Does the Bible Ever Get it Wrong? Facing Scripture’s Difficult Passages (#1): Greg Beale

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

August 25, 2014

In a prior post (see here), I announced a new blog series designed to address problematic passage in the Bible.  This new series is largely a response to the one by Peter Enns’ entitled, “Aha moments: biblical scholars tell their stories.”

The first contributor in this series is Greg Beale (Ph.D., Cambridge University).  Greg is the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and the author of numerous books.  A few notables are: A New Testament Biblical Theology, The Book of Revelation (NIGTC), and The Temple and the Church’s Mission.


Peter Enns begins his new blog series with his own story about what caused his view of the Bible to change.  One of the “culminating ‘aha’ moments” came from his study of 1 Cor 10:4: “for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.

Paul is clearly referring back to the times when God refreshed the Israelites with water from a rock during their desert wanderings (Exodus 17, Numbers 20).  However, Enns argues that Paul is doing more than just referring to the Old Testament accounts.  Paul describes the rock as something which “accompanied them”—a clear reference, according to Enns, to ancient Jewish tradition that the rock in the desert actually travelled along with the Israelites.

Since the Jewish tradition about a travelling rock is clearly a legend—a legend that Paul apparently took to be fact—then we have a real problem, says Enns, for the evangelical view of biblical authority.  He puts it bluntly, “no rock moved in the Old Testament, but Paul said one did.”

Of course, I have already responded to Enns’ argument in prior works (e.g., see my Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, chapters 4 and 5). But, I shall try to summarize some of those earlier points here, but the fuller discussion should be consulted, which also interacts with Enns’s responses to my critiques.

The problem with Enns’ argument is twofold: (a) there are doubts about whether this Jewish “tradition” of a moveable rock was present in the first century; and (b) even if the tradition was present, there are doubts about whether Paul was alluding to it.

As to the first problem, there is only one Jewish reference to this “tradition” that plausibly is dated around the first century A.D., but even part of this reference is clouded by textual uncertainty. The lone Jewish source is Pseudo-Philo, which is dated by the majority of scholars as early as the first century A.D., though there is some debate even about that. The main text in Pseudo-Philo is 11:15: “and the water of Marah became sweet.  And it [the well or the water] followed them in the wilderness forty years and went up to the mountain with them and went down into the plains.”  However, while some very good manuscripts (the ∆- group of mss. [A, K, P]) have “it followed,” the majority of manuscripts (the π – group of mss. [H, R, W, X, Y, Z, S, Ad, D, E, V, M, B, C, O, G]), which are also manuscripts of very good, indeed almost equal, authority with the ∆- group of manuscripts, have “the Lord [Dominus] followed.”

If “Lord” is the correct reading, then the identification of the “following well” in Pseudo-Philo 10:7 (as well as, presumably, in 20:8) would apparently be the Lord himself.  Put another way, if “Lord” is original, then the “following well” in 10:7 and the “water” in the preceding clause of 11:15 could well be viewed as metaphorical for the “Lord” in 11:15, which would take the legendary punch out of the evidence.

The point is that this is not a minor textual problem, despite one’s final conclusions about it, and to base a major conclusion in 1 Cor. 10:4 on this Pseudo-Philo text is precarious.  This leaves only Tosephta Sukka 3.11 (date ca. 300 A.D.) and Targum Onquelos Numbers 21:16-20 (date ca. 250-300 A.D.).  These are the only really solid textual witnesses to the kind of Jewish legend that Enns says Paul was dependent on; however, because of their late date, it is difficult to say that the legendary tradition was even extant in the first century.

As for the second problem, even if this Jewish “tradition” was extant in the first century there are serious doubts about whether 1 Cor 10:4 demonstrates Paul’s adoption of it.  He may well be doing a biblical – theological exegesis of Exodus 14-17 in the light of Psalm 78:14-20 (e,g., “he splits the rocks . . . and gave them abundant drink . . . he struck the rock so that waters gushed out”) and 78:35 (“God was their rock”), the latter of which appears to identify God with the “rock” of Ps. 78:15-16, 20.

Note also some of the differences between Paul’s reference and that of later Judaism: (1) he identifies the rock as the Messiah, (2)  he does not use the language of a “well” and (3) he refers to the “rock” from which they drank as a “spiritual rock” from which “spiritual drink” was obtained (1 Cor. 10:4), not a literal rock, significant differences with the later Jewish legend, which appears to see a literal traveling well that “followed” Israel.  Incidentally, note also that the idea of God in association with a “rock” that “followed” Israel in the wilderness is not unique to the later Jewish midrashic literature but occurs also in Exod. 14:19 in relation to Exod. 17:5-7, where in the latter passage the presence of the rock from which drinking water came may also implicitly suggest that God is a rock or at least is directly linked to the phrase “the Lord is among us” in response to the people’s doubt about this.

In this respect, note the “following” concept in Exod. 14:19: “and the angel of God who had been walking before the camp of Israel, moved and walked behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them.”  And the presence of God continues to move between the Egyptians and the Israelites as the latter go through the sea.  Note similarly that Isa. 52:12 and 58:8 allude to Exod. 14:19 and prophesy that in the new, second Exodus God would also be Israel’s “rear guard.”  Thus, in light of the fact that Exod. 17:6 very closely associates God with the “rock” (as does Psalm 78), it does not take much ingenuity to see how Paul could posit that Christ was a “following rock” in his pre-incarnate divine existence as the “angel of the Lord.”  Paul may be doing intratextual and intertextual exegesis, which is a form of biblical theology. Thus, Enns’s attempt to say that the “following” aspect is unique to the Jewish well legend is not correct, since both linguistically and conceptually the notion occurs in the Old Testament itself.

In sum, we can conclude that Enns’ primary conclusions about 1 Cor 10:4 simply remain unproven.  It is not certain that this Jewish tradition was even extant in the first century, nor is it certain (if it was extant) that Paul was alluding to it or adopting it.