10th Anniversary Blog Special: A Romans Commentary

Apostle_PaulTen days ago marked The Busybody‘s tenth anniversary. A decade of blogging in the twinkling of an eye, Paul might say. So I’m celebrating with Paul. For a long time I’ve been obsessed with Romans and the different ways he comes at the law. This commentary pulls everything together. It draws on the works of scholars, some of them giants, but especially Philip Esler, who hit on a key point that in trying to reconcile Jews and Gentiles in Rome, Paul wasn’t urging the abolition of ethnic difference as he was in Galatians. He was trying to promote harmony within diversity, and the last thing he wanted to say is, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). The slogan for Romans might actually be, “In Christ there is Jew and Greek after all”.

The key to unlocking Romans is the same skeleton that fits all seven letters. It is to recognize that Paul’s theology is a stream of evolution, not a fixed set of doctrines that can be harmonized if we have the smarts. A proper chronology of the letters is essential, which I take as follows, spanning a 4-5 year period: I Thessalonians, I Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, II Corinthians 10-13, II Corinthians 1-9, Romans.

The letter’s occasion

Like all of Paul’s letters, Romans was written to a particular church to address problems there. This was a church of Jews and Gentiles divided by ethnic conflict (Rom 14:1-15:13), each feeling superior towards the other, especially the Gentiles who had numbers on their side. At the same time, Paul was about to visit Jerusalem (Rom 15:25-28), was nervous about facing down his colleagues, and was using the Roman situation to craft a careful defense of his gospel. He asks the Romans to pray for him so that his missionary work will be acceptable to the Jerusalem leadership (Rom 15:30-31), and in his mind, unless God answers these prayers, the pillars (James, Peter, and John) will probably refuse to accept his collection for the poor, and continue rejecting the legitimacy of his churches. And finally third, Paul was trying to sanitize his bad reputation. The reputation was as much his own fault as that of others, his own for things said in Galatians, others for how he was treated at Antioch. It was there the pillars betrayed him.

Troubled history: Antioch, and Paul’s relationship with Jerusalem

The Antioch infamy (Gal 2:11-14) could fill a commentary on its own, but in brief: At the Jerusalem conference, James, Peter, and John had agreed to leave Gentiles free of any obligation to become circumcised (Gal 2:1-10). In other words, pagans were not required to become Jews to be considered equals in the Christian movement. Circumcision, in ancient Judaism, meant taking on the whole Torah and becoming Jewish. Gentiles who converted by minimal Torah standards could also have a place in the kingdom of God, but as second-class citizens. They had inferior seating arrangements when eating at the table with Jews, and could not share wine with Jews from the same cup. (Gentile wine was routinely dedicated to pagan gods by the offering of a libation, and there was always the worry in Jewish circles that at table meals, Gentiles would secretly turn Jewish wine into libation-wine.) The Christian sect practiced the eucharist, which involved drinking wine from the same cup, so the issue of table fellowship was especially sensitive.

Paul insisted that Gentile Christians could be saved as equals without being circumcised (becoming Jewish). They could share full table-fellowship with Jewish Christians — not worry about seating arrangements, and drink of the same eucharist wine passed around the table. The apostles at first agreed, and gave Paul their blessing to evangelize pagans as he saw fit (requiring only that he take up a collection for the poor). But they broke the agreement almost right away. When Paul returned to Antioch, James sent a circumcision delegation (Gal 2:12), and Peter, capitulating, withdrew from the mixed-race table-fellowship that he and Paul had been practicing.

Scholars are easily muddled on this point, and it’s important to understand it. Antioch was about circumcision, not food laws. James did not send a “dietary delegation” in Gal 2:12. The issue at table was not what was being eaten, but with whom. The men from James were saying that Gentiles had to indeed become full Jewish converts in order to be considered equals in God’s eyes. Philip Esler and Mark Nanos are among the few who recognize what Gal 2:12 makes plain: that Antioch centered on the question of full conversion — not diet, as if something “less drastic” than circumcision was being imposed by way of compromise. As Esler notes, modern notions of fair play have hindered scholars from interpreting the Antioch incident correctly. It also doesn’t help that Luke misleads with the unhistorical apostolic decree (Acts 15:28-29), which was probably a settlement from a later time in the Christian movement. Luke retrojects it back onto the first conference, in his usual way of minimizing conflict, and portrays a compromise and a Paul who is reconciled to the other apostles. Paul’s first-hand testimony — which speaks of no requirements beyond the collection (Gal 2:7-10), and of the pillars’ treachery at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14) — is to be trusted over Luke.

Learning from the past: the Galatians disaster

That Antioch was about circumcision is precisely why Paul brings it up in his furious letter to the Galatians. Rival missionaries were urging on Paul’s converts the same thing (Gal 5:2-3) the Jerusalem leaders had imposed on the Antiochenes. Paul was fed up and didn’t handle himself well in this letter, and it’s likely that he ended up failing in Galatia and losing the churches there. Mark Goodacre has built a strong case for this, especially on the basis of how the Galatians drop from sight between I and II Corinthians. The last mention of Galatia is back in I Cor 16:1-4. By the later periods (II Cor 9:1-4; Rom 15:24-28), only Macedonia and Achaia were contributing to Paul’s collection for the poor.

Esler also infers that Paul failed in Galatia based on the way Paul revises his theology in Romans to be much less offensive. Here are the highlights:

  • In Galatians Paul says that baptism results in the abolition of ethnic boundaries: “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:27-28). In Romans that’s the last thing he wants to say. Here the lesson drawn from baptism (Rom 6:1-15) is not erasing differences but respecting them: Gentiles escape the power of sin (Rom 6:16-23) in a different way than Jews (Rom 7:1-25). Gentiles die to sin (and impurity and lawlessness), while Jews die to the law. (Esler, pp 218-219)
  • In Galatians Abraham is primarily the ancestor of Gentiles (Gal 3:6-9), and his seed refers to Christ (Gal 3:16). In Romans Abraham is the ancestor of the circumcised and uncircumcised in equal measure (Rom 4:1-17), and his seed refers to Jews and Gentiles (Rom 4:16-17). (Esler, p 185)
  • In Galatians God gave the law to consign Israel to sin (Gal 3:19-26). In Romans, the law is either passive in its relationship to sin (Rom 7:7-13), or has nothing to do with it at all (Rom 7:14-25). God has been exonerated in terms of his intentions: instead of using the law to consign people to sin so that they may be saved by Christ, he now gives the law unto righteousness and life, but sin foils his intent, requiring the Son as a rescue operation. This may raise questions about God’s competency, but at least it saves him from perversity. (Esler, pp 230-231; also Sanders, pp 65-86)
  • In Galatians the promises to Israel were limited by time, and that time has now elapsed (Gal 3:15-18; 4:1-2). In Romans the promises to Israel are still being fulfilled, but in a surprising way (Rom 11:1-32). (Esler, p 277)
  • In Galatians the church is Israel (Gal 6:16). In Romans Israel is Israel (Rom 9:1-11:32). Paul comes close to identifying the Christ body as Israel (explicitly in Rom 9:6-29 and implicitly in Rom 11:17-24), but avoids taking that final step, making clear that Israel is ethnic Israel (Rom 9:1-5, 9:30-11:16, 11:25-32) rather than a spiritualized Christian Israel. (Esler, pp 279, 307)

