28 May 2016

Romans is Not Galatians! Welcome to the Most Jewish Letter in the NT … Assumptions and Surprises

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Acts, Bible, Exegesis, Jewish Backgrounds, Paul

slide-02Opening a Letter

Some “Sabbath” reflections are offered today on Paul’s legendary Epistle to the Romans. There are lots of modern assumptions that function like a prism more than a lens when we look at Romans (see why Assumptions often hide the truth). These assumptions have done some interesting things to us in reading Romans.

Some of my first blogs focus on Romans as I was preparing to preach through the book: Praying with Romans & Manasseh (2006); Praying through Romans (2006); Wrestling with Romans (2006); Romans 8 (2007)  among others. I have returned to Romans every year as I read through Bible but three years ago I engaged in an intense program of Romans studies for a sermon series. To say that Romans, like the Psalms, is deeply profound is an understatement.  Romans, also like the Psalms, is connected to the entire biblical story and the more you understand the Story the more you see how the whole story flows into Romans. Paul’s own thinking is shaped mightily by that narrative structure that the Psalms also bear witness too.

Rules of Engagement

There are two rules that I believe are simply nonnegotiable for any serious engagement with a writing and those are context and context. One of the major advances in NT studies since World War II is the belief that these two rules actually apply to the book of Romans.  For centuries since the Protestant Reformation it has been simply ignored that Romans is a letter to a historical believers living in a historical situation.  Romans was treated as if it was a Systematic Theology rather than a letter.  In that traditional treatment not even all of Romans counted, only Romans 1-8 really counted, as such Romans 9-16 simply had not weight in the actual interpretation of Romans 1-8! But that fact is Paul has a context as well as the believers in Rome we need to pay attention to these facts and understand them as best we can.  By taking all of Romans seriously we start asking the exegetical questions: Whey does Paul say THIS and why does he say it NOW? What accounts for this Spirit given message?

Opening of Romans. Medieval text

Opening of Romans. Medieval text

Romans is Jewish … Surprise

First Romans is not only a Jewish document, it is very Jewish.  Since the Reformation, this astounding fact has bothered Protestant scholars and believers who have had a certain picture of Paul already in their head.

That portrait tends to look like this: Paul was fleeing a ritualistic, carnal, legalistic, law based Jewish religion as fast as he possibly could to found something radically different from his previous life.

This picture was, and is, incredibly difficult to maintain in light of Acts, other Pauline letters, etc.  So contrary evidence has been marginalized, ignored, and among liberal scholars simply declared to be non-Pauline.

In Romans itself, parts are so Jewish that scholars who recognize this Jewish element have frequently decided that this or that text is not actually Paul but his incorporation of inherited material that does not necessarily reveal what is important to him. An example is the unbelievably Jewish presentation of the Gospel in 1.1-7.

the gospel of God, promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord …” (1.2-4)

The Gospel is explicitly defined in reference to the “Old Testament,” the law, the prophets, the promises, the Messiah is explicitly the Jewish Messiah the son of David. The Story of the Gospel is the story of Israel. Older scholars recognized the Jewish character and claimed the text is non-Pauline fragments and believers failed to recognize it is Jewish and simply ignore it.  The result is the same.

I have often thought such logic to be humorous in the extreme. If I wrote my girl friend a letter and I incorporated some lyrics that I did not write from a song for her, it most assuredly represents MY thinking for her even if I did not write it or say it! Romans is utterly Jewish. We will return to this repeatedly.

The Greeting

Have you noticed Paul never once addresses the Romans as “the church of God/Christ?” Why is this? One massive assumption modern disciples have is that first century followers of Christ believed they were starting a different religion. This underlies the common description of Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road as his “conversion.” No doubt something radical happened to Paul but conversion is probably not what he would call it.  Luke presents the story pretty much in line with traditional prophetic calls we read about in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel for example).

But the separation of Judaism and what we call Christianity is a post AD-70 reality, it had not happened in Paul’s day. And it would take quite some time before it was a real separation. There is no archeological evidence of a large synagogue, or church building, in Rome until centuries after Paul. But 20,000 to 50,000 Jews lived in Rome. Where did they meet? They met in homes as associations! In fact, the word “synagogue” referred as much to a group of people as it did a building in the first century.

