I do not know about you, but I must be honest: I like reading things in the Bible that come across crystal clear. If I bump into something that forces me to dig back into some other part of the Bible, and it STILL comes across as a bit confusing, then I am like… well….uh… perhaps I should just move on to the next verse.
Sometimes (though thankfully, not every time), studying the Bible to really understand it is a lot of work. But if we are willing take the effort to do the digging, we can discover some riches that can not be had simply by skimming over the top. A classic case of this can be found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, specifically Romans 10:4-9. Paul is in the middle of making the case that God has not forgotten about the promises He made to the Jewish people, even though the Jews had confused their zealous observance of the Law of Moses (Mosaic Law) with genuine righteousness. In Romans 10:4, Paul comes to this conclusion that has intrigued students of Scripture for centuries:
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (ESV).
What exactly does this mean? Has Christ rendered the Law of Moses meaningless? Has He in some sense fulfilled the Law? Chances are pretty good that your pastor’s library is filled with books that debate this very subject.
Then, Paul does something that is, well, frankly, a bit weird…. at least to modern readers. Check out Romans 10:5-9:
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says,“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (ESV).
Okay. What is all of this talk about living by the Law, much less ascending into heaven and descending into the abyss? I kind of look at that and go, “Uh, Paul…. you could have used a clearer illustration. I have no clue what this is about.” I am a 21st century American reading a 1st century text written by a Jewish convert to Christianity, and I am drawing a blank. This is when people start to peer into their notes in their study Bibles to see if they can figure out what in the world is going on. There is lot going on here, but I want to focus on just few aspects of this curious passage that will help us to understand how the New Testament writers, such as Paul, use the Old Testament to teach their message. Do you care to dig a little bit with me?
Christ and the Law
The first thing to say about this is that most commentators are still scratching their heads over Romans 10:5-9. Here is what the ESV Study Bible notes say for verses 6-8:
Paul quotes Deut. 30:12-14 to show the contrast between the righteousness based on faith and the righteousness that comes for the law. The righteousness based on faith reinterprets these OT statements and see them now fulfilled in Christ… There is no need to travel to heaven to bring Christ down to earth, for God has already sent him into the world. Nor should anyone think they must bring Christ up from the realm of the dead, for God has raised Christ from the dead. What God requires is not superhuman works but faith in the gospel Paul preaches.
In Romans 10:5, Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5, as the ESV notes say, “regarding the righteousness that is based on the law, to show that those who keep the law will attain life. But as Paul has already shown, life will not come in this way since all violate the law (Rom 1:18-3:20).” It is as though Paul is quoting Moses first to argue that, at least in theory, a really righteous person could find life by completely obeying all of the requirements of the Law of Moses. However, no one is able to do that. God then provided the solution through Jesus, who made a way for us through Jesus Christ to obtain God’s righteousness.
Our culture’s talk of “spirituality” is filled with various methods and techniques for achieving “spiritual” growth, but much of it is not grounded in Biblical thought. Instead, if you wander around in a Barnes and Noble bookstore these days, you are bound to find stacks of “self-help” books, all aimed at helping you transcend your current spiritual malaise in anticipation of some “enlightenment” or sought after peace. Many of these books sound very appealing at first, but do they really deliver?
The Apostle Paul in the Bible takes a very different approach. There is no need to go to way-out, mystical extremes, thinking that you can climb your way to heaven by your supposedly pious activities, nor should you need to descend into the depths of your own self-deprecating psychosis, to then rise up by your own efforts to obtain a form of “self-authentication,” or to achieve some other mystical status. Instead, Jesus Christ has accomplished all of these things for you through His incarnation, death, and resurrection. Our challenge, then, is to put our faith and trust in Jesus, believing that he will take care of the rest and following Him in obedience.
As a quick summary, I am good with this. This teaches an important Bible truth. And if this enough for you to take in, that pretty much sums up what the Apostle Paul is getting after. If that is as far as you can go for right now, then that is probably just fine. Stop reading and move on to your next stop on the Internet. Thanks for dropping by Veracity! Have a good day!
Does it ever make you wonder why Paul decided to use to such an odd illustration from the Old Testament? If this piques your curiosity, then keep reading on.
Digging Deeper into Romans 10:4-9.
The first place to start is to actually go back and read Deuteronomy 30:11-14, here from the ESV:
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
Without going into too much hand-waving here, let us put it like this: Here, Moses is trying to teach his fellow Jews that the law, specifically the Mosaic Law, is essentially do-able. Moses is making the case that obedience to God not too hard, nor is it too far off to be unobtainable. Moses makes his case by bringing to mind two images that would have been well known to the Jewish mind.
Who will ascend to heaven? If I had to pick one incident related to Moses that this might be alluding to, it would be Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai to bring down the Ten Commandments. I can see Charlton Heston, dressed in robe and staff, making it up the mountain now, with the people all down at the bottom, wondering what is going on.
Who will go over the sea? Again, what moment related to Moses does this recall to mind? For me, it would be the crossing of the Red Sea. The people, led by Moses, had to cross the Red Sea to get into the Sinai desert, where they would eventually receive the Law of Moses. Moses has already given the Law of God to the people. The people are simply to believe it and do it.
Paul is deciding to use these images from the life of Moses to illustrate a much deeper message. Instead of pronouncing the ease of the Law of Moses, which turned out not to be so easy, Paul shows that Jesus Christ has fulfilled the purposes of the Law within Himself: Christ is the End of the Law (Romans 10:4). Effectively, Paul is taking the message of Moses about the Law and foresees the Law’s completed fulfillment in Christ.
The Typological Paul
This is an example of typology, a typical mode of teaching found in the New Testament. This is where a New Testament writer uses something from the Old Testament as a “type” that finds its “real thing” expressed in the New Testament.
I am a software engineer by trade. If I want to build a computer network, I first try to build a model of what I want to build in a computer lab. The idea is that by understanding how things work in a lab, in principle (ah, yes… the illusive step), it can give you an idea of how things will work, or at least how they are supposed to work, in real life. You can think of a lab or testing environment as the place where you build a “type,” or more properly in my line of work, a “prototype”, of the “real thing.” If it does not work in the lab, chances are very good it will never work in a real environment. If you can understand how something works in the lab, you really stand no chance of understanding how it will work in reality.
The same type of principle applies toward the use of typology in the Bible. The ascent of Mount Sinai and the crossing of the Red Sea are like “types” that help us to understand the bigger theological principles being taught in the New Testament.
This is why it is so important to try to understand the Old Testament in order to better understand the New Testament. The story of ancient Israel, as in the Old Testament, is God’s “lab” environment for helping us humans understand things like “life,” “righteousness,” and salvation in general.
For Paul, the Law of Moses is then a type of “Christ.” In other words, as we consider what the Law of Moses is all about in the Old Testament, we can see it as a type of godly experiment that points us to the real thing; that is, namely, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is one helpful way of understanding Paul’s teaching: For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
Paul’s Use of Unlikely Sources
However, if you paid attention, you might have noticed something that I neglected point out. Paul does not quote Deuteronomy exactly how we have it in our English Bibles. Instead of talking about “Who will go over the sea?“, Paul talks about, “Who will descend into the abyss?” The concepts are close, but not exact. What is Paul doing here?
Ah, this is where things get really interesting in how Paul uses Old Testament texts. A good way to get at this is to remember that Paul was essentially a product of what scholars today call “Second Temple Judaism.” Paul grew up in an environment, in the ideological shadow of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, that took on some unique characteristics that many Christians today do not typically know much about. For example, our Protestant Bibles end the Old Testament with the Book of Malachi, some four hundred years before the coming of Jesus. But even if there is no canonical Scripture during this time period, it does not mean that nothing was happening during those four hundred years.
For example, there were other texts that were written that did not make it into our Bibles today. One good example is the Book of Baruch. Traditionally, Baruch was considered to be the scribal secretary of the prophet Jeremiah. But several hundred years after Jeremiah had lived, in the in-between-times between the Old and New Testaments, someone wrote a book and attributed it to Baruch as the author, which explains partly why this particular book is not considered as part of the Bible. Nevertheless, Baruch gives us a window into how Jews during the Second Temple period thought about the Old Testament. Here is a very interesting passage from Baruch, 3:29-30 (NRSV):
Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her,
and brought her down from the clouds?