These shifts in thought are also explained by the letter’s threefold purpose I mentioned at the start. (1) In Galatians Paul was angrily opposing Jewish outsiders (rival missionaries) who were urging full conversion on his Gentiles; in Romans he is trying to reconcile Jewish and Gentile insiders, each acting superior, but especially the Gentiles who are the larger group. This demands a certain esteem for Jewish heritage in order to put the Gentiles in their place. (2) Paul has a wary eye on Jerusalem. He divorced the other apostles at Antioch and hasn’t been under their authority since, though he’s been taking up the collection anyway. He can’t ignore their influence, and he does want their blessing as he prepares to take on missionary work in Italy and Spain. So he’d best have a persuasive defense of his gospel by Jewish standards. (3) Paul was cleaning up his reputation for personal reasons as much as practical ones. He was a Jew himself who cared about God’s purposes in giving the law and making promises to Israel.

What hasn’t changed

Having acknowledged Paul’s evolution, we must now emphasize what remains the same in Romans as in Galatians: (1) that the law is obsolete for Christians; and (2) that Christ is not the “climax” of the Jewish covenant, but rather its displacement.

The Law. James Dunn believes, on the basis of Gal 5:14, Gal 6:2, Rom 8:2, Rom 8:4, Rom 13:8-10, that Paul believed an ethical section of the law (minus its ethnic “works” like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath) remained in force for Christian believers. Esler correctly refutes this:

“Paul’s point is that the very best the law could provide, love of one’s neighbor, is now available by an entirely different route — the spirit. For love is the first fruit of the spirit. To say that the law is fulfilled by love does not affect this conclusion. Fulfillment, in this sense, means that the moral demands of the law no longer have any role for Christians. Someone who has faith in Christ is able to obtain the best that the law promised, although never delivered, by an entirely different route.” (pp 334-335)

It’s important not to be fooled by Paul’s daring rhetoric in Gal 6:2 and Rom 8:2. “Christ’s law” and “the law of the spirit” are metaphorical inversions which drive a nail in the law’s coffin. They imply that it has been superseded, not redefined around different parameters.

Dunn, to be sure, is correct in his interpretation of “works of the law” itself. Paul was reacting against ethnic supremacism, not legalism. He wasn’t a guilt-ridden Martin Luther, nor was ancient Judaism an analogue for medieval Catholicism. He had a robust conscience (Philip 3:4b-6), and Jewish theology emphasized grace over just deserts. Grace for Jews, that is. Abraham became significant for Paul as the “father of all nations”, but on equal standing. Works of the law were a problem, not because they were too many, or too hard to keep, but because they effectively limited God’s favor to the chosen people.

But that’s only part of the story — the story of Rom 3:21-4:25. In Rom 5-8, works of the law become irrelevant and are never mentioned. Jews die to the law in its entirety, just as pagans die to sin. Forget ethnic commandments. Any commandment of the law, according to Paul, incites evil. The law is ultimately useless, and requires the joint-rescue operation of the Son and Spirit (not just faith as a common unifier). It’s the relationship between these two sections that’s hard to keep straight and will demand attention as we proceed through this commentary.

The Covenant. Tom Wright has argued that for Paul Christ is the “climax of the covenant” — the “goal” of the law more than the “end” of it (Rom 10:4). Esler again refutes this:

“There is absolutely no sense that Christ is the ‘goal’ or ‘natural result’ of anything to do with the law. He did not come at the tail-end of a process of which the law represented the earlier stages. He was the person who liberated Israel from the mess the law had produced. Paul fixes upon the radical discontinuity between the Mosaic law and Christ, not on any alleged progression from the one to the other.” (p 285)

This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s exactly what is implied by Paul’s use of Abraham in Rom 4. Esler even says that the term “salvation-history” should be dropped from the discussion:

“Those who see Paul’s thought in terms of the fulfillment or climax of the covenant must explain its outright replacement by faith-righteousness. Paul’s argument is radical. He is saying that Jews trace descent from Abraham not in virtue of his circumcision, but from the faith-righteousness he had prior to it and of which circumcision was merely a sign. Since Abraham’s seed are those who are righteous by faith and no one, except Abraham himself, appears to fit this category until the possibility arose of faith in Christ, it follows that we have a period between Abraham and Paul’s time when the promise was not fulfilled by anyone; it was de futuro only. This would seem to produce barren ground for notions of ‘salvation history’ or ‘the climax of the covenant’. Paul does agree that in Christ God fulfilled the promises made to Abraham (but in Rom 4:11 deletes the word ‘covenant’ from his source in Gen 17:11). Yet the centuries between Moses and Christ comprised a period of unrelieved gloom.” (pp 189, 190, 192, 193, 286)

According to Paul, no one in Israelite history had the faith-righteousness of Abraham. Such righteousness was anticipated by figures like David and Moses — it was “spoken of” by David (Rom 4:6), and “written about” by Moses (Rom 10:5) — but nowhere does Paul imply that David or Moses, or anyone other than Abraham, actually attained such faith-righteousness. Abraham alone was righteoused for the precise benefit of later Christians (Rom 4:23-25). There is no build-up to a climax in Christ, far less any salvation-history to speak of here. Abraham is an exception to the rule in a faithless era.

By all indications, Paul’s life as a Pharisee had been positive. He had been blameless under the Torah (Philip 4:4b-6), faithfully fulfilled the commandments, and esteemed the Jewish covenant as the earth’s crowning glory. But his conversion experience was so far-reaching that it made gold seem like lead (Philip 3:7-11, cf. II Cor 3:7-11). Law righteousness became a sham, the covenant era a dark age, and Abraham a lone faith-figure pointing to better things. With all this mind, let’s look at Romans in detail.


I. THE GOSPEL, “to the Jew and also the Gentile” (1:16)

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)

Interlude: Present suffering, future glory (8:18-39)

II. ISRAEL, “my own people” (9:3)

A. Israel shamed (9:6-10:21)

1. God consistent with election: he hates Israel now, as he hated Esau (9:6-29)
2. God consistent with justification: the Torah declares itself a dead-end project (9:30-10:21)

B. Israel glorified (11:1-32)

— God consistent with his promises to Israel: her hardening is only temporary; faith-righteoused pagans are the means to Jewish salvation (11:1-32)


A. Believers are free from the world, but still subject to Caesar (12:1-13:14)

B. Gentiles are free from the Torah, but not in the presence of unbelieving Israel (14:1-15:13)


I. THE GOSPEL, “to the Jew and also the Gentile”

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

Commentators have registered the puzzle of Rom 1:18-3:20, which I put in red. 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 in Philip 3:4b-6.) The solution to this puzzle is rather straightforward: Rom 1:18-3:20 doesn’t represent Paul’s gospel. It shows the need for it.

