Paul and Empire – Romans 13:1-7

In an earlier post, I argued Paul commands obedience to the government. I pointed out the Roman government at the time was as oppressive as any in history and permitted any number of practices that we modern American Christians would not put up with more a moment.  Yet Paul said quite clearly that the Christian was to submit to the government because it was God’s appointed minister of justice!

The recent US election resulted in a bad person taking the office of president. I could have written this at any time in the last fifty years and made at least 50% of the US population happy. But in the days following this election the protests seemed louder and more bitter than the anti-Obama or anti-Bush protests. As an American, people have the freedom to protest within the limits of the law and there is nothing illegal about these kinds of protests. It is almost a traditional now to have a small segment of the population enter into a kind of apoplexy when their candidate loses.

Like the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, many anti-Trump protesters are law-abiding and legal protests. Most of the time the people involved work with city officials, obtain permits, etc. The issue that they are raising is important as well: America is incredibly rich and ought to do more to care for the less-wealthy. There is no way anyone in America should be hungry, malnourished, uneducated, or lack access to health care. For most of these protesters, electing a billionaire who appoints other billionaires is not going to solve the problems American faces (unless you are a billionaire already).

Despite the fact Paul says to obey the government in Romans 13, I am not as happy with the  solution offered by the Occupy Wall Street or any presidential candidate. They essentially argue the government is the solution to the real problems of America. The government needs to do something to “spread the wealth.” The highly charged rhetoric of the Trump campaign appealed to people by saying the government can “make America great again.” Trump got elected by saying he could save the country and make people prosperous gain.

Emperor TrumpFor me, this is not a capitalist/socialist issue. It is a matter of responsibility. I do not think the government should be caring for the poor in a society, but rather the Church.  As I read Romans 13, I see nothing about the government providing a social safety net. The government is ordained to enforce law and keep the peace. The church is to care for the poor and needy and do the job so well there are no poor and needy people. If we are looking to the government for our physical salvation or the president (emperor), are we really any different than the Romans who looked to Caesar as “lord and savior,” the one who makes the world peaceful and prosperous?

I hinted at the end of the last post that Paul did in fact have rather subversive plan to reverse the evils of the Empire.  Like Jesus, Paul is interested in transforming people from death to life. These members of the new creation will then transform society.  Paul was interested in caring for the poor and underclass, and the followers of Jesus modeled their meetings after the table fellowship of Jesus himself.  All shared food and fellowship equally. That all are equal in the Body of Christ is amazingly subversive in a society which was predicated on social strata and inequality.

An example of the sort of subversive action which had an impact on poverty in the early church is found in 1 Clement 55. In this letter written at the end of the first century, Clement praises Gentile Christians who have risked plague in order to save fellow citizens, allowed themselves to be imprisoned to redeem others, and sold themselves into slavery in order to feed the poor. I cannot imagine anyone in the twenty-first century taking out a second mortgage and donating the money to a local inner city ministry that cares for the poor. Someone may have done this, but it is exceedingly rare.

I think the church does a good job on some social issues, but given the wealth flowing through most American churches, much more could be done. I am not necessarily talking about throwing money at the problem. There are many creative low-cost efforts to relieve the conditions which cause poverty.

What would happen if the Church dedicated itself to solving poverty in the inner cities of America instead of building big glass churches? What if a single mega-church dedicated their offerings to poverty relief rather than building improvements?  What if we spent as much on helping African orphans as we do on the sound systems for our churches?

Remember that Paul is not talking only to modern America. Every Christian in the world had to work out what it means to “submit to the government” and impact their culture in order to present the gospel to their culture in a meaningful way. I would love to hear from some international readers on this issue, since I am sure my American eyes are not seeing things clearly.

Should Christians Submit to the Government? – Romans 13:1-7

No TrumpThe transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government. This is based on common idea from the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations.  Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.

Paul therefore means the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority. By extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.

But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government?  Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.

What if the government restricts my personal freedom?  What if the government wants to take my guns away?  What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana?  What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us?  Should we rebel against the government then?

impeach ObamaI think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question. No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Roman Senate. Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome really did provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone.  No one would have considered joining the “Occupy Appian Way” movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.

Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice!  It was impossible for members of Paul’s churches to protest their emperor or hold up “Impeach Nero” signs in public.

Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century. They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone.  Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed).  Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!

I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government.   Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective.  He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  There is nothing in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.

What is the Righteous Remnant? Romans 11:1-10

In 11:1-10, Paul picks up on a common theme in the Hebrew Bible: there always a remnant of righteous within the unbelieving Israel. At the time of Elijah there was a remnant of faithful Jews who refused to worship Baal. When Isaiah is called to announce the coming exile he was told there will always be a “root in the stump of Jesse” which remains faithful. This remnant does not deserve to be preserved since they are as guilty of rejection as the rest of Israel, but they receive God’s grace nevertheless.

