The Challenge of Romans

Someone suggested I do a post on Romans 1 after I made a quip about Romans 1:18-32 not being sincere in Paul's mouth. And there's no way to do that without starting a series on Romans and at least carrying it out into chapter 2. And there's no way to do that without first explaining some things up front. Whether or not I immediately continue the series, this is that "up front" post.

Critical Exegesis

Part of the problem an exegete faces when communicating critical scholarship in the exegesis of scripture is that the text itself does not change. And the reader's version of the text has generally been set by the standard English translations, generally by the King James English version and its offspring—including the NRSV.

The first effect of this is that free English translation from the Greek, bound by the best of what manuscript evidence and textual criticism indicate, and what the Greek itself says, will differ from this familiar and expected version of the text. That text is one interpretation, mine is another, but the measure of both is the Greek itself.

The second effect of this is that how that Greek text means is subject to a huge array of variables. The standard translations made their assumptions, generally because they are translations of the book we call "the Bible," which contains scriptural writings (in various arrangements, depending on sect) of Christian worshiping assemblies. But the assumptions appropriate to a critically attentive translation of a letter of Paul must be different. They must reflect, not the literary text of a sacred book, but the communication of an author to an audience in its context.

And the trick to this is that I am obliged to uphold the former sense, but I am equally obliged to base the meaning of the text in its canonical sense on the understanding of it gained by relying on its individual context. The real authority of scripture, as a canon of texts sacred to us, cannot come from us or from our canonical collection of those texts as authoritative. Canonical authority is a rubber stamp of the authority of the individual texts we have canonized. The authority of scripture comes from its being what it is, in each and every single instance. It comes from the fact that each text (and all of them together) have already done, in their own ways, what we ourselves aim to do in witness to God.

So the first thing I need to do, in teaching you the address Paul sent to the assemblies of Rome, is to teach you some guiding assumptions behind that second sense of its context.

1) Authorship

Romans is what we call a genuine Pauline epistle. Critical NT scholarship does not doubt that the same author, Paul, who is evident in the composition of Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon is also the primary authorial voice behind the text of Romans. He certainly had the help of scribes, and likely also the cooperation of fellow missionaries, but these texts all demonstrate his original voice. These texts differ from other texts that borrow the persona of the Apostle Paul pseudonymously, of which there are three major groups: the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus); Colossians and Ephesians; and 2 Thessalonians.

None of this affects the scriptural value of these texts, but as far as understanding the authority and intention of Paul himself, it is best to limit argument to those epistles that he composed. Even among the genuine Pauline epistles, we also acknowledge that there was a long history of scribal, editorial, and collection activity involved in the transmission of these texts. This means that pieces of text within the genuine Pauline epistles may not themselves be genuine. Such determinations cannot always be made on manuscript evidence; they must be made—and carefully—on the basis of internal and cross-textual considerations and the best of our understanding of the voice and arguments of Paul himself. However, generally Romans as a text has high internal coherency—and where there are changes of authorial voice, another explanation seems more likely, which I will cover next.

2) Oral Rhetoric

The text of Romans, like the other genuine Pauline epistles, is the manuscript for an oral, rhetorical performance to an audience. It is not a "letter" between literate people, written by one and read by another. Literacy was profoundly limited in Paul's world. Even Paul was not highly literate, and made use of different scribes as they were available to him—writing was an expensive vocation! This means that, while you read the text of Romans, its audiences for most of its early life would only have heard it read, performed for them as a speech by the character of Paul. Nor would Paul himself have been present for its original performance. Someone would always have been impersonating Paul to deliver this message. In the ancient world, without telephony, this was a standard means of delivering addresses to larger groups. The Roman Emperor Claudius is noted as having used the freedmen who served him as representatives in order to deliver speeches in his name, rather than traveling himself.

This means that, as rhetorical manuscripts, the Pauline epistles need to be understood as persuasive speech to an audience. In the case of Romans, specifically, scholars have identified strong aspects of the diatribe style in its composition. A diatribe frequently involves the portrayal of a conversation before the audience, in which false points of view are presented in order to be countered with the truth. The audience is expected to learn from the experience, growing to understand what the author really means, and learning to counter falsehoods along with him or her. It is expected that by the end of the speech, the audience will agree with the author, and will have been trained to answer critics of the position upon which the author and audience now agree.

There are three ways in which a diatribe may proceed. At the most basic, as in many of the Cynic and Stoic speeches, the false opinions may simply be presented and countered in the author's own voice. At the most complicated, as in the Socratic dialogues of Plato, the false opinions may be dramatically embodied by other actors. Romans lies somewhere in the middle, making use of speech in the character of the opposition without clearly changing speaker. A single performer alternates voices, making use of the ambiguity in order to force the audience to pay close attention to the character of what is being said.

