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“‘If You Depend upon the Law’: Diatribe and the Rhetoric of Nomos in Romans 1–4” British New Testament Conference (September 2012)
“IF YOU DEPEND UPON THE LAW”: DIATRIBE AND THE RHETORIC OF NOMOS IN ROMANS 1–4 1. INTRODUCTION In Rom. 2.17, Paul—finally—plainly identifies the interlocutor to whom he imagines himself speaking. Paul first began employing the second-person singular pronoun in 2.1 (“You, therefore, are without excuse . . .”), and students of Romans have argued whether Paul imagines the “you” in 2.1–16 as a pompous gentile, a hypocritical Jew, or an arrogant person without ethnic specificity. When we get to v. 17, Paul finally provides us some clarity: “But if you call yourself a Jew, and you depend upon the Law, and you boast in God, and you know his will and you approve nobler things, being instructed by the Law” (2.17–18). He imagines himself talking to a Jewish person. We may still debate what kind of Jew Paul has in mind (a “typical Jew” [James Dunn], or a Jewish missionary to gentiles [Stanley Stowers]). But at least we know he imagines himself addressing a Jew. The consensus on this point is impressive. Everyone—from James Dunn to Stanley Stowers—agrees on the Jewish identity of the character Paul creates in 2.17ff. To the best of my knowledge, only Runar Thorsteinsson’s Paul’s Interlocutor in Romans 2 (Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2003)1 argues that “[c]ontrary to common opinion, the imaginary individual addressed in 2:17–29 is not a (native) Jew, but a gentile who wants to call himself a Jew.”2 I don’t want to reproduce Thorsteinsson’s argument today. Instead, my purpose in this paper is to flesh out some of the surprising—and I think dramatic—exegetical consequences that follow this seemingly inconsequential interpretive revision. If Paul imagines himself speaking to a gentile proselyte to Judaism in 2.17ff. and not an ethnic Jew (of any sort), the narrative and
Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Paul’s Interlocutor in Romans 2: Function and Identity in the Context of Ancient Epistolography (CBNTS 40; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2003). 2 Thorsteinsson, Interlocutor, from the Abstract.
theological dynamics of the entire letter shift in significant ways. This shift is visible in a number of places, not least in Paul’s use of νόµος in Romans 1–4. So, granting for the sake of discussion that Paul turns to a gentile proselyte who “calls himself a Jew” and who “depends upon the Law,” how does Paul use νόµος in the immediately following discussion? 2. SOME PRESUPPOSITIONS But first, I want to acknowledge three important assumptions that affect my understanding of Romans. If these assumptions are wrong, then my reading of Romans will be significantly flawed. Nevertheless, because of the limitations of space, I cannot defend these interpretive assumptions here; I can only point them out so that you are aware of them. • First, Paul imagines gentile interlocutors throughout Romans 2. Contrary to Thorsteinsson, I think the interlocutor in 2.1–16 is a moral but still pagan gentile; in 2.17 Paul turns to address a fully converted proselyte to Judaism. • Second, Paul envisages the recipients of his letter in exclusively gentile terms. There may have been (probably were) Jewish Christians in Rome in 57–58 CE, but he does not write to or for them. • Third, when Paul mentions ὁ νόµος, he nearly always does so in reference to Torah, the Mosaic covenant inscribed in the Pentateuch and embodied in a distinctive set of cultural and religious practices (“Torah-observance”). With that, let’s turn to Paul’s use of νόµος in Romans 1–4. 3. NOMOS IN ROMANS 2.12–15 As a part of his harangue against the self-righteous and hypocritical judge in the first half of Romans 2, Paul uses νόµος nine times as he argues that there is no favoritism with God. Romans 2.12 explains that both egregious sinners [ὅσοι ἀνόµως ἥµαρτον; hosoi anomōs hēmarton] and
