Report on SBL Day #2, Mark Nanos on Paul’s Allegory


SBL (Society of Biblical Literature, #SBLAAR2016) has been a reawakening for me, an experience of recapturing something that has been beautiful in my life. Since leaving my former occupation as a rabbi a year and half ago, I’ve not stopped studying the Bible, wrestling with texts and ideas, trying to comprehend what God has spoken through prophets and words and events. But I’ve caught the passion anew and I feel like I found more direction at this year’s meeting.

I’m reading things I would never have read before. In several areas of longtime interest, I have picked up more in a few days than I’ve learned in the past several years. My longtime love for Isaiah has grown. My preoccupation with Paul and his ideas in relation to Judaism has increased.

Mostly in this post, I want to describe to you one of the best papers I heard all conference long, Mark Nanos’s “Reading Paul’s Allegory (Gal 4:21-5:1) as Haftorah.” Before I do that, I want to mention briefly two other areas: the book I’m reading that would not have been in my parlance previously and a quick description of some new direction I have in Isaiah research.

The Genesis of Liberation, by Emerson Powery and Rodney Sadler, Jr.

A longtime friend, an African-American business woman and community leader, is studying theology with me. I may be learning more than she is. Through our dialogue I am imagining as a white male a little bit of what it would be like to be black in America. I am thinking about God and faith in black perspective.

The Genesis of Liberation is essentially about how the King James Bible has been used, especially by black leaders, as a text of comfort and hope, in spite of the fact that white religion used it to justify slavery and dehumanize blacks. Perhaps the following quote by Frederick Douglass in 1845 captures the crux of the matter:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.

Some Direction in Isaiah

I’ve written about many areas of scripture and Judaism and theology over the years. My intention is that Isaiah will become my specialty. I’ve been attending the Formation of Isaiah sessions at SBL for four or five years now. I’ve invested a lot of time in Isaiah, writing notes on the entire text twice through, translating a small but substantial bit of it, and so on.

But now, after some time, I see the direction I am interested in. I want to focus on the macro-level of Isaiah. I’m not interested in reconstructing history. I’m not a poetry expert. I enjoy and respect those who work on history and the details of poetry in Isaiah.

But I’ve written about and have been growing in my understanding that Isaiah is a collection, sort of like the Psalms. It is not one book written by Isaiah of Jerusalem (I stopped believing that some time ago), though Isaiah of Jerusalem is the originator of what came to be the collection. I’ve been discovering scholars whose work helps me understand the big picture. How did the collection of Isaiah come into it’s final form? How does the final editor of Isaiah shape the collection and guide the reader to a certain understanding of its messages?

Hugh Williamson of Oxford University, Jacob Stromberg of Duke, Archibald Wieringen of Tilburg University of Catholic Theology, Daniel Stulac of Duke, and the longstanding work of Brevard Childs on Isaiah. These are the scholars I’ll be reading.

Mark Nanos, “Reading Paul’s Allegory (Gal 4:21-5:1) as Haftorah”

The highlight of Day 2 of SBL for me was Mark Nanos’s paper. He presented new, not-yet-published material on the allegory in Galatians 4:21-5:1.

You’ve probably noticed before that passage in Paul is bizarre and he sounds like a preacher stretching the text to make a point. Nanos promised to show us how Paul’s midrash or homily here is an example of what is called in Jewish practice a haftorah.

What is a Haftorah?

First, you need to know that there is a lectionary in Judaism, that is, a set of readings from the Bible. The Jewish lectionary has two parts, the Torah portions (called parashot) which are selections from the five books of Torah, the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). These readings are consecutive and in order in most systems so that you read the whole Torah every year.

Accompanying each Torah portion is a haftorah, which is a selection from the prophets that has a correspondence in some way with the Torah portion. These haftorot can be drawn from any of the texts in Judaism considered to be prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or the Twelve).

Here is something important to know about the Jewish lectionary. In ancient times, there was a triennial system. We discovered this when the Cairo Genizah began to draw scholarly attention in the late 1800’s and old lists of lectionary readings were found. The old system brought readers through the Torah twice every seven years (so it wasn’t exactly “triennial”).

I am told that the old lectionary readings tended to emphasize much more than the current ones passages in the prophets that were about salvation, future hope, and messianic themes.

Here is the thing that Nanos develops about Paul’s allegory: it is about the Torah and haftorah and how they connected. In one version of the ancient Jewish lectionary (we can’t say for sure if this is the one used in Paul’s time) Isaiah 54:1 was associated with Genesis 16, the Hagar story.

In Isaiah 54:1, Jerusalem is pictured as a barren woman who becomes a mother, just like Sarah. Historically speaking, this was a message of hope for Jerusalem during the exile, when the city was empty of most of its people. God promises this barren mother, Jerusalem, that her children will be more than those of the one who has a husband.

