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Reading Hagar with Paul (and a Bunch of Other Folks)

So, one of the reasons I haven’t been blogging as much lately is that I’ve been working working on the Galatians volume of the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Marion Soards has ably handled the exposition; I’m responsible for supplementary materials: sidebars, sermon/teaching ideas, and so forth. My deadline is still about a month away, so I’m still going to be fairly quiet around here, but I thought I’d repost a bit on the reception history of the Hagar story from Genesis that, you may know, figures prominently in Galatians 4.

Reading Hagar

In chapter 1 of Reading the Bible with the Dead, John L. Thompson surveys the history of Christian interpretation of Hagar, Abraham’s wife-concubine whose story is told mainly in Genesis 16 and 21. Hagar enters the biblical narrative as Sarah’s Egyptian slave, forced to sleep with her husband Abraham in an ill-advised scheme to produce for him an heir. She is used, abused, and then cast out of the family when, after the birth of Isaac to Sarah, it was deemed she had outlived her usefulness.

In Galatians 4, Paul used Hagar yet again—this time as an allegory for slavery to the Mosaic law. The “throw-away” sexual surrogate becomes a symbol of all that is second-rate in the economy of God. But such readings miss some amazing details of Hagar’s depiction in the book of Genesis, and Thompson credits feminist interpreters with bringing these details to light. Three observations and criticisms have registered with respect to Hagar’s story in Genesis. First, there is the concern “to recognize and recover the dignity, eminence, and even the exemplary character of Hagar” (15). Second, other feminist interpreters take an opposite approach by calling attention to what Hagar suffered and what this tells us about the character of Abraham (and Sarah). Finally, Hagar’s story has drawn attention to what may be called “the sins of the narrator” (16), the subtle clues in the text that betray the patriarchal biases of the storyteller himself, if not the Deity behind the action.

After this brief introduction to the problems surrounding the Hagar narratives, Thompson raises the question to which many modern interpreters believe they already have the answer: Has the church forgotten Hagar? In fact, Thompson finds that interpreters of previous generations had long struggled with the disparities of these biblical texts—and often came to conclusions quite similar to those of modern feminists.

Did Paul’s Allegory Win?

In answer to the first concern, that of recognizing the positive dimensions of Hagar’s character, Thompson notes that there were, in fact, two strands of allegorical thought surrounding Hagar. The one in Galatians 4 we know, but ancient interpreters realized this was only one piece of the puzzle. For Philo of Alexandria, the symbolism of Hagar was the “preliminary teachings” that the wise must study on their way to true wisdom (symbolized by Sarah).

For Origen as well, Hagar does not represent a literal wife or a fleshly union, “but rather the virtue of wisdom” (19). Abraham thus did not take on a second wife, but a second virtue. Her expulsion from Abraham’s camp provides a contrast between the meager skin of water with which she is provided and the divine spring she discovers in the wilderness. She is thus like the Samaritan woman of John 4: “both had their eyes opened to see a well of living water, which in each case was Jesus Christ” (19).

Later patristic interpreters likewise found in Hagar some symbol of godly virtues. For Didymus the Blind, Hagar could only symbolize these virtues because, as a historical person, she possessed them in a literal way, “as evidenced by her good behavior and her worthiness to receive heavenly visitations” (19). He even invokes Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” to argue that, since she had a divine vision, Hagar must have been pure in heart.

In all of the patristic era, Augustine is virtually alone in attributing purely negative characteristics to Hagar. For him, she is a figure of heresy. Into the medieval period, the church’s assessment owes more to Origen and Didymus than to the bishop of Hippo.

Abraham on Trial

Nor does the early church let Abraham off the hook for his despicable treatment of Hagar. The earliest worries about Abraham expelling Hagar and her son Ishmael come from the rabbis. In Genesis Rabbah, there is great interest in the meaning of the Hebrew term in Genesis 21:9 where Ishmael is “playing” with Isaac. For the rabbis, this term was associated with shameful deeds—”fornication, or idolatry, or attempted homicide” (23). Whether these speculations are true, it must be said that they apparently arose out of a sense of discomfort with Abraham’s seeming extreme reaction against Ishmael’s otherwise innocent behavior.

