Paul the Paraphraser or Paul the Septuagint-Quoter?


Imagine you are listening to a sermon during which the preacher says in passing, "Here, Paul quotes the Old Testament."  There is nothing out of the ordinary here.  Paul quotes the OT all the time. Imagine again that you are listening to a sermon.  This time, however, the preacher says, "Here, Paul paraphrases the Old Testament" and then continues in his exegesis.

Did your ears perk up more the second time?  They should have. The choice to use the word "paraphrase" is a motivated one.  No one says in passing, without specific reason, "NT Author X paraphrases the Old Testament here." This happens for one of two reasons:

  1. When the NT author is actually paraphrasing the OT
  2. When the NT author is quoting from a text that differs from the Masoretic Text (MT) (the Hebrew textual tradition underlying most English translations)

Guess which one we'll be talking about today? :)

I recently heard a sermon (not from my pastor, he would know better) in which the preacher, teaching on 1 Cor 1:18-31, stated in passing that Paul paraphrases Isaiah 29:14 in 1 Cor. 1:19.  Now, I don't want to come across as nit-picky or as an ungracious congregant — I respect the preacher, it was a good sermon, and I was spiritually challenged and edified.  However, I do want to take the opportunity to discuss what is going on in 1 Corinthians and how we can more responsibly engage with the use of the Old Testament in the New in this instance.

So, let's take a look at the text:

1 Cor. 1:19

γέγραπται γάρ· ἀπολῶ τὴν σοφίαν τῶν σοφῶν καὶ τὴν σύνεσιν τῶν συνετῶν ἀθετήσω.

For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will nullify the intelligence of the intelligent.”

Isaiah 29:14 (MT)

לָכֵן הִנְנִי יוֹסִף לְהַפְלִיא אֶת־הָעָם־הַזֶּה הַפְלֵא וָפֶלֶא וְאָבְדָה חָכְמַת חֲכָמָיו וּבִינַת נְבֹנָיו תִּסְתַּתָּר

Therefore, watch me again do an incredibly wonderful thing with this people.  The wisdom of their wise will perish, and the discernment of their discerners will hide itself.

Notice any differences?  Granted, they are not all that huge, but they are there.  Let's look at each one in turn:

  1. "their wise" (MT) vs. "the wise" (NT) In the Hebrew, there is a third person pronoun modifying "the wise."  There is no such pronoun in 1 Corinthians. Not a big difference, but still, it ought to be noted.
  2. "wisdom ... will perish" (MT) vs. "I will destroy wisdom" (NT) This is a slightly bigger difference than the mere loss of a personal pronoun.  The verb in the MT is 3rd person, taking "wisdom" as its subject.  The Hebrew simply states that the wisdom of the wise will perish, it does not say how or by what or whom.  The Greek in 1 Corinthians, however, has a 1st person verb, taking the Lord ("I") as its subject.  The Lord is thus portrayed as one who will actively destroy the wisdom of the wise.  This grammatical change should not be overlooked.Granted, the Greek reading is a natural deduction of the Hebrew, but it is not exactly what the Hebrew says nor is it the only deduction that can be made.  The Hebrew could be expressing that the Lord will do a wonderful thing with his people, full stop.  A result of that wonderful thing will be the destruction of the wisdom of the wise.  Thus, the destruction would not be something the Lord actively does but would rather be a consequence of his other actions.  This may be a minor difference in meaning, but it is present.
  3. "Their discerners" (MT) vs "the intelligent" (NT) Two issues to note here:First, just like "their wise," the Hebrew contains a personal pronoun whereas the NT does not.Second, in the Hebrew, "discerners" is a participle.  In the NT, a noun is used.  The same effect is achieved, but this is yet another grammatical difference between the two.  The Greek could have used a participle (συνετίζω or συνίημι would have been good choices), but it goes for a noun instead.
  4. "the discernment ... will hide itself" (MT) vs. "I will nullify the intelligence" (NT) Here, we have the biggest differences between the Hebrew Bible and the NT.  The verb "will hide itself" in the Hebrew is not related in any way to "I will nullify."  Once again, we have the issue of a 3rd person verb in the Hebrew but a 1st person verb in the Greek.  Moreover, we have two further issues.The first is that the verb in the Hebrew is a reflexive form.  This means that the subject of the verb is performing the action of the verb on itself.  Thus, "discernment ... will hide itself."  Greek has the middle voice to achieve the exact same effect, but in 1 Cor. 1:19, it uses the active voice (the subject, God, performs the action on the object, intelligence).  Second, an entirely different verb is used in the Greek.  Hiding and nullifying are not the same thing.

So, how do we account for these differences?  It may be the case that Paul is paraphrasing the Old Testament.  That does happen from time to time, and we can certainly understand how these changes could happen in a paraphrase.  If Paul is paraphrasing, there is really nothing more to be said.  He did it — get on with your life.

BUT, what if there was a better explanation?  What if we could find some concrete evidence that illuminates from where Paul got his not-quite-the-same-as-the-MT quotation?