Oakes presents us with a concrete social setting for the original readers of Romans. Not all readers were the same either either. So what might a small apartment Gathering look like?

Oakes presents us with a concrete social setting for the original readers of Romans. Not all readers were the same either either. So what might a small apartment Gathering look like?

We know that before AD 49 the followers of the Way, and traditional Jews, still met together. And house “churches” seem to have been modeled upon house synagogues. What modern folks do not realize is that Julius Caesar banned the assembly of religious societies in the city of Rome except for the Jews. The saints – if they are in independent assemblies would still have been thought of as a synagogue by everyone else. The historical record shows that, as late as the first century, the Romans did not distinguish between “Christians” and Jews at all. Messianics were simply a sect within Judaism.

All of this does have a bearing on reading Romans. The house gatherings of disciples in cramped apartment buildings in Rome are rooted in a Jewish social environment. Mixed in this complex social environment is a latent and not so subtle anti-Jewish sentiment that is growing among the Romans themselves.  This anti-Jewish (not simply anti-“Christian”) has been amply documented by scholars and is addressed point blank in the letter itself.

Romans is NOT Galatians

After first getting excited about Romans with K. C. Moser’s Gist of Romans, I have wrestled with it over and over. There is much in Moser’s book that is on target. The glory of grace and the truth about faith in Christ. Moser reads Romans as most did in his day, as if it were an attack on that evil legalistic religion–Judaism. When we assume that Romans is simply Galatians expanded we divorce both writings from their own context. Many take Galatians and declare it to be Paul’s views on the law in particular across the board.  But Paul is dealing with Gentiles and the law in relation to justification in Galatians not in general.

But my understanding of Romans as a whole is different than Moser. Let me give one major example, there are no Judaizers in Romans. In the past, when it was commonly stated and assumed that Paul was fleeing Jewish legalism folks basically only read parts of Romans basically 3 to 8 with no idea what to do with 9-11 and then thinking 12 to 15 was just an addendum at best. None of 9-16 was really related to the argument in 1-8 … this was possible because moderns had divorced Paul from his Jewish context. But chapters 9-16 are in fact intimately related to 1-8.

In fact Romans was just Galatians on steroids in much thinking. But Romans is more than 3 to 8 in fact it is a whole unified argument. What if we read the whole, taking its social context seriously, from beginning to end? We just might conclude that instead of Judaizing we discover that Paul is actually concerned with the “Gentilizing” of the Gospel! ” That certainly explains some significant passages in the letter that are routinely ignored.

Recent work with short chapters illustrating how Romans coheres and contrasts with Jewish perspectives. Written on an introductory level and thus is very accessible.

Recent work with short chapters illustrating how Romans coheres and contrasts with Jewish perspectives. Written on an introductory level and thus is very accessible.

Context Explains …

If Paul is addressing Gentiles that have contact with Jews on a regular basis (and that seems utterly clear this is happening from Romans 14 and given what was said above) with growing Gentile prejudice towards Jews then that helps explain what we actually read in Romans.

The Gentile “saints” (“saint” is a Jewish word coming from the LXX, Paul never uses the word Christian) are not tempted toward circumcision, as in Galatians, but toward an arrogant triumphalism against the circumcised! That is there is boasting against Jews in the Roman gatherings.

It is the opposite end of the spectrum encountered in Romans from that found in Galatia.  Thus, while in Galatians there is significant criticism of the law, there is no criticism of the Law in Romans (a stark fact). Instead Paul “delights” (7.22) in the Law and declares that it is Spiritual (7.14), holy, righteous and good (7.12, 16). There is no negativity regarding the Law in Romans 7, the problem is Sin and Death.

