“If You Call Yourself a Jew”

I love the way RBL reviews come so after the fact. Philip Esler has reviewed Rafael Rodriguez’s work on Romans, which was published back in 2014. It’s a good excuse to revisit the book, which follows the Stowers school that Romans is addressed primarily to Gentiles, rather than (as I believe) a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. Why then does Romans sound so Jewish-oriented unlike the rest of Paul’s letters? Rodriguez’s solution is to view the interlocutor (conversation partner) of Rom 2:17 as a gentile proselyte to Judaism — in other words, as Rodriguez claims, someone of Gentile ethnicity but of Jewish religiosity, and who teaches Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes like himself.

As Esler points out in his review, this allows Rodriguez to have his cake and eat it, for the person addressed in Rom 2:17 is both a Gentile and a Jew: “Paul still imagines a gentile in vv. 17 ff., only now this gentile has taken on the yoke of Torah — an individual of gentile origin who wants to call himself a Jew”. But how is this person a transgressor of the Torah, even to the point that his circumcision breaks the law? Rodriguez’s answer is that the circumcision wasn’t performed on the eighth day as required by Lev. 12:3. Esler asks for “some evidence for the idea that a law requiring adult Israelites to circumcise their sons on the eighth day could be, or ever was, invoked as a bar, or indeed have any relevance, to adult non-Israelites wishing to join Israel and willing to be circumcised to do so.” Indeed, I can’t imagine that being an obstacle at all. Not only were there probably Jewish sons circumcised on days other than the eighth, Abraham himself (Paul’s hero) wasn’t understood to be in the Old Testament or intertestamental literature.

Esler also warns about false distinctions between “ethnic” and “religious” Jews, saying that “becoming a Jew/Judean through circumcision and adoption of Jewish/Judean customs meant adoption of Jewish/Judean ethnic identity, not the adoption of a separable and separate Jewish religious identity, which was nonexistent in the first century.” Then there are the Jewish addresses of Rom 16, which Rodriguez (following Stowers) sees as third-party greetings rather than greetings to the actual recipients of the letter — which I agree with Esler asks a bit much.

I admire Rodríguez’s argument as much as I see problems with it. As someone who has spent years on Romans, I’m continually intrigued by various solutions to the audience puzzle. For Rodríguez, Rom 1:18–1:31 addresses the depraved immoral pagan, 2:1–16 the elitist moralizing pagan, and 2:17–29 the gentile proselyte to Judaism. That last allows him creativity at the point of Rom 7:9 which says, “I once lived apart from the law.”

The more plausible outline, as I see it, is to look at the overarching argument of Rom 1:18-3:20, where Paul takes down Gentiles and Jews, but in different ways, so as to put them on the same playing field while underscoring differences so as to reduce competition between the two ethnic factions. One of the key points of Esler’s 2003 book is that in Romans Paul avoids saying, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). He’s more enlightened than he was in I Corinthians and Galatians, and learning from his failures now understands that there should indeed be “Jew and Greek in Christ”, at least to a significant degree, so that differences can be respected rather than erased. On that understanding, the outline of Rom 1:18-3:20 would look like this:

Both groups are judged (1:18-3:20)

1. Gentiles are 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 are 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)

The equal attention paid to both Gentile and Jewish factions in Rome is then repeated in Rom 6:1-7:25, this time from the standpoint of baptism and death.

Both groups 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)

Again, both groups are seen to be on the same footing but in different ways. And “dying to the law” in Rom 7 is run parallel to the Eden story in Genesis. Rodriguez’s view that Rom 7:9 — “I once lived apart from the law” — refers to a Gentile proselyte is too superficial for Paul’s overarching purpose.

For reasons that escape me, many persist in denying the focus of the Genesis story. Esler himself is guilty of this, but to me it’s rather clear that Adam looms over the section of Rom 5-8, and comes to particular focus in the parallels of Rom 7:7-13, where “alive” and newly created, he 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). As much as I’ve tried in the past, I can’t escape the conclusion that Paul has deliberately assumed the role of Adam in order to “prove” that life under the Torah replicates Adam/Eve’s failure under the commandment in Eden. His argument is an exegetical one, in effect urging that the traps and snares of the Torah trace back to the horror of the fall, which in turn fulfills his ambitious desire to prove that Jews are no better under the law (7:1-25), than Gentiles are under ungodliness (6:16-23), each requiring the dramatic rescue operation of 8:1-17.

At the very least, Esler’s review is good cause to revisit Rodriguez’s stimulating explanation as to why Paul’s interlocutor “calls himself a Jew”. I have to admit it’s one of the better efforts from the Stowers camp.

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2 thoughts on ““If You Call Yourself a Jew”

  1. I believe that every Christian has joined themselves to the Hebrew faith, whether they know it or not. The Messiah was Jewish, the very idea of a coming Messiah was God’s revelation to the Israelites. Jesus Christ is not an invention of the church. Galatians 3:29 says that if we are Christ’s, then we are Abraham’s seed.

    I believe the problem with circumcision that you mention is the fact that Jewish believers were telling Gentile converts that they couldn’t be saved unless they were circumcised. They were making it a salvation-issue, salvation-by-works. Paul gets on to them. The Jewish folks were well aware of their own inability to keep the Torah and earn salvation. Now they were requiring Gentiles to “earn” salvation based on works, something that no Jewish person had ever achieved! (With the exception of Jesus Christ Himself.) Reread Galatians and Romans and see if this is not exactly what Paul’s argument is.

  2. I don’t think Paul objected to “earning salvation” in the way that later thinkers like Augustine and Luther did. If you mean that no Jewish person ever achieved righteousness in the sense of perfect obedience, you’re right, but then no Jewish person ever believed in perfection obedience to begin with. But if you mean that no Jewish person ever achieved righteousness by the Torah’s standards, that’s not true, and Paul uses himself as an example. He says that as a pre-Christian Pharisee, “as to righteousness by the law I was blameless” (Philip 3:4b-6). He was blameless under the law, in other words, but he simply now realizes that as good as that righteousness was, life in Christ is infinitely better (Philip 3:7-11).

    The problem with circumcision isn’t that Paul’s rivals were saying that it “earned” salvation; rather, they were saying that one had to be Jewish to be saved. Paul says that boasting of works is excluded (Rom 3:27), not because works supposedly earn salvation, but because “God is not only the God of Jews, but the God of Gentiles too” (Rom 3:29-30).

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