Commentary Magazine


Saint Paul

To the Editor:

. . . I am puzzled over Hyam Maccoby’s statement in his review of Michael Grant’s Saint Paul [Books in Review, December 1976] that “There is no solid evidence that Paul even knew the Hebrew Bible, since his quotations are all from the Greek translation, the Septuagint.” To the contrary, many commentators have produced “solid evidence” that Paul more often than not did use the Hebrew text rather than the Septuagint (which, perhaps, was not even completed in Paul’s lifetime). J. C. ‘Neill, for example, in his commentary on the text of Romans (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 1975), points to Romans 9:32-33 as “another clear example of Paul’s use of the Hebrew original.”

The really troublesome point about Paul (his use of texts notwithstanding) is not whether he thought of himself as a Christian or as a Jew. Indeed, Paul’s principal problem was how to reconcile both beliefs without destroying either. The problem, needless to say, is still very much with us. Ironically (in light of Paul’s teachings) the Christian Church, high and low, is beginning to recognize that in order to be truly Christian, it must first discover, or rediscover, its Jewishness; it is this recognition, I suspect, that is at the bottom of the present state (satisfactory or not) of Pauline studies.

E. L. Dachslager
Houston, Texas

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To the Editor:

Hyam Maccoby ends his analysis by lamenting the “present unsatisfactory state of Pauline studies.” What a satisfactory state would be, I am not sure; but I am sure that definitions of a satisfactory state of Pauline studies would differ, as men differ about the Apostle Paul. This dissatisfaction is inbred among scholars whenever the New Testament is approached only as literature or history. . . . The root of the difficulty can be traced to one quotation from Mr. Maccoby’s review: “. . . Profiat Duran began to study the New Testament instead of accepting at face value the Christian Church’s account of what Jesus stood for.” How does one do this, when the New Testament is the collection of confessional documents of that Church—including the letters of Paul—written for specific purposes? At such a point of departure from the Church, the situation is ripe for every manner of opinion: from Passover plots, to Paul the charlatan, Paul the villain, Paul of a thousand faces. . . .

The Epistles of Paul, because they are confessional documents of the Church, should not be separated from the body that confessed them, and which decided, by its authority, which documents were authentic expressions of its living tradition, and which were not—hence the word canonical. . . .

Apart from this, Mr. Maccoby does Paul certain injustices. He faults Paul for his Greek quotations, for example from Hosea 13:14, and questions whether Paul knew any Hebrew texts. There was a similar criticism of literalism in Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 21:23. Yet the talmudic rabbis often differ about the meaning of texts, and these differences become schools of opinion. Is it so startling that Paul chooses an interpretation of the text which is in harmony with his belief in Jesus? . . . This does not mean he was necessarily unfamiliar with the Hebrew, or with differing interpretations, or that he was less a Jew, but only that he made his exegesis in the light of Jesus.

Incidentally, the New American Bible rendition of Hosea 13:14, which is translated from the original languages, does not differ from Paul’s rendition. As to the question of his knowledge of Hebrew texts, Paul’s thought patterns follow Jewish tradition; for example, the body-soul-spirit relation is not Greek but Hebrew. . . .

Mr. Maccoby, in criticism of Michael Grant’s book, reproaches him with being too respectful to Paul: “. . . [H]e suppresses the evidence of the anti-Pauline literature . . . [for example] the Ebionite denunciations. . . . They reveal a very different Paul: one who was consumed by ambition and envy, and who constructed a post-crucifixion divine Jesus as a rival to the historical Jesus, whom he never knew, because this was the only way to assert his own authority against the apostles James and Peter, who were Jesus’s lifetime companions.”

Why include this? The Ebionites were Jews who acknowledged Jesus as prophet or Messiah, but not as Son of God (see Jean Danielou’s Theology of Jewish Christianity, p. 7). Of course the Ebionites are going to be anti-Paul, but they are going to be anti-Peter and anti-James, too. . . .

Lastly, Paul does not condemn all non-Christians to hell as Mr. Maccoby asserts. See, for example, Romans 11 regarding the Jewish people. In the final analysis, the reason Paul causes so much division, if you will, is that the fundamental point of separation remains constant: between those who with Paul and the Church hold Jesus to be the Incarnate Word of God and His Anointed and those who do not. Such a division will not be obscured in any discussion about Jesus or Paul, however scholarly.

