Paul’s Use of Isaiah in Romans 9:20-33

by John A. Sypert, Ph.D. 

The apostle Paul believed that his gospel was the fulfillment of Old Testament promises (Rom. 1:1-2), which explains why his letters are full of references to the Old Testament.  The book of Isaiah is the Old Testament book that Paul cites most often, with Psalms being a close second.[1]  The section of Romans that is under consideration in this paper contains the highest density of Isaianic citations found in any of Paul’s letters.  According to Oss’s figures, Romans 9-11 contain eleven out of sixteen of Paul’s citations of Isaiah.  This section of Romans has thirty total Old Testament citations, so Paul’s uses Isaiah more than one third of the time in these three chapters.[2]

This paper will be examining Paul’s use of Isaiah specifically in Romans 9:20-33.  There are four clusters of verses in this passage that contain Isaianic citations or references: vv. 20-21, vv. 27-28. v. 29, and v. 33.  Each verse, or set of verses, will be examined individually later in the paper.  First, it will be necessary to make some preliminary comments concerning translational issues and Paul’s hermeneutics.  After these considerations are made, the interpretive issues found in Paul’s use of Isaiah in 9:20-33 will be explored.  At the close of the paper, several matters concerning the theological significance of the use of the Old Testament in this passage will be considered.  The aim of this paper is to argue that Paul’s gospel and mission was firmly grounded generally in the Old Testament, but specifically in Isaiah.

Translational Issues

It will now be appropriate to make a few general remarks regarding the texts that Paul used when quoting the Old Testament, namely, the Septuagint (LXX) and the Masoretic Text (MT).  There are textual problems with some of Paul’s uses of the Old Testament because he predominantly used the LXX, and as is widely known, the LXX does not always exactly correspond with the MT.  There are several reasons why the LXX and MT give different readings.  Sometimes the translators of the MT into Greek offered a more “free translation.”  At other times, there was blatant mistranslation.  The translators also could have been using Hebrew manuscripts that differed from the MT.[3]  Therefore, if Paul slightly misquotes an Old Testament text, it may not be altogether his fault.  He was primarily working from the LXX (although there are a handful of passages where Paul agrees with the MT over against the LXX), and the LXX does differ in many respects from the MT.

What becomes clear after an examination of the broad contours of Paul’s use of the Old Testament is that he does not follow a simple pattern in his quotations.  He “feels no compulsion in every instance to reproduce texts exactly.”[4]  It could be argued that when Paul’s citations of Old Testament texts vary from the LXX or the MT he is trying to make a hermeneutical point.  However, this does not have to be the case.  Paul, just like modern readers of Scripture, may sometimes refer to a Scripture without quoting it exactly.[5]  There are times, however, when he finds great significance in the grammatical details of a passage (e.g. Gal. 3:16).

Paul’s Hermeneutics

Because Paul was a highly educated first-century Jew, he would have undoubtedly been familiar with the principles and techniques of Jewish biblical interpretation.  Did he, however, rely solely on allegory, the midrash and pesher methods of the Qumranic communities, or the principles of rabbinic exegesis that dominated his day?  Or did Paul have another hermeneutical grid through which he read the Old Testament?

Paul certainly did make occasional use of the rhetorical device of allegory (e.g. Gal. 4:21-31, and possibly 1 Cor. 9:9, 10:3, and 2 Cor. 3:12-16), but his use of the allegorical method had little in common with the allegorical exegesis of Philo and the Alexandrian school.  Paul’s use of the Old Testament, as well as the other New Testament writers, also had many similarities with the Qumranic communities.  They both use the introductory phrase “as it is written” to introduce explicit Old Testament quotations, both use the Old Testament in a generally literal way, both apply the Old Testament texts to contemporary situations, and both identify the “last days” of certain Old Testament passages with their respective communities.  However, such similarities “do not affect anything more than the periphery of their theologies.”[6]  It is the guiding presuppositions of each community that distinguish the two groups, despite the many similarities.

Paul’s interpretation of Old Testament texts also differs from the pesharim exegesis found at Qumran.  This type of exegesis focused on a verse-by-verse commentary on the biblical text.  The comments were introduced with the formula “its interpretation is.”  The word for “interpretation” is pesher, and the comments usually sought to identify the words of Scripture with a contemporary event.  There may be a rough parallel between this exegetical approach and that of Paul, but there are fundamental differences as well.  “The letters of Paul,” Silva says, “do not include sustained, verse-by-verse interpretations of the OT…(this) Qumranic approach led to highly arbitrary applications.”[7]  Another major difference is that the community at Qumran was preoccupied with the deliverance that was yet-to-come, while Paul and the apostles believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection had already inaugurated the coming of God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 10:11).

Many scholars have argued that Paul was greatly indebted to the rabbinic exegesis that dominated the first century Palestinian Jewish landscape.  Parallels can be drawn between Pauline exegesis, the Jewish Talmud, and the midrashim.  There is a similarity between Paul’s “occasional stringing of quotations, which may be related to one another by the use of significant words, and a rabbinic method known as haraz (‘to string,’ figuratively ‘to draw parallels between passages’).”[8]  A good example of this is found in the passage under consideration for this paper.  In Romans 9:25-29, Paul strings together several Old Testament texts (Hos. 2:23; 1:10; Is. 10:22-23; 1:9) that are thematically parallel to one another.

The exegetical rules of Hillel and other rabbinic techniques also may have been known to Paul, but, despite the massive efforts in this field of study, the results are at best ambiguous.  One obstacle is chronological in nature, as the rabbinic literature available to modern scholars dates back only to the beginning of the third century.  The older oral tradition that this literature refers to did not develop until after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  There is also the “relative vagueness” of the parallels that are found between Paul and rabbinic exegesis.  Many of the techniques of argumentation that the rabbis employed can be found in many cultures at both the popular and more sophisticated levels.  Silva states, “One would be hard-pressed to find an exegetical example in Paul’s writings that is distinctly rabbinic; that is, some technique that could not be paralleled elsewhere.”[9]

Though Paul may have been influenced in many ways by first century Jewish methods of interpretation, after his conversion his teaching and preaching ministry centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ, which he believed was the center and fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures.  Jesus became the “hermeneutical grid” through which Paul read his Bible.  It was this conviction, along with his conviction in the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God that guided and shaped his hermeneutics.

Paul had a very high view of the inspiration of Scripture.  He regarded the Scriptures as proceeding from God (2 Tim. 3:16), and therefore they were the final authority in his writing and preaching ministries.  In polemical contexts, Paul invokes the OT as the “final court of appeal.”  When he uses the introductory formula, “as it is written,” he is in effect settling the argument.  Not surprisingly then, as Silva points out, are the most direct quotations found in Paul’s most important letters: Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Galatians.  And out of these letters, Romans has the greatest concentrations of direct quotations.  The significance of this “lies in the fact that here Paul gives a sustained exposition of his gospel (Rom. 2:16), and for that purpose nothing is more important than to show the consistency of his message with that of Scripture (Rom. 1:2; 3:31; 9:6).”[10]

Paul’s conviction that Scripture was the Word of God led him to search the OT for all the ways that Christ was the fulfillment of the promises made there.  Christ, in Luke 24, laid out for the early church an interpretive framework, teaching the early apostles that all of Scripture spoke of him.  Paul, therefore, worked from this christocentric hermeneutical framework, as well as his conviction that all of Scripture was the Word of God, to find all the ways that the Scripture had been fulfilled in Christ.[11]

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