Who were the “weak in faith” of Rom 14:1-15:6? In The Mystery of Romans, Mark Nanos has shown that they refer to non-Christian Jews, despite the near universal assumption that they are Christian Jews. The argument is powerful. Consider:
• Mark Given (not Nanos) points out that the weak cannot refer to the addressees themselves, because Paul would not have intended for them to hear him tell the strong that they should “put up with their failings” (Rom 15:1). That would be rhetorically inept and undermine Paul’s intent to make the Gentiles show them respect.
• Paul implicitly defines the terms “strong in faith” and “weak in faith” in Rom 4:18-25. The strong believe that Jesus was raised from a dead corpse, just as Abraham trusted that Isaac would be born from a dead womb (see Nanos, Mystery, pp 139-144). The weak are so labeled because they deny Christ’s resurrection, not because they adhere to the law. The “weak in faith” are, almost by definition, non-Christian.
• In Rom 14:1-15:13 the weak are Jews, but not because they are Jews. On the contrary, they should continue observing purity, fasting, and sabbath and “be fully convinced in their own minds what is right” (Rom 14:5); and they should continue doing so “in honor of God” (Rom 14:6). These Jews are not weak on account of “upholding the law”, which Paul believes perfectly acceptable (Rom 3:31) (even if contributing nothing toward salvation). As Nanos puts it, they are not “weak in practice or opinions” (Mystery, p 105). They are weak in faith, denying the messiah’s premature resurrection.
• Finally, the section of Rom 14:1-15:13 follows hot on the heels of Rom 12:1-13:14, which deals with proper behavior vis-à-vis the “outside world”; the weak are thus likewise outsiders: unbelieving Israel.
In one sentence: the “weak in faith” are weak for being non-Christian, not for being Jewish. Paul doesn’t want Gentiles to exercise their Christly law-freedoms when mixing with Jewish outsiders (Rom 14:15,21; 15:1) anymore than he wants people to exercise freedom from taxation (Rom 13:1-7). God will deal with Caesar himself, and Israel must be respected for the sake of her redemption (cf. Rom 11:17-24).