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Following on an earlier post, here is the issue that made it impossible for me to shake the feeling that something was wrong with how I was taught to think about the Bible. The Bible just wasn’t behaving as I had always been told it most certainly does—needs to—behave.

This happened while in graduate school and centered on just one verse:

“for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:4)

You can get a more detailed version in The Bible Tells Me So, but here is the gist.

Paul is referring to the incident in the Pentateuch where the Israelites got water from a rock while wandering in the desert for 40 years. To equate Christ with the rock is a typical example of Paul’s Christ-centered reading of his scripture (our Old Testament): the savior was present with God’s people then as he is now.

All fine and good, but what threw me was that word “accompanied.”

One day in class, my professor James Kugel was lecturing on the creative ways that Second Temple Jewish interpreters handled episodes like “water from a rock.” The curious detail in the Old Testament is that the incident happened twice: once at the beginning of the wilderness period (Exodus 17) and again toward the end of the 40-year period (Numbers 20).

This curious fact led some Jewish interpreters to conclude that the “two” rocks were actually one and the same, hence, one rock accompanied the Israelites on their 40-year journey. We see this idea quite clearly in a Jewish text from the late 2nd century CE called the Tosefta.

And so the well which was with the Israelites in the wilderness was a rock, the size of a large round vessel, surging and gurgling upward, as from the mouth of its little flask, rising with them up onto the mountains, and going down with them into the valleys.  Wherever the Israelites would encamp, it made camp with them, on a high place, opposite the entry of the Tent of Meeting.

There is a certain “ancient logic” at work here. After all, the Israelites had manna given to them miraculously every morning along with a nice helping of quail meat. But what about water? Are we to think that the corresponding miraculous supply of water was only given twice, 40 years apart!? Of course not. So to “solve” this problem, the water supply became mobile—a portable drinking fountain.

Evangelicals could write off this bit of biblical “interpretation” as entertaining or just plain silly, but 1 Corinthians 10:4 complicates things—Paul refers to Jesus not just as “the rock” but “the accompanying rock.”

Paul, a Jewish interpreter, is showing his familiarity with and acceptance of this creative Jewish handling of the “water from a rock” incident.

Let me put a finer point on that: the Old Testament says nothing about a portable supply of water from a rock, but Paul does. Paul says something about the Old Testament that the Old Testament doesn’t say. He wasn’t following the evangelical rule of  “grammatical-historical” contextual interpretation. He was doing something else—something odd (for us), something ancient and Jewish.

Once I saw this, I knew the Bible was no longer protected under glass. It was out there, part of an ancient world I really didn’t understand—and was never really prepared to handle.

For Paul—an inspired apostle—to accept such a strange legend and treat it as fact is not something that can be easily brought into an evangelical framework. “But Paul is inspired by God! He would never say something like this!!”

But he did.

And it struck me that Paul probably couldn’t get a job teaching at the seminary that taught me about Paul.

This aha moment didn’t happen in isolation. It came in the context of years of pretty intense and in-depth doctoral work where my main area of focus was Second Temple biblical interpretation. But here, at this moment, the light turned on, some tumblers clunked heavily into place, and I was seeing a bigger picture, not just about this one verse but about the Bible as a whole.

I was seeing right before my eyes that Paul and the other New Testament writers were part of this ancient world of Jewish traditions of biblical interpretation. And what seems so odd to us was right at home in Paul’s 1st century world.

Evangelical attempts to make Paul sound more evangelical and less Jewish—to make him into a “sound” interpreter of scripture—immediately rang hollow, and continue to.

And I knew back then, as I do now, that the model of biblical interpretation I had been taught was not going to cut it if I was going to try to explain how my Bible works rather than defend a Bible that doesn’t exist. I couldn’t deny what I was seeing. I knew I had some thinking to do.

That happened nearly 30 years ago, and the memory is still vivid. And it’s fair to say this aha moment, along with others before and since, have shaped my life’s work of trying to understand the Bible rather than defend it. And that is, to me, much more interesting, meaningful, and spiritually enriching.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Jack says:

    I think most Evangelicals wouldn’t put much thought into this.

    I suspect most would just say Paul was “inspired.” Whatever comes out of his mouth is God-breathed, true, and ultimately, the inerrant Word of God regardless of what the Old Testament says.

    The Bible is one seamless piece to the Evangelical.

    Paul could add things, but nothing can be added to Scriptures anymore… (Revelation 22:18-19)

    How would you respond to this?

    • Pete E. says:

      What Paul is doing clearly isn’t a function of his inspired status but his Jewish context–given that Paul is doing what “uninspired” Jews do elsewhere.

