Thursday, June 28, 2007

The New Testament Use of the Hebrew Scriptures

This was originally written for my Covenant Theology II class. The paper focuses on Paul's use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4.

One of the most interesting and difficult passages in the New Testament is Ephesians 4:8. What complicates the passage is not the obscurity of its interpretation, but the textual issues. Ephesians 4:8 is one of the many Old Testament quotations in the New Testament, but it presents difficulties that many of those other quotations do not. In Ephesians 4:8 Paul has chosen to change the wording of Psalm 68:18 in a way that seems contradictory upon initial examination. The Psalm says, "You ascended on high/leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there."
Paul's quote in Ephesians 4:8, on the other hand, says, "Therefore it says, 'When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,/and he gave gifts to men." Not only did Paul shift from second to third person pronouns, he apparently changed the verb "received" to "gave." At first glance this problem seems intractable. How might it be resolved? I propose that Paul wrote Ephesians 4:8 with a specific interpretive tradition in mind, and that his quotation of Psalm 68:18 is best called midrash pesher. I will proceed by first examining Psalm 68:18 in its original context, then doing the same for Ephesians, and finally determining what purpose the passage served in the original community of readers.

This thesis is important because the reliability of the Word of God is at stake. If Paul's quotation proves to be faulty, then the Bible becomes suspect. This paper should not only set the Christian's mind at ease regarding Biblical authority, but it should also help renew our commitment to the unity of the body of Christ, as this is a strong theme in the passage.

Psalm 68:18 in Context
Psalm 68 is itself an oft-examined passage in the Old Testament. Commentary after commentary speak of the difficulty of its interpretation. Marvin Tate says its problems are "almost legendary."[1] James Mays agrees, noting "[i]t has an unusual density of uncertain texts, rare words, allusive language, and shifting styles.”[2]

Psalm 68 is called "A Psalm of David," but its odd, seemingly disconnected structure has led many commentators to deny not only Davidic authorship, but also the existence of the Psalm in David's time. Tate says the Psalm is "probably post-exilic in its present form, but certainly contains traditional material from earlier periods."[3] Erhard Gerstenberger also recommends an exilic or post-exilic background.[4] Konrad Schaeffer does not take a strong position, saying that the poem's content is ambiguous and applicable to "any generation of God's chosen people."[5]

It seems as though the consensus of critical scholarship denies the authorial claims made by the Psalm 68's heading. Many scholars, however, simply begin with the assumption that all such headings are "later midrashic additions."[6] I see no reason to accept that assumption, however, so I will posit Davidic authorship from the outset.

Having established Davidic authorship, it would be helpful to determine the events surrounding the composition of the Psalm. Two events have been suggested as likely occasions for Psalm 68. The first is the coming of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem from Obed-Edom in 2 Samuel 6. This is the view tentatively espoused by Kidner.[7] Others, such as Delitzsch, would like to place the Psalm after a major military victory, particularly that over the Syrians and Ammonites in 2 Samuel 10.[8] Either occasion is acceptable, as both allow for Davidic authorship.
Additionally, both occasions explain the tone of the Psalm, which is that of celebration and victory in war, with God as the victor. Calvin said, "it was David's design to celebrate the victories which, through the blessing of God, he had gained over his enemies."[9] This is evident even in the opening verse of the Psalm: "God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered/and those who hate him shall flee before him!" (ESV)

It is also important, though, to look within the Psalm and see what part v. 18 played because it will otherwise be impossible to correctly understand Ephesians 4:8. David wrote, "You ascended on high,/leading a host of captives in your train/and receiving gifts among men,/even among the rebellious,/that the Lord God may dwell there." (ESV)

The verse pictures God as the conquering king. He has marched through the nations, defeating them all. This means that even the most rebellious nations in the world are left with no option but to give tribute to God.[10] It is not difficult to imagine the impact this passage must have had on the first audience. The nation would have been rejoicing in the wake of David's victory, but the king himself uses his poetic gifts to point to the one who truly brought the victory. He publicly proclaimed that the people of God had won because of their allegiance to God.

Ephesians 4:8 in Context
How might I now discover the manner in which Paul uses Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8? I will first examine the general argument of the book. From there I will move to 4:8, which references Psalm 68:18. I will determine what role the verse plays in the overall argument of the Ephesians, thereby discovering the way in which Paul uses the reference.

