he continues: “This is the word of faith which we preach.” But what is the word that is spoken of in Deuteronomy? It is, in fact, the Torah, which Moses is saying is not out of the reach of the people to keep and to live by (Deuteronomy 30:15-16).

I believe that these examples suffice to show that frequently Paul is not doing exegesis-he is not extracting meaning from the passage-but is rather using the wording in his own new theological system. How you should judge that depends on your view of Paul. I view Paul as inspired, and therefore consider his words to be of value in and of themselves. But because I have examined passages that he quotes in their original context, I do not allow Paul to determine or limit how I will understand a passage from the Hebrew scriptures.