Romans -- An Intimidating Epistle?

 

Romans – An Intimidating Epistle?

An Introduction to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  

 

The Epistle of Year A.  For twenty Sundays in the current church year (Year A), the Revised Common Lectionary assigns readings from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  We heard three of these in Advent season and three more in Lent.  During the “common time” after Pentecost we will be directed to fourteen more readings, beginning in Romans 5 and progressing through the book to chapter 14.  There are only a couple of readings from Romans in each of the other two years of the Lectionary cycle.  Romans is the Epistle for Year A. 

Outline of this Introduction: 

      A.  Romans is a famous and history-making Biblical book. 

      B.  Romans is a “Letter” with an  “Epistle” inside. 

      C.  The Epistle (1:16-15:13) is a series of “topics” that Paul often addressed. 

      D.  Statement of the Gospel. 

               1.  First Argument:  All have sinned.    

               2.  Second Argument:  Justification by faith. 

               3.  Example:  Abraham. 

                4.  Two Corollaries to Justification by Faith. 

               5.  Third Argument:  Freed from Sin and Death. 

               6.  A Special Case:  Dying to the Law. 

               7.  Conclusion:  Life in the Spirit. 

      E.  Israel:  Resisting but chosen. 

      F.  Consequences:  Instructions for living in mutual love.  

      G.  Benedictions and Greetings (chapter 16). 

      H.  Conclusion

       I.  Some Words about Commentaries. 

 

This picture shows a sheet of a papyrus manuscript.  Paul’s scribe would have written on a scroll, rather than a separate page like this.  However, this shows what scribal Greek looked like:  the writing is in capital letters with no punctuation or spaces between words.  Only a trained reader could recite it easily and smoothly.  ~~~~

 

The earliest surviving copy of Paul’s letters – collected long after his own time – is the papyrus codex P46, copied around 200 CE and containing major fragments of Romans 5-16.  The earliest complete copies of Romans are in the great parchment codices created by the newly-wealthy churches in Alexandria, Egypt, in the mid-to-late fourth century CE – such as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus

 

 

 A.  Romans is a famous and history-making Biblical book.    

 

Romans can be intimidating.  When Romans is mentioned among knowledgeable Christians and Biblical scholars, a certain awe and solemn respect usually sets in.  Besides being a daunting writing on its own part, many have heard about the great historical figures and moments associated with the book. 

 

Augustine.  In the later fourth century CE, the Latin rhetorician Augustine converted to Christianity and led the fight in Latin-speaking Christendom against the heresy of Pelagius (that good works are required for salvation) and persuaded the Western churches to adopt Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.  In later centuries, the churches regularly wandered back to the works theology, but Augustine’s position remained the official theology. 

 

Luther.  Very famous is Martin Luther’s great struggle in the sixteenth century – first for his own personal faith, then for the churches of northern Germany – to recover the doctrine of justification by faith in Paul’s writings.  Luther opposed the church’s practice of selling pardons (“indulgences”) to sinners and generally recognizing that “good works” are required for salvation.  His recovery of Paul’s gospel from the letters to the Romans and the Galatians split Western Christendom into Catholics and Protestants for the following five hundred years. 

 

John Wesley.  In the early eighteenth century, the Church of England was in the spiritual doldrums, from which John and Charles Wesley, among others, were suffering.  At the climax of his spiritual struggle, John had his “Aldersgate Experience.”  He heard a reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and things fell in place for him.  Wesley’s awakening was the spark that began the evangelical revivalism of Britain and its American colonies – known in American history as the First Great Awakening. 

 

Karl Barth.  In the midst of Europe’s horrendous World War of 1914-18, the Swiss preacher Karl Barth set off an explosion of his own:  he published his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  European Liberal Protestantism had thoroughly domesticated the God of the scriptures and presented him [God] as the gentle Father of the historical man Jesus of Nazareth.  Liberal theologians had busied themselves with discovering the “historical Jesus,” and had completely lost sight of the God who is actually GOD.  In Paul’s Romans, Barth found a reminder for European Christianity of that gospel about the real righteousness of God! 

 

B.  Romans is a “Letter” with an  “Epistle” inside. 

 

The Epistle to the Romans can also be intimidating at first hand.  Start reading in the 2nd or 5th chapters, and you are likely to wish for some help.  Some parts of Romans are more difficult to understand than others.  It is best to start with the parts that are easy to understand. 