3) Textual Context

As a persuasive oral performance, Romans works in one direction and one direction only: from beginning to end, non-stop. Chapter and verse numbering makes for convenient reference within the address, but no part of the address can be neatly walled off from the parts that precede or follow it. Paul, or the performer in persona Pauli, is not done persuading and teaching the audience until the performance is done. We may distinguish phases in the structure of the argument of Romans, smaller and more self-contained arguments that begin and end as parts within the larger argument, but unless we keep those phases in context and understand them as components of the overall persuasive intent, we will not understand what they mean.

4) Cultural Situation

Cultural context is very important. To that end, it is important to state an obvious fact missed by reliance on the Christian canon as context: We may be Christian, but Paul was not, and neither was his audience. Paul is not quite a century too early for even the earliest forms of gentile "Christianity." Even though we cannot rely on Acts—which is a significantly later narrative that uses Paul as a character—we can still say of Paul from his own writings that he was a Pharisaic Judean, a member of the majority culture of Hellenistic Judaism between the second century BCE and the end of the first century CE. Paul came from Damascus, in modern-day Syria, and spent the majority of his missionary work in the Roman territories that are now Turkey and Greece.

Paul's "conversion" appears within the plural, sectarian environment of what we now call formative and pre-formative Judaism. Paul does not cease being "Jewish" at any point. What he does, is adopt one of several forms of Judaism that accept Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and interpret what that means. Since his call to missionary service is to gentiles, Paul finds himself loosely aligned with the interests of the community of apostles at Jerusalem that were Jesus' disciples in life—and much more strongly aligned with the diaspora communities of Judean missionaries to gentiles, Jews that had already been "in Christ" and at work in mission among non-Judeans in the Hellenistic Roman world.

This context, in continuity with Paul's rhetoric, suggests that Paul's communities were also, in some sense, culturally Judean. They accept, for example, a duty to the poor of Jerusalem, and to the task of collecting and delivering offerings to Jerusalem. Paul is able to speak to them using appeals to various scriptural passages from Torah and the prophets, without ever needing to frame those citations as foreign to his audience. Many of the conflicts Paul addresses in his communities come from questions over what constitutes normative Judaism. How observant, and observant of what way of life, must a people of this God be? These sorts of discussion are of the essence of Pharisaism, which continued through the Rabbinic period.

A Pharisee is one who adapts scriptural writings from their existing contexts in order to make possible a kind of "everyday holiness" for the non-priestly Judean living out in the Hellenistic world. Little surprise, then, that Paul takes so well to adapting Judean piety to gentiles in Christ. But Paul is not interested in making converts, in turning gentiles into Jews. What Paul does consistently, throughout all of his genuine epistles, is to work out the kinks in the lives of these gentiles in Christ as they try to live out a genuinely gentile way of life before God. Torah is the native Judean way of life before God, and there were several sects interested in claiming the "authentic" version of that way of life, and debating with one another about it. And there were always gentile converts, and closer to the edges, "God-fearers." But Paul asserts to his communities, over and over again, that there is no compelling reason for them to "Judaize"—to convert and become "Jewish" by doing Torah. If even the native Judeans in Christ are freed to ways of life before God that do not demand Torachic obedience, how should gentiles in Christ be any less free?

The Challenge of Authoritative Meaning

And so, as a piece of scripture, the authority of what Paul says in Romans rests on understanding the meaning of what Paul says in Romans—both the meaning for his audience then, the people who heard and valued and repeated and preserved this message; and the meaning for us today, a very different people to whom Paul is not speaking, a people who were never intended to hear this message. The meaning of this text for us today, as canonical Christian scripture, must depend on what this address meant to Paul and to his intended audience as communication in context. It cannot be identical with that meaning, certainly, but our adaptation of the meaning of this text must depend on our understanding of its more original meaning. Our understanding of the text should therefore also change as our understanding of its context changes.

Furthermore, while the interpreter cannot arbitrarily change the text, even where Paul's writing gives way to editorial insertions, it is also not the interpreter's job to harmonize the text, to smooth it out or make it say one thing. If the author of a piece of text appears to the best of my work not to be Paul, I am under no obligation to suggest otherwise. I am not free to remove the text, or edit it myself; the whole text remains scriptural, and in any case, I can only edit my own copy. But I am both free and under obligation to show you the inconsistency, and tell you that and why it is a problem. Moreover, if the voice of the text does not appear to be Paul's voice, especially in diatribe, I am bound to tell you so and to make it clear what Paul is doing rhetorically. Should you take him at his word, if he intends you to disagree with him? Should we agree with the opinions Paul counters, and attribute them to Paul as though they were his own?

These are among the challenges of critical interpretation of scripture, specifically when it comes to the Pauline epistles.


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