Paul says something like this on Cyprus, in Acts 13, when he blinds the Jewish sorcerer Elymas (blindness lasts for a short time). The belief that there is a righteous remnant within Israel must have been an encouragement for Paul to continue his preaching to the Jews even until Acts 28.

Very old Olive TreeIsrael’s stumbling is salvation for the Gentiles (Romans 11:11-24). Salvation came to the Gentiles in order to make Israel jealous and their sin makes possible riches for the Gentiles. The Gentiles therefore have no right to boast to the Jews because they are like branches grafted into a tree. If God did not spare the natural branches (Israel) he will certainly not spare the grafted-in branches (the Gentiles).

The falling away of Israel and the subsequent offer of salvation to the Gentiles demonstrates two attributes of God that might be thought of as contradictory, justice and mercy. By judging his people he has made room for the Gentiles, who by the mercy of God are allowed to participate in God’s grace through faith.

But Paul also indicates Israel will yet be saved in the future (11:25-32). Paul calls this future restoration of Israel a “mystery,” something not previously revealed. The specific content of the mystery is that Israel is experiencing hardening until the full number of Gentiles has come in. (11:25-27). How this salvation happens is a dividing point between premillenialists, who anticipate some kind of real restoration of Israel, and amillenialists, who would see the restoration only through the Church.

The reason for this restoration is that God’s promise to them is irrevocable (11:28-32).  The Promise made to Abraham was unconditional, God was going to make a people for himself, and no amount of unfaithfulness on the part of the nation of Israel would prevent that plan from happening.

The main point of all of this for Paul is God’s glory. (11:33-36). Paul say God will receive all the praise and glory for restoring his people Israel, despite their rejection of the Covenant and the Messiah.

How to Walk according to the Spirit – Romans 8:5-8

Paul often contrasts living one’s life according to the flesh with living according to the Spirit. Galatians 5:16-25 a prime example, but there are others. This is an example of a “two ways” passage common in Judaism (Psalm 1) and early Christianity (Didache). On can either live out their life on the “road of righteousness” or the “road of wickedness.” This “two ways” thinking is ultimately based on the blessing and curses of the Law, which Moses called a “way of life” or a “way of death” (Deut 30:11-20).

kronk shoulder angels

Usually a writer would list a series of virtues and vices without any sort of description, as Paul does in the Galatians, the “deeds of the flesh” are listed in contrast to the “fruit of the Spirit.” Paul does not give a list of virtues or vices here since his purpose is simply to contrast the flesh and the Spirit.

In Greek philosophy, virtues were often the balance between two vices (bravery is the balance between cowardice and foolhardiness). Aristotle called virtue the “golden mean” between two vices. But for Paul, there is no middle ground: Paul is describing our spiritual lives as either dead to sin or alive in Christ, walking according to the flesh or walking according to the Spirit.

A person can “set the mind on the flesh” or “set the mind on the Spirit.” The contrast is between “mindset” (φρόνημα) only appears in Romans 8 in the New Testament, although the word-group is more common in the LXX. The word-group refers to a pattern of thinking, something like a worldview in contemporary English. Like worldview, this word can have both positive and negative connotations, depending on what makes up a person’s worldview. For example, φρόνησις for עָרְמָה in Job 5:13 for “presumptuous cleverness” (TDNT 9:224). Josephus used this word to describe the “tree of knowledge” (τὸ φυτὸν τῆς φρονήσεως, Ant., 1.37; LXX has τοῦ εἰδέναι). Josephus uses the same word when Solomon asks for wisdom (Ant. 8.23; TDNT 9:229).

If we imagine a worldview as a lens through which we look at reality, then a “mindset” in Romans 8 can either be flesh or Spirit. For any given issue, someone who does not have the Spirit of God may offer a solution radically different than those who walk by the Spirit. In the first century, for example, the value of a person who was a slave would be much different for a Christian than for an unsaved Roman. The same might be true for a person who was very ill; a Christian might risk their lives to help a sick person but a Roman might just let them die.

The most part this “Judeo-Christian ethic” has so permeated western culture even non-Christians see the value of most life (although there are notable exceptions). But there are many other ways a Christian will look at an ethical issue differently than a non-Christian. Let me offer two example, one bad example and one good.

First, the bad example: in the 1980s James Watt was secretary of the interior. He was a conservative Christian who genuinely believed Jesus was going to return very soon. Because of this he saw no value in caring for the environment, saying “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.” For Watt, his particular theological views blinded him to the importance of caring for the environment embedded the creation mandate in Genesis 1.

Second, a good example: during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius plague broke out in Rome. The Emperor quickly left Rome, as did anyone with any means to do so. Compassion for the sick and dying was not a value in Roman culture. Christians, on the other hand, saw plague as an opportunity to care for people who were in desperate need, serving people who had no hope with love and compassion.

What are some other (positive) examples of a Christian worldview changing the way people think about an issue?

