This is a question that is often raised in discussions of Paul’s use of the Old Testament. Christopher Stanley has frequently brought up the question in his investigations of the topic. It’s an interesting question, because the biblical “thoughtworlds” and “worldviews” and “narratives” thought to be evoked by Paul’s use of the Scriptures by people such as NT Wright and Richard Hays would seem to require (biblical) literacy on the part of his recipients in order to be compelling.
One frequent (and, I think, right) response to this is that Paul’s churches were not just an assortment of individuals, but rather communities, in which those with teaching gifts and literary expertise could help others to understand scriptural resonances.
But I think there is more to be said. I touched on this issue in a paper I presented last week, attempting to add another perspective:
My own perspective is that those who see in Paul a rhetorically compelling use of subtly marked scriptural motifs and broad narratives are on the right track. This direction of research need not be stymied by questions regarding the literacy of the letters’ recipients, because Paul’s reading of scriptural motifs and themes is constantly renegotiated in the light of his gospel of Jesus Christ – an interpretative anchor and lens with which he insists his hearers become familiar. In relation to the known gospel, the unknown (or “previously known”) Scriptures may be entered into, for “literate” and “illiterate” alike. To simplify: his hearers know his gospel; and his gospel directs and illuminates his appropriation of the Scriptures. Thus Paul’s Scripture-drenched rhetoric “works” for hearers with a range of literacies, because the key to his use of Scripture is his belief that Scripture finds its climax in his gospel of Jesus Christ.
I later give the example of the motif of the ‘rulers of this age’ in 1 Corinthians 1-4:
it could be pointed out that the “rulers of this age” represent a gospel motif: they represent those who “crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8). This motif can be grasped by those of various literacies who identify themselves in some way in relation to Paul’s gospel. It can also be further elucidated by looking to the Scriptures that bear witness to Paul’s gospel; the Scriptures that Paul draws upon in expressing his gospel….
It seems that the rhetorical function of this picture is that it offers an idealised foil for the oppressed, weak, suffering, cruciform figure of the Christ and his apostles. For those who know Paul’s gospel, it provides a sharp nemesis to the gospel’s protagonist. For those who furthermore know Paul’s Scriptures, it engages the memories of many who have resisted the Lord and his people, whether Pharaoh, Sisera, Goliath, Nebuchadnezzar, or Antiochus Epiphanes.
So what I’m trying to contribute is the perspective that ‘biblical literacy’ is not just about being acquainted with the Old Testament, but in fact begins for Paul’s (largely Gentile) churches with knowing Paul’s gospel.