Sunday, December 14, 2014

Romans: a Book Report (part 1)

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of Romans is a totally new genre in the Bible.  It’s not narrative (like the gospels).  It’s not poetry (like the Psalms or the prophets).  It’s not law codes (like Leviticus).  The book of Romans is a letter, a written correspondence from Paul (the famous missionary of Acts) to a group of Christians in the city of Rome, the capitol of the Roman empire, the seat of imperial power.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is not your typical letter.  That is, he doesn’t spend much time discussing the goings-on of his daily life.  Instead, Paul’s letter to the Romans is mainly comprised of theology.  I recently watched a lecture in which New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains how Paul, though his letters, basically invented Christian theology.  In fact, Paul’s letters are really the first place in the Bible where we get prolonged investigations into abstract theological questions.  Other books of the Bible tell stories about God, or about right behavior, or songs of praise, but Paul stands alone as an intellectual, philosophical theologian.

A bit of context on Paul will help us understand why this is so.  Paul was from the city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia (modern-day Turkey).  Tarsus had a famous university in which students studied Greco-Roman learning.  Paul was undoubtedly exposed to Greco-Roman culture and philosophy in his home town, which may (in part) explain his generally philosophical outlook and writing style.  At some point in his life, Paul (being a Jew) traveled down to Jerusalem and studied Torah under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel.  So, Paul was an intellectual who understood both Greco-Roman and Jewish culture, religion, and philosophy.  In other words, he was the perfect guy to take the very Jewish message of Jesus to the wider Greco-Roman world.  In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find a fascinating blend of Greek-style logic, Roman rhetoric, and Jewish faith traditions.

Growing up in an evangelical church, I was mainly exposed to the book of Romans through various oft-quoted verses.  A popular evangelical tactic (which I used on missions trips) is to take potential converts to Christianity through a series of verses in Romans, sometimes called the “Roman Road.”  You start with Romans 3:23, which says we are all sinful, to Romans 6:23, which says sin leads to death, back to Romans 5:8, which says Jesus died for our sins, to Romans 10:9, which says if you believe in Jesus you will be saved.  It’s a concise, if cherry-picked and decontextualzed, explanation of “the gospel.”  Based on this simplistic “Romans Road” reading of the book of Romans, one might get the impression that individual, personal salvation was the main point of Paul’s letter.  In fact, it is not.

When you read Paul’s letter to the Romans as a whole (not just cherry-picked verses), you discover that Paul’s main interest seems to be creating amiable relations between the gentile Christian community in Rome, and the larger (non-Christian) Jewish community.  His direct audience is gentile Christians (a word which Paul actually never uses, but which I will use for clarity).  Paul spends a lot of time explaining to these non-Jews (who nonetheless followed a Jewish messiah) how the very Jewish message of Jesus relates to them, and how this should affect how they treat Jews.  Understanding the Jewishness of Jesus the messiah should, according to Paul, lead to respectful relations with the Jewish community in Rome.  In other words, Paul is less interested in individual, personal salvation than he is in communities of faith, and specifically inter-faith relations between Jews and gentiles.

Paul was, after all, a Jew.  He never uses the word “Christian” and he is not interested in establishing a new religion.  Rather, based on his belief in Jesus the Messiah, he sees a new way forward for the people of God.  Paul sees the God of the Jews as opening his blessing, through Jesus, to non-Jews as well.  

If this all sounds a bit complicated and esoteric, it kind of is.  Paul’s letters are not easy to read or interpret.  They are dense with theological ideas, some of which are very complex.  I will do my best in part 2 to summarize Paul’s overall message, keeping in mind the fact that the smartest New Testament scholars in the world disagree widely on how to interpret Paul’s writings.  Paul’s ideas are profound and important, but they are not simple.  Stay tuned!

Paul of Tarsus

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