Without Law There is No Transgression – Romans 4:14-15

In verse 14 Paul makes a radical statement within the world of Second Temple period Judaism: if Abraham’s heirs are the ones who keep the Law, then Abraham’s faith is emptied and God’s promise to him is nullified.

Image result for no mosaic LawAccording to verse 15, the Law brings only wrath. This returns to the theme sounded in Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is being revealed. For the Gentiles, the wrath is revealed by creation, but for the Jews it is revealed in the Law. The Law demands God’s people be holy, as God himself is holy. Although there are provisions in the Law for dealing with uncleanliness or sin, ultimately the Law was designed to demonstrate the need for God’s grace and mercy.

The second part of verse 15 may be a problem for some readers. Without the Law, Paul says “there is no transgression.” Potentially this means from Adam until Abraham, there was no Law so people could live any way they chose. If that is the case, God’s judgment in Genesis 6 is not just and fair. There had to be some revealed standard to which people could be held accountable. Or maybe Paul means, “If there is no rule against it, then it is permitted.” But it is not difficult to imagine some sin that is not specifically covered in the Law. People are always finding loopholes in the rules which allow them to get away with bad behavior.

Is it true that “without Law there is no transgression”?

The problem here is taking transgression as equivalent to sin. The word “transgression” (παράβασις) is not the usual word for sin in New Testament, although Paul uses the word in 2:23 and 5:14. Far more common (48 times in Romans alone) is the word ἁμαρτία, usually translated as “sin.” The word Paul chooses in Romans 4:15 refers to “violation of the law given or sanctioned by God” (EDNT 3:14). Paul specifically has the Law in mind, so until the God defined some activity as unclean in the Law, it was not a “transgression of law.”

Abraham could not “transgress the Law” since there was no Law. There is a great deal in the Law that is a breach of ceremonial cleanliness. These things are not inherently evil or immoral. Until the Law said, “mold on your wall is a transgression,” it was not a transgression of Law. Until the Law said, “do not eat shellfish,” eating a lobster was not a transgression of Law.

Paul will pick up on this idea in Romans 7, stating he would not have known sin unless the Law had not defined sin. At this point in the argument of Romans, he is reinforcing the fact Abraham could not have broken or kept the Law because the time of the Law had not yet arrived.

Although this is more clear in Galatians 3, Paul argues the Law was given for a “time and a place” in the history of Salvation. It was a step in God’s plan to redeem humanity from sin, but it is a step that is now past. In the present age, people are able to be declared righteous by faith in Jesus, and they are unable to be declared righteous by keeping the Law.

This is an important observation for how we approach God in the present age. Does Christianity put too much emphasis on believing a set of facts or performing a series of rituals, rather than believing in God’s revelation through Jesus Christ? Is there a danger in emphasizing any practice over belief in Jesus?

The Power of Sin – Romans 3:9-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Gave Them Over: The Sin List – Romans 1:28-31

Romans Sin LlistThe 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.

What are “Dishonorable Passions” in Romans 1:26-27?

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).

Gay Pride FlagSince 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.

Gay protestSecond 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.

God Gave Them Over To Lust – Romans 1:24-27

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).

Penny kicks the laptop away GIFBecause 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.

All Ungodliness and Unrighteousness – Romans 1:18-20

Corduroy skirts are a sinFoundational 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”?