      • Zachary Rose says:

        That could make sense to me. But, to be the accuser’s advocate, couldn’t one argue that Paul’s mention of it simply gives this unsuspecting Jewish tradition “inspired status”? Like, God knew it all along, and held out on us until he dictated it to Paul and made it official?

        • Pete E. says:

          A rather convolute theory, in my opinion.

          • myklc says:

            I hear convolution is a specialisation now.

          • Zachary Rose says:

            Believe me, my private high school’s apologetics teacher would be proud of my comment, and go on to print it as a handout for future students… The “defend the bible” paradigm is one I still wrestle with, and that wrestling match keeps me coming back to this blog.

          • myklc says:

            Wrestling with the text, each other and God is how we grow up. The important thing is to approach one another in the same grace that we have been shown, even if it means sometimes walking away from a struggle without ‘winning’.
            It’s taken me thirty years to figure that out, hopefully others might learn more quickly because of my example.

        • David Messieh says:

          Hi, to give my two-cents worth, I’ve had this question as well. But even if we accept that, I think we’d also have to accept that Paul’s knowledge of this ‘history’ has come mediated via another Jewish source outside of the Bible. I feel like this might begin to unravel at least some simplistic understandings of biblical inspiration.

      • Jack says:

        The starting point for a lot of Evangelicals isn’t the Bible, it’s their assumptions about God/Bible as shaped by the social structures around them.
        Here are the conclusions… let us explain/rationalize the Bible in a way to conforms to my assumptions.
        The Jewish context is largely irrelevant to most Christians I know. The Evangelical will say it appears in the Bible that God has authored himself. Paul made it into the Bible, the other voices/Jews did not. Therefore Paul was inspired, and the other Jews were not.
        People generally don’t like when the integrity of the Bible is challenged (at least in their minds).

  • Skeptical Christian says:

    Do we have any BCE references to this travelling rock?

  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    Spring up, o well! Sing in chorus to it;
    The well that was dug out by princes!
    That was excavated by the nobles of the people!
    With the scepter! With rods!

    The body of Jewish tradition around that rock, Miriam’s death, and the restoration of the water has always been fascinating to me.

  • Beau Quilter says:

    This is a really fascinating peek into the world of Jewish tradition that influenced Paul. Do you think the Acts depiction that Paul studied at the feet of Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel the Elder, is likely correct?

  • Brad Gilbert says:

    I just started today reading The Bible Tells Me So… and read this. I’ve never even considered it. As a former IFB pastor of over 10 years who is struggling to put words to how I feel/believe, your book is shedding some light into dark corners for me. Looking forward to finishing it soon.

  • Sentinel says:

    I feel like you’re making an important observation here, but I’m not quite sure what it is.

    Sorry if I’m a bit dense, but can you please clarify:
    1. What exactly is Paul doing in this passage that’s unusual?
    2. Why “shouldn’t” he be doing it?

    • Pete E. says:

      Paul is repeating a pre-existing interpretive tradition about a moveable source of water in the desert during the wilderness period. There is no moveable source of water in the OT itself. The point of my post wasn’t that Paul “shouldn’t’ be doing it but that he DOES do it because he is Jewish.

      • Sentinel says:

        Thanks Pete, what I’m trying to understand is what interpretive paradigm this contradicts.

        As in, what were the pre-suppositions that were challenged by this? What turned it into an “Aha!” moment for you?

        • Pete E. says:

          Paul, as an inspired, inerrant writer of Scripture, could never have any part in such a silly Jewish tradition as a moveable well of water.

          • Sentinel says:

            I think I see – so it’s counter to the paradigm of “The text must mean its literalistic interpretation, no more no less”?

            Thanks for your responses here, I’m just aware that in different parts of the world (and different parts of the Church) there are different governing assumptions, and I get the impression your starting point (before this Aha! moment) was a specific American school of interpretation. Your responses to another comment about “evangelical” tradition are also helping me to see where you are coming from.

          • Pete E. says:

            You got it!

  • DonaldByronJohnson says:

    I really do not see the problem.

    Paul says the pre-incarnate Christ (termed a spiritual rock) was with the Israelites in the wilderness and provided for them. There is no need to say the pre-incarnate Christ/spiritual rock equals a physical rock traveling with Israel, despite some Jewish legend. Yes, God/Christ provided water to Israel in the wilderness and at the start and end of their travels the water was from a physical rock. It might be claimed that the “traveling” spiritual rock (pre-incarnate Christ) manifested as a physical rock at the start and end of the journey, but there is not even a need to do this. It might even be claimed that Paul took a known Jewish legend and reworked it so that it became correct, but, again, there is no need to do even this.