 

 

Who is the Wretched Man? – Romans 7:24

When Paul talks about the struggle to do what the Law requires in Romans 7, is he reflecting his own experience as a Jew? Alternatively, Paul may be speaking of his post-conversion struggle with sin. It is even possible that Paul speaking hypothetically, not using his own experience as a guide at all.

Cranfield (Romans 1:344) lists seven possible interpretations of the “I” in chapter 7:14-25:

  1. That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own present Christian experience.
  2. That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own past Christian experience.
  3. That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own pre-conversion experience in the light of his current Christian faith.
  4. That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen by himself.
  5. That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen through Christian eyes.
  6. That it presents the experience of a Christian who is living at the level of the Christian life which can be left behind, who is trying to fight the battle on his own strength.
  7. That it presents the experience of a Christians generally, including the very best and mature.

Cranfield sets aside the second possibility as impossible in the light of Philippians 3:6b and Gal 1:14. The fourth possibility is rejected because it is contrary to the view of the Jewish “self-complacency” described in chapter 2. The use of the present tense tends to argue against the second and third option. The present tense to too sustained throughout the section for this to be an historical present for vividness. The order of the sentences argues against 2-6. If verse 24 is the cry of an unsaved man, then all of the preceding material ought to be before salvation as well.

The Wretched Man

The Wretched Man

There are problems with thinking that the “Wretched Man” is Paul’s pre-Christian experience based recent studies of Judaism by E. P. Sanders and others. This “New Perspective on Paul” argues that Judaism was not a “works for salvation” religion and that “rabbi Saul” would not obsessed about his lack of perfection in following the Law. I suppose it is possible that Paul was a particularly obsessive follower of the Law, but it is also popular scholarship reads Luther’s own struggle into the passage.

The problem, for Cranfield, in accepting either the first or seventh option is that they present a dark view of the Christian life, and one that seems to be incompatible with the concept of the believer’s liberation from sin as presented in 6:6, 14, 17, 22, and 8:2. But it is important to understand that the very fact that there is a struggle indicates that the Spirit of God is present in the writer’s life, for without the Spirit he will never realize that he is in sin and struggle to remove himself from that state. He observes it is “relatively unimportant” that we choose between the first or seventh option since they are virtually the same thing. If it is autobiographical then Paul, as a very mature Christian struggled with sin. Is that possible? While we might think a mature Christian has risen above the wretched struggle, that is simply not the case.

What is the significance of this passage to the believer? We can learn from this passage, it is clear that if Paul himself struggled with sin, then we should realize that we too will struggle with sin In fact, I think there is more danger in “not struggling” than being contented in your walk with God.

The sin of complacency is far more dangerous than we might think.

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By Faith not Circumcision – Romans 4:9-12

Abraham’s saving faith was demonstrated before he was given the sign of circumcision. It was not the physical act of circumcision that saved, but his faith before the act. In Genesis 17 God gives Abraham a sign of his covenant: each male born in his household be circumcised on the eighth day. But Paul has cited Genesis 15:6 to show Abraham believed God, and that faith was “credited to him as righteousness.” This is after the second time God spoke to Abraham and conformed his covenant.

romans-4The three repetitions of the covenant are important since the progressively narrow the promised child from Abraham’s heir (Gen 12) to an heir coming from his own body (Gen 15) and then specifically Sarah’s child (Gen 17). At first, Abraham’s heir was an adopted child, Eliezer of Damascus, or perhaps Lot. After the second announcement, Abraham and Hagar have a child, Ishmael. After the third God specifically says the promised heir will be from Sarah and adds circumcision on the eighth day. Ishmael is circumcised (Gen 17:23), but he is thirteen at the time (Gen 16:16, Abraham is 86 when he is born, and Gen 17:1, he is 99 when the covenant is repeated a third time).

Circumcision was a “seal” of the righteous status Abraham had already received (Jewett, 317). Paul’s point is that Abraham was obedient to the sign of the covenant, but it was after his faith had been credited to him as righteousness. “Paul contends that circumcision served as a “seal” (σφραγίς) that confirms the validity of a reality already present, that is, righteousness through faith” (Jewett, 319).

Paul says God gave the sign when he did so that Abraham could be the father of all who believe, both the Jews and Gentiles. It was always possible Gentiles could become part of the people of God, although it was necessary for them to convert to Judaism. By the first century there was some debate whether Gentiles converting to Judaism were required to be circumcised (Galatians, for example, but also the Izates story in Josephus).

Paul’s point here is a radical re-reading of Abraham’s story since he argues Abraham can be the father of faithful Gentiles in their uncircumcision since Abraham himself was declared righteous before he was given the sign of circumcision. Circumcision was a key boundary marker in Second Temple Judaism, for Paul to suggest all Gentiles could be declared righteous like Abraham was without submitting to the sign of the covenant is radical indeed! (See, for example, my comments on Galatians 2 several years ago).

