June 22, 2016

Reading Romans in Context: A Review (@Zondervan, @bencblackwell)

Context is everything. That's the first rule for interpreting scripture (or any other text, for that matter). The rule refers first to the immediate context of a biblical passage, and it serves to remind us that responsible readers are not at liberty to extract a verse and do with it as they please. A good case in point is the common use of Philippians 4:13 by professional athletes, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." The verse is appropriated as something of a divine pep-talk to motivate the competitor to excellence and ultimate victory over his foes. The problem is that the original intent of the verse has nothing to do with any of that. It was composed with thanksgiving for the power of God to sustain a suffering missionary awaiting the possibility of martyrdom. It is about the strength of Christ that enables that apostle (and the readers) to persevere with faithful contentedness in the face of persecution. So, if you need encouragement as you suffer for Christ, by all means turn to Philippians 4:13. If you are competing in a televised sporting event for tens of thousands of fawning fans, perhaps you should look elsewhere.

Beyond the immediate setting of a particular passage are other important levels of context that bear on interpretation. Among other things, I teach my students to interpret a passage with a view to its place within the context of the book-as-a-whole and, if available, the larger body of work by the author in question. We also talk about historical context, which brings me to Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism, edited by Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston (check out their blog).* This book puts Paul in conversation with other Jewish writers of roughly the same period to shed light on the argument of Paul's most important letter. The non-scriptural material has been well-known by biblical scholars for a long time. This book, however, makes key portions of that material available in a non-technical and introductory format. That means you don't need a theology degree to read and benefit from this volume.

The book has 172 pages of text (not including glossary and indices) divided into 20 brief chapters. The chapters progress through the text of Romans usually taking a chapter or less of text and setting it alongside another Jewish text that deals with similar themes. For example, Sarah Whittle looks at "circumcision of the heart" in Romans 2 alongside the book of Jubilees (chapter 3). Chapter 5 by Jonathan A. Linebaugh compares the all-important Romans 3:21-31 to the Epistle of Enoch to consider the highly debated topic of the revelation of God's righteousness. Chapter 6 by Mariam J. Kamell considers the similarities and differences between Paul's understanding of Abraham in Romans 4 and the interpretation of Abraham in Sirach. Chapter 12 takes up the topic of glorification in Romans 8 by reading it in light of Adam's loss of glory as portrayed in the Greek Life of Adam and Eve. The relationship between hospitality and meals is the focus of chapter 18 by Nijay Gupta, who compares Romans 14 and 15 to 1 Maccabees. The thing to understand is that the argument of Romans is not historically isolated. The letter was not written in a vacuum. It takes its place among a variety of ancient Jewish thinkers intent on dealing with similar issues. Sometimes Paul agrees with them; sometimes he does not. The better we understand those dynamics, the better we will understand the Bible. This value of this book is the way it makes those matters available to a broader range of readers.

I'll add that the essays are well-written, clear, and unburdened by lengthy footnotes. The chapters tend to proceed by introducing the theme to be considered in the passage from Romans (e.g. circumcision, salvation, the Law). This is followed by a short introduction of a relevant non-scriptural text. The remainder of each chapter is then given to putting Romans in dialogue with that text. The aim is to shed light on scripture by considering areas of agreement and disagreement between Romans and the additional text. For readers who find their appetites whet, the end of each chapter gives recommendations for further reading in relevant ancient texts and important secondary studies by scholars in the field.

There are many books out there that aim to shed light on the historical context of the New Testament, and many of them are written on a level accessible by non-specialists. These books often proceed with a survey of major themes, groups, and historical events (e.g. Jewish eschatology, Messianic expectations). Let me be clear: this is essential and important work. I'm glad those resources are available. Reading Romans in Context is distinct in that it introduces elements of context by focusing on particular texts. We might say that books on biblical backgrounds often take a wide-angle approach; Reading Romans in Context is a zoom lens that takes the reader up close to the particularities of the ideas in question. I find that students are sometimes intimidated by the large amounts of information that come with a lecture or reading assignment on New Testament backgrounds. There is a lot to learn, and it takes a lot of work. The precision focus of the chapters in this book strikes me as offering a complimentary approach that has potential to mitigate that problem. Students should be able to handle this book, and I am happy to recommend its use in a course introducing the New Testament, Paul and his letters, or on the exegesis of Romans. As a pastor, I would also feel comfortable recommending this book to an interested layperson in a local church setting.

All in all, I'm very glad the editors and contributors have published this book. I only hope they plan to produce further volumes that do the same thing with the rest of Paul's letters.
*Many thanks to the good people at Zondervan for providing a complimentary review copy.