Leonard F. Villa
Brooklyn, New York

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Hyam Maccoby writes:

E. L. Dachslager says, “. . . many commentators have produced ‘solid evidence’ that Paul, more often than not, did use the Hebrew text rather than the Septuagint.” Let us examine, then, Mr. Dachslager’s example, from J. C. O’Neill’s commentary on Romans. (Readers should note that in cases where the Septuagint and the Hebrew text do not differ, no conclusion can be drawn; only where they differ significantly, can any indication appear of whether Paul was following the Hebrew text or the Septuagint translation into Greek.) In the case under consideration (Romans 9:32-33), Paul appears to be quoting from memory, as he runs together Isaiah 8:14 and Isaiah 28:16. In the second part of this collage, there is a clear instance of quotation from the Septuagint. The Hebrew says, “. . . he who has faith will not make haste,” while the Septuagint says, “. . . he who has faith will not be put to shame.” Paul follows the Greek of the Septuagint. Yet O’Neill says, “This is another clear example of Paul’s use of the Hebrew original.” In saying this, O’Neill is ignoring the second part of Paul’s quotation and relying on the first part, where he claims that “. . . the Septuagint is strikingly different” and that Paul follows the Hebrew. But, in fact, the Septuagint is here a close paraphrase of the Hebrew, and Paul’s very slight deviation from the Septuagint is quite understandable in a quotation from memory. So O’Neill’s “clear example” is most unconvincing. Moreover, elsewhere in the same chapter, Paul quotes several times quite unmistakably from the Septuagint, for which O’Neill gives the explanation, “A scribe has added the Septuagint version”!

Earlier Christian commentators admitted quite openly that Paul used only the Septuagint, but recent commentators such as O’Neill, finding this hard to reconcile with the “Jewish Paul,” have produced mountains of pilpul to argue that he used only the Hebrew text. I stand by my assertion that, while there are dozens of examples of Paul quoting from the Septuagint, there is no solid evidence that he ever quoted from the Hebrew text.

While on this subject, let me deal with Leonard F. Villa’s point that the New American Bible, “which is translated from the original languages,” follows the Septuagint, not the Hebrew, in Hosea 13:14, just as Paul does. Such a modern decision may well be justified, since the Septuagint does sometimes have an earlier, more authentic reading than the Hebrew Masoretic text. But that is not the point at issue here. The Masoretic text was substantially the Hebrew text in use among the Jews in Paul’s time (as the Qumran discoveries have proved). If Paul shows no acquaintance with it, this is relevant to the question of whether he was trained as a Pharisee.

Mr. Villa argues that the Gospels are themselves Church documents, so cannot be opposed to Church teachings. I agree that the Gospels are Church documents, but ones which have acquired only a generation or two of Church accretions. The original teaching of Jesus is much more discernible in the Gospels than in medieval formulations which have acquired many centuries of progressive distortion. From the Synoptic Gospels, for example, it is clear that Jesus never claimed to be God; on the contrary, Luke 18:19 shows that such a claim would have been incomprehensible to him.

On Deuteronomy 21:23, Mr. Villa argues that Paul was entitled to his interpretation within the limits of rabbinical disagreement. But the whole point is that the interpretation in question (that God puts a curse on innocent people unfortunate enough to be hanged or crucified) is not a legitimate rabbinical view, because no rabbi would ever have ascribed such stupidity or injustice to God. On the contrary, the rabbinical view is that a hanged man arouses the anger of God against those who, by leaving the body to hang, insult God, since they treat “the image of God” with contempt (the translation endorsed by modern versions, such as the New English Bible).

On the Ebionites, Mr. Villa says that they were opposed to Peter and James, as well as to Paul. Mr. Villa is evidently unfamiliar with the line of thought, developed from F.C. Baur to S.G.F. Brandon, which regards Peter and James as strongly opposed to Paul, and sees Acts as a cover-up of the fundamental rift between Paul and the Jerusalem Church. This line of thought is much strengthened by the abundant evidence that the Ebionites, who opposed Paul, did not oppose Peter or James.

Mr. Villa denies that Paul condemns all non-Christians to hell; the Jewish people will be saved. But this applies only to the Jews of the Last Days who become converted to Christianity, not to those throughout the years who die in their unbelief.

Mr. Villa concludes that the fundamental distinction is between those who deify Jesus and those who do not. The question is, however, did Jesus deify himself? Or was this the work of Paul, acting against the beliefs and teachings of Jesus?

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