This means Abraham is not first the father of the Jews, but the father of Gentiles who are now being declared righteous by faith in Jesus (Barrett, Romans, 90-91).

In the same way, not ritual can impart any saving grace to a person, only through belief can a person be justified. Christian rituals such as baptism or communion are not intended to make a person right with God.

Recent Commentaries on Romans

Douglas Moo, RomansThere are several excellent commentaries on Romans in recent years. In my opinion, the Best All-Around commentary on Romans is the second edition of Douglas Moo’s 1996 commentary on Romans in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2018). His original commentary quickly became a standard reference on Paul’s longest and most important letter. Pauline studies have blossomed in the last twenty years since the first edition was published. Many important monographs and commentaries on Romans have appeared as well as several important Pauline theologies. Many important responses to the New Perspective on Paul were published, such as the two volume Justification and Variegated Nomism (Baker, 2004). Some of these nuanced and expanded Sanders others sought a return to the traditional view of Paul and Judaism. N. T. Wright’s Justification generated various responses, culminating in Wrights massive Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013) and a collection of essays in response to Wright, God and the Faithfulness of Paul (Fortress, 2017). Since these developments in Pauline Theology often center on key texts in the book of Romans, an update to Moo’s NICNT commentary is welcome.

The introduction to the letter in this second edition is more or less the same, several paragraphs from the first edition have been omitted or re-worked and there are a few references to recent work on audience and purpose. For example, Moo has added a reference to Michael Gorman and Richard Longenecker as he describes the participationist view of Romans 5-8 (22). He adds a line at the end of his discussion of salvation history as the theme of Romans making it clear that although it is an important conceptual scheme for Romans, “it cannot be called the theme of the letter,” citing Douglas Campbell 2005 work on Paul’s Gospel (25).

Moo updated the footnotes in the second edition to include works written in the last twenty years. A comparison of the Index of Authors quickly shows the inclusion of major commentaries by Jewett, Longenecker, Schreiner, Wright and others. These are not simply appended to existing footnotes; often Moo interacts with these recent works in the body of the commentary. In addition, footnotes are streamlined by only including a shortened citation. Occasionally only a commentator’s name is used without page number. Readers should refer to the greatly expanded bibliography in the new edition for details. The bibliography for the first edition of the commentary was twenty-five pages, the second has expanded to 156 pages of abbreviations and bibliography.

Some excurses have been expanded, others are added. For example, in the first edition after Romans 6:1-14 there was an excursus entitled “Paul’s ‘With Christ’ Conception.” In the second edition the title is “’With Christ’ and ‘In Christ’” and more than two pages have been added commenting on the 131 occurrences of “in Christ” in the Pauline letters, with references to recent literature. The excursus following Romans 1:16-17 on the righteousness of God has been re-worked and expanded; it now includes a section on righteousness language and Isaiah 40-66 and the section on the phrase “righteousness of God” now includes much more detail from Isaiah. Moo has also updated the essay with references to recent works on the righteousness of God by Mark Seifrid, N. T. Wright, and others.

After the commentary on Romans 9-11, Moo has added about five pages on “Recent Assessments of Paul and Judaism.” This short essay deals with the so-called Radical New Perspective or “Paul within Judaism,” Messianic Judaism, and bi-covenantalism. In every case, these approaches to Paul try to take seriously Romans 9-11 and to avoid supersecessionism. Also new is an excursus on Paul’s reading of the Hebrew text of Genesis 15:16 following the commentary on Romans 4.

Longenecker, RomansA Premier Greek Text Commentary

It is clichéd to call this new contribution to the New International Greek Text Commentary (Eerdmans 2016) “highly anticipated.” Richard N. Longenecker is one of the premier New Testament scholars of the last fifty years and his contributions to Pauline studies have been considerable (Paul, Apostle of Liberty, Second Edition, Eerdmans 2015; Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary, 1990). His brief Introducing Romans: Critical Concerns in Paul’s Most Famous Letter (Eerdmans, 2011). This magisterial commentary builds on a successful career spent studying Paul by digging deep into the details of this most important book of the New Testament. 

Longenecker states in his preface he desires to spell out a proper interpretation of Romans by building on the work of past commentators, being critical, exegetical, and constructive in his analysis of the text of Romans, and to set a course for future study of Romans (xv). He certainly achieves these goals in the commentary. First, with respect to “building on the work of past commentators,” The beginning of the commentary lists seven pages of previous commentaries divided into Patristic, Reformation, and Modern Critical commentaries. Second, Longenecker seeks to “be critical, exegetical, and constructive in his analysis of the text of Romans.” It is certainly the case that his comments are judiciously critical and sensitive to the wider range of theological interests current in Pauline studies today. Third, one goal of a commentary of this size is “to set a course for future study of Romans.” Only time will tell if Longenecker achieve this goal, but it will be difficult for the next generation of writers to ignore this commentary.