Most of 1:18-2:29 could have been cribbed from synagogue sermons, and Paul may have even preached like this as a Pharisee. It must have amused him to tap into old tirades, but they serve his purpose well. Only if sin is seen as a dominating force will it become clear why God’s righteousness can be experienced only as a gift by faith. In the context of the Roman church, this will occur if the Jews and Gentiles see that their races are both equally under the power of sin, but in different ways — Jews under the law of Moses, and Gentiles not.

Esler has drawn on the work of sociologists who tell us that rival groups must be equal in status but share different backgrounds or expertise to be 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. He no longer wants to say, “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 abysmal (in Paul’s black-and-white world), the traits must be negative in the extreme. Here’s how those differences play out.

1. Gentiles judged apart from the law. Pagans will be punished for the crimes of Sodom. (1:18-2:5)

Function: To indict the Gentiles first and foremost, since they are most guilty in the Roman church of believing themselves superior to others (cf. 14:1-15:13).

Comments: The question that divides critics is which biblical myth looms over the section of 1:18-32. Is it Adam (Gen 1-3), Enosh (Gen 5), or the city of Sodom (Gen 19)?  Dunn (p 72) says Adam, based on 1:23 which depicts humanity’s predicament in terms of the fall from paradise. But this section of Romans has to do with the consequences of idolatry, not the fall. Stowers (pp 86-87) says Enosh, on the basis of rabbinic sources which depict the people of his generation as the inventors of idolatry, and the decline of civilization at this time which provides context for 1:18-32. This is more plausible than Adam, but Paul is less concerned with the invention of idolatry, and more its dramatic consequences. Esler (pp 145-150) says Sodom, and his is the strongest case, given the themes of godlessness and idolatry than manifest primarily in same-sex relations in conjunction with other wicked sins.

That Sodom is the master metaphor also accounts for Paul’s unexpected mention of lesbianism — the only time female homosexuality is mentioned anywhere in the bible. In honor-shame cultures like the ancient Mediterranean, authors avoid mentioning female same-sex relations, which pose a serious threat to the way men perceive sexual honor. Only men are supposed to take the active role of the penetrator, with women, boys or pathetic men taking the role of the penetrated. But with the biblical traditions of Sodom on his mind, Paul was probably thinking of the novel way Ezekiel refers to the “daughters of Sodom” (Ezek 16:48-50), which is unique throughout the bible in mentioning the women of the city (so Esler, p 150). The “daughters of Sodom” is a sort of catch-phrase that could float free of its context in Ezekiel, and become easily associated with the same-sex filth that was characteristic of Sodom.

Those who insist that Adam is in view usually are trying to prove that Paul is addressing Jews as much as Gentiles (i.e. all peoples who stem from Adam) in this section, but their arguments, in my view, are so weak as to constitute the emperor-has-no-clothes variety. Adam will not be in view until Rom 5-8, and Paul will not have Jews in his sights until the point of 2:17.

Paul’s excessive condemnation of sodomites — beasts beyond the scope of redemption — is rather hard to take seriously. Elsewhere he acknowledges that sodomites, or at least a particular kind (pederasts), can become part of the body of Christ and change their behavior (I Cor 6:9-11). This isn’t to say that he was gay-friendly (it would be nice if that were true), only that he isn’t exactly himself in this “red” section.

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

Function: To emphasize that God is impartial in judgment, and that pagans will be judged by a universal code of conduct applicable to them as pagans. To provide a transition to the indictment on Jews in 2:17-3:20 by contrasting pagans who don’t have the law with Jews who have it.

Comments: Paul presumably has in mind some version of a Noahide code binding on pagans, which was a standard Jewish view. (See Segal, pp 195-201, and Nanos, pp 50-56 for discussion of Noahide laws in the time of Paul.) Essentially, these would have been minimal Torah standards that pagans were expected to know “in their hearts” to be right and proper, even if they were never taught so: (1) don’t deny God, (2) don’t blaspheme, (3) don’t murder, (4) don’t engage in sodomy/incest/adultery/pederasty/bestiality, (5) don’t steal, (6) don’t eat live animals, and (7) promote justice through courts and legal systems.

Though Paul does believe in a future judgment (Rom 14:10; II Cor 5:10), he does not believe in a righteousness by the law, whether of Noah or Moses. He never acknowledges righteousness by the law elsewhere, save in Philip 3:6, where he goes on to call it a pseudo-righteousness. Like most of the material in 1:18-3:20, this section doesn’t represent Paul’s gospel. It shows the need for it on standard Jewish assumptions. 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 draws on synagogue sermon material and entertains non-Christian salvation by the law, because it’s a fantasy and will be exposed as such by the end of Rom 3:20.

(In fact, Paul’s view seems to be that while everyone must stand before God at the judgment (Rom 14:10; II Cor 5:10), only the wicked will actually be judged. The righteous, i.e. Christian believers, will simply be waved through. See Rom 8:18-39 below.)

1′. Jews judged by the law. The chosen people will have their circumcision rendered worthless for breaking the Torah’s commandments. (2:17-2:29)

Function: To indict non-Christian Jews as much as pagans; to explain that Jews cannot rely on a privileged status under the law to escape judgment. Offending the Torah — stealing, committing adultery, and robbing temples — calls forth as much wrath as pagan immorality does, and renders one’s circumcision valueless.

Comments: Paul’s outrageous accusations, especially temple-robbing, reflect the rhetorical diatribe expected from a prophet or apostle in an honor-shame culture. Sanders (p 125) compares this to the exaggerated rhetoric found in places like Ezek 33:25f and Ps Sol 8:9f. This is preferable to the strained approach of Stowers, who thinks Paul is indicting an “apostrophic Jew” in order to censure Jews and Gentiles at once. On the contrary: Paul indicts Gentiles for being Gentiles (1:18-2:5), and Jews for being Jews (2:17-29).

Paul’s treatment of Israelite sin is almost comic, and the charge of temple-robbing is especially laughable. 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” (p 153).

The point is that Paul’s heart isn’t in his indictments of the two ethnic groups. 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 over both ethnic groups, without the benefit of Christ.

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)

Function: To make the law parallel to pagan deities. Jews may sin less than pagans, but when they do transgress, their sin is greater by virtue of the fact that as transgressors of the law they “know better and have less excuse”.

Comments: Paul gives Jewish people the edge in terms of native privileges and educational background (3:1-8), but no advantage as regards salvation (3:9-18). The law puts them under the power of sin (3:19) in the sense that through the law comes knowledge of sin (3:20). This echoes his earlier argument of Gal 3:19-24, which will be revisited (and revised) big-time in Rom 7:7-25, when Paul corrects the perverse idea that God gave the law to confine Israel under the power of sin. For now we should note simply this: In saying that God gave the law to accentuate sin when transgression occurs, Paul was never perverse enough to say that God gave the law in order to produce transgressions — a claim made in an astonishing number of Lutheran-oriented commentaries. “Given such a view,” drawls Esler, “we might observe, Paul considered that God had commanded the Israelites to worship him alone in order that they would serve Baal and Chemosh, to honor their parents in order that they would shame them, not to kill in order that they would engage in homicide” (Galatians, p 196). The pedagogue metaphor of Gal 3:23-26 refutes this in any case, since pedagogues were slave tutors who protected boys from harm, educated them in proper behavior, and punished them for wayward behavior; they were certainly not given by parents to produce bad behavior in children.

