Jewett Symposium: Purpose of Romans
What can one say about an author who has devoted 26 years to writing a commentary on one short text, even if it is – as he says – the most studied document of western civilization? Robert Jewett’s Romans, A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007) is the largest single commentary that I have handled on any biblical text and to my knowledge the most voluminous yet written on Romans. I say, to my knowledge, since to my knowledge more than 500 commentaries on Romans have been written since the 1600s; and that is just in English.
So what is different in Jewett’s commentary?
To begin, the Hermeneia series, by policy avoids any ‘application’ of the text to the contemporary pastoral situation. The series requires its commentators to adopt a strictly academic, non-hortatory approach. So this is not a commentary written for easy access to preachers or Bible Study leaders. Consistently, then, Jewett’s Romans in this series provides exhaustive referencing both to secondary and primary sources. We might have expected, then, that reading this text would be heavy going through a veritable forest of technicalities. These do occur in particular where Jewett identifies various rhetorical categories in Romans, yet at most other points the author writes with elegant and accessible simplicity. How he managed to maintain focus and seamless style throughout over twenty-six years is quite beyond my imagination and wins my very considerable admiration.
You will not expect that I will merely applaud and approve of this work. I do, indeed, have some points of disagreement since I am, like everyone here, an expert on Romans. Or think we are. I speak ironically since I doubt that very many are expert in Paul’s Magnum Opus and I for one am definitely not.
Our problem is familiarity. We who are Protestants all know it like no other text and we know what the Lord did through it to Augustine, Luther, Wesley and Barth, launching new streams of thought that changed the courses of history. But do we know it? The reality I suspect is that few know it, and – I repeat – I don’t claim to be one of them.
But I do have some points where I see things differently from Robert Jewett which, when I get to them I will make with great respect for one who has devoted so many years and whose work is the achievement of a lifetime.
Points of appreciation
So let me register some points of appreciation. First there is the magnificent scope of the book with a truly comprehensive introduction and massive bibliography. Between its covers there is a library of significant proportions. The information on manuscripts and texts of the epistle is exhaustive and, as it were, a book within a book. After all, any commentary on an ancient text needs to address the most likely reconstructed original.
Furthermore, Jewett’s known mastery of NT chronology undergirds his commentary throughout. These and other related items, which typify the Hermeneia series, adorn Robert Jewett’s commentary on Romans.
Points of agreement
Let me now go on to mention some points of agreement. Jewett is most likely correct in taking a traditional view of Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from Rome in ca. 49 and that this action was due to disturbances in the synagogues created by the preaching of Christ, that is, of Jesus as Messiah. Jewett is surely right against the opposing views of, for example, Murphy-O’Connor and Slingersland. I am curious, though, that Robert Jewett thinks that only Jewish leaders were expelled when the book of Acts says that ‘Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Italy’ (Acts 18:2).
Related is Jewett’s observation that the young Nero’s early years (i.e., after 54) were relatively calm and that displaced Jews were now able to return to the eternal city. His uncontroversial dating of Romans to ca. 57, then, means that Paul’s letter was addressed to a situation where Gentile believers were in a stronger position in the Christian community in Rome than the Jewish believers struggling to relocate and to re-establish themselves. Accordingly, Paul’s letter to the Romans is addressed to a specific and imaginable situation.
So I agree entirely with Jewett’s reconstruction of the Roman situation for Gentile and Jewish believers and likewise with his identification of the much debated ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ in chapters 14 and 15. The ‘strong’ are Gentile believers and ‘liberal’ Jews like Paul and his supporters and the ‘weak’ are Jewish believers who remain scrupulous about ‘days’ and ‘meat’.
So far so good. But now come some divergences, two in particular: The form of the Letter and the scenario of the Letter.
The Form of Romans
This relates to the possibility of classifying Romans rhetorically. Edwin Judge in 1967 lamented the absence of systematic understanding of rhetorical patterns contemporary with the NT as the means by which we can classify various NT texts like Romans rhetorically. Well, thank you Professor Judge. Robert Jewett’s Romans is profuse in its discovery and application of rhetorical patterns in this epistle. In brief, Jewett classifies Romans as an ambassadorial letter, which seems to be helpful.
But I have problems here. First, there is the question of Paul’s own education and cultural environment. By my figuring Paul was born ca. AD 5 and came or was brought by his family from Tarsus to Jerusalem when he was a pre-teen, that is, ca. AD 17. Soon afterwards, and for the next sixteen or seventeen years, he was enrolled in the academy of the foremost rabbi of the era, Gamaliel son or grandson of the great Hillel. He was, he says, an eminent scholar in the traditions of the fathers, something he then publicly demonstrated in his deadly assault on the Sect of the Nazarenes.
I am aware that classicists point to a Talmudic reference to Gamaliel’s academy having 500 students in the Torah and 500 students in ‘the wisdom of the Greeks’ and on that basis argue that Paul was at home in ‘the wisdom of the Greeks’ including mastery in Aristotle’s principles of rhetoric. Therefore, we can expect to find Paul at home in writing letter-speeches that can be classified according to Hellenistic categories. But can we? There is a contrary body of opinion that is not quite so sure. It acknowledges strands of rhetorical influence that are, as it were, informal and popular rather than academically purist. To force a Pauline letter into a rhetorical mould may not prove helpful in the end, though I am not saying that Robert Jewett goes quite that far.
Frankly we have no idea what Gamaliel’s alleged ‘500 students in the wisdom of the Greeks’ means and it is in any case a very late reference with – to my knowledge – no antecedent reference in the Jewish literature. Further, when we peruse Paul’s letters looking for his cultural background we find him to be a writer steeped in the Septuagint and other Greek versions of the Tanakh, as Hengel has demonstrated. What we do not find in Paul’s letters are quotations, echoes or allusions from the cultural world of classical Greek, except one or two.
So would his years as an apostle of Christ have provided Paul with the opportunities to become a master of Greek speech-rhetoric? We are able to divide Paul’s years between the Damascus Event and the Letter to the Romans into unequal parts. The period from Damascus to the second Jerusalem visit (Galatians 2:1-10) was (by my reckoning) fourteen years, a span sometimes known as ‘the unknown years’. These he spent in Damascus, Arabia (= Nabataea), Damascus, Judea, Syria-Cilicia. During these years in the Levant he appears to have interpreted the Damascus call to preach to Gentiles in terms of ministry to Jews and God-fearers in the synagogues, with the creation of churches in Syria-Cilicia limited to those latter ‘unknown’ years. When might Paul have taken the time or had the time to familiarise himself with the rhetorical skills that some scholars now attribute to this ex-Pharisee and persecutor? Perhaps in Gadara in the Decapolis (during his stint in ‘Arabia’), or when he returned to Tarsus. But both of these seem unlikely.
The second and briefer period is approximately a mere decade long, from that second Jerusalem meeting in ca. 47 (Galatians 2:1-10) and the Paul we see in the villa of Gaius in Corinth dictating Romans to Tertius. If it is difficult to envisage Paul having the opportunity to familiarise himself with speech-rhetoric in the earlier fourteen year phase it is even more difficult to do so in the second, frenetic, decade long period. Apart from the punishing travel itinerary he was based in settled situations for relatively brief periods, Corinth for a year and a half and Ephesus for 2-3 years. Since he worked by night as leather goods artisan and by day as a catechist there appears to have been little time for Paul to learn the skills that some modern scholars attribute to him.
Besides, what does his self-description as i?diw¿thß twˆ? lo/gwˆ (2 Cor 11:6) mean except just that, he was a ‘layman in speechifying’ an observation confirmed by his rhetorically savvy critics in the Achaian capital that his lo/goß was e?xouqenhme÷noß – his ‘speech is beneath contempt’. Even before he arrived first in Corinth he had decided not to come kaq? uJperoch\n lo/gou h· sofi÷aß, ‘not with lofty speech or wisdom’. It follows that if he was a layman in speech-rhetoric who consciously eschewed the attempt to be one that must also have been rhetorically true of his letters. That they were ‘weighty and strong’ in the eyes of the Corinthians does not at all mean that they were rhetorically accomplished, but rather that the Corinthians felt bullied and bamboozled by his arguments. They simply could not understand him (2 Cor 1:13). In any case, the Corinthian comments Paul echoes in 2 Cor 10:10 relate to his recent inconclusive visit to Corinth (where his bodily presence was weak) followed by his harsh ‘tearful’ letter. 2 Cor 10:10 has a precise historical context into which we should not read too much about Paul’s rhetorical letter-writing skills.
If Paul’s letters, including Romans are susceptible to classification rhetorically we would expect a level of unanimity if not consensus among modern scholars in rhetoric. But in my understanding modern authorities are anything but agreed as to how to classify Paul’s various epistles, Romans included.
Is it not more likely that, so far from being an accomplished rhetorician trained in a classical tradition, that Paul picked up some of the conventions along the way? By analogy one doesn’t have to do Media Studies 101 to pick up some of the ways journalists write newspaper pieces or TV news editors put together their stories. In the cut and thrust of debate in the marketplace a shrewd intellect like Paul likely learned a few verbal tricks along the way. But that hardly made him a rhetorician.
I have another problem with speech-rhetoric as a way of reading Paul’s letters. It is that once a particular species has been identified and a firm classification made one must force Paul’s text into that template. Is there not the danger here of a pre-identified hypothetical pattern becoming an exegetical straightjacket?
The other issue I see is the interplay between the text, the historical setting of the readers and the perceived purpose of the Letter to the Romans. A feature of Jewett’s Romans is that he is convinced of a quite specific scenario in Paul’s mind, namely that he is coming to Rome as a base from which to launch the Spanish mission.
Now it is clear that Paul wants the Romans to ‘speed him on his way’ (15:24, 28 – where propempein is a technical word for short term hospitality followed by the dispatch of a missionary onwards to his next port of call, furnished no doubt with some drachmas in his pocket and a supply of food). With customary thoroughness Robert discusses what Paul might expect to find in the Iberian peninsular and the huge logistic and linguistic difficulties Paul will face there and the extensive help he will need from believers in Rome.
My difficulty is that the commentary from first to last sees this scenario as the sole purpose Paul had in writing the letter and for coming to Rome. Is there not a danger here of using a single factor like this to direct and determine the exegetical understanding of other passages in the letter, especially those that seem remote from the Spanish mission.
Here Robert Jewett understands the itinerary of Paul’s missionary travels to have been determined by the prophecies in Isaiah 66:19.
And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Put, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations.
In 1979 Roger Aus wrote an article in which he identified Tarshish as Spain and that Paul’s intended Spanish mission was based on fulfilling Isaiah’s oracle. Robert Jewett depends to a degree on the Aus theory.
In an article published this year in NTS Andrew Das reviews the Aus identification Tarshish = Spain and Robert Jewett’s dependence upon it. After extensive review of evidence in the Hebrew Bible Das concludes ‘the evidence for a Spanish Tarshish is actually surprisingly tenuous’ (63). He reaches a similar negative conclusion from the NT era and observes that Rainer Riesner, for example, argues that Tarshish in Isaiah 66 was another place, namely Tarsus. Das observes: ‘No one would have identified Tarshish with southern Spain in Isaiah’s or Paul’s day’ (73).
The problem is that Robert’s commentary is interpreted through the two verses in Rom 15 about the Spanish mission. Das, however, concludes, ‘Paul refers to his plans for Spain very briefly in two verses within a single paragraph in Romans, and he does not in any way link the content of the letter with his future missionary endeavours. Whatever Paul’s reason for writing, the Spanish mission does not appear to be the primary rationale for writing. These two verses cannot bear the weight that has been placed on them’ (72).
Of course it is indisputable that Paul is planning to go on to Spain and that he directs the Roman believers to ‘send’ him there after he has ‘enjoyed their company for a little’ (15:24). But he is only planning a Spanish mission because (a) he ‘has fulfilled the gospel in an arc from Jerusalem to Illyricum’ where he has now run out of room to work, and (b) because he cannot engage in an extensive mission in Rome despite fervent past hopes to do so. Another has beaten him to it, establishing his own foundation, upon which Paul will not build (15:20).
In other words, the Spanish mission is a Plan B. This is clear enough from the letter. So should there not be more weight given to (a) the importance of this major letter itself, and (b) to Paul’s projected brief stopover in which he will further explain the purpose and contents of the letter? After all, if Paul’s only concern was to establish Rome as a base from which to a launch a westward mission why does he need to write so lengthy and so densely argued a letter? A one-page note, such as to Philemon, would have been sufficient. I think there is a lot to be said for the view that Paul wrote the letter as a substitute for himself and the extended teaching mission he had long hoped for and which he knows he cannot now fulfil. He will not build on another’s foundation but is honour bound to work in virgin territory.
An alternative scenario and an alternative purpose
As an alternative proposal may I suggest that when in ca. 47 Paul decided in principle for an all out mission to the Gentiles launched from Antioch-on-the-Orontes that he planned soon to proceed towards and to the gentile-world capital, Rome. By this hypothesis once Paul reached Macedonia in ca. 49 he could have and would have pressed on then and there to Rome. He could have travelled across Macedonia via the Egnatian Road and arrived in Rome within two weeks of leaving Philippi. But in that very year Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome making it impossible for Paul to come to Rome. So meantime Paul must fill in time, which he did in Achaia and Asia. Once Claudius was dead (in 54), however, Paul will make plans at last to press on to Rome. But first he must complete the Collection and bring it to Jerusalem. But along the way news has come of ‘another’ foundation layer in Rome (Peter?) and this meant that despite all hopes he cannot bring his mission in person to the world capital of the Gentiles. Instead he formulated a plan to go to Spain but now only via Rome. The letter must do what Paul in his absence cannot now do in person.
But – in my opinion – other things have been going on in Paul’s circumstances that better explains the purpose of the letter than the Spanish hypothesis. This perspective has the advantage of accommodation to Melanchton’s view of Romans as a ‘compendium’ of Paul’s theology. That is not a view of the letter that I share; the letter is occasional. Yet it is compendious and measured in ways unique within the Pauline corpus. And why is it so? Because Paul by the letter seeks to authenticate himself as the apostle to the Gentiles and thereby establish himself by what he writes as worthy of their obedience (15:16) and a source of their ‘strengthening’ (16:25).
So while I agree that the historical setting insofar as we know it is helpful in determining Paul’s purpose, including the proposed Spanish mission, some caution is needed. Likewise we must look carefully at the actual content and argument of the letter. Let me suggest three noteworthy elements in the letter.
First, I think it is important to highlight explicit verbs of command or exhortation as providing vital clues to the purpose of the letter. Imperatival verbs often tell us more in this regard than indicative verbs. It is striking that only a few such verbs appear in the first part of the letter (e.g., 5:1; 6:11, 12, 13, 19; [7:25; 8:12]) and these are general whereas, in chapters 11-15 the commands are more prominent and more specific (11:13-28; 12:1-13:14; 14:1-15:7, 30-33).
These latter imperatives call for unity and service within the body of believers in Rome, which is not yet a body, including unity of heart and mind between the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’. Furthermore, Paul’s instruction to the readers to ‘greet’ his mission supporters in Rome (chapter 16) is another hint that the securing of Pauline apostolic unity in Rome is his major concern.
The earlier chapters speak of the same power of sin ruling both Jews and Gentiles that is overcome by the one means, the propitiatory death of Christ. This is matched in chapters 12-15 by the need for the one body of Gentiles and Jews together worshipping and serving the one God and Father. In other words, the material in Romans is so detailed and dense and substantial that the concern for the Spanish mission, though real, is secondary to other concerns.
Connected, second, are the interleaved alternating addresses to Gentile and Jewish readers in the letter. Broadly:
3:21-31 Jews and Gentiles
5:1-11 Jews and Gentiles
5:12-21 Jews and Gentiles
8-9 Jews and Gentiles
12-14 Jews and Gentiles
In light of this interleaving of Jews and Gentiles I see 3:28-30 as critical:
For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also?
Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.
To this text in chapter 3 we note a matching text in chapter 15:5-6
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement
grant you to live in such harmony with one another,
in accord with Christ Jesus,
that together you may with one voice
glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul is concerned that unity in redemption be expressed concretely in unity at table and unity at worship. I think we hear Paul’s heartbeat most clearly in these verses from chapters 3 and 15.
The God who is One will justify sinners among Jews and Gentiles – the descendants of the common father Adam – in one and the same way, hence the need for both to find unity of worship and service in the one body, as in chapters 12-16.
Likely significant is the frequency of reference to ‘God’ in Romans, where the divine name appears per page more densely than in any other NT book. Along with ‘God’ are the numerous references to ‘all’:
All are under sin
The gospel is the power of God for all who believe
The righteousness of God through faith for all who believe
One man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal for all who believe
The same Lord is Lord of all
All shall stand before the judgement seat of God
The Spanish mission seems secondary alongside these points of theology that Paul makes with such intensity again and again.
Important within the letter, third, is the role of the interlocutor. He appears first in chapter 2 and reappears throughout until chapter 11. The thing is: his questions, which are really objections to Paul’s argument, come from just one quarter and it is a Jewish quarter. For much of the letter Paul is answering Jewish objections to Paul’s ‘gospel’. Are they Jewish Christian objections or outright Jewish objections? This may be a false dichotomy since conservative Jewish Christians remained Jews and likely retained strong links of fellowship with Jews in the synagogues. My point is that the interlocutor articulates Jewish objections to Paul’s circumcision free, grace-based, Christ-centred, Spirit empowered gospel.
Am I stretching too long a bow to connect the interlocutor with those Paul condemns near the end. He has bidden the Roman believers to greet several dozen named persons, many of whom were approved members in the Pauline mission. Then, as if by contrast, he warns the readers
Take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties,
in opposition to the teaching you have learned
(para» th\n didach\n h§n uJmei?ß ejma/qete -16:17)
Here the language exactly matches the earlier reference to the teaching the readers ‘learned’ at their baptisms (6:1-4, 17). The opponents are hostile to Paul’s doctrines and the interlocutor represent those who are opposed to Paul’s doctrines. So are they from the same group? I think so.
Now I don’t want to do what I think Robert Jewett may have done, that is, tie the exegesis of the whole letter too closely to one possible scenario (i.e., the Spanish mission). I really want to take a looser approach. In that spirit let me propose a scenario that in broad terms makes sense of Roman and the purpose Paul had in writing.
It all goes back to his request to the Jerusalem pillars in ca. 47 to ‘go’ to the Gentiles.
That ‘going’ proved not to be what the Jerusalem leaders had expected. Paul’s ‘full on’ mission to Gentiles included not only God-fearers but also outright idolaters and in disturbingly great numbers. Soon enough it became clear that Paul was establishing an elaborate alternative network of messianic assemblies in the Diaspora that were increasingly marked by Gentile membership.
Almost from the beginning of his westward, Rome-wards mission opposition to Paul arose from those Christian Jews who were more conservatively to the ‘right’ than the pillars, James, Peter and John. These Christian Jews were Pharisee-connected, who sought to judaise Paul’s Gentiles, in particular by circumcising male Gentiles as well as imposing dietary and calendrical practices upon them. Either directly or indirectly this Jewish-Christian counter-mission had already reached Antioch in Syria, Colonia Antiocheia in Pisidia and Achaia seeking to judaise Paul’s Gentile converts. Paul made his reply to this in passionate terms in Second Corinthians in the mid-50s and, I propose, also in Romans a year or so later (which was written from Corinth) but in more systematic, measured terms.
I do not suggest necessarily that the counter-mission apostles had yet reached Rome, as they had already reached nearby Corinth. But Paul knew that sooner or later their anti-Paul polemic would become potent in Rome (as indeed proved to be the case soon afterwards, as is evident in Philippians). I propose, then, that Romans is best understood as written out of Paul’s experiences of the counter-mission during the past decade and his desire to insulate Roman believers in his mission and others from its influence.
At the same time, however, despite the Jewish polemic against him Paul was not anti-Semitic and indeed saw a great future for his fellow Jews. Indeed, his mission to the Gentiles was conducted for the very purpose of ingathering the fullness of Israel, on account of the irrevocable promises of God to the patriarchs. Having ‘fulfilled the gospel’ in the east, and having no long-term legitimacy in Rome because of the other foundation-layer, Paul will continue that divine programme in the extreme west, in Spain. But as much as anything else, this was to demonstrate that God had not finished with his historic people Israel but would continue to gather them in as Paul was continuing to gather in the fullness of the Gentiles as he moved to the western extremity of the known world.
So the Spanish mission was important to Paul and he wants it to be also to the Romans, but it was a secondary concern. His prime concern was to authenticate himself as apostle to the Gentiles and to secure the unity of the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ in Rome in their united fellowship with one another and in their common worship of the Father.
3rd June, 2008.