those who transgress Torah even as they attempt to observe it [ὅσοι ἐν νόµῳ ἥµαρτον; hosoi en nomō hēmarton] find themselves subject to God’s judgment.3 Here in vv. 12–13 I would like to render Paul’s four uses of νόµος—the first in Romans—in general terms (“those who sin in reference to a law”) rather than with the particular and specific term, Torah. But in 2.14–15 Paul clearly has Torah in view when he argues that the gentiles, who do not have the Torah, do “the things of the Torah” [τὰ τοῦ νόµου; ta tou nomou] and so demonstrate that Torah has been inscribed on their hearts. Torah, of course, commands circumcision, Sabbath observance, dietary restrictions, and other markers of distinctive identity, and these are precisely the things that gentiles do not do. So what does Paul think he’s talking about when he refers to gentiles doing “the things of the Torah,” even though they do not (apparently) do all of the things of Torah?4 In this section of Romans, the paradigmatic “good deed” or “righteous act” for Paul is the recognition and acknowledgement of YHWH as Creator God (cp. Rom. 1.18–32). In v. 15, when Paul refers to “the work of Torah” [τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόµου; to ergon tou nomou] that some gentiles, apparently, have inscribed on their heart, the work he has in mind is the worship of a creator god. When gentiles distinguish the creator god from the objects of his creation, and when they worship the Creator rather than idols they have crafted from created manner, even if they lack the signs of the covenant (circumcision, Sabbath observance, etc.), they can expect to be rewarded on the day of
Remember that elite Greco-Roman moralists were as susceptible to the charge of self-righteousness and hypocrisy as were Jewish moral rigorists. Stanley Stowers offers the following translation of Rom. 2.11–12: “God shows no partiality. For all who have sinned in a lawless manner, shall perish in a manner befitting lawlessness. All who have sinned while living within the law, shall have their case judged by the law” (Rereading, 139). 4 We can draw a helpful analogy with the illegal immigration debate in contemporary American politics. Politicians have struggled with the concept of law-abiding illegal immigrants. After all, such people regularly break the law simply by means of living this side of the American borders; in addition, there are myriad employment, tax, and other civil laws that such people cannot help but violate. Nevertheless, there is clearly a difference between illegal immigrants who try to take care of their family without doing any harm to others and those who steal, murder, or commit other violent offenses. The language of “law-abiding illegal immigrants” is meant to account for just this sort of difference. I think Paul’s language of gentiles who do “the things of Torah” functions similarly.
judgment. This is the message of Paul’s gospel [τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν µου; to euangelion mou (2.16)], the message he endeavors to proclaim throughout the gentile world. 4. NOMOS IN ROMANS 2.17–29 Paul continues in the next paragraph to use νόµος ten times in 2.17–29, but I cannot see that the ethnic identity of the interlocutor in 2.17 has much effect for our interpretation of νόµος in this section. If we’re on the right track here, then Paul continues to describe the gentile proselyte to Judaism as one who “finds comfort [lit. rest] in Torah and boasts in God,” who “knows the will of God and approves of superior things” and who “is instructed by Torah” (2.17–18). Verses 19– 20 make clear that Paul has in view someone who shoulders a burden to spread the influence of Torah, almost certainly among the gentiles.5 Paul may be envisioning a Jewish teacher who pitches Torah particularly at gentile audiences, or he may imagine a proselyte who is trying to convert other gentiles with whom he has some relationship. Verses 21–22 have traditionally been read as Paul’s critique of the Jewish teacher who instructs others to do one thing but who does another. But Paul’s first rhetorical question in 2.21 expects an affirmative answer. He asks: “Therefore, you who teach another, don’t you teach yourself, too?”6 The answer, which Paul does not contradict, is, “Yes, I do teach myself.” This sets a pattern for the following rhetorical questions: Q: You who preach, “Do not steal,” do you steal? A: No, I do not steal.
The reference to τυφλῶν [typhlōn; “the blind”] and the phrase φῶς τῶν ἐν σκότει [phōs tōn en skotei; “a light for those in darkness”] echo Isa. 42.6–7, in which YHWH appoints his servant to be “a light for the gentiles” [εἰς φῶς ἐθνῶν; eis phōs ethnōn] and “to open the eyes of the blind” [ἀνοῖξαι ὀφθαλµοὺς τυφλῶν; anoixai ophthalmous typhlōn], and which mentions “those who are seated in darkness” [καθηµένους ἐν σκότει; kathēmenous en skotei]. 6 The question in Greek is: ὁ οὖν διδάσκων ἕτερον σεαυτὸν οὐ διδάσκεις; [ho oun didaskōn heteron seauton ou didaskeis]. If Paul had expected the answer, “No, I don’t teach myself,” he would have used µή instead of οὐ (see BDF §427).
