Two voices speak in Romans 1-4, not just Paul’s. You might recognize in these chapters a kind of Greek writing style known as “diatribe.” This means something different in the context of Greek literature than in modern usage, where a diatribe is a harangue against a person or idea. A Greek-style diatribe is something else, a writer carrying on a conversation with another character. Neither voice, the unseen opponent’s or that of the author, necessarily gives the “answer” to the issue at hand.
Paul intended that Romans would be read aloud. Romans was performed, orally, like a play. The diatribe forms the script for the performance. The audience listens and weighs the arguments. Paul keeps this up through chapter 4. Then in Romans 5-8, Paul speaks plainly.
Matthew Frost explains more about the diatribe, what it is, and how it works:
Diatribe is a way to teach without simply dropping information on your audience. It’s a way to help them come to their own conclusions, using what they already know, in ways shaped by your arguments. The speaker is not actually holding an open conversation with the audience, prompting them and expecting them to respond, but the conversational mode of the diatribe is still directed at the audience. The diatribe models audience participation in its performance . . .
(source: https://parrhesia-lalein.blogspot.com/2013/09/learning-truth-from-lies-diatribe-in.html, Matthew Frost, 2013).
Breaking the Romans 1-4 Script into Its Parts
Messianic Jewish Musings readers have been waiting for me to list the divisions and identify the speakers in the two-character play that is Romans 1-4. “Interesting theory, Derek,” some have said, “why don’t you show us instead of telling us?” I’ve been consumed with career issues, lots of new learning lately. I’m finally getting around to it (don’t mistake my delay for puzzlement or an admission of defeat!).
Romans 1:18-32: The Jewish Teacher’s Hellfire Sermon
There is a certain stream of ancient Jewish thought. This literature seeks to deal with Jewish beliefs about Torah, with the idea of the Jews being the chosen people, by ridiculing and stigmatizing Gentile institutions. In the Second Temple Period, written not too terribly long before Paul’s time, we find such a work in The Wisdom of Solomon. Wisdom of Solomon will be familiar to many as one of the Apocryphal books, regarded as scripture by Catholics and the Eastern churches, but not by Jews and Protestants. We find a passage in Wisdom of Solomon that denounces idolatry with these words, “[because of] their foolish and wicked thoughts, which led them astray to worship irrational serpents and worthless animals, thou didst send upon them a multitude of irrational creatures to punish them” (11:15). Sound familiar?
In Romans 1:18-32 the Jewish teacher speaks disparagingly. Wrath will soon be revealed in a major way. God’s punishing fire will rain down. People have everything they need to recognize and acknowledge God but instead they idiotically worship cats and dogs. God looks down on their crazed minds and increases their insanity. They deserve it. No wonder the world is so bad. Just look at them, they even have same-sex relations. Bad stuff happens to them, consequences of their own lusts and addictions. God doesn’t care, having given up on their depraved societies a long time ago.
It’s incredible (as in not credible) to think that Bible readers have for centuries imagined this to be the voice of Paul. Since when has Paul been of the understanding that God gives up on sinners and treats people without grace? In the two verses prior to this Paul has been speaking about salvation, rescue, deliverance. Now suddenly are we to think God’s attitude is merciless abandonment?
No, the speaker here is not Paul. It is the Jewish teacher. This is his hellfire sermon. Paul made the sermon up, but he did so using standard arguments from the “bad-people-get-what-they-deserve” school.
Romans 2:1-8: Paul’s Reductio Ad Absurdum
The Jewish teacher will not speak directly again until 3:2 (Campbell 547), though Paul will feature short allusions to the teacher’s ideas. Campbell calls these allusions to the teacher’s ideas “ironic quotations” (547). Paul is parodying the teacher’s views. In Campbell’s colorful description the teacher has his ideas “flung back in his face” (547).
Paul will use reductio ad absurdum, an argumentative style that reduces an opponent’s ideas to absurdity by examining the implications of those ideas. The Jewish teacher’s notion is that God rewards good and punishes evil. Not only do we all know life does not work that way, but any observant student of Torah (e.g., Paul) knows the history of God’s acts is filled with exceptions and variations on that overly simple formula.
Campbell calls the technique Paul uses here “universalization,” by which he means Paul takes the teacher’s ideas and explores what they look like taken to their universal extreme. For now, let me simply ask the reader to note how 2:1 puts a reverse slam on the judgmental character speaking in 1:18-32. The dialogue goes something like this:
The voice in 1:18-32, “God will really pour down wrath on all those bad people!”
The voice (Paul’s) in 2:1, “So you’re veritably doomed, then, aren’t you, you judgmental blighter? Meanwhile, let’s see what happens if we apply your asinine philosophy universally.”
Paul preaches now to the Jewish teacher. Having called the Jewish teacher out as one hoisted on his own petard, Paul offers him the chance to repent in order to avoid being abandoned by God to depravity! He uses the teacher’s own preaching against him. “Well, if God hates wretched scum then I guess you’re in trouble. By well-doing seek glory and immortality so that God will give you eternal life. You’d better start pouring on the good works now so you can tip the scales back in your favor.”
Where does Paul gain evidence from the teacher’s words for his ironic advice in Romans 2:6-8? He gets it from the Jewish teacher’s foolish philosophical notion that people get from God what they deserve. If you carry that notion to its universal extreme, then we’d all better have at least fifty-one parts out of one hundred good deeds. How can this scale of justice be measured exactly? What does “deserve” mean? How do we weigh bad deeds on a scale or good deeds? How many points get deducted for raping or pillaging? How many points get added for buying a widow some groceries?
Romans 2:9-16: Absurd Conclusions, Part 1
The Jewish teacher and Paul share a common belief that God gifted the Jewish people with certain advantages. As Paul will ruthlessly demonstrate, however, the teacher’s people-get-what-they-deserve philosophy undermines any notion of Jewish advantage. Paul will later define what the Jewish advantage actually is.
Let me digress, since I know readers will be frustrated if I don’t address this question right away. For Paul the Jewish advantage does not mean inherent superiority or even a better final destiny compared to non-Jews. Rather, the Jewish people have become the source, the life-giving spring of divine revelation on earth. The truly good things God has for us come through the Jewish people, having been first revealed to and through and by Jewish people. Torah and all scripture are Jewish. Messiah is Jewish. This life-giving water flows to the non-Jews and has the same benefits for them. But the source on earth always has been and will be the Jewish people. This is not simply a matter of the past. In future messianic outpourings, it will again be the Jewish reservoir that gets filled and non-Jews will find that living water has a Jewish flavor.
Back to Romans 2:9-29, however, the teacher has a problem. On the one hand he believes in Jewish superiority and yet on the other he believes in the “principle of desert” (Campbell’s term for people-get-what-they-deserve, 551). The two ideas conflict.
Paul begins this section by stating matters in the teacher’s own terms, “God punishes bad people, starting with Jews and then also non-Jews, and blesses good people, starting with Jews and then also non-Jews.” The teacher’s philosophy maintains a notion of Jewish advantage, but all that can really be said is that the Jewish people are chronologically first. This is because of what Romans 2:11 says. God shows no partiality. People get, quite simply, what they deserve.
Well, vss. 12-16 begin to spell out the absurd conclusions of this philosophy. That is, the conclusion will seem absurd to the Jewish teacher. It is possible, Paul argues, for Gentiles to come out ahead of the Jewish people in the final judgment. The absurd conclusion is that Torah is irrelevant. Here is how Paul skewers the Jewish teacher on the pike of his own ideas.
Since everything is about what people deserve, ignorant Gentiles who lack the Torah could by following their conscience do what is right. It turns out that merely being the intended audience of the Torah gives no advantage. Doers of good deeds come out ahead of people who hear good Torah but don’t follow it. Gentiles could, with the Torah written on the heart (the human conscience) surpass Jews who have the written Torah.
“Absurd!,” we can almost hear the teacher say. Paul isn’t done.
Romans 2:17-29: Absurd Conclusions, Part 2
The Jewish teacher, who may be a specific figure Paul has heard is influencing the Roman disciples of Yeshua, is a common type in the Jewish diaspora. In Paul’s day, Jews living outside of Israel thought of themselves as being “in the diaspora,” the scattered places where Jews live outside the holy land. They are Jews in a Greco-Roman world, a minority. But they have some influence in Greco-Roman culture for two reasons.
First, the surrounding culture respects Judaism to some degree as ancient and veritable. Roman laws allow Jews to excuse themselves from patriotic duties at the shrines of deities and they are even allowed to forego public veneration of Caesar.
Second, a sub-set of non-Jews desires to share in some Jewish beliefs and practices. Some will go so far as to convert (become proselytes and through baptism and circumcision join Israel). Others attend Jewish communities as associate members, the God-fearers, who give to Jewish institutions and who are welcomed to a limited degree to partake in Jewish life.
The Jewish teacher is of a type in that world. He reaches out to God-fearing Gentiles with the message of the diaspora synagogue. We see in Romans 2:17-20 some of the Jews-are-superior rhetoric of the day. Jews rely on Torah and boast only in God. Torah allows Jews to have deep insight into what is excellent. Jews are educated in deep matters of divine revelation because of continual Torah study. Jews can be a light to the blind, teachers for the ignorant.
Beware, because Paul is buttering the teacher up in these verses only to turn up the heat. Jews, it turns out, are sinners too. The Torah and prophets even say so. Paul merely cites Isaiah 52:5 to prove that Jewish behavior can be so scandalous it causes non-Jews to curse God!
The teacher must have implied that circumcision gives Jews a moral advantage. If so, it was a foolish move. Neither the Torah nor historic Judaism have been in agreement with this idea.
But we can see how a synagogue representative or other Jewish teacher desiring to attract Gentiles might use such a vapid argument. “Become one of the circumcision and your moral sense will become heightened; study Torah and good works will fill your life; do good works and your reward will be eternal life.”
Paul easily reduces this idea to absurdity. Jews, who possess circumcision, are known to sin. Gentiles, who do not possess circumcision, are known to do good works. Will not a righteous Gentile be able to cast reproach on circumcised Jews who are not as a group entirely righteous?
Paul also believes there is an advantage to being Jewish. But this is not it. Circumcision of the foreskin has no moral effect. This is why Torah itself refers to a spiritual circumcision. Paul happens to believe Messiah has made a new era dawn in which God’s Spirit does enlighten human beings. Ritual conversion of a Gentile will not accomplish this.
Every person needs spiritual circumcision, an inner enlightenment that comes from God giving us revelation. Jew or non-Jew, we all need it.
Paul is not dismissing the value of Jewishness. He is obliterating the notion that mere Jewishness gives a person a moral advantage.
More to come in “Rereading Paul #5”
This explanation has gotten quite long. I will explain the rest in Part 5:
- Romans 3:1-20: The Jewish Teacher’s Easy Answers Demolished
- Romans 3:21-26: God’s Goodness Saves (Paul’s Voice)
- Romans 3:27-31: Salvation by Faithfulness (of God)
I’ll add one note here (mostly to remind myself): many translations butcher Romans 3:30. Take for example the RSV, “he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.” What’s wrong with this translation? The word “their” is not in the text. Compare the ESV, “who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” Much better. However, the word should be “faithfulness,” not “faith.” And it doesn’t mean our ability to believe God. It means God’s faithfulness shown in Messiah’s faithfulness to die for us.