Hermeneutics as Ethics: 2 Corinthians 3
A similar relation obtains in 2 Corinthians 3, arguably the most important passage in all of Paul for reading his hermeneutic of the Torah and of “Old Israel.” Richard Hays unsettles the opposition between two modes of interpreting the 2 Corinthians passage that have been considered mutually exclusive. In the tradition of the Church, 2 Cor. 3:6 has been understood from nearly the very beginning as denoting an opposition between literal and allegorical interpretation. This reading has in recent years been called into question by Pauline scholars, who argue that the opposition is rather between a written text of any kind and the fleshy [!] embodiment of Christian covenant in the actual community of the faithful. Hays refers to this embodiment as an Incarnation and remarks, “The traditional English translation of gramma as ‘letter,’ based in turn on the Vulgate's littera, is an unfortunate one…because it suggests that Paul is distinguishing between literal and spiritual modes of exegesis. This is the construal against which the advocates of a nonhermeneutical interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3 rightly object.” Hays goes on strikingly to remark, “Thus, the Christian tradition's reading of the letter-spirit dichotomy as an antithesis between the outward and the inward, the manifest and the latent, the body and the soul, turns out to be a dramatic misreading, indeed a complete inversion. For Paul, the Spirit is—scandalously—identified precisely with the outward and palpable, the particular human community of the new covenant, putatively transformed by God's power so as to make Christ's message visible to all. The script, however, remains abstract and dead because it is not embodied” (Hays 1989, 130). This formulation, however, discounts one very important fact: The script had not remained abstract and dead, because it was already embodied in the living practice of Jewish communities. There must always be, then, a hermeneutical dimension to such a claim, almost by definition. And indeed, Hays himself argues very perceptively that whether or not the letter / spirit opposition is in itself the index of a dichotomy of hermeneutical practices, in any case Paul posits a hermeneutical shift from the reading of Moses to the experience of the Spirit. There has, after all, been a change in the status of Scripture. The hermeneutical and ethical moments are indeed homologous with each other.
Of Veils and Fading Glory
I would further claim that the very notion of language as abstract and disembodied—that is, the very notion of the necessity for the word to become flesh, as it were—is already, in itself, an allegorical conception of language, paralleling the platonistic notions of non-corporeal Godhead which the Incarnation presupposes. Analysis of the continuation of the Pauline text, 3:7–18, will bring out this point more clearly:
Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letter on stone, took place with such glory that the Israelites could not bear to gaze at Moses's face, even though it was fading, will not the ministry of the Spirit be with greater glory? For if there is glory with the ministry of condemnation, how much more does the ministry of righteousness abound with glory. Indeed, what has had glory has not had glory, in this case, because of the glory which so far surpasses it. For if what was fading [τὸ καταργούμενον] was with such glory, how much more the glory of that which endures!
Having, therefore, such a hope, we act with much boldness, and not like Moses when he used to put a veil over his face so the Israelites could not gaze at the end [= true meaning] of what was fading [καταργουμένος]. But their minds were hardened. Right up to the present day the same veil remains at the public reading of the old covenant—unlifted, because it is in Christ that it is fading [καταργεῖται]. Indeed, to the present, whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. Whenever anyone turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now “the Lord” is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding [as in a mirror] the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, as from the Lord, the Spirit.
Hays reads the τέλος of verse 13, at which the Israelites could not gaze, not as the “end” but as the “goal” or “fulfillment”; note the parallel to the old hermeneutic problem of “Christ is the τέλος of the Law.”  The veil, for Paul, as in the Torah itself, was to prevent those who were not capable of standing it from seeing the glory of Moses' transformation. Paul's allegorical reading of this is that until this day those Jews who deny Christ show themselves not capable of bearing the true meaning of the text in Christ and so still read it with a veil. Because their minds were hardened, they are prevented from perceiving the true meaning of the text, which is the glory, the spirit that transfigured Moses. That is, the reading of “Moses” prevents the Jews from seeing the glory of the Lord, and this is typologically/allegorically signified by the covering of Moses' face when he gave the Law. The word is meant to point to the Spirit which lies behind it (and always did), but the Jews remain at the level of the literal—literally, at the level of the letter, the concrete language which, of course, epitomizes midrash, and this is the gramma which kills.
