Aaron Sherwood, Romans: A Structural, Thematic, and Exegetical Commentary

Sherwood Aaron. Romans: A Structural, Thematic, and Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. xv+949 pp.; Hb.; $54.99. Link to Lexham Press

In the introduction to this new commentary on Romans, Aaron Sherwood states his goal is an accessible commentary that avoids atomistic approaches, one that “notes the trees but focus on the forest… the investigation especially looks at how Paul uses the letter structure to help convey his message. This approach allows Paul to set the theological priorities of Romans, ensuring that modern readers take Paul’s own meaning and theology from his discussion” (p. 1). Sherwood previously published a revision of his 2010 Ph.D. dissertation supervised by John Barclay, Paul and the Restoration of Humanity in Light of Ancient Jewish Traditions (Ancient Judaism and early Christianity 82; Brill, 2013) and The Word of God Has Not Failed: Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9 (Lexham 2015).

Sherwood RomansIn the 91-page introduction to the book focuses more upon the overall shape and message of Romans. Sherwood offers three reasons Paul wrote the book of Romans. First, Paul wants to establish a warm relationship with his audience (1:1-15; 15:14-33). Second, Paul wants to care for his audience pastorally (12:1-15:13). Third, Paul must defend himself against a negative reputation that has preceded him to the Roman churches. So 1:16-11:36 is Paul’s apology for his gospel. Paul’s goal in this large section of the letter is to ensure that nothing prevents his pastoral care from being effective nor hinders his mission to Spain. What is unusual in this commentary is Sherwood’s view that the main body of the letter is 12:1-15:13 rather than the eleven-chapter theological section. Scholars often wonder why Paul wrote such a detailed theological treatise to churches he had not yet visited.

Sherman observes that scholars generally agree on most critical introductory issues for the book of Romans. Paul wrote the letter from Corinth in the winter of AD 56-57. The audience is a combination of Jews and non-Jews who were committed to Israel’s scriptural heritage. Paul wrote to numerous house churches, which were healthy, although they were facing a few challenges. Scholars are equally unanimous interview that Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to Rome and was the initial reader of the letter (p. 778). He agrees with Esther Ng’s conclusion that Phoebe was not the leader of a congregation, Paul’s patron, nor his serving helper. She worked as the provider of hospitality and a supporting member of Paul’s missionary organization.

Regarding the theology of Romans, Sherwood argues the main point of the book is the Gospel and the Christ-event which inaugurated God’s Kingdom on earth, so that believers are as eschatologically restored. Israel is located in Jesus, so those who trust in Jesus are Israel (p. 42). All believers are quote God’s “humanity of Israel,” so they ought to live out their relationship with Jesus and their identity as Jesus’s disciples (ethics, pastoral care). Since God’s goal in the Christ event his eschatological restoration of humanity, missions is God’s vehicle for working with God to provide salvation for unreached people.

With respect to Christology, Sherwood detects a (proto)Trinitarianism in Romans. Jesus is God’s Messiah, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share unique divine identity of Israel’s God. Soteriology saturates the book of Romans. He coins the term “righteousization,” which is more or less equivalent to the more common theological word “justification.” This term appears consistently throughout the commentary where one would expect the word justification. Believers are righteousized by entering into a trust relationship with God in Christ. In Romans, “the process of righteousization (or justification) seems to follow a certain algorithm:

  • Believers believe in the report of the Christ event.
  • At the same time, believers trust God’s declaration of who Christ is and what he accomplished, as well as what God accomplished through him.
  • Also at the same time, believers are in a trusting personal relationship with Jesus, and with God in Jesus.
  • Then, with the above three elements in place, God gifts believers with the removal of sin and guilt against himself.
  • God also gifts them with a transformation of their identity, by which their character emulates God’s own divine character (p. 60).

Sherwood observes that soteriology is relatively distant from the center of Paul’s theology in the book of Romans. “It is profound, but it is less substantial than is typically assumed” (p. 62). For example, Paul’s limited references to soteriology in Romans do not show God’s grace is inherently irresistible, nor does Sherwood find any idea of imputed righteousness in the book. Rather than imputed righteousness, “righteousizing is transformational” (p. 61).

