Monday, February 22, 2010

The Significance of Romans 1–2: When Jews Are Gentiles, and Gentiles Are Jews

There is a popular understanding of Rom 1–2 which says that in Rom 1:18–32 Paul convicts Gentiles of sin, and in Rom 2 he convicts Jews of sin. But this view is too simplistic.

Romans 1:18–32 should actually be viewed as forming a section with 2:1–29. This is evident from the fact that the language of Rom 2:1–3 refers back to the content of Rom 1:18–32. The word therefore in 2:1 links the beginning of the chapter in very closely with what has gone before. The phrases the very same things (2:1) and such things (2:2–3) do likewise.

So, Rom 1:18–2:29 should be treated as a common section, in which Paul is concerned to develop his first line of argument against his diatribal opponent. Paul's line of argument is developed over two stages, which then corresponds to the two main sub-sections of this section: 1:18–32 and 2:1–29.

In 1:18–32, Paul paints a picture of God’s wrath revealed from heaven against all instances of sin. This wrath is a pre-eschatological expression of God’s wrath that is pan-ethnic in nature. Even though the content of this sub-section is often thought of as being a description of God’s wrath directed against Gentiles, this is to misunderstand the nature of Paul’s argument. Even though some of the major sins enumerated here (such as idolatry and homosexual sin) were particularly associated in the Jewish mind with Gentiles rather than Jews, it should be noted that Paul does not use ethnic labels in 1:18–32. Instead, he employs the universal language of humanity (1:18). Then in 2:1 he applies this divine wrath to the unbelieving Jew of his day. The argument in 1:18–32 is, therefore, preparatory to that found in 2:1–29.

It is almost as if Paul has set his Jewish opponents a trap. In 1:18–32 he draws them in. "Yes, what else would you expect from Gentile sinners!" you can almost hear his Jewish opponents saying. But then in 2:1–5, 17-24 he turns the tables on his Jewish opponents, accusing them of the very same sins for which they had despised the Gentiles. "Got you!" says Paul. So, Rom 1:18–32 is actually preparatory to the main part of the first-line of his argument, which is given in 2:1–29.

In the second sub-section (2:1–29), Paul applies God’s wrath particularly to his non-Christian Jewish opponents, and in doing so he asserts the principle of a universal judgment according to works (2:6). The main function of the argument in this sub-section is to apply the principle of a universal judgment according to works to both Jew and Gentile in an attempt to destroy the fence of covenant righteousness that the Jewish covenantal exclusivists had built around themselves. On the one hand, he assumes that his Jewish opponents are sinners in need of repentance (2:4–5); and on the other hand, he asserts the possibility of Gentiles keeping the law (2:14–15, 26–27).

Paul engages his Jewish opponents in a virtual way through the use of diatribe. The rhetorical device of diatribe involves a writer or speaker taking on the persona of a debater conducting an argument against an opponent. It is characterized by direct address of one's opponent and the use of second person pronouns (e.g., 2:1–5, 17–19, 21–25), and by the extensive use of questions that embody the argument of one's opponents, which the rhetorician then bounces off to argue his case further (e.g., 3:1, 5, 9, 27, 31).

It is clear from 2:17–20 that Paul was conducting this diatribe with an orthodox Jew who is an advocate of traditional Jewish covenant theology. Paul applies the pre-eschatological revelation of God’s wrath mentioned in 1:18–32 to his Jewish opponents, and extends it by speaking of the wrath of God in its eschatological form, which unrepentant Jews will also have to face (2:1–5). In fact, on the day of judgment, the law-keeping Gentile will judge the law-breaking Jew (2:26–27).

In Rom 2 Paul is concerned to destroy the fence of Jewish covenantal particularism by asserting the principle of a universal judgment according to works (2:6–11) and by opening up the possibility of law-keeping and covenant righteousness on the part of the Gentiles (2:14–16, 26–27). Through the work of God’s Spirit writing the law and circumcising Gentile hearts (2:14–15, 29), Gentiles can now (i.e., in the new covenant age) participate on an equal footing with Jews in covenant righteousness (2:14, 26) and receive eternal life (2:7), glory and honor and peace (2:10), and even praise from God (2:29), as a result. Paul is not talking about the noble pagan in chapter 2. He is talking about Gentile Christians.