 

For discussion purposes, I distinguish between the “Letter” to the Romans and the “Epistle” to the Romans.  (This is not a theory of composition; it is an insistence that different parts of the writing have different purposes.) 

 

The Letter is the opening and closing of the book, 1:1-15 and 15:14-32.  There Paul talks to the Romans about himself, his mission, and what he hopes for from the Romans.  (Romans 16 is a special case.  It may or may not have been addressed to the Romans.  See the discussion near the end of this review.) 

 

The Letter is written to the Christians of Rome far in advance of Paul’s expected visit to them.  At the time of writing, Paul was preparing for a hazardous trip to Jerusalem on important church business, which would require the better part of a year.  (According to Acts, it ended up taking almost three years.)  The hope Paul shares with them is that Rome can become the base for a future mission in the western part of the empire.  This was the main business of the “letter,” to make himself known to and cultivate future relations with Christians already well established in the imperial capital. 

 

This “business” of the letter did not itself require the long exposition of the gospel that makes up the Epistle.  The Epistle contains neither personal stuff about Paul nor any instructions specific to hearers in Rome.  Modern scholars have debated why Paul decided to go on at such length about justification by faith and the on-going life in Christ that results from it, as well as his discourse about why Israel has resisted the gospel. 

 

Many have pointed out that this was a turning point in Paul’s career.  The letter was written in Corinth in the spring of 57 CE (or possibly a year or two earlier).  Paul was finishing about eight years of intense missionary activity in the Roman provinces of Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia (now western Turkey and Greece).  At Corinth he was waiting for the arrival of contributions from the Greek churches for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem.  After going to Jerusalem, Paul would continue on to Rome. 

 

During the weeks of waiting in Corinth Paul dictated the letter and the Epistle.  It was a time of reflecting back on the work God had carried out through him in the Greek world, and perhaps especially on the issues that had been most important in getting across the gospel to those (mainly) non-Jewish believers in Jesus. 

 

It is also likely that Paul decided to spell out his version of the gospel of Jesus Christ so that his Roman hearers would know exactly where he stood on many controversial and still-developing topics of the Christian proclamation.  Many of them had undoubtedly heard about him, but perhaps through rumor and hearsay.  They should hear from his own presentation just what they were being asked to share in and support!  Thus he decided to include an Epistle in his letter. 

 

C.  The Epistle (1:16-15:13) is a series of “topics” that Paul often addressed.    

 

The Epistle (sometimes called a “Treatise”) has a few major parts, not tightly related to each other. 

  • 1:16-8:39, the major statement of the gospel, in several parts, from justification by faith to the consummation in God’s love for the believer. 
  • 9:1-11:36, Paul’s troubled discussion of Israel’s failure to accept the gospel message.  (The discussion is about “Israel,” not “the Jews.”)  The climax speaks of the “mystery” of Israel’s eventual return to God. 
  • 12:1-15:13, selected topics about living the new life of the gospel, cast in the form of instructions what to do – not very appropriate to congregations Paul had neither founded nor visited.  One topic – on “weak” and “strong” believers – is expanded at length.  

Speaker vs. Writer.  European interpreters of Paul have always talked of him as a writer.  These interpreters themselves have been people of letters, frequenters of libraries, publishers of books, their entire mental culture imprinted by Guttenberg’s gift to civilization.  In reality, of course, Paul was a speaker – a preacher, a lecturer (Acts says he lectured for two years in Tyrannus’ “school” in Ephesus, Acts 19:9-10).  It is true that his opponents claimed that his letters were more impressive than his personal presentations – II Corinthians 10:10-11 – but there is overwhelming evidence that his charismatic preaching got powerful results – for example, in First Thessalonians and Galatians.  

What we see in the Roman “Epistle” is a lecturer’s succinct statements of the “topics” (Greek, topoi) that he had to speak to repeatedly in his preaching and teaching.  In full lecture context, each of these topics would/could be expanded at whatever length was appropriate to a specific occasion.  

D.  The statement of the gospel, 1:16-8:39.  

This part is a relatively sustained argument that moves from justification by faith to the awesome statement of the believer’s inclusion in God’s love in Jesus Christ.  Each stage along the way is a selection of “topics” which Paul dictated to the scribe.  The topics flesh out the main arguments:  

1.  First argument:  All people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 1:18-3:20.  

    • First, a standard Jewish argument that the people of the nations are idolaters and should have known better from contemplating the creation, 1:18-25.  [Terminology:  the “people of the nations” is the correct translation of what is commonly called “Gentiles,” which is a Latin word meaning “the nations.”] 
    • This is continued by an equally standard Jewish argument that idolatry leads to homosexuality, 1:26-27, and to every other crime in the exhaustive lists of Greek rhetoricians, 1:28-32.  
    • A third “topic” is an imaginary dialogue with a Jewish spokesperson who stands in judgment on those idolatrous peoples of the nations, 2:1-11.  The punch line is the universality of the last judgment:  “There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek” (2:10, NRSV). 
    • The next “topic” turns entirely to the Jew and counters any claims to privilege because they possess the “law” and circumcision, 2:12-29.  Again, with or without the law, “God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all” (2:16). 
    • The argument ends with a somewhat meandering summary, 3:1-20.  The Jews have no advantage because “both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin” (verse 9).  A chain of Bible verses prove that all have sinned (verses 10-18), and the last word is that no one can be justified in God’s sight “by works of the law” (3:20, RSV and NIV).  

    2.  Second Argument:  One is justified by faith in Jesus Christ apart from works of the law, 3:21-31.  

      • [Many scholars in recent times insist this should read “by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” the famous subjective genitive.  On this reading, Jesus is the subject rather then the object of the implied verb “believe/keep faith in.”  For some purposes this may be important, but the traditional rendering is certainly easier for the average reader to understand.] 
      • This passage is very tightly packed.  Almost every sentence could be expanded at length, and the next few chapters simply develop some of what is stated here. 
      • All “are now justified by his grace as a gift” (verse 24, NRSV).  “Justified” means declared innocent in God’s final judgment, and that happens because one belongs to Jesus Christ, not because one has done any “works of the law.”  Salvation, or acceptance before God, cannot be earned by keeping the law – or by buying indulgences! 
      • The argument is mainly in the judicial language of justification, but one clause introduces sacrificial language:  God made Jesus “a sacrifice of atonement [Greek hilasterion] by his blood” (verse 25, NRSV), though here this topic is just mentioned, not developed. 

      3.  Example:  Abraham was justified by his faith before either circumcision or the law came in, 4:1-25.  

        • This was certainly a topic Paul had to discuss repeatedly because it was a strong point for his opponents.  (He used another version of this topic in Galatians 3.)  Abraham was promised a great people, but was also commanded to circumcise all his males as a “sign” of his covenant with God (Genesis 17:9-14).  To be included in the promises to Abraham, all males had to be circumcised. 
        • Paul’s counter-argument trumps the circumcision claim by quoting Genesis 15:  Abraham “believed [had faith in] the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” a statement made two chapters before circumcision comes up!  Thus, Paul proclaims, faith came before circumcision, not to mention the law of Moses. 

        4.  Two Corollaries to Justification, 5:1-21.  

          • The passage 5:1-11 is not a “topic.”  It is a rambling sequel, as if Paul didn’t quite know where to go next.  First, the justified can boast, but they should boast in the character development their new life will lead them through (verses 3-5).  Paul marvels at Jesus dying for others, “but God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” – so that we will “be saved from the wrath” (verses 8-9, NRSV). 
          • Without introduction, a “topic” begins on Adam, Sin [note the capital], and Death.  The primary discussion here is on Sin and Death, which came into the world through Adam.  (Sin as a “power” first appears in 3:9, but the main discussion begins here.)  The passage runs variations on the contrast between Adam and Christ.  “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (verse 18).  (A brief statement of this topic is also found in I Corinthians 15:20-22.) 

          5.  Third Argument:  The Justified are freed from Sin and Death, 6:1-23.  

            • The first topic is that “we” have died to sin, 6:1-14.  The believer dies with Christ in baptism and rises with Christ to “walk in newness of life” (6:4).  You have been given a new life; now live that way (verses 12-14). 
            • A second topic plays on the language of slavery (verses 15-23).  “Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification.  The end is eternal life” (6:22). 

            6.  A Special Case:  Dying to the Law, 7:1-25.  

              • Romans 7, “the most difficult chapter in the Pauline canon” (E.P. Sanders) has three topics, one relatively simple, two pretty controversial.  The overall argument is that death to Sin (chapter 6) is paralleled by death to the Law. 
              • Topic:  analogy from widowhood, 7:1-6.  A married woman is under the law until her husband dies; then she does not sin if she takes another lord! 
              • Topic:  relation of Law to Sin, 7:7-13.  This topos uses the first person singular and the past tense.  “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died...” (verse 9, NRSV).  Much discussed is the “I” – personal Paul or representative voice?  Most likely Paul speaks of himself coming to his bar mitzvah, when as an adolescent he became responsible to keep the law.  Adam’s experience with the “commandment” in Genesis 3 is also probably in view.  Main point:  “For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (verse 11). 
              • Topic:  the agony of the divided self, 7:14-25.  “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.... in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (verses 15-16).  This intense confession raises one major question:  First person singular and present tense – who is the I?  Is this Paul’s personal experience, and if so when – before his conversion or in his on-going Christian life?  Or is Paul speaking as “everyone,” as typical experience of believers before Christ (most likely) or after becoming a believer?  Commentators are very divided.  Let the reader decide!  (I am inclined to think Paul describes the struggle of a good Pharisee apart from Christ – such as he was before Damascus.  The present tense is very powerful in this passage.) 
              • In this same topos there is a passage that, at least in modern times, must have spoken to many adolescent believers, struggling with the rampant urges of sexuality:  “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (verses 22-23).  (How many senses does the word “law” have here?) 

              7.  Conclusion:  Between Justification and Consummation, life in the Spirit 8:1-39.  

                • Chapter 8 is not a sustained argument; it is a set of topics, each treated briefly, each declaring some feature of the present blessings and future glory of the justified. 
                • The justified now live “in the Spirit” rather than “in the flesh,” 8:1-13.  The exhortation is to act accordingly (verses 12-13). 
                • A “topic” on the Holy Spirit praying through the faithful is used twice, verses 14-17 and verses 26-27.  “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (verse 26). 
                • There must have been several “topics” concerning “the glory about to be revealed to us” (verse 18).  Here Paul develops one such topic – about how the “creation” itself is waiting for the revealing of the children of God, 8:18-25. 
                • Occasionally, the apostle contemplated the mystery of God’s overall plan, which here produces a “topic” about predestination, 8:28-30.  The sequence of salvation is:  predestined – called – justified – glorified (verse 30, RSV and NIV, much closer to the Greek than NRSV). 
                • The chapter – and indeed the whole presentation of the gospel since 1:16 – has an awesome peroration:  “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?”  No powers, high or low, natural or supernatural!  We live toward a truly awesome consummation in “the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord,” 8:31-39.  

                 

                E.  Israel:  Resisting but Chosen, 9:1-11:36.     

                • Chapters 9-11 are a self-contained unit.  It opens with a solemn avowal of Paul’s true feelings (9:1-5) and closes with ecstatic praise of God’s wisdom and a benediction (11:33-36).  C.H. Dodd  believed it was a separate sermon, incorporated by Paul at this point in the Epistle.  Its subject is “Israel,” mentioned 14 times while “Jew” or “Jews” is used only twice.  Through the ages most commentators have thought a new subject begins here.  
                • In recent times, however, some commentators have argued that these chapters are in fact the climax and most important part of the Epistle.  Neil Elliott (The Rhetoric of Romans, Fortress, 2000) argues that there was growing anti-Judaism in many parts of the Roman empire and Paul wanted to urge non-Jewish Christians of Rome not to share in that movement.  They should not look down on their fellow (now minority) Christians who were born Jews.  (See also Elliott’s notes in the 3rd and 4th editions of The New Oxford Annotated Bible.)  It is clear that Paul cared a lot about “Israel” in 57 CE, but an anti-imperial reading of Romans 9-11 is pretty forced.  

                • The contents of this little meditation on God’s plans for Israel has three parts, probably each a separate topos

                     1) God chooses whom God chooses and rejects whom God rejects, so live with it! 9:6-29.  Israel has been “hardened” toward the gospel so the nations can be justified by faith. 

                     2) Nevertheless, people are responsible for their choices, and Israel has failed to make the right choice about the gospel, 9:30-10:21.  This includes a sermon outline on a text in Deuteronomy about God’s word on one’s lips and in one’s heart (10:5-17). 

                     3) Yet a remnant of Israel has accepted the gospel (as in Elijah’s time), and God has not voided the past promises to save Israel, only postponed them, 11:1-32.  A topos on an olive tree with branches lopped off (Israelites) and other branches grafted in (the nations) concludes with a warning to the “new branches” not to boast over the old branches (11:17-24)! 

                    

                    The whole unit ends with a hymn-like exultation and benediction (11:33-36). 

                             

                F.  Consequences:  Instructions for living in mutual love, 12:1-15:13.  

                • The third part of the Epistle also has fine opening and closing statements.  The opening is a magnificent conception of the believer’s life as dedicated to God:  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, ...to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  [This is a topos capable of great unpacking by playing on Jewish traditions of sacrificial worship.  The Letter to the Hebrews developed it on a vast scale!]  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds...” (12:1-2, NRSV).  The closing is a chain of Biblical prophecies of salvation for the nations (15:9-12), followed by a benediction:  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith, so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (15:13, Common English Bible translation).  
                • For the following sections we need a word about Paul’s use of Lists.  In all his letters Paul rattles off lists of sins, household duties, body parts, pieces of armor, and so on.  We would typically put these in bullet points or check lists.  Clearly Paul had memorized collections of related terms or phrases which he could expand or abbreviate as occasion required.  They were part of his standard rhetorical equipment.  
                • Paul instructs the hearers of this Epistle (he speaks as if they were his usual audiences in Asia and Greece) concerning their common life: 

                  1) Be modest, no matter which function in the life of the church (a body with many members) you perform – and we get a list:  prophet, minister [deacon], teacher, exhorter, fundraiser, leader, angel of mercy (12:7-8, NRSV modified). 

                  2) Next we get a list of 21 attitudes and actions that should characterize their common life, starting with “Let love be genuine...” and ending with “...do not claim to be wiser than you are” (12:9-16).  If the hearers complied, this would be a pretty model community! 

                  3) This chapter ends with a little topos on vengeance.  Leave revenge to God; you  should return good for evil.  That will make your persecutors feel miserable!  As for you, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).

                 

                • The next chapter (13) concerns relatively public conduct by believers.  

                   1) Obey the municipal and provincial authorities, whom God put there to prevent crimes.  Therefore, don’t commit crimes, pay your taxes, and keep the peace, 13:1-7. 

                   2) Avoid debts – except the love you owe your neighbor.  The main items of the Ten Commandments – adultery, murder, theft, and coveting – are obeyed if you love your neighbor, 13:8-10. 

                   3) In addressing personal morality and life-style, Paul gets a running start:  “You know what time it is...” It is still dark, but the dawn of the great Day is at hand.  “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness” – and he has a little list:  reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy (verse 13, NRSV).  “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (verse 14).  

                • This part of the Epistle has one long discourse, 14:1-15:6.  It begins, “Welcome those who are weak in faith...” and it is about those who observe special dietary rules (like not eating meat) and sacred times (like Sabbath-keeping).  This is an example of a topos developed at considerable length.  The basic instruction (topic) is contained in 14:1-3:  “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them [both]” (verse 3).  Everything after that is exhortation and special pleading.  Commentators have concluded from the fact that 29 verses are devoted to this single subject that it was an important issue in the Roman churches.   
                • This was an old topic for Paul.  Eight or nine years earlier he had been alienated from the church of Antioch over this issue, when Peter and Barnabas had stood against him (Galatians 2:11-14).  In his Asian and Greek churches Paul obviously kept fighting for congregations that did not discriminate against either strict (weak) constructionists or loose (strong) constructionists concerning older religious taboos.  Paul here dictated an impressive sermon in favor of tolerance among loving neighbors, with principles important for much later times.  However, in so far as this was an issue between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians (as it is usually understood), this was not an issue specific to Roman Christians, whether this speech was deliberately addressed to them or not.  
                • The final word of the Epistle is a reiteration, with abundant scripture proof, that God has sent good news to the peoples of the nations, 15:7-13.  Christ bridges both Jews and the nations:  “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised [Israel/Jews] on behalf of the truth of God [to fulfill God’s old promises] ... and in order that the nations [“Gentiles”] might glorify God for his mercy [to them]” (15:8-9, NRSV). 

                G.  Benedictions and Greetings:  Chapter 16. 

                • A few copies of Romans ranging from the third to the tenth centuries, as well as quotations in early church fathers, differ about the inclusion and/or placement of the benediction now found in English Bibles at 16:25-27.  There is a scholarly consensus that Paul did not write it.  (It is another textual addition that was too good not to be “true,” like Jesus’ “Forgive them...” saying from the cross.)  The mellifluous clauses of this benediction sound more like a quotation from Hebrews than anything Paul wrote.  However, the liturgical traditions of the Church have been enriched by it! 
                • Chapter 16 is another matter.  [The scholarly treatment of this chapter in the last hundred years is a case study in how critical opinions go in and out of fashion in professional scholarship.]  The first half of the chapter (16:1-16) is overflowing with people Paul greets with very personal references.  How does Paul know so many people in Rome, which he has never visited?  By the middle of the twentieth century the majority of critical scholars had adopted the view that chapter 16 was not addressed to Rome (which is never mentioned) but was more likely addressed to Ephesus, where Paul had just worked for three years and where some people mentioned in chapter 16 were known to have been with him (Prisca and Aquila), people who were probably still in Ephesus at the time of this letter.  In the later process of collecting and editing Paul’s letters, this originally independent note of reference and greetings was copied at the end of the same scroll as the epistle to the Romans. 
                • Twenty-first-century scholars have mostly abandoned this Ephesian theory for chapter 16, even though there has been no change in evidence on the matter, only in opinions and hypotheses.  The single strongest argument that chapter 16 was originally addressed to Rome is the fact that it appears at the end of the Roman letter in the codex manuscripts (not scrolls) of the third century and later.  The issue is currently magnified because some recent scholars, attempting to stretch the information that can be teased out from the meager documents, have read between the lines of chapter 16 and reconstructed a lot of information about the church(es) of Rome.  It is obviously a very subtle business, and as usual, when things get hypothetical, scholars tend to find what they would like to find.  Paul’s comments about his co-workers, relatives, and friends in chapter 16 are surprising and intriguing, but they probably do not tell us a great deal about the actual congregations in Rome in the years before Nero first persecuted the Christians so violently. 

                H.  Conclusion.  

                There are many reasons why the Epistle to the Romans may be intimidating to an average reader of the Christian scriptures.  

                • It is famous:  It has been recognized as perhaps the single most important writing in Christian history. 
                • It is difficult:  It has passages that leave the most competent interpreters divided – perhaps wondering if Paul himself was clear about his meaning! 
                • It is long, but incomplete:  It covers a very large range of subjects, yet still omits several major topics of the Christian religion, such as the sacraments, the end times, and any explicit discussion of the relation of Jesus to God.  

                Nevertheless, Romans is undoubtedly most important because it declares in power and at length its central message that God accepts people by grace, giving them the chance to start new no matter what’s in their past.  

                Romans assumes, along with the rest of the New Testament, that the judgment of God is near at hand, and thus the central issue is where people stand in that judgment.  To be justified is to stand innocent before God as that judgment impends.  Romans further develops a few highlights of how “justified” people live, and from those hints, Christianity has developed an extended religious life (or several life options!).  But the foundational question is always, How do you stand before God?  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” that the gospel of grace has been revealed!  

                I.  Some Words about Commentaries.  

                Just a few, from my shelves. 

                Before 1970.   A watershed in the interpretation of Paul set in during the 1970s.  E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977) argued powerfully that the Judaism of Paul’s time did not believe that salvation could be earned by “good works.”  A reinterpretation of Paul was necessary.  At the same period the historical reliability of Acts, as a source about Paul, was (again) seriously questioned, and the (genuine) “prison letters” of Paul were assigned to Ephesus rather than to the (later) Roman imprisonment.  (This made Romans the latest genuine letter of Paul to survive.)  Also, a wave of anti-imperialist interpretation of all things early Christian led to some radical revisions of Paul’s discussions of Rome.  On all this, see James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, most recent edition, Eerdmans, 2008. 

                Calvin, John.  The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and the Thessalonians, “Calvin’s Commentaries”; tr. Ross MacKenzie; Eerdmans, 1961.  This commentary was done early in Calvin’s career, before Geneva.  Calvin is a remarkably modern commentator, when translated into current American English.  He valued brevity and concision.  He had a little tongue-in-cheek praise for his friend Bucer’s commentary:  “Bucer is too verbose to be read quickly by those who have other matters to deal with, and too profound to be easily understood by less intelligent and attentive readers.”  (Page 3.)  

                Godet, Frederick L.  Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, tr. A. Cusin, revised American edition by Talbot W. Chambers; reprint by Zondervan, 1956 [original French 1879, American translation 1883].  This is a remarkably cogent commentary, with excellent analyses of the movement of the arguments.  Godet was a prominent teacher and theologian in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel.  He had studied extensively in Germany and in the 1840s became the tutor and then chaplain to the crown prince of Prussia.  In 1873, the Swiss government essentially took over the Protestant churches of Neuchâtel, and the Evangelical Church of Neuchâtel was formed as an independent church.  Godet became the professor of New Testament at its seminary.  His substantial commentaries on John, Luke, Corinthians, and Romans were translated into English and have been valued by conservative Protestant readers. 

