Origen appealed to Paul’s Christological identification of the rock that followed the Israelites in the wilderness to justify his method of interpretation (On First Principles, 4.2.6). Some modern interpreters have also argued that Paul departs from a method rooted in authorial intent in favor of a method based on Jewish interpretive traditions. For instance, Peter Enns appeals to this passage to demonstrate that Paul both incorporated Jewish interpretative traditions into 1 Corinthians and that Paul, wrongly, believed these fables to be fact (Peter Enns, “The ‘Movable Well’ in 1 Cor. 10:4: An Extrabiblical Tradition in an Apostolic Text,” Bulletin of Biblical Research 6 (1996): 23-38).
Modern interpreters who think Paul is drawing on Jewish interpretive traditions connect Paul’s statement, “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them” (10:4), with Jewish traditions of a moving well. Earle Ellis provides a synthesis of the rabbinic traditions that these interpreters appeal to:
A movable well, rock shaped and resembling a sieve, was given to the Israelites in the desert. As to origin, it was one of the things created on the evening of the Sixth Day. About the size of an oven or beehive, it rolled along after the wanderers through hills and valleys, and when they camped it settled at the tent of meeting. When the princes called, ‘Rise up, O well’ (Num. 21.17), water flowed from its many openings as from a flask. . . At the death of Miriam the well dried up and disappeared, for it was given for her merit. But for the sake of the Patriarchs it was restored, and continued with the Israelites until they reached the Sea of Tiberias. . . .
E. Earle Ellis, “Note on 1 Corinthians 10:4,” Journal of Biblical Literature 76.1 (March 1957): 53-54
However, later rabbinic sources are not a sure guide to Jewish thought at the time of the New Testament, and it is not clear in what form this legend may have existed in Paul’s day. Ellis observes, “It is quite difficult to determine the precise character of the fable in the first century; apart from the sources mentioned above there is little evidence” (Ibid., 54). Only one source that may be from the first century mentions a form of the legend, and it mentions a following well but not a following rock (Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities, 10:7; 11:15). Even the date of the source is disputed. Enns notes that some think this work dates before AD 70 (Enns, “Well,” 24). Ellis labels the work “ca. 100 C.E.” with a question mark (Ellis, “Note,” 54). G. K. Beale notes that a first-century dating is the majority position but that it is not an uncontested date (Erosion of Inerrancy, 98, n. 28). Some think that the absence of the mention of the rock means that that form of the legend did not exist in Paul’s day (See Ellis, “Note” and Andrew J. Bandstra, “Interpretation in I Corinthians 10:1-11.” Calvin Theological Journal 6, no. 1 [April 1, 1971]: 11). Enns, however, thinks that 1 Corinthians 10:4 is itself evidence that such a tradition existed at this time. Enns is too confident. (Beale, Inerrancy, 97), and while Ellis and Bandstra may be correct it is hard to know for sure since the claim is based on lack of evidence. Noentheless, all of the above does mean that there is less explicit connection between the known form of the tradition and Paul’s statement in Corinthians than might at first be apparent.
Furthermore, the existence of such a tradition does not mean that Paul drew on the tradition (See Bandstra, “Interpretation,” 11). Godet and Hodge both reject the idea out of hand as being contrary to Paul’s person and position. They are correct to do so, for Paul explicitly rejects Jewish myths (1 Tim. 1:4).
Paul likely relied on the Jewish Scriptures rather than Jewish myths in writing 10:4. In the Pentateuch itself, God is addressed with the appellation “Rock” (Deut. 32:4, 15, 18, 30-31). Paul may reasonably make a word play with the physical rock that supplied water to the people and Rock as a title for the God who was present with his people and who provided the spiritual food and drink for them. This move on Paul’s part was not entirely unprecedented; Psalm 78 also brings together this title for God, the provision of water, and the presence of God in a context similar to that of 1 Corinthians 10 (Beale, Inerrency, 99). The Psalm recounts the blessings of God upon Israel and Israel’s subsequent rebellion. Verse 14 indicates the presence of God theme by reference to the pillar of cloud and fire. Verses 15-16 speak of God splitting rocks in the desert to provide water for the people (incidentally, the plural “rocks” undermines the theory that the rock in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 were the same rock simply because it shows up at the beginning and end of the journey; contra Enns, “Well,” 30). Verses 17-31 describe Israel’s rebellion (verse 20 again mentions the provision of water through the striking of a rock). Verse 32 notes that their sin was despite God’s miraculous working on their behalf. Verse 35 reveals that the Israelites needed to remember “that God was their Rock.”
Thus to identify this Rock as Christ poses no difficulty for anyone who believes that Christ is God. Paul was not allegorizing when he called Christ the Rock who provided water to the Israelites in the wilderness; he was simply making a word-play with an existing title of God to highlight the presence of Christ among the Israelites in the wilderness. Christ really was in the wilderness with Israel, he really did stand behind the provision of water from the physical rock, and he was given the title Rock by Moses. Nor was Paul adopting a Jewish fable in this passage; he was building off connections already made in the Old Testament and applying them to his present situation.