This is where the Greek translations of the Old Testament come in (commonly, and a bit problematically, referred to as "The Septuagint" or "LXX").  The Greek Old Testament, various books of which were translated more-or-less between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD, was circulating around before and during 1AD.  Since, at that time, the common language of the Roman Empire was Greek and since Paul was writing in Greek, it isn't all that crazy to imagine that his OT quotes may have often been dependent on a Greek version of an Old Testament text.

So, if we were to look at Isaiah 29:14 in the Greek, what would we find?  If I were a betting man, I'd say we would find the text from which Paul was pulling.

Isaiah 29:14 (LXX)

διὰ τοῦτο ἰδοὺ προσθήσω τοῦ μεταθεῖναι τὸν λαὸν τοῦτον καὶ μεταθήσω αὐτούς καὶ ἀπολῶ τὴν σοφίαν τῶν σοφῶν καὶ τὴν σύνεσιν τῶν συνετῶν κρύψω.

Therefore, pay attention!  I will again change this people, and I will change them and I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will hide the intelligence of the intelligent.

Crazy random happenstance?  I think not.

Aside from the last verb, the text of 1 Cor. 1:19 matches exactly the Greek text of Isaiah 29:14.  No 3rd person pronouns, a noun for "intelligent" rather than a participle, and God ("I") destroying wisdom.  Even though the last verb "hide" doesn't match in meaning to the NT's "nullify," it does match in person and voice, in that God ("I") is the subject of both verbs, rather than discernment as in the Hebrew, and he is actively hiding or nullifying intelligence, rather than discernment hiding itself as in the Hebrew.

The Greek text of the Old Testament covers every single difference between the Hebrew OT and the Greek NT but one.  This is substantial evidence.  It indicates that Paul is indeed quoting, not paraphrasing, the Old Testament here.  The confusion arises when one assumes Paul was using the Hebrew Old Testament and does not question whether he had a different source.  As the evidence shows, in 1 Cor. 1:19, Paul was pulling from the Greek translation of Isaiah for his quotation.

(Brief detour: Some may want to play around with the idea that Paul was quoting from the Vorlage that the translator of Greek Isaiah was using.  Possible?  Sure.  Probable?  Not really.  First, the translator of Greek Isaiah is known for his free translation technique — interpretative moves in the Greek text are nothing new.  Second, we have no textual evidence for a different Hebrew text here.)

Of course, there is still the issue of that final verb.  The Septuagint and the MT match each other semantically ("hide"), so why does Paul have "nullify"?  I think there are three possible avenues of explanation:

  1. Paul was quoting from a Greek text that has not survived or that we have not found. This is possible but unlikely.  As Orr and Walther note in the Anchor Bible commentary to 1 Corinthians (p. 155), as far as we know, Origen had no knowledge of such a text and, more importantly, ἀθετέω is never used to render the Hebrew verb סתר ("he hid") in the Greek OT.  (EDIT: Do see what Ken Penner has to say in the comments below, though.  ἀθετήσω does appear in manuscripts 564 (10th century) and 301 (9th century), though these later manuscripts were likely harmonized to the quote in 1 Corinthians.  It is also the text Eusebius assumes.)
  2. Paul was quoting the Greek from memory There are two ways to argue this: The word for "nullify," ἀθετήσω (lexical form: ἀθετέω), is likely derived from the root of one of the words that make up the compound verb that is translated "change" in LXX Isaiah 29:14 (μετατίθημι – Preposition μετά + τίθημι.  Root of τίθημι is θε).  If Paul was quoting the text from memory, it is at least possible that the presence of μετατίθημι in the verse influenced his memory to think that an etymologically related verb, ἀθετήσω, was present also; especially given that the first verb in the quotation is "destroy," from a poetic point of view, "nullify" is at least just as good, if not a tad nicer, fit in the B-line than "hide." Paul's memory was influenced by another verse, Psalm 32:10 [33:10 in the Hebrew].  First, Paul loved the Psalms.  He quotes from them and alludes to them all.the.time.  So, that Paul would be influenced by the wording of a Psalm is not all that surprising.  In LXX Psalm 32:10-11, we find:

κύριος διασκεδάζει βουλὰς ἐθνῶν, ἀθετεῖ δὲ λογισμοὺς λαῶν καὶ ἀθετεῖ βουλὰς ἀρχόντων· ἡ δὲ βουλὴ τοῦ κυρίου εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα μένει, λογισμοὶ τῆς καρδίας αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰν καὶ γενεάν.

The Lord scatters the plans of the nations, He nullifies [ἀθετεῖ, from ἀθετέω] the thoughts of peoples and he nullifies [ἀθετεῖ] the plans of rulers. But the plan of the Lord remains forever, the thoughts of his heart to generation and generation.

Here, we find a similar sense to Isaiah 29:14-15.  First, nullifying the "thoughts of peoples ... plans of rulers" is at least in the same ballpark as destroying and hiding "the wisdom of the wise" and "the intelligence of the intelligent," respectively.  Not the same, but there is a similar thing going on — the Lord is declaring the thoughts of man invalid.  Moreover, another connection can be observed in light of LXX Isaiah 29:15a-b.  It reads:

οὐαὶ οἱ βαθέως βουλὴν ποιοῦντες καὶ οὐ διὰ κυρίου· οὐαὶ οἱ ἐν κρυφῇ βουλὴν ποιοῦντες.