Once more, in Hays's excellent formulation:
For those who are fixated on the text as an end in itself, however, the text remains veiled. But those who turn to the Lord are enabled to see through the text to its telos, its true aim. For them, the veil is removed, so that they, like Moses, are transfigured by the glory of God into the image of Jesus Christ, to whom Moses and the Law had always, in veiled fashion pointed.…The telos of Moses' transitory covenant (which remained hidden from Israel in the wilderness) was the same thing as the true significance of Moses/ Torah (which remained hidden from Paul's contemporaries in the synagogue).…The veiled telos is, if we must express it in a discursive proposition, the glory of God in Jesus Christ that makes itself visible in fleshy communities conformed to God's image.…All the elements are necessary to express the hermeneutical and ethical significations that are packed into his metaphor. (Hays 1989, 137, 146)
This passage is thus typological and allegorical in its structure: That is, like the Spirit which must be incarnated in the Corinthian community and which Paul calls a writing, language always consists of a spiritual meaning which is embodied in the material. I think that Paul's argument is even more complex than this, for there are, in fact, four terms here, not two: Old Testament, its Jewish readers, Spirit, “we all.” The lesser glory, the Old Testament, is both revealed and annulled by the greater glory of the Spirit. As the sun reveals the moon during the night and conceals it by day, so the Spirit was reflected indirectly in the Old Testament, which is now completely obscured by the greater light of the Spirit directly shining from the New. Even that lesser glory, Paul argues, lesser because it is transitory, was too much for the Jews to stand, and they had to be protected by a veil. Even more so is it the case that the glory which will not be annulled is too much for them to see, and they remain blinded to it by a veil. What even Hays does not make explicit, although it is implicit in his text, is that Paul is, in fact, playing with both senses of τέλος in this passage and doing so brilliantly. Those who do not see that there is a τέλος beyond the text reach a dead end in a veil, while those who do see that Christ is the τέλος of the Law see through the veil—that veil which is the letter itself—or better, the veil is removed, and they see the true glory of which the physical, material, literal glory of the text was only a shadow which passes away. Moses, then, provided the veil presumably because the time was not yet ripe for the τέλος, the true meaning, to be perceived, but this very veil has resulted in a hardening of the minds which prevents the turning toward Christ which alone removes the veil. Paul, in fact, enacts the kind of reading that the Jews do not do at the same time that he talks about it. Whatever this passage is, it is not midrash, because it does not involve a close contact with the language of the verses of Exodus with which it deals, while midrash is precisely characterized by its attention to the physical, material details of the actual language (compare Hays 1989, 132; Davies 1965, 106–07). Paul's is typological/allegorical reading, whereby the events of the “Old Testament” signify realities in the present life of the Christian community. The metaphor of the veil is exact. Midrash, the way the Jews read Moses, is a hermeneutics of opacity, while Paul's allegorical/typological reading is a hermeneutics of transparency. Paul can boldly go where no Jew has gone before and reveal the true telos of the text because of the spiritual condition of his listeners who, protected by the Spirit, need not fear death. Paul thus asserts that the veil Moses put over his face symbolizes a veil the Jews had put over their hearts at the reading of the Law, because they do not expound it spiritually, which prevents them from perceiving the glory of the truth. Paul identifies the new readers of the Bible as “we all,” thus asserting the universalism of the Christian dispensation over and against the particularities of the Jewish reading of Moses.