The first thing to note about the book of Ephesians is that it is one of the least specific settings in the Bible.[11] Whereas books like Colossians and the Corinthian epistles have specific situations Paul wrote to address, Ephesians is more general. It is possible, however, to point out an overarching theme to the letter. O'Brien argues that Ephesians focuses on cosmic reconciliation and unity in Christ.[12] His arguments seem sound, so I agree with him here.

The epistle is also divided up into a theological portion, covering chapters 1-3, and an ethical portion, covering chapters 4-6.[13] Though this division is not hard and fast, it can still be helpful in thinking through Ephesians. The passage I am specifically considering is in the beginning of the ethical portion, in which Paul calls the Ephesians to "walk in a manner worthy of the calling which you have been called" (4:1). Paul is exhorting the readers of this letter to maintain the unity of the church. Here in verses 5-6 he writes his famous statement that there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (ESV). In verse 7 Paul goes on to emphasize the grace that every Christian has received from Christ, saying that it is "according to the measure of [Christ's] gift." This leads us directly to the quotation of Psalm 68:18, which Paul is using to support the idea that Christ has given us each a gift of grace. In verse 8 Paul writes, "Therefore it says, 'When he ascended on high he lead a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.'"

The chief interpretive difficulty becomes apparent immediately. When we looked at the Psalm itself above, verse 18 stated that it was God who was receiving gifts from men. For some reason Paul has altered the wording here. Neither the MT nor the LXX contain Paul's wording. Theories abound on why Paul made this change, so I would like to look at a few.
Calvin has an interesting take on the passage. He writes:

…Paul purposely changed the word, and employed it, not as taken out of the Psalm, but as an expression of his own, adapted to the present occasion. Having quoted from the Psalm a few words descriptive of Christ's ascension, he adds, in his own words, and gave gifts ,—for the purpose of drawing a comparison between the greater and the less (emphasis in original).[14]

Calvin is saying that Paul's wording was designed to contrast the victories of the people of God in the Old Testament with the greatest victory of all, Christ's ascension. I respect Calvin a great deal, but I am forced to disagree with him. The passage is not focusing on the difference between the victories of ancient Israel and of Christ's ascension, but of the gift giving itself. The passage is an exhortation toward Christian unity, and Calvin's explanation does not fit that context. Some more interesting theories have arisen in more recent scholarship.
Rudolf Schnackenburg suggests that Paul derived his interpretation of Psalm 68 from a specific tradition in Judaism. He thinks it is unlikely that Paul shaped the quote himself for three reasons. First, "…[Paul's] own work lies in the interpretation (9-11) and this begins obviously with a form of the text handed down," second, "he quotes expressly also in 5.14 and 5.31 f. offers only a special explanation of scriptural quotation taken over verbatim…" and finally, "there are traces of an understanding of the text which presuppose 'he gave' instead of 'he took.'" The Psalm would be understood as saying that God received gifts for humanity rather than from humanity, and that these gifts were to be given to Moses to give to Israel.[15] Markus Barth refers to this interpretation as a possibility as well.[16]

Peter O'Brien also addresses the above view in his commentary on Ephesians. "…[I]t has been claimed that Paul has taken over the textual tradition in the Targum ('you gave'), and employed a common technique of early Jewish hermeneutics, known as midrash pesher, in which his exposition of the text in the light of its fulfillment in Christ is integrated into the actual quotation." [17] In this instance Christ would be supplanting Moses as the subject of the Psalm. This interpretation has the advantage of fitting the context of Christian unity. Christ's gift is grace, in contrast to Moses' gift of the Torah, and the gifts of ministry that Paul goes on to mention in verses 11-16 are "for building up the whole body…not heavenly secrets for an elite few." [18]

O'Brien lists several other interpretations that have been put forward. He mentions the idea that Paul simply misquoted the Psalm. This severely damages the integrity of Scripture, so it cannot be accepted. He also suggests that Paul was quoting from memory and there was therefore a small discrepancy, but it does not seem appropriate to call a switch from second to third person pronouns and the "receive/give" change "small." As O'Brien states, the change is " much too deliberate and striking." [19]

