Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary


While Paul's letter to the Romans is the most studied and commented-on document from the biblical period, the major exegetical books on Romans from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been overwhelmingly shaped by the Reformed tradition. Through a careful survey of work on Romans by both ancient Church Fathers and modern exegetical scholars, Ben Witherington III here argues that the interpretation of Romans since the Reformation has been far too indebted to — and at key points led astray by — Augustinian ...
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While Paul's letter to the Romans is the most studied and commented-on document from the biblical period, the major exegetical books on Romans from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been overwhelmingly shaped by the Reformed tradition. Through a careful survey of work on Romans by both ancient Church Fathers and modern exegetical scholars, Ben Witherington III here argues that the interpretation of Romans since the Reformation has been far too indebted to — and at key points led astray by — Augustinian readings of the text as filtered through Luther, Calvin, and others.

In this first full-scale socio-rhetorical commentary on Romans, Witherington gleans fresh insights from reading the text of Paul's epistle in light of early Jewish theology, the historical situation of Rome in the middle of the first century A.D., and Paul's own rhetorical concerns. Giving serious consideration to the social and rhetorical background of Romans allows readers to hear Paul on his own terms, not just through the various voices of his later interpreters. Witherington's groundbreaking work also features a new, clear translation of the Greek text, and each section of the commentary ends with a brief discussion titled “Bridging the Horizons,” which suggests how the ancient text of Romans may speak to us today.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802845047
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 10/1/2003
  • Pages: 421
  • Sales rank: 1,007,022
  • Product dimensions: 6.24 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 0.95 (d)

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Paul's Letter to the Romans

A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
By Ben Witherington III Darlene Hyatt

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

Chapter One


Epistolary Prescript and Greeting - 1.1-7

The prescript to Romans is more expansive than those of some of Paul's other letters, which may reflect the fact that here he is not writing to his own converts, and presumably the issue of ethos and authority is more of a concern with this audience than with some others. It is also surely no accident that already in this prescript Paul will stress the indebtedness of Christians to their Jewish heritage both in the Scriptures and in the person of the Jew Jesus. Traditional material is probably drawn on in this prescript, so that from the first Paul positions himself with those who affirm and indeed stress the Jewish heritage of Jesus and his followers. One should note how this material prepares for what is to come in ch. 9, but notice that there are also echoes of this material in the final doxology in 16.25-27.

Paul, slave of Jesus Christ, called apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which was promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Writings, concerning his Son who came to be born from the seed of David according to the flesh, who was marked out/appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness from the resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship unto the obedience of faith in all the non-Jewish peoples for his name's sake, in whom you also are called of Jesus Christ. To all those in Rome - beloved of God, called saints. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This rich introduction to the discourse begins already the attempt to establish both rapport with the audience and Paul's authority in relationship to them. Though they are not his converts he received an apostleship that included the task of accomplishing "the obedience of faith" in all the nations, or put another way, among all the non-Jewish peoples. This would include the vast majority of his audience.

It is important to bear in mind from the outset that Paul is drawing on and alluding to a storied world. He begins this work with a reference to his own story (called and set apart for a specific role by God) and the story of Jesus (born in the Davidic line requisite of a messianic figure and marked out as Son of God in power after his resurrection). Paul assumes he shares or can share in common with his audience the generative narratives underlying and under-girding his discourse from the outset. Neglect of the storied world out of which he does his theological and ethical reflection has led to misreadings of texts as varied as chs. 2 and 7. To treat Romans as some sort of theological treatise involving merely abstract and logical constructs will not do. Paul certainly knows how to use logic and rhetoric to argue his case well, but he does not do so like a late western philosopher or logician but rather as an early Jewish Christian evangelist well trained in the art of persuasion.

At the very outset Paul calls himself a slave or servant of Christ. It is possible that he wishes thus to set himself within the prophetic tradition (see Ps. 105.26, 42; Amos 3.7; Zech. 1.6), but he uses the same sort of introduction in Phil. 1.1 and Gal. 1.10. Furthermore, other important OT figures besides the prophets are regularly identified in this way, which suggests that "servant" is an honorific title (2 Kgs. 18.12, of Moses; Judg. 2.8, of Joshua; 2 Sam. 7.5, of David). It is an honor to be a servant of the great King. C. K. Barrett suggests that Paul may be drawing on language that refers to servants of a king. While Greeks did not see themselves as a king's slaves, Jews who were ministers of a king often did (1 Sam. 8.17; 2 Sam. 14.22). In any case, Paul is making it clear that he is a man who belongs to and is under the authority of Jesus. His will is not his own, and his mission, his apostleship, is a task to which he has been called and assigned. Paul does not see himself as one who is free to do as he pleases. He is called to be a missionary among the Gentiles.

The term apostolos means a "called out and set apart person" and probably has a background in the Jewish concept of the shaliah, the person who was a legal agent of the one who sent him to undertake some task, imbued with the power and authority of the sender. A shaliah was sent on a mission with a quite specific commission, and here Paul makes clear what his own commission is. He is not defensive about his apostleship but is, rather, comfortable with mentioning that he is a slave of Jesus at the outset. This document is not an exercise in the rhetoric of defense or attack, and it should not be read as a broadside against Paul's opponents, who are nowhere in evidence in this document. The diatribal style of discourse in ch. 2 and elsewhere should not be misconstrued in that way. As E. Käsemann stresses, the tasks of the apostle are always associated with God's work of eschatological salvation.

Somewhat surprisingly Paul refers here to "the gospel of God" rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. A deliberate theocentric note is sounded here and elsewhere in Romans, though for Paul christocentrism is a form of theocentrism. But is this an objective or subjective genitive? Is this the Good News about God or Good News which comes from God? Since Paul is setting forth his credentials to an audience which by and large does not know him personally, it is probable that he refers in this way to a gospel which comes from God. His use of euangelion refers, clearly enough, to the oral proclamation of a positive message. In the light of the use of this term of emperors at their births or when they accomplished something dramatic, it is also clear that Paul intends an implicit anti-imperial sort of rhetoric. The one who really offers salvation and true Good News for human beings is the God who has sent Jesus and raised him from the dead.

This message of salvation was, in Paul's view, promised beforehand through the prophets whose oracles were inscribed in the Holy Scriptures. The content of this Good News is made clear in vv. 3-4. Paul does not speak of prediction in advance by these prophets, but rather of promise in advance. This is interesting in view of the covenantal significance of promises to Abraham and others. This message is about God's Son who was born from David's seed. Cranfield points out that genomenou (from ginesthai) is not the word ordinarily used for birth. Paul uses it here and in Gal. 4.4 and Phil. 2.7. It is not impossible that this reflects his belief that Jesus' birth took place without human fatherhood, though we cannot be sure.

In order to understand vv. 3-4, one must pay close attention to the two parallel clauses - kata sarka and kata pneuma. Many of the Church Fathers thought they found here a testimony about the two natures of Christ, human and divine. But, against this, v. 3 does not focus on Jesus' human nature per se, but rather on his human lineage through David, and v. 4 is not about what Christ is according to his divine nature but rather about what happened to Jesus at the resurrection, when God's Spirit raised him from the dead and designated or marked him out as Son of God in power. In other words, these are comments about two phases in the trajectory of Jesus' career. It is not at Jesus' birth or baptism but at his resurrection that Paul wants to speak of Jesus as kata pneuma. But resurrection has to do with Jesus' body, with his being raised out of the realm of the dead. One cannot then see a contrast here between what Jesus was physically and what he became spiritually. This is not about apotheosis or divination of the soul in the