Interview by Garrett Brown
The Deep and Subtle Unity of the Bible
I may be a voice crying in the wilderness in that regard. I'm trying in what I write to help people see that wholeness.
Let's talk about some of your work. The operative one here is the one that you wrote in 1989 called Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. What prompted you to write that book? Were you trying to illuminate something that was under-appreciated or ignored at the time?
Yes, as it turned out, very much so. The genesis and development of that book were entirely unexpected. When I was at Yale, one of my teaching tasks was to teach the intermediate Greek reading course for divinity students.
One year, it occurred to me it would be fun to have them read New Testament texts alongside texts from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and to see how the New Testament authors were quoting and using these Old Testament texts and what differences were introduced in the quotations.
I had no idea when I started to do that how fascinating it would turn out to be; I had no idea how complex the differences are between the Septuagint texts and the way that they get taken up into the New Testament.
It started me down a trail of investigating for myself the problems the class had brought up. I didn't know where I was going, but I had hold of a rope and I was following it hand-over-hand out of the cave to see where it led. When I started to write Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, I thought of it as an inductive study that would work out of purely descriptive analysis of a series of examples to see what I could say about how Paul was using the Old Testament.
I ended up in a lot of places I never would have predicted. At the time I wrote that book there was a consensus among most New Testament scholars that Paul's quotations of the Old Testament were simply atomistic proof texting, ignoring the context from which they came.
But the more I looked into the evidence, I decided that was just wrong: actually, the Old Testament was extremely formative for the way Paul thought, and his citations frequently did evoke an awareness of the larger literary Old Testament context from which they were taken.
A large part of Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul is taken up with trying to demonstrate the phenomenon of metalepsis. It's a term I learned from the literary scholar and poet John Hollander, who had written an elegant book called The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After. Hollander made the point that all great literature is densely allusive and that very often poetic texts are full of echoes of earlier texts. A sensitive reading requires us to recognize that and to see where the echoes come from.
Metalepsis is a literary device of quoting a piece of text that beckons the reader to discover more of the original context from which the fragmentary citation came. That was the discovery I made in writing Echoes of Scripture in Letters of Paul. It really opened up in the field of New Testament studies a very different way of thinking about how Paul was related to his own Jewish tradition.
At the time, there was a certain body of scholarship that argued that because Paul was a trained rabbi, you could understand his uses of the Old Testament as instances of midrashic biblical interpretation in the rabbinic mode. There were attempts to show how that worked out formally in Paul's citation practices. I found those very unsatisfying as well. I don't actually think that Paul, in his letters, works in the same stylistic vein or genre as Jewish biblical midrash. There are different things going on there.
I was blazing a different trail in analyzing Paul as a writer who taps into his deep knowledge of Jewish Scripture and evokes Jewish scriptural narratives in a way that is literarily rich and suggestive.
We'll get into this a little bit later with the gospels, but I'm curious about the letters of Paul. Are there other examples from that time and place where you can compare what he's doing if isn't midrash? In other words, as a point of comparison, are there texts that do what he's doing, or is he inventing a new genre in his use of metalepsis?
The genre of the letter, of course—the epistle—is not a Pauline invention. There are plenty of letters in antiquity. And Paul certainly didn't invent metalepsis, either; it is a pervasive trope in all literature. But his particular way of re-reading Israel's Scripture through the lenses of the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus does not have obvious precursors.