Q: You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” are you adulterous? A: No, I am not adulterous. Q: You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? A: No, I do not rob temples.7 As far as I can tell, the series of four rhetorical questions in vv. 21–22 do not accuse Paul’s interlocutor of hypocrisy; they rather concede that the gentile proselyte has forsaken the depravity described in 1.18–32, turned from the pagan moralism described in 2.1–16, and taken on the yoke of Torah-observance (as described since 2.17). But this raises the question: What could Paul possibly have against such a fictive interlocutor? As a gentile proselyte to Judaism, Paul’s dialogue partner condemned the base immorality of passionate paganism in 1.18–32. He condemned the elitist moralism of the philosophic pagan in 2.1–16. Moreover, he practices a positive moral ethic and worships Israel’s God; what could Paul have against this guy? This question finds an easy answer: Paul consistently rails against the notion that gentiles should subject themselves to Torah, YHWH’s covenant with Israel. This, of course, is the driving theme throughout Galatians.8 The gentile proselyte who has taken on the name “Jew” and set his boast in Torah, instead of worshipping the Creator God of Israel by means of the promise that precedes Torah, and who teaches others to do the same (Rom. 2.19–20), dishonors God. “You who boast in Torah, by your transgression against Torah you dishonor God” (2.23). Paul equates anything that obscures God’s appeal to the gentiles through the gospel of Christ with reviling God’s name. This is especially true of gentiles who bend their necks to Torah’s yoke. The result
The second and third rhetorical questions contain the negative particle µή [mē], but this is not the reason for offering a negative answer to these questions. The particle is not part of the question proper but of the content of the interlocutor’s preaching and speaking (“Do not steal” and “Do not commit adultery,” respectively). 8 See, e.g., Gal. 3.1–5.
is ironic: A gentile who submits to circumcision has become as uncircumcision, whereas other gentiles who “keep the just commandments of Torah” without submitting to circumcision are reckoned as circumcision (2.26) and will stand as judges over gentile proselytes to Judaism (2.27). How can this be? The one who truly bears the name “Jew” does so on the basis of inward, secret, spiritual things and not through outward, visible, fleshly things (2.28–29). By submitting to circumcision, the gentile proselyte has missed what truly merits the epithet “Jew.” 5. NOMOS IN ROMANS 3.19–21 This brings us to Romans 3. The first part of the chapter (3.1–18) contains a dialogue between Paul and the interlocutor from chapter two, along with a catena of citations from the Hebrew Bible (especially the Psalms) that argues that Torah (τὰ λόγια τοῦ θεοῦ [3.2]) has not actually worked out to Israel’s advantage. Despite the advantage of Torah, even God’s own people Israel find themselves “under sin” [ὑφ᾽ ἁµαρτίαν (3.9)] and no better off than the gentiles. If Torah has not resulted in blessing even for Israel, how much less likely is it, Paul insinuates, that a gentile proselyte would have better luck? Paul draws this very conclusion for his interlocutor in 3.19–20. Torah speaks to those “in Torah” (i.e., the Jews), and its verdict is that Jews, no less than the gentiles, are under sin. The proselyte has acted foolishly, then, for placing his trust in Torah, which was never meant for him and has not kept God’s people Israel holy anyway.9 Paul insists that his gospel explains how the whole world—Jew as well as Greek—is accountable [ὑπόδικος; hypodikos (3.19)] to God’s
Despite our very real disagreements, Dunn’s comments help underscore Paul’s point according to my reading: “Here, even more clearly than in 2:12, the character and function of the law as marking the boundary between Jew and Gentile comes to expression. The Jews are defined as ‘those within the law,’ within the area circumscribed by the law, whose religion, nationality, and lifestyle bears the distinctive marks of the Torah” (Dunn, Romans, 1.152). When we see that Paul is addressing a gentile proselyte to Judaism, who has placed a premium on “the distinctive marks of the Torah” and even bent his neck to the full yoke of Torah, the conclusion that “no flesh will be made right by works of Torah” (3.20) is all the more dire.