Woe to those who make a plan (βουλὴν) deeply but not through the Lord!  Woe to those who make a plan (βουλὴν) in secret!

In 29:15, plan (βουλήν) is used twice.  Interestingly, in Ps. 32:10-11, βουλή is used three times, "plans of the nations ... plans of rulers ... plan of the Lord."

So, let's bring this together: We know Paul read the Psalms and liked them quite a bit, Psalm 32:10-11 has a similarish theme to Isaiah 29:14-15 — God is not impressed by the plans/intelligence/wisdom of man and acts in such a way as to show them to be nothing —, and uses similar language (βουλή).  Considering this as well as the likely etymological relation between μετατίθημι and ἀθετέω and the appropriateness of ἀθετέω to the context, it is not absurd to suggest that Paul's memory may have been influenced by Psalm 32, resulting in the changed verb at the end of the quotation.

3. Paul intentionally altered the text.

This explanation immediately causes us to ask "Why?"  My current thinking is that the apostle may have done so in order to call to mind Psalm 32 [Psalm 33].

Given the context of 1 Cor. 1:18-31, this is certainly possible.  Psalm 32:10 states that the Lord nullifies the thoughts of peoples and the plans of rulers.  Psalm 32:11 goes on to declare, in contrast to man, the plan of the Lord remains forever, to generation and generation.  1 Cor. 1:18-31 concerns itself with the wisdom of God vs. the "wisdom" of man, how God has made the wisdom of the world foolish, that Christ is the wisdom of God, and how the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.  All of this culminates in the last few verses wherein Paul states that the Christian was not chosen for his or her wisdom, power, or privilege, that God is the reason the Christian is in Christ, who is the wisdom of God, and thus the Christian should boast only in the Lord!  (These last verses (vv. 26-31) all also call to mind Jeremiah 9:23!)  To echo Psalm 32:10-11, that the Lord nullifies the thoughts of peoples and the plans of rulers (those in power) and that his plan remains forever, would be a brilliant move that would serve as another strong, Scriptural underpinning to Paul's argument here.  Moreover, not only would it echo verses 10-11, but it would likely bring to mind other parts of the Psalm as well, such as 32:13-15, which point one to God's sovereignty and knowledge over man, as they focus on the Lord who looks on from heaven and can see all people, people whom he created and whose deeds he alone understands:

ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἐπέβλεψεν ὁ κύριος, εἶδεν πάντας τοὺς υἱοὺς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· ἐξ ἑτοίμου κατοικητηρίου αὐτοῦ ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς κατοικοῦντας τὴν γῆν, ὁ πλάσας κατὰ μόνας τὰς καρδίας αὐτῶν, ὁ συνιεὶς εἰς πάντα τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν.

From heaven the Lord looked on; he saw all the sons of men. From his prepared dwelling-place, he looked on all those who dwell on the earth — the one who alone formed their hearts, the one who understands all their deeds.

(My inner (Ana)Baptist really wants to say "Amen!" right about now.)

So, did Paul intentionally alter the last verb of the quotation to echo Psalm 32:10-15?  I am leaning this way, though I cannot prove it.  I certainly wouldn't put it past him.  Would such a small alteration really create such an echo effect, though?  Given the similar contexts between the passages involved, I think it's plausible.  I'll let you decide  :)

(Of course, I readily admit it is possible that I am still under the effect of having attended two lectures by the magnificent Dr. Richard Hays this past week and am seeing "echoes" everywhere!  On that note, if you haven't read his book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, go do so now.  You'll thank me later.)

TL;DR – Ok, let's bring it all together, sum up, and end on a couple thoughts:

  1. Paul is not paraphrasing the OT in 1 Cor. 1:19; he is quoting from the Greek translation of Isaiah.
  2. This is very important to note for three reasons: First, it's in Scripture, therefore it is important to understand it in and of itself, to understand how the apostle is using the Old Testament, and to acknowledge from what source he is pulling.  Second, it allows us to examine Paul's argument more closely and describe it with more accuracy.  Third, Paul was using the Greek Old Testament as Scripture!
  3. The last verb in the quotation is changed.  It could be that Paul's memory was the cause of this, but I think it is more likely that he intentionally changed the last verb to echo Psalm 32(33):10-15, which then serves as an additional strong, Scriptural underpinning for his argument in 1 Cor. 1:18-31.
  4. If I want to catch all of Paul's echoes in his letters, getting a fuller sense of what he is communicating, I need to know my Old Testament backwards and forwards (in Hebrew and Greek!).  Better start now.
  5. I end with a question that necessarily arises from this and from many other OT echoes and quotations in the New Testament.  What does it mean for us when we read the Old Testament that Paul can 1) alter a text to call to mind another OT text and 2) quote the Greek Old Testament as Scripture?