Nonetheless, even if Paul maintained that the Torah was given by God to protect, guide, and punish, he added the perverse twist that sin actually increases (or is heightened/accentuated) because of this, and indeed this was the law’s “key” purpose as intended by God. And that, he says now in Romans, is why Jews are ultimately no better off than godless Gentiles.

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

We enter Paul’s gospel on the orbit. The Protestant Reformers thought it was the heart, but faith-righteousness had a limited aim: to defend Gentiles. This was what William Wrede saw in 1907, what Albert Schweitzer reiterated in 1931, and what Krister Stendahl made more scholars accept after 1963. Justification wasn’t central to the apostle’s thought. And it didn’t mean what Luther thought in any case.

The meaning of “righteousness” (dikaiosyne) was the same for Paul as it was for his contemporaries. It referred to the honor gifted to a person by God, not because the person had done anything to deserve it. It conveyed the sense of privileged and blessed identity, often in contrast with ungodliness (see Esler, pp 164-168). For Jews, and for many Jewish Christians — like the Jerusalem leadership and Paul’s rival missionaries in Galatia — that privileged identity came from being Jewish as evidenced by particular requirements of the Torah. Paul upended this by saying that privileged identity came from having faith in Christ apart from those requirements, which he calls “works”.

— Both are justified by faith apart from works, whether circumcised or not, for God is One (3:21-31)

Function: To summarize Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith — that Christ’s sacrifice puts a stop to Jewish privilege, so that all people can be saved on the same ground.

Comments: In Paul’s understanding, Christ’s death has inaugurated the end-times, and so Jews and pagans must be justified as one. Boasting of ethnic privilege is excluded (3:27), and all peoples are now righteoused by faith apart from works (3:28). Paul’s reasoning is clear: God is the deity not only of Jews but also of Gentiles (3:29). He is One, of all ethnic groups (3:30). This is the same reasoning he used in Galatia — faith, not works, “so that blessing may come to the Gentiles” (Gal 3:10-14).

In other words, the Lutheran view of works-bashing finds no support. Paul is attacking ethnic supremacism, not a (supposed) Pharisaic legalism. The “boasting” which he excludes is the Jewish bragging of special privilege, not a (supposed) Jewish attempt to keep score with God by a record of good deeds. Works of the law are requirements like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath — anything that required Gentiles to essentially become Jews.

At this point it’s worth contrasting Paul with James, who insists that “faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:17). This contradicts Paul’s gospel on a semantic level, but conceptually the apostles are talking past each other. They mean different things by the term “works”. For Paul they are the law’s ethnic requirements marking one visibly Jewish; for James they are deeds of “the extra mile”, as in supplying clothing or food to the needy (Jas 2:15-16). Paul would obviously approve that last (he took up the collection for the poor with missionary zeal), and this is why he can endorse “upholding the law” (3:31) from a certain angle. That’s a misleading assertion, however — probably intended to allay fears that he has been favoring Gentiles too one-sidedly by coming down hard on Jewish works. By saying that the law is upheld, Paul assures the Jewish faction in Rome that the gospel requires active commitments. But he hasn’t expressed himself well, for as Esler notes (p 170), he won’t be able to demonstrate the truth of what he says. In the pivotal section of Rom 5-8, he will explain that Christians die to the entire law and perform their commitments on a different route altogether (the spirit). In sum, Paul is no moral anarchist, any more than James. But the two apostles do right on different highways, and the roads only occasionally intersect.

— Abraham’s faith (4:1-17)

Function: To prove the doctrine of 3:21-31 by (drastically) revising the common understanding of Abraham.

Comments: From the Jewish point of view the promise to Abraham was subsumed within the Sinai even: Abraham was justified after being circumcised and keeping the Torah, which legitimated him as the ancestor of all nations (thus Sir 44:19-21). For Paul the promise to Abraham was independent of the Sinai event and non-contingent upon his circumcision, and that’s what makes him the ancestor of all nations on an equal basis. That’s a radical revision, and, as Sanders notes, “few moderns are convinced that Paul proves his case against circumcision by quoting Gen 15:6 and ignoring Gen 17:9-14” (p 148). But that’s theology. Selective use of scripture to trump other scriptures is the backbone of religious evolution.

The contrast with James is again instructive. For Paul, Abraham was justified apart from his works (i.e. circumcision), so he could be the father of all without favor. For James, Abraham was justified by his works (i.e. offering to slaughter his son Isaac) by going the extra mile (more like fifty, poor Isaac) in obedience to God. These ideas aren’t necessarily exclusive, and James might have told Paul that he was justified by his “works” in willing to suffer the lash and imprisonment for the cross of Christ. Paul would have disagreed, by saying that he was “walking in the spirit” — that unique and exciting realm of divine fire to which he was admitted on baptism (see Rom 6-8 below). That’s more than a terminological quibble. There’s real theology at issue here. But at the very least, Paul and James agree that active morality is essential in the body of Christ.

— Abraham’s measure of faith (4:18-25)

Function: To show that Christians have the measure of faith anticipated by Abraham’s unique situation.

Comments: Paul digresses at this point to speak of the measure of Abraham’s faith. It was “strong” because he believed God would create life from the dead; and indeed Isaac was created from Sarah’s dead womb. Throughout Israel’s history, Abraham alone had this measure of faith, though it wasn’t for his sake alone (4:23), but for later Christians who would believe that God raised life from the dead in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (4:24).

This section is an excursus, but it’s important because it refutes salvation-history theories involving the “climax of the covenant”. The measure of one’s faith — that is, whether it is “weak” or “strong” — has nothing to do with the faith-works contrast of the preceding argument (3:21-4:17). It has nothing to do with whether or not one observes the law. It has to do with the belief in God’s ability to call forth life out of death. (Nanos, pp 139-144). Abraham’s faith was strong for believing that his child would be born from a dead womb, just as a Christian’s faith is strong for believing Jesus was raised from a dead corpse. The implication is clear: God’s promise to Abraham remained in a docetic state until Jesus rose from the dead, and the Israelite era was “a period of unrelieved gloom” (Esler, p 286). Christ isn’t a climax, because no one prior to his coming shared the “strong” faith of Abraham, any more than they shared his faith-righteousness itself. Abraham was an exception to the rule in a dark era.

This section will be important when we get to Rom 14:1-15:13, where Paul returns to the subject of the “weak” and the “strong” in the Roman church. Most commentators miss the link between the two sections, and thus miss the mark in interpreting the identity of the “weak”.

