Paul and the Jewish Lectionary System

07 Nov

At times it is difficult to really understand the full meaning of any story without knowing the context into which the story is placed. The same would be true of understanding certain Biblical texts. For example, in Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story of an unidentified rich man and a beggar he names Lazarus. Would our understanding of Jesus’ story change or be helped by knowing that the rich man’s clothing, as described by Jesus, was identical to that of the high priest at Jerusalem?

In Acts 13:17-41 Paul addresses the Jews and gentile God-fearers in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. He uses Israel’s history to point to Jesus, preaching his prophesied crucifixion and resurrection and concluding that justification comes to men through faith in Jesus and not the Law (Acts 13:38-39). We are able to glean a lot of understanding just by reading and studying what Paul says here, but what is the context of Paul’s sermon. Did Paul choose his subject matter, or was the basic outline or theme chosen for him, through the practice and use of the Jewish lectionary system in use in the 1st century CE? Notice:

After the appropriated prayers had been recited and the two scripture lessons read—one from the Pentateuch and the other from some place in the prophetic books bearing some resemblance to the subject of the Pentateuchal reading—an address was normally delivered by some suitable member of the congregation. [F.F. Bruce “The Book of Acts” page 267] – emphasis mine

Paul begins in Acts 13:17 with a quote from Exodus 14:8 or Numbers 33:3, showing the God of Israel leading the children of Israel out of Egypt “with a high arm”. If Paul had his message correspond to the Torah reading, he and Barnabas may have been celebrating Passover with the Jewish community and the gentile God-fearers of Pisidian Antioch in 44 CE.

If Paul’s mention of Exodus 14:8 (or Numbers 33:3) corresponds to the Torah reading that Sabbath, then there also had to have been a corresponding reading from the Prophets that would bear some resemblance to the children of Israel leaving Egypt for the Promised Land. The fact is Paul does exactly that by referring to King David, using him to point to Jesus. Paul describes David in this way: “I have found David, the son of Jesse, a man after my own heart, who will do all my will.”

The problem is there is no scripture in the Old Testament that says this of David. What Paul has done is to describe David by using three different scriptures for the three main phrases used in Acts 13:22:

“I have found David…” (Psalm 89:20).

“…a man after his own heart.” (1Samuel 13:14).

“…he shall fulfill all my pleasure.” (Isaiah 44:28).

The first scripture’s context exalts God for his mercies in breaking the power of Israel’s enemies in order to keep his promises to his people, and he found David and anointed him King. The second scripture’s context concerns God’s rejection of Saul for not keeping the Lord’s commandments. Therefore, the Lord had looked for and found “a man after his own heart”. The third and final scripture pertains to Israel’s returning to the Promised Land from Babylon where they were held captive (just as they were slaves in Egypt). Originally the scripture was used to say Cyrus, the Persian, would “…do all my pleasure”, but Paul uses it to point to God’s David—the Messiah (Jesus).

Does my explanation above appear logical? Certainly Paul does address the time of the Passover, and the scripture he quotes comes from the Torah. He also points to Cyrus in Isaiah, a scripture that corresponds to his quoting Exodus 14:8 (or Numbers 33:3) found in the Torah. Moreover, by using Psalm 89 Paul points to God’s faithfulness to his people, keeping all the promises he made to Abraham, their father; so it appears logical to assume Paul used the Jewish lectionary system of his day to point to Jesus.

Yet, even if all the above is true, how does knowing this context result in greater insight into God’s word? Can’t we know the meaning of Paul’s sermon without knowing its contextual placement at the Passover of 44 CE, as concluded from its similarity to the Jewish lectionary system? I submit that it is not the content of Paul’s sermon that gives us the greater insight into God’s word but the time of Paul’s sermon in 44 CE that gives us that greater insight.

If Mark returned to Jerusalem before the Passover of 44CE and told others what occurred on Cyprus, as it pertained to Paul’s receiving Sergius Paulus as a believer and his debate with Elymas-Bar Jesus (presumably a well respected wise Jew in Jerusalem), this may have stirred up the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. This act of Paul’s, as reported by Mark, may have been the impetus used to convince Herod Agrippa to kill James and imprison Peter, intending to kill him after the Passover holy days had passed (Acts 12:1-3). The reference to Mark in Acts 12:12 is quite odd, if one considers that fact that this is the first time Luke mentions Mark in Acts. Why would he identify Mary as Mark’s mother when, as far as Luke’s record is concerned, no one knows who Mark is at this point in Acts, if the timeframe is earlier than Mark’s controversy with Paul and leaving the team at Perga? I submit that Luke introduces Mark into his thesis here to allude to this controversy between Paul and Mark, which may have resulted in the killing of James.

If the above is logically sound, then Paul’s concern in Acts 15:38 is given great weight. Barnabas, who was more familiar with his nephew, would know Mark’s sincerity and faith in Jesus. However, Paul, who was more familiar with the attacks of false brethren, was not so sure.


Related Posts:

Why Did Mark Leave Paul?



Posted by on November 7, 2012 in Paul First Missionary Journey


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2 responses to “Paul and the Jewish Lectionary System

  1. Robert-preneur

    November 8, 2012 at 18:37

    Hi Ed
    Any literature, including the Scriptures, from a culture far removed in time and place from our own requires understanding context. Thank you for shedding light on the issues surrounding the early estrangement between Paul and Mark and the possibility that there is a connection to Jerusalem authorities cracking down on Christian leadership there. Very interesting.
    God bless

    • Ed Bromfield

      November 8, 2012 at 19:35

      Hi Robert, thanks for reading and for your encouraging comment. I read a little of your blog. You sound like a really nice person to know. Your school kids are blessed to have a teacher such as yourself. It is really pleasant to meet an optimist like you now and again. It keeps one looking up. :-)

      Lord bless you,



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