Paul's Jewish opponents believed that righteousness and salvation could only be attained by means of physical circumcision and a commitment to doing the law of Moses. But Paul had come to understand that the new covenant truths of Deut 30:6, 11–14; Jer 31:33; and Ezek 36:26-27 also applied to Gentiles through faith in Christ. That is to say, Paul had come to see how justification by faith in Christ had effectively opened up justification by the works of the law to Gentiles (as per the logic of 2:13) through the grace of the Spiritual circumcision of the heart that Christ had come to achieve as a key element of the new covenant!


Steven Coxhead said...

Mike Bird has a post on his blog entitled The Unity of Romans 1-2 that interacts with this post.

For those of you interested, this was my comment in response to Mike’s post:

Hi Mike,

Paul actually says “all flesh will not be justified by the works of the law” in Rom 3:20. Is that the same as “no flesh will be justified by the works of the law”? Perhaps, but we should at least think about the possibility of whether or not Rom 3:20 has been translated correctly. Regarding 3:20, I take it that Paul is saying that the works of the law (i.e., obedience to the Mosaic covenant) couldn’t bring the fullness of justification and life to the world, so you are right to ask how my take on Rom 2 fits in with Rom 3:20.

But the interesting thing from the point of view of Rom 2 is that Paul says both of the following: (1) the doer of the law will be justified; and (2) there are Gentiles who have circumcised hearts who do the law (2:14–15, 27–29). The conclusion that I’ve suggested in my blog logically follows from those two premises, and I reckon that Paul was hinting at that too. In Rom 2:28–29 he virtually says that such Spirit-circumcised Gentiles, being true keepers of torah, are the true Jews!

In other words, in Paul’s Jewish way of thinking, justification by faith in Christ in the new covenant age is the functional equivalent of justification by the works of the Mosaic law in the old covenant age. Ordinarily he is concerned to contrast the two, but in Rom 2 he links them very closely together.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there was a legitimate Old Testament doctrine of justification on the level of the fulfillment of covenant responsibilities through obedience to Mosaic torah for old covenant Israel (see Deut 6:25). The Old Testament is concerned to trace whether or not Israel historically kept the law so as to be justified on the level of the covenant. Obviously the message of the Old Testament is that Israel failed disastrously, but the solution put forward by the Old Testament prophets concerning the problem of Israel’s lack of obedience is simply that God would act through Christ and the Spirit in the new covenant age to cause Israel to obey! The new covenant is about Israel and the nations being moved to keep torah (see Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26‒27). So if Israel and the nations are moved to keep torah, that means that the condition put forward by Moses in Deut 6:25 will be fulfilled, which means … ? Justification on the level of the covenant. In the new covenant age this is justification by faith in Christ, but it is also the functional equivalent in the new covenant age of the doctrine of justification by the works of the Mosaic law that applied (primarily unsuccessfully) under the old covenant.

To put it slightly differently, if a Jew (rightly) wants to be justified by the works of the law, in the new covenant age this equates to justification by faith in Christ. Obeying Moses in the new covenant age actually means obeying the Messiah.

Anonymous said...

I am in sympathy with your interpretation. I have been teaching that Paul sees that God has applied the New Covenant to Gentiles in freeing them from idolatry. You have stated it well. I would however push back on two points. First, that the Gentile is a "true Jew". Paul is not speaking of Gentiles in 2:28-29. And related to this, second, what would it have looked like for the Gentile to be keeping the Torah of the Messiah? Would Jew and Gentile's lifestyle be the same?

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Joel, for those comments.

Yes, I can see what you're saying about 2:28-29. Maybe Paul only has physical Jews in mind in those two verses. Not sure exactly. But if being a true Jew is a matter of the circumcision of the heart, then Gentiles who participate in such circumcision are not all that different from true physical Jews. It is intriguing to wonder if Paul is deliberately implying that Christian Gentiles are effectively true "Jews." Could Paul be implying something so radical and controversial as that at the end of Rom 2? It would certainly get his opponents' blood boiling if they understood him to be implying that.

