The final part of Paul’s claim that all humans are under the power of sin is a scriptural argument based in a series of verses strung together. The NIV translates the key phrase as “under the power of sin,” although the Greek is simple “under sin” (ESV, ὑφʼ ἁμαρτίαν). Both Jew and Gentiles alike are under controlled by sin and therefore are under the righteous wrath of God. This would be deeply offensive to some Jews who read this letter (Byrne, Romans, 118)!

chainsListing scripture to make a point is a rabbinic style of teaching, sometimes called a catena (see for example, Steve Moyise, “The Catena of Romans 3:10-18,” ET 106 (1995): 367-370). The list has an intentional structure, beginning and ending with similar words (on one), and the internal structure, sins of speech are grouped in vv. 13-15, sins of violence are grouped in vv. 15-17 (Moo, Romans, 202). One problem with this list is that read in their original context, none of these verses actually say there are no righteous people at all. If the words “no one is righteous” come from Eccl 7:20, Kruse argues the comment is on the fate of both the wise and the foolish (Kruse, Romans, 167).

In fact, the rest of the verses are in a context which specifically distinguishes the righteous from the wicked. Psalm 5:9 is specifically talking about the wicked; the verse does not say there are righteous (in contrast to the wicked). In two citations wicked Jewish people are in mind, on two Gentiles are in mind, and in the others the reference is general.

What has Paul done with this list of Old Testament texts? He has selected a series of verses which indicate there were wicked people within Israel. The “wicked” in the texts are other Israelites, not the Gentile nations.

Is Paul out of step with Second Temple Judaism in this condemnation of Jewish sin? There are quite a few pessimistic texts in the Hebrew Bible (Isa 59:12-15; 64:5-12, Ezra 9:6-15; Neh 9:16-38, Dan 9:4-19) as well as other Second Temple writers (Tobit 3:1-6; Jub. 23:16-21; 4 Ezra 7:22-24; 1QH 1:25-27, 29-31, 1 QS 11:9-10).

Jubilees 23:16-17 And in this generation children will reproach their parents and their elders on account of sin, and on account of injustice, and on account of the words of their mouth, and on account of great evil which they will do, and on account of their forsaking the covenant which the LORD made between them and himself so that they might be careful and observe all of his commandments and his ordinances and all of his law without turning aside to the right or left.  For they all did evil and every mouth speaks of sin and all of their deeds (are) polluted and abominable. And all of their ways (are) contamination and pollution and corruption.

1 QHa 1:25-27 (Sukenik Col. I; = 4Q432 2) How will a man count his sin? How will he defend his iniquities? How will an unjust respond to a just judgment? To you, you, God of knowledge, belong all the works of justice and the foundation of truth; but to the sons of Adam belongs the service of iniquity and the deeds of deception.

1QS 11:9-10  However, I belong to evil humankind, to the assembly of unfaithful flesh; my failings, my iniquities, my sins, {…} with the depravities of my heart, belong to the assembly of worms and of those who walk in darkness.

Paul is therefore in good company when he describes all humans, from idol-worshipping Gentiles to Jews who are making an effort to keep God’s law as sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. Like the Qumran community Paul would agree humans “belong to the assembly of worms and of those who walk in darkness.”

The modern world seems split on the issue. Some books and movies seem to present humans as flawed, but improving. Perhaps humans can grow (evolve) out of the evil that seems so prevalent today (as in Star Trek or Doctor Who). Humans will make the right choice they are given an opportunity and are generally good people. On the other hand, there vivid representations of the darker side of humanity. Humans are twisted and evil (Fargo, Pulp Fiction).

So which is it? Are we flawed but improving? Or are we deeply evil, just one circumstance away from shockingly evil actions?

How can modern Christianity express a biblical view of humanity to a world which does not considered itself flawed?