With this, we can answer another conundrum of this chapter, most fully explicated by Morna Hooker: “He has told us that Israel could not gaze on Moses' glory: how, then, does it come about that Christians can now gaze on the overwhelming glory which belongs to Christ?” (Hooker 1981, 298) Paul, however, has given us the answer to this question himself. “The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” And: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” In other words, all Christians now have the experience of Moses himself! He, after all, beheld the face of the Lord, through an undarkened glass, and was not destroyed, but all of the other Jews had to perceive even the reflected glory that was in his face through a veil. When Moses turned to the Lord, he removed his veil. Now, all Christians who turn to the Lord are in the condition of Moses, and because the Spirit, which is the Lord (= Christ), gives life, therefore they can perceive the τέλος without fear of death. The use of the verb κατοπτριζόμενοι, “looking as in a mirror,” is fully explained by the traditional topos that Moses saw God through a glass which was not darkened, while all the other prophets only saw God through a glass darkly. It thus strengthens the point that only the new Jews attain to the status of Moses himself.
This proposition is thus buttressed by the allusion to Exodus 34:34 in which we are told that Moses removed his veil when he went in before the Lord (Hooker 1981, 301). There is, however, a problem with this interpretation, a problem built into Exodus 34 itself: And the Children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the face of Moses was shining with light, and Moses replaced the mask (veil) on his face until he went to speak with Him. As Hooker acutely notes, in Exodus 34:34 it seems that Moses only replaces his veil after communicating the words of God to the people. This raises two questions: (1) if the people could not stand to see the face of Moses because of its glory, how come they were able to stand it later on, and every time he came out from the tent? and (2) What was the purpose of his placing the veil over his face after delivering the Divine discourse? One possible strategy for dealing with this (presumably the one that Hays would adopt) is to regard the clause “And the Children…with light” as a pluperfect, referring back to the first instance in which Moses came down and did not know that his face was shining and created the veil in order to protect the people. We would read verse 34 to mean that he put on the veil before speaking to the people.
Another line of interpretation, however, reads verse 34 as meaning indeed that Moses replaced the veil after speaking with the people, thus raising the questions above. Now, if we assume that this is how Paul interpreted the verse, then we can interpret Paul's midrash quite differently—and this is what Morna Hooker has done. If Moses replaced the veil only after delivering God's word, then the reason might very well have been that the glory was fading from his face, and he did not want the Jews to see this fading. Such a reading is known from Jewish texts of the early Middle Ages. The fourteenth-century Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra says:
There are those who say that the light would be replenished when he went into the Tent of Meeting and spoke with God. And he would go out and the light would remain all of the time he was speaking the words of God with the Israelites. And when he would finish, he would put on the mask, for he knew that the light would disappear, and his face would return to its normal state, and it would be a stigma to Moses if the people would see his face without the light.
Paul's interpretation would be virtually identical to that of this anonymous (“those who say”; are they Jewish, or maybe Christian?) reader—whose view, I might add, was vigorously rejected by Ibn Ezra, citing a commentator from the tenth century. The reason for the energetic repudiation of this interpretation could quite plausibly be reconstructed as the fact that Christians were citing such a reading as typological evidence for the fading glory of Moses' text! There is no need, however, to go along with Hooker's assumption that Paul is inconsistent and simply changes horses in midstream from a story in which the glory was too much for the Jews to one in which the veil serves to hide precisely the fading of the glory, since any interpreter who takes 34:34 to mean what it seems to mean on the surface will have to confront the question of Moses' replacement of the veil only after speaking to the Jews.
As Hooker herself notes, Paul does not explicitly mention the veil in the first part. He only remarks that the Israelites could not bear to gaze at Moses' face. The text of the Torah does not make explicit—and verse 34 seems to contradict—the notion that the purpose of the veil was to prevent the Jews from seeing the glory which was too much for them! Indeed, they could not bear to gaze, but the reason for the veil was something else entirely, namely Moses' desire that they not perceive that his glory was transient. As we have seen, at least one apparently Jewish interpreter (cited by Ibn Ezra) reached the same conclusion. Paul, of course, made use of it by allegorizing it: The glory that faded from Moses' face signifies the glory that will fade from his literal, physical text, while the glory of the Lord, from which his reflected glory was replenished, is everlasting. Paul's own methods of interpretation here thus enact a reading of the Torah which enables the view beyond the letter into the glory of the Spirit, while the Jews who insist only on the historicality of Moses' veil and not its figurative, hermeneutical sense remain unable to perceive the true meaning of Moses. Another way of saying this is that the assertion of the concreteness of Moses' mask, its literality, renders it opaque and thus a veil which prevents seeing of the truth, while believing in its translucence renders it transparent and the true message lucid. Those people (Jews and gentiles) who manage to set aside the veil that prevents them from perceiving that the glory of the letter is transient and only a pointer to the glory of the Spirit, which is forever, perceive that greater glory indeed, while the Jews who persist in looking only at the letter and not through it remain trapped behind the veil which that letter is.