As to your second point, I think that the torah of the Messiah is the same for Jew and Gentile. But that doesn't mean to say that their lifestyles would be identical. In the New Testament, the Christian Jew could still keep the food laws (to some extent), attend the feasts, and go to the temple or synagogue; but there had to be give and take in terms of lifestyle in order that fellowship with Gentile brothers and sisters be maintained. I take it that give and take is also applied to Gentile Christians in Acts 15 with the Jerusalem Council.

So new covenant torah is the same for Jew and Gentile, but there is liberty on the disputable matters as per Rom 14, which allows for a different lifestyle to some extent.

Steven Coxhead said...

This is a copy of a comment posted by Jason Staples on Mike Bird's blog interacting with my post.

Jason A. Staples said...
I presented a paper on this very issue at the last SBL, "Gentiles Who Keep the Law: Paul's Law-Observant Gospel."

A few points: Joel is right in that the Jew of 28–29 is not a Gentile Christian. My paper argues that the distinction being made is between the new-covenant Jew and those from the Gentiles, who are restored from the house of Israel (a 12-tribe restoration scheme I've been arguing in Paul for a while; again, this is fairly close to what Joel has been doing).

Secondly, the New Covenant isn't about "Israel and the nations being moved to keep torah," as you have stated, Steven. The New Covenant is made only with Israel—the northern house of Israel and the southern house of Judah. The faithful of the nations only come into play as NC members as that is the avenue for the restoration of the north. (I have a very long forthcoming article on this aspect of Paul's theology, also.)

Thirdly, it appears to me that Paul makes a distinction between "the works of the Law," which are not necessary for justification, and the "righteous requirements of the Law" (δικαίωμα τοῦ νόμου), which are required and accomplished by those with the Spirit through the New Covenant.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Jason. I'll look out for your material. It sounds very interesting.

Yes, I agree that Paul has in mind physical Jews in 2:28-29. But I'm just wondering about the implication of what this means for Gentiles who have the Spirit, and whether Paul meant to imply anything at this point. If Gentiles can keep torah, then from a traditional Jewish perspective they are virtual Jews. I'll have to keep on thinking about this one.

About the new covenant only being made with Israel, yes, I think my view would be fairly similar to yours. The Old Testament presentation focuses on the new covenant as made with Israel, but also indicates that as Israel is brought back the nations will come too. So the nations will participate in the new covenant in some way. I take it that they participate in the new covenant as they come into submission to the King of Israel, effectively joining themselves to Israel.

The Old Testament talks about foreigners keeping God’s covenant (Isa 56:6), but these foreigners are viewed as being part of Israel (Isa 56:3), yet at the same time God’s house will be a house of prayer for all peoples (Isa 56:7). This suggests that the nations will join Israel, but still retain their Gentile status when they do so. Hosea 2:18 suggests that the new covenant is also made with the whole of creation, which presumably also includes the nations.

The Old Testament prophets also look forward to the nations keeping torah (see Isa 2:1-4; 42:4; 51:4). Hence my statement that (in the Old Testament) the new covenant involves Israel and the nations keeping torah. Not sure if you were denying the existence of such Old Testament teaching in your comment.

Would you say that the nations are subsumed into the northern tribes, or can we still distinguish between Israel and the Gentiles in the new covenant situation according to the Old Testament? How do you understand Paul’s way of thinking on this issue? Does he hold that Christian Gentiles become part of Israel? Ephesians 2:11-22 is interesting in this regard.

I understand Paul as holding to the view that the works of the law (i.e., a commitment to torah) was required for justification on the level of the Mosaic covenant during the old covenant age (Rom 10:5), but that righteousness in the new covenant age has to do with submission to Messianic torah rather than Mosaic torah as traditionally understood (Rom 10:6-8). This is because in the crossover to the new covenant, Mosaic torah morphs into Messianic torah.