This rejection of imputed righteousness is associated with a New Perspective on Paul, but Sherwood is not a representative of this view. He thinks the New Perspective provides two helpful correctives to the traditional view of Paul. First, Romans does not focus on the tension between grace and works (or Law), and second, Second Temple Judaism was not a legalistic religion. However, Sherwood thinks the New Perspective reduces Paul’s theology to its sociological dimension, something he calls “an unsound methodological emphasis” (p. 67). Sherwood takes the “works of the law” (ἔργων νόμου) in Romans 3:20 as the whole law rather than limiting the phrase to the boundary markers (such as circumcision, food taboos and Sabbath). In fact, Sherwood translates ἔργων νόμου as Torah rather than “works of the law.” He says this phrase means “the Jewish commonplace of Torah observance, in the sense of having a lifestyle, identity, and devotion to righteousness that is characterized by habitually living in faithfulness to the Torah” (p. 227). He includes a lengthy digression on the use of the phrase “works of the law” in 4QMMT. He concludes the similarity between Romans 3:20 and 4QMMT is “rather incidental” and 4QMMT “should not be allowed to distract from a proper understanding of Paul’s message” (p. 234). This discussion is somewhat disappointing since the primary source he cites in this section is a 1994 Biblical Archaeology Review magazine article by Martin Abegg rather than the two major articles on Paul and 4QMMT by James Dunn or N. T. Wright.

Given Sherwood’s previous work on Paul’s use of Scripture in Romans 9, it is not surprising he devotes a large section of his introduction to Paul’s use of scripture. He provides two charts of Paul’s citations of the Hebrew Bible, one in canonical order in a second in order of appearance in Romans. Sometimes Paul’s use of Scripture is described as a midrash, although it is certainly not exegesis. Sherwood points out Paul has already done his exegesis and is now using cited Scripture in a “faithful, contextually determined meaning of that scripture in a way that serves his communicative strategy” (p. 74). He suggests Paul uses references to Scripture in a way analogous to a modern academic. Paul makes his theological point and then offers a “footnote of authorities” to support his point (p. 77). He argues Romans was not written from the perspective of New Testament studies, “Paul’s use of Scripture requires an interpretation that comes out of Old Testament studies” (p. 77).

The introduction concludes with helpful a ten-page glossary of key terms.

In the body of the commentary itself, individual units begin with Sherwood, his own translation. This is followed by a paragraph highlighting key idea of the pericope with the thesis statement for the unit set out in bold type. He then outlines the structure of the unit by means of a syntactical display of the English text. Although there are some comments on the structure, he avoids technical rhetorical terms. “Analysis and Interpretation” is a phrase-by-phrase commentary on the English text. There is no Greek in the commentary’s body, and it is rare in the footnotes. Occasionally he refers to textual critical issues in the footnotes, but this is not the focus of the commentary. There are references to contemporary scholarship in the footnotes, but in the main text Sherwood provides a readable and accessible commentary on Paul’s key ideas uncluttered by scholarly debate. As he stressed in the introduction, his commentary is selective and non-comprehensive. Each unit concludes with a summary and theological reflection. These reflections focus on the unit itself rather than larger ideas of Pauline or canonical theology.

In addition to the commentary Sherwood provides several short digressions throughout the commentary. These deal with controversial issues such as homosexuality in Romans 1 (155-57), imputed righteousness (269-71), and Paul’s view of empire (p. 673-76). Following the commentary are seven substantial excurses on controversial theological topics commonly addressed in a Romans commentary.

  • Natural Theology and the Identity of the Accused in Romans 1:18-32
  • Interplay between Romans 3:27-8:17 and Galatians 3:1-4:7
  • Salvation, Redemption, Deliverance, and Atonement in Romans
  • The “I” In Romans7
  • Divine Foreknowledge and Predestination in Romans 8:28-30
  • The Salvation of “All Israel” In Romans 11:25-27
  • The Disputed Originality of Romans 16

These excurses are substantial (over fifty pages total). By separating them from their context in the main commentary, Sherwood achieves his goal of an accessible and readable commentary since the average reader is not prepared for a protracted discussion of the “I” in Romans 7. Sherwood argues Paul’s speaker in Chapter 7 is “a representative Jew who is both convicted of his obligation to obey Torah perfectly and is perfectly appalled by his inability to do so” (p. 629). Regarding predestination and Election in Romans 8:28-30, Sherwood avoids both Reformed and Arminian positions, stating that his exegesis is compatible with either position (which is probably not going to make either side very happy). Regarding the originality of Romans 16, he states clearly “all things considered, there are no compelling let alone sound reasons for rejecting the originality of Romans 16:1-23” (p. 851).

