Entering Rome (Day 25)

In a nutshell: Paul first establishes that he and the Romans are all on the same side (they all “belong” to Jesus) before launching into a complex argument against circumcision for people unaffiliated with Israel.

[By virtue of my calling] I am under obligation both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish; that’s why I’m eager to proclaim God’s world-changing news also to you in Rome. I’m not embarrassed by this news, because it has the power to transform those who are persuaded by it, first Jews and then Greeks. (Romans 1:14–16)

Congratulations on making it to the very last of our seven letters of Paul in the challenge!! In five days we’re all going to raise our hands in virtual salute and imagine ourselves walking down to the Garden Room for pistachios and drinks. (For the uninitiated, that’s in the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California, the site of Westar’s Spring national meetings.)

But we have five days and a long letter standing between us and munchies, so let’s ease our way into the reading with a few basics.

Had Paul visited Rome?

I walked into this reading with a few questions already on my mind, beginning with whether Paul actually knows and has visited the communities he’s addressing in Rome. I am leaning toward “no.” Here’s why:

Paul begins by establishing that he and the recipients are all members of the same community. “Through [Jesus, the Anointed, our lord] I have received the gracious favor of my calling to promote in his name the obedience that comes from a confidence reliance upon God among all of the world’s nations. You yourselves are among those who are called, since you belong to Jesus the Anointed” (1:5–6). This opening salvo reminds me of those first few minutes of a conversation when you’re feeling out how much you can trust the other person—is this a “we” situation or a “you and me” situation?

Paul states his desire to come “at last.” From Romans 1:9 onward Paul describes what he has to offer the community, as in a job interview.

Where I’m left wondering is this: Even though Paul gets nasty at moments in this letter, the letter still exists. This might seem like a no-brainer, but if the whole community favored circumcision even of people who had no prior affiliation to Israel, they probably would have just tossed Paul’s letter in the rubbish heap. Whoever ended up with it, preserved it. Does that mean Paul had friends there, that he totally impressed the recipients, or what? Reading further into the letter will probably help firm this up, but right now I’m leaning in favor of saying he didn’t really know them but perhaps had a few friends in the ranks.

Who were the Romans?

It’s very likely the recipients were mostly Jewish because in these opening three chapters Paul relies heavily on scriptural references and (subtly) defends his work with people who are unaffiliated with Israel. The opening few lines identify Jesus as “physically descended from David, appointed and empowered as a ‘son of God,’ in accordance with the spirit of holiness, from the time of his resurrection from the dead” (1:3b–4). He seems to think it’s possible to be embarrassed or ashamed of his message, probably because Jesus died, even though he doesn’t say that here. Compare Romans 1:16 onward with 1 Corinthians 1:20 onward, which pits the foolishness of God against the wisdom of the world, culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Had David died and been beheaded by Goliath on the battlefield, nobody would have taken him seriously, so that is a pretty good parallel for viewing the crucifixion of a would-be king as shameful.

(I’ve said this elsewhere, but you don’t have to believe the historical Jesus saw himself as a king just because our earliest written source, Paul, does see Jesus as one. That’s a different conversation. I’m just trying to understand Paul here.)

triumphalentry
The triumphal entry of the Emperor on a four-horse chariot into the city of Rome. Arch of Titus, Rome.

Opening Themes

First, Paul’s basic message hasn’t changed from the set of observations I offered a couple days ago while reading Philippians. He is a bit more concrete in saying that Jesus is a descendent of David compared with other letters, like that time he compared Jesus to the rock struck by Moses.

My list of 6 assumptions Paul made about Jesus continues to be consistent with what I’m reading here. I feel no need to modify that, although I have an inkling of an assumption #7 in the works.

Unfortunately, the theme of corruption is also back in force, and with it—reader be warned—a few ugly comments about same-sex relations (1:18–32).

As in 1 Corinthians and related texts discussed here, Paul has combined his concerns around fidelity to God with equal concerns about corruption. Before I threw my book across the room, I reminded myself that Paul sees no difference between natural physical decay and moral corruption, whereas today most people would see no connection between evil, on the one hand, and, on the other, the cycle of decay and growth experienced by all living things. Also, Paul believes corruption in each human body (“little cosmos”) can spread to corrupt all of reality (the cosmos).

