Monday, October 3, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Context of Romans 9-11 (Part 1 of 4)

Paul and the Torah

          Up to the end of chapter 8 in his Letter to the Romans, Paul has called upon three individuals, each of whom illustrate solidarity with the larger human race: Adam, Abraham and Christ. The first two appear prior to the establishment of the nation Israel. Adam and Abraham were neither Israelites nor Jews.  Jesus of Nazareth, of course, was both Israelite and Jewish. Nonetheless, it is not Jesus’ Jewishness that looms most significant for Paul, but rather, his parallelism with Adam as the head of a new creation. Further, Paul has indicated that the Torah, divinely given at the time Israel was called out of Egypt to be a distinctive people, was nevertheless not intended as the means of righteousness. Instead, the Torah was given “that the trespass might increase” (cf. 5:20). To be sure, the Torah was spiritual, holy, righteous and good (cf. 7:12, 14a), but it lacked power in itself to accomplish that lofty ideal toward which it called the people of Israel (cf. 8:3). There is a significant contrast between some conventional views of the Torah and Paul’s view.

A Conventional View of the Torah

            In fact, since the law has told us not to covet, I could prove to you all the more that reason is able to control desires. Just so it is with the emotions that hinder one from justice. [ ] Thus, as soon as a man adopts a way of life in accordance with the law, he is forced to act contrary to his natural ways.  [ ] In all other matters we can recognize that reason rules the emotions. [ ] It is evident that reason rules even the more violent emotions… [ ] To the mind he gave the law; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous. (4 Maccabees 2:6, 8, 9b, 15a, 23)

Paul’s View

            I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. (Ro. 7:7-8) I would not have known what sin was except through the law. (Ro. 7:7a) The law was added so that the trespass might increase. (Ro. 5:20a)

Conventional View

            He [God] bestowed knowledge upon them, and allotted to them the law of life. (Sirach 17:11) He made him hear his voice, and led him into the thick darkness, and gave him the commandments face to face, the law of life and knowledge… (Sirach 45:5) Hear the commandments of life, O Israel; give ear, and learn wisdom! (Baruch 3:9)

Paul’s View

            I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. (Ro. 7:10)


Hence, Paul concludes that “what the law could not do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son” (cf. 8:3).

          If the meaning of the Torah was defined outside the conventional box, it follows that Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of Israel also falls outside the conventional box. It is the meaning of Israel that occupies Paul’s mind in Romans 9-11. Paul hinted about this earlier, when he said that true Jewishness was essentially inward, not outward (cf. 2:28-29). He added the assertion that the true offspring of Abraham were the people of faith—with or without the Torah (cf. 4:16-18). Everything that Paul has said about the Torah begs the question of the meaning of Israel. Some interpreters have read Romans 9-11 as almost incidental to the larger theological purpose of the Letter to the Romans. Perhaps the most striking example came from C. H. Dodd, who argued that these chapters were possibly a sermon Paul composed for some other occasion and decided to slip it into the Roman letter as an example of his preaching. Dodd contended that one could go from the end of chapter 8 straight to the beginning of chapter 12 without losing anything in the process. Such a view can hardly be sustained, since it fails to do justice to the larger argument of the book. In fact, it may not be too much to say that everything Paul has argued so far in Romans 1-8 leads the reader directly into the subject of Romans 9-11, where he addresses the meaning of Israel.


  1. So many objections; so little time.

    Dan, this post throws open the whole issue of how to best read Paul against the backdrop of Second Temple Judaism that has dominated Pauline studies since the publication of Ed Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977).

    Four different schools (with a number of subgroups) have emerged in this ongoing academic conversation:

    (1) the “traditional” (sometimes referred to as the “Lutheran”) Paul who attacks the legalism of the Jewish religion of Torah as a “means of salvation” in contrast with the gracious endtime salvation provided by God’s action in Christ,

    (2) the “New Perspective on Paul” (Dunn, Wright, and in a much more radical way, Stowers and Gaston) which sees Paul’s attitude toward the law as a specific battle against Jewish cultural exclusivism which provided obstacles to Paul’s Gentile Christian mission,

    (3) the “Paul within Judaism” view (Nanos, Zetterholm, Eisenbaum) which sees Paul as a lifelong Torah-observant Jew who argued for the continuing validity of Torah covenant obligations on Jews while placing no such obligations on Gentiles who were now being included in God’s “age to come” through the work of Jesus Christ, and

    (4) Paul as “cosmic apocalyptist” who radically transformed God’s apocalyptic action in Jesus Christ to the “cosmic” level and away from the “forensic” apocalyptic of the Second Temple Judaism – divorcing Paul’s apocalyptic thought from other contemporary Jewish apocalyptic writings.

    Any discussion about Paul and Torah observance – especially concerning the theologically loaded chapters of Romans 9-11 – must be made within this larger academic matrix.

    Rather than writing volumes here as a comment, I plan to offer several future posts regarding (1) the fundamental assumptions behind Pauline theology and (2) a general look at Paul’s audience (with a special emphasis on the Roman church as detailed in Romans 16).


    But before I leave this specific comment on your post, let me ask a simple question.

    Given the examples that you offer of the “conventional view of the Torah” versus “Paul’s view,” with which of these two views do you think that Jesus of Nazareth would have identified?

    I dare say that Jesus of Nazareth – a teacher of Torah who daily entered into halakhic debates about the Mosaic law’s meaning and application with the Palestinian Jewish scribal elite – would have chosen what you labeled the "conventional view."

    Certainly, the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels seems to have an attitude toward Torah observance that was in line with his Jewish contemporaries. Shouldn’t we take seriously Jesus answer to the rich ruler who asked about inheriting eternal life?

    Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19-16-19)

    If Jesus himself had such a positive assessment of the Torah observance, perhaps this is an indication that a closer reading of Paul's argumentation in the context of Second Temple Judaism is required – especially in light of the rhetorical devices Paul employs in Romans (specifically in Romans 7 quotations you provide as evidence of Paul’s view).

  2. I failed to mention that the Paul as “cosmic apocalyptist” view is associated with scholars like J. Louis Martyn (Anchor Bible on Galatians), his students Martinus de Boer (New Testament Library on Galatians) and Beverly Gaventa (Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8), and the brilliant, mercurial (an often confusing) Douglas Campbell from Duke (The Quest for Paul's Gospel and The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul).

    Martinus de Boer's distinction between "forensic" and "cosmic" apocalyptic is central to this school of thought. This distinction divorces the apocalyptic Christ event described by Paul from the more traditional Jewish apocalyptic which is tied to Israel's covenant faith and eschatological future as seen by the Hebrew prophets.

    [Needless to say, I am not an adherent of this school of thought. I know of no earlier, contemporary, or later Jewish apocalyptic writings that are not thoroughly rooted in the Hebrew covenantal faith and the hope of Israel's future. The distinction between "forensic" and "cosmic" apocalyptic seems to be contrived in academia rather than found in any historical witness.

    Nevertheless, the writings of this school are fresh, keenly insightful, and challenging. Personally, if I read these texts - while still seeing the close ties between Jewish apocalypse and covenant faith - there is much to be learned here.]