Didn’t Paul quote from the Old Testament by chapter number?

Q. In the book of Acts, when Paul was speaking to the people of Pisidian Antioch, he introduced one of his Scripture quotations by saying, “As it is written in the second Psalm . . .”  Isn’t this evidence within the canonical Scriptures of referencing by chapter number, and can’t we take it as support for doing that today?

Paul, of course, could not have been using the system of chapter numbering that we know today, since it was only added many centuries after he lived, in AD 1200.  Rather, he was simply referring to one of the psalms by describing where it came in the traditional ordering.  In addition, the numbers of the psalms, unlike the chapter numbers in most other places in the Bible, serve to identify distinct compositions rather than to break them up.  So this is not exactly a case of quoting by chapter number as is done today.

Still, this is an important question, because here Paul is not citing Scripture by context and content, the way he does in Romans when he speaks of “the passage about Elijah–how he appealed to God against Israel” (referring to the contest on Mount Carmel), or the way Jesus does when he refers to “the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush.” Paul doesn’t even identify the psalm by its first line, as was customarily done.  This seems to be definite biblical evidence for an apostle referencing by number, rather than by context and content.  So what’s going on here?

Actually, when understood in light of the broader manuscript tradition of the book of Acts, this citation by Paul provides canonical support not for referencing by chapter number, but for recognizing chapter numbers as a late and fluid addition to the text of Scripture.

While most ancient codices of Acts read “as it is written in the second psalm,” Codex Bezae, representing the Western textual tradition, reads, “as it is written in first psalm.” This reading has significant patristic support.  P45, an important third-century papyrus, reads simply, “as it is written in the psalms.”  The editorial committee for the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament was so uncertain about the original reading here that they ranked the reading that appears in the text, “the second psalm,” a {D}, expressing their greatest degree of uncertainty.

Bruce Metzger writes in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament that “the variety of positions at which the numeral (whether prōtō or deuterō) is introduced makes both numerals suspect.”  This would suggest that P45 has the correct reading, “as it is written in the psalms.”

But Metzger then notes that if this is the original reading, “One has the difficulty of explaining why, in this passage alone in the New Testament, almost all scribes thought it necessary to introduce the quotation by using a numeral.”  Hence the uncertainty about the original reading in Acts.  We don’t know whether the numeral is original, we don’t know which numeral is correct (“first” or “second”) if it was original, and we don’t know why a numeral was introduced if it wasn’t original.

But we can at least explain the uncertainty about which psalm the quotation comes from.  There’s a well-attested tradition in which the second psalm as we know it today is treated as part of the first psalm.  That’s why some of the manuscripts that do have a numeral say “first” rather than “second.”

This tradition of combining the two psalms doesn’t stand up very well to a literary analysis, which clearly identifies Psalm 1 as a wisdom psalm and Psalm 2 as a coronation psalm.  (See my study guide to the Psalms for an explanation of these types and many others.)  But this tradition, as reflected in the textual variation in this passage in Acts, does illustrate that chapter numbers are a late and fluid addition to the canonical text of Scripture.  All the more reason not to rely on them today, whatever Paul might actually have said to the people when he was in Pisidian Antioch.

Ruins of the Church of St. Paul in Pisidian Antioch, built on the traditional location of the synagogue where he is believed to have spoken on his visit to the city.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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