Who has gone over the sea, and found her,
and will buy her for pure gold?
This portion of Baruch is found in the middle of poem dedicated to the personification of Wisdom. Without getting into too many details, one should note that the Apostle Paul understood Jesus to be identified with this personification of Wisdom. As New Testament scholar, Craig Evans, notes in Paul and the Scripture of Israel (p. 49), Paul is most probably using this passage in Baruch, which sounds very much like our passage in Deuteronomy, to draw a connection between the Mosaic Law and Christ, by way of the personification of Wisdom.
Craig Evans goes on to observe that this still leaves the question open as to where Paul gets the language of, “Who will descend into the abyss?” Evans makes a very interesting argument that there is an Aramaic tradition that might provide the answer.
The Targum Tradition as A Teaching Tool for Paul
In the days of Jesus, most common Jews were probably not that well-versed in the Hebrew language. Hebrew, much like Latin was in the medieval Catholic Church, was the language of the religious scribes. Most Jews in first-century Palestine looked to the Aramaic language as their native tongue. In Jewish worship settings, they were typically reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, but to make it understandable to Aramaic-only speakers, a translator typically stood up during worship and recited a type of paraphrase of the Hebrew into the Aramaic language. These Aramaic paraphrases become the source from which the Aramaic Targums were written, selected passages of Old Testament texts that were translated and paraphrased into Aramaic. Craig Evans shows that one particular targum, Targum Neofiti, generally dated to the 2nd century A.D., makes use of a connection to the story of Jonah as part of the paraphrase of our passage from Deuteronomy. Here is verses 12-13, underlining the commentary added by the Targum paraphrase translator, based on the English translation Evans cites from another scholar, Martin McNamara:
The Law is not in heaven that one should say:
‘Would that we had one like the prophet Moses
who would ascend to heaven and fetch for us
and make us hear the commandments that we might do them.”
Neither is the Law beyond the Great Sea that one may say:
‘Would that we had one like the prophet Jonah
who would descend into the depths of the Great Sea
and bring it up for us,
and make us hear the commandments that we might do them.
Remember that in the Gospels, Jesus Himself referred to the “sign of Jonah,”as yet another typological reference found in the New Testament, this one referring to Christ’s own crucifixion (Matthew 12:38-41). Craig Evans suggests that the Aramaic tradition that gave us the Targum Neofiti might best explain where Paul got the idea to change “go over the Sea” to “descend into the abyss.” It works better than just Paul quoting strictly from the Hebrew text. But the Aramaic tradition might have been familiar to some of his readers in the church in Rome, which may explain why Paul did what he did. Paul sought to contextualize his message in a manner that would have been appropriate to the cultural and worship context of his readers (For more digging about the “Sign of Jonah” and its use in prophecy, consult this blog entry in the Veracity archives).
When I began to think about the idea that Paul would use a loose paraphrase of the Old Testament, like an Aramaic Targum, to convey truth in Sacred Scripture, it really forced me to reconsider how New Testament writers, such as Paul, made their appeals to the Old Testament in order to proclaim New Testament truth. From what evidence we currently have, Paul’s use of an Aramaic Targum is fairly rare, as he typically uses quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament in common use by both Jews and Christians in the first century, almost exclusively throughout the Book of Romans. But the case of Romans 10 and this somewhat obscure illustration from Moses demonstrates that Paul was a very creative thinker, that God nevertheless used through His inspired Word.
Combined with a typological reading of Scripture, whereby a New Testament writer, like Paul, uses images and concepts from the Old Testaments as “types” that reveal the “real thing” in the New Testament, such explorations into God’s “lab” of Old Testament thought, grounded within Paul’s context of Second Temple Judaism, make for some meaty lessons in how we are to think about Scripture. While such methods may not be naturally intuitive to us, within God’s economy they serve the appropriate purpose.