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.)
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?”
Thanks 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 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.