He does not think that “all Israel” in Romans 11:25- 27 refers to future salvation of unbelieving Jews (p. 841). In his view, the best reading of this passage is that Paul is making a positive statement about God’s process of reconstituting his people, come what may. “All Israel” therefore “refers to God’s corporate Christocentric people” (p. 846) and that a reading of Romans 11:25-32 “with an expectation of ethnic Jews’ salvation would be a mistake” (p. 847).

Conclusion. Sherwood achieves his goal of providing an accessible commentary that sheds light on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He avoids tedious comparisons of views from other major commentaries, although he is certainly informed by them. Nor he does not get bogged down in exegetical details which distract the commentator from Paul’s overarching theological themes.

 

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

 

Background to the Pastoral Epistles

The background to the Pastoral epistles is a matter of some speculation. The letters to Timothy and Titus are collectively called the “pastoral epistles” and are usually described as “letters to young pastors” on topics of church organization. This common way of describing these letters misses the obvious fact that by this point neither Timothy nor Titus could be called “young,” nor are they ever really described as pastors in the letters.

Both men are described as personal representatives of Paul and both men are given the task of dealing with some sort of theological deviation from Paul’s gospel which likely includes some practical, moral failure on the part of elders and deacons in Ephesus (and potentially Crete). First Timothy is less of a manual that could be subtitled “how to be a pastor” than directions to Timothy on how to deal with a serious problem plaguing Paul’s churches in Ephesus.

This is how I would reconstruct the situation behind First Timothy. In this post, I am more interested in placing these letters into Paul’s career at this point than describing the “opponents” who are implied by the letter.

  1. Paul spent about three years in Ephesus (Acts 19). During this time he would have established churches in the city and trained others who planted still more churches. Colossians is evidence that at least one other city near Ephesus was evangelized by a Pauline disciple. Revelation 2-3 mentions 6 churches in addition to Ephesus which may have been established as a result of Paul’s three years of ministry in Ephesus.
  2. While it is impossible to know how large the church was in Ephesus when Paul left, we do know from Acts that enough people had joined the Christians that they were an economic threat to the silversmiths who made small models of Artemis (Acts 19).
  3. In Acts 20, Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders predicts that there will be some among the Christians who fall away from sound doctrine and practice. The connection between Acts 20 and the pastorals has led scholars such as C. F. D. Moule to suggest that Luke himself is the author of the letters. Luke intended them as an epistolary conclusion to his Luke/Acts. For a review of this argument, see Hagner, The New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2012), 623.
  4. Paul traveled to Jerusalem where he is arrested at held under house arrest in Caesarea for two years. He is then transferred to Rome after appealing to Caesar. He is in Rome under house arrest for two years. This is where the book of Acts ends. In all, Paul is away from Ephesus for at least five years before he wrote First Timothy, perhaps two or three years more than that.
  5. Paul is released from prison after Acts 28 and continues his ministry, likely into Spain but perhaps visiting churches he established in the earlier parts of his ministry. Somehow he learns his fears for the Ephesian churches have come true and some elders / leaders have moved away from Paul’s teaching and practice. The nature of the problems in the Ephesian churches may be a division between “Pauline congregations” and Jewish-Christian congregations.

Timothy was sent to Ephesus to encourage the congregations to “guard the deposit” which had been given to the churches. As Bill Mounce points out, Timothy was not a pastor, or elder, or bishop in these Ephesian churches. He was “an itinerant apostolic ‘delegate’” (The Pastoral Epistles, lviii; citing Jeremias).Timothy has already been sent to difficult situations as Paul’s personal representative, he was sent to both Thessalonica (Acts 17) and Corinth to continue Paul’s work.

