I must work at the much harder task of trying to be fair to Paul, forgetting all I know of a long Christian history and experience in order to paint Paul’s thought in true first century colors.Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays, p. 25
Good morning, everyone! The past week has been my wife’s Spring Break, so I’ve spent less time this past week writing than usual, but I have been keeping up with reading. Right now, I am reading Paul Among Jews and Gentiles by Krister Stendahl. Stendahl was Bishop of Stockholm and Dean of Harvard Divinity School.
I’ve been enjoying his book that was suggested to me by a new friend. Though I’m only a few pages in, I’ve already found some great quotes on the importance of reading Paul objectively. Allow me to share some of my favorites!
Jewish “We” and Gentile “You”
As some of you may be aware, Paul often uses the first person plural to refer to the Jews while he may use the second person plural to talk about his Gentile audience. This is important when interpreting passages like Ephesians 1 in a discussion on predestination.
To be justified by faith is a possibility only in Christ. “But now that faith (Christ) has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” (3:25–27). Note the shift from “we” (Paul and his fellow Jews) to “you” (the Galatians).Stendahl, Krister. Paul among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1976. Print. p. 22
Many of Paul’s uses of “we” and “our” are that stylistic plural by which he really means only himself, but in many cases, much more serious and difficult to detect, the uses of “we”—“we Jews”—stand in direct contrast to “you Gentiles.” Romans 3:9 is a case in point: here the RSV translates the Greek “we” by “we Jews.” It is important to develop a sensitivity to these distinctions.p. 23
The Audience of Paul
We have a tendency to read ourselves into the text. As Stendahl points out in these next few quotes, we must first discern the original intent of the author before making secondary application to ourselves.
Because we thought that when one reads the word of God, one should perceive the message as coming directly to us, and when the Bible says “we” and “our”, we had better take it personally. The law, it says, was or is “our tutor” or “our custodian.” Who am I then to say, “The Scripture says ‘our,’, but in this case it refers to a time back there, and not to me.” But “our” in this text means, “me, Paul, with my Jewish compatriots,” and nothing else. It is totally wrong to apply that “our” to us Gentiles. Of course, when we read in Acts “And then we sailed to Crete,” very few preachers suggest that “we” should be understood as dealing with persons now, but as soon as such a pronoun occurs in a theological context, we fall into the pattern of applying it to ourselves.p.22-23
Actually, there is no greater threat to serious biblical studies than a forced demand for “relevance.” We must have patience and faith enough to listen to and seek out the original’s meaning. If this is not done, biblical study suffers and may, indeed, come up with false and faulty conclusions and interpretations.p.35
This is a serious point for our topic because we have gone behind the hermeneutical to the exegetical level—behind today, behind Luther and Calvin, behind Augustine. We have tried to see an original meaning—albeit an original meaning which proved by interpretation and reinterpretation to be significant at different points in history. But when is it legitimate to read Paul’s words about justification or about, say, conscience in a truly Pauline mood, a mood which seeks to discover what was in the mind of the author rather than meanings for us today? As an exegete, a biblical scholar, I must be primarily concerned with the former question. But as a theologian and pastor let me point out that we are not supposed continually to play “Bibleland” and dream ourselves back into a sort of Semitic mood. That is not what God wants us to do. But, we must first read the Bible to find original meanings and allow those meanings to correct our tendencies to read our own views into the original rather than letting the original stand and speak for itself. Seek ye first the original meanings—and all these things shall be yours as well …p. 36
I hope you appreciated these quotes as much as I did!
Daniel, I thank you for sharing with us these relevant principles of how to interpret the Word of God. The Bible was not written to US but for US. Unfortunately, we, today, transfer the authors of the first century to the twenty-first century and interpret their words in light of our own culture. Instead of this flawed hermeneutics, we need to transfer ourselves back into the first century and stand upon their threshold and look through their eyes and interpret their letters as they themselves, in the first century, would have understood the correspondence from the Apostles. By the way, your sermon on 1 John 5 is excellent. I recommend this study very highly.
Daniel this is one your your best blogs. You have piqued my interest enough in your quotes from Stendahl, that I am going to get his book. I believe, as I think you do, that applying passages to us (Gentiles) today, meant only for the First Century Jews is a critical hermeneutical error that has been passed down over the decades by church of Christ preachers and teachers. It also exposes a common weakness of the church in the lack of Bible study and knowledge by the common member. Many of us have just become sheeple who show up to listen to a preacher or teacher, rather than follow the recommended noble Berean example of Bible study.
On the RSV translation of Romans 3:9, adding the word “Jew” is not translation, rather it is the translating committee’s effort to give their interpretation, without putting the word in italics, as did the 47 translators of the KJV. We won’t even go into the RSV translation of Isiah 7:14 or Roman 11:20, but I digress. Good job with this blog post.