August 15, 2011

Why Did Paul Write Romans?

Paul's rationale for writing his most famous letter has been no small matter of debate among contemporary readers of scripture. Among historic Protestant interpreters, Romans is generally seen as a declaration, exposition, and defense of Paul's gospel. And certainly the gospel takes a chief place in the letter. However, if that were Paul's only reason for writing, then the second half of the letter is difficult to account for. In the last thirty years or so and in an effort to account for the rest of the letter, the view has become popular that Paul is writing to resolve the dispute between the weak and the strong (see chapters 14-15). And this view has much to commend it, for it is the dominant matter in the final chapters of Romans and, as such, would have been the last thing on the minds of the original hearers as the letter was read to them. But while the issue of reconciliation builds on the truth of the gospel presented earlier, it is difficult to suggest that these two chapters alone comprise Paul's full purposes in writing. More recently it has been suggested that Paul writes to prepare and gain support for his hoped-for Spanish mission. One wonders, though, that if this is Paul's primary purpose in writing, why he doesn't mention the Spanish mission until 15:24.

As a solution to this problem, Frank Matera has proposed that the purpose of Romans is a matter of "both/and" rather than "either/or". He suggests that Paul writes to: (1) summarize his gospel, (2) prepare his defense at Jerusalem, (3) gain support for the Spanish mission, and (4) resolve the problem of the weak and the strong (Romans,8). I think this view has much to commend it. Letters, speeches, and arguments often come with multiple purposes and can function in a variety of ways. Why should we think the complex argument of Romans should be limited to a single purpose? The apostle Paul was certainly capable of complex thought and nuanced argument intended to accomplish various persuasive goals. Matera's proposal accounts for the content of Romans and the circumstances both of Paul and the Christians in Rome, and I take it to be quite helpful. We shall have to wait and see how how his argument fares in larger and famed Romans debate.

What do you think? Is Matera's proposal helpful? What are its strengths? Weaknesses?


Kevin Jackson said...

I haven't read Matera, but agree with what you describe as his both/and approach to Romans. Paul had multiple purposes in writing the letter.

An additional purpose Paul had (I think) was to address the growing issue of anti-semitism in Rome. The Gentiles belivers were excluding the Jews - the flip side of the coin to what was going on in Galatia. So Paul admonishes the Gentiles to accept Jewish belivers as brothers in Christ, and to not become arrogant in their interactions with them.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Kevin, thanks for your comment. I agree that anti-semitism was likely an issue and that Romans deals with that (chapter 11). I tend to see that issue as coming under the issue of the weak and the strong, since I tend to see the weak as Torah observant Jews (and perhaps a few Torah observant Gentiles) and the strong as non-Torah observant Gentiles and Jews (e.g. Paul himself).

ἐκκλησία said...

It seems less reasonable to assume Romans was addressing anti-Semitism than it would be to assume it was addressing the natural prejudice that existed between the House of Judah and the House of Israel (for at least 6 centuries). This idea may be unfamiliar but consider:

Ezekiel 37 is a messianic prophecy (from [Eze 37:14]) and specifically predicts (in [Eze 37:16-17]) the messiah would re-unite the House of Judah with the House of Joseph by dissolving the prejudices between the two houses. From verses such as [John 7:35][Acts 14;1][Act 18:4][Acts 19:10,17][Acts 20:21][Rom 3:9][1 Cor 1:22,24] and [1 Cor 10:32] it is evident this division still existed during the time of Christ.

We know from [Eze 37:6,8,14] that this prophecy was messianic, but we also know from the descriptions in [Col 2:19] and [Heb 4:12] that Christ's ministry was the fulfilment of it. What [Eze 37:19-23] describes is most clearly seen in [1 Cor 12:12-Eze13] (where "Jews" were those Israelites of the House of Judah, and "Greeks" those Israelites of the House of Israel, by way of Assyrian invasion). What generally makes this unclear, are the numerous mistranslation into English of the Greek word ἔθνος (ethnos G1484) as "Gentiles" rather than its natural Greek meaning - "nations". Thus the Greek word ἔθνος (ethnos) has imparted meaning where none was intended, and has become theologically "loaded".

To gauge if Romans was written primarily to the House of Israel and the House of Judah, consider was Romans written to Israelites about Israelites?

