The Iconoclast, The Dreamer, The Slave
Before we can truly understand Paul’s letter to the Romans, we need to understand Paul. And he was a character far more colorful, far more subtle than most people realize.
Nobody saw it coming… This man named Saul, this “Pharisee of Pharisees,” was backing Christians into a corner. They were on the run. Saul was unwavering, unrelenting. He was on a mission from God.
Nobody saw it coming… Saul had stood by and watched approvingly while the first Christian martyr was stoned to death. He was all in. He was dedicated to seeing this blasphemous corruption of Judaism wiped out of existence.
Nobody saw it coming… Saul was on his way to Damascus with official papers in hand to search the local synagogues for apostate Christ-followers. He would do what he always did: find the blasphemers, assault them if he had to, and drag them off to prison where they belonged.
And then something happened. Nobody saw it coming…least of all Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee of Pharisees.
Saul had a divine revelation of Jesus. And it utterly changed his life–as well as the future trajectory of Christianity throughout the world. Nothing would ever be the same.
It is at this point in our narrative when I might say something about how “Saul became Paul”–and with his new name in hand, he went off to be an apostle for Christ. However, it turns out that is a myth. A pleasant-sounding myth, but a myth nonetheless.
As Kurt Willems, host of The Paulcast podcast, explains:
Saul is his Hebrew/Aramaic name…the name he most easily recognized and the one that spoke deeply of his Jewish identity. This Jewish teacher took joy in being from the tribe of Benjamin, the same tribe from whom emerged the king he was named after!
Paul is his Greek name (Paulos) and his Roman name (Paulus). He chose a close “equivalent” to his Jewish name from the known Greco-Roman names of the time.
Paul is Paul in gentile contexts. Paul is Saul in Judaean contexts. There is no moment in the Bible where a name-change takes place (which is completely distinct from Jesus adding the name Peter to Simon).
It’s not just Paul’s name. There are a whole host of myths surrounding Saul/Paul. We shouldn’t be surprised, considering Paul had such an outsized effect on the growth and spread of Christianity across the Roman world–not to mention he wrote a major portion of the New Testament!
Some myths are harmless. Others can be harmful. As we enter into our close look at Paul’s letter which he wrote to the Christian church in Rome, we will talk about some of the myths which have come to overshadow Paul’s original intent in writing Romans and the resulting mixed legacy we see today.
But first, a few historical facts:
Scholars think Saul was was born around 10 C.E. in Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey. Unlike Jesus’ other early followers, who were mostly Palestinians, Paul was a Roman citizen, which implies he was at least moderately well-off, and which granted him a certain respect wherever he went in the empire. He was a tentmaker by trade. After his conversion, he traveled extensively through most of the Mediterranean world. He died between 62 and 67 CE.
Paul was no stranger to the Greco-Roman world. He understood the customs, the philosophies, and the religious beliefs of the Gentiles. He was a man of two worlds…a Jew by heritage, but a Roman by citizenship.
When Paul became a Christian, it added yet another layer to his identity: Jewish, Gentile, and now ambassador for Christ. And it is here in the midst of this swirling trifecta of competing identities that we find our first window into the world of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The When and the Who of Romans
Scholars believe Romans was written around AD 57 or 58, likely when Paul was residing in Corinth. Rome was a contentious and dangerous place for Jews and Christians at that time. As Brenda explains over at Sharper Iron:
By this time, the Christians in Rome were an eclectic group. There were Jews who had endured temporary expulsion by the Roman government, there were slaves who were in danger of execution if their masters were killed, and there were citizens subject to the exploits of tax collectors.
Matt Dabbs tells us that while the Roman Church was in a comeback phase after a period of major tumult, not all was peachy in the Empire’s capital:
When Christianity spread into a new community as best we can tell it was typically targeted toward the Jews in the region. This was probably due to the common background and respect for the scriptures. After that god-fearing Gentiles and Gentiles in general were reached out to. It could very easily have been the case that the church in Rome had a mostly Jewish-Christian leadership until AD 49 when they were expelled from Rome. So who steps in? The Gentile Christians. They become the elders, deacons, etc. Five years later when Claudius dies the Jews return and who do they find in their leadership roles? Gentile Christians. See the problem?
When you read Romans through this lens things start falling into place… We get a feel for the tension there must have been between the Jewish and Gentile Christians at the church in Rome. If the Jews were the majority, and then were forced out by edict, how must they have felt to return to the church in Rome as a minority group? Certainly, they should have embraced the situation with grace, and their Gentile brothers should have welcomed them back with humility and love. But we are all aware of the presence and power of sin even in the lives of believers. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that the new situation in the church of Rome in the mid-to-late 50s led to some ruffled feathers, and hurt feelings. It is to this situation that Paul addresses his appeal to unity on the basis of the gospel.