With respect to typical introductory material, Longenecker only briefly sketches the major critical issues in the book, referring readers to his recent Introducing Romans for greater detail.  Briefly, Paul wrote the book from Corinth in the winter of 57-58woth the involvement of both Tertius, Phoebe and perhaps input from members of the Corinthian congregation (5-6). These are not controversial conclusions. He deals with two “matters recently resolved,” including the presence of glosses or interpolations (a possibility, but unlikely if textual criticism is properly applied to the text) and the original form of the book. Longenecker agrees with Harry Gamble’s Textual History of the Letter to the Romans as well as Hurtado and Marshall on the authenticity of the final doxology (8).

He devotes more space to several extensively debated topics. First, with respect to the identity and character of the recipients of the letter, Longenecker argues the recipients are both Jews and Gentiles who think in “Jewish categories,” but are not Judaizers. Second, Paul’s purpose for writing the letter is both pastoral and missional. Paul desires to impart a “spiritual gift” to the Roman believers but also to seek their support for his Gentile mission to Spain (10). The book also serves to defend Paul against misrepresentations of his mission and theology as well as offering council regarding a dispute between the “weak” and the “strong.” Third, the epistolary genre of the letter is a “letter essay,” setting instructional material in an epistolary format (14). His fourth issue is related to the third, the rhetorical genres of the letter. Although scholars have identified Romans as forensic, deliberative, or epideictic models for Romans, Longenecker considered the letter to be protreptic, a “word of exhortation” (15) with some influence from Jewish remnant rhetoric (especially in chapters 9-11). Finally, the focus of the book is to be found in Romans 5:1-8:39. This unit of the letter is the message of the Christian Gospel contextualized for Gentiles who have no prior interest in Judaism of Jewish Christianity (17). Longenecker thinks Paul found the story of the Exodus and forensic justification to be unknown and insignificant to Gentiles. His presentation of the Gospel to the Gentiles therefore focused on peace with God, and the relationship of sin and death. All people are equally unable to overcome death by their own strength, therefore all people need to enter in to a new relationship, to be “in Christ.”

Paul quotes approximately 100 Old Testament texts in 83 places in the letter and alludes to many more. This is a much higher rate than any other of Paul’s letters and the quotes are not evenly distributed throughout the book. Romans 5:1-8:39 has only two quotes. Unlike Galatians or the Corinthians letters, Longenecker does not think Paul’s use of the Old Testament is a result of some Jewish opponent in the Roman churches. Paul’s exegetical strategies are sometimes difficult to follow, these will be discussed as the commentary proceeds. In addition to quotations, Romans may have use confessional material, religious aphorisms, Jewish and Jewish Christian devotional and catechetical material (23). These materials will be identified in the commentary in the Structure/Setting section.

The body of the commentary is divided into several major units with introductions (chapters 1-8, 9-11, 12-15). Longenecker begins each sub-unit with a new translation of the text followed by notes on textual variants. The inclusion of a translation is not found in all of the NIGTC series and is welcome here especially given the extensive textual notes Longenecker provides. The introduction has a twelve-page summary of the manuscript evidence for Romans. Longenecker uses the United Bible Society’s GNT4 and NA27 as his base text and he discusses every variant appearing in the GNT4 in Romans and many of the variants found in NA27. The introduction also includes a chart listing the manuscripts for Romans including date, contents, Aland category (32-34).

Following the translation, Longenecker offers a section entitled Form/Structure/Setting, reminiscent of the Word Biblical Commentary series, a feature not found in other NIGTC commentaries. This section any special problems in the unit. For example in this section for Romans 2:17-29, Longenecker has brief comments on who is addressed by the pericope, the two prominent rhetorical conventions in the passage, the possibility of chiasmus in the passage, the use of Scripture and traditional material, and the structure and setting of the passage and a short note on theological issues. The Form/Structure/Setting section is flexible so that Romans 4:1-24 has an excellent section on the Example of Abraham in Second Temple period; for Romans 9:6-29 Longenecker covers major proposals for interpreting the section.

Longenecker’s exegetical comments are divided by verse and the commentary proceeds phrase-by-phrase. Greek and Hebrew appear without transliteration, although the exegesis is not dense with syntactical observations. For the most part he is able to stick to his intention to provide a faithful explanations of the text without being bogged down by minute details. This makes for a very readable commentary. Faithful to his intentions stated in the preface, Longenecker interacts with ancient and Reformation commentaries as well as a full range of modern writers. For example, the index lists some 27 references to Origin, 20, to Tertullian, 22 to Calvin, and 18 to Luther. Pages are not overly cluttered with references to secondary literature; it is remarkable how few footnotes there are in this commentary. This indicates original commentary rather than reporting what other commentators have already said.