One final possibility O'Brien mentions is that God actually received the gifts in Psalm 68:18 in order to give them back. On this understanding it was always God's plan to distribute these gifts among his people. This would exonerate Paul from the accusation of misusing Scripture for his own ends because he would have communicated the true sense of the original passage. O'Brien attributes this view to G.V. Smith, in his article "Paul's Use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8."[20] Smith claims that Psalm 68 is itself echoing an earlier scripture, namely Numbers 8 and 18. Specifically in 18:6 it says, "And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to the Lord, to do the service of the tent of meeting" (ESV). This would move Ephesians 4:8 away from midrash pesher and into a commentary on Psalm 68:18 in light of the Numbers passages, which David, on this view, had in mind when he wrote the Psalm anyway.[21]

O'Brien likes Smith's proposal, though he does not fully commit to it.[22] I remain skeptical of it, however, because the connection to the Numbers passage is tenuous. It is possible to say that all three passages refer to God receiving and giving gifts, but to build a bridge between the three stretches credulity. I admit that Smith's proposal does solve a number of problems for the passage, but the cost, in my opinion, is too high. His proposal does not have enough support to hold together.

Though it would be foolish to be dogmatic, I believe that given the evidence the midrash pesher interpretation is the best option. As I indicated above, the other explanations have either dismissed the textual integrity of the Bible or led to conclusions that are unwarranted since they are neither from the text nor justified logical extensions of the text. This is not to say, however, that the midrash pesher interpretation is free from criticism.

In his article, "Cosmic Lordship and Divine-Gift Giving: Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4," Timothy Gombis provides several daunting criticisms. One of the chief criticisms is that there is no trace on anti-Mosaic polemic in the book of Ephesians. "The giving of gift is not set in opposition to the giving of the law by Moses, nor is the reception of the law in view in Ephesians at all."[23]
I think, however, that Gombis fails to take into account how the argument of Ephesians is working here. He holds that Ephesians 4 is better connected with the end of chapter two, and that the entirety of chapter three is a digression.[24] He bases this on the theory that there is a 'divine warfare motif' operating throughout Ephesians, but especially in chapter two. The 'divine warfare motif' follows a pattern: conflict, victory, kingship, victory shout, house-building, procession, and celebration. Gombis uses Marduk's warfare with Tiamat as an example divine warfare.[25] This leads me to a few criticisms of Gombis' thesis.

Gombis asserts that divine warfare is a common motif in the Ancient Near East, which it well may be.[26] I wonder, though, why he chose to use the example of Marduk and Tiamat? Surely his case would have been further supported by choosing an example that might have been more familiar to the people in Ephesus? I question whether the people to whom Paul was writing would have been more familiar with an Ancient Near East divine warfare motif or the teaching of Moses. If it is the latter then it makes more sense to understand Ephesians in the midrash pesher sense.

A second criticism is that Gombis requires an unnecessary division in the flow of Ephesians. In reading the epistle I found the argument to flow smoothly from chapter to chapter. Paul moves from our being built together as a temple in the end of chapter two to the mystery of the Jews and Gentiles being united in chapter three. There is certainly a transition around the close of chapter three and the opening of chapter four, but the more common understanding that this is the division between the mostly doctrinal and mostly ethical portions of Ephesians makes clearer sense and is to be preferred. The only way in which I could see understanding chapter three as a digression is by viewing it through a preconceived framework which forces you into that interpretation. I think Gombis has, unfortunately, fallen into that trap.

This leads us back to the criticism that there is no Anti-Mosaic polemic in Ephesians. It is true that Paul is not explicitly attacking Moses or the Law, but what do we know about what he actually is doing? As has been noted above, one of the chief themes of Ephesians is unity in Christ. Chapter three began with the mystery God had revealed to Paul, which was that the Gentiles were to be included in the body of Christ. The rest of the chapter refers back to that mystery until finally, in chapter four, Paul begins his exhortation to practical unity. We begin to see now how Paul is using this Psalm with reference to Moses.

Having previously stated that Gentiles and Jews are together in Christ, he goes on to assert the supremacy of Christ and his grace by quoting Psalm 68:18. There is no need for the Gentiles to feel like second-class citizens because Christ's ascension and gift of Grace are better than Moses' ascension and gift of the Law. The so-called anti-Mosaic polemic is not immediately evident because the main focus of the passage is on the practical unity that comes with being in Christ.

