The Common Good
March-April 1999

Reading Romans Anew

by Reta Halteman Finger | March-April 1999

I have always felt some tension about using the church's common lectionary.

I have always felt some tension about using the church's common lectionary. By its very nature a lectionary divides texts into chunks deemed to be the right size for reading in a worship service, with one theme around which a preacher might develop a sermon. Whether the text for one week follows in a logical sequence from that of the previous week is not the primary concern of a lectionary. But this becomes an acute problem when reading the epistles of Paul, who wrote actual letters to real people in congregations, and who meant for them to be proclaimed to a congregation as an entire speech from start to finish. In many cases, a block of five to 10 verses may have been only a small point within a much larger Pauline argument.

The piecemeal approach may work better in, say, 1 Corinthians, where Paul responds to various issues and questions that have been raised by the squabbling Corinthians themselves. But Romans is clearly composed of a single argument, and to miss one major proof, such as that in chapters 9-11, is to miss Paul's overall thrust.

A second tension arising from lectionary use is the unspoken assumption that a chosen text can be directly applicable to contemporary Christian life. It is no doubt true that lectionary texts are selected on the basis of timeless relevance. I notice, for example, that none of the 19 lectionary texts from Romans that will be read in Cycle A come from the opening greetings in chapter 1, nor from the closing chapters where Paul discusses his future plans and greets many individuals and house church groups. This, however, already skews the meaning of the texts that are chosen, implying that Paul wrote a general theological treatise for all Christians in all times and places—something he most certainly did not do!

Careful study shows that all the undisputed letters of Paul are "occasional letters," written to a particular church (usually one he had founded) in a particular city in order to apply his understanding of the gospel to certain problems or issues troubling the church at that time. Much of the message he proclaimed can and should be applied today as well. But unless we can figure out what Paul meant to tell his original audience, we can easily misinterpret a text. That is the danger of lectionary readings from Pauline letters that are lifted out of their literary and historical contexts.

Before we examine the overall structure and meaning of Romans, come with me to the ancient capital of the Roman Empire for a few moments. It is a spring evening in 56 or 57 C.E. In the crowded warren of streets next to the Tiber River, Christians of one small house church are gathered. They are packed into a space probably smaller than the size of your living room. During the day the room becomes a small shop where cloth or shoes or clay pots or tin tools are produced. But when darkness comes, the group congregates for an agape meal, worship, and study. The highlight for tonight is the reading of a letter from an apostle named Paul. It is a long letter, and it has been carried nearly 1,000 miles by sea and land from Cenchrea, the port city of Corinth, by a deacon named Phoebe, one of Paul's co-workers (Romans 16:1-2). Phoebe, or a reader she has brought along for the purpose, will read the letter in its entirety.

The house church members have heard of Paul. Word gets around in the extensive Diaspora Jewish network, and some present tonight have met him, or even worked with him for a time. Paul is a very controversial figure, sometimes warm and loving, sometimes abrasive and confrontative. But he has never before written a letter to a church he did not found, and he has never even visited Rome. What can he possibly want to tell Christians in Rome? Some are suspicious, fearing Paul is meddling in other peoples' conflicts where he has no authority. Others like his creative theological perspective and will listen with a positive attitude. Still others are merely curious. But for everyone, the public reading of the letter provides high entertainment in a setting where few other diversions are available for poor manual workers who labor from dawn to dusk.

The room quiets as Phoebe is introduced, and the presentation begins. Trained in persuasive rhetoric, the reader knows that much of the power of Paul's letter will depend on how it is read. The voice rises and falls, speeds up and slows down, lingers over sarcasms, creates pregnant silences after Paul's many rhetorical questions, argues vehemently against the hypothetical opponents Paul sets up, shouts the triumphs from the end of chapter 8, and switches to an agonized pleading at the beginning of chapter 9. Sweat pours off the reader's face as the temperature rises in the packed room.

For their part, the listeners pay rapt attention. In a culture with low rates of literacy, they train themselves to follow the course of a verbal argument from its thesis statement through its proofs of the thesis to its climax. Their emotions rise and fall with the power of the reading. Where they do not understand, they interrupt and ask for further interpretation. If they do not agree with a point, they register dissatisfaction. Throughout the reading, they are caught up in a drama that will not end until the final benediction, the final paean of praise "to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen!"

This scenario is derived from what has come to be called in Romans studies the "emerging paradigm." It stands in contrast to the "dominant paradigm," which has been in place ever since the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther most clearly epitomizes the dominant paradigm, although its roots go back much earlier. As a young Roman Catholic monk, Luther's conscience continually condemned him, no matter how many penances and "good works" he attempted. He finally found relief in Romans 1:16-17, that "the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith...." Luther then read the entire letter of Romans as a manifesto of justification by faith for individual believers. Living by faith frees one from slavery to works, by which he meant the penances and ritualistic observances taught by the Catholic Church of his day, and the Jewish Mosaic law of Paul's day.

Three perspectives have characterized the dominant paradigm. First, it assumes that Romans is a theological treatise in which Paul summarizes his gospel, justification by faith through the grace of God. Second, this doctrine of justification by faith is set up in opposition to a doctrine of justification by works. It answers the question of how individual persons can be saved and it rejects any attempt to earn one's salvation by good works. Third, this reasoning then critiques Judaism as the opposite of justification by faith and characterizes it as a religion of works. Paul's theology, then, becomes a polemic against Judaism and the law.

The emerging paradigm, on the other hand, has developed different assumptions based on advancing scholarship in many areas. For example, having taken off the old glasses, it is now obvious that the first century church was confronted not by over-sensitive consciences but by a huge racial and theological issue: whether or how Gentiles should be included in the covenant people of God.

First, the emerging paradigm assumes that Romans should be read like any other letter Paul wrote, as a pastoral letter addressing concrete problems of a specific church community. Second, Paul was a Jewish Christian who saw himself commissioned as an apostle to Gentiles. So he had to figure out whether or not Gentiles first had to become Jews and keep the Mosaic law in order to become Christians. Or to put it in theocentric perspective: How can God be faithful to the original covenant with the Jews if God fully accepts Gentiles without their keeping the covenant laws? (Think about it: That's a really tough question.) Paul is therefore not discussing individual salvation in Romans. Rather, he is corporately redefining the people of God.

A fourth point that must be stressed is that, for Jews also, salvation comes by God's grace and not by works. Obedience to the law for Jews meant that they were maintaining their side of the covenant, not earning salvation by keeping the law.

Ethnic Conflict in the Roman Church
Why then does Paul write this particular letter to the Roman house churches in a city he has never visited? By carefully reconstructing the history of the Jews in Rome, and by using the introduction and conclusion of the letter (parts usually ignored by the lectionary), scholars have come up with several variations on the theory that there were serious ethnic conflicts in the house churches of Rome.

Christianity apparently arrived early in Rome, spreading throughout the many Jewish synagogues. Some Gentile proselytes and "God-fearers" also became believers. According to Roman historian Tacitus (and Acts 18:2), the emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome in 49 C.E. because of some disturbance at the instigation of "Chrestus" (perhaps a Messianic pretender). As Jews, including Jewish Christians, were forced to flee Rome, most believers left behind were Gentiles. Probably at this time worship moved from synagogues to houses, where Gentile leadership emerged. With less knowledge of scripture, the character of Christian belief in Rome would have changed. Observance of the three major practices that defined ethnic Jews—circumcision, food laws, and festival observance—would have lagged considerably.

But by 54 C.E., Claudius was dead, and the more pro-Jewish Nero ascended the throne. As Claudius' edict lapsed, Jews from Rome began returning to their native city and their worshipping communities. But the returning refugees were disturbed by the changes wrought in their absence, and a crucial struggle began. Should we all observe the Jewish law? Why or why not? How can we get along together if we don't all agree? Probably power, status, and leadership issues were involved as well.

Enter Paul, who has himself met some of these refugees (Prisca and Aquila, Acts 18:1-2), and who is also embroiled in the Jew-Gentile question in other settings (see Galatians and Acts). As a Jew called to evangelize Gentiles, Paul is naturally concerned about the Roman situation. Even though he has never been there, he knows there are many Christians in Rome and its location and status as capital of the Empire is strategic. Paul has wanted to visit Rome for some time (Romans 1:13), and now he sees it as a steppingstone on his way to missionize Spain (15:22-29). The two purposes merge in his plan. Paul needs the support of all the Roman Christians, not just the "liberal" or "conservative" contingent. He needs them for practical reasons: to translate scriptures and worship resources from Greek to Latin and to smooth his way legally and politically. He also needs their unity for theological reasons. How can he preach to Spaniards the one gospel for Jews and Gentiles alike, if indeed there is no agreement as to whom is in or out of the covenant people of God?

Consequently, Paul's letter to all the Roman Christians is very diplomatic, using careful phrases that now appeal to Jews, now to Gentiles. As soon as one group perceives Paul in their court, he moves to the other side of the net.

We can now briefly sketch the structure of Romans' single argument. Its outlines are clarified by comparing it with rhetorical speeches in other Greco-Roman literature. In 1:1-15 Paul skillfully introduces himself and his gospel to Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and barbarians, liberals and conservatives, explaining why he is writing. His thesis statement lies in 1:16-18, that the gospel he proclaims is powerful enough to bring salvation to both Jews and Gentiles on the same basis, that of faith.