My number one complaint about Paul and sex back in 1 Corinthians was that most of Paul’s sex talks boil down to Paul wanting to avoid any sort of strain on commitment to the Jesus team. For a more nuanced explanation by a well-respected Paul scholar, see William Walker’s essay, “What the New Testament Says about Homosexuality.” Regarding today’s reading (under his proposition #6), Walker writes:

Earlier in this chapter, the author is talking about idolatry, the worship of false gods. Then, beginning in verse 24, he talks about the results of idolatry. Verses 24 and 25 identify the results of idolatry as lust, impurity, and the degrading of one’s body. Then, verses 26 and 27 spell out in more detail the nature of this lust, impurity, and bodily degradation. …

What must be emphasized, then, is that the passage, taken as a whole, is not about homosexuality. It is about idolatry. The only reason it mentions homosexuality at all is because the author assumes that it is a result of willful idolatry. Knowing full well that there is one true God, people nevertheless freely choose to worship false gods. As punishment for this idolatry, God “gives them up” to homosexual activity. Thus, in a sense, homosexuality is not so much a sin as it is a punishment for sin. This should mean, however, that no monotheist would ever take part in homosexual activity—no practicing Jew or Christian or Muslim. Only worshippers of false gods would engage in such activity. This was a fairly common assumption within first-century Judaism, and it is one of the dubious presuppositions that underlie Romans 1:26–27. Clearly, however, it is not consistent with what we can observe in the world around us.

Walker goes on to criticize Paul’s assumption that same-sex relations are “abnormal” or “unnatural” and to criticize Paul’s assumption that homosexuality necessarily involves “insatiable” lust.

In chapters 2 and 3, Paul pulls rank for Jews ahead of members of other nations, with Jews coming first both in punishment and in rewards, even though “God has no favorite people.” This is a complicated topic I’d like to save for tomorrow (Day 25) because it continues into that reading.

Questions for the Road:

  • As we enter this final stage of reading, you may now be feeling like a more mature reader of Paul. What inspires you now to say, “How typical of Paul”?
  • Anti-Semitism continues to lurk in the background as we read. It might be helpful as we read to continue to ask ourselves, “What does Paul mean by ‘the Jews’ when we remember that he considered himself a Jew, too?”

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

3 thoughts on “Entering Rome (Day 25)

  1. Romans 1-2, a paraphrase: I’ll begin by saying that the content of the creed in 1:1-6 appears to come from a different hand. Beginning with verse 7.

    To all God’s saints in Rome. Grace and peace. I am thankful for your world influential message and look forward to mutual encouragement in the faith. I even look forward to having something new to offer you to pay off my debt to the uncircumcised. The good news reveals the righteousness of God for people of trust, first coming to the Jews and then the Gentiles. Those who suppress the truthful message of trust are subject to God’s wrath. The creation revealed God’s nature so they are without an excuse. Their thinking became futile and senseless and they began to worship idols. God allowed their lusts to run wild in degrading passions, women acting unnaturally and men with men. Their condition worsened with acts of every wickedness one could imagine, even murder and every form of ruthlessness… Even now, knowing God’s decree that their end is death, they applaud such behavior.

    You who judge another, and behave in the same way yourselves, do you actually think that you can escape God. You mock his kindness and patience as you store up wrath for the Day of the revealing of each one’s deeds. Evil will not go without anguish and distress for either the Jew or the Greek, and goodness will not go without honor and peace for either the Jew or the Greek. No-Torah or Torah, neither condition will protect you from perishing in sin. Now some no-Torah folks demonstrate by their deeds that the law is written on their hearts, and their purity may even allow them to escape the Day of Jesus Christ’s judgment on their secret thoughts. But if you are a Jew relying on Torah, if you teach others and not yourself, do you not dishonor God when you steal, commit adultery, and rob idols from temples? We have a situation where Torah advocates circumcision, but the uncircumcised are obedient while the circumcised are not. The uncircumcised are the real Jew, spiritually and within.

    So, is there any advantage to being a Jew? Well, yes, at a minimum God entrusted the Torah to them, and in its stories one can see that God always remained faithful despite the unrighteous behavior of the Jews. This, of course, does not mean that one can continue in evil to receive God’s grace. God has simply been forbearing. But it is a fact that both Jew and Gentile are manipulated by the power of sin. The Torah itself says, ‘There is no one who is righteous,’ and, if anything, the Torah increases knowledge of sin. But the time has come when we don’t have to rely on the failures of Torah, for God’s justice is now revealed, for Jew and Gentile, by the trust of Jesus Christ that did not waver even when crucified. And by such trust each one is redeemed, becoming God’s child. The Torah is replaced by the law of trust for Jew and Gentile alike.

    Comment: I suggest that the Romans are gentiles who had worshipped in the synagogues, i.e., God-fearers who would understand Paul’s Torah references. I offer 1:13 as evidence, “No/Contrary to appearance, I want you to know, brethren, that many times I have planned to come to you, (and was prevented until now/thus far), so that I might have/gather some fruit, also among you, as I have among the remaining/other/rest-of the gentiles/peoples/nations/heathens/ pagans.”

    That translation is close to the NSRV. The Westar Authentic Letters uses neutralizing language and does not seem to me to be accurate. It reads, “I think you ought to know, my friends, how often I planned to visit you – but have been prevented until now – in the hope that I may work as fruitfully among you, as in the rest of the world.” I’m no NT Greek expert, and it would be wonderful if a scholar was willing to comment on an accurate translation.

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