Was Paul as an Apostle?

Paul claims to be called to be an apostle in each of the undisputed letters (Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:1) as well as several other letters (Eph 1:1, Col 1:1, 1-2 Tim, Titus). In addition to the headings of these letters, Paul refers to his apostleship in several other contexts. In Rom 11:13 he calls himself the “apostle to the Gentiles” and in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul defends his status as an apostle on a par with Peter or Barnabas. But Paul never claims to be one of the Twelve. With the exception of Matthias, the replacement for Judas, this group were chosen by Jesus before the crucifixion.

Was Paul as an Apostle?In fact, in Galatians 1 Paul emphasizes his commission as an apostle but distinct from the Twelve.  An “apostle” is someone who is sent as a representative of another, usually some kind of a group.  Most lexicons suggests the English “ambassador, delegate, messenger” for the Greek concept of an apostle.  Most scholars now associate the Greek apostolos (ἀπόστολος) with the Hebrew shaliach. A person who was sent as a representative or agent acts on the same authority of the sending group.

For example, when the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch, it is possible he was send as a shaliach or apostle of the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:22).  He would have acted as their representative on the scene should questions arise. Paul is not an apostle sent by the church of Antioch to the churches of Galatia, nor is he an agent sent out by the Jerusalem church. He never claims to be one of the Twelve Apostles, in fact Galatians 1-2 make it clear he is not part of that particular group. Paul’s claim in Galatians is that is an apostle of Jesus Christ and God the Father.

In 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul alludes to his status as an apostle in his discussion of the resurrection. Paul was not a follower of Jesus until his encounter in Acts 9. As is well known, he was a persecutor of Jesus’ followers prior to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. Paul claims in in 1 Cor 15 to be an eye-witness to the resurrection, albeit one with different credentials than Peter or James since he did not know Jesus before the resurrection.

This experience was like an “untimely birth” (ESV). This word (ἔκτρωμα) is used for a stillborn child or a miscarriage. Many commentators think this is an insult Paul faced in his ministry, he is not just a “Johnny-come-lately” or someone who is trying to “jump on the band-wagon,” or that he has some spiritual deficiency disqualifying him from being considered a “real apostle.” Rather than responding to an attack, Paul is simply listing himself as the final witness because he was the final witness, and his experience is unique among the apostles. But again, he does not claim to be one of the Twelve; like James, the Lord’s Brother, he is commissioned by the resurrected Jesus to be an apostle, but NOT one of the Twelve.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul sarcastically refers to his opponents in Corinth as “super-apostles.” But since this rare word can mean superior, it is possible the opponents considered themselves to be superior to Paul and described themselves as his superiors to the members of the Corinthian church. Some have argued this is a reference to the apostles in Jerusalem, but it seems unlikely Paul would refer the Twelve with this snarky title (like added “so-called” to something to question its authority). More likely the super apostles are Greeks in Corinth who have accepted the Gospel but are now behaving like Greek intellectuals. Like many of the other issues in Corinth, Paul is dealing with a pagan worldview in the church.

By way of summary, there was a group called the Twelve who were apostles, and a few other people who were commissioned by Jesus after the resurrection (James and Paul) and were therefore also considered apostles. There were others who claimed to be apostles, like the super apostles mentioned in 2 Corinthians who claimed authority as apostles but were not commissioned by the resurrected Jesus.

What is Paul claiming when he calls himself an Apostle?  What does it mean for a letter like 1 Thessalonians, where he does not use the title but then says he could have made demands as an apostle of Christ?

Paul’s Mission to the Gentiles

One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus says Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247). Any Gentile who chooses to live according to the Law of Moses may be admitted, but otherwise there is no real fellowship with Gentiles.  

Josephus, Against Apion 2.210 Accordingly our legislator [Moses] admits all those that have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own stock, but to those that would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us.

