Book Review: Anthony Thiselton, Discovering Romans

Thiselton, Anthony C. Discovering Romans. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 311 pp. Pb; $22.  Link to Eerdmans

This new contribution to Eerdmans’s Discovering Biblical Text series by Anthony Thiselton is an excellent introduction to the exegetical problems one encounters in the Book of Romans as well as an example of writing a commentary from the perspective of Reception History. As with other contributions to this series (Ian Boxall, Discovering Matthew, Ruth Edwards, Discovering John, and Iain Provan, Discovering Genesis), Thiselton’s book functions as a guide for the interpreter as they navigate the massive literature created by the Church on the Book of Romans.

thiselton-discovering-romansThe first six chapters of Discovering Romans form an introduction to Paul’s letter. He begins with eight short reasons for Christians to study the book of Romans, beginning with Paul’s own missionary strategy. Similar to virtually every commentary on Romans, Thiselton points to the effect the book has had on major church figures like Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Wesley as warrant for studying Romans carefully. Beyond the historical value, Romans is important for its theology of reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance, a message often overlook although much needed in contemporary culture (4).

In the second and third chapter, Thiselton lists three essential strategies for interpretation, and nine more which are helpful. He briefly describes historical-critical methods and how they have developed new readings of Romans. It is in this section he discusses the New Perspective on Paul. Although there are several major commentaries which represent this perspective on Paul (Dunn, Wright), others are critical of the New Perspective (Cranfield) and others do not pay much attention to it (Fitzmyer, Jewett). The same might be said for Douglas Moo’s NICNT (1995) commentary (which remarkably only appears once in the index) and Longenecker’s volume in the NIGTC (which appeared after Thiselton’s book was published). Thiselton indicates his own work embraces no one historical-critical method, but attempts to make use of as many as are useful.

A second method which is essential for reading Romans is Rhetorical Criticism. Although Paul’s use of rhetoric was noticed as early as Bultmann, It was not until the work of Stanley Stowers in 1981 that scholars have made use of Greco-Roman rhetorical categories to understand Paul’s argument in Romans. As Thiselton says, the “crowning study of Paul’s rhetoric” is Paul Jewett’s commentary in the Hermenia series (2007).

The third method Thiselton considers indispensable is socio-scientific readings of Romans. Beginning with E. A. Judge in 1980, scholars have attempted to set the book of Romans into the context of the capital of the Roman Empire in the mid first century. This includes the social setting of the original readers (rich or poor?) as well as their ethnicity (Jews or Gentiles?)

The nine “helpful but not essential” strategies include reader response theory; structuralist exegesis; liberation hermeneutics; existential interpretations; precritical exegesis; Barthian exegesis; lexical, grammatical exegesis (including textual criticism); shame-honor in the ancient world and the relevance of the imperial cult; form critical techniques. There are two problems with this somewhat diverse list. First, in practice, lexical and grammatical exegesis should be part of historical critical methods so I am not sure why it was included in a “helpful but not critical” category. Second, I would have considered pre-critical, existential (Bultmann) and Barthian exegesis and perhaps liberation theology should under the heading of reception history. Third, shame-honor and the imperial cult fit into the sociological category as Thiselton defined it in chapter 2.  This leaves reader-response criticism and structuralism, which are indeed not particularly helpful for reading Romans.

Chapter 4 outlines the reception of the book of Romans in the patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern periods. Thiselton summarizes several key commentators on Romans for each period and evaluates their contribution to the reading of Romans. In order to demonstrate how reception history works, he offers a short demonstration using Romans 13:1-7. Scholars in each period listed approach this particular text under widely differing circumstances, so that they produce “polar opposite” interpretations (54).

Chapter five is a short survey of key issues in textual criticism for the book of Romans. Although there are some sixty variants considered by the UBS Committee, there are only two or three famous problem texts in Romans (5:1; 9:5; 14:19). More difficult is the relationship of Romans 15 and 16. Romans 15:33 seems to be the end of the letter, yet there is long section of greetings and commendations, followed by another doxology. Most major commentaries today do not think chapter 16 was appended to the original letter.

The final introductory chapter is entitled “Paul, Traveler and Roman Citizen.” Thiselton’s goal seems to be to place the book of Romans into the general outline of Paul’s ministry as presented by the book of Acts. He uses Acts and 1-2 Corinthians along with Paul’s travel plans in Romans 15:23-24. Although some scholars do not consider Acts to be reliable history, Thiselton does not find any disjunction between Paul and Acts.

The rest of the book is a short commentary on the Book of Romans. Although this section is only 200 pages, Thiselton is a master at identifying the key exegetical issue in each section and offering a range of scholarly discussion for further research. For example, Romans 10:4 says “Christ is the end (τέλος, telos) of the Law.”  Thiselton identifies this as a major interpretive problem, since the noun telos often has the sense of “goal.” After explaining the problem, he offers several opinions from modern exegetical commentaries and monographs, then “older” commentaries, and finally the view of historical commentaries, the church fathers, etc. Although there is no clear conclusion (he does point the way clearly in most cases), Thiselton provides the reader with enough information to make an informed decision.

The exegetical notes are brief, usually explaining the differences between English translations. This may be matters of translation or textual criticism, Thiselton often comments on variants in the Greek Bible. All Greek appears in transliteration so that readers without Greek will be able to read and use the commentary without difficulty.

Conclusion. Discovering Romans is an excellent handbook and guide to the story of Romans. It will make an excellent textbook for the seminary classroom, but will be of great assistance to anyone who wants to keep up with recent developments in the study of Romans. More than this, Thiselton’s goal of reading Romans along with writers in different periods of Church history provides the modern reader with important perspectives which are often overlooked or intentionally ignored. Despite the brevity of the commentary, it is rich with details pointing interested readers to commentaries and monographs to dig deeper into this most important book of the New Testament.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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