This is the background we need in order to understand why Romans is structured the way it is. Romans is addressed to two groups of people simultaneously: Jewish Christians and Romans (aka Gentile) Christians. Thus it takes eleven chapters for Paul to make the case for faith in Jesus Christ from both a Jewish and a Gentile perspective, before we get into chapters twelve and beyond which are largely about how Christians should live and conduct their affairs in the world.
In the past, as a reader I often preferred to skip over Romans 1 through 11 entirely in order to get to “the good stuff.” Romans 12 is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture, and Romans 14 is a beautiful entreaty for respecting differences of conviction in the midst of spiritual community.
But Romans doesn’t start at Chapter 12. It starts at Chapter 1. (Actually chapters and verses weren’t added to the Bible until centuries later, but you get the point.) And that’s where we must start as well.
The What of Romans
The myth that we need to get out of the way right from the start is the notion that Paul was addressing his letter to “pre-Christians”–whether pagans or atheists. This is not the audience Paul had in mind. He was writing to people who already believed in Jesus. So reading Romans, most certainly chapter 1, with the intent of finding suitable language to use in an evangelistic context, is a fallacy–and I would argue a dangerous one at that.
The real question to ask as you begin to read Romans is What is the story? What is the narrative Paul is trying to pull his readers into?
Catholic theologian James Alison’s fantastic treatise on Romans 1 is a must-read, because it helps us understand the groundwork Paul lays in Romans 1 which really culminates in chapter 2. You simply can’t read chapter 1 without getting to Paul’s real point in chapter 2. As James states:
My starting point for reading Romans 1 isn’t in Romans 1 at all. It is in fact what we know as Romans 2:1 and it reads as follows:
“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
Now, I suggest to you that it is extremely odd to start a new argument, or a new chapter, with the word “Therefore”. Normally, a sentence beginning “Therefore” is an indication that the conclusion to the preceding argument is about to be given. That is, the whole point of what went before is about to be made clear.
In the next installment of this series, we will go into far greater detail concerning the ramifications of this understanding of the relationship between Romans 1 and 2. Suffice it to say, Romans 1 isn’t the complete argument Paul makes as he begins his letter. You need to keep reading. That’s why it’s dumbfounding to me that so many screeds by Christian preachers over the centuries have cribbed from Romans 1 in an attempt to condemn “sinners.” They’re doing something Paul never intended to do.
Now for some observations concerning the overall format of Romans. Nearly the entire letter is built around the rhetorical device of contrast-and-compare. Paul presents an A, and then a B. Up and down. Left and right. Yin and yang. It’s an effective way to communicate. Steve Jobs did the same thing in his presentations: show some pictures of rival companies’ devices, make fun of how crappy they look, and then show off Apple’s latest invention (the iPod or iPhone, for example).
Now I know this is a difficult thing to ask, but you really should read Romans in its entirety in one sitting, or as much of it as you can. This is a letter Paul has written after all, a conversation he is having with his audience. It pains me how many specific verses get taken out of context and used to support all kinds of goofy doctrines.
In fact, in numerous readings I’ve conducted with various translations through Romans–not intending to study it verse-by-verse searching for doctrinal statements, but trying to grasp the grand sweep of the narrative and the story Paul is trying to tell, I’ve found myself cringing every time I read a verse that has been taken out of context and used by fundamentalists.
There is a better way to read Romans.
Unfortunately, you won’t hear about this better way from some segments of American Evangelicalism. For example, in Living by the Book by Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks, they make the argument:
Paul’s letters are outstanding examples of the expositional form in Scripture. The book of Romans is a tightly reasoned explanation of the gospel. Paul argues like a lawyer presenting a case before a court, which is no surprise because we know that as a young man Paul had extensive rabbinical training, including the oratorical arts.
This is exactly the wrong way to read Romans. Yes, Paul’s oratory is certainly on fine display in this letter–yet I would argue not in a legal sense at all, but in a theatrical sense. If we read Romans through the grid of plucking out a bunch of definitive statements on a variety of questions in order to find a host of doctrinal validations, we are going to get tripped up very quickly. In other words, we simply can’t do this:
- Is God mad at unbelievers? Yes, because in Romans Paul says X.
- Is every human who ever lived a sinner in rebellion against God? Yes, because in Romans Paul says X.
- Are Jews who don’t believe in Jesus doomed for eternity? Yes, because in Romans Paul says X.