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

Function: To set up the framework for the argument of Rom 6-8, in which the epoch of Christ opposes, and yet overlaps, that of Adam.

Comments: Paul explains that Christ died in order to restore God’s creation and bring the epoch of Adam to a close. The crucial thing to note here is that in putting the law on the side of Adam, sin, and death (5:12-21), he has created an ugly problem for himself, which he will attempt to resolve in Rom 7:7-25.

A’. Both die (6:1-7:25)

Entering the heart of Paul’s gospel puts us in a different world. Gone are the themes of faith-righteousness and ethnic fairness, and in their place death, sanctification, and life in a new realm. I often think of Rom 6-8 like Tolkien thought of Lothlorien, “the heart of Elvendom”. (Rom 3:21-4:25 would be Rivendell, and the segment of Rom 8:18-39, naturally, the Grey Havens.) It’s where we see Paul at his most angular and naked, urging otherworldly ideas about the spirit. The spirit-realm opposes that of Adam, and this poses a problem for the law which goes well beyond the injustice of works and ethnic supremacism.

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

Function: To explain that baptized Christians are suspended between death and resurrection. They have died but not yet risen, and until the resurrection they exist in the realms of Adam and Christ simultaneously. Theoretically they cannot sin (6:1-11) but in reality their flesh remains mortal (6:12-14).

Comments: It’s worth spelling out what baptism entailed for the Pauline churches. Each person entered as an individual into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, witnessed by the congregation. In receiving the Holy Spirit, believers thought (quite literally) that God had entered them. The result was a variety of ecstatic states — trances, visions, auditions, prophecies (see I Cor 12-14) — that produced feelings of peace and even euphoria. Esler describes:

“The candidates had to strip naked and the women remove any jewelry. This symbolized the abandonment of their old existence, especially the sinfulness that had accompanied it. Then they handed themselves over to the baptizer to be subject to his will in pushing them under the water, thus humbly and passively letting themselves be fashioned anew. This event, in its sheer physicality, must have constituted a powerful cognitive and emotional experience. Christ was actually present in baptism at that presence was central to the ritual. Immersion in the depth and silence of the water ritually corresponded to sharing in Christ’s death, while elevation into the air and possession of the spirit of God/Christ, with associated receipt of charismatic gifts (I Cor 12-14), brought them into closest conjunction with the risen Lord.” (pp 211, 217)

It’s no surprise that these strong conversion experiences were understood to result in a new life in which sin was virtually impossible. Believers had been crucified with Christ. But the reality — of which Paul reminds them — was that sin could still exercise dominion in the flesh (6:12-14). Put another way, for Paul baptism wasn’t a liberation from sinning (until the resurrection), but from sin’s reign. The liberation was real, but not automatic; Christians were specially empowered, but still subject to their flesh.

Finally we should note what is absent in Paul’s treatment of baptism. Years ago in Galatians, he had said, “because you were all baptized into Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:27-28). That’s the last sort of thing he wants to say in Romans. Differences must be respected, not erased. Just as he took great pains to show that Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin in different ways (Rom 1:18-3:20), now he will show how they escape that power of sin in different ways (Rom 6:16-7:25).

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

Function: To explain how pagans have died to the reign of Adam and sin.

Comments: Slavery is an important metaphor which stresses that Paul does not condone moral anarchy in the body of Christ. By the time of Romans, his law-free gospel had given him a bad reputation, and in 6:1 and 6:15a he gives voice to his accusers: “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound? Are we to sin because we are not under the law?” His answer is, “By no means” (6:2,15b). The paradox of baptism is that it’s a radically liberating force that hands one over, a prisoner, to Christ.

2. Jews die to the law and become slaves of the spirit (7:1-6)

Function: To explain how Jews have died to the reign of Adam and sin.

Comments: This is the analog to Rom 6:16-23. Baptized Jews die to the Torah, just as baptized pagans die to sin and impurity, and are put into bondage with their savior. Moral anarchy is again forbidden, and Rom 8:1-17 will explain just how Christians avoid such anarchy without the law. But at this point Paul needs to make a lengthy, and very controversial detour in clarifying the law’s purpose in Israel’s history.

Clarification (I): The law, not God, is responsible for sin (7:7-13)

Function: To assure the Jews in Rome — and no doubt the Jerusalem leadership, and perhaps even Paul himself — that God always acted for the good. To correct the perverse claim of Gal 3:19-24 (echoed in Rom 3:20, 4:15, 5:20), where the law is an active agent consigning Israel to sin, and where God intends such a result “so that” he may save another basis. To break the link between God and sin, and to make the law passive in its relationship to sin.

Comments: Putting the law on the side of Adam, sin, and death in 7:1-6 provokes indignant questions. Whatever was the purpose of the law? What was God up to before the coming of Christ? If Jews die to the Torah as Gentiles die to sin, is the law equivalent to sin?

Paul is careful to deny such an equation (7:7), but he’s playing a dangerous game, because the two are on the same “side” in Adam’s territory. His first stab at the law’s purpose in Galatians was a natural one. Like any ancient Jew, he believed in a sovereign God, and that salvation worked according to the divine plan. So if Christ saves, and the law doesn’t, Paul could only explain this by assigning the law a negative role in God’s plan: it showed the need for Christ. But that’s an ugly reason to give the law. So in Rom 7:7-13, Paul revises: sin’s reign through the law is no longer seen as part of God’s plan. Paul now attributes sin (as transgression) to the power sin itself. Thus Sanders:

“Sin is not [in Rom 6-7] the instrument of God, used in order to hold all captive so that he could save all on the basis of faith. It has independent status and is not subject to God’s control; an alien power outside God’s will. God will, in Paul’s view, defeat sin, but this requires an unplanned for rescue-operation — the sending of the Son. Individuals can escape sin, but only by death. God does not, however, ‘call the shots’ within the sphere of sin.” (p 73)

Paul has thus rescued God from perversity, but at the expense of his sovereignty. Now the law is holy (7:12) and given for the purpose of righteousness and life (7:10), which every Jew knows. It’s simply unable to do the job God gave it. Sin takes it over and perverts it, foiling God’s intent — much like the serpent did with Adam in paradise.

For reasons that escape me, many scholars deny that Adam is in view throughout Rom 7:7-13. Even Philip Esler, whose critical acumen is usually beyond censure, resists the idea. But Adam blatantly looms over the section of Rom 5-8. The whole theme is Adam’s era being supplanted by the new age of Christ. Francis Watson (pp 152-153) notes the abundant parallels to the Genesis story in Rom 7:7-13:

Adam, “alive” and newly created, is placed in Eden (Gen. 2:7-9) and “commanded” by God not to eat of the tree of life (Gen. 2:16-17), whereafter the serpent “seizes opportunity” to further its own ends (Gen. 3:1-5) and Eve complains that she was “deceived” (Gen. 3:13). God then “kills” humanity, punishing it with mortality (Gen. 3:19,22-23).