righteous judgment. Gentiles are accountable because they have forsaken the Creator God; Jews are accountable because they have failed to keep Torah’s terms. Paul’s final word in this section, then, is aimed directly at the gentile proselyte: “Therefore, no flesh will be justified before him by works of Torah, for through Torah comes the knowledge of sin” (3.20). I suspect that Paul would apply this same principle to a Jewish audience, though that remains a matter of some debate. It doesn’t matter here. What does matter is that Paul is speaking to a gentile proselyte who has taken on the full yoke of Torah-observance and so has started down a road that has already proven to be a dead end for Israel. Stanley Stowers argues that, in 3.21ff., Paul continues the diatribe with the interlocutor from 2.17. I don’t think we can understand 3.21–26 unless we appreciate that Paul is still explaining why taking on the full yoke of Torah observance as part of one’s pursuit of the righteousness of God cannot succeed. Even more importantly, this passage, I think, almost necessitates our understanding that Paul imagines himself interacting with a gentile proselyte (rather than a Jewish teacher/missionary to gentiles). It is hard to read texts like Deuteronomy 28–32 without concluding that God intended his people Israel to embody his righteousness and to do so by keeping Torah. Hence the difficulty with traditional readings of Romans, according to which Paul argues that Torah obscures rather than reveals God’s righteousness. However, if Paul imagines himself speaking with a full-blown gentile proselyte, and if Paul insists that gentiles are not reconciled with Israel’s God by keeping Torah, then 3.21–26 explains how the righteousness of God is revealed to gentiles apart from Torah [χωρὶς νόµου; chōris nomou]. And even though Paul envisions the revelation of God’s righteousness apart from Torah, that revelation has not lost all mooring to the covenant and tradition associated with Moses. God’s righteousness “was attested to by Torah and the Prophets” [µαρτυρουµένη τοῦ νόµου καὶ τῶν προφητῶν (3.21b)].
If we let our eyes fall briefly upon Rom. 3.25, we can see the interpretive gain to be had by our decision to understand Paul’s interlocutor as a gentile proselyte rather than an ethnic Jew. That is, we can now understand why Paul reacts so violently to the notion that gentiles had to take on the full yoke of Torah (including circumcision, Sabbath observance, etc.) in order to be justified before God. Torah identified the lid of the ark of the covenant (the kappōreṯ, or hilastērion), at the heart of the Jerusalem Temple cult, as the locus of atonement. Paul, however, placed the location of atonement on Christ—(the hilastērion)—and his faithfulness to
The gentile proselyte missed, then, the mechanism God offered for reconciliation with himself, and this error runs counter to the heart of Paul’s mission to the gentiles (which did not focus on gentiles assuming Torah observance). 6. NOMOS IN ROMANS 3.27–31 Paul uses νόµος five more times in the paragraph 3.27–31. In 3.27, the interlocutor asks Paul, “Where, then, is boasting?” Though boasting carries a strongly negative connotation in English, that was not necessarily true of the Greek term καύχησις [kauchēsis]. In only one of its ten occurrences in the
does kauchēsis have negative connotations similar to the English word
boasting (see Jer. 12.13).10 So when Paul has the interlocutor ask, “Where, then, is boasting?” he is asking a question about the positive benefits of observing Torah. We might paraphrase, “Where, then, is the value, the beauty, of me—a gentile proselyte—observing Torah?”11 Paul responds starkly: “It is excluded” (3.27). Paul denies any value (“boasting” [kauchēsis]) to a
See Hans-Christoph Hahn, “καύχηµα,” NIDNTT 1.227–28. Robert Jewett inexplicably says, “While Paul uses καύχησις only here in [Rom.] 15:17, the negative connotation is consistent with LXX usage (Sir 31:10; Prov 16:31; etc.)” (Romans, 295n. 10). This is exactly wrong; as I have shown, only once in the LXX is kauchēsis used negatively. Moo is even less helpful: “‘Boasting,’ of course, is a sin common to all people—it reflects the pride that is at the root of so much human sinfulness” (Romans, 246). The LXX’s use of kauchēsis offers absolutely no justification to this comment, though we should recognize that Moo seems to be taking care to avoid the implication that Jews were any more inclined toward “boasting” than other nations. This concern is exactly right, even if it isn’t what Paul is talking about. 11 Pace Matera, Romans, 100.