After the exegetical comments, Longenecker includes several pages under the heading of “Biblical Theology.” These sections Longenecker builds on his exegesis by integrating Romans into wider Pauline and systematic theology. This is refreshing since commentary writers often ignore the contribution of their exegesis to the larger world of theology. Commenting on Romans 8:31-39, Longenecker says interpreters of Romans have “atomized what Paul writes…bringing everything under only one particular theme” or are “at a loss to understand the coherence of what he has written” (761). Following the biblical theology, Longenecker concludes with a brief “contextualization for today.” These are not “pastoral comments” by way of application. In fact, there is sometimes only a slight difference between these sections and the biblical theology sections.

The commentary includes a number of short excurses. For example, after commenting on Romans 3:25a, Longenecker includes an excursus entitled “Three Exegetical and Thematic Matters in Romans 3:25a that Are of Particular Importance (Though Also Frequently Disputed) and Therefore Deserving of Special Consideration.” (Yes, that is the title!) What follows is seven pages of slightly smaller print discussing the meaning of “whom God presenting publically,” “Sacrifice of Atonement,” and the prepositional phrase “through his faithfulness, by his blood.” This excursus is more detailed than the rest of the commentary, but it should not be assumed an excursus is not critically important to the commentary. For example, Longenecker’s nine pages of comments on the righteousness of God (Romans 1:17) are an excellent summary of the state of the discussion of this important phrase. His eight pages on “‘Works of the Law’ and the ‘New Perspective’” is worth reading before working through the commentary on Romans 3:20. Another critically important note is his more than eight pages on the remnant in rabbinic writings and non-conformist Judaism in the first two centuries B.C.E. A list of all of the excurses ought to be included in the table of contents or indices.

Any commentary in the New International Greek Text Commentary is worth buying and often becomes the first resource I consult. Longenecker’s contribution to this series takes its place along a handful of recent major commentaries on the book of Romans which will set the agenda for the study of this important book for the next generation of biblical scholars.

Thielman, RomansAn Excellent Exegetical Pastor’s Commentary

Frank Thielman’s new contribution to the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series enters an already crowded field of recent major Romans commentaries. Thielman serves as Presbyterian Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. His previous work includes From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (Brill, 1989), Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (Inter-Varsity, 1994) and Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Zondervan, 2005).

The thirty-one page introduction is quite different than the average exegetical commentary on Romans. Thielman begins with a brief synopsis of state of the Roman Empire in A.D. 57 followed by an account of how Christian first reached Rome. The purpose of both sections is to place the reader into the world of Rome in the mid-first century. He draws attention to the social problems of slavery, infanticide, and the despair of people living in abject poverty. Thielman paints a picture of “Rome’s Christians as relatively poor, hardworking people with roots in the East and speaking Greek as well as or better than Latin” (p. 32).

With respect to traditional introductory questions, the Letter to the Romans was written from Corinth about A.D. 57 and delivered by Phoebe to ethnically diverse but mostly Gentile churches in Rome. Phoebe may have been a woman of wealth and high social status based the word προστάτις in Romans 16:2, and Thielman thinks she holds the position of deacon. The role of deacon, however, “involved a lot of running around” as was considered lowly service by Greco-Roman standards (p. 712).

As for the purpose of the letter, Thielman observes there are several reasons Paul wrote to a congregation he did not yet know. Paul says his desire is to visit them in order to preach the Gospel (1:13). The rest of Romans describes Paul’s gospel and its implications for Christian living. Since the Roman churches were predominately Gentile, Thielman suggests Paul may have considered the Roman Christians part of his apostolic responsibility (p. 37). But Paul also needed the support of the Roman congregations if he was to continue his mission by preaching the Gospel in Spain (Rom 15:28-29).

Each chapter in the body of the commentary begins with the literary context of the section of Romans under examination. This is more than a summary of the pericope since Thielman connects the smaller unit with the larger aims of the letter. Following this is a snippet of the detailed outline of Romans in a faux computer window graphic. Thielman then offers a concise main idea for the section to be studied in the chapter.

Following this graphical display of the text, Thielman makes a series of observations on the structure of the pericope followed by an exegetical outline. Since these are slightly more detailed than the outline provided under the literary context, it makes little sense to me to include both; the faux window under literary context could be deleted without any loss in clarity. In fact, the structure section could easily be combined with the literary context since it is a slightly more detailed version of the same material. This is a problem for the commentary series and not the fault of Thielman.

After setting the context in several different ways, Thielman moves on to the commentary proper under the heading “Explanation of the Text.” Here the style of the commentary breaks up into two columns. The commentary proceeds phrase-by-phrase, with the English text in bold followed by the Greek text in parenthesis. Since key Greek words are repeated in the commentary, printing the full Greek text may not be necessary. Thielman does not often comment on the syntax in the body of the commentary, but there are ample footnotes directing readers to Wallace, Zerwick, Moule and other advanced koine Greek grammars. The same is true for lexical issues. He often comments on the use of a word elsewhere in the LXX or Greek New Testament and uses the footnotes to point readers to lexicons and theological dictionaries. This makes the body of the commentary uncluttered and easy to read. Thielman interacts with secondary literature in the footnotes, pointing interested readers to a wide range of literature on Romans, both classic and modern.

