Greek manuscript p46, Pauline epistles

Rereading Paul #2

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7 comments Paul

Greek manuscript p46, containing parts of Romans and more

Paul speaks with two voices it seems in Romans. More correctly, there is a non-Pauline voice in the first four chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. This voice mixes with Paul’s in ways difficult for the reader to detect. That’s because “epistles” (letters written with formal style and often meant to be read publicly) were to be read aloud by someone who knew the author’s intent. Douglas Campbell explains the ancient art of delivering a letter orally and how tone and emphasis made up for the ambiguity of words on a page (pg 531ff in The Deliverance of God).

Put simply, Paul is debating with an unseen opponent in Romans 1-4. Many of the words and phrases in it are not what Paul thinks at all. They are arguments coming from a certain Jewish philosophy about Jews and Gentiles, the law and righteousness. You can find a similar philosophy in two works of Second Temple Jewish literature that found their way into the Apocrypha: the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and the Wisdom of Solomon.

Just because a viewpoint is Jewish does not mean it represent what Jews think about the matter. Paul is also a Jew. As a matter of fact, Paul’s particular understanding of Torah, Messiah, the revealing of God’s intervening acts in history, and so on, is rather progressive and broadminded. Paul’s view attributes value to the human soul, interprets God’s motives as benevolent, and assumes that the meaning behind it all is promise and redemption for everyone.

You don’t get that when you read Romans 1-4. You hear about “wrath revealed from heaven.” God’s motive seems to be jealousy, anger, vengeance. He is peeved about human unrighteousness. So he gives people up to the lusts of their heart, says this voice in Paul (in 1:24). Readers have debated exactly what this means, that God “gave them up.” It sounds like abandonment. God could have intervened in some manner, publicly in history or privately to individual souls, to stir humanity toward the good. Instead he abandoned us to a downward spiral of depravity, mass killing, and cruelty.

Reading Romans 1-4 can be quite depressing. Romans 1 condemns homosexuality for example. It becomes difficult for a gay person to think the Bible could be their book. Homosexuality is called shameless, deserving the due penalty for its grievous error.

So the bad things God has in mind for humanity are exactly what we deserve, this voice in Romans tells us. The good things are reserved for the good people.

Ironically, the Christian gospel is allegedly about human beings having an inability to save themselves and receiving undeserved kindness from God. Yet the thrust of Romans 1-4 is that people who deserve good things get them, either by being righteous or possessing faith.

In some verses that Christian readers generally need to explain away as not meaning what they say, we read that “he will render to each one according to his works” (2:6). Those who seek good save themselves and find eternal life. Those who are bad find wrath and fury. God saves good people and damns bad ones, says Romans 2:6-11. Commentaries bend over backwards to justify these words under the mistaken assumption they are Paul’s thoughts on the matter.

Which is it? Are human beings loved by God and recipients of undeserved kindness? Or is the truth that good people get good things from God and bad people get bad things?

Even in Romans 1-4 itself many statements do not square with this Gospel of Good Reward.

Then, if our eyes are not too glazed over, we come to Romans 5-8 and find a fresh wind blowing through the soul. The faithfulness of Messiah made us right with God. God’s goodness brings good things to people, not our own goodness. Hope does not disappoint because behind all the cruel realities of this present world, God is good. His intent is benevolent. He will restore value to us and cause beauty to come from the darkness.

Romans 1-4 speaks with two voices. Romans 5-8 is Paul’s voice alone. To see the difference between the two sections is the beginning of wisdom.


  1. While you’re busy dismissing the good-guys-versus-the-bad-guys scenarios in ch.1-4, with a view to a different set of conditions in ch.5-8, you have managed still to leave open an ambiguity of identities. You write that “[t]he faithfulness of Messiah made us right with God”, but you have not discussed who are the people referenced as “us”, nor how they (or, “we”) come to be included within this category to receive such a benefit. In the responses to your last prior essay, several respondents adduced verses which show that “us” cannot refer to everyone — that there are qualifiers attached to obtaining a position within that category. For example, one does not become, and cannot presume to be included among, “us” — merely because one is reading those words. It would be like reading a gripping personal account about climbing Mount Everest together with several others, and presuming that one was among them and had done it with them. A well-written narrative *can* make one feel such a personal identification with the characters in it, but that does not change the fact that *they* actually performed the challenging feat, while the reader did not. Similarly, modern readers of Rav Shaul’s letter to the Roman assemblies are not included among the people to whom it was addressed, nor were they present in any of those assemblies to hear it read. Hence, if they wish to apply any of it to themselves, particularly its statements of benefits, they must identify criteria by which they may sufficiently resemble those to whom it was addressed, as well as those about whom it speaks, and extrapolate or generalize aspects of its statements categorically.

    1. ProclaimLiberty (love the name!),
      I just spent time going over Rom. 5:1-5 and asked myself the same question, “who is the ‘we’ or ‘us’ referred to in Rom. 5:1? I read the context referred to in the verse being what Paul just stated at the end of chapter 4. In the ESV it says, “but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,” – Romans 4:24. Does this not answer your question regarding who is referred to? So there does seem to be a condition, but it is quite easy to qualify! Do you “believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord”? It seems if you will accept this you qualify (and I’m sure you do)! But then does this mean I’m back to “I have to believe to be Justified?” My experience says that God’s prevenient work on my behalf, including his gifts of faith and grace drew me into this belief by what he did for me through Christ (Ehp. 2:8-9, Rom. 4:25). Is there a tension here? Yes.

  2. Without more specificity about what is proposed to be Paul talking and what is proposed to be Paul’s adversary, it is difficult to see whether the idea is plausible or not. More details, please.

    1. I agree with Donald, more info please. I would love to see something like
      Chapter 2:6-11 negative interlocutor
      Paul’s response: verse 12-16? or is this still the good = rewards guy?
      Maybe a small break down of who is saying what and when would make this argument easier to follow.

  3. Derek, there are places in Scripture that mention the idea that in Judgment that God will act toward us according to our actions (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 2:23; Olivet discuss and ignorant sheep and goats; of course the Tenakh has more citings). I have tried to jive this like thus:
    1) Jesus’ righteous brings us into the family/church/new covenant community but how we generally serve within that community depends on how we love God through his commandments. Authority positions need to be wisely aloted (elder/deacon etc). Meaning, the grace brings us into the family, but our works under this grace and in response to this grace might determine in which capacities we serve in the family.
    Does this come close to what Campbell is saying?

  4. Pingback: Rereading Paul #3 - Derek Leman

  5. I am copying my most of part one to here as it seems to apply.
    Michelle 01/29/2017 at 10:35 am
    I began my ” homework ” of reading Romans 5 in the Complete Jewish Bible. Considering the discussion of Yahweh’ s faithfulness , it is interesting that this translation uses the word “trust” instead of “faith”.
    This is in agreement with the idea that we trust in the faithfulness of Yahweh. We are told to trust in the Lord and not to lean on our own understanding. We TRUST in the covenant He has made with us, which is our surrender and acknowledgement of His sovereignty. We Jews have also been a people of HOPE, which also implies that without knowing the outcome, we still have hope that as the people of Yahweh, we will never be rejected by Him. To say that I was justified by my faith would leave me feeling very insecure, somehow. My faith is way too small but my trust is great.

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