Home » 2016 » November

Monthly Archives: November 2016

Martin Luther on the Epistle to Romans

In my introductory Bible class, I like to show a clip on youtube from the excellent movie Luther since Martin Luther influenced so much of our interpretation of Paul, whether you judge that to be for better or for worse. It is also helpful that Martin Luther’s Preface to Romans published around 1545 is online at http://www.ccel.org/l/luther/romans/pref_romans.html. Here is a famous quote:

“This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul… We find in this letter, then, the richest possible teaching about what a Christian should know: the meaning of law, Gospel, sin, punishment, grace, faith, justice, Christ, God, good works, love, hope and the cross. We learn how we are to act toward everyone, toward the virtuous and sinful, toward the strong and the weak, friend and foe, and toward ourselves. Paul bases everything firmly on Scripture and proves his points with examples from his own experience and from the Prophets, so that nothing more could be desired. Therefore it seems that St. Paul, in writing this letter, wanted to compose a summary of the whole of Christian and evangelical teaching which would also be an introduction to the whole Old Testament. Without doubt, whoever takes this letter to heart possesses the light and power of the Old Testament. Therefore each and every Christian should make this letter the habitual and constant object of his study. God grant us his grace to do so. Amen.”


Saint Augustine on Romans

Augustine (354 – 430 CE) was the famous bishop of Hippo and prominent Christian theologian who had a profound influence on the shape of Western Christendom. He is also famous for his autobiography The Confessions where he provides an account of his conversion to Catholic Christianity. He describes how he was in a garden when a child’s voice compelled him to read the following verse in Romans (12.29):

I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell—Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof [Romans 13:13-14]. No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended—by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart—all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

“Paul Within Judaism” Resources

A good introduction to this approach to reading Paul’s letters, along with a friendly critique from Terence L. Donaldson as a respected advocate of the (older) New Perspective on Paul, can be found in Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (ed. Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2015). Both Mark Nanos and Paula Fredriksen has websites that include many of their publications online that have been instrumental to shaping this approach to Paul. Pamela Eisenbaum has links on her site to how she has popularized this reading of Paul for various media outlets and online sources. Larry Hurtado weighed in with a few blog posts last month on Paul and the Torah here and here. Kurt Willems hosts The Paulcast, an online podcast that is sympathetic to the Radical New Perspective. Please email me if you think of more links to help students understand this reading of Paul.

The “Paul within Judaism” Approach

Whereas the Old Perspective viewed Paul as objecting against the efforts to try to merit salvation through faithful obedience to the Torah, the New Perspective on Paul argues that Paul critiqued the view of Torah as a boundary marker separating Israel from the nations and insisted that Gentile Christ followers do not have to adopt Jewish customs (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws) to be part of the people of God. Both sides seemed to agree, however, that the community of Jews and Gentiles “in Christ” were no longer under the dominion of Torah but lived by the Spirit who produces fruit of righteousness in them.

In a third approach that has come to be labelled as the Radical New Perspective or the “Paul within Judaism” approach, Paul and other Jewish Christ-followers remain fully Torah-observant. Lloyd Gaston, John Gager, and Stanley Stowers paved the way in arguing that Paul’s message of  reconciliation with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus was directed exclusively to Gentiles, while the Jews already had a prior relationship with God conditioned on the Sinai covenant and the Torah. This “two covenant” reading of Paul is shared by some, but not all, of the scholarly advocates for the “Paul within Judaism” approach. What unites many scholars in the latter school of thought (cf. Mark Nanos, Paula Fredriksen, Pamela Eisenbaum, Caroline Johnson Hodge, Neil Elliott, Magnus Zetterholm, Kathy Ehrensperger, Joel Willitts) is that Paul believed he was living in the dawn of the new age when the nations were streaming into Zion to worship the God of Israel through the appointed messianic deliverer Jesus. However, the nations do not become Israel, nor vice-versa, but they all maintain their distinct social identities even as they are united under the rule of Christ.

There is much I like about this reading of Paul, though there are still passages in the Pauline letters about the role of the Torah in the communities that he establishes or Paul’s own religious practices that give me pause about whether Paul saw the Torah as continuing to be operative in the new eschatological age. I will post some resources in the next post if you want to understand more about this new way of reading Paul.

Romans 11:25-26: The Interpretive Options

How do we interpret these two verses? The following options are listed by Christopher Zoccali, “And so all Israel will be saved: Competing Interpretations of Romans 11:26 in Pauline Scholarship” JSNT 30 (2008): 289-318 and Jason Staples, “What Do the Gentiles Have to Do with ‘All Israel’: A Fresh Look at Romans 11:25-27” JBL 130 (2011): 371-390.