Paul even declares that faith rather than undermining actually “upholds the law” (3.31, one of those texts – among many – that are conveniently swept away). Paul dares to say that the Law is even an “advantage” for Jews ( 3.1-2) in Romans.  Then Paul calls the Law a “gift” in 9.1-5 and 11.28-29

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; so to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah …”

for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable …”

This language is very different than Galatians.  And this is language straight from the so called “Old Testament” which frequently views the torah as a gift of grace (Deuteronomy, Psalm 1, 19, 119, etc). This sounds very different than Galatians but the context explains why. In passing note that Paul uses the plural for “covenants” and he does not equate “covenants” with the “law.”  God has given gifts to Israel and the Law is among them. Paul is not saying this for the sake of Jews but for the sake of Gentile triumphalism over Jews!

Paul confesses his desire to obey the Law and says that “in Christ” he finds the victory enabling him to fulfill the righteous requirement of Torah (7.7-8.4; 13.8-10). The attitude of Paul towards the Law in Romans is clearly different than what is sometimes imagined.  The Law is not an instrument of justification and never was envisioned to be one by Moses (I do not have time to stop and talk about the nature of the “I” in Romans 7).

Again why all this emphasis that is found throughout Romans? I call it Paul’s effort to correct Gentilizing … that is the misconceived triumphalism on the part of Gentile saints in Rome over Jews and Jewish heritage of their own faith. That was the effort to have a “Christian” faith apart from story of Israel, apart the “Old Testament” and apart from it fundamental Jewish character. If rumors of these attitudes among Gentile believers were filtering back to Jerusalem, even though Paul is not responsible, that would explain the concern of James and the elders in Acts 21.21f.  One scholar, Jacob Jervell, has called Romans “Paul’s letter to Jerusalem.” That is, what we read in Romans, is what Paul intends to say to the Jerusalem leadership that has heard distortions of his teaching.  Such a perspective is quite valuable in keeping us grounded in the historical context.

Classic collection of essays on exegesis of Romans. I cannot imagine wrestling with Romans apart from this classic.

Classic collection of essays on exegesis of Romans. I cannot imagine wrestling with Romans apart from this classic.

Gentiles do not Replace Israel but become Part of Israel

What Paul does in Romans to counter the Gentilizing is show how Gentiles themselves have entered God’s Story with Israel, a story intended to bring about the healing of the nations and indeed all of creation. This is why Romans 1.1-7, even if a summary of pre-pauline material, is the heart of Paul’s own gospel. As Christian Beker noted, though Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles rejects (along with the Jerusalem church itself btw) requiring circumcision of Gentile converts to the Way he still demands a particular Jewish orientation to the Gospel itself (Beker calls it Paul’s “dogmatic imposition,” Paul the Apostle, p. 170-173). Paula Fredriksen, a Jewish scholar, has argued that Paul is “Judiazing the Gentiles” and demands more of Gentiles than any Jewish teacher of his time. Thus in her view Paul is the most Jewish of the Jewish writers of the New Testament.

The Gospel will always be the culmination of the God’s promises to Israel, and the Messiah will always be Israel’s Messiah, and Gentiles will will always be grafted into Israel … not the other way around. Paul does not make Israel irrelevant to the Gentiles rather he says now we Gentiles are part of that great line we read about from Genesis to Malachi.

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles, inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify in my ministry …
“and you, a while olive shoot, were grafted in their place … do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root but the root that supports you … Do not be arrogant, but be afraid …
So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are …
” (11.13, 17, 18, 20, 25)

Pretty straight talk from Paul to Gentiles! Gentile arrogance boasting was excluded. The Gentiles were dependent for everything to the Israel Story.

I have long wondered why the phrase, “I appeal to you {plural – the group}, therefore … be transformed by the renewing of your {plural – the group} mind,” comes after a discussion of Israel (ch’s 9-11).  But I ignored the fact that Paul explicitly points back to chapter 11 with the word “therefore.” Paul is still addressing the same group of people in 12.1f as in chapter 11. What he says about renewing our collective minds flows from the discussion of Israel and Gentiles relationship.

We might expect Paul to say something about renewing our minds after mentioning immorality or idolatry (like in chapter 1!) but he doesn’t. The “renewing of our mind” has reference to what those Gentiles thought about Jews being “enemies” of God as chapter 11 closes (Paul did not put these breaks in the text!). Perhaps the Gentiles needed to re-evaluate their status in the kingdom, their relationship to the Story and praise God that they are actually the product of God’s grace to Israel.

