We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Issues of Interpretation.

1.

A generation ago, one might have asserted that the exegesis of Romans was complete in its essentials, pointing to the common interpretative tradition that extended from Augustine to Bultmann and Barth. Whatever consensus might have existed prior to 1977 was fractured by the publication that year of E. P. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism (see Räisänen 1983: 1–15; Dunn 1988: i. pp. lxiii–lxxii). Sanders offered a critique of Pauline scholarship based on two methodological assumptions: (1) a religion ought to be understood in its own terms through an analysis of its own primary sources; and (2) an author's argumentation must not be unnaturally synthesized by later expositors; contradictory statements and approaches, where they occur, should be allowed to remain (Sanders 1977: 12). Application of the first assumption leads one to question any construal of Judaism based on the often polemical references to it in Christian writings, including the NT. The popular picture of first-century Judaism as a religion of sterile legalism, supercilious piety, and haughty self-righteousness is not supported by Jewish documents. When allowed to speak for themselves, first-century Jews are not heard advocating a religion of merit, the photo-negative of a uniquely Christian notion of salvation by grace. Functionally, Judaism and Christianity are quite similar: one ‘gets in’ by means of God's gracious calling; one then is obligated (not least by gratitude) to obey the will of God, however defined. Obviously, regarding Judaism in this way necessitates a rethinking of Paul. For example, earlier interpreters could assume that Paul had formulated his ideas about the law in response to the legalism of normative Judaism. One school saw Paul's response as a correction of Jewish abuses; the law, no longer ‘misused’, was still valid (Cranfield 1979: 862). Others believed that Paul rejected out of hand any notion of the law's validity since he recognized that the law itself was a primary source of human alienation (Bultmann 1952–5: i. 247). Unfortunately, both approaches account for Paul's position by making reference to a Judaism that never existed. A popular counter-proposal suggests that Paul's target was not works righteousness at all but ‘Jewish national [self-]righteousness’ (e.g. Dunn 1988: i. pp. lxxi–lxxii, 42–3, etc.). This move appears to vindicate Paul—he is still right about what is wrong about Judaism—but it misses the point of Sanders's critique. In effect, it substitutes a new bad Judaism for the old, now discredited bad Judaism of traditional interpretation. But the problem is not in our (previously) faulty identification of Judaism's deficiency (whose depiction in Paul varies and so is infinitely interpretable); the problem is in Paul's either/or reasoning that requires that Judaism be nullified for Christ to be necessitated (see ROM E.6). Were the disorder Jewish pride, the remedy would be Jewish humility. But for Paul the only adequate curative is Christian faith, which means that the only actual complaint is Jewish unbelief, however variously it may be explained or characterized from the Christian side (see ROM 2).

2.

It is at this point that the second methodological principle, that of taking apparently contradictory material at face value, has been fruitfully applied. What does it mean if Paul's arguments about the law do not entirely cohere? Among other things, it may indicate that Paul did not think his way to Christian faith, that his conclusions about the law are not the result of his own pre-Christian wrestling with its supposed inadequacies. As Sanders (1977: 442–7) put it, Paul ‘reasoned backwards’. He did not move from consideration of the law to Christian faith; instead, having come to faith in Christ, Paul attempted to understand as a Jewish Christian the Judaism in which he had been raised. Thus Paul never was entirely able to repudiate the law. It was, after all, God's law and as such must serve a divine, albeit negative, purpose. Two fundamental convictions, that God is the God of Israel and that God provides salvation only in Christ, were thus held together in uneasy tension, and most of what is commonly considered under the rubric ‘Paul and the Law’ can be understood as part of an ongoing attempt to effect a reconciliation between the two.

3.

If Judaism was not the false religion of works righteousness, if the law did not function within Judaism as a means to salvation, what are we to make of Paul's argument? It may be claimed that Paul has set up Judaism as a straw man, the foil to all that is deemed good and true in Christianity. It seems more reasonable, however, to think that Paul is describing something quite real: not Judaism as non-Christian Jews knew it but Judaism as it would be experienced by Paul's Gentile-Christian converts. Within Judaism, one was not circumcised to earn membership in the people of God. Instead, circumcision marked a son of Israel's participation in God's gracious, pre-existing covenant. The situation is wholly different, however, if the subject is an adult Gentile Christian. If he accepted circumcision under compulsion, he would, by implication, be saying that his faith in Christ is insufficient to save, an inadequate basis for participation in God's covenant. For him circumcision would therefore become a work, and Judaism a religion of works righteousness. (The same dilemma occurs when an adult Christian joins a denomination that does not recognize his or her baptism. For that person, baptism becomes an entry requirement, an indispensable ‘work’, however it may be construed theologically by existing church members.) Paul's argument, including his tendency to oppose the law and Christian faith as antithetical religious systems, makes a good deal more sense when viewed in this way. This does require, however, that we no longer regard Paul as an objective, disinterested observer of Judaism.

4.

Other distinctive aspects of Paul's thought bear significantly on our understanding of Romans. The first concerns Pauline eschatology. In general, Paul has a decidedly future or ‘not yet’ orientation, reminiscent of the Gospel of Mark. In the undisputed Pauline epistles, salvation is always a future category; the paradigm of present Christian life is the cross, not the resurrection (e.g. 1 Cor 1:18; 2:2; Rom 6:5; 8:18 ). Present experience of the Spirit is a foretaste or seal (2 Cor 1:22 ) of what is to come (1 Cor 13:8–12 ). There is one very important exception, however, one issue in relation to which Paul consistently invokes a realized eschatology: the Gentiles. For Paul, the prophetic expectation that Gentiles would be incorporated into Israel in the last days is already being fulfilled, not least in his own ministry. (Note, for example, how Paul's description in Rom 15:25–6 —see also the quotations in vv. 9–12 —draws on Isa 66:18–22 .) In Rom 11:25–7 Paul explains this ‘mystery’: present Jewish unbelief has effected a reversal of the eschatological timetable; contrary to expectation, it is the Gentiles who will enter first, after which God will act to save ‘all Israel’. Much of what is peculiar to Pauline theology is derived from this perspective: admission of Gentiles is not foreshadow; it is substance. That puts Pauline theology on a fundamentally different footing from that of other Jewish-Christian leaders, and it explains how both Paul and the ‘pillar apostles’ (James, Cephas, and John: Gal 2:9 ) could have agreed to the practice of Gentile admission while utterly disagreeing as to its consequences. If there is now one people in Christ, without distinction between Jew and Gentile (Gal 3:28 ), then the church exists in a radically new age, from which one can radically critique what went before—especially the law, whose very stipulations drew the boundaries between Jew and Gentile. (An inevitable consequence of a realized eschatology is an increased sense of theological distance between insiders and outsiders, especially between Christians and (non-Christian) Jews; note the many pejorative references to ‘the Jews’ and ‘the world’ in Johannine literature.) The categories of Paul's thought that are derivative of the ‘Gentile issue’ share in the same logic, e.g. Paul's idealized Christian anthropology, according to which believers are essentially different from other people: they ‘walk in the Spirit’ and so fulfil the ‘just requirements of the law’ (Rom 8:4 ). It is always worth asking what reality Paul presupposes within a given argument. When a question relates in some way to Gentile admission, Paul's thinking shifts towards realized eschatological categories, a fact that explains many of the ambiguities within Pauline theology and the tensions between Pauline theory and practice.

5.

It is important to note that Paul worked with the concepts available to him. Chief among these is the idea that the law is a single entity, given by God. This presents Paul with an insuperable difficulty. He knows by God's acceptance of Gentiles (demonstrated by gifts of the Spirit; Gal 3:2–5 ) that obedience to laws that distinguish Jews from Gentiles (namely circumcision, food laws, sabbath and other ‘days’) is no longer required. However, the law being a unity, it is necessary to challenge it in toto. In theory, this is no problem, because Christians possess the Spirit and have no need for a ‘written code’ ( 2:27 ). In practice, what Paul expects of his converts is a fairly typical Jewish morality, which he can assume for himself but which comes less naturally to his Gentile associates. Consequently, Paul is put in the awkward position of legislating rules of behaviour ad hoc, since he no longer has the law to draw upon for authorization. Therefore, he is forced, in effect, to reinstitute Jewish laws with Christian warrants (e.g. see Rom 1:20; 1 Cor 6:15–17; and 10:20–1 ). Thus it is erroneous to suppose that Paul created a law-free religion. Christianity, like Judaism, has always had norms (again, mostly Jewish); for that reason, Christians, as much as Jews, can be guilty of reducing religion to rule-keeping. In short, it is quite possible that the argument of Romans would have looked very different had Paul been able to divide the law explicitly into categories (clarifying what is rejected and what is retained), as Christians ever since the second century (e.g. Epistle of Barnabas) have attempted to do. Certainly, subsequent Christian ambivalence—even animosity—towards the Hebrew Bible would have been lessened had Paul taken such a course.

6.

Finally, it is vital to understand that Paul consistently organized the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in such a way that non-Christian Judaism must be negated. Gal 2:21 reveals a great deal about the working of Paul's mind: ‘I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.’ In other words, it is a zero-sum game. If God intended to save through Christ, it must have been necessary; therefore, one could not be saved apart from Christ, that is to say, through the regular practice of Jewish religion. The either/or structure of Paul's argument explains an otherwise astonishing fact: were Romans our only source, we might well conclude that Jewish theology knew nothing of mercy, grace, love, forgiveness, or atonement. As the logic stands, these necessarily become Christian categories (as do ‘grace and truth’ in Jn 1:17 ). It is interesting to note that Paul cited God's acceptance of Abraham on the basis of faith in both Gal 3 and Rom 4 and then passed in silence over virtually all subsequent Jewish history (the mention of David in Rom 4:6 being a rare exception). Needless to say, the existence of any pre- or non-Christian Judaism in which one might find right relationship with God creates a severe problem for Paul. On the one hand, he wants to argue that God saves only in Christ and that Judaism, apart from Christ, is a way of ‘sin’ and ‘death’ (Rom 7:9–11 ); on the other hand, Paul feels compelled to cite precedents in Judaism for God's saving modus operandi. The question is, can one have it both ways? Paul might have argued on the basis of essential continuity: the God of the Jews, always a God of salvation, has worked this saving purpose ultimately in Christ (an argument somewhat similar to that of Hebrews). Instead, Paul's argument traces the line of essential discontinuity, which is precisely what Marcion and other despisers of Judaism have found congenial in his thinking. One must ask if it is possible to affirm what Paul affirms (the religion of grace) without necessarily denying what Paul implicitly denies (that Judaism itself is such a religion).

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice