The Puzzle of Rom 1:18-3:20

eslerLet’s remind ourselves what the best scholars say about the early chapters of Romans.

Starting with the giant, E.P. Sanders:

“The best way to read Rom 1:18-2:29 is as a synagogue sermon. It is slashing and exaggerated, as many sermons are, but its own natural point is to have its hearers become Jews on strictly non-Christian Jewish terms, not to lead them to becoming true descendents of Abraham by faith in Christ. I find no Pauline imprint in Rom 1:18-2:29, apart from the tag in 2:16. Christians are not in mind, and the Christian viewpoint plays no role, and the entire chapter is written from a Jewish perspective. The question throughout chapter 2 is whether or not one does the Jewish law, not as the result of being in Christ, but as the sole determinant of salvation.” (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, p 129)

Douglas Campbell:

“Rom 1:18-3:20 turns out to be something of a rhetorical masterpiece. Very little within this extended demonstration represents the thinking of Paul directly.” (The Deliverance of God, pp 528-529)

Philip Esler:

“What is the purpose of Paul’s protracted indictment of humanity in Rom 1:18-3:20? Why has he thought it necessary to interpolate such a discussion into the midst of the treatment of righteousness begun at 1:17 and not returned to until 3:21? It is probably best not to see 1:18-3:20 as part of Paul’s gospel but as a preparation for it. Only if sin is seen as a dominating force will it become clear why God’s righteousness can be experienced only as a gift, that is, by faith. Moreover, this will only occur if the Jews and Gentiles in Rome understand that they are both equally under the power of sin, but different in the way they have reached that result — Jews under the law of Moses, and Gentiles in the absence of that law. Paul knocks away the respective foundations each group has for harboring feelings of ethnic superiority.” (Conflict and Identity in Romans, pp 141-142, 144)

Keep all this mind in what follows. I’m following up my critique of Steven Anderson’s interpretation of I Cor 6:9-11, a passage the pastor isn’t wild about. Now we’ll look at one his absolutely favorite passages in the bible, Rom 1:18-32, which he thinks proves that sodomites (homosexuals) are reprobate beasts worthy of hatred and death.

Commentators have long registered the puzzle of Rom 1:18-3:20. Paul goes on about God’s wrath on reprobates, which he does nowhere else. He speaks of righteousness by the law, which he does nowhere else (save in Philip 3:6, which he calls a pseudo-righteousness from his hindsight Christian perspective). He speaks of unrelenting judgment without bothering to include himself in the orbit of human fallibility, which is uncharacteristic. (Even in a passage like Rom 7:14-25, he’s magnanimous enough to use the rhetorical “I” in describing miserable frustrations under the law before turning to Christ, though that description contradicts his “blameless” experience as a Pharisee (Philip 3:4b-6).) Throughout Rom 1:18-3:20, Paul seems to be representing quite a lot that doesn’t represent him.

Douglas Campbell (cited above) compares Paul’s style in the sodomite passage of Rom 1:18-32 to that of a modern fundamentalist. He doesn’t have Steven Anderson in mind, but rather amusingly, the comparison fits our pastor to a tee.

“Paul does not speak here in his own voice but in the voice of a Teacher. He mimics that figure’s fiery rhetorical entrance, which is lit — like that of so many preachers — by the flickering backdrop of hell. We hear a voice that is relentlessly negative, intimidating, and perhaps not especially reasonable. One should think of such a performance as roughly analogous to the frequent modern depiction of born-again Christians. Such figures are typically presented as humorless, strident, and hypocritical. They tend to judge others while being oblivious to their own deeper failings. Their stereotypical assertions denote that they are people in glass houses throwing stones; in more biblical parlance, they point to the specks of sawdust in their neighbors’ eyes while overlooking the planks in their own.” (The Deliverance of God, pp 529,546)

If Paul is in effect mocking those who deliver tirades from on high, then the joke is on Pastor Anderson, who takes Rom 1:18-32 to be as real and sincere as Paul gets.

I should be clear that in doubting Paul’s sincerity, I’m not questioning his homophobia. I’m confident that he thought sodomy was wicked, like most of his Jewish contemporaries. But his overkill indictment of them as a different species seems to be part of a larger rhetorical agenda designed to address problems in the Roman church. It was a church torn over ethnic conflict and pride. Years before in Galatians, Paul had been opposing Jewish outsiders, but in Romans he was now trying to reconcile Jewish and Gentile insiders — by raising them up and taking them down as he saw fit.