Gentiles and Law

Paul clearly thought there was a wrong way for Gentiles to be related to the Law. Galatians deals with that error. The Jerusalem Decree addresses that problem. Paul and James are in the same boat on this matter. They are also in agreement coming the other direction.

Romans is saturated with the Israel's Bible. Using Richard Hays methodology, Crisler takes us thru the whole Letter to the Romans with an eye on how the so called OT shapes and molds Paul's own language and argument. Lament plays a large role.

Romans is saturated with the Israel’s Bible. Using Richard Hays methodology, Crisler takes us thru the whole Letter to the Romans with an eye on how the so called OT shapes and molds Paul’s own language and argument. Lament plays a large role.

But there is also a right way to relate to God’s gift and to Jews themselves. And, this is my conviction and where I am today, Romans and Ephesians show us the Paul that Luke tells a story about in Acts is real. Acts shows that Paul believed what he wrote in Romans 9.4 and 14 for he is one of those that keeps holy days and seeks God in Temple worship.

Paul as a missionary to the Gentiles brings them Israel’s gospel, Israel’s story, Israel’s Messiah and shows how they can become part of that Story on the same basis as Abraham – faith. This is all done on the basis of Israel’s own Scripture too. Paul says the Gospel is according to the Scripture, it is not separate and apart from Israel’s Bible. At the same time his preaching shows how Gentiles are actually now part of the Israel of God that has existed since Abraham. They have been grafted INTO Israel and are now heirs to the covenants of promise.

Rather than chunking God’s word as irrelevant or assuming arrogant and superior attitudes, Gentiles now humbly take their place as part of Israel and join heirs according the Promise embedded in Scripture itself. This is the Paul we find in Acts. He is a Jew and has never “converted” to Christianity rather he has embraced his own STORY. The Story said the Messiah would come and renew the covenant, grant the Spirit, and the gentiles would come and worship the God of Israel.

So Paul is a Pharisee (not was) according to his traveling buddy Luke. So Paul, who says the torah was a “gift” and an “advantage” in Romans, keeps vows and delights in “the worship” (cf Romans 9.4 and Acts 24.11, 14, 17). In fact the Paul we see throughout the Epistle to the Romans is the very one who puts his own principles in action about relating to Jews in Acts 21.

Conclusion: Romans and the One Story

The more I read the Hebrew Bible the more I understand Paul. The more I understand the truth that Paul was a rabbinic Jew till he died, the more he makes sense. My blog has grown long and we have not even begun to touch how Paul weaves the story of the Exodus into the book of Romans on macro scale.  Nor how Paul envisions this renewed Israel with Gentiles is how God is renewing his whole creation, all according to Scripture.  And how now Gentiles and Jews gather around the Jewish Messiah “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Messiah” (15.6).  God heals the world in his renewed Israel and all the world now worships the one true God … just as the Psalms and the Prophets envisioned.  There are not two stories, one of Israel and one of “church.”  There is only one.  We Gentiles, by grace have become part of that amazing Story.

The more I read Paul and look at my own heritage the more I am convinced that Paul’s concern about Gentilizing may be a problem that Christians in general and Christians in the Restoration Movement need to wrestle with.

A Few Suggested Resources Besides those already Noted in the Pix

For me Paul Sampley’s “Romans and Galatians Compared and Contrasted” in Understanding the Word: Essays in Honor of Bernhard Anderson was very illuminating when I first read it many years ago. I had fallen into the trap of viewing Galatians as a cliff notes version of Romans. I was very wrong.

 

2 Responses to “Romans is Not Galatians! Welcome to the Most Jewish Letter in the NT … Assumptions and Surprises”

  1. Joshua Pappas Says:

    Thought provoking. Thanks brother!

  2. Ron Whitney Says:

    I am so glad I found this blog. It will really help me in any future study or teaching on Romans. Context is always critical. My wife and I just studied through the book of Romans creating lesson materials to be used by families to help them experience the truths of this incredible book. The free studies can be found at http://www.mygrandmatime.com/3019-2/visit-with-grandma/bible-fun-with-grandma/family-bible-activities/romans/.

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