On this interpretation, as on Hays's, the issue is hermeneutics: “Once again, we see how Paul makes a statement about Judaism which certainly would not have been accepted by his Jewish contemporaries—namely, that the true meaning of the old covenant is hidden from them” (Hooker 1981, 300). When someone turns to the Lord, as Moses himself turned to the Lord, then the veil is removed and they can see the glory directly, just as Moses did. The Lord is, however, the τέλος of the Law, that is, Christ:
But just as it seems as if the veil is being lifted from our minds, too, and we think that we begin to grasp Paul's meaning, he confounds us all by declaring: “Now the Lord is the Spirit.” Paul is not, of course, concerned here with the niceties of trinitarian theology. Rather, he is returning to the contrast with which he began—the contrast between letter and Spirit. The Lord is the Spirit who writes directly on men's hearts. In turning to the Lord, Israel not only experiences the removal of the veil, but moves from a relationship with God which is based on letter to one which is based on Spirit. (Hooker 1981, 301)
The very ministry chiseled in stone signifies and is replaced in history by the ministry of the Spirit, which has been revealed in the New Covenant, which is not, of course, for Paul a text, a γράμμα, but it is an interpretation of a text (Hooker 1981, 299, 304). When Paul refers to the Old Covenant, he means both the historical covenant with the Jews and also their text. He thus implies avant le lettre, as it were, predicts or enacts the coming into being of the New Testament, and the relation of these two is figured as that of “letter which kills” to the “Spirit which gives life.” Thus, the move of the modern readers of Paul, such as Hays, who deny the allegorical and supersessionist movement of Paul's text is ultimately not convincing. The supersessionism cannot be denied, because there already and still was an enfleshed community living out the “Old” Covenant. It certainly had not remained an affair of mere words on stone. “As the result of a gigantic take-over bid, we find all the functions of the Law attributed to Christ” (Hooker 1981, 303). Since the glory of the spirit hidden within the text is what Moses' veil conceals, and that hidden glory is the life of the Christian community, the Pauline structure is profoundly allegorical after all. He cannot mean, of course, that the text of the Torah has been abolished, so, therefore, he must mean that the literal meaning is what will be abolished. “It is clear that Paul—however inconsistent he may sometimes be—could hardly have referred to scripture itself as ‘abolished,' when scripture provides him with his primary witness to Christ” (Hooker 1981, 303). The “letter” is not only the written word but certainly, as Paul says almost explicitly, the literal reading of “Moses” by the Jews. Augustine read Paul well: “In the Old Testament there is a concealment of the New, in the New Testament there is a revelation of the Old.” A hermeneutic theory such as Paul's, by which the literal Israel, literal history, literal circumcision, and literal genealogy are superseded by their allegorical, spiritual signifieds is not necessarily anti-Semitic or even anti-Judaic. From the perspective of the first century, the contest between a Pauline allegorical Israel and a rabbinic hermeneutics of the concrete Israel is simply a legitimate cultural, hermeneutical, and political contestation. The denotation of “Israel” was to a certain extent up for grabs.
To be sure, Paul does not mean by spirit the spiritual meaning in the sense of a detailed allegorical consultation of the written text (as perhaps an Origen would mean), but he does mean literal Israel as the signifier of the new Israel “according to the spirit,” and literal circumcision as signifier of the inner disposition to which he referred in 2:29, and the letter of the Law as signifier of the Law of faith working through love, the Law of Christ, which is here called service in the new being of the spirit. The psychological and ethical dimensions are thus a consequence of the hermeneutic. In pursuing a fairly detailed reading of passages in Galatians, we will be able to trace these themes in their most concentrated form in Paul's writings.