I am not foolish enough to claim that I have arrived at an iron-clad solution to the problem of Ephesians 4:8. Too many brilliant minds have gone before me and disagreed for that. I do think, however, that given the original understanding of Psalm 68:18, coupled with the purpose for which Ephesians was written, understanding Ephesians as midrash pesher is the best of all available options.

Works Cited
Barth, Markus. Ephesians 4-6. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974.
Calvin, John. Psalms 36-9. Calvin's Commentaries. 22 Volumes. Translated by James Anderson. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.
--. Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Calvin's Commentaries. 22 Volumes. Translated by William Pringle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.
Delitzsch, Franz. Psalms Commentary on the Old Testament. 10 Volumes. Translated by James Martin. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980.
Gerstenberger, Erhard S. Psalms, Part 2 and Lamentations. The Forms of Old Testament Literature. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Gombis, Timothy G. "Cosmic Lordship and Divine Gift-Giving: Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8." Novum Testamentum 47 (no 4 2005): 367-380.
Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1-72. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Leicester, England/Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973.
Mays, James L. Psalms. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994.
O'Brien, Peter Thomas. The Letter to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990.
Schaeffer, Konrad. Psalms. Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001.
Schnackenburg, Rudolf. The Epistle to the Ephesians: A Commentary. Translated by Helen Herron. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991.

Tate, Marvin E. Psalms 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1990.VanGemeren, Willem A., Psalms. The Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.
[1] Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1990), 170.
[2] James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 225.
[3] Tate, Psalms 51-100, 174.
[4] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 2 and Lamentations, The Forms of Old Testament Literature (Grand Rapids MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 174.
[5] Konrad Schaeffer, Psalms, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 165.
[6] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms, The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 5:19.
[7] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester, England/Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 238.
[8] Franz Delitzsch, Psalms, Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 5:246.
[9] John Calvin, Psalms 36-92, Calvin's Commentaries, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 5/3:4.
[10] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms, The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 5:449.
[11] Peter Thomas O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 49.
[12] Ibid, 58.
[13] Ibid, 66.
[14] John Calvin, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Calvin's Commentaries, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 21:273.

[15] Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Epistle to the Ephesians: A Commentary (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark Ltd., 1991), 177.
[16] Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974), 475.
[17] Peter O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 290.
[18]Ibid.,, 290.
[19] Ibid, 289-290
[20] G.V. Smith, "Paul's Use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8,"JETS 18 (1975): 181-189.
[21] Peter O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 292-293.
[22] Ibid., 293.
[23] Timothy G. Gombis, "Cosmic Lordship and Divine Gift-Giving: Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8." Novum Testamentum 47 (no 4 2005): 370.
[24] Ibid.,
[25] ibid., 374.
[26] Ibid., 374.


Joe Fincham said...

My condolences upon becoming a rabbi. lol. All in all I thought it was good, though I assume I did not hear more of your voice because it was an assignment of some sort. A slightly more controversial thought: Paul's mission in Greece shows that he has no inhibition about changing the words and meanings of poets and their poetry to force them to come in line with his own views, similar to the way in which he changed a new religion similar in foundation, belief and structure to that of the cult of Isis to fit more in line with his rabbinical background. I believe somewhere between none to all of this, but it's an amusing thought experiment.

Joshua Duncan said...

Shalom, my friend. I am growing those long hasidic sideburns as we speak.

You were right that you did not hear my voice much in this paper. The chief reason is that I don't have a strong enough background at this point. Also, this is a highly controversial passage. On such passages I will (at least at this point) rely heavily on great scholars from the past.

I definitely agree that Paul was not shy about playing with the meanings of Greek poetry. You probably won't be surprised to hear I don't think Paul changed much of any religion. I do think that Paul characterized Christ's Kingdom message in a way that would make sense to and connect with the surrounding Gentiles.

Joe Fincham said...

Ahh, the I miss it! To respond to an earlier question, I am studying Linguistics at Marshall right now (the first of two years in the M.A. program). After this I will most likely go to a Ph.D. program in the Philosophy of Language.

You'll enjoy this: my thesis (which will probably become my dissertation) is on the meaning/function of paradox in the works of Oscar Wilde and Wittgenstein.

Tell the family I said "hi". So that I don't have to spend 45 minutes remembering how to leave a comment, my email addresses are and Drop me a line sometime so that I can have your email address the next/first time something interesting happens.

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