2020-12-23

Paul’s Letters as Re-written Scripture

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by Neil Godfrey

Recall that a case can be made that the epistle to the Galatians, for all of the “raw emotion” that we read there where Paul accuses his readers of stupidity and orders them to stop and think whether they received Christ by faith or by works of the law, was not at all written in white heat by an indignant apostle but by a calm and methodical author who was imitating a passage in the book of Jeremiah. See

Well, a funny thing happened to me the other day as I was strolling through Jstor articles made available through the State Library of Queensland: I found another article making the same point, only this time in relation to 1 Corinthians 5-6. The author is Sean M. McDonough, professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Massachusetts. The article is “Competent to Judge: The Old Testament Connection Between 1 Corinthians 5 and 6” and was published in The Journal of Theological Studies in 2005.

Before setting out McDonough’s main points I should protect his integrity and warn you that his conclusion is very different from mine. McDonough thinks Paul was so immersed in meditations on the Old Testament writings that he shaped his way of addressing a contingent administrative issue with the Corinthian church by mentally structuring his message as a mirror of a passage in Deuteronomy.

Here is what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5-6. I think you’ll agree that it certainly looks like a genuine instruction from an offended apostle addressed to a very specific church:

5.1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! 2 And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

6.1 Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.

12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” [as per many Bible’s with marginal notes Paul is here quoting Deuteronomy 17:7]

Paul concludes by quoting the “cast out” passage (he uses a form of the same word found in the Septuagint) that we find in Deuteronomy’s instruction on how to respond to “abominations” in Israel’s midst — “which is clearly parallel to Paul’s discussion of removing from the church the man living with his mother-in-law.” The passage in Deuteronomy 17 has God telling his people how to respond to “abominations” in their midst.

McDonough acknowledges in an interesting footnote that the larger passage’s similarity to Deuteronomy 17 is not immediately noticeable:

The relevance of Deut. 17:1-6 is obscured in most treatments of I Corinthians 5, probably due to the fact that commentators feel its contents are adequately summarized in 17:7. My thanks to Professor Morna Hooker for emphasizing its significance here. Brian Rosner does note the significance of Deut. 17:2, 3 in his treatment of 1 Corinthians 5; see Rosner, Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), pp. 65, 69.

Sean McDonough was struck by something when he re-read Deuteronomy following the passage Paul cites (“cast out – exarate, ἐξάρατε -the evil person”), Deuteronomy 17:8

If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge—whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults—take them to the place the Lord your God will choose.

After commanding that the evil person be cast out Paul immediately pivots to chastising the Corinthians for the way they choose to go to courts to resolve disputes instead of working things out among themselves:

6.1 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? 2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? 4 If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? 5 I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? 6 But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!

7 Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? 8 No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! 9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

So Paul follows Deuteronomy 17 in first expressing shock at the abomination among them and ordering them to cast out the wicked one for his destruction.

Paul continues the pathway of Deuteronomy by explaining that those whom he has already called “the temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16) must themselves judge cases. Deuteronomy 17 follows the command to cast out the abomination with another command to bring disputes to the Temple of God for resolution.

The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you.

8 “If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God chooses. 9 And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment. . . .  12 So you shall put away the evil from Israel

Some comments on the above by McDonough

It seems beyond coincidence that Paul should first discuss the expulsion of a notorious sinner from the community in I Corinthians 5, in accord with Deut. 17:2-7; explicitly cite Deut. 17:7 in 5:13; and then immediately move onto the question of difficult cases of judgement, just as the writer of Deuteronomy had done in 17:8 ff. The fact that the writer of Deuteronomy concludes his discussion by repeating ‘you will drive out the evil’ makes Paul’s use of this material all the more likely.

Nor is Paul casually picking up themes from Deuteronomy. The solution to the question of difficult cases in Israel is to bring them to the ‘place where the Lord your God will choose to put his name there’—. . . . The equivalent of the final phrase . . . . is lacking in the Masoretic Text, but this is such a stock phrase for the Temple that the location is clear enough even in the Hebrew. There at the Temple, the priests and/or Levites will render a judgement, which is to be put into practice by the people. In the light of this, it is of critical significance that Paul warns the Corinthians to judge properly ‘when you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus’  [5:4]

McDonough emphasizes that what is significant here is the method underlying the passages in Corinthians.