It’s fairly clear that Paul has assumed the role of Adam in order to demonstrate that Jewish behavior under the law replicates Adam/Eve’s failure under the primal commandment in Eden. In effect, he refers to himself (“I”) on the surface, and thus to other Jews by implication (“those who know the law”, Rom 7:1), but he’s really referring to Adam/Eve. His argument is exegetical, saying in effect that the Jewish plight under the law traces back to the horror of the fall.

The reason Paul evokes the Eden scenario is precisely because he needs to sever that troublesome link between God and sin. Instead of God giving the law to imprison Israel under sin “so that” she might later be saved by Christ (Gal 3:19-24), he now gives the law “unto life” (Rom 7:10), and it is sin (~the serpent) that uses the law against God’s holy purposes.

Clarification (II): The human condition, not the law, is responsible for sin (7:14-25)

Function: To go another step, and break the connection between the law and sin.

Comments: Paul pushes the envelope now, and in so doing contradicts his personal experience. As a Pharisee he had been righteous and blameless under the law (Philip 3:4b-6), but in Rom 7:14-25, the human condition without Christ is so miserable and wretched and incapable, that “one wonders what happened to the doctrine that the creation was good” (Sanders, p 75).

Unlike in the previous section, sin does not use commandments against people. Sin bypasses the law altogether, foiling God’s intent this time by invading human flesh directly — producing uncontrollable disobedience, anguish, and despair in the the human host.

If that makes Paul sound weird and anti-Jewish, he sort of is in this section. In effect, he has assumed a pagan persona in place of Adam. The rhetorical “I” is now a Medea-like character, who speaks for the common moral dilemma found in Greco-Roman literature. Tobin (pp 232-235) notes the abundant allusions to Medea who was compelled to kill her children as revenge against Jason:

“I am conquered by evils. And I understand the deeds I am about to do are evil. But anger is greater than my resolves — anger, the cause for mortals of the greatest evils.” (Euripides, Medea 1077b-1080)

“But some strange power draws me against my will, and desire persuades me one way, and my mind another. I see the better and approve, but I follow the worse.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 7:19-21)

Paul portrays Jewish behavior under the law as conforming to scenarios found in the pagan world. In effect, he refers to himself (“I”) on the surface, and thus to other Jews by implication (“those who know the law”, Rom 7:1), but he’s really invoking an argument foreign to Jews who counted on the grace of God no matter how often they sinned.

These shifts in thought are critical, and they help Paul as much as they harm him. With Adam and the serpent he disassociated God from sin. With “Medea” he could go a step further and disassociate the law from sin. Sin can now possess people and put them in thrall to their worst urges. This may be a cartoonish depiction of Jews under the law (and it’s no wonder Martin Luther loved it), but it does save God and the law. Unfortunately, it heaps the entire blame for sin on a hopeless and wretched humanity. It keeps God holy, but makes him ineffectual.

The lesson to be learned is that Paul wasn’t an early version of Martin Luther struggling with inability and despair. He was an ancient Jew who cared about God’s will. Rom 7:7-25 shows his dilemma of trying to hold together two sets of convictions — that salvation is only in Christ, and yet God gave the law. It’s that dilemma which is responsible for the passion and anguish of Rom 7:7-25, not the Lutheran-like torment it portrays. Paul dug himself out of holes, and fell into deeper ones.

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)

The term fulfillment (pleroma) refers to the consummation of the will and plan of God. Fulfilling the law points to the total realization of what God intended with the law, though it doesn’t follow that performing the law in some way is part of that realization. It could mean that, but not necessarily.

We’ll jump ahead for a moment to Rom 13:8-10, since it bears directly on this point (and actually interrupts the rest of Paul’s argument in chapter 13). Gal 5:13 is the earlier analogue to Rom 13:8-10, and both envision the total substitution of the law with an alternative path to love (agape). Esler nails it:

“Paul’s point is that the very best the law could provide, love of one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18), is now available by an entirely different route — the spirit. For love is the first fruit of the spirit. To say that the law is fulfilled by love does not affect this conclusion. Fulfillment, in this sense, means that the moral demands of the law no longer have any role for Christians. Someone who has faith in Christ is able to obtain the best that the law promised, although never delivered, by an entirely different route.” (pp 334-335)

Paul’s meaning could hardly be clearer. Jews could not obey the law because sin turns the law (7:7-13) or people themselves (7:14-25) to its own ends. Christ’s redemptive act broke the power of sin (8:2), and liberated Israel from the mess the law had produced. People now fulfill the requirement of the law — not any part of the law itself — in the new realm of the spirit (8:4). Scholars are confused by this clarity, however.

Ben Witherington, for example, believes that Paul thought the Torah was fulfilled by performing a new law — a messianic successor to the old. This would be “Christ’s law” (Gal 6:2) or (in this section) the “law of the spirit” (Rom 8:2). This new-age law consists of (1) the imitation of Christ and his apostles, (2) the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (i.e. some of the ten commandments), and (3) the new imperatives urged by Christ and then his apostles. This is admittedly plausible as an expression of Paul’s view before the Galatian crisis. I Corinthians presents commandments and moral imperatives as having force. Paul recycles material from Leviticus, and in the context of circumcision being irrelevant he even declares that “keeping God’s commandments is what counts” (I Cor 7:19). What Witherington ignores is that later in Galatians — in the exact same context of circumcision — Paul says that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6). After I Corinthians, Paul’s letters are barren ground for a neo-Levitical law, and “Christ’s law” has become a metaphor.

The message of 8:1-17 is the radical new life in the spirit. To walk according to the flesh is to stumble across the wasteland of Adam and succumb to the pull of sin, either with (7:1-25) or without (6:16-23) the law. To walk in the spirit is to advance on an unearthly plane made accessible by baptism. Christ is literally “in” the baptized believer (8:10), and it is because believers are spirit-filled that Paul can be confident they will live by putting to death the deeds of their bodies (8:13) completely apart from the law.

Interlude: Present suffering, future glory (8:18-39)

Function: To assure believers that their suffering isn’t in vain. The apocalypse is on the way, and creation will soon be made anew.

Comments: Paul says something remarkable here. Christians will not be judged. A judgment requires someone to lay a charge, and 8:33 implies that no such charge will be leveled. In Paul’s understanding, the future judgment applies only to the wicked. Christians appear at the judgment like everyone (Rom 14:10; II Cor 5:10), but they are not subject to any judicial proceeding, let alone condemnation. No one brings a charge against them (8:33), and no one condemns them (8:34). They are waved through to paradise without further ado. (So Esler, p 266).

II. ISRAEL, “my own people” (9:3)

I remain convinced about Rom 9-11 as I was two decades ago. Its real audience is the Jerusalem leadership. It’s formally addressed to the Jews (9:6-11:12) and Gentiles (11:13-32) in Rome, of course, and comes down hard on the Gentiles for their insufferable arrogance. But that’s also a dramatic show for the pillars. There is personal worry (about “his own people”) that saturates every verse of Rom 9-11. Paul is answering the worst charge that has ever been leveled at him — that his gospel makes God himself apostate, and completely inconsistent with His purposes declared in scripture.