Because of the tradition in which this was read together with the Hagar-Sarah story, one creative interpretation would be to see Sarah being promised in Isaiah 54:1 more children than Hagar, who had (temporarily at least) Abraham. And, of course, Paul uses the Hagar-Sarah story and Isaiah 54:1 in his rather odd sermon on Gentile identity in Abraham in Galatians 4:21-5:1. Paul’s strange interpretation now can be understood in the genre of his time, as a d’rash or midrash (a kind of sermon common in Jewish antiquity).

Of course, this little bit I have said probably raises many more questions for you as a reader, but I want to wait until Nanos publishes the article to say more. Some of you know enough about the genre of midrash to already begin to put together some of the implications. Let me spell out one of them.

Paul indicates that Jerusalem is in slavery and that this slavery has something to do with Sinai. A typical reading is that Paul is criticizing Judaism in his time. He is saying that “works-based religion” is slavery.

But the use of Isaiah 54 puts a different spin on it. The slave condition of Jerusalem is not a judgment against Judaism. It is the reality of the prophetic message: only when God brings the covenant promises to pass will Jerusalem be free. Sinai did not have a purpose to make the Jewish people free. The law is not a covenant of salvation. It is the promise given through Abraham that makes free. In Isaiah 54, Jerusalem exists in Sinai mode waiting for the covenant promise.

Paul is saying that the covenant promise has begun to happen in Yeshua. He is saying that the Gentiles in his audience are part of the Jerusalem that is free, not the Jerusalem of old. He is saying in a clever way that going back to Sinai — which for them would mean giving in to the temptation to convert to Judaism via adult circumcision — is moving the wrong direction.

Related Posts

white officer black lives matter Paul, Isaiah, Yeshua, and Some Great Scholars: Day #1 at SBL


  1. Derek, The tidbit that you give to us somehow makes since to me. I drew the correlation mentally while teaching Genesis 19. I want to get my hands on this paper. Where does Nano tend to release his papers?

  2. Scott, I was at Nanos’ talk too. He didn’t mention that he was on the verge of publishing his talk as a paper anywhere.

    There is, however, a similar paper available online that you may be interested in, called “Paul’s Allegory of the Two Covenants in Light of First Century Hellenistic Rhetoric and Jewish Hermeneutics” by Steven Di Mattei (New Testament Studies, 2006). See this link: The author is not Nanos, but he makes the same point — that Paul’s use of Sarah and Hagar fits completely within Jewish exegesis of the time, including likely coming from a haftarah reading tradition. Here’s a quote from the paper:

    “Commentators have alleged that Paul’s reading of Isaiah’s desolate Jerusalem is anything but in line with Jewish tradition, and is rather quite typical of his violent appropriation of Jewish scripture in general. Yet this is not the case…The Gentiles are thus seen as the heirs of the New Jerusalem because, according to Paul’s reading of Isaiah, this is exactly what the prophet speaks of at every turn of the page: the Nations shall be justified and assembled in the end of days. Moreover, the prophet himself declares at 54.3 that ‘Jerusalem’s seed shall inherit the Nations’. … There is nothing here in Paul’s exegetical method that could be labeled as non-Jewish.” (p 116-117)

    1. Glad to see the interest, and thanks to Derek for sharing! I hope you can appreciate my wanting it known that I disclosed this idea to De Mattei and (and J. Willitts too) in (pub) conversations at the ISBL in Cambridge in 2003, when I was spending a year researching this allegory. Each of them published fine essays soon after, although with different methods and conclusions than myself, and that do not develop the Haftarah dynamic, but note it. Now I have finally returned to this work, although I gave a regional SBL paper in 2004 (that I also posted on my web page for a while), and presented some of it in various lectures over the years since. I gave a paper at Nyack College in Sept, 2015, and the Pacific SBL in March, which were similar to the one at the Natl meeting this past week. These opportunities in short time slots are helping me figure out how to simplify a complex argument–better, arguments!: his and mine! I now need to finish something to publish, but it will be a while yet. There are a lot of moving parts, and most of them are entirely new and challenge what has been done to date, which also means I need to do this thoroughly and clearly. The payoffs are exciting, and I am encouraged by responses such as Derek’s and you to get this done for you all to consider.

      1. Mark you stated “I gave a paper at Nyack College in Sept, 2015, and the Pacific SBL in March, which were similar to the one at the Natl meeting this past week. ” Is there are way I could get my hands on a copy of this paper?

        1. Not yet; sorry. I want to get it right and published, since I have already seen it used without attribution. I don’t usually worry about that, since who would want to suffer taking credit for such noncomformist ideas, but I am seeing more of this happening with my work, and, needless to say, it is not pleasurable. I realize that papers not only suffer from this too, but also from even more chance of mangling my views when attribution is given, but this is a price I must pay for the moment. At least I am going to try not to let another decade pass without getting something published from this massive research project with so many implications. Thank you for your interest!

  3. Fantastic!!!!

    Thanks Derek ( and Lois) for sharing with us about Nanos view of Paul.

    It makes perfect sense to me and I LOL forward to reading his full paper on this!

    Man, I gotta get to SBL next year!

  4. Mark I remember a lecture you gave On the romans olive tree .
    From what I remember it was a manuscript that you had studied concerning horticulture practices in the ancient world . I can’t find it on your website . KolTov

  5. Mark, thanks for weighing in! That’s very interesting that you’re actually the one who made the connection that Di Mattai shared in his paper.

    Can I ask, what do you use as a resource for potential haftarah readings? The most widely referenced source I’ve seen is from Wacholder’s Prolegomenon, but it’s from 1971. Perrot’s chapter in Mikra has a list too (1988). Are there newer resources that you know of that have more data available, from the Cairo Geniza or elsewhere?

    Of course, there’s a lot of variation in haftarah reading lists that have been found. It would still be interesting, though, to see if the Genesis 16/Isaiah 54 connection was a popular one to make. Certainly, the association of the two texts in later lectionaries couldn’t have come from Paul. It’s much more likely that he was the recipient, not the source of the connection.

    1. Lois, You must know Jacob Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue: A Study in the Cycles of the Readings from Torah and Prophets, as well as from Psalms, and in the Structure of the Midrashic Homilies (Library of Biblical Studies; New York: Ktav Pub. House, 1971). Check out her arguments and the biblio in Naomi G.Cohen, Philo’s Scriptures: Citations from the Prophets and Writings: Evidence for a Haftarah Cycle in Second Temple Judaism. SupJSJ 123. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007. Between when I did most of this research in ’03 to early ’04 and when returned to it in mid ’15, the publication of her research really overcame my (anticipation of my colleagues as well as my own) concern with whether this consideration was per se anachronistic. One must remain very minimalist and careful about claims since it was almost certainly still a fluid development and differed from group to group and place to place. If what Paul is doing fits within this stream and helps to explain why he used those texts as well as clarify what he probably meant to communicate and also why he could expect it to carry authority as well as familiarity for his addressees, then it is useful, to say the least.

      I can make the case without this element, but employing it helped me to look at the passage and argument in new ways that I might not have considered without putting it into practice as a hypothesis. So even though I do not need it to arrive now at my interpretation of the allegory, I think it is probable that Paul was employing this method of linking these texts, and just these ones in particular, to proclaim his message, even though he had made the case in the letter clearer independent of its inclusion, it could be used against him by way of the same elements (I did not have time to present any of that in the paper at SBL ’16, or earlier versions either), would have been stronger if different passages from Isaiah had been used (esp. see ch. 51!), and has been the source of countless ways of inventing and supporting the case that Paul dismissed or even degraded the role of Jerusalem, Torah, Jewish people, and Jewish behavior…

      As I said in the paper, the main insight is simply to read the allegory as an explanation of two models for entry of non-Jews. Paul addresses the non-Jew Christ-followers to inform them they are children of Abraham “like” the model of Isaac; the allegorical argument has nothing to do with Jews and presumes that they are already children of Abraham through Isaac. At issue is how non-Jews join them (whether Christ-followers [yet] or not) by being born by the spirit “like” as in according to the model of Isaac’s miraculous birth. Unlike Isaac, they cannot be circumcised as infants, such as have been male Jews. For them to become circumcised would be according to the model for adult male slaves, like Ishmael.

      Paul is not calling any natural born circumcised as infant Jews like Ishmael or from Hagar! He is saying that if non-Jews seek to become Jews as adults, that is the model for foreigners, which is the model for slaves, just as were Hagar and Ishmael. If you have the former, why would you want to become like the latter? But that is only the framework for reading the allegory, and the conclusion he wants the addressees to draw; the meaning of the allegorical elements must make sense of this argumentative intention.

      The focus of this paper was on the elements of Haftarah and the reason that Jerusalem arises, and why it is not about Paul’s time. He employs Isaiah’s allegorical development of Jerusalem’s similar situation, linked to the similar situation of Sarah-Isaac, in order to encourage the Christ-following non-Jew addressees to see themselves like Sahar-Isaac and like the returnees from exile, presently having contests claims but in due time, and–like all Jews already, per Gen and Isa–if they remain faithful, that they will inherit the hoped for promises made to Abraham. It is not saying that other Jews do not have the same hope–regardless of what he might have thought about that or indicated elsewhere (my paper from SBL ’15 addressed that, against the consensus, but it is also still in pre-publication research mode). Peace.

  6. Mark, thanks for this too. I’ll look up the Naomi Cohen book.

    I liked your idea that Isaiah 51 would have been a better text for Paul to use than Isaiah 54 to make his argument, but he might have used it because was familiar to his audience. But I do see your point about being careful about projecting an early date on the haftarah tradition.

    It seems like if the reading tradition post-dates Paul, then Paul was still using Jewish exegetical methods that were in use for centuries after his time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *