Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Romans: a Book Report (part 2)

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. 

To read Romans: a Book Report (part 1) click HERE.

Paul begins his letter with a formal introduction of himself as a servant and apostle of Jesus, the Jewish messiah, the son of God.  This was an implicit challenge to the divinity claims of the Roman Emperor (Claudius or Nero, depending on when you date Romans).  Paul’s goal is to “bring about the obedience of faith” to gentiles, which includes his audience, who were gentile followers of Jesus living in Rome.  The Greek word he uses for “faith” (pistis) is probably better translated “faithfulness” which implies trust and right behavior.  Paul does not once use the word “Christian”.  For him, the main distinction is not between Christians and Jews, but between gentiles and Jews.  Apparently, at the time there was some confusion among gentile followers of Jesus regarding how they should understand and relate to the Jewish community.  Paul’s argument throughout is that gentiles who follow Jesus have no basis for feeling superior to their Jewish neighbors, and therefore no basis for judgment.  I suppose the occasion for this argument must have been a feeling among gentile converts that they were “better” or “more righteous” than their Jewish neighbors.

Paul destroys any such basis for cultural or moral superiority.  He begins with a diatribe against gentile immorality in Rome—particularly idolatry and sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately, Paul singles out homosexuality as a key indicator of Roman gentile immorality.  The verses 1:26-27 are commonly used by contemporary conservative Christians as “proof” that homosexuality is wrong and sinful.  Two problems arise from this interpretation: 1.) Paul is probably not referring to same-sex relationships as we understand them today, and 2.) The whole point of Paul’s diatribe is stated right after in chapter 2: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, for in passing judgment on another, you condemn yourself.”  The point of Paul’s diatribe is that no one has the right to judge others—everyone is morally compromised, including Paul’s audience.  Paul writes, “You that teach others, will you not teach yourself?”  The two things Paul is attacking are moral superiority and hypocrisy.

Having argued against these things, Paul goes on to examine cultural and religious differences between Jews and gentiles, focusing specifically on circumcision.  Here, again, it is implied that Paul’s gentile audience held some judgmental/ignorant attitudes toward their Jewish neighbors.  Paul’s main argument here is that, while gentile followers of Jesus need not follow Jewish cultural practices, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these cultural religious practices.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  In chapter 5, Paul writes, “What is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way.  For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”  Paul discusses the Jew’s “founding father” Abraham, and shows how his example of faithfulness to God is instructive for both Jews and gentiles.  Paul’s purpose seems twofold: 1.) to explain how gentiles, through Jesus, are brought into the (formerly only Jewish) people of God, and 2.) to show that this inclusion is not grounds for boasting, but rather gratitude and humility.  In ch. 3, Paul writes, “Then what becomes of boasting?  It is excluded.”

In addition to explaining the “good news” of Jesus Christ (that the kingdom of God is open to everyone), Paul seems to be mainly interested in inter-faith relations—showing that Jews and gentiles are not as separate as they thought.  Paul’s focus on the figure of Abraham is significant, as it was Abraham who became the ancestor of three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and (later) Islam.  Understanding our shared heritage, Paul suggests, will lead to love, not hate, unity, not division.

Paul believes that Jesus offers salvation from sin and death to everyone, and this transcends cultural and religious divisions.  He spends some time explaining how this works.  Humanity became sinful through the sin of the first man, Adam (who, if you believe in evolution, probably never existed), but people may find new life and righteousness through Jesus.  Something happened when Jesus died and rose from the dead that offered a way to free humanity from its sinful inclinations.

This transformation is not, however, complete in this life.  Paul confesses, “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.  I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  Paul holds a kind of dualistic view of “spirit” and “flesh” that was also held by some Greek philosophers and Gnostics.  The flesh is seen as evil and sinful, while the spirit is purer and redeemable.  Paul refers to his “member” in connect to the weakness of his flesh, suggesting that this struggle is mainly sexual.  This is unfortunate, as it has led some Christians to have a negative/hateful view of the body and sexuality.  Much contemporary psychology would take issue with Paul’s disparaging of the body and sexuality.  Paul seems determined to punish himself and suffer through this perceived conflict between flesh and spirit.  Suffice it to say that, with regards to sexuality, Paul has some issues and hang-ups.

Paul then returns to the issue of gentile-Jewish relations.  He says that gentile followers of Jesus are like a wild olive branch that has been grafted onto the tree of God, and that this is not grounds for pride, but rather awe.  With regards to Jews who do not accept Jesus as the messiah, Paul has ambivalent feelings.  While he clearly wants them to share his faith in Jesus, he believes they are not rejected by God, and even says in chapter 11 that “all Israel will be saved.”  Paul’s main point is this: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (gentile); the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Beginning in chapter 12, Paul switches from theological reflection to practical application.  In view of God’s inclusiveness, he writes, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”  Paul’s exhortations are very similar to those of Jesus, as given in the sermon on the mount: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  Paul urges his audience to respect Jewish temple authorities.  The main application of his message is love.  He quotes the Torah, and Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   Paul ends his letter with personal greetings to specific individuals who are members of the church in Rome.  He tells them to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” and then gives a blessing.

Scholars generally believe that Paul's letter to the Romans was written around 55 C.E.  Paul's letters are the earliest writings of the New Testament.  The earliest manuscript fragments we have of Romans, however is Papyrus-46, which dates from between 175-225 C.E.  Here's a Fragment from Papyrus-46:

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