The disparity between Ishmael’s “crime” and the “punishment” inflicted by Abraham captured the attention of Christian writers as well. John Chrysostom “attributes great reservations to Abraham over the severity and oppressiveness of Sarah’s plan to evice Hagar and Ishmael. A few years later, preaching on Galatians, he makes some similar moves, arguing that only the stirrings of divine providence can account for this event, for otherwise the penalty would be vastly more serious than Ishmael’s brashness warranted” (23).

Abraham’s severity in this episode was a preoccupation of Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout the Middle Ages, with varying success. Thompson explains,

Rashi reported that Hagar’s “wandering” in Genesis 21:4 may have implied her moral wandering into idolatry, while Abraham Ibn Ezra insisted that later on, after Sarah’s death, Abraham lavished gifts upon Ishmael’s children. None of the rabbis, however, nor any Christian commentator, can equal the blunt confession of Rabbi Nachman, writing in the thirteenth century: “Sarah sinned in afflicting her, and also Abraham for permitting it. God hearkened to Hagar’s cry, and as a result her descendants persecute and afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah. (24)

Christian interpreters as well wrestled with the questionable morality of Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar. Thompson lists Cardinal Cajetán, Conrad Pellican, Wolfgang Musculus, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Martin Luther as Christians who noted the ethical problems with this text. He quotes Luther’s assessment,

Abraham simply sends away his beloved spouse, she who first made him a father, along with his firstborn son, giving them only a sack of bread and a skin of water…. But does it not seem cruel that a mother burdened with offspring should be dismissed so miserably, and that, to an unknown destination, indeed, into a vast and arid desert? … If someone wanted to rant against Abraham at this point, he could make him the murderer of his son and wife…. Who would believe this if Moses had not recorded it? (25)

None of these precritical interpreters intended to hang Abraham without a trial. On the contrary, they strove to find a way to harmonize the actions of the biblical characters with the moral standards they learned in Christ. But as Thompson notes, “If some [commentators] appear to have worked overtime to exonerate Abraham, they never lost sight of the seriousness of the charge against the patriarch nor brushed aside the terror inflicted on Hagar and her son” (25-26).

Stereotypes…and Sympathy

What then about the “sins of the narrator” in how Hagar’s story is told? Feminist interpreters charge that traditional, patriarchal exegesis has locked Hagar into “a petty and stereotypical role” (26) and whitewashed the injustices committed against her. But Thompson argues the history of exegesis of these passages does not quite fit this billing. “They are admittedly patriarchal, albeit in an unconscious way,” Thompson argues, “and they are capable of succumbing to gender stereotyping, but they show a surprising tendency to rise above these traits in pursuit not only of ‘literal’ exegesis but also in defense of Hagar” (26).

Again, Thompson surveys numerous commentators, this time from the Reformation era. Zwingli, Pellican,  Musculus, and Luther all characterize Hagar as a humble, pious woman, despite the culturally bound gender stereotypes within which they worked. Musculus in particular believed Hagar had every reason to complain of her treatment. He even admits that “Hagar would not have sinned had she voiced some of her complaints. AFter all, Job and Jeremiah offered laments, and even Christ cried out fromthe cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (27). Luther could even speak of the godliness of “saintly Hagar” (28) and ponder how her experience is a figure of the Christian path from humiliation to faith and repentance.