The first proof of his thesis lies in 1:18-4:25. Everyone, both Jews and Gentiles, have sinned equally and deserve condemnation. Yet through the grace of God expressed in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, both Jew and Gentile may be made righteous (3:21-26). Consequently there is no room for boasting on anyone's part, neither those who are circumcised nor those who are not (3:27-31). (Note that the lectionary omits this section of Romans, a part absolutely critical to Paul's argument.) Though 3:21-31 is the punch line to Paul's main proof of his argument, he continues driving home the point by ironically using the example of revered father of the Jews, Abraham, to puncture Jewish pride. Paul insists Abraham was made righteous on the basis of his faith years before he ever was circumcised (4:9-12).

The second proof (chapters 5-8) discusses further implications of being made righteous by faith. Paul insists that his theology is not license to "continue in sin in order that grace may abound" (6:1). Three images are used: baptism as death to the sinful nature (6:2-14), slaves who transfer their allegiance from sin as their master to righteousness (6:15-23), and the death of a woman's husband as discharge from the old law (7:1-6). Paul then wrestles with the relationship of the law, sin, and grace, concluding that the real problem is sin, not the law itself. In chapter 8 it is the Spirit who is stronger than both the law and sin, and who triumphs in, through, and for us all.

But Paul has not yet adequately dealt with the law in regards to his own people. If God accepts Gentiles regardless of their observance of the law, what of those Jews who have not believed in Christ? In chapters 9-11, Paul's third proof struggles mightily with this issue, for unless he deals with it, he cannot support his thesis. He concludes that God has temporarily hardened the hearts of unbelieving Jews to make room for the Gentiles to come in; original branches were cut off of the olive tree in order that wild olive shoots be grafted in. In the end, when "the full number of the Gentiles has come in...all Israel will be saved" (11:25-26), (a text still hotly debated as to its actual meaning). At the end of his final theological proof, Paul throws up his hands and submits to the superior knowledge of God, whose ways are inscrutable.

Chapters 12:1-15:13 comprise the final proof of Paul's thesis: In light of the great mercy of God to both Jews and Gentiles, here is how you ought to live—in harmony, loving each other, and welcoming and accepting those who do not agree with you. Romans 14:1-15:6 speaks of a truly strenuous tolerance of others where differing practices over food laws and Sabbath observance have caused major strains in the community. The beautiful mosaic of Hebrew scriptures weaving together Jews and Gentiles in 15:7-13 provides the resounding climax to the argument that began in 1:16.

Romans 15:14-16:27 brings the letter to a conclusion. Paul gives further reasons for having written and informs the Roman Christians of his future plans. Much information about the house churches in Rome derives from chapter 16, where Paul draws on all the information he has about the Roman Christians in a final effort to have them personally greet (and thus accept) each other as brothers and sisters.

I have traced only the barest outlines of one form of the emerging paradigm of Romans interpretation. Many variations exist. But the overall perspective remains, and scholarship will never revert to the traditional paradigm. We have learned too much about the first century church in its Greco-Roman setting, and we have become increasingly wary of reading our contemporary assumptions into an ancient text.

What then are the major theological truths we can still draw from Romans for our own day? Certainly God's grace is still available for the individual believer, but that is not the main point of Romans. I have space to suggest only a few.

First, it should raise our appreciation for the Hebrew scriptures, for God's original covenant with the Jewish people. Christianity is not a different religion from Judaism, but grows from the same root. Second, interpreting Romans from the emerging paradigm can challenge our attitude toward Jews. It is a sobering thought that much anti-Semitism from Luther to the present has been derived from the dominant paradigm of Romans interpretation. Would Hitler have been able to wipe out Jews if the Protestant churches in Germany (and elsewhere) had not assumed Luther's interpretation of Romans?

Third, Romans can be used to challenge all kinds of racism and ethnocentrism in the church, for it teaches a radical egalitarianism that leaves no room for any boasting (3:27-31) save for boasting "in our hope of sharing the glory of God" (5:2).

Finally, a large number of women are mentioned in chapter 16, most of whom are praised even more than the men. Some have previously been co-workers of Paul; one is a house church leader, and another is an apostle. Phoebe herself, carrier and interpreter of Paul's letter, is a formidable church leader in her own right. These details provide evidence of the presence of strong women leaders in the earliest churches, and models for women in church leadership today.

Will the Romans lectionary readings for the current day promote these messages? In significant ways they appear to reflect the traditional paradigm. It will be a challenge for preachers and teachers to present Romans from the "emerging paradigm," but in the spirit of Lenten discipline, it can be done!

Reta Halteman Finger, the former editor of Daughters of Sarah magazine and the author of Paul and the Roman House Churches: A Simulation, taught New Testament at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, when this article appeared.

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