Paul Was Not A Biblicist

Paul Was Not A Biblicist January 27, 2012

Biblicism – the view that one should adhere strictly to what the Bible says, word for word and letter for letter – is the stance adopted (at least theoretically) by many Christians today.

It was not the stance of the apostle Paul.

Isaiah 59:20 says “”The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD.”

Paul “quotes” the text in Romans 11:26 as follows: “And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.'”

Clearly neither the letter nor the meaning of Scripture was sacrosanct to Paul. Whether consciously or subconsciously, he rewrote it when necessary to make the point he wished to.

I should add that I’ve been reading Pete Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins in preparation for participating in the upcoming blog tour, and the spark for writing this post came from there (p.110). As Enns puts it a couple of pages later, for Paul, “The text is not the master: it serves a goal” (p.113).

This seems like a particularly clear example of Paul not treating the text of Scripture as unalterable or definitive, even while quoting it to make a point. What do others think?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mike B.

    There’s no doubt that Paul plays fast and loose with scripture sometimes (as did many of his Jewish contemporaries), but in this particular example, he seems to be following the LXX pretty closely. He’s hardly altered it at all. This may not be the best example.

    • Paul agrees with the LXX here with the major exception that he changes the prepositions so that, instead of the Redeemer coming to Zion as in the Hebrew, or for the sake of Zion as in the LXX, Paul makes the redeemer come from Zion.

  • That’s what I was going to bring up as well, Dr. McGrath. I’ve heard it said that in the instances where Paul misquotes the Masoretic text he is actually giving a verbatim rendering of the Septuagint. Is this true in every case, or are there instances where he differs even from the LXX to make his theological or doctrinal point?

    • This is an instance where he modifies the LXX to make a theological point, is it not? The Redeemer coming from Zion rather than for the sake of Zion.

  • Paul certainly did some cut/paste/modify on OT texts in order to fit his agenda. He also put them out of context, which in the process changed the identity of the main character, usually God to Jesus (and sometimes David to Jesus: Rom15:12). Here is what I wrote on Rom9:31-33 & Rom11:26-27.
    Please note I used Paul cut/paste/delete/add on OT passages for arguments against mythicism.
    Paul was not the only one to practice that. Also the author of “Hebrews” (a lot!), Q, the Synoptic gospels writers, “1Clement” (a lot!), etc.
    I am also certain the authors of Q and 1Clement also did that on gMark material.
    All of that would prove these authors were basically dishonest.

  • Mike B.

    Ah. It thought it was the latter half of the verse you were drawing attention to. Interesting. What is the theological point you think he’s making? How does this change alter the meaning of the text in Paul’s favor?

    • The Redeemer, rather than coming “to” Zion (as in the Hebrew) or “for the sake of” Zion (as per the LXX), comes “from” Zion for the sake of the entire world.

  • Geoff Hudson

    It is also interesting to compare Paul’s Rom. 11.26 and 27 with what the prophet says in Isa.59.20 and 21.

    Rom.11.27 continues 11.26 – . And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” 

    Isa.59.20 and 21 – “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the Lord.  As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and for ever,” says the Lord.

    Paul does not define immediately what he means by covenant.  He is vague. 

    Isaiah is immediate and precise.  This was a prophet’s idea of covenant. 

    Isaiah’s covenant sharply contrasted with the covenant as understood by the priests:

    ‘They shall separate from the congregation of the men of injustice and shall unite, with respect to the law and possessions, under the authority of the sons of Zadok, 
    the priests who keep the covenant, 
    and of the men of the community who hold fast to the covenant.’ (1QS.5) (Vermes minus his capitalization of law, priests, covenant and community).


  • hardindr

    If the Christian Bible was not codified until long after Paul had died, how could Paul be a biblicist?  What does that even mean?

    • He couldn’t with respect to the Christian Bible, even in theory, as you point out. He could theoretically have been a Biblicist with respect to the Scriptures that he had, the Jewish Bible, and so it seemed worth pointing out that he wasn’t.

