How to Read Romans (Part 2): Greco-Roman Diatribe

Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles


If you are familiar with the book of Acts and with Paul’s letters, you will be aware that he was given a specific calling to take the gospel to the Gentiles.  This doesn’t mean he ministered exclusively to Gentiles, as Acts records him preaching the gospel in synagogues to both Jews and Gentiles, (although he usually got kicked out of the synagogues pretty quickly). However, he very much saw his calling as being a missionary to the Gentiles.

For example:

And when they [Paul and Barnabas] arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. (Acts 14:26)

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—  assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you (Ephesians 3:1-2)

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8)

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,  was pleased to reveal his Son to[e] me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16)

On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised  (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), (Galations 2:7-8)

But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be pa minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:15-16)

The fact that his primary calling was to the Gentiles is very much reflected in the way he wrote his letters. Again, I think it would wrong to think that Paul exclusively ministered to Gentiles, so don’t misunderstand me as saying that his letters are only meant to be read by Gentiles and not valuable for Jews as well. Paul most certainly wanted Jews and Gentiles to see themselves as equals and brothers and sisters in one family of God.  However, if you read his letters he seems to, in general, primarily have new Gentile converts in mind as his target audience (and so much so that he even speaks of being entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised).

For example, consider the various places where he specifically addresses Gentiles, and the absence of him ever specifically addressing 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.
(Ephesians 2:11-12)

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry (Romans 11:13)

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ on behalf of you Gentiles (Ephesians 3:1)

There are several other places in his letters where he just seems to assume that it is new Gentile converts that have recently left idolatry behind, who are hearing his letters:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature
are not gods. (Galations 4:8)

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. (1 Thessalonians 1:9)

You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however, you were lead. (1 Corinthians 12:2)


Romans 2-4, seems to be the one exception, however (technically he says “we ourselves are Jews” in Galatians 2:15, but he is recounting a conversation he had with Peter, not addressing any of his listeners).

From the beginning of Romans 2 to the end of Romans 4, he seems to be very specifically addressing Jews (…or a Jew, but more on that later). For example:

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God (Romans 2:17)

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. (Romans 2:28)

What then? Are we Jews any better off? (Romans 3:9a)

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? (Romans 4:1)*

*Elsewhere, such as in Galatians, or 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to Gentile Christians as children of Abraham, but not ‘according to the flesh’, that would be a clear indicator that he is speaking to Jews specifically.

This section has made many come to the conclusion that Romans was written to a much more mixed congregation than the other congregations to which Paul wrote, and thus he was much more addressing Jews and Gentiles in Romans rather than his usual more specific Gentile focus, in his other letters.

Looking Closer


A closer look, however, might reveal that something peculiar is going on. If we again, make a Thomas Jefferson Bible and snip out Romans 1:18-4:25, Romans would very much read similarly to Paul’s other letters, appearing to primarily have the Gentile in mind.

For example in the intro we see this:

Through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations* [Gentiles], including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, (Romans 1:5-6)

*the Greek word ‘ethnos’ can be translated either nation or Gentile.

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Romans 1:13-15)

Then in the closing we see the following, seemingly indicating that the reason he had written boldly because of his specific calling to preach Christ to the Gentiles:

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,

“Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” (Romans 15:14-21)

Then we have the following Passages:

Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? (Romans 7:1)

Here Paul speaks to “those who know the law.” Now it’s possible this refers to Jews, however, it could also refer to God-fearing Gentiles that had already had an association with the synagogue, or perhaps a combination of the two. Either way, it is quite notable, I think, that he didn’t say “we Jews” like he did in chapter 3.

Then in chapter 9 when talking about unbelieving Jews he says:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:3-5)

Why was Abraham in chapter 4, “our father according to the flesh”, and “we Jews” in chapter 3, but now in chapter 9, unbelieving Israelites, are “my kinsmen according to the flesh.”

In Romans 11:13, he seems to make clear that the primary audience of this section (9-11), is Gentiles.

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. In as much then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry. (Romans 11:3)

So if 1:18, through the end of 4 wasn’t there, I again would think that Romans was very much like Paul’s other letters, of value to both Jews and Gentiles, but primarily speaking to new Gentiles converts do to Paul’s focus and calling to be a missionary to the Gentiles.

Changes in Voice


There are some other peculiarities as well:

I mentioned this in the last post, but 1:18-32 speaks exclusively in the third person plural (i..e they, there, them), this seems quite odd as in 1:1-1:17, Paul is addressing the church and speaks exclusively in the first person, or second person plural (you plural).

Why the sudden shift 1:18-1:32?  Why the change to exclusively third-person plural (i.e. they, their)?

Then again in chapter 2, it changes to 2nd person singular (you singular), seemingly indicating he is speaking to a single individual.

Then in chapters 3-4, everything becomes 1st person plural (i.e. we Jews, our forefather). In other words, he is now he seems to be speaking exclusively to Jews (…our perhaps the Jew in the last chapter).

Then from  4:24 to the end of the letter, he seems to shift back to addressing the church in general (speaking in the second person plural), while at sometimes addressing Gentiles in particular, again in step with the rest of his letters.

What’s Going on?

1st Century Greco-Roman Diatribe


Well, I believe all of our conundrums that I’ve built up to this point, are dissolved when we realize that Romans makes use of a particularity type of 1st-century Greco-Roman oral rhetoric technique called ‘diatribe’ (not the same as the modern usage of the word diatribe).

What is Greco-Roman diatribe?

Diatribe is an ancient Greco-Roman oral teaching method that often included the following features:

– Imaginary opponents
– Question and answer format
– Hypothetical questions considered
– False conclusions refuted or rejected

Diatribe was more of a Socratic type of teaching method. By Socratic, I mean a teaching method that is more of a dialogue meant to stimulate critical thinking in its audience in order to lead them to a particular conclusion rather than just plainly stating your points.

It can be much more powerful to help someone arrive at a conclusion through their own use of critical thinking rather than just telling them what to believe and it is a much more effective way to persuade someone from a position they might hold or be tempted to hold, to a position that you believe to be a superior one.

Why would an oral teaching method be used when writing a letter you may ask?

Well, according to New Testament scholars such as Douglas Campbell and Ben Witherington III, New Testament letters were almost all written in order to be orally performed to an audience. So then, it is better to think of the NT epistles as actually more of a written down oral speech meant to be delivered to an audience, rather than a modern letter written from one literate person to another and meant to be read individually. As a result, they contain quite a few Grecko-Roman rhetorical techniques, that, if you’re not familiar with, can be easily missed (in our case, diatribe, in Romans).

Putting it all together

What does all this mean then, and how does reading Romans as a diatribe help resolve the conflicts I’ve been building up to this point.

In Romans 1:18-4:24, in particular, I believe Paul is engaging in a Socratic argument with an imaginary Jewish opponent.

I will build a case up for who this imaginary Jew was and what his teaching was in the next two posts, but for now, I will just say that I believe him to be a rival Jewish missionary, preaching what Paul considered a false gospel to the Gentiles.

Now let’s look at how this changes how we read Romans 1:18 through the end of chapter 4.

First off, we can realize 1:18-3:20 is not ‘part 1 of Paul’s gospel’, but instead a Socratic deconstruction of rival Jewish missionaries false gospel.

Rather than Paul seemingly expressing rather harsh and condemning views toward unbelieving Gentiles and Jews in Romans 1 and 2 respectively, we can now see that Romans 1:18-32, represents a speech in character where Paul is speaking in the voice of an imaginary rival Jewish missionary and that this imaginary opponent is, in fact, the one speaking harsh and condemning words toward Gentiles.

In a diatribe you always let your opponent speak first, perhaps expressing a view that many of your audience would at first agree with, then you turn around and Socratically deconstruct the opposing view persuading your audience to your point of view.

Thus we see Paul do this very thing beginning in Romans 2. Thus chapter 2 is not Paul stereotyping and condemning all Jews in general as judgment hypocrites, but instead him calling out the hypocrisy and judgemental behavior of a JEW, and is actually in somewhat of a parodying manners showing the absurdity of his rivals false gospel (for example the rival missionary opened by saying that the Gentiles were “without excuse” (1:2), then in 2:1, Paul says that he is “without excuse.”  Then Paul’s rival concludes by saying that “those who do such things deserve to die” (1:32), then in 2:2, Paul will quote this “we know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such thing,” but instead apply it to the opponents judgemental attitude.

Some of his examples of Jewish hypocrisy at the end then (adultery, stealing, and temple robbing), are then not intended to be stereotypes of Jews in general, but instead examples of weaknesses of this rival Jewish missionaries ‘gospel.’  I will expand on this more when we get to chapter 2, but for now, consider the following example, which hopefully will help you to get the gist of how to read it:

I was once in a conversation with someone who told me the real problem with humanity was a lack of education and if we just got everyone proper education all crime would cease.  I said “well are you aware that the unibomber was a Berkley math proefessor?  It seems like he was pretty inteligent and educated, yet it didn’t stop him from doing some pretty heinous crimes.”

Here I was providing an example to show the weakness of his ‘false gospel’ (that education necesarily makes you more moral and will provide salvation for humanity).

The example I provided was merely to reduce his argument to absurdity, and it then provided an opportunity for me to say that I believed humanities actual deepest problem was sin and death which we were enslaved to from birth and humanities real hope was for Jesus to transform our hearts and set us free from sin and death, through his death and resurection.

It would be twisting my words tremendously, however, to conclude that I was arguing that education is thus of no value, or even more so to conclude that I was saying that all highly educated people turn out like the unibomber.

Neither was I trying to state that ‘Part 1’ of the gospel is that man can’t achieve salvation through education.

I believe that reading Romans this way resolves all the conflicts I brought up to this point (including the first post about the problems with the Protestant gospel, which comes from misreading Romans 1-4 as Paul stating his gospel systematically).

We can now realize that far from providing ammo for believers to condemn both unbelieving Jews and Gentiles, he is very much speaking against these type of attitudes.

This also makes sense of the out of character part (not just for Paul in general but for the rest of the letter), where he speaks of “we Jews” and “our Father according to the flesh.” Paul is actually having a conversation with another Jew for the sake of teaching the audience. Far from departing his normal mode of primarily having the Gentile in mind the epistle to the Romans is quite in step with the rest of his letters in this respect.

Here’s how the basic outline of Romans 1:18-4:24 looks when reading Romans as a 1st-century diatribe vs reading it in the traditional manner:

Traditional Reading:

1:1-15 – Introudction

1:16-17 – Thesis

Begining of Systematic Presentation of the Gospel

Part 1: The Problem

1:18 -32 – All Gentiles are under sin

2:1 – 2:29 – All Jews are under sin

3:1-3:20 – Everyone is under sin

Part 2: The Solution

3:21-3:31 – Salvation by faith

4:1-4:24 – Example of Salvation by faith (Abraham)


Reading Romans as Diatribe:

1:1-15 – Introduction

1:16-17 – Thesis

Begining of Diatribe

1:18-32 – The Rival Missionaries Opening Statement

2:1-2:29 – Paul’s response (reduces the rival missionaries ‘gospel’ to absurditiy by universalizing it)

3:1-9 – Paul engages in a socratic question and answer with the rival missionary

3:10-20 – Paul quotes from scripture to deliver the final knockout blow of his opponents false gospel, concluding with “by works of the law no man will be saved”

3:21-3:26 – Paul gives a summary of his gospel

3:27-31 – Now Paul responds to the rival missionaries questions about his gospel

4:1-4:24 – Paul uses the story of Abraham to further illustrate the answers he gave to the questions the rival missionary posed to him at the end of chapter 4

4:25 – Paul transitions into presenting his gospel now that he has dispelled the opponents false gospel (…”Now that we have been justified by faith”)

If you’re still skeptical, I believe the case for this reading will get even stronger over the next two posts as I will examine what would have compelled Paul to decompose a false gospel of a rival Jewish missionary and what the false gospels was actually teaching.

In the first post, I will examine the internal clues within Romans, and compare these clues with other Biblical accounts in Acts and Galatians. Then in the final post about how to read Romans, we will examine the numerous reference to the 2nd temple Jewish work, the Wisdom of Solomon, throughout the book of Romans, and what Paul’s use of this text tells us about the views of his opponent.


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