A. Israel shamed (9:6-10:21)

1. God consistent with election: he hates Israel now, as he hated Esau (9:6-29)

Function: To legitimate the Jewish-Christian remnant in the face of scorn from unbelieving Israel.

Comments: Paul’s proof that Gentiles are Abraham’s heirs is revisionist as it is simple: God calls whomever he wants. He hates Israel just as he hated Esau, and he showers favor on the pagans just as he did to Jacob (9:13). God is behaving the same as he always has — as the sovereign lord before whom human beings have no rights; as the deity who loves and hates whomever he damn well pleases.

This is clever but outrageous, and non-Christian Jews would have heaped derision on it. Paul is portraying a sectarian continuity, or as Dunn suggests, a “continuity by transformation”, the metaphor for which is certainly not the olive tree of Rom 11. We should envision, rather, a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, and the empty shell of the caterpillar all that’s left remaining from the old stage of existence. This makes God more capricious than consistent.

2. God consistent with justification: the Torah declares itself a dead-end project (9:30-10:21)

Function: To legitimate the Jewish-Christian choice of faith-righteousness in the face of scorn from unbelieving Israel.

Comments: Paul returns to the contrast between faith-righteousness and works-righteousness (the doctrine of 3:21-4:25), observing that Israel’s zeal for God isn’t enlightened because she sticks to works-righteousness (9:32). Needless to say by this point, Paul isn’t condemning a legalistic works-ethic (which was alien to the Jewish mindset),  but rather an ethnic-based righteousness. Paul’s point is the same as it was back in 3:21-4:25. “Christ is the end of the Torah, so there can be righteousness for everyone who believes” (10:4), and so that Gentiles don’t have to be evangelized under a form of Jewish imperialism: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:12-13).

To buttress this point, however, Paul makes an argument that taps into his more sweeping condemnation of the law in Rom 5-8, in which all commandments, let alone ethnic works, are the problem. Moses, according to our apostle, taught that following the law’s commandments would lead to life, but he also taught that this path actually goes nowhere. The law (in its entirety) is finished (10:4), because Moses anticipated that it would be a dead-end project. The Torah may as well be distant as the heavens and the abyss, for it is Christ (not the commandment) who is nearby, on the lips and in the hearts of believers (10:6-8). Again, this is the sectarian continuity of transformation — the caterpillar becoming a butterfly — and non-Christian Jews would have scorned Paul for what he claims that Moses meant.

B. Israel glorified (11:1-32)

— God consistent with his promises to Israel: her hardening is only temporary; faith-righteoused pagans are the means to Jewish salvation (11:1-32)

Function: To assure Jewish Christians that Israel’s state of unbelief is only temporary, and to indict Gentile Christians for their arrogance towards unbelieving Jews.

Comments: Paul begins by pointing out that Israel is just being true to form. As in her checkered past — when for example Elijah and only a small remnant of Israelites refused to worship Baal (11:2-5) — so now there is a small number of faithful Jewish Christians alongside Paul. That’s a false equivalence, however, and rather desperate on Paul’s part. While it’s reasonable to expect that Israelites might repent of their idolatry, it’s hoping against the dimmest hope that Jews will accept a questionable savior for the salvation of all races without distinction.

Yet this is exactly what Paul does hope for. Jews will become (wait for it) “jealous” of Christianity’s success in the pagan world, and thus moved to accept the gospel. Gentiles should understand that their salvation is a means to an end, and that Paul glorifies his ministry among them in order to piss off his fellow Jews and provoke them en masse to reacquire what is rightfully theirs (11:13-14). Gentiles are in fact worthless by themselves: “wild olive shoots” dependent upon the root of Abraham to be at all productive (11:17-18). Moreover, they will be disinherited if they continue treating unbelieving Israel with contempt (11:20-22). Israel still has a chance, and will indeed be ultimately saved (11:25). She is God’s enemy for the time being, but God’s chosen in the end (11:28).

Few critics appreciate how insulting the olive tree metaphor is to Gentiles. Normal grafting practice involved transplanting a wild olive tree and making it fruitful by grafting on cultivated branches. But Paul portrays the inverse — a cultivated olive tree with wild branches. “In opting for the wild olive, when he and his readers well knew that its branches did not bear edible fruit, Paul was consciously crafting an image unflattering to the Gentiles” (Esler, p 305). This shows how determined he is to glorify Israel and keep God’s ultimate promises intact.

The problem is that Paul’s arguments for God’s consistency in Rom 9-11 are themselves inconsistent. For Rom 11 is based on precisely the definition of Israel, the chosen people who are heirs to salvation, that Rom 9 (as well as Rom 4) has rejected so emphatically (so Watson, p 340). Everywhere else in his letters, Paul sets his view of Gentile salvation in opposition to Jewish covenant theology. Israel has been supplanted, and the Gentile-dominated churches are the new spiritual Israel (Gal 6:16). In Rom 11, Paul suddenly reveals that Gentiles can be incorporated into the framework of the Jewish covenant, and that “all Israel will be saved” (11:25) as God originally planned. Sanders sees the tensions analogous to those in Rom 7:7-25:

“The dilemma of Rom 9-11 reminds us more than slightly of Romans 7, since it is really a dilemma about God and since it arises from Paul’s twin sets of convictions, those native to him and those revealed. How could God have willed the election and ultimately the redemption of Israel and have appointed Jesus Christ, whom most Jews were rejecting, for the salvation of all without distinction? The problem of how to hold these two convictions together runs throughout Romans 9-11. Paul put the two together with ingenuity: the Jews would come in as a result of the success of the Christian mission to the Gentiles.” (p 197)

Ingenious, but desperate. In the end, Paul wanted an olive tree (Rom 11), but he left the world a butterfly (Rom 9-10).


A. Believers are free from the world, but still subject to Caesar (12:1-13:14)

Function: To encourage counter-cultural behavior in most aspects of everyday life, while forbidding rebellion against Caesar who should be left to God’s wrath.

Comments: Believers should not conform to the world (12:2) but instead follow Christ’s other-worldly code of behavior: be patient in suffering, bless persecutors, associate with the lowly, do not be haughty, feed enemies for vengeance’s sake — in order to “heap burning coals on their heads” (12:9-21). At the same time, they should not be so other-worldly as to rebel against governing authorities. God will take care of them himself, in due course (13:1-14).

In telling believers to be subject to the Roman empire, Paul wasn’t endorsing a theology of the state, anymore than Jesus had by his command to “give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s” (Mk. 12:13-17/Mt. 22:15-22/Lk. 20:20-26). Jesus’ call was to expel the idolatrous coins from the promised land; to pay taxes with contempt, in effect. “Give back Caesar his filthy coins” was the clear message, for those who had ears to hear. God would soon be destroying the kingdoms of men.

Paul was similar to his savior. The only Lord he recognized was in heaven, but he didn’t want Christians jeopardizing themselves by defying Caesar. They should be temporarily resigned to imperial authorities and pay taxes (13:1-7), since God’s kingdom is “nearer than ever before” (13:11).

