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Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary. Hermeneia.

Minneapolis:
Fortress, 2007, lxx + 1140. $90.00.

Originally published in The Princeton Theological Review

With the present commentary on Romans, Robert Jewett has


significantly advanced scholarly discussion on Paul’s most debated
epistle. Jewett, Guest Professor of New Testament at the University of
Heidelberg, has produced a commentary which is surprisingly conversant across a broad
spectrum of fields not regularly utilized in scholarly research of Romans. Shaped by the social,
rhetorical, and missiological functions of the letter, Jewett’s reading of Romans challenges
dominant interpretations which have typically neglected these approaches.

A particular strength of Jewett’s work is that he does not merely offer critical and exegetical
comment on the text. Rather, throughout the commentary he argues the thesis that Romans is
primarily a missionary document composed with the purpose of paving Paul’s way to preach the
gospel to the barbarians in Spain. Jewett’s focus on the missiological character of the letter is a
significant contribution to Pauline studies in general and Romans scholarship in particular. The
formative nature of Paul’s missionary vocation is commonly neglected in scholarship. Jewett
demonstrates throughout that Paul’s theology was not composed in the abstract showing instead
that it was shaped by his desire to preach to those who had not previously heard the gospel.
Jewett’s aim then is to interpret each verse of Romans as part of Paul’s effort to gain support for
his mission to Spain. It is at this point that Jewett demonstrates the breadth of his expertise in
utilizing material on the first century situation in Spain, a topic seldom brought into discussions
on Romans. Jewett especially highlights the particular difficulty of language barriers in
evangelizing the Spanish barbarians and argues that Paul needed the support and aid of the
Roman Christians along with their contacts in Spain to adequately prepare for the Spanish
mission. Jewett sees this missiological situation as formative for Paul’s understanding of the
righteousness of God which, according to the author, does not discriminate against certain
cultures or ethnicities and, in this particular case, against the barbarians in Spain.

Another important feature of Jewett’s commentary is his insistence that Romans cannot be
interpreted apart from the sociological context of first century Christianity in Rome. Against the
dominant traditions which have interpreted Romans as an abstract theological system, Jewett
treats the letter in light of the extensive amount of historical and sociological information
available on the ancient city of Rome. Central to the social context of Rome was the culture
wide system of honor where the primary quest in Roman public life was to gain honor while
avoiding shame. In this system the elite held almost exclusive possession of the means by which
one gained honor while the poor, slaves, and barbarians were normally excluded from qualifying
for honor in society. Thus, for Jewett, Paul’s declaration of his debt to both barbarians and the
foolish (1:14) followed by his announcement of the indiscriminate power of the gospel for
salvation (1:16) represents Paul’s belief that God’s impartial righteousness topples the system of
honor and shame. Jewett believes this line of argument lays the theological foundation for Paul’s
ethical parenesis to the splintered Christian groups that they should welcome, and thus honor,
one another in fellowship (14:1-15:13). For Jewett, this is tied to the missiological nature of the
letter in that Paul’s desire to see a unified Christian community in Rome stems from his need to
use Rome as a base of operations for his mission to Spain.

The methodological aspect of this commentary is also strengthened by the author’s use of
classical rhetorical categories in interpreting the epistle. The validity of rhetorical criticism as a
method in Pauline studies has been hotly debated in recent years. There is, however, a growing
contingent of scholars who consistently show that Paul utilized rhetorical techniques
conventional in his day. Jewett follows those scholars seeing Romans as a piece of Christian
rhetoric which was intended to persuade its audience of the author’s point of view. He argues
that the standard rhetorical means of persuasion are plainly apparent in Romans, and he
highlights the oral nature of the text reminding the reader that Romans was originally intended to
be heard rather than read. The present commentary significantly advances scholarship by
demonstrating once again the importance of rhetorical critical categories in the study of Paul’s
Romans.

Jewett’s interpretation of the widely debated phrase “righteousness of God” is certain to be


criticized (1:17; 3:22, etc). He takes the all important phrase to be a subjective genitive
“referring to God’s activity in this process [restoring the whole creation] of global
transformation” (142). The evidence for this interpretation is compelling and has gained ground
in recent scholarship. However, Jewett fails to adequately deal with the semantic arrangement of
1:17. Paul’s declaration that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel is substantiated
by the quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 where the status of righteous for the one who has faith is
certainly in view. More work is required to show how “righteousness” may take two different
meanings within the same verse.

Another weakness of Jewett’s interpretation of Romans comes in his downplaying the issue of
individual sin highlighting instead the corporate sinful nature of a society that operates in
categories of honor and shame (146, 276). While the corporate dimension of sin is valid and
should be acknowledged, it is no reason to undermine the importance of an individual’s standing
before God. The issue of individual sin before God and against others should not be relegated to
a minor theme if only for the reason that society itself is made up of individuals. While there is a
distinction between the individual and the group, the one doesn’t come without the other. That
Paul is equally concerned with the individual may be seen in the repeated use of the second
person singular in Romans 2.

Despite these weaknesses, Jewett’s commentary remains a landmark contribution to Romans


scholarship. The sheer breadth and depth of this volume are to be commended. His extensive
interaction with primary and secondary sources is truly amazing and makes this commentary an
essential tool in locating sources for research. Jewett’s focus on the missionary character of the
letter and his discussion of the situation in Spain has established a new standard in Romans
scholarship. His understanding of the social and rhetorical aims of the letter rightly challenges
many dominant interpretations of Romans. I am pleased to recommend Jewett’s Romans as a
remarkable piece of scholarly advancement in the study of Paul’s most discussed letter.

Matthew P. O’Reilly
Asbury Theological Seminary