Philip Esler’s Conflict and Identity in Romans (cited above) is the book to read on the subject, and let me outline his analysis of Rom 1:18-8:17:

A. Both are judged (1:18-3:20)

1. Gentiles judged apart from the law (1:18-2:5)

2. Gentiles are subject to a “natural” law written on their pagan hearts, as much as Jews are to the Torah (2:6-16)

1′. Jews judged by the law (2:17-2:29)

2′. Jews under the law are dominated by the power of sin as much as Gentiles under ungodliness, though in a completely different way: the law accentuates sin when transgression occurs (3:1-20)

B. Both are justified (3:21-4:25)

— Both are justified by faith apart from works, whether circumcised or not, for God is One of all ethnic groups (3:21-4:25)

Interlude: Christ the new Adam (5:1-21)

A’. Both die (6:1-7:25)

— Both die to the power of sin (6:1-15)

1. Gentiles die to sin and become slaves of God (6:16-23)

2. Jews die to the law and become slaves of the spirit (7:1-25)

B’. Both live (8:1-17)

— Both fulfill the requirement of the law (what the law promised but never delivered) by an entirely different route — the spirit (8:1-17)

I put section A in red, to indicate that it’s less a part of Paul’s gospel, and more sets the stage for it. Note the passing allusion to Christ and “my gospel” in Rom 2:16, which would be redundant if the surrounding content were the same. Paul basically draws on standard Jewish beliefs and entertains non-Christian salvation by the law in Rom 2:13, because it’s a fantasy and will be exposed as such by the end of Rom 3:20. The blue represents Paul’s gospel, all of which finds analogous passages in his other letters, especially Galatians.

Section B is Paul’s doctrine of righteousness, but there’s a problem with it that required him to produce A in the context of the church in Rome. His gospel says that both ethnic groups are justified on the same equal basis (Rom 3:21-4:25), but that’s a recipe for envy and strife — the exact scenario in Rome. The Gentile faction was acting especially superior, but both groups needed taking down, and in ways unique to each. Sociologists tell us that only when rival groups are equal in status but share different backgrounds or expertise are they usually able to respect the other’s contribution to the group. When they’re equal in the same way, they tend to compete with each other destructively, and that’s a lesson Paul learned the hard way in Galatia. The absolute last thing he wants to say in Romans is, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). He’s more enlightened now, and understands that there should indeed be “Jew and Greek in Christ” (at least to a degree), so that differences can be respected, not erased.

The only way Paul could do this — could highlight differences — was by focusing on the traits of the two groups outside of the common denominator of Christ, as represented by their races. And since being without Christ is an abysmal thing (in Paul’s black-and-white world), the traits must be negative in the extreme. So he blasts pagans as a bunch of sodomite reprobates (Rom 1:18-32) and then railroads non-Christian Jews (2:17-24) with exaggerations just as severe. Commentators have a good laugh over the sin of temple-robbing (Jews certainly didn’t go around robbing temples in numbers to speak of), and as Esler notes, “the signs of Paul’s straining to produce a Jewish analogy to Gentile sinfulness are quite visible” (Conflict and Identity, p 153).

The point is that Paul’s heart isn’t in his indictments. His mind is though. The indictments are shrewd tactics that allow him (negatively) to undercut ethnic privilege, while (positively) granting advantages to each side who steer clear of the certain sins which snare the other. They permit him to entertain righteousness by a law — whether the Torah for Jews, or some kind of “natural law” for pagans — in order to show that on such a hypothesis, each group would inevitably fall short and be judged harshly for their set of sins. That’s a powerful rhetorical strategy. It makes clear that sin reins supreme no matter who you are, without the benefit of Christ.

If we took Paul at his word, Steven Anderson would be right. Sodomites are beyond the pale; unforgivable beasts. But we can’t take Paul strictly at his word in Rom 1:18-32, or any part of 1:18-3:20. To be clear again, I have no doubts that Paul thought sodomy a wicked vice. (It would be nice if he had been more “homo-friendly”, but he wasn’t.) It’s the severity of his condemnation that’s impossible to take seriously, given how unusual it is for him, and given the ethic of charity he expresses elsewhere in Christ. Indeed, we saw in the last post that certain kinds of sodomites — pederasts who abuse youths — were capable of becoming part of the body of Christ (in Corinth) and changing their abusive behaviors. That, on top of everything discussed here, makes it unlikely that Paul “hated sodomites with a perfect hatred”, as Anderson claims.

See also: Paul and lesbianism.

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