      • hardindr

        Did people of Paul’s time in the Jewish community think that the Old Testament/Jewish scriptures were fixed, i.e. there was a set number of books that comprised them and they could not be added or subtracted from?  Did they think of those scriptures as modern Christians do about the Christian Bible?

        • I believe the evidence suggests that they did not, and that Paul is just one example of the sort of approach to their Scriptures that Jews had in that time.

          • hardindr

            What I am trying to get at here is that it doesn’t really matter if Paul is a “biblicist” or not, if Jewish (or proto-Christians) during his time did not view their scriptures the same way as Jews and Christians do now.  The idea of Paul being a “biblicist” just seems like an irrelevant question to me, if his situation was so different from modern believers.

          • The only reason I think it matters is to highlight the irony if those who say they are being the most faithful to the Scriptures are treating them in a significantly different way than the very authors of the later parts of those Scriptures treated the Scriptures that existed in their time.

  • Grahamgardner13

    I don’t think that that is a fair statement. You didn’t take into account that Paul wrote Romans in Greek and isaiah was written in Hebrew. Things may have been lost or seemed altered in either text without intention.

    • Graham, your statement is not accurate. Greek is as capable of indicating the distinction between “to” and “from” as Hebrew. Also, Paul differs in his wording from the Greek translation of the Scriptures.

      If Paul subconsciously transformed the verse in Isaiah or misremembered it, would that make him more of a biblicist, by your reckoning?

      • Grahamgardner13

        I realize Greek is capable of that distinction. I’m simply saying that his argument isn’t solid enough to make such a statement. Using scripture in that way, and claiming that Paul himself did, is something of serious doctrinal consequence, and I don’t think that minor example that is pretty weak if you ask me, is enough to make such a statement.

        • This is not an isolated example. It sounds to me as though you dislike the implications of what Paul does with Scripture, and so are looking for a way to avoid believing that he actually did what he did.

          • Grahamgardner13

            That’s not it at all, and I resent such an accusation. I have merely posted two comments, if you can read how I feel about such a complex issue from that I would truly be appalled. Regardless, I don’t think the meaning or intention of the scripture was changed at all in Paul’s quote, the concept was salvation and they both portrayed that. I think you are trying to make something out of nothing, and I can’t be absolute, but possibly to justify you misquoting scripture to get your own point across.

          • I used to be a biblicist, or at least thought I was (I don’t believe anyone truly is, consistently, in practice). And so the idea that Paul reworded Scripture, or that Matthew invented a citation for Jesus being “called a Nazarene” that doesn’t actually correspond to any Scripture, are things that I was resistant to, and became persuaded of because of the evidence in the Bible itself.

          • Daniel

            The whole problem of the “Nazarene prophecy” is one I find very puzzling. I’ve been told (from Biblicists/inerrantists) that it’s either a prophecy that was spoken but not written down, or fulfilled in the messianic term “Branch” (netser, I think) being basically synonymous with “Nazarene.” I’m not sure how valid either of those arguments are, though.

  • There are lots of possibilities (I read a conference paper on the topic which I really ought to get back to turning into an article, now that I think of it!). But none of them really helps any case one might try to make for Biblicism. If what “the prophets have said” is either not recorded elsewhere, or is essentially a play on words, it still proves challenging (to say the least) to argue that simply reading the text and accepting what it says as written is all there is to Biblical interpretation. 🙂

  • Trey

    Why would Paul – a Pharisee of the Pharisees be using the Septuagint (Greek) reading rather than the Hebrew text of the Jewish bible when quoting the Old Testament? Does anyone else think this odd? I recall reading Hyam Maccoby’s Paul the Mythmaker a while back and he made the assertion that it was unlikely that Paul was a born Jew but rather a Greek and a late convert to Judaism. Maccoby cites Paul’s week argumentation by Pharisee standards and Paul’s use of the Greek text when quoting  from the Old Testament in support of his thesis. Maccoby asserts that a Pharisee would have been entirely at home with the Jewish reading of the Old Testament and accordingly would have quoted from it and would never have used a Greek rendering.

    • Paul does on occasion show that he knew the Hebrew text as well. The answer is that he was a Greek-speaking Jew, and I know that even as someone proficient in Biblical languages, I still read them more frequently in translation in my native tongue than the original languages, even so.

      To posit that Paul was not a Jew at all is quite implausible, in my opinion, given his degree of familiarity with the Jewish Scriptures and even rabbinic modes of interpretation.

      • Trey

        Thanks for responding and sorry for the typos – I am still getting used to typing on an iphone. I have always found Paul’s very liberal approach to Judaism puzzling and found Maccoby’s thesis interesting if not entirely convincing.

  • Creationletter

    You are aware that paraphrases of OT Scripture by NT authors in no way invalidates a literal historical-grammatical hermeneutic, right? Just because Paul paraphrased once or twice does not mean that he supposed that the text was secondary to meaning. To the contrary, the meaning is derived from the text.

    What do I expect of an unsaved Bible critic who cannot affirm the minimum requirement of saving faith per Romans 10:9, the historical bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? What more can I expect of an unbeliever who doubts the historicity of the Exodus, when Joshua and Samuel both refer back to it when reminding Israel of the past might acts of God?

    • I would expect nothing other than a comment like this from someone whose nickname is “creationletter.” But calling a reversal of the prepositions with the resulting change in meaning a “paraphrase” is dishonest misrepresentation of what Paul did. Please be honest: would you accept someone changing the prepositions in a Biblical text to make a point today? 

  • rmwilliamsjr

    my favorite self serving requote from the LXX is:
    mark 1
    1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,[b] 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:   “I will send my messenger ahead of you, 
       who will prepare your way”[c]— 
    3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, 
    ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, 
       make straight paths for him.’”[d]

    in the hebrew, it is a voice calling, followed by two parallels. the whereabouts of the voice is unspecified.but mark makes the voice itself in the wilderness in order to show it is john the baptist. following the mistranslation of the LXX.

  • newenglandsun


    1 Corinthians 11:2 – I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.

    Paul was Eastern Orthodox. Why? Because he came from the East.

  • newenglandsun

    Biblicist – “a Biblical scholar” (definition 2 on

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you *are* a “Biblical scholar”, no? Therefore, a “biblicist”?

    • In that sense of the word, yes. But not in the sense of would-be literalist.

      • newenglandsun

        No, if you are defining it as a literalist, that is not how I would classify a Biblicist either. I think the topic is in itself biased though by the liberal Protestant community as a whole attempting to break away from the historic Christian Church.

        As such, I would state that to define a Biblicist as a “Bible literalist”, is an academic mistake. I hail from an Evangelical Covenant Church background and their contention is that they ARE Biblicists. HOWEVER, they most certainly DON’T take the Bible literally. In fact, the ECC is one of very few churches that practice *both* baptismal regeneration *AND* adult baptism.

        In addition to that, they insist on various different ways to read the Bible and were the first church to ordain women (non-American that is, they started in Sweden then came to Alaska).

        Biblicist? That’s what they claim. Literalist? Hardly. They have *some* core doctrines (6 total one being everything should be based on the Bible which they contend makes them Biblicists).

  • newenglandsun

    James, also read this if you think you’re free from this Biblicist heresy.

    I’d classify you as a Biblicist as well as someone like James Dobson. The only difference in my eyes is that you emphasize different passages. For instance, you, as a liberal emphasize Peter’s vision in Acts. James Dobson emphasizes the “family passages”. Both of you think others should change their views based on the verses you throw out.

    • If that is your impression then you have not been reading this blog very carefully or faithfully.

      • newenglandsun

        I’m not classifying a “Biblicist” as a *literalist*. I’m classifying a Biblicist as *one who contends that their PRIVATE interpretation of the Bible is some sort of “new and improved” variation of Christianity* (something that which a faithful reading of this blog DOES reveal).

        The reality is, the only website that comes close to debunking the claims of all types of Biblicists (liberal and conservative) is my older sister’s dead blog.

        Maybe you can proffer your attempted criticisms of it?

        I mean seriously, she WAS kind enough to respond to you. 🙂