Hagar in Church and Pulpit

Reading the story of Hagar with the dead offers a payoff to Christians today. Freely admitting that not every early interpreter saw Hagar in such a sympathetic light (Augustine and Calvin in particular are noted for being “curiously untouched by the various expressions of interest and sympathy that most commentators drew from this biblical text,” 29), Thompson suggests there are four key lessons we can learn from the history of exegesis of Hagar’s story (29-31):

  1. Hagar is Important. Any incursion into the patriarchal narratives that treats Hagar as the lectionary has mostly done, excising the dubious deeds of Abraham as well as Hagar’s own triumphs and travails, is at once a betrayal of the integrity of the biblical text and the squandering of a rich homiletical opportunity.
  2. Hagar’s Story Is Terrifying. Nothing is gained by “reading for the center” so as to pretend that Hagar’s misfortunes did not happen or that they weren’t so bad after all, given the happy ending that came her way.
  3. Hagar Is More than a Symbol. Despite the precedent offered by Paul’s allegory of Hagar as a figure or type of those who foolishly sought justification through the law, Galatians 4 should not erase or upstage the compelling portrait of Hagar in Genesis.
  4. Hagar Is Connected to Us by Our Own Tradition. If it is dysfunctional to ignore Scripture’s silences, it is hardly better for preachers to suppose they can fix the Bible alone, by exercising their own authority or creativity. Instead, congregations ought to be reconnected to Christian tradition by being reminded of the witness of past interpreters.

A final note: Thompson covers vast swaths of history of interpretation in only a few pages. While at one level I would have preferred more extensive quotation from the primary sources, I appreciate that this would make the book large and unwieldy. He provides a 28-page “Finding Guide” at the back, broken down by biblical book, of the major historical interpreters whose works are currently available in English. Readers who want to check Thompson’s citations and do additional research are thus armed for the task.



A former slave, fearing his ex-master’s anger, seeks out a powerful ally who might plead on his behalf. The story of Philemon? Actually, it is also the story of Sabinianus, whose freed slave came for help to the Roman senator Pliny. As N. T. Wright explains (as summarized by Chaplain Mike at InternetMonk), the similarities between the story of Sabinianus and the biblical account of Philemon offer an important study in contrasts:

But the main impression, once we study the two letters side by side, is that they breathe a different air. They are a world apart. Indeed — and this is part of the point of beginning the present book at this somewhat unlikely spot — this letter, the shortest of all Paul’s writings that we possess, gives us a clear sharp little window onto a phenomenon that demands a historical explanation, which in turn, as we shall see, demands a theological explanation. It is stretching the point only a little to suggest that, if we had no other first-century evidence for the movement that came to be called Christianity, this letter ought to make us think: Something is going on here. Something is different. People don’t say this sort of thing. This isn’t how the world works. A new way of life is being attempted — by no means entirely discontinuous with what was there already, but looking at things in a new way, trying out a new path.

Chaplain Mike summarizes:

Pliny was concerned about resolving a problem in a way that maintained social order. Said social order was based on social distinctions and rules of propriety, as well as the rewards and punishments that kept it intact. Second chances were allowed up to a point; kindness and mercy had room to operate within limits. In the end, Pliny remained on top, Sabinianus was beholden to him, and the freedman was on the bottom of the pile.

Paul was concerned about two entirely different matters: reconciliation and unity in the Messiah. Paul was in prison because he advanced this agenda. From there he continued to promote these concerns to people like Philemon, by not only writing about them but also by offering to be the very bridge by which two parties at odds could become one again.

For Paul it was all about Jesus the Messiah, and this is what Jesus was all about.

A New Challenge to the New Perspective on Paul

Scot McKnight provides a brief review of Preston Sprinkle’s  Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation. Based on Scot’s questions, it sounds like an interesting book, at least one that is apt to generate some good discussions on the issue of Paul and his Jewish milieu.

PS: If you’re new to this issue you might need a quick cheat-sheet on the New Perspective on Paul.

Paul, Judaism, and Christian Origins

Mark Goodacre provides a brief critique of a recent BBC2 documentary, and particular of claims Simon Schama makes about the apostle Paul’s relationship to Second Temple Judaism. Apparently, Schama is a bit in the dark about where Pauline studies have gone in the last fifty years or so.