                Sanday, William and Arthur C. Headlam.  A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Scribners 1915 [original 1895].  This was the first New Testament volume to be published in the then new International Critical Commentary series.  It set a high standard for volumes to follow in that series.  It is very much a scholar’s volume; Greek is almost a necessity. 

                Denny, James.  “St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Eerdmans reprint, 1956, Vol. II, pp. 555-725 [original about 1902].  Denny was a professor at the Free Church College in Glasgow, Scotland.  With his colleague A.B. Bruce, he taught the first generation of seminary students to read the New Testament in the light of historical criticism. 

                Barth, Karl.  The Epistle to the Romans, tr. of 6th German ed. by Edwyn C. Hoskyns; Oxford University Press, 1933 [original 1918, fully revised 1922].  This is a theological work, not an exegetical work in any usual sense – in spite of Barth’s claim in the Preface to the English translation.  While doing this review I browsed through my old copy and was surprised to re-discover my extensive underlining and marginal notes from fifty to sixty years ago.  As with the Church Dogmatics (Barth’s 14-volume life work begun in the 1930s), one has to work hard to enter Barth’s language world.  The Romans commentary was a warm-up to the great Protestant Summa of the twentieth century. 

                Dodd, C. H.  The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, “The Moffatt New Testament Commentary”; Harpers, 1932.  A very engaging commentary.  Dodd had a flair for relating Paul to modern readers.  Paul Tillich cites this commentary as the kind systematic theologians need for their work (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, pp. 35-36). 

                Scott, E. F.  Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, S.C.M. Press, 1947.  This is a little book (125 pages) I just acquired from the used book market.  E. F. Scott was a professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York, in the heyday of Protestant Liberalism (the 1920s and 1930s).  Though written long after retirement, the book is still vigorous, and the thought still shows the old passion and generosity of the best Liberal preachers. 

                Knox, John.  “The Epistle to the Romans,” The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX; Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1954, pp. 353-668.  John Knox was an influencial teacher at Union Theological Seminary of New York (1943-1966), starting when Reinhold Neibhur and Paul Tillich were on that faculty.  Knox was one of the first scholars to insist that Paul’s history should be reconstructed from the letters without assistance from the book of Acts (Chapters in a Life of Paul, Abingdon, 1950).  Much of his early research had been about the collection of Paul’s letters, and he viewed Romans 16 as a separate document, attached at a late stage to the Pauline collection. 

                Barrett, C. K.  The Epistle to the Romans, “Harper’s New Testament Commentaries”; Harper and Row, 1957.  Barrett was appointed in the 1950s to one of the most renowned chairs of New Testament interpretation in Britain, at Durham University (occupied in the nineteenth century by J. B. Lightfoot).  He produced a major commentary on the Gospel According to John, and then in rapid succession, in the popular Black’s/Harper’s series, commentaries on Romans, I Corinthians, and II Corinthians.  These are well written, for the non-specialist, similar to Dodd’s work in the previous generation.  Barrett later capped a long career with the 2-volume commentary on Acts in the ICC series.

                Bruce, F.F.  The Letter of Paul to the Romans, “Tyndale New Testament Commentaries,” 2nd ed., Eerdmans, 1985 (1st ed. 1963).  Bruce re-wrote this work after some new Bible translations had come out (NEB, NIV, GNB).  Conservative in his theological leanings, Bruce was an excellent exegete, and here does some perceptive analyses of the arguments in Romans. 

                Since 1970.  The last forty years of Paul scholarship is reviewed in James D. G. Dunn’s recent, Beginning from Jerusalem, Vol. II of “Christianity in the Making,” Eerdsman, 2009.  He summarizes the discussions and sketches his own reading of Romans on pp. 863-932. 

                Cranfield, C. E. B.  A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, ICC series, 2 vols.; T&T Clark, 1975, 1979.  Replaces the old Sanday and Hedlam classic, continuing the meticulous scholarship and reputation of the series. 

                Dunn, James D. G.  Romans 1-8 and Romans 9-16, “Word Biblical Commentaries”; Word, 1988.  As is usual in this series, includes massive bibliographies on all points of view.  This is Dunn’s early treatment of Paul in the “New Perspective.”  Dunn is “new,” but does not get carried away by the more radical new tangents in Paul interpretation. 

