God's "fist" pounding earth

Rereading Paul #3

God's "fist" pounding earth
In “Rereading Paul #2” I awakened some interest (as well as disagreement) in the idea that Romans 1-4 is not Paul’s voice. Paul argues here with an unseen opponent, someone he and his audience are all too familiar with. I don’t mean that Paul personally knows this Jewish teacher with whom he is carrying on an argument. Paul hasn’t been to Rome. How, then, can I say that Paul is all too familiar with him?

Paul is a consummate scholar of Torah. His degree is from the Harvard of his day. He’s seen these diaspora scholar wannabes plenty of times. In fact, there is a major piece of Second Temple Jewish literature, a hack piece that has gained wide circulation, that is full of this kind of drivel: the Wisdom of Solomon. It’s full of judgmental dreck about Gentiles and explaining the special place of the Jews etc., etc.

Of course God has a special relationship with Israel. Paul would never disagree. But having a truth partly right is nowhere near understanding the meaning of something. Likewise, if we could isolate the words of Paul’s unseen opponent in Romans 1-4 and make the text all in italics for the teacher’s parts (keeping Paul’s rejoinders in regular font), we’d still say that Paul agrees with many points made in italics. Bad arguments are always made with some valid points.

Therefore, hear me when I say, Paul doesn’t disagree completely with the teacher. Of course, they share some beliefs. It’s just that the teacher puts some true and untrue ideas together like a total amateur. If you follow arguments people make about religion or politics on Facebook, you know what I mean. Okay, unfair, this teacher is smarter than 90% of the lame argumentation one might find in Facebook philosophical essays. But still.

Perhaps this phenomenon — the fact that some individual ideas in the arguments of a teacher opposed by Paul are correct — is why many readers of Romans have been unable to discern that entire chunks of text in Romans 1-4 are anti-Pauline. They don’t mesh with Paul’s thought. They contradict.

Now that Douglas Campbell has sensitized me to the differences between genuine Pauline words and the speech in character of an absent opponent, I see it like mold in the loaf of bread. It stinks that theologies are built on the wrong voice, the anti-Pauline voice. Those who have taken a bite get the lasting, disagreeable feeling that comes with moldy bread. But then they keep trying to sell it to us as fresh and hot!

Romans 1:18-32 as the Teacher’s Opening Gambit

I just ripped off Douglas Campbell’s words verbatim (in the heading title just above this sentence). That’s allowed in writing as long as you note it. So see Campbell, The Deliverance of God, pages 541 and following.

If we made the font italic for the words of Paul’s unseen opponent, the one who carries on a debate with in Romans 1-4, all of 1:18-32 would be italicized.

The kind of writing in which a writer dialogues with an absent opponent is called prosopopia. It is a Greek style that was taught in the rhetorical schools of the day. It’s a bit like reading Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) where you find the writer presenting one idea, then showing its converse, and then commenting on the discussion. In any given sentence or paragraph you might not be seeing what the writer thinks. He/she is presenting ideas that are to be held in open court, subjected to ridicule in some cases or fact-checking or destruction by superior argument.

How can we tell that Romans 1:18-32 is not the voice of Paul?

Romans 1:18-32 as Anti-Pauline

Vs. 18 already gives us a clue. The argument is weak and based on non-Pauline ideas. Humanity deserves judgment because we already know the truth without needing God to reveal it to us. The truth about God is obvious, built into creation. We see it and know it without need of Torah or prophets or Messiah.

We are self-sufficient. We have no need of special help from God (special revelation). All those polytheists out there and Buddhists and pantheists and communists atheists too, they all actually know better. They all understand that monotheism is true. They deliberately cover up the truth because they hate the God they know. They will worship anything, have sex with anything, turn over every rock and chop down every tree, in the futile effort to build an edifice to keep God out.

So his wrath is about to be revealed because of all this.

Christians (and religiously opinionated people in general) are vulnerable to taking this argument at face value. Those unbelievers! The truth is obvious! Why can’t they be wise like us and see it!

But the argument is a sham. It is doubly weak. It overestimates humanity. It underestimates the value of Torah and divine revelation. It is triply weak because it also dulls the reader’s mind so he/she is duped into missing the fact that Paul’s theology completely contradicts it.

We get caught sometimes in following an argument. This one sounds right until that one speaks. We can easily go back and forth, believing each speaker and voice while they are pouring on their rhetorical charm.

Ultimately, we need to see how Paul’s central ideas absolutely oppose the dreadful argument in Romans 1:18-32. This not only is not Paul’s voice, it can’t be. So before we break down the rest of Romans 1-4, showing how the discussion between Paul and his unseen opponent can be separated into two voices, we need to look next at Pauline ideas that run precisely counter to this opening gambit of the teacher. The Jewish teacher in Rome who is causing Paul problems is definitely the junior thinker, about to meet his master.

Click here to go to: Rereading Paul #1

Click here to go to: Rereading Paul #2


  1. I have heard of this idea before (of Paul quoting a debate opponent in Romans), but did not pursue it yet. It was on my pile of things to do, so thanks for bringing it up. I know that it happens elsewhere.

    1. I think J C O’Neil in his Pelican commentary on Romans (1975) argued that these (and other chapters) were not Paul’s words.

  2. While I can credit the notion of Rav Shaul citing alternative viewpoints and assumptions in order to take issue with them, I find it curious that the text doesn’t seem to contain any hints or warnings to the reader that he is about to do so. Rav Yeshua, on the other hand, introduced some such cases with the phrase: “You have heard it said…”, then continuing with: “but I tell you…”. This was not an uncommon rabbinic teaching technique. Shouldn’t we expect something similar from Rav Shaul, particularly as he was just introducing himself to the Roman assemblies whom he had not yet met in person? They were not among the congregations that he himself had established; and this letter was not a collection of his responsa to problems they had encountered or reported to him. Can you identify phrasings in the text that might indicate this change of voice, or did Campbell’s book do so? Somehow I have an inkling that Campbell’s sense of “non-Pauline ideas” may be colored by traditional non-Jewish Christian antagonistic presumptions, impelling him to a false premise about the invalidity of the Jewish notions reflected in the apocryphal literature. If he considers the “Wisdom of Solomon” to be “drivel”, then we may have an indication that his own viewpoint is no better.

  3. Well, Derek, you challenge common understanding greatly. At first I was very sceptic when you said Rom. 1-4 (or parts in it) are not truly Paul´s voice. It does make sense to me, that Paul starts his letter the way he does by pointing out the sinfulness of all, Jews and Gentiles alike, and then highlighting what God did on our behalf in Yeshua. One thing is clear, that Paul argues with an unseen Jewish opponent, who represents a certain theology in his time. I think Paul is opposing those very same sort of religious people Yeshua opposed, those who are condemning others, here the evil gentiles, without realizing their own guilt and neediness before God similar like those who critizised Yeshua for dining with sinners. As I understand Paul, he is standing up against any sort of boasting (boasting is a major theme in all his letters), any judgmental spirit and superior attitude, very much like Yeshua. I agree, that Rom .1, 18-32 could be put in italics as the accuser´s speech – not that these accusations against gentile idolaty and in consequence moral sins were not true, it is true and yes, sin deserves God´s judgement – but wrong is their conclusion. Yeshua did not come to judge (or destroy the earth like the picture implies) but to save. The accusers do not know that God´s goodness leads to repentance, God´s goodness shown in Yeshua´s atoning death and resurrection, while we were still sinners!
    As for our attitude towards other people, for whom all this is not that clear, we need to take care not to fall into the same trap of arrogance and judgmental spirit. Especially in regards to Jewish people one could turn around the words in chapt.2,17f. against those who call themselves Christians, who boast “we have faith and they don´t” but do not act according the Yeshua´s teaching.

  4. As I read these verses with your recommendation that these are not Paul’s words, I agree. They are not the the words of the New man which Paul became after the encounter on the road to Demarcus but I would argue that they are the words of Saul of Tarsus who was a Pharisee and persecutor of the followers of Yeshua. His new heart speaks out of the love of Yahweh where his old heart, void of the Holy Spirit, does not know this love which is the source of righteousness. Is that possible?

    1. Consider, Michelle, two flaws in your suggestion about the presumed difference reflecting an earlier and a later “Paul/Saul of Tarsus”: One, Rav Shaul was not a new believer when he wrote this letter to the Romans; consequently he had had plenty of time (decades, actually) to mature and to integrate Rav Yeshua’s views into his writing. Two, he was still a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and he identified himself thusly even late in his career while on the way to his trial in Rome (viz: Acts 23:6). Neither of these aspects fits a view that would render him devoid of the Holy Spirit nor of HaShem’s righteous love. Thus we cannot dismiss entirely the possibility that he meant every word of what appears in these first four chapters, even if some of the statements therein also reflect earlier Jewish notions that appear in the apocryphal writings, and even if some of them seem to challenge common (that is, Christian) perceptions of what constitutes characteristic “Pauline” teaching.

      1. Thanks for your comment, Proclaim. I was not clear. I am presenting the idea that Paul presented his old perspective, deliberately, as a contrast to what he had become, as a new man. I believe Paul was showing us his old self as if he was showing an old photo and saying, “this is where I was before” and then the contrast with the new.

  5. Great post. Was a bit skeptical after the first two posts into the series, but starting to be more convinced after this one. Excited for the rest of the series.

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