He concludes,

To reiterate, I think this is a superb documentary and I am a big fan of Schama.  But I think this section falls below his usual standards. One of the reasons that this is important is that getting the history right plays a key role in Jewish-Christian relations.  Given the appalling history of Christian attitudes to Jews and Judaism documented by Schama, it is worth paying careful attention to what Jews like Paul, right at the beginning of the Jesus movement, actually said.

Did Paul Believe in a Historical Adam?

Not According to Joel Hoffman—because history (in the modern, post-Enlightenment sense) hadn’t been invented yet:

I think that the whole notion of “historical” is a modern one, created by modern science, and that it’s this entirely modern approach that pits history against myth. Paul didn’t believe in an historical Adam or a non-historical Adam. He just believed in Adam. It’s only as modern readers that we divide things — for ourselves — into historical and non-historical.

Even ancient historians like Herodotus (5th century BC) and Josephus (1st century AD) freely mixed what we would now call history with literature. As part of their histories, they included verbatim conversations that they had no way of knowing. Similarly, they mixed history with myth, as when Herodotus writes about the phoenix in the same terms as the crocodile or when Josephus, whose life overlapped with Paul’s, describes a cow that gave birth to a lamb during his own lifetime.

So while I understand the modern inclination to ask whether or not the Adam that Paul believed in was historical, I think it’s an anachronistic question. And more than any answer to it, it’s the question itself that parts with Scripture.

The “New Perspective on Paul” in about 1,000 Words

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) I’ve been working on for my CHR 150 students. As this is a freshman-level class, I’ve attempted to keep it as simple as possible while still giving an accurate sense of what NPP is all about.

Names to Know

  • Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” (1963). Argued that the post-Reformation doctrine of justification was rooted more in “the introspective conscience of the West” than in what Paul actually wrote, as understood within its own context.
  • E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). Asserted that Martin Luther imposed his complaints with Roman Catholicism upon Paul’s complaints with Judaism.
  • James D. G. Dunn, Romans, Word Biblical Commentary (1988); The Theology of Paul the Apostle (2006). Coined the phrase “NPP” in 1982. Says Paul opposed the boundary-marking characteristics of Judaism (circumcision, kosher rules, etc.) that kept Gentiles out; his mission was to get Gentiles into the one covenant God had made with Israel.
  • N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (1997) and Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (2009). Built on Sanders and Dunn, but also finds an anti-imperialistic slant to Paul’s message. Probably the most prolific NPP writer, and the target of much of the criticism directed toward NPP.

Note: NPP is more a general trend in Pauline scholarship than a codified, monolithic theological system. NPP-scholars can argue with each other just as much as traditionalists do.

The Basics

1. A “new perspective on Judaism.” NPP begins by attempting to arrive at a more accurate understanding of the Judaism of Paul’s own day—including passages in Paul’s letters where he sounds quite positive about the Jewish law (e.g., Rom 7:12; Phil 3:5-6).

  • Protestants have tended to read Luther’s conflict with Catholicism into Paul’s conflict with the Judaizers (e.g., in Galatians). NPP insists the two are not the same.
  • Sanders: Early Judaism had just as strong an emphasis on grace as Pauline Christianity did. Observing the law merely kept Jews in the covenant God had established through his gracious election (“covenantal nomism”). Jews keep the Torah not to get into heaven, but because they’re Jewish.
  • Rather than a form of legalism hoping to earn God’s favor by good works, NPP says first-century Judaism strove to maintain the identity of the Jewish nation, especially by keeping those aspects of the Torah that set them apart: Sabbath-observance, dietary rules, and circumcision.

2. Applying this understanding of Judaism to Paul. Having reached these conclusions about early Judaism, what are the implications for one’s understanding of Paul? NPP tries to read Paul in light of his own issues and concerns, rather than those of a later era.