                Fitzmyer, Joseph A.  Romans, “The Anchor Yale Bible”; Yale University Press, 1993.  Fitzmyer was a leading member of a group of American Catholic Biblical scholars who rose to the challenge of the Papal Encyclical Divino afflante spiritu (1943) and Vatical II (1962-65).  They created an impressive body of Catholic scholarship on the New Testament.  (Others of the group were Raymond E. Brown, John P. Meier, and Daniel J. Harrington.)  In the 1980s Fitzmyer did the marvelous commentary on Luke in the Anchor Bible series, and later also Acts in the same series.  He had done the short commentaries on Romans in The [New] Jerome Biblical Commentary, editions of 1968 and 1990.  The Anchor Romans is a very full work, especially with exhaustive bibliographies.  Fitzmyer is balanced in judgment, on controversial issues giving long lists of scholars who line up on different sides of a particular dispute.  (If you really just want Fitzmyer’s reading of Romans, you might do better to read the New Jerome Biblical Commentary  articles on Romans itself and on “Pauline Theology.” 

                Two brief treatments of Romans in Study Bibles of this period warrant mention here.  One is Leander E. Keck’s intro and notes to Romans in The HarperCollins Study Bible, both the 1st edition (1993) and the Revised edition (2006).  Keck knows how to use the succinct annotation-format very well, and his cross-references are consistently useful.  The other is Neil Elliott’s intro and notes in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, both the third (2001) and fourth (2010) editions.  Elliott bases his notes on his aggressive anti-imperialist reading of Romans, and these notes give the reader a good feel for this approach to Paul. 

                Moo, Douglas J.  The Epistle to the Romans, “New International Commentary on the New Testament”; Eerdmans, 1996.  This commentary is one of the best esteemed recent works by Evangelical scholars.  Moo taught for two decades at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and since 2000 at Wheaton College Graduate School.  His discussion of the complicated issue of the “purpose” of Paul’s “treatise” in Romans is very balanced and cogent, in the present writer’s opinion.  

                Wright, N. Thomas.  “The Letter to the Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X; Abingdon Press, 2002, pp. 393-770.  N.T. Wright has become a very popular writer on New Testament history and theology.  His writing is forceful and aims for a strong impact on the casual reader.  This commentary was written at the time that Wright was in the midst of his major trilogy on “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” 

                Jewett, Robert.  Romans:  A Commentary, Hermeneia series; Fortress, 2006.  Bob Jewett taught for many years at Garett Theological Seminary in Evanston, becoming an internationally recognized specialist on the history and chronology of Paul’s letters.  This Hermeneia volume is the climax of a long career.  Here Jewett has maximized the information that can be tweaked from Romans, especially chapter 16.  He reconstructs the circumstances of the Roman apartment churches and also (new in interpretations of Paul) the cultural and political situations of Roman rule in Spain.  Some reviewers have thought that he slights the actual theological content of Romans in favor of the social-scientific and imperial-idealogical studies he pursues.  It is an aggressive and challenging (if rather hypothetical) approach to Romans. 

                Longenecker, Richard N.  The Epistle to the Romans:  A Commentary on the Greek Text, “The New International Greek Testament Commentary”; Eerdmans, 2016.  This is another large-scale  commentary (1140 pages) culminating a life’s work.  (His first book on Paul was published in 1971.)  Longenecker, an Evangelical, taught for many years at Wycliffe College in Toronto, now retired.  In this volume he has a very circuitous writing style that suspends his main point until many qualifying phrases and parentheses have been squeezed in.  Difficult reading.  He claims a somewhat distinctive approach to what constitutes the “focus or central thrust” of the main body of the Epistle:  he thinks that “focus” is in the language of chapters 5-8, rather than Justification by Faith or Israel.  These chapters would have spoken more effectively to the non-Jewish majority of the Roman Christians because they minimize language specific to Jewish traditions.  

                Sanders, E. P.  Paul:  The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought, Fortress Press, 2015.  While this is not a commentary as such, it is an appropriate work to conclude this review.  Sanders was particularly responsible for the “New Perspective” on Paul that started in the 1970s, and this is a sweeping summary of where he has arrived forty years later.  As always, Sanders takes a rigorously historical approach to Paul, emphasizing, among other things, that Paul, in his letters, engages in arguments, and that the conclusions at which Paul thinks he has arrived are what is really important.  The consecutive arguments of Romans are analyzed and discussed on pages 615 to 705, the equivalent of a small-size commentary.  

                 

                 

                 

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