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Second Temple period Judaism considered circumcision to be an important boundary marker. It was one of the key definitions of what it meant to be a Jewish person. Circumcision was a practice dating back to Abraham (Gen 17:9-14) and was intended as a physical sign of the covenant God made with Abraham to bless the whole world through his descendants. One of the factors in the Maccabean Revolt was a prohibition on circumcision of boys on the either day. At the time, some families did not perform the ritual in order to allow their sons opportunity in the Hellenistic world, but the Hasmoneans insisted on circumcision as a non-negotiable boundary marker.
Paul contrasts physical circumcision with an inward, spiritual circumcision (Romans 2:28-29). Even in the Old Testament there is a recognition that circumcision is of no value unless accompanied by obedience (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:26). This “spiritualized circumcision” is found in a number of Second Temple texts. For example:
Jubilees 1:23 But after this they will return to me in all uprighteousness and with all of (their) heart and soul. And I shall cut off the foreskin of their heart and the foreskin of the heart of their descendants. And I shall create for them a holy spirit, and I shall purify them so that they will not turn away from following me from that day and forever.
Odes of Solomon 11:1-3 My heart was pruned and its flower appeared, then grace sprang up in it, and it produced fruits for the Lord. 2 For the Most High circumcised me by his Holy Spirit, then he uncovered my inward being toward him, and filled me with his love. 3 And his circumcising became my salvation, and I ran in the Way in his peace, in the Way of truth.
1QS 5:5 No one should walk in the stubbornness of his heart in order to go astray following his heart 5 and his eyes and the musings of his inclination. Instead he should circumcise in the Community the foreskin of his tendency and of his stiff neck in order to lay a foundation of truth for Israel, for the Community of the eternal 6 covenant.
4Q434 Frag. 1 i:3 (4QBarki Napshia) 4QBless, Oh my Soula In the abundance of his mercy he has favoured the needy and has opened their eyes so that they see his paths, and their ear[s] so that they hear 4 his teaching. He has circumcised the foreskin of their hearts and has saved them because of his grace and has set their feet firm on the path.
In Ephesians 2:11, Paul refers to the Jewish practice as “circumcision made in the flesh by hands” (ἐν σαρκὶ χειροποιήτου). In Colossians 2:11 Paul says those who are in Christ have been circumcised “with a circumcision made without hands… the circumcision of Christ.”
What is quite remarkable is Paul’s claim that someone could keep the requirements of the Law yet remain uncircumcised and be “regarded as circumcised.” By saying this, Paul is saying a Jew who is circumcised and does not keep the Law is “no better than a Gentile” (Kruse, Romans, 143). This is a radical statement in the context of Second Temple Judaism: A Gentile could (potentially) be closer to righteousness than a circumcised Gentile. There is nothing similar to this in the literature of the Second Temple (Barrett, Romans, 59).
Going a bit further, Paul says the uncircumcised law-keeper will condemn the Jew, even though the Jew is part of God’s covenant as demonstrated by obedience to circumcision. Scholars fret over who these Gentiles may be, I suggest this is similar to Jesus saying Sodom will “rise in judgment over Bethsaida and Korazim.” The worst sinners in history will be better than someone who was so close to the truth yet ultimately rejected it.
Circumcision therefore is “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (vv. 28-29). The “circumcision of the heart” is achieved by the action of the Holy Spirit, hinting at the activity of the Holy Spirit in salvation. What matters with respect to salvation is that the Holy Spirit has made the dead sinner alive again in Christ, not that the sinner was partially obedient to the Law.
The physical requirements of the Law are of no value if they are not accompanied by a real change of heart. Paul says that if a person tries to keep the law and fails he is not a Jew, the Law was not designed to provide salvation. There are several implications which may follow from this. If the physical ritual did not really make a person right before God, could someone not practice the ritual and still be right with God? Paul certainly says this for Gentiles in Galatians, but for him to suggest this might be considered too radical for first century Jews. Is there any analogous practice or ritual in a modern Christian context which promises too much with respect to salvation?
The Law-keeping Jew is guilty of the very sins of which he accuses the Gentiles, and is therefore under God’s judgment. A Jewish opponent in the Second Temple period may have thought that circumcision and keeping the Law was sufficient to avoid the wrath of God being revealed (1:18). In this paragraph, Paul continues to engage a hypothetical dialogue partner who might think obedience to key boundary markers of Judaism will be of some benefit on the Day of Judgment. Paul argues here it is not at all sufficient to avoid judgment, since being circumcised means nothing if the righteous requirements of the Law are not fully kept.
But did Jewish in the Second Temple Period rely on the Law for salvation? One of the challenges of the New Perspective on Paul is the traditional reading of Judaism as a “works for salvation” religion. Pharisees are often described as legalists who were always trying to justify themselves or boasted about their personal holiness before God. This impression does come from some texts in the Gospels. Jesus condemns the Pharisees in Matthew 23 as making the Law a heavy burden for people and in Luke 18 a Pharisee in a parable boasts about his fastidious law-keeping in his prayer at the Temple.
But as E. P. Sanders famously declared, the Judaism of the Second Temple period was not a “works for salvation” religion at all. God’s gracious choice of Israel as his people and his gift of the covenant was want made the Jews God’s people and their appropriate response was keeping the Law. No Jew thought they were earning salvation by keeping the Law, it was simply their responsibility as God’s chosen people. Sanders pointed out that the common legalistic view of Judaism had more to do with Luther’s response to Roman Catholicism and the subsequent Reformation theology than Paul’s dialogue with Jews in Romans.
Yet Paul seems to claim here his opponent relies on the law and boasts in God. It is true some streams of Second Temple Judaism did see the Law as a guarantee of salvation. 2 Baruch was written about thirty years after Romans as a response to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The writer of this apocalypse seems to say keeping God’s statutes will preserve the Jewish people, implying the recent destruction of Jerusalem was the result of unfaithfulness.
2 Baruch 48:22-23 In you we have put our trust, because, behold, your Law is with us and we know that we do not fall as long as we keep your statutes. We shall always be blessed; at least, we did not mingle with the nations.
The Greek verb Paul uses in Romans 2:17 translated “rely” (ἐπαναπαύομαι) has the sense of comfort or support, sometimes “rest.” To rely on the Law is to think of it as providing security. Certainly the 2 Baruch quote above supports Jewish reliance on the Law for their blessing and security. Even in the Old Testament, there was always an “if” to the Mosiac covenant; if you keep the Law you will be blessed. The alternative was the curse of the Law, non-blessing and eventually exile from the Law.
This reliance on the Law is combined with boasting in God. Jeremiah 9:23-24 and Deuteronomy 4:7-8 both celebrate the special relationship between God and Israel. Paul agrees the Law is “the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (v. 20), but one cannot rely on the Law when God’s judges because (as he will argue in this paragraph), not even the Jews who possess the Law keep the Law. After all, the Jews are still in exile and they are not experiencing the blessing of God!
What is Paul doing in Romans 2? Is he over-stating the Jewish boast in the Law? Is he making a straw-man argument against Judaism? Even if he is, this over-reliance on religion seems to be a very applicable point to contemporary church. Even if Paul was not addressing a specific thread of Judaism in his day, this condemnation of boasting may very well speak powerfully to the church today.
This salvation or judgment is for the Jew first and also the Greek, “God shows no partiality.” Having already said Salvation is for the Jew first and then the Greek, Paul now says both Jews and Greeks will be held accountable equally when God judges their works.
Paul describes God as impartiality (προσωπολημψία) in Gal 2:6; Eph 6:9 and Col 3:25, and the word is sometimes included in sin lists (Polycarp, 6:1). The word is derived from πρόσωπον λαμβάνω and only appears in Christian writing and is related to ἀπροσωπολήμπτως, 1 Peter 1:17 (K. Berger, “προσωπολημψία, ας, ἡ” pages 3:179-80 in EDNT).
In the LXX this and similar phrases are used to translate the Hebrew phrase nāśā’ pānîm, “lift up a face.” This is a sign of favor; if a king “lifted your head” he was extending a favor. God does not “lift the head” to show partiality in his judgments. In the Pauline literature, God’s impartiality means he saves both Jews and Greeks on an equal basis, the Jews do not have an advantage as God’s chosen people, nor do the Greeks have a disadvantage because they were outside the covenant given to Israel.
That God is a fair, impartial judge is found frequently in the Second Temple Period, often using similar phrases to Paul’s in Romans 2:11.
1 Enoch 63:8 On the day of our hardship and our tribulation he is not saving us; and we have no chance to become believers. For our Lord is faithful in all his works, his judgments, and his righteousness; and his judgments have no respect of persons.
2 Baruch 44:4 For you see that he whom we serve is righteous and that our Creator is impartial.
Psalms of Solomon 2:16-18 For you have rewarded the sinners according to their actions, and according to their extremely wicked sins. You have exposed their sins, that your judgment might be evident; you have obliterated their memory from the earth. God is a righteous judge and he will not be impressed by appearances.
These verses indicate God is an impartial judge with respect to judging sin. Does that impartiality also extend to salvation? For most Second Temple Jewish writers, Gentiles were going to be punished, although some may respond to God and find salvation in Israel. But this would be a very small percentage of Gentiles.
In the New Testament, Peter’s experience with Cornelius illustrates this well. After Peter preaches the Gospel to Peter, he realizes that God’s impartiality extends even to the Gentiles, a remarkable statement for a Second Temple period Jew (Acts 10:34). Peter was unwilling to share the Gospel with a gentile until God specifically commanded him to go to Cornelius. Even then, it was only after Cornelius received the Holy Spirit that Peter realizes God does not show partiality with respect to salvation.
Paul’s claim that both Jews and Gentiles will be treated the same with respect to God’s justice might have been a surprise to a Jewish reader of Romans. Surely the Jews have advantages over Gentiles as God’s people. How radical is Paul’s claim that both Jews and Gentiles will face an impartial God, either for judgment or salvation?
The conclusion of Romans 1 is that no human responds to the clear revelation of God in creation. Because humans do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, God hands them over to a “not worthwhile” mind. Based on contemporary rhetoric one would assume the worst of all sins was homosexuality. Yet the worthless thinking of the world which rejects the clear revelation of God is quite familiar to everyone. It is remarkable how few of these sins are related to sex, in contrast to Christian preaching on sin.
The first verb (δοκιμάζω) is related to the adjective translated “debased” in the ESV (ἀδόκιμος). This word has the sense of “not standing the test” (BDAG), thus worthless. This play on words highlights the worthlessness of Gentile thinking, since they have chosen not to acknowledge God properly, God allows that thinking to follow its course, resulting in complete separation.
Virtue and vice lists are common on both Greek and Roman sources. Paul’s sin list is remarkably similar to a list in the Wisdom of Solomon 14:22-31.
Wisdom of Solomon 14:22–31 (NRSV) Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace. 23 For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, 24 they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, 25 and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, 26 confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. 27 For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. 28 For their worshipers either rave in exultation, or prophesy lies, or live unrighteously, or readily commit perjury; 29 for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm. 30 But just penalties will overtake them on two counts: because they thought wrongly about God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness. 31 For it is not the power of the things by which people swear, but the just penalty for those who sin, that always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous.
Paul’s list is “what ought not to be done.” Most of the words in Paul’s sin list are self-evident in the sense that we do not need to define anger, rage, or malice. We know it when we see it! One item in Paul’s list stands out. Disobedience to parents was seen by both Jews and Romans as “profoundly dangerous” (cited by Jewett, Romans, 188). Seneca the Elder said “remember, fathers expected absolute obedience from their children and could punish recalcitrant children even with death.” Deuteronomy 21:18-21 allows for disobedient children to be taken to the city gates and stoned to death!
The final four words, “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless,” indicate people lack the basic essentials of humanity from the perspective of the Greco-Roman world (Jewett, Romans, 188-9). The ESV attempts to give the rhyming flavor of the Greek text (ἀσυνέτους ἀσυνθέτους ἀστόργους ἀνελεήμονας, asynetous asynthetous astorgous aneleēmonas).
Virtually every vice on this list in Romans 1:28-31 would be considered sinful or evil in most cultures that have ever existed, yet every culture that has ever existed still struggles with envy, murder, strife, etc. For a Jewish reader it would be very easy at this point to point a finger at the Gentile world and say “preach it, Paul!” So too contemporary Christians who (hypocritically) finish reading this chapter and whisper to themselves, “I am glad I am not like one of those people!”
It is healthy for a Christian reader of Romans 1 not to point fingers at others, but honestly agree with Paul that these “things which ought not be done” are far too common in the local church. Paul’s intention was not to embarrass people or call them sinners, but to show that we are all in the same place, people who have fallen short of the glory of God.
One of the most controversial elements of Paul’s description of sin is his statement that “God gave them over to dishonorable passions” (1:26-27). These dishonorable passions are sexual relations which are “contrary to nature.” “Relations” (χρῆσις) is a rare word, used only here in the New Testament but regularly used for sexual relations in non-biblical literature. The consensus view is that Romans 1:26-27 refers to homosexuality. Fitzmyer, for example, says to deny Paul means homosexuality here is to deny the plain meaning of the text (Fitzmyer, Romans, 286).
Since this text is extremely controversial in contemporary western culture, many have sought to find a way to explain Paul’s statement without equating homosexuality and idolatry. There are several options for understanding what Paul means by “giving up natural relations.” Some argue Paul has in mind heterosexuals who have homosexual relations (John Boswell, 109). Homosexual sexual activity is therefore the natural thing for a homosexual to do and not sinful. Others have argued Paul is condemning pederasty, adult males who sexual exploit boys (See Miller). However, Paul does not use different nouns, he says “men and men” not “men and boys.”
But it is critically important to read this text in Paul’s context, now ours. This includes both Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman world. Homosexuality is routinely condemned in both the Old Testament (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Deut 23:17). Leviticus 18:22 calls homosexual practices an abomination (תּוֹעֵבָה), “abominable actions which are considered to transgress the basic commandments” (HALOT). Tikva Frymer-Kensky lists both homosexuality and bestiality as sexual sins of “commingling,” and improper mixing. God designed things to “go together,” and if things intended to be separate are put together, it is “not right.” Certain mixed breeding of animals are forbidden, not because “God hates mules,” but because the result is a sterile animal.
Second Temple period Jewish views on homosexuality were equally clear (For additional Jewish examples, see Dunn, Romans 1-8, 65-66). Test.Naphtali 3:3-5 cite Sodom as an example of people who have “departed from the natural order,” as did the Watchers, the angels who left heaven to have sex with the daughters of men (1 Enoch 6-36).
Testament of Naphtali, 3:3-5 The gentiles, because they wandered astray and forsook the Lord, have changed the order, and have devoted themselves to stones and sticks, patterning themselves after wandering spirits. 4 But you, my children, shall not be like that: In the firmament, in the earth, and in the sea, in all the products of his workmanship discern the Lord who made all things, so that you do not become like Sodom, which departed from the order of nature. 5 Likewise the Watchers departed from nature’s order; the Lord pronounced a curse on them at the Flood. On their account he ordered that the earth be without dweller or produce.
Wisdom 14:26 includes “a change of nature (γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή, NRSV “sexual perversion,” see the vice list cited below). The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo refers to homosexuality in his description of Sodom as “a country full of innumerable iniquities, and especially of gluttony and debauchery, and all the great and numerous pleasures” (Abr. 135-136).
Philo, On Abraham (135) As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire; (136) and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they made also their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of man, as far as depended on them. At all events, if the Greeks and barbarians were to have agreed together, and to have adopted the commerce of the citizens of this city, their cities one after another would have become desolate, as if they had been emptied by a pestilence.”
The Greco-Roman world in the first century was open to homosexual sex, although long-term homosexual relations were not accepted as normative. Jewett refers to Rome as “a culture marked by aggressive bisexuality” (Romans, 180-1). Plato, Laws, 636a-b: “The gymnasia and common meals corrupt the pleasures of love which are natural not to man only but also natural to beasts” and 636c: “Pleasure in mating is due to nature (kata physin) when male unites with female, but contrary to nature (para physin) when male unites with male (arrenōn) or female with female (thēleiōn)” (Cited by Kruse, Romans, 101, note 67). Seneca condemned homosexual exploitation (Ep. 47.7–8), referring to abuse of slaves. Plutarch regarded homosexual practice as “contrary to nature” (The Dialogue on Love 751c-e; 752b-c).
Within Paul’s Jewish world, homosexuality was a practice that was associated with uncontrolled lust and living outside of the natural design of creation.
But this is not exactly what contemporary culture might say about homosexuality. How do we take Paul’s clear language in Romans 1 and use it in contemporary discussions on sexuality? It does not seem appropriate to ignore Paul or only accept the parts we agree with already, but it is also problematic if we let contemporary definitions of sexuality change our understanding of the Gospel.
Bibliography: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Sex and Sexuality,” in ABD 5: 1145; James E. Miller, “Pederasty and Romans 1:27: A Response to Mark Smith,” JAAR 65 (1997): 861-865.
Paul makes three similar statements in this controversial paragraph. God “gave them over” to sinful desires, shameful lusts, and depraved minds. The verb (παραδίδωμι) is used in the LXX for God handing over Israel to an enemy (Gen 14:20, Exod 23:31). Kruse claims the word is exclusively used in the LXX for handing over people to an enemy (Kruse, Romans, 99).
The metaphor of “being handed over for captivity” would be clear to both Jews and Gentiles. Humanity has been handed over to a powerful enemy who has enslaved them and holds them in his power. Human enslavement to sin is a theme of the letter (Romans 6:15-23)
A Jewish reader of the letter may hear an allusion to the Jewish captivity. Because of the extreme rebellion of Israel God handed them over to their enemies where they were held in captivity until such time as God acts in history to restore them to Zion. The “end of the captivity” is a way of describing the end of Israel’s punishment for their sin and the introduction of a new age of peace and prosperity (Isaiah 19:22).
Because they suppressed the truth, God gave them up “in the lusts of their heart.” Lust is not always sexual, although this lust leads to impurity (ἀκαθαρσία) and dishonoring (ἀτιμάζω) of their bodies. Both words can have be used in a non-sexual way, but Paul uses impurity for sexual immorality (2 Cor 12:21, Gal 5:19, Col 3:5, Eph 5:3). Paul is referring here to sexual activity which brings dishonor to a person, the details follow in 1:26-27.
Enjoyment of a sexual relationship is part of Jewish wisdom literature, as even a glance at Song of Solomon will show. Unfortunately, Paul has a puritanical reputation with respect to sexual relationships when he does not deserve. Part of the problem is Paul is usually addressing a situation in which there is a clear sexual sin (i.e., the young man in 1 Cor 5:1-12 or going to prostitutes in 1 Cor 6:12-20).
As a Jewish teacher who is well aware of the wisdom traditions on marriage and sex, Paul would have encouraged people to enjoy their sexual relationships spouses and he did not teach every to refrain from sexual relationships and live a celibate life as he did (1 Cor 7:2-3).
Since Paul is therefore using “captivity language” to describe sexual sin, it might be appropriate to begin a discussion these verses with the observation Paul it not talking about all sexual activities, but those which are outside the intended use of a sexual relationship as God designed it in creation. Some sexual activity is good and healthy, others are addictive and can lead to a twisting of the purpose of sex so that it is no longer satisfying.
I will deal with the specific sexual practice Paul mentions in the next post, but for now I want to think a little more about how “giving them up to lust” and to an “impure heart” is the result of not acknowledging God’s revelation of himself in creation. Is it possible Paul thinks there is a natural way sex to work that is a part of creation itself? Just as God has clearly revealed his invisible qualities, perhaps he has also revealed something about our sexuality in what has been made as well.
Because humans suppress the truth and do not honor God, they became unable to respond properly to God (v. 21a). The verb “render futile” (ματαιόω) is used of idolatry (Jer 2:5) and has the sense of emptiness or worthlessness. The word-group is used to describe idols as worthless things. Several commentaries suggest the possibility of an allusion to Psalm 94:11 (LXX 93:11), “the thoughts of man are worthless.” Kruse, Romans, 96, for example. Although the form of the word is different (LXX Ps 93:11 has a noun rather than a verb), that both texts combine a word from the ματαιόω word group and διαλογισμός makes this allusion probable.
What has been “rendered worthless” is humanity’s thinking. The noun here (διαλογισμός) refers to discussions or arguments, the “content of reasoning or conclusion reached through use of reason” (BDAG). The idol-worshiper has a logical, rational reason for worshiping something which is not worthy of worship, but that reasoning is itself futile.
The hearts of those who suppress the truth are foolish and darkened (v. 21b). The heart is the place where one thinks and reasons (not the head). The word Paul uses is not the common word for foolishness but the rare word ἀσύνετος (asynetos). It is used only here and 1:31 (Matt 15:16/Mark 7:18, not understanding Jesus’s teaching).
This noun has the sense of “lacking understanding” (BDAG), but also a lack of moral character (TestLevi 7:2). An inscription at Ephesus uses this word with the sense of “stupid,” but Moulton and Milligan comment that “it seems clear that “foolish” here does not primarily denote lack of brains but moral obliquity” (MM 87).
To become darkened (σκοτίζω) is also used for “moral darkening” in Second Temple period literature.
TestReub 3.8 And thus every young man is destroyed, darkening his mind from the truth, neither gaining understanding in the Law of God nor heeding the advice of his fathers…
TestLevi 14.4 For what will all the nations do if you become darkened with impiety?
This moral darkening is the reason the Gentile world practices idolatry. Humans became fools by exchanging the knowledge of the creator for images of creation (v. 22-23). They claimed to be wise, but they became fools when they worshiped creation rather than creator. To worship a god that looks like a human is foolish, but at least a human is in the image of God. To worship other created things (birds, animals and reptiles) is even more foolish since they were not made in the image of God in the first place (Kruse, Romans, 97).
In describing idolatry as foolishness, Paul does not depart at all from the prophetic condemnation of idolatry (for example, Isa 44:13). Paul may be alluding to Psalm 106:20, “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” or Deuteronomy 4:15-18. In the context of that Psalm, the wilderness generation “forgot their God and Savior” and what he did for them at the Red Sea. Because they exchanged that knowledge for foolishness, they fell under God’s wrath (ὀργή, cf. Rom 1:18).
It is remarkable Paul would describe worship practiced by the entire world at that point in history as “foolishness,” but even some Greek and Roman writers who considered the worship of gods to be foolish. Although describing someone’s religious beliefs as foolish is not polite in the modern world, Paul is not far from his contemporaries in mocking the worthlessness of worshiping idols.
Once again, I wonder how well this “works” in modern presentations of the Gospel. In the modern west, dismissal of gods and idols is passed over quickly since few would consider worshipping an idol. But for the majority world, this is a serious question. How can the Gospel be presented to a world which does worship a variety of gods and idols in a way which dismisses the gods yet still attracts people to the Gospel? For example, how do Asian Christians deal with veneration of ancestors? I would love to hear from readers in non-Western countries on this issue: How is Romans 1:21-23 taught and preached in cultures which are dominated by worship of gods?
“Paul clearly does believe that when humans look at creation they are aware, at some level, of the power and divinity of the creator.” N. T. Wright, “Romans,” 432.
Although it is tempting to find some kind of Stoicism in Paul’s thought here, he is clearly consistent with Second Temple Judaism. Wisdom 13:1-5 has a similar argument from creation:
Wisdom of Solomon 13:1–5 (NRSV) For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works; 2 but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. 3 If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. 4 And if people were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them. 5 For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
Neither Paul nor Wisdom of Solomon advocate a “natural theology” in the sense that individuals can obtain salvation only through observation of nature (Schreiner, Romans, 86-7). But as James Dunn says, “it is scarcely possible that Paul did not intend his audience to think in terms of some kind of rational perception of the fuller reality in and behind the created cosmos” (Dunn, Romans 1-8, 58). Both Romans and Wisdom say a person is held responsible for their response to the revelation of a creator from “what has been made.”
For Paul, this revelation is God’s “invisible qualities,” the qualities both Greek philosophy and Jewish theology would have understood as essential elements of a divine being. God is both eternal and powerful, although the Jews also understood that God as also personal (Kruse, Romans, 92).
A god that has “eternal power” is common to both Jewish and Greek philosophy. The adjective ἀΐδιος is used often in Philo to describe God (“being durable, eternal, and unchangeable” (Alleg. Interp. III 101).
Divine nature (θειότης) also is a word common to Jewish or Greek philosophy. For example, the word is used to describe Artemis, “who made Ephesus famous διὰ τῆς ἰδίας θειότητος, i.e. through manifestations of her power” (SIG 867, 31 ln. 35; BDAG).
Since this revelation is clear and understood, people are without excuse. Although the truth is out there, people “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18), they prevent the truth from having any effect on the way they think. This is a willful disregard for evidence which does not fit into the system of this world’s way of thinking. “Not having an excuse” (ἀναπολόγητος, here and in in 2:1) is used when someone cannot defend themselves against an accusation, so (Plutarch, Brutus 46.2).
Does God’s revelation in creation provide enough knowledge of God to justly punish those who reject it? Although this may have been an adequate argument in the first century, does Paul’s assertion that God has “clearly revealed himself” work as part of a Christian apologetic today?
Foundational for the preaching of the Gospel is a proper view of the pervasive effects of sin on the human race. Paul therefore begins with the “pagan world,” people which everyone would agree are not living in a way that pleases God (or any god for that matter). Paul then moves on to Gentiles who do live a morally exemplary life (2:1-15) and Jews who ought to live moral lives but do not (2:16-29). He will conclude there is no one who is righteous before God and no one who even seeks God (3:1-20).
Who is this passage talking about? It is possible Paul has an earlier period of history in mind in Romans 1:18-32. Morna Hooker pointed out the rabbinic tradition that Adam’s sin was failing to give glory to God (therefore losing his own glory) and listening to the word of a creature (the serpent) rather than God’s word. A serious problem with this view is the late date of the Genesis Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud, Hooker’s sources for this tradition.
It is tempting to see the section as describing the period from Adam to the flood, a time when humans lived by their conscience and, by the end of the period, they were wholly evil all of the time (Gen 6:5). But there is little reason to think Paul would be thinking only of the pre-flood world since his point is humans have fallen short of the glory of God at the present time.
Most commentators on Romans think Paul has the Gentile world in mind in this opening chapter. For the most part his description in this section is not unlike any other Jewish polemic against the pagan world. The Wisdom of Solomon 13-14 makes a remarkably similar to Paul’s in Romans 1. Wisdom is a Second Temple text which
Wisdom of Solomon 14:22 (NRSV) Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace.
But as Cranfield points out, the practices listed in this chapter are true for all people, both Jew and Greek (Romans, 1:105). It is not as though the Jews avoided idolatry in the Old Testament, nor can it be said the Jewish people do not commit the sins listed in this chapter.
Paul may have expected his Jewish readers to be in complete agreement with this condemnation on the Gentiles, and the Gentiles were in a position to know he is telling the truth about the pagan world. This is a “rhetorical trap.” The Roman Christians who first heard this read in their congregations may have nodded in agreement and added a hearty “amen”! In the next chapter Paul will then argue even those who think they have righteousness have “fallen short of the glory of God.”
I wonder if this chapter gets the same reaction in contemporary culture. Some churches would likely agree with Paul that “those people out there” are sinners and deserve to be in the hands of an angry God. But for those who are outside of traditional, mainstream churches this passage sounds judgmental, they do not like the idea of an angry, wrathful God justly judging sinners. How should Christians approach the theological idea of sin in a world which is deeply offended by Christians who call their lifestyle “sin”?
Paul contrasts Jesus’ physical descent from David and the spiritual declaration he was the Son of God. Although some detect a reference to Jesus’s human and divine nature in this verse, it is more likely Paul has in mind Jesus’s life prior to the resurrection and his life as a result of the resurrection (Kruse, Romans, 42).
As with the claim Jesus is the Son of God, Paul’s claim that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” underscores his messianic claim. If Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, then he must be from the line of David. Both Matthew and Luke include genealogies in their gospels to connect Jesus to the line of David through Joseph. Based on 2 Samuel 7:14, Davidic origin of the messiah is found in several texts in the Hebrew Bible and the literature of the Second Temple period. For example:
Jeremiah 23:5 (ESV) “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Psalm 89:3–4 (ESV) You have said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: 4 ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.’”
4QFlor 1:10-14 [And] YHWH [de]clares to you that 2 Sam 7:12–14 «he will build you a house. I will raise up your seed after you and establish the throne of his kingdom 11 [for ev]er. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me.» This (refers to the) «branch of David», who will arise with the Interpreter of the law who 12 [will rise up] in Zi[on in] the [l]ast days, as it is written: Amos 9:11 «I will raise up the hut of David which has fallen», This (refers to) «the hut of 13 David which has fall[en», w]hich he will raise up to save Israel. Martı́nez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Translations) (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 353.
4 Ezra 12:31-32 “And as for the lion that you saw rousing up out of the forest and roaring and speaking to the eagle and reproving him for his unrighteousness, and as for all his words that you have heard, 32 this is the Messiah whom the Most High has kept until the end of days, who will arise from the posterity of David, and will come and speak to them; he will denounce them for their ungodliness and for their wickedness, and will cast up before them their contemptuous dealings.
In each of these examples the messiah is related to David (the seed of David, a branch out of David, etc.) Psalm 89:3-4 and the fragmentary Dead Sea Scroll both allude to 2 Sam 7:14, a text which anticipates a son of David will rule in Jerusalem (Solomon), but also that a son of David will rule forever (Jesus). This future messiah in some way restores the broken line of David.
As Richard Longenecker points out, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, Paul does not usually connect the idea of Jesus as the messiah and his physical descent from David (Romans, 65). So why does he make the connection at the beginning of the book of Romans? Longenecker (and many others) suggest Paul is using an early Christian confessional statement in these verses. In order to connect with congregations he does not know, Paul alludes to a familiar confessional statement used in their worship.
Going a step beyond Longenecker, if this is a confessional statement, I would suggest this tells us something about the congregations in Rome. The language in the introduction is thoroughly Jewish and messianic. The gospel Paul preaches is about Jesus the Messiah, who is the son of God (a messianic title) and the fulfillment of the line of David (a messianic expectation). We know Jewish-Christian congregations in Rome were persecuted because they were rioting over Chrestus, likely an indication of intense debate within the synagogues over Jesus as the Christ.
Since Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles and has a well-deserved reputation for preaching a Law-free gospel to the Gentiles, it is important for Paul to begin his letter to messianic Jewish congregations with a clear affirmation that he believes Jesus is the Messiah and fulfills Jewish expectations about the Messiah.