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.