    • Pete E. says:

      I never said it was a problem! I think it’s beautiful to watch Paul be Jewish in his use of the OT.

    • Pete E. says:

      I never said it was a problem! I think it’s beautiful to watch Paul be Jewish in his use of the OT.

    • DonaldByronJohnson says:

      Since Paul was a practicing Jew all his life (Acts 21), I think it is a given that Paul would be Jewish in his understanding of Scripture. The OT does say God was with Israel in the wilderness providing for them and since Paul accepts Jesus as Messiah and Messiah as God, I do not think it is not too big a stretch for Paul to teach that the pre-incarnate Christ was with Israel in the wilderness providing for them.

      • Pete E. says:

        Of course not (!) but you are still speaking past me and the point of my post. The point of 1 Cor 10:1-4 is to declare that Christ was “present’ with the exodus generation, and as such the church is too. BUT in doing so he (I contend unconsciously) served as a “conduit” for a Jewish interpretative tradition that is not in the OT narrative: a portable source of water. It’s very hard to contradict that given 2T interpretation in general and other instances in the NT, and it is entirely uncontroversial among biblical scholars.

        • Skeptical Christian says:

          If it was God, then it must have been potable as well as portable. Yup, it surely was carbon filtered, UV disinfected, ozonated, micro-filtered to 0.2 microns, reverse osmosis, sanitarily bottled and government quality inspected. This is God’s water. If you can’t trust God’s water then what can you slake your thirst with? It’s either God’s water or it’s poison, one or the other….decide.
          (That’s a jab at inerrantists, just in case you were wondering).

  • David Messieh says:

    Hmm so Paul was influenced by a Jewish interpretive method which filled in a historical and somewhat curious gap in the Israel wilderness story. I feel like it could be true or could be wrong (is a ‘rolling stone’ or a stone carried by an angel or whatever weirder than a pillar of fire?)…I’m open to the possibility that Paul is just off the mark, but I would be more challenged by an explicit mishandling of the OT. By the way, I appreciate you sharing your personal journey with us.

    • Pete E. says:

      It’s not that Paul is “off the mark,” but that Paul was a Jewish interpreter of Scripture and employed Jewish methods and pre-existing Jewish interpretive conclusions.

      • David Messieh says:

        Thanks for the reply! I definitely resonate with stories of challenging existing paradigms which a Christian interpretive community simply cannot fathom or cope with. I’ve had experiences like this having trained at Moore Theological College in Sydney Australia (which I gained a lot from as well). I dig that Paul is thoroughly Jewish in his thinking, and am refreshed by looking at his unusual (to us) interpretive methods here. I guess we do need to evaluate his methods at some point, and decide which ones we can legitimately follow in our own interpretive journeys. But in the case of 1 Cor 10, the Jewish interpretation that Paul is drawing on seems possible, if very speculative.

  • 0jchristinahodgson0 says:

    The discussion of divinely sourced water reminds me of the water Hagar found for her son after they were banished. She prayed to God to save her son’s life. Thanks to the water the boy lived and grew up to be an archer according to the Bible. In Islam that particular spring is known as Zamzam. Read the wkipedia artcle on Zamzam.

  • JesusMan says:

    What i find most compelling in these examples from Peter is the true meaning of context. Not to pile on evangelicals and literalists, but… Most like to claim that they study and embrace the context of any given passage. That usually means a couple of things: 1) read the passage before and after the proof-text they have chosen and 2) understanding the importance of the metaphor at play (shepherd, sheep, water, vineyard, wineskin, fish, etc.). This obviously falls very short.

    What’s so compelling about these A-Ha’s is that part of the context is the art of story telling and style of writing, and to learn that creative interpretation of older stories and texts was encouraged and the norm.

    But what’s not really surprising is that’s the norm for all cultures that I can think of. The best and most memorable stories start with “Legend has it that…..”

    I’m reminded of Washington Irving who created many folk tales for America right after the founding of the country (Rip Van Winkle and hoax of Knickerbocker) and mixed true history and folklore together, and how those have become intertwined with the real history of New York City and embraced by New Yorkers as ‘truth’ of their identity and roots. The outcome is no harm, no foul, and in fact a stronger identify.

