Reading New Testament Epistles
When reading New Testament epistles, it is always good to remember that the New Testament letters were written to a specific group of people for a specific purpose. This means that although we recognize that these letters were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and thus are to be read as the very Words of God, to be of value and authority for all believers in all times, they were not written in a more general way to a general audience.
Thus to really understand the meaning, and how it applies to us today, it is important that we first make an attempt, to understand why the letter was originally written and how the original audience would have understood it. This can be difficult to figure out, at times, since the original recipients would have obviously know the contextual settings, and also been able to talk to the person that delivered and read the letter. Therefore, much of the contextual clues are absent from the letters as they would have been assumed by the original audience.
We will never be able to reconstruct the contextual settings with 100% certainty, but thankfully, we can get a good idea by examining the internal evidence within the letters (such as where they specifically state a problem that they are addressing), the early church history recorded for us in the book of Acts, and other historical documents that give us an idea of what the surrounding culture was like.
For example, Galatians refutes the teaching that one can be saved by “works of the law” (Gal 2:16), and the speaks a lot about circumcision. Acts 15 contains almost a full chapter describing a debate that ensued regarding how certain Jews were teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and follow the Torah in order to be saved, and how Paul strongly disagreed with this stance (and his position was upheld by the apostles). This adds a lot of insight into how to interpret the book of Galatians.
Colossians warns against people that were teaching “asceticism and worship of angels” (Col 2:18) We can study early Jewish movements that taught asceticism and angelic worship and get incite into the problems that were going on in Colossi, and how Paul was using the gospel to combat these teachings.
1 Corinthians addresses several problems within a church. From the problems it addresses and from Paul’s instructions to them it easy to tell that the letter was written to a church planted from Paul of which many of it’s members had come from pagan backgrounds and were still quite immature in their faith and living very carnally, making for some messy situations, of which Paul gives instructions on how to handle.
Others, however, such as Ephesians, don’t seem to necessarily address a specific problems, and are thus a bit more generic, clearly laying out the gospel message and it’s practical implications for the church. A letter like Ephesians doesn’t necessarily require understanding the context as much then (although even with Ephesians there is internal evidence that Paul wrote it from and prison (Eph 3:1) and understanding this gives us incite that we should consider this one to be very important as it is likely Paul wanted to make sure he got a letter out consisting of the core of his gospel message and its implications for the churches in case he died in prison).
So why was Romans written?
So back to Romans, why was it written, and should we consider it to be a letter addressing a more specific problem or false teaching, or should it be read more like Ephesians as a more general ‘gospel manifesto’ that was entirely Paul just expounding the gospel message and it’s implications for the church?
Most commonly Romans has been understood to be the latter, a letter that was written more generically to lay out the gospel message to the Romans. It is thus assumed that Paul wrote a systematic doctrine of salvation, and then practical applications that flow from this.
For example here’s an exert from the introduction to a Roman’s Bible Study I recently went through with some coworkers:
“Paul’s letter to the Roman church is a bit of a departure in that it is not a letter of correction, as many of his other letters to churches around the Middle East were. The epistle was not meant to correct the Roman church of any wrong teaching or behavior, but to bolster its faith, praising the church’s member for their faithfulness…This letter to the Romans is a more doctrinal letter. It is perhaps the premier doctrinal letter to the Christian church”
I believe the view expresses here, is by far the most common view of Romans among Protestant Christians.
Thus, Romans in then viewed as Paul systematically laying out his gospel in 1:18 through the end of chapter 4 layed out the following way:
Traditional Reading of Romans 1:18-4:24
1:18 – 3:20 ,Part 1 of Paul’s gospel: the problem: God acts in retributive justice and all of humanity has sinned thus all are under his wrath. (With 1:18-32, being about the Gentiles and 2:1-3:9, being about the Jews)
3:21-3:36, ‘Part 2’ The solution: Justification by faith alone.
Chapter 4: an example of justification by faith alone through the life of Abraham
Then the rest of Romans is read as the implications of this gospel.
An Alternative View: Uniting Jews and Gentiles
Some, however, have seen that a more careful reading of Romans show that there does seem to be problems that Paul is addressing in the letter. For example Paul, in chapter 14, addresses weaker brothers and stronger brothers (in regards to eating meet), and also some who consider one day as more important than others and ones who regard all days as equally important. Most take these to be a reference to Jewish kosher/dietary laws, and Sabbath observance.
Furthermore Acts 18:2 mentions that emperor Claudius kicked all of the Jews out of Rome, than according to historical accounts, this ban was lifted about 5 years later they were allowed to come back to Rome.
Finally, Paul mentions at the end of Romans that he wants them to be united so that they can help him go to Spain on his missionary journey (15:24).
The reconstructed theory then, from all this data, is that the Roman church was a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, that became predominantly Gentile when the Jews were kicked out. Then when the Jews were allowed back there was a lot of conflict between the Jews and Gentiles within the church, and specifically some of the issues revolved around Gentiles not following Jewish Sabbath observance and dietary laws.
The theory then is that Paul used the gospel of salvation by faith alone to unite Jewish and Gentile believers in their common need for salvation and then used this to dissolve the conflict that was ensuing.
For example this view can be seen here:
Issues with both theories
While I think that the alternative theory is getting closer as to why Romans was written, I believe there are, however, are some major issues with both views.
Although the alternative view challenges the idea that Paul wasn’t just ‘laying out a presentation of the gospel’ and (rightly in my opinion) argues that instead he WAS actually addressing a problem, and in fact a major component of that problem had to do with division between Jews and Gentiles, it still more or less assumes the traditional reading of Romans 1-4. Particularly that Romans 1:18-32 is making a case that all Gentiles are under sin, and Romans 2 is making a case that all Jews are under sin (thus the idea in the alternative view would be that Paul is creating a common starting point for showing both Jews and Gentiles their need for good news of salvation by faith alone).
Here are 2 issues I see with, I this view:
1)I will go more in detail when we get to Romans 1:18-32, but a good starting point to begin understanding what Paul is doing in this passage, in my opinion, is to read it and underline every time you see ‘they’, ‘their’, or ‘them’ appear. It will be a lot! In fact you will find every thing in this section is in the 3rd person plural. In 1:1-17 Paul addresses the church and speaks to you (plural, as Greek differentiates between you plural and you singular), then there is a clear shift starting in verse 18, where Paul begins speaking about THEM and then at the start of chapter 2 there is another clear shift in voice where he begins addressing YOU (singular).
I believe the traditional understanding is right to see 1:18-32, as primarily about Gentiles, as it specifically refers to ‘them’ as being given over to sinful desires and the primary sins are ones that pagan Gentiles would be involved in (i.e. idolatry/homosexuality). However what many seem to have missed is that not only is it about pagan Gentiles, it is about THOSE pagan Gentiles. It is about THEM. In other words, the outsiders, or the unbelievers.
Remember it’s clear from the introduction and letter contents, that Paul is not writing an evangelistic tract, but is primarily writing this letter to believers in Rome, as 1:1-17 (and the rest of the letter outside of 1:18-4:24) is speaking to the church, hence it seems that it would be assumed that most of them had renounced idolatry and sexual immorality.
You may think, well maybe Paul was just reminding them where they came from. Well it seems he would say ‘you’ then. For example in Ephesians 2:1 he does remind the believers where they were before they were saved, but here it is ‘you’, as we would expect, since he’s addressing the church.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins…(Ephesians 2:1)
And in fact if we read just a little bit further in Romans, he speaks this way in the very same letter!
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regards to righteousness (Romans 6:20)
Paul does address believers who are engaging in sexual immorality and idolatrous practices in other letters (usually quite sternly), for example 1 Corinthians, but it is always in a way that is instructing, warning, or rebuking BELIEVERS.
For example in 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 Paul warns the believers not to go back to their formal lifestyle when they were pagan idolaters, and instead reminds them that that is not who they are anymore:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-12)
Previously, however, in 1 Corinthians 5:9-12, Paul clarifies that he is NOT instructing them to be judgmental towards outsiders engaging in sexual immorality.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? (1 Corinthians 5:9-12)
In another place, in Titus 3:1-6, we see Paul list the types of sins that the believers were engaged in before Christ saved them, as a reminder to stay humble, gracious, and non-judgmental towards unbelievers.
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 3:1-6)
Furthermore, Paul’s approach to addressing Gentiles in a way to unify them towards the Jews, was generally to remind them that before Christ saved them, they were cut off from Israel and the promises of God, and that this should keep them humble towards even the unbelieving Jews.
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-13)
do not be arrogant toward the branches [unbelieving Jews that had been cut off]. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. (Romans 11:18)
So in short, read in the traditional manner (as an attempt to show that all Gentiles are under sin), it seems to be not only very uncharacteristic of Paul’s attitude towards outsiders, but extremely counter-intuitive towards his supposed intentions. It seems the traditional reading would just be giving Gentile believers ammo to be judgmental towards unbelievers.
2)The second main problem, I see with this view, is that when you read Romans 2 as ‘Paul showing all Jews to be under sin as well’, you have to believe that Paul has a pretty negative view towards Jews in general. For example, you would have to conclude that Paul is essentially calling all Jews judgmental hypocrites (2:1), adulterers, thieves and temple robbers (2:21-23)…a position that might be considered a bit judgmental by some 🙂
Secondly, in chapter 2, everything is in 2nd personal singular (you singular), so he is either addressing a specific Jew or a hypothetical Jew representing all Jews. So again it seems quite odd that he would bring such a harsh word and have it be toward those outside the church.
Furthermore, it you then believe that when Paul addresses the conflicts about ‘considering one day more important than another’, or weather or not to eat meat, as being about Jewish dietary laws and Sabbath observance, you have to conclude that he was calling Jews who still ate kosher and followed the Sabbath as “weaker brothers,” which would be odd, since Paul himself claimed to still be following the Jewish law in Acts 21:4, and considered ‘one day to be more important than another’ to the point that he was still observing the Sabbath (as was his custom), and he even left his missionary journey in Ephesus so that he could be in Jerusalem to keep a Jewish feast (Acts 18:21).*
*To be fair this part of the passage is believed by most modern translators to be a later copyist addition and not in the original manuscript, and thus doesn’t appear in many of the newer translations, however this still provides evidence that many early on believed that to be the reasons for him to go to Jerusalem and thus added it for clarification.
Note: I will make a longer defense when I get to this point, but I think it’s much more likely a reference to eating meat sacrificed to idols (a very common theme in Paul’s letters) and ‘weak brothers’ are references those whose conciseness were ‘weak’ in regards to it being okay to eat the meat (just like how he uses the term in 1 Corinthians). In other words they had greater concern about accidentally eating meat sacrificed to idles and thus were not eating meat at all. Thus ‘weaker’ was not a derogatory term towards people who didn’t know they didn’t have to eat kosher anymore, it just indicated someone that was more sensitive to avoid anything that could have association with idolatry.
It is important to take note that it says ‘some only eat vegetables’, not ‘some don’t eat pork’, so there is no reason to believe this has anything to do with Jewish kosher laws. There are also alternate explanations for the days being more important, than just it being about the Sabbath, but I will save that until we get to that part).
It seems quite strange of Paul then, that after this harsh condemning of the Jews that Paul would go on to express that he wishes he could be cut off so that his fellow Jews could be joined to Christ (in chapter 9), and then go on to warn the Gentiles not to be arrogant towards the unbelieving Jews in Romans 11.
Untangling the mess
Was Paul just a bit confused, schizophrenic, and incompetent?
Did he really just give believers sufficient ammo to be arrogant and judgmental towards unbelieving pagans Gentiles, then follow it up by providing one of the best texts to fuel Christian antisemitism and negative stereotypes about Jews and he somehow thought this was going to bring unity between Jewish and Gentile believers?
Or could we be subtly misreading some parts of Romans (particularly the opening chapters)?
Well, I for one think Paul was a bit sharper than this and in the next post I will argue why I believe the traditional view (and the most popular alternative view) has subtly been misreading the opening chapters of Romans, and offer a better alternative (mainly derived from Douglas Campbell’s book The Deliverance of God)
In the next 3 posts, we will look at 3 things that will help us make sense of the book of Romans, and resolve the tensions that I have built up in the last 2 posts:
1)1st century Grecko-Roman diatribe.
2)The Judaizers (and Romans similarities to Galatians).
3)Recognizing Paul’s use of the 2nd temple Jewish work, the Wisdom of Solomon, throughout the book of Romans.