The final unit in each chapter is labeled “Theology in Application.” Here Thielman offers two or three points of contact with Pauline theology or contemporary church issues which arise from his exegesis. For example, commenting on honor and shame in Romans 12:1-8, Thielman says “competition and seeking honor for one’s self are no less a part of modern human societies than they were of ancient Roman society. Paul’s call upon believers to be vigilant against allowing this spirit to infect the church is as relevant now as it was in his own time” (p. 581).

Thielman covers technical details excurses scattered throughout the commentary. These sidebars are labeled “In Depth” and are printed in a sans-serf font and a grey background. Like most excurses, the reader may skip over them thinking they are not very important. This is not the case, Thielman uses these sidebars to deal with a few important issues for the study of Romans. Several deal with textual criticism such as the doxology at the end of Roman 16 or the difficult problem of ἔχομεν or ἔχωμεν in Romans 5:1. Other sidebars focus on the background to special vocabulary, such as ἱλαστήριον in Romans 3:25 or “height” and “depth” in Romans 8:39 (are these astrological terms? Thielman says no). Sometimes the excursus covers a difficult problem in Romans studies such as the identity of “I” in 7:7-25 or the nature of the house church which met in the home of Prisca and Aquila in 16:3. I expected a sidebar on Junia (16:7), Thielman quickly covers the identity Junia in the commentary (she is an apostle, Thielman includes more than two pages on Paul’s understanding of Israel’s stumbling in Romans 9-11 and another two pages on his use of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 in Romans 10:6-8.

Conclusion: Which Should You Buy?

The obvious answer is “all of them.” You do not really need food and shelter, right? All three are a worthy investment for someone who wants to dig deeper into the most important (and difficult) of Paul’s letters.

Testing God’s Perfect Will – Romans 12:2

Paul says in Romans 12:1-2 that the one who is in Christ is to present themselves as a living sacrifice by renewing the way they think about the world. This is in contrast to conforming to the way the world answers the big questions about life.

confusing-street-signThe result of this changed thinking is knowledge “good and acceptable and perfect” will of God. If we do really renew our minds and change the way we think about things, then we can discern the will of God in new situations. The phrase εἰς τo δοκιμάζειν is an articular infinitive used to indicate the purpose of the renewing of our mind, it is for the purpose of discerning the will of God. In a given situation, transformed thinking may very well be radically different than the culturally accepted answer.

Early Christians encountered many ways in which their new found faith called into question the way the Greco-Roman world things. Although Paul will list many examples in Romans 12-15, there are many more issues which will come up as Christianity comes into contact with the world. It cannot be the case that Paul will cover ever potential issue which might arise as more Gentiles commit their lives to Christ. Some things may seem obvious to us. It seems remarkable someone might ask if a Christian is permitted go to a temple, share in a sacred meal and enjoy the company of prostitutes. The Greco-Roman worldview might not object to this behavior, but transforming the way one thinks about marriage and sexual unions will result in a different view.

But the good and perfect will of God may change in a given situation. For example: Should Christians serve in the Roman military? It may possible for someone to serve Rome without worshiping the gods of Rome (on the analogy of Daniel serving Babylon), but is service to the Roman military a proper career for the first century Christian? What about a soldier who converts Christianity, can he continue to serve?

This process of thinking about new ways in which God’s will applies to new situations is a function of the Spirit of God in every generation (one cold ask about serving in the army of a Christian king in the middle ages, or a Chinese Christian who must serve in the army by Chinese law, or an American Christian serving in the modern military. If killing is the issue, can a Christian serve as a police officer, or in an industry which supports the military industry?

Any number of medical ethical issues can be included here, since Christians in the twenty-first century are the first to think through beginning of life, quality of life and end of life issues in ways no other generation of the church needed to think.

These are all important questions which people with renewed minds much continually think through in any given context. When the believer is yielded to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will continually renew our minds so that we think more clearly about important issues which go beyond the text of the Bible.

What are some other issues which perhaps have changed over the years for Christians with respect to God’s will?

 

Factions in Rome (Part 3) – Marcion

Marcion also was able to develop a following in Rome between 140-150 because of theological toleration.  Marcion (From Sinope in northern Turkey, 110-160) was active in Rome from 140-150.  Hippolytus claims he was a son of the bishop of Sinope, and was at one time ordained as a bishop himself.   By trade, Marcion was a ship-owner, specifically a naukleros.  Under Trajan (d. 117)  there was almost non-stop war, and shipowners were pressed into service of the government.  This was such a problem that by the time of Hadrian (d. 138) most of these demands were reversed and benefits given to shipowners (specifically, freedom from municipal liturgies). Lampe suggests that “under Hadrian, the situation of a shipowner was at its best” (242).