  • Don Frank says:

    I’m trying to understand your primary thesis more clearly. You seem to be saying that the evangelical way of reading scripture obscures the Jewish context in which it was written in order to defend the evangelical notion that scripture was inspired (i.e., handed down or dictated by God). In other words, if we accept that Paul was not simply a human note pad upon which God wrote (the evangelical notion), we will appreciate that Paul employed his Jewish context in declaring what has been revealed to him by God.
    If I am getting you right, I’m not sure that the broad brush of “evangelical” paints all who would say that they believe in the inspiration of scripture. It certainly does not include Karl Barth (you may not want to label him as evangelical), and many others who would not constrain inspiration to the “human note pad” notion.

    • Pete E. says:

      You’re using “evangelical” in a broader sense than I am intending.

      • Don Frank says:

        I don’t want to put words into your mouth. “Evangelical” is a huge term, but it is the one you used. Could you elaborate the sense that you are intending.

        • Pete E. says:

          In terms of the distinctly American phenomenon, which is a frequent topic of my posts. It has nothing to do with European “Evangelisch.” I am very pro-Barth but the evangelicals I am referencing here would most certainly not consider him “evangelical,” co-opted as the term has become.

          • Don Frank says:

            That’s helpful, especially knowing that you are pro-Barth. Not having read more than this blog and listened to 5 podcast episodes, are you defining the American phenomenon as the contemporary “Jesus is my boyfriend ” view, the “bible is my instruction manual”, view, and the variations on that theme?

          • Pete E. says:

            Not so sure what the former means, but certainly “Jesus is my inerrantist” and the “bible is my inerrant instructional manual.”

          • Don Frank says:

            I am referring to the unmediated presence of Jesus as emotional counselor and life coach.

          • Pete E. says:

            Some evangelicals probably are there, but I am not so certain as you of the distinction between Jesus’s mediated vs unmediated presence–if you mean by mediated the role of the Spirit, I think you can safely assume that that’s what people mean. I’ve also heard the “life coach” snark before. I get what you mean, but I often hear this coming from those (namely neo-Calvbinists) who think that sound doctrine coming from the pulpit is all one needs to navigate life.

          • Don Frank says:

            No, I don’t mean the role of the Holy Spirit as mediate. Just the opposite. Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, is the only mediator. If we view the Holy Spirit as mediate, we commit simony, i.e., man harnassing the power of the Spirit for our own gain (even good things like better family, career, government, etc.). The Holy Spirit is mediated through the Scriptures which truly and exclusively reveal Christ (ala Barth). Your “aha” moment says nothing about a rock, per se, but reveals how the rock was employed by Christ as a sign that points to Him. Likewise, Peter’s confession is the rock upon which the church is built.

          • Pete E. says:

            I went to seminary for 4 years and taught in one for 14, but your view of the HS sounds a bit screwy to me–at least a bit judgmental. Plus the mediation of the Spirit is entirely biblical.

          • Don Frank says:

            Yes, I know your credentials and your past/present circumstances re. seminary prof. So, I am genuinely perplexed how you can think that the Word, not the Holy Spirit, is our only mediator. Perhaps you are using the term “mediation” as referring to how the Word is made real to/for us. But this would be a misuse of the term. The Holy Spirit is unmediated in every and any sense in the way He works, just as “the wind blows wherever it pleases”.

          • Pete E. says:

            I’m perplexed that you’re perplexed–if by “Word” you mean the Bible.

          • Don Frank says:

            Sorry, I thought you were better versed in the writings of Barth. Perhaps its been a while since you read him. See Church Dogmatics, 1.2, section 16.

          • Pete E. says:

            Appreciate the link but I don’t think Barth is our final court of appeal and I don’t intend to take this thread off topic.

          • Don Frank says:

            Pete,
            I don’t expect you to post the following — just want to reach out to you in the love of Christ. I know that you are very influential, and gifted as a teacher. Because you are a teacher, I’m sure you are familiar with Scriptural admonition to teachers. Please don’t take that as a bible thumper’s warning of hell and destruction. I say it because people who sit under your teaching may take what you are teaching and spin it into false teaching. A teacher is responsible for correcting false teaching when he is aware that his teaching has been misinterpreted to the detriment of one of his disciples.
            I have benefited from your podcast interviews, and plan to continue to listen. I also plan to purchase your latest book in the hope of further edification. But I am aware that WTS has, roughly speaking, interpreted your teaching as an endorsement of unaided human capacity for divine wisdom. I am also aware that a majority of WTS faculty endorse your teaching, so I suspect that there is another side to the board’s decision.
            I referred to Karl Barth’s writings because I noted that you are “very pro-Barth” (as am I) and so thought that I might find common ground with you, to my edification, and perhaps yours. So when you asked me if by Word I meant the Bible, an unqualified “yes” would shed no light unless qualified by a Barthian understanding.
            By way of illustration, allow me to quote from Barth (1.2.16, line 247 and 248):
            “Therefore in relation to revelation all capacity is concretely the capacity of the Word, the capacity of Jesus Christ. There is no alternative: when we ask how a man comes to hear the Word of God, to believe in Christ, to be a member of His body and as His brother to be God’s child, at once we must turn and point away to the inconceivable, whose conceivability is obviously in question; and we must say that it depends upon the inconceivable itself and as such, that it can become conceivable to men. The Word creates the fact that we hear the Word. Jesus Christ creates the fact we believe in Jesus Christ. Up there with Him it is possible down here with me. All the other possibilities which I have and of which I may think are perhaps very fine and significant possibilities in another direction. The fact that we have them means, perhaps, we are free and open and ready in every conceivable direction: but not in this direction. For the thing for which we have to be free and open and ready at this point does not itself derive from our reality. It does not belong to it. It has only assumed our reality. Therefore it confronts us as a new reality.”
            The foregoing is foundational to all of Barth’s Dogmatics, so that if you disagree with it, you can not truly say that you are pro-Barth. I do not mean this in a judgmental way, but rather as a yardstick for whether or not we do have common ground.
            Sorry for the lengthiness, but I really am interested in what you have to say via your writings and interviews. No pressure, but please feel free to contact me at my email address donaldtfrank@Hotmail.com if you’d like.
            Blessings,
            Don

          • Don Frank says:

            Correction to last post: So, I am genuinely perplexed how you can not think that the Word, not the Holy Spirit, is our only mediator.

  • Pete E. says:

    Whatever point you were trying to make is now completely lost on me.

    • David Messieh says:

      Well you’re overall point seems to be: this passage demonstrates the very human part of scripture, which challenges certain views of the Bible’s inspiration. My response is: I agree that we see human thought and tradition at play.
      My question is: are you implying the human element here shows human error? Because there’s nothing clearly erroneous in this Jewish tradition, just an interpretive guess on a passage which we couldn’t prove or disprove.
      If you’re not implying error is at play: then I’m not 100% sure of your point! Are you just suggesting that our hermeneutical method needs to find place for creative readings beyond the historical-critical?

      • Pete E. says:

        No, “error” or “inerror” are non-starters for me here. I didn’t even raise the issue in my post.

        The Jewish tradition is clearly “erroneous”—no rock rolled around in the desert. It didn’t happen. Paul’s comment indicates that he “accepts” this tradition, however–though I argue in I&I that Paul’s casual transmission of the tradition is not deliberate or conscious, but simply reflects his “interpreted Bible” that he has inherited.

        Think of it this way. I don’t think there were three wisemen but the idea is casually assumed–without reflection–throughout Christian culture. But when I sing “We Three Kings” or get Christmas cards with 3 kings on them, I don’t see get hung up on “error” I just roll with it. The offense for some is that Paul, as a 2T jew, is doing what our Christmas cards and carols do.

        To frame the discussion of 1 Cor 10:4 in terms of inerrancy will miss the much more important point for me, which is Paul’s Jewish setting and the extent to which that setting informs/shapes/determine his engagement with Scripture. The inerrancy question redirects the discussion in such a way that the Paul’s “interpreted Bible” is not the focus of attention but only whether Paul got it “right.”. Actually, it is the fear of “error” that prevents some from seeing what I (and others) think is somewhat obvious.

  • ‪Paul was influenced by non-canonical writings that he probably imagined were inspired in some sense, see examples https://edwardtbabinski.us/scrivenings/2015/inspired-writings-that-cite-non.html‬

    • Don Frank says:

      What’s your point? Paul was also influenced by where he grew up, the languages he learned and spoke, his education, etc. Would he also imagine that those were inspired “in some sense”?

  • gingoro says:

    You could have done as a friend of mine says that Paul is just another 1st century theologian and his writings are not to be given any more weight than the other such theologians.

  • neshort says:

    Is there any other evidence than 1 Corinthians 10:4 that the Jews traditionally believed there was a water-rock that followed the Israelites through the desert?

  • melindaschmidt says:

    All this discussion – aiy! I honor your a-ha! moment Peter Enns, and challenge all of us to identify our own, if there is one. I’ve started my own list of when I began to awaken, hearing myself muttering, “Heeeeey…wait a minute.” What encourages me is that for many of us, our a-ha! moments have not led us away from our faith in God, but rather to a deepening of it, and a growing awe for Its mystery. As in all of life and the natural world, we should be continually growing out of our “old clothes.”

  • myklc says:

    Re-read Pete’s quote from the Tosefta above.

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