- How can you get saved? Well, just say what Paul says to do in Romans: X
As much as theologians might attempt to claim otherwise, Romans is not a textbook for constructing a “systematic theology.” We impose that desire for “catachismic” certainty upon the text–it is simply not there to begin with. Of course Paul has a message he wishes to convey to his audience, but to get to the main points of his message he may draw upon allegory, simile, literary references, exaggerations, and various other rhetorical devices along the way. When we view Romans as a primarily a legal document, not the creative work of literature that it is, we miss the subtleties, the angles, the ornamentations, the why behind the what.
We miss the story.
Thematic Elements of Romans
Romans is a long letter that touches on many points, but in my estimation, Romans is mainly structured about these five topics:
- Nobody has a monopoly on truth or goodness. Jews, Gentiles, anybody else who might come along…we’re all flawed people. So let’s all cut each other some slack here because, guess what? That’s what God is like towards us. He has grace and love for us in abundance. All we have to do is receive it. It’s a free gift.
- Sin is pictured as this cosmic force of darkness that comes along to overpower us, infect us, pull us down into evil. Even when we want to do what is right, this inky black power seems to consume us and keep us from walking the right path. That’s why we need the Spirit. That’s why we need God’s help.
- By identifying with Jesus through his experience of being executed on the cross, we in a sense die with him. We die to our past identity. Yes, we’re flawed humans. But if we die, then the sin within us dies too. All the flaws fade away. So when Jesus is raised by God’s power, when he comes into the full glory of resurrection life, we too are raised into that life. We are now able to walk in “newness of life” and are able to see ourselves and everything around us in light of that. The old rules of decay and death need no longer apply.
- Because we are now living new lives by the power of the Spirit, we can live like Christ in everything that we do. It utterly changes how we view ourselves and others in the world. We can love like God loves–even our mortal enemies. We can show mercy like God shows mercy. We can bestow honor even on the lowly–the outcasts, the refugees, the people whom society has discarded. We can see each person as a valuable member of the community and an equal contributor to this new family of “raised-with-Christ” people. We can always overcome evil by doing good and by recognizing the truth that sin is rendered powerless in the presence of Divine Love.
- The precise manner in which each of us connects to God and how we worship God, as well as the ways we conduct our affairs in the world, is something which requires respect and understanding. Christ-likeness is expressed in deferring to the convictions of each person, even if we don’t always agree with them. Each of us must live lives congruent with what we believe is right–and to suppress our inner convictions in order to go along with what other people say is true in life should in fact be considered sinful!
Paul’s ultimate goal for his audience as he writes Romans is to acheive peace and unity. He wants everyone to live joy-filled lives of compassion and openhandedness towards each other. Why? “Because love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Don’t you see how radical this is? Here we are, two millenia after Paul wrote down his vision of God-breathed community, and we can’t even get these basics right. Why are we still arguing about questions such as if “social justice” is part of the Gospel? In Romans, Paul demonstrates to us that social justice is what happens when the Gospel is being lived out in community.
We would do well to remember that the Gospel is politically subversive. It was 2,000 years ago, and it still is today. And Paul is right there with Jesus in putting its subversiveness on display.
Who is Paul, Really?
Over the years, I have become convinced that a superficial understanding of the guy as some dry, dusty, intellectually-minded academic type with a sour face spitting polemics at people he’s grumpy about has absolutely nothing to do with the actual man Paul. I have become convinced that Paul was a deeply emotional, charismatic fellow who laughed, cried, shouted, and whispered with the best of them…a dude of intense passion who was so rightly afraid of sucking the oxygen out of the room that he tried to get others to do much of what he could have easily done himself (baptizing, raising money, and so forth). If we met Paul on the street today, we might consider him a little wacky, like somebody better suited to the odd inventive climate of the stage than the typical buttoned-up world of commerce and commentary.
Paul’s own personality comes through his writings more often than you’d think. Of any of the New Testament writers, I think Paul “leaks” through the text more than anyone else. Read Peter’s letters–they’re rather boring in comparison with the description of Peter we read about in the Gospels. Read John’s letters–they’re fairly one-note in style. But read Paul, and you feel like you get to know the fellow a bit, warts and all. Sort of a weirdo, perhaps, but also a man of huge heart and astounding vision.
Paul: The Iconoclast. The Dreamer. The Slave (of Christ). And the author of one of the most fascinating texts in the New Testament: Romans.
Next week, we will examine chapters 1 and 2 of Romans and discover that, far from being a religious tirade against atheist, gays, and other people Evangelicals don’t like, it was a biting satire aimed at the Jewish Christians in Rome. Stay tuned.
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