B. Gentiles are free from the Torah, but not in the presence of unbelieving Israel (14:1-15:13)

Function: To stifle Gentile freedom in the hope that unbelieving Israel will be moved to accept the gospel and reacquire her salvation (cf 11:17-24).

Comments: Gentiles are not free from the Torah in the presence of unbelieving Israel. No food is unclean in itself (14:14a), but it is for those who think so (14:14b). Gentiles must sometimes abide by minimal Torah standards. If Jews are being injured by what Gentiles eat, then the Gentiles are not behaving properly (14:15); they should not eat meat or drink wine if it causes strife (14:21). The strong in faith should accommodate the weak in faith — “put up with their failings” — and not please themselves (15:1), so that unbelieving Israel may embrace Christianity (11:23-24) and everyone worship as one voice (15:5-6).

Mark Nanos has shown that the weak in faith refer to non-Christian Jews, despite the near (astonishing) universal assumption that they refer to the Christian Jews in the Roman church.

  • The weak cannot refer to the Christian addressees themselves, because Paul would not have intended for them to hear him tell the strong that they should “put up with their failings”. That would be rhetorically inept and undermine Paul’s intent to make the Gentiles show them respect. (A point made by Mark Given, not Mark Nanos.)
  • Paul implicitly defines the terms “strong in faith” and “weak in faith” in Rom 4:18-25 (see commentary above). 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, 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, by definition, non-Christian.
  • In 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” (14:5); and they should continue doing so “in honor of God” (14:6). These Jews are not weak on account of “upholding the law”, which Paul believes acceptable (3:31), even if contributing nothing toward salvation. As Nanos puts it, they are not “weak in practice or opinions” (p 105). They are weak in faith, denying the messiah’s premature resurrection.
  • Finally, this section follows hot on the heels of 12:1-13:14, which deals with proper behavior with respect to the “outside world”. The weak are thus likewise outsiders — unbelieving Israel at large.

In a sentence: the weak in faith are weak for being non-Christian, not for being Jewish. Paul never believed that the works of the law (circumcision, food laws, holy days) were inherently deficient. He objected only when they were imposed on Gentiles in the body of Christ (3:21-4:17). Outside that body he could even advocate for them: when interacting with unbelieving Jews, Gentiles should feel obligated to follow at least some works, like abstaining from meat, so as not to give unnecessary offense.

Paul wanted to convert as many Jews as possible before the world’s end (11:13-32), and didn’t want Christians broadcasting their freedoms. Paul had called for the same evangelical strategy years before in I Corinthians. As Nanos explains, the believers in Corinth were to accommodate the “weak” (in that case, non-Christian pagan idolaters) and abstain from idol food (I Cor 8:1-11), so that pagans wouldn’t misunderstand Christianity as a syncrestic or polytheistic religion. Likewise in Rome: the (Gentile) believers must accommodate the “weak” (non-Christian Jews) and abstain from meat, so that Jews will see Christianity compatible with their Israelite heritage.

Paul’s dual standard — the lenient one reserved for unbelievers — may paint him a hypocrite, but he is very candid about his willingness to become “all things to all men” in order to save them (I Cor 9:19-23). He endorsed chameleon evangelism, “to the Jew becoming a Jew, to the Gentile a lawless pagan”, for the good of their souls, as he saw it.

Conclusion: The Real Paul

“The real Paul”, said Francis Watson 30 years ago, “was not the stranger of Protestant mythology, cast into the wilderness by a legalistic Catholic church”. Quite right. But Watson more recently cautioned that we don’t read Paul aright simply by criticizing Luther and emphasizing Gentile inclusion (p 346). Paul wasn’t an anti-apartheid guru any more than he was a guilt-ridden monk. Foes of racism can find a certain ally in Rom 3:21-4:25, admittedly, but that’s only a piece of Paul’s gospel.

The other piece — the bigger one, I think — shows an apostle who resists comfortable categories. This is a Paul on fire for his savior, drunk on the spirit, and one foot ahead in the age to come. He thought the old age was fading, and everything about it was inadequate or oppressive, including the law. Demons released in the garden of Eden seemed present in every breath of air. Baptism was the escape from this nightmare, and the spirit all but completely took over. Albert Schweitzer saw this:

“Every manifestation of the life of the baptized man is conditioned by his being in Christ. Grafted into the corporeity of Christ, he loses his creative individual existence and his natural personality. Henceforth he is only a form of manifestation of the personality of Jesus Christ, which dominates that corporeity. Paul says this with trenchant clearness, when he writes to the Galatians, ‘I am crucified with Christ, so I live no longer as myself; rather it is Christ who lives within me.’ (Gal 2:19-20)” (p 125)

That’s the real Paul, if any summary can do him justice.

We see that Romans is a schizophrenic letter. On the one hand, Paul goes out of his way to give the law and Israel as much due as possible. A new church crisis, his bad reputation, his need for recognition in Jerusalem — sometimes even his own change of heart — demanded this. On the other hand, his gospel against the law and covenant is as stark as ever before. Mark Given has argued that this makes Paul to some extent a deceiver, even a self-deceiver if he cared about these issues as a Jew himself. Romans was so sugar-coated with qualifiers that one could almost be tricked into thinking Paul’s gospel was benign. But strip away the disclaimers and wash-overs — the sin scapegoat of Rom 7, the escape plan of Rom 11 — and what remains? Same as before: an ineffective and useless law, unable to save; Israel left in the gutter, as pagans rob them of Abraham’s blessings.

This may sound cynical, but it respects Paul as a real-world missionary whose theology unrolled against fresh challenges and ugly oppositions. He wasn’t an ivory-tower philosopher penning systematic doctrine. As a non-Christian I find him strangely galvanizing. His letters inspired me to act in some way, and months later I joined the Peace Corps. He’s much maligned by liberals, which I consider unfair. Romans shows him at his best and most desperate, as he owns up to his past and faces an exciting future.


Bercovitz, J. Peter: The Chronology of Paul’s Letters, 2000.

Dunn, James D.G: Romans, Nelson Reference, 1988.

Esler, Philip: Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter, Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

Given, Mark: Paul’s True Rhetoric: Ambiguity, Cunning, and Deception in Greece and Rome, Trinity, 2001.

Goodacre, Mark: Paul’s Loss of Galatia: I, II, 2006.

Nanos, Mark: The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter, Augsburg Fortress, 1996.

Rosson, Loren: Treachery at Antioch, 2006.

Sanders, E.P: Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, Augsburg Fortress, 1985.

Schweitzer, Albert: The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul, Seabury, 1931.

Segal, Alan: Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee, Yale University, 1992.

Stowers, Stanley: A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles, Yale University, 1994.

Tobin, Thomas: Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts: The Argument of Romans, Hendrickson, 2004.

Watson, Francis: Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, Eerdmans, 2007.

Witherington, Ben: The New Perspective on Paul and the Law, 2008.

Wright, N.T: The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, Augsburg Fortress, 1994.

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