Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Significance of Paul's Diatribe in Romans 2

In Rom 2 Paul is not primarily concerned to establish the equality of Jews and Gentiles as sinners, but to challenge the covenantal exclusivism of the Judaizers by opening up the door of Jewish privilege to Gentiles. Paul engages his Jewish opponents in a virtual way through the use of diatribe, which involves him taking on the persona of a debater conducting an argument against an opponent. It is clear from Rom 2:17–20 that Paul was conducting this diatribe with a Jew of orthodox views regarding the chosen status of Israel under the Mosaic covenant. Paul’s diatribal opponent calls himself a Jew, builds his life on the law of Moses, and boasts in God (v. 17). He reckons that he knows God’s will and what is morally right, because he possesses the law of Moses (v. 18). He considers himself to be “a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (vv. 19–20).

Versus 19–20 are significant in suggesting that Paul’s Jewish opponents viewed the law of Moses as having an educational purpose, bringing the knowledge of God’s truth to the blind and those living in darkness, i.e., to the Gentiles. Of course, in the historical context of Paul’s day, this attitude resulted in a significant number of Christian Jews denying the saved status of Gentile Christians unless the latter came under the framework of the Mosaic covenant by undergoing circumcision (if male) and by living in accordance with the teaching of the law of Moses. This issue is clearly portrayed in Acts 15:1–5, and this issue (which led to the calling of the Jerusalem Council) was being replayed among the Christian churches in Rome after the Jews were allowed back into the imperial capital following Nero’s ascension to the throne in A.D. 54.

The rhetorical form of diatribe in Rom 2 means that to understand clearly Paul’s argument in Rom 2 we need to approach it via an orthodox Jewish mindset. This can be done by studying first century Judaism, but in my opinion a familiarity with Old Testament theology is just as sufficient to illuminate the situation. Such a familiarity will help us to see the key allusions to the Old Testament that Paul makes in this chapter.

For example, one of the key eschatological prophecies of the Old Testament is the promise concerning the new covenant in Jer 31:31–24. This passage of Scripture prophesies that God would eventually write his law in the hearts of the people of Israel in a comprehensive way. So when Paul writes in Rom 2:14–15 that “when Gentiles, who by nature do not have the law, do what the law requires, they are the law to themselves, even though they do not have the law, in that they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts,” a Jewish mindset would see a clear allusion to Jer 31:33: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” They would also understand the import of Paul’s argument: Are you saying, Paul, that Gentiles can participate in the blessing of Jer 31:33? Are you saying that Gentiles can keep the law, without having the law? “Then what advantage has the Jew?” (Rom 3:1). You are giving to the Gentiles the privileges that have exclusively been given to us. You are going against the teaching of Moses.

Another key example is the eschatological prophecy of Deut 30:1–14, and Deut 30:6 in particular. Moses prophesied that after Israel’s covenantal failure, symbolized by exile (Deut 30:1, 3–4), God would circumcise the hearts of the people of Israel, so that they might be able to “love the Lord [their] God with all [their] heart and with all [their] soul, that [they] might live” (Deut 30:6). So when Paul writes in Rom 2:26 of a law-keeping Gentile’s uncircumcision being regarded as circumcision, and in Rom 2:29 that true circumcision “is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter,” a Jewish mindset would understand Paul as clearly alluding to Deut 30:6. They would also understand the import of Paul’s argument: Are you saying, Paul, that Gentiles can participate in the blessing of the circumcision of the heart promised in Deut 30:6, without undergoing physical circumcision? “What [then] is the value of circumcision?” (Rom 3:1).

To explain Rom 2 as simply condemning Jews of sin by comparing them to hypothetical law-keeping Gentiles, or the noble pagan, is to fail to understand what Paul is doing in this chapter. Such interpretations go against the Jewish nature of Paul’s diatribe in Rom 2. They fail to see the clear allusions to Jer 31:33 and Deut 30:6 in the chapter, and they do not make sense of the riposte of Paul’s diatribal opponent in Rom 3:1, which only makes sense if Paul’s Jewish opponent has understood him as calling into question the natural Jewish covenantal advantage and the value of physical circumcision. Paul’s diatribal opponent has assumed that this must be case on the basis of Paul’s argument in Rom 1:18‒2:29 that (through the gospel) the possibility of keeping the law has been opened up to the Gentiles, and that Gentiles can participate in the blessing of the Spiritual circumcision of the heart.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Steven. I too agree that we cannot get a correct understanding of Paul without viewing his writings through a Jewish mindset. Far too many people look only through a modern day lens and if they do consider a Jewish context it is usually not made with allusions to OT passages, only the 1st century elitist perspective; ie: Pharisees or Josephus. I love discovering the connections between letters like Romans and works like Jeremiah and Deuteronomy.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Nolan, for your comment.

Yes, the connections with the Old Testament in Romans and Galatians are very rich. Paul has such a superb understanding of the Old Testament, and he's interacting with the story of the Old Testament and the Old Testament prophets in Romans in an effort to prove his case to his Jewish opponents, or at least to give the Christians in Rome a model for how to argue that case.

I do find it sad that Paul is not viewed more often in the light of the message of the Old Testament prophets. We miss something of the power of Paul's theology when we do that.

John Thomson said...

Hi Steven

Much that I agree with here though I think it is a case that nowadays is in danger of being overstated. The following text seems to me to provide the balance that runs through the book.

Rom 2:6-11 (ESV)
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.'

'...judgement and the Jew first and also to the Greek...for God shows no partiality' reflects the tension between universalism and particularism that the book balances.

I agree that the sin of the the Jew is the punchline of ch 2. Yet we must not forget the conclusion...there is none righteous no not one. A conclusion that awaits its final resolution in ch 11 God has consigned all to disobedience that he may have mercy on all (11:32). In ch 11 both Jew and gentile can be guilty of arrogance and both can be cut off or grafted in to the Olive tree.

While I am convinced that those who seek for glory and immortality in 2:6 are believers (Jew or gentile)that are justified by faith later in the book and that those at the end of ch 2 of whom he says

Rom 2:26-29 (ESV)
So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

are predominently if not exlusively gentile gospel converts, I am less sure that it is the same group in 2:14-16. It is largely the description that troubles me.

Rom 2:14-16 (ESV)
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

I accept there are some similarities with NC language but there are also differences. It is not the law that is written on the heart but 'the work of the law' which may be different. However, it is the references to 'by nature' and 'conscience accusing, excusing' language that casts doubt. I do not see this as a likely description of NC people. Plus, an absence of the role of the Spirit and language of circumcised hearts makes this interpretation more doubtful.

I do not say you are wrong for I think it is difficult to be dogmatic. However, here I am inclined to the traditional view that he is speaking rather of natural law written on the hearts of all men.

Thanks for blog.

Pastor Jack said...

Steven: I was excited to read your blog post on this subject. It was sent to me by a friend who knew I would appreciate it. I have been convinced for many years that this is the proper understanding of Romans 2, and specifically that Gentile New Covenant believers are to be understood in 2:14-15. I have gathered a bibliography of many significant sources that support this. If you would like a copy of this email me at

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Pastor Jack, for your comment. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post, and I'll have to take you up on that bibliography.

Many blessings in the Lord!