gentile proselyte’s submission to Torah’s distinctive ordinances (esp. circumcision). Instead, Paul urges “trust” or “faith” (πίστις) in Torah’s testimony to the righteousness of God that has been revealed apart from Torah (see 3.21). This, Paul tells his interlocutor, is the gentiles’ appropriate response to Torah, “for we reckon a person is justified by faith apart from works of Torah” (3.28). Paul now goes on the offensive, posing a question for his interlocutor: “Or is God [the God] of the Jews only?” The interlocutor, having already been persuaded that Israel’s God is God of the whole world, can only answer, “No; [he is God] also of the gentiles.” Paul then draws the conclusion of the diatribe: “Yes, [he is God] also of the gentiles, since God is one, and he will justify the circumcision by faith and the uncircumcision through faith.” Notice Paul’s clear allusion to the Shema (Deut. 6.4–9): “Listen, Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one” [κύριος εἷς ἐστιν (Deut. 6.4)]. This one God justifies both the circumcision and the uncircumcision by faith, and so the gentile proselyte’s submission to circumcision has been in vain. The interlocutor has one final question, though the first-person plural form of the question (“Do we nullify . . .”) may suggest that Paul portrays his dialogue partner as being fully convinced by and agreeing to his argument. “Do we, then, nullfiy Torah by our faith?” Paul answers with the strong negative, “By no means!” [µὴ γένοιτο], and explains, “Rather, we establish [ἱστάνοµεν] Torah.” Torah’s intention was to fulfill the promises given to Abraham and his offspring; its result, however, was the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3.20). Paul’s gospel message about the righteousness of God revealed by πίστις “establishes” or “fulfills” Torah’s intention, which results in the Abrahamic blessing for all nations (or gentiles; see Gen. 12.3). There is no need, then, for gentiles to submit to the yoke of Torah. The way is open for them to fulfill “Torah’s righteous commandments” (see 2.26) without keeping all its ordinances.
7. NOMOS IN ROMANS 4.13–16 In Romans 4.13–25 Paul generalizes from Abraham’s faith[-fulness] to the relationship between three things: the promise, Torah, and faith. I personally do not think Paul is too concerned that his Roman audience in particular or Second Temple Judaism in general thought that Torah enabled a person to earn God’s blessing. Rather, the point is that Torah came after the promise and resulted in neither the blessing of Israel (remember, she chose death and curse [see Deuteronomy 28–32] rather than the life and blessing God placed before her) nor of the nations (see Rom. 1.18–2.16). Now, the righteousness of God revealed apart from Torah confirms and fulfills the promise to Abraham; if Torah had been God’s last word, “faith” (both Abraham’s confidence in God and YHWH’s trustworthiness) would have been void and the promise nullified (3.14). In the years between Abraham and Moses, when Abraham’s seed did not keep the terms of Torah (which hadn’t been given yet), there was no transgression [παράβασις; parabasis (4.15)]. Once God had given Torah to Israel, and he set before them the choice between blessing/life, on the one hand, and curse/death, on the other, Torah brought about the wrath of God against Israel’s transgressions (4.15). As a result, in order to make the promise secure for all of Abraham’s seed (4.16), the basis of the promise must be faith[-fulness] (such as Abraham exhibited) rather than Torah. 7. CONCLUSION In Romans 1–4 Paul has established the universal wickedness of the gentiles, who indulge in depraved debauchery (1.18–32) or self-righteous moralism (2.1–16) without any recognition of the Creator God of Israel. In contrast to these gentiles, who do not worship the Creator God, Paul invokes the character of a gentile proselyte to Judaism who has bent his neck to the full yoke of
Torah (2.17ff.). Paul objects just as fiercely to this gentile as he did to the immoral gentile and the self-righteous gentile. Notice, though, that nowhere in Romans 1–4 have we read Paul as critiquing, arguing with, or finding any fault whatsoever with “Judaism” or with Torah. And nowhere have we found Paul opposing a legalistic “works-righteousness” with righteousness by faith. I am not saying that Paul thought a person might earn (or merit) the grace of God. But the question of grace versus works has dominated our reading of Romans for too long, and my argument in this paper has hopefully demonstrated that this just isn’t the question Paul is answering. If Paul isn’t addressing the issue of works versus grace, what issue should we find at the heart of Romans? So far in the letter, I think Paul has been addressing the issue of Torah versus Jesus (rather than works versus grace). The problem with Torah is not that it presents a works-based system of atonement; the problem with Torah is that God’s people Israel have been unfaithful [ἀπιστία (3.3)] to the grace God offers them through Torah. But God has been faithful [ἡ πίστις τοῦ θεοῦ (3.3)] to his promises, and Jesus, rather than Torah, is the means through which he reveals his faithfulness to humanity. This, I think, is the heart of the message of Romans, or at least of the first four chapters of Romans.
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