Paul, the Allegorizer

My friend and colleague, Claude Mariottini, argues that Paul’s use of not muzzling the ox is not an argument from the lesser (ox) to the greater (apostles) but allegory:

Paul’s argument was that if draft animals could share from the results of their labors, then those who work promoting the cause of Christ should also share from the results of their work.

But Paul is not using a qal wahomer. Paul is allegorizing the text in order to bring canonical authority to his teaching. Paul used allegory here in 1 Corinthians 9:9, in 1 Corinthians 10:4 where he identifies the rock that provided water for the Israelites in the wilderness with Christ, and in Galatians 4:21-31 in which Paul is clear in what he is about to teach: “Now this is an allegory” (Gal 4:24 NRS). The allegory is about Sarah and Hagar, who represent two covenants. Hagar represents Mount Sinai and Sarah represents the heavenly Jerusalem.

Although scholars disagree on Paul’s use of Deuteronomy in 1 Corinthians 9:9, a simple reading of the text seems to point to the fact that Paul is saying that in the law found in Deuteronomy 25:4 God’s primary concern is with the financial well-being of the apostles. Paul seems to be emphatic in his argument: “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? . . . It was indeed written for our sake.” What Paul is using here is not a qal wahomer, but he is allegorizing the text in order to claim that the church should be concerned with the financial well-being of the apostles….

As Christians, we proclaim that the Old Testament witnesses to Christ and points to him as the coming son of David who came to proclaim the good news of salvation for the whole world. But as Christians who value the historical claims of the Old Testament, we must reject any method of interpretation that removes the historical sense of the text.

And this is the danger ministers face when preaching from the Old Testament. They face the danger of not proclaiming what the text says in order to proclaim what they think the text says.

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  • CherylWood7

    I think the example of Paul allegorizing the OT that sticks out the most to me is Galatians 4 and his treatment of the Hagar/Sarah story.

  • Jeff Martin

    Richard Hays basically says the same thing in his commentary

  • Matty44

    So its ok for Paul to disregard the historical sense of the text but not us? Since the Holy Spirit inspired it, we have received the right idea from a (Paul’s) misuse of scripture? or have I misunderstood the point here?

    The attraction of the lesser to greater understanding in my view is that 1) it grants Paul the benefit of the doubt – He was handling scripture in a manner that was completely consistent and respectful of the OT 2) It gives us a model by which to do the same.

  • I wonder if by dismissing Paul and the New Testament writers’ use of the Scriptures we commit a kind of interpretative cessationism: The Holy Spirit inspired those to write Scripture in a way that was discontinued after the closing of the canon.

  • D. Foster

    “…as Christians who value the historical claims of the Old Testament, we must reject any method of interpretation that removes the historical sense of the text.”

    Isn’t Paul rejecting the historical sense of the text?


  • Although I also disapprove of Paul’s allegorization of this text, the allegory of Sarah and Hagar is much worse.

    “This is an allegory.” Who says? “The two women represent two covenants?” According to who? “Hagar is Mount Sinai” Why? Its totally arbitrary!

    We know that the Jews descended from Sarah not Hagar. But in order to make his arbitrary allegory work, Paul must make the Jews into descendants of Hagar! This is not valid interpretation of the Old Testament! Paul’s interpretations hardly ever are, however. Just see Romans 3 where he takes a slew of texts about atheists out of context and strings them together pretending they are about everyone; or see Romans 9 in which not one text he quotes is interpreted according to context, and he even quotes from the Apocrypha (Wisdom 15) about the potter making vessels both for clean and unclean uses from the same lump. Paul is a very bad interpreter of the Old Testament.