  1. Israel will become collectively receptive to Paul’s “gospel” through a miraculous turning at Jesus parousia or “coming” at the end of the age. This is probably the view of the majority of Romans’ commentators today.
  2. Paul has redefined “Israel” around the church constituted by Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. This was the majority view among Christian theologians beginning in the Patristic period and has recently been associated with N. T. Wright.
  3. “All Israel” refers to the “total national elect” in the historical nation who have received Paul’s “gospel.” Christopher Zocalli has recently defended this view.
  4. “All Israel” refers to the historical nation that will inherit salvation based on their fidelity to the Mosaic covenant, while Paul insists that it is only Gentiles who need to be reconciled with God through the salvation provided by Christ. This is the “two covenant” approach of Lloyd Gaston and John Gager.
  5. Paul anticipates that he will have an upcoming fruitful ministry in Rome and, when his fellow Jews see the success of his ministry, they will be motivated to join in the Pauline mission and accept its rationale about how the in-gathering of the nations is part and parcel of the messianic age that has now begun. Mark Nanos takes this view.
  6. Paul identifies the non-Jewish Christ followers with the scattered northern tribes of Israel that had been dispersed among the nations, so their inclusion alongside the salvation of the Jews descended from the tribe of Judah signals the restoration of “all Israel.” Jason Staples has recently championed this reading.

I tend to think that Paul probably interpreted the resistance to his proclamation that the messianic age had begun in the death and resurrection of Christ among some of his own people to be a temporary hardening that would be miraculously removed at the imminent return of Jesus to fully establish the kingdom (point #1). The usual expectation that Israel would be restored before the nations would be gathered into Zion to worship Israel’s God has been reversed by Paul due to his historical situation. However, in support of Staple’s reading that Paul may have saw the salvation of the Gentiles as part of the restoration of the entire twelve tribe constitution of Israel (#6), Paul does seem to apply passages that originally referred to the northern tribes to his Gentile converts in Romans 9:25-26. I do think that the Christian supersessionist reading of the church totally replacing Israel has had highly problematic consequences in Christian history and have published critical analyses of this theology in the Epistle of Barnabas and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. Of course, since the Messiah’s coming along with the hopeful scenario of universal peace that Paul envisioned has been delayed, there is room to discuss how Romans 11:25-27 should be interpreted in our world and in interfaith dialogue today.


Respecting Difference in Interfaith Dialogue

There were a plurality of views among Second Temple Jews about the nations (i.e. Gentiles). These views could range from the view that the vast majority of the Gentiles would perish or become subservient to Israel at the eschatological judgment, that there could be hope for Gentile proselytes to the Torah or for morally upright Gentiles who did not have the Torah but obeyed the basic commandments given to Noah as the ancestor of humanity, and the universalistic hope that the nations would come to worship the God of Israel in peace in the coming eschatological age. Terence L Donaldson lists the spectrum of views in his book Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism.

There was also a plurality of view among ancient Christians: some Jewish followers of Jesus accepted that belief in Jesus as Messiah was compatible with traditional Torah observance and condemned Paul’s Law-free Gentile mission as antinomian (e.g. the Ebionites), others thought that non-Jews could be incorporated into Israel’s covenant without undergoing proselyte conversion (e.g. Paul), and still others insisted that their predominantly non-Jewish Christian communities displaced Israel as God’s chosen people (e.g. Justin Martyr). Thus, there are inclusive and exclusive strands in both traditions.

When Jews and Christians meet together for interfaith dialogue, we do not have to sweep points of difference aside even as there may be many areas in which we agree. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber pinpoints one key difference in worldview about whether the Messiah has come and the messianic age has dawned: “The Christian sees the Jew as the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened, and the Jew sees the Christian as the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms redemption in an unredeemed world” (cf. Martin Friedman, Martin Buber’s Life and Work, p. 119). Yet this difference can be respected without descending into caricature about the beliefs and practices of the “Other” and we can affirm our mutual commitment to working towards a just and peaceful future. This applies to interfaith dialogue in general. And let me add another note as a Canadian grieving about Trump’s divisive campaign: we must be committed to living together in harmony in a small interconnected planet, to growing in our understanding of the richly diverse cultural and religious traditions around the world, and to standing against discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, culture, or religion!

My Chapter on Justin Martyr for the Volume “The Bible, Zionism, and Palestine”

Relegere Academic Press has posted Michael Sandford’s edited volume The Bible, Zionism, and Palestine: The Bible’s Role in Conflict and Liberation in Israel-Palestine. My chapter “Christian Claims on the Inheritance of Israel: Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew” has been uploaded online. This was based on a conference hosted by the Biblical Studies Department at the University of Sheffield back in 2012. Obviously, a controversial topic draws a range of perspectives and I do not endorse all the contributions contained therein. Let me also state at the outset that my expertise is not in the contemporary history and politics of the region, but I contributed to the conference as a biblical scholar and historian of ancient Jewish/Christian communities.

Despite the literature produced by some Patristic writers wanting to enforce rigid social boundaries between Christians and Jews, this did not mirror the actual reality on the ground where there were extensive social interactions between the Christian minority and the much larger Jewish majority in the first few centuries. What began as efforts to construct a distinctive “Christian” identity, often at the expense of negatively representing the Jewish people in opposing terms, had tragic consequences under Christendom when Christians became the majority in power. Christian anti-Judaism was unfortunately one of the streams feeding into racial anti-Semitism. Although Justin Martyr has some tolerance for a diversity of social practices among the Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Christian community, Justin was the first to label Christians as the “new Israel” who replaced the old and, in effect, tried to completely appropriate the scriptures, covenant, ancestry, and land from the Jewish people for his own community.

The belief in a people who have been elected by God as a witness to the world in both Judaism and Christianity can be seen as a positive call to live up to certain ethical ideals and social responsibilities enshrined in the Torah or Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. But there is always a danger that some will interpret the belief in divine election as the license to persecute ethnic and religious minorities. Thus, I try to conclude my study with some ethical reflections about how different communities, each valuing their own communal identities and heritage, can learn to live together. We ought to both repudiate the ever-present evil of anti-Semitism, including when it is cloaked behind the denials of Israel’s right to exist, and be concerned about the plight of the Palestinians. How can we better work towards a peaceful two-state solution that recognizes Israel and Palestine and protects the rights of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other minority groups? Political scientists may be in a more informed position to answer the last question; my study is only a limited case study of how religious worldviews may either positively or negatively effect how people view those outside their community.


Introducing the Epistle to the Romans

Manuscripts: Papyrus 46 (published 1935-37) was the oldest textual evidence for the Pauline Epistles in a codex and included the last eight chapters of Romans. It is dated around 200 C.E. Apparently an earlier fragment of Romans 9-10 has been discovered in the Green collection. There is some evidence that a shortened version of the text circulated: some manuscripts put the doxology in 16:25-27 after 14:23 or 15:33 (including P46). Although no extant manuscript lacks chapters 15-16, some Patristic authorities do not cite these chapters (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian).

  1. Was an originally circular letter appended with ch. 15-16 for an edition for Rome? However, this solution has no textual support and Paul continues his discussion from 14:1-15:6 or 13.
  2. Was a letter sent to Rome (ch. 1-15) and the personal greetings from another letter sent to Ephesus appended on it (ch. 16)? Paul spent three years in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila are noted elsewhere in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:9; 2 Tim 4:19), and Epaenetus was a first convert in Asia.
  3. Chapters 15-16 may have been removed accidentally in scribal transmission or intentionally to reach a more general audience or for liturgical or theological reasons (e.g. Origen blames the excision of these chapters on Marcion in his Commentary on Romans 10.43 on 16:25)? This is the most plausible explanation.

Genre: epistle (the Greek ἐπιστολή means “letter”). The epistolary format includes a salutation, thanksgiving/prayer report, body (scriptural interpretation, moral exhortations), and benediction.

Authorship: Romans is considered one of Paul’s “undisputed epistles.”

  1. Read Romans 1:1. How does Paul describe himself and his ministry?
  2. Most ancient people were illiterate and even the few educated individuals able to read or write often relied on a professional amanuensis or secretary to record what they dictated to them. What is the role of Tertius (see Romans 16:22)?

Date: Paul traveled on three major missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean according to the book of Acts and seems to have written this letter while staying in Corinth around 57 C.E.

  1. What clues are given about the date of the letter in Romans 15:23-32?
  2. What places had Paul not yet visited and where did he hope to travel? Why was he raising a collection for the poor saints of Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, and 2 Corinthians 9:1-15)?
  3. Why do you think Paul was anxious about returning to Jerusalem (see Acts 21:10-36)? Paul’s wish to visit Rome was fulfilled, but he was transferred to Rome as a prisoner where he was eventually beheaded at the order of Nero according to Christian tradition.

Audience: Paul is writing to a network of house churches that he had not personally founded in the capital city of the Empire (see Romans 1:11-15; 15:22).


  1. To introduce himself and to systematically outline the apostolic foundation for his gospel for a network of churches that only knew Paul by reputation. Paul may have perhaps even intended the letter to be his last will and testament.
  2. (Some?) Jews were expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius in 49 C.E., but they were later permitted to return to Rome. This may have created tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish members of the church in Rome, leading to Paul’s wider reflections on God’s plan for Israel and the nations and practical advice for church unity. Paul is also raising a collection for the impoverished Christ followers in Jerusalem as a demonstration of unity (15:25-28).
    1. “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [a misspelling of “Christ” or just the name of a local person in Rome?], he expelled them from Rome” (Seutonius, Claudius 25).
    2. “There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” (Acts 18:2; cf. Romans 16:3-4).
    3. Paul uses the term “Jew” 11 times in Romans and 15 times elsewhere and the term “Israel” 11 times in Romans and 6 times elsewhere.

3. To raise support for a mission to Spain (see Romans 15:28).

  1. It is unclear whether Paul ever reached Spain. According to Acts 28:23-31, Paul was left for two years under house imprisonment in Rome. Historians debate whether Paul was executed shortly thereafter or was initially released to go on further travels, only to then be re-arrested and executed. In a letter attributed to the bishop Clement of Rome in the late first century C.E., Paul is described as reaching the farthest limits of the West which may have been taken to be Spain (see 1 Clement 5:7).

The Latest Biblical Studies Carnival

I have to issue a correction. I wrote this post a while ago and scheduled it to be published for today, but I must have not looked carefully at the list of upcoming carnival hosts and linked to the wrong blog. It is Bob MacDonald who has compiled an amazing biblical studies carnival for October 2016. Enjoy.