But perhaps the situation was not as strict as Josephus would have us believe. Gentiles were not totally excluded from Jewish worship. The Temple in the first century was expanded to include a large “court of the Gentiles” providing a place for Gentiles to worship. On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews (see for example the story in Mark 7:24-30 or the parallel in Matthew 15:22-28)

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” (Deut 5:14) define Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general laws for them while they are living within Israel. These are similar to the commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29 for Gentiles. Although it seems odd to a modern reader, the two biggest factors for avoiding Gentiles were food laws and circumcision. Because Gentiles ate food the Jews considered unclean, for some Jews contact with Gentiles was to be avoid.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the courts at the temple? In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him” (7:1). In fact, he refuses to even kiss the lovely Egyptian Asenath because her lips have touched unclean food.

Several Second Temple period texts indicate Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles:

Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, every one of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart . . .

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.” Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

In any case, it was certainly not normal for a Jewish missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to teach them about the God of the Hebrew Bible (as did Peter in Acts 10). If a Gentile was worshiping in the Temple or synagogue, such as Cornelius, then that Gentile would be welcome to hear the gospel. But for the Jewish mission in Judea as described in the book of Acts, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!

Yet Paul is called to be the “light to the gentiles” and planned to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. He immediately goes to the Roman province of Arabia and begins to do evangelism among the Gentiles. On the island of Crete Paul intentionally approaches the Roman governor Sergius Paulus, and in both Lystra and Iconium he targets Gentiles outside of the Synagogue with the Gospel.

If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s Gentile mission strategy? Is the reaction of both Christian and non-Christian Jews to his interaction with Gentiles a hint at how radical Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was for Second Temple Jews?

Paul and the Suffering Servant

Like Philippians 3, in 2 Corinthians 11:23–33 Paul boasts about his ministry. Since this letter is written in the mid-50s, the list refers to Paul’s early ministry. But Paul does not list his accomplishments quite the way we would expect them.

First, Paul claims to be a servant of Christ (v. 23a) and then proves it by listing his hard work and suffering on account of Christ Jesus. In fact, he claims to be a “better servant” because he has suffered! The opponents claim to be servants of Jesus and Paul does not deny the claim. Be the word “servant” and “slave” are identical in Greek. For someone to claim to be a “servant” in English has a different feel than claiming to be a “slave.”

Second, Paul says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countless times and has been near death many times. Paul uses a series of adverbs (περισσοτέρως twice, ὑπερβαλλόντως once, and πολλάκις once) to overemphasize his difficult life as a servant of Christ. These were not one-time problems he endured for a short time. This is the constant state of his life since he began his ministry!

Third, Paul has already suffered many times for the name of Jesus. “Five time lashed 40 less one” is a reference to Jewish punishment. The Greek says, “I received the forty less one,” which is a clear reference to a lashing. Josephus uses the phrase twice in describing the Mosaic Law (Ant. 4:238. 248). This punishment came from the Jews—it was an attempt from synagogues to bring Paul back in line with his heritage. The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3).

What is significant is Paul received this penalty five times!  Early in his ministry Paul may have been expelled from the synagogue for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, and certainly if he taught God-fearing Gentiles they could be fully save without keeping the Law. In Acts 7, Stephen is lynched for teaching Jesus had replaced the Temple, although he did not go as far as Paul with respect to the Gentiles and the Law.

In addition to these beatings, Paul says he was “three times beaten with rods.” This is a reference to Roman punishment. The Greek (ῥαβδίζω) refers only to beating someone with rods, the Latin term fustigatio was distinct from catigatio, lashing, and verberatio, flogging with chains (BDAG). Paul received this treatment in Acts 16:22 for creating a “public disturbance” even though he was a Roman citizen.

Finally, Paul says he was “once stoned and left for dead.” This refers to Lystra (Acts 14:19). Stoning was a typical way for a Jewish group to execute someone. In Acts 7 Paul himself participates in the stoning of Stephen and he is about to be stoned in Acts 21:30 when he is falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple courts.

I suggest this list of suffering indicates Paul continued to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career. Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.” But he was also bringing the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world in such a way that he was thought to be a threat. In Acts 17:6 the leaders of Thessalonica claim Paul was “turning the world upside down.”

So Paul was Jesus’ slave who suffered greatly to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. How does this level of suffering for Jesus function as a kind of “missionary strategy”? From a modern perspective, being arrested for rabble-rousing might be seen as counter-productive to evangelism. How might Paul’s suffering for Jesus be a model for Christians today?