MarcioniteMarcion was therefore a wealthy man, and when he came to Rome he gave the church 200,000 sesterces.  This was the value of a small manor in Rome at the time (Marital 3.52), or a middle sized farm.  The amount needed to buy into the equestrian rank at the time was 400,000.  This was therefore a sizable contribution!

That he was a naukleros helps to explain why he was in Rome with time available to write and debate theology. The naukleros was the owner of the ships, but he did not necessarily need to travel with them, he is not a “sailor” or a “captain,” he is the wealthy company owner.  This also gives him opportunity to travel and spread his theology after he leaves Rome in 150.  This money was returned to him when he was excommunicated, possibly financing the spread of his theology to other areas.

While often styled as a gnostic in secondary literature, Marcion was a biblicist who “barricaded himself with a canon of scripture” (Lampe).  His theology was motivated by defining what scripture was authoritative (Paul, and his version of Luke); he also represents a complete break with Judaism in that he rejected the Hebrew Bible entirely.   He allegorized what scripture he did retain.

There is no spirit of Hellenism in his work at all! He appears to have had no training as a philosopher or as a rhetorician.  Gager has argued that Marcion’s rejection of allegory is an indication of philosophical training, but this misses the point since many philosophers in the second century were allegorizing Plato and Homer.  Marcion’s theology was motivated by the Problem of Evil, but his answer is nothing at all like one might find in the contemporary philosophical schools on the issue.  His arguments indicate that he had no formal philosophical training.

The real problem was how to deal with Marcion.  Obviously what he taught was not “orthodox,” his Bible was not what the rest of the churches used, and his view of God and Jesus was completely out of step with the church and scripture.  But there was no real “central authority” which could act to silence Marcion.  The heresy of Marcion was a factor leading to the development of a monarchic bishop in Rome.

Factions in Rome (Part 2)

In the years after Paul, factionalism increased.  Since the churches in Rome were isolated, there was little control on doctrine.  Individual teachers were free to interpret whatever scripture they had in whatever way they saw fit.  The factionalism we discussed in a previous post could result in creative theology, for good or bad.

Divided Church 2A positive example is Justin, who held meetings in a room above a bathhouse. Justin is well known from Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, and the Acts of Justin’s Martyrdom. He was a philosopher, although his education was not excellent – he began with a Stoic teacher, followed a peripatetic teacher until he demanded pay, then he failed an exam to be a student of a Pythagorian.  He has a general, eclectic education, cites various poets and philosophers, but has some geographical and historical problems.  Literary style is good, but not great.  He seems to have had philosophical lectures rather than rhetorical lessons. He arrived in Rome in 135 and converted to Christianity.  His Dialogue claims to take place during the Bar Kohkba rebellion in 135.  He had rooms above a bathhouse where he instructed students, and maintained the pallium, “mantle of a philosopher” until his martyrdom.

Justin tried to present Christianity as a philosophy, “Christians worship God with their intellects” (Di. 1.6.2, 12.8, etc.) That Christianity was a philosophy was accepted by no less that Galen, although Celsus refused to use the word for Christianity (it was sofiva to Celsus, and Christians were sophists, usually a pejorative use of the word.)   For the most part Justin was treated as a philosopher by Romans, but few (if any) philosophers investigated the claims of Christianity.

Justin’s influence was to encourage a philosophical strain in the theology of the second century, Tatian and Euelpistus both were (neo) platonic in perspective.  While present day theologians debate whether this is a good thing, in the second century it had the positive effect of making Christianity more acceptable to the educated and higher social classes.

A negative example are the Valentinians. Valentinus (c100-c160) was in Rome for 15 years, (as early as 136, as late as 166) and was considered for the position of bishop about 143 (according to Tertullian, Ad. Val iv).  He was born in Egypt and educated in Alexandria; he died on Cyprus after having left Rome.  He was a highly educated man with a brilliant mind; we wrote in a beautiful poetic language.  Lampe (295) finds his style parallel to Plato.  His philosophy is generally platonic.  He seems to know Timaeus well, and interprets this work in the style of the neo-paltonists.

Two inscriptions found in Via Latina indicate that there was at least one Valentinain congregation in this affluent suburb.  This indicates (for Lampe) that there was a house church in Via Lampe which was Valentinian in orientation; no other traces of Valentinian house churches appear elsewhere in the city.  The marble inscription uses imagery which must be Christian (praising the father and son) and likely Valentinian (entry into the bridal chamber, a sacred meal, baptism, etc.)   A gravestone inscription was also found in Via Latina which also uses Valentinain imagery (again, the bridal chamber, washings, the “angel the great counsel”)

Valentinian theology was quite esoteric and obviously gnostic.  Highly dualistic, they saw the world as evil, the believer was by nature alienated from the world.   This sort of early gnosticism is an attempt to support Christianity with a philosophical foundation, but in doing so, Valentinus moved away from scripture.  Marcion, on the other hand, represents a sort of “back to the Bible” movement — in an extremely negative sense!  More on Marcion next time.