  • General conclusion: Paul was much more interested in the problem of the Jewish-Gentile relationship in God’s covenant than in a Luther-like struggle with his own sense of guilt before a holy God
  • What is Paul’s problem, then, with “the works of the law”? According to NPP, when Paul speaks of “the works of the law” he has in mind only the “boundary-marker” aspects. His problem isn’t legalistic self-righteousness in general, but how these aspects of the Torah served to exclude Gentiles.
  • Note that “Old Perspective” need not mean “Wrong Perspective.” Some scholars—including Wright himself—insist the two perspectives can exist side by side. (Wright explicitly upholds all of the most central doctrines of the Reformation.) It’s more an issue of what is the central focus in Paul’s thought.
Old Perspective New Perspective
Anthropocentric: how human beings become right with God Theocentric and Christocentric: God’s lordship in Christ over the entire universe
“Works of the law” = human acts of righteousness performed to earn acceptability before God “Works of the law” = elements of Jewish law that accentuate Jewish privilege and mark out Israel from other nations
“Justification” related to the doctrine of salvation: “What must I do to be saved?” Justification related to the doctrine of the church: “Who is a member of the people of God?”
“Faith” = trust in God’s mercy alone, not in human acts of righteousness “Faith” = trust in God’s mercy alone, not in boundary-marking rituals like circumcision
A “Romans Road” approach: “You can be forgiven and live forever in heaven” An “Ephesians Road” approach: “God is restoring all of creation, and you can join in”

 Strengths of the New Perspective

  1. It accentuates the universal focus of God’s dealings in Christ: both Jew and Gentile are included.
  2. It sets Paul in his proper historical context: Paul can be Paul rather than being Augustine or Luther.
  3. It cautions Christians about how we speak about Judaism in our conversations about Scripture.

Reasonable Concerns

(see Gathercole, although Wright later addresses many of these issues)

  1. First-century Judaism does, in fact, occasionally speak of heavenly rewards for law-keeping.
  2. Is Paul speaking strictly of things like circumcision when he speaks of “works of the law,” or is he thinking of keeping the law in its entirety?
  3. Criticism of “individualistic” old-perspective thinking can throw the baby out with the bath water. Individual and corporate faith are not at odds with one another.
  4. One should not confuse the content of justification with its applications. The core meaning of justification is about how believers, despite their sin, can be reckoned as righteous before God.
  5. Seeing justification as primarily addressing how Gentiles can be incorporated into the people of God can lead to a downplaying of sin.
  6. Since the emphasis in some discussions of justification is on inclusion, tolerance, and ecumenism, there can be a tendency to downplay the importance of doctrinal clarity.

Unreasonable Concerns

  1. “NPP abandons the Reformation view of Paul and justification.” The appeal to tradition is precisely the sort of objection the medieval Catholic Church raised against the Reformers! Shouldn’t Protestants of all people want to go back to the Bible and “see whether these things are so” (Acts 17:11)?
  2. “NPP doesn’t support powerful evangelistic preaching.” This objection skirts dangerously close to “the end justifies the means.” Isn’t it better to trust that the truth will lead to powerful preaching, whether it is consistent with traditional interpretations of Paul or not?

Further Reading

McGrath Opens a Can of Pygoplegae on Fitzgerald

Few things in this life are as remarkable to behold as an actual scholar taking a dilettante to the woodshed.

Jesus versus Paul?

Scot McKnight has a great article at Christianity Today about the divide between Christians whose “first language” is Paul and justification by faith and those whose “first language” is Jesus and the kingdom of God.

I say, “Is it too much to ask for both?

Pages and Pages of Pauline Goodness

The theme of the Fall 2010 issue of Word & World is Paul. Tonight I’ve been enjoying Arland J. Hultgren’s  2009–2010 Word & World Lecture, titled “Paul as Theologian: His Vocation and Its Significance for His Theology.” I especially like this early paragraph:

Although the anthropological, individualistic approach continues to have an appeal, it is one-sided. It also tends to be overly anthropocentric, placing so much emphasis upon the human being, particularly the self, and failing to take into consideration those accents in Paul’s work concerning the work of God for the redemption of all that God has made. The point that will be made in what follows is that Paul’s theology is first of all theocentric, not anthropocentric, and that it is corporate and cosmic, not just individualistic, in its scope. The question for Paul is not how the individual person “gets in and stays in” the company of those who are saved. The primary question is theocentric: How can God reclaim the creation? And in regard to human beings: How can God get us in and keep us there? To go in that direction, I think, is to go back not only prior to the Reformation, but also prior to Constantine, when there were so very few Christians.