If my argument is correct, it is not simply the case that Paul has found guidance for his flock from some remembered bits of Torah. Rather, it appears that he has structured his entire discussion of this section of 1 Corinthians in the light of the text in Deuteronomy 17. In other words, Paul did not take the problem of the man living with his mother-in-law and the problem of lawsuits within the church seriatim with only casual links between the two. Instead, he saw both as symptomatic of the Corinthians’ failure to apply the strictures concerning just judgement in Deuteronomy 17 within their own community. It is likely that further investigation will reveal how not only the content, but also the structure, of Paul’s letters has been profoundly affected by his meditations on the Old Testament. (italics original, bolding mine)

That conclusion is possible. But one must admit it is unusual and unexpected for someone to take issue with different particular real-life problems and happily find himself being able to paraphrase a lengthy sequence of an Old Testament passage that luckily applies to the situation.

If this were a one-off one might look on it as a curiosity and move on. But it’s the second time we have seen this sort of both structural and content intertextuality within Paul’s letters. Questions arise. Some have suggested that the letters are in fact a “New Testament” medium for establishing a the renewed and spiritual covenant among a new Israel or people of God. Some might even suggest that such writings are a response to a need for a “new temple” in the place of the literal one that no longer exists.


McDonough, Sean M. “Competent to Judge: The Old Testament Connection Between 1 Corinthians 5 and 6.” The Journal of Theological Studies 56, no. 1 (2005): 99–102.


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10 thoughts on “Paul’s Letters as Re-written Scripture”

  1. In English we have a possibly related word: execration. To condemn, curse someone very strongly. Often effectively banning or ejecting them.

    Looks like that in effect also OT model, could well be the “structure” of Paul.

  2. Neil I am not sure there was a man named Paul / Saul and that your your discovery reinforces this as it suggests the Corinthian letters may have been in part plagiarised or at least modelled on other sources without giving due credit. And were the Corinthian believers of Greek rather than Jewish origins ? If Jewish, then the writer may have alluded to the Torah as the authority. It raises some interesting questions. One of the reasons I find that classicist NT scholars are inclined to revere the New Testament is that they see Paul coming up with some incredible expressions of conviction and contrition. If he did exist he’d have been one in a million. But I keep in mind that the authority with which he is presented comes from alleged supernatural encounters, just like the Koran’s Mohamed had angelic revelations. I conclude that like Jesus he was almost certainly a scripted character and that the same sort of miracles and revelations connected with Paul, like Jesus, are a fraud.

    1. I see Paul as half (Greco/) Roman citizen, half Jewish. Trying to alternately reconcile or distinguish these two traditions. As say, “spirit” v. “flesh.”

      1. The “Paul” character is also a fraud – in that he is trying to, often, reconcile two irreconcilable traditions: Judaism, and Greco Romanism.

        It is nice, to be sure, that now and then he confesses his sin. As the “worst of sinners”.

        Though many of us finally just want to execrate the whole lot of them.

    2. A possibility in the back of my mind is that the letters were produced to serve as a replacement or addition to the Jewish Scriptures. A letter medium is a “heart to heart” communication unlike an inscription in stone and as such would be an appropriate medium for a replacement or renewed covenant in the wake of the Temple’s loss of relevance (possibly because of its destruction in 70). Paul was created as a substitute for Moses and other OT authorities, but as a counterpart foil appropriate for a new covenant that stressed spirit over letter and that actively sought to embrace gentiles into the new body.

      1. What do you mean by “spirit over letter”, Neil?

        (spirit* [of the law]? over ‘the letter of the law’?)

        (* a certain/selected/perceived ‘spirit of the law’?)

        1. That was not a good term to use. What I meant to say was that in place of a physical temple with the related acts of literal sacrifices followers of the new way saw themselves as a spiritual temple, etc. The “new Israel” or people of God reinterpreted the Torah where appropriate to apply to their new situation that bypassed the traditional Temple cult. Does that make sense?

    1. Is it possible Stuart Waugh’s thesis is open to refinement or qualification or even replacement? Why “too late” anyway? We are open to the epistle itself being a late first century or even early to mid second-century composition.

      If we are going to find McDonough’s presentation flawed then we should argue that point and not reflexively dismiss it because it conflicts with another thesis, yes?

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