Paul assumes a complete familiarity with OT prophets ([Rom 1:2]), often quoting OT scripture most non-Israelites would likely (but not necessarily) have been familiar with ([Psalm 14:1-3][Psalm 53:1-3][Psalm 53:1-6][Psalm 14:1-7]). Israelites would have been familiar with those references. He makes arguments about Israelite specific issues, such as the 'law' ([Rom 2:12][Rom 3;19]) which wouldn’t have been theologically important to non-Israelites. Furthermore he directs these arguments specifically to those who identified themselves as recipients of the law ([Rom 2:17][Rom 3:1] etc). In calling them 'brethren', or 'kinsmen', and using the Greek word ἀδελφός (adelphos G80) Paul presupposes a blood relationship to his audience [Rom 7:4][Rom 10:1][Rom 12:1] through common descent. In [Rom 9:25-29][Rom 10:19] he interprets scripture about Israel that applies only to Israelites to make his argument about the new covenant. Likewise, he spoke to the question of 'circumcision' under the new covenant ([Rom 2:25]) addressing a concern only Israelites would have had (having seen themselves as ‘the circumcised’). Paul pivots his entire argument in Romans off the relationship his audience had to a common forefather ([Rom 4;1][Rom 9:10]) and the entire chapter [Rom 11] is about Israel's role UNDER the new covenant. Clearly Paul was addressing an Israelite audience.

None of this would have made sense if he were addressing anyone other than both Israelite Houses, Judah and Israel, in Rome. Non-Israelites were uncircumcised, and were not required to become circumcised. Non-Israelites did not see themselves as recipients of the law, or debate issues of 'law'. Non-Israelites (generally) would not have been expected to be as familiar with the scriptures as Paul audiences was, or their prophets, nor where non-Israelites the chief subject of prophecy after from Christ. Non-Israelites certainly would not have claimed to share the same forefathers (namely Abraham, Isaac or Jacob) as Paul (excepting Edomites) or been considered brothers through common descent.

It's very difficult to read Romans beginning to end, and assume it was addressed to anyone but Israelites and Judahites (within the Roman Empire).

Matt O'Reilly said...

Ekklesia, thanks for your thoughtful response. Your proposal that Romans is written to a Judah/Israelite audience exclusively is quite new to me. I don't have time to raise all the questions that come to mind presently. I don't intend to be rude, but perhaps I could say that what seems so clear to you seems to have been missed completely by a significant majority (all?) of Pauline scholars today. Again, thanks for being a faithful reader and commenter.

ἐκκλησία said...

Matt, I understand your point. I'd be happy to address publicly or privately the questions this idea raises.

However, though a significant majority (all?) other scholars see it differently does not mean that makes that position correct. The number of people who believe something to be true has no effect on the truth of the matter (Argumentum ad populum).

In proposing the above, I've used as the basis for this position's justification, the bible, rather than the popularity of the idea. Just as many were mistaken in their understanding of old covenant, I'm not afraid to question that many are equally mistaken in their understanding of the new.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Thanks for your post, which was more charitable than my own response to your initial post. I know that the truthfulness of a view has nothing to do with who or how many support or reject it. I was simply trying to be brief and a little provocative. And I well know that you aren't afraid to challenge any number of views. ;)

ἐκκλησία said...

Matt, I'd also add that exchanges such as the one's we just shared are actually very useful. That an idea is popular IS evidence of something; it is evidence of common presuppositions.

When we respond to one another's view, we are afforded the opportunity to question our own presuppositions. In the above:

-I reject the presupposition that ethnos 'gentile' automatically means non-Israelites. (If we read 'ethnos' instead as 'nations' it makes much NT doctrine clearer, but also more contextual)

-I accept the presupposition that most OT prophecy (such as [Eze 37]) was fulfilled in Christ (or as a consequence of His ministry) and so NT events aren't really 'new' but tie back to events the OT looks forward to.

-I also accept the presupposition that NT doctrine reflects one eternal, unchanging purpose of God, without shade or variation, and so the simplest way to understand NT doctrine is to see it as coherent with and the complete fulfilment of OT doctrine. Therefore, I reject the presupposition that Romans is founding 'new' doctrine since all doctrine laid down in scripture, OT and NT, is fundamentally one doctrine, (though perhaps more clearly revealed over time).

-Therefore, I must also accept the presupposition that Roman's is explaining existing doctrine which should be identifiable.

-The corollary of the above presupposition necessitates that I must also accept all OT doctrine as fundamentally messianic. If it is seen any other way than messianic (such as seeing it as the Pharisees did, for example), I must conclude that the OT doctrine is seen incorrectly. (Incidentally, this last point has been given great credence by Michael Rydenlnik's book Messianic Hope

All of the above presuppositions can be justified biblically, but when applied consistently in understanding the bible, result in a doctrine that differs from current ecclesiastical orthodoxy.