The remainder of the articles look quite interesting. I’m eager to tear into “What Every Christian Should Know about Paul’s Letters” by Matthew L. Skinner; “Paul and Real Women” by Sandra Hack Polaski; “‘Freedom on your head’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16): A Paradigm for the Structure of Paul’s Ethics” by Robert E. Allard; and “Texts in Context: Apologizing for Preaching Paul” by Brad R. Braxton.

Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles

Daniel Kirk of Storied Theology summarizes his reasons for concluding that Paul is not the author of the Pastoral Epistles (H/T: Euangelion). His opening remarks are worthy of reflection:

First, the freedom to pursue the question was instilled in me through my pro-inerrancy education at Westminster Seminary (though one going to WTS now would not be given the same freedom). At the time I went, there was a flourishing tradition of carefully distinguishing between the commitment to inerrancy and particular hermeneutical and/or critical conclusions.

This tradition was embodied in the title of a 1988 faculty collection, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic (ed. Harvey Conn). In that collection, Moises Silva says that even the issue of who wrote a letter, which may seem in some ways to be the most obvious conclusion to draw from an “inerrant” Bible (I mean, if you can’t believe the “From” line of the letter, what can you believe?), is an issue that must be decided based on historical evidence. And, if a letter is found to be pseudepigraphical, then our understanding of what it means to affirm an inerrant Bible must be shaped so as to allow for that.

This is reflective of an important factor that drives a lot of my work: that no theology worth holding is going to so exert its control over our reading of the Bible that it will forbid us from saying what good exegesis of the passage demands that we say.

In this case, I don’t find persuasive that there is much theologically at stake for recognizing that Paul did not write these letters. They are scripture and therefore we have them as part of the canon, the rule of the church’s faith and life.

For me, the most compelling arguments in favor of Pauline authorship are those compiled by Luke Timothy Johnson in his The Writings of the New Testament (which I have summarized elsewhere).

In my opinion, the most compelling methodology for deciding whether any New Testament letter is in fact pseudonymous is that proposed by Richard Bauckham in “Pseudo-Apostolic Letters” (JBL 107/3 [1988] 469–94). Briefly, Bauckham observes that, if the stated author is in some sense a fiction, then likewise the implied audience is equally fictitious. Therefore, a genuinely pseudonymous letter will use certain literary strategies to bridge the gap between the proposed audience within the letter (i.e., contemporaries of one of the apostles) and the actual audience living one or more generations later. This may be as simple as staying on a general level (and thus the more securely we find we can speak about the particularities of the church situation being addressed, the more likely we’re dealing with a genuine letter), historical scene-setting so readers can discern the connections between the supposed author’s time and their own (see 2 Tim 2:17-18), direct commands to pass the apostolic teaching on to future generations (see 2 Tim 2:2), and/or casting certain teachings as predictions of things to come (see 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Pet 2:1-3).

Bauckham’s conclusions (491) broadly confirm mainstream scholarly assumptions:

  • 2 Peter “can be regarded with very high probability as pseudepigraphal”
  • The Pastorals “could very well be pseudepigraphal”
  • Ephesians, James, 2 Thessalonians: “our criteria make pseudepigraphy a possibility, without deciding the issue.
  • All other NT letters: “the question of authenticity remains in these cases an open one which must still be decided on other grounds. But it seems that any other case for pseudepigraphy among the NT letters is by these criteria very implausible indeed.

For me, the pseudonymity of the Pastorals is an open issue but not a terribly important one. As Daniel says, they’re in the canon either way and therefore count as inspired Scripture. What I usually tell my class is that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I think Paul wrote them; on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I think they’re pseudonymous; and on Sundays I pray because I’m not sure what I think!