The "Weak in Faith" in Rome

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).


5 thoughts on “The "Weak in Faith" in Rome

  1. Very interesting interpretation.I was memorizing this passage with some friends last year, so the text is quite familiar to me. This interpretation, though I hadn’t thought about it before, has much going for it, especially on the rhetorical angle as you mention.I’ll try living with it for a while and see if it presents any big problems.

  2. One of the things on my ever-increasing “must read” list is Mark Nanos’s work on Paul. This is a nice summation of the idea, and reading 14:1-15:6 with that idea in mind presents no obvious difficulties.

  3. I should point out that Nanos sees the situation in Rome a bit differently than I do. His argument — following that of E.A. Judge and G.S.R. Thomas — is that the church hadn’t separated from the synagagoue, and thus the non-Christian “weak” were not outsiders to the extent that most see them as outsiders. Nanos thus wouldn’t necessarily agree with point (1) (Given’s point) and indeed he thinks “weak in faith” was a subtly respectful term for unbelieving Israel (as Paul hoped for their imminent redemption; cf Rom 11).Given, on the other hand, sees “weak in faith” as an entirely insulting term (as I do), but referring to Christian Jews (the standard view) which are part of a non-Pauline faction and who are not among the letter’s addressees.I take the best of both worlds: I think Rom 4:18-25 and 14:1-15:6, when taken together, point to the weak as non-Christian (Nanos). But I doubt the Roman church was part of the synagoue. We should not imagine that Paul intended for the weak to hear him tell the strong that they (the strong) should “put up with their failings” (Given).

  4. Cranfield, p. 700, states, “The weakness in faith to which this chapter refers is not weakness in basic Christian faith but weakness in assurance that one’s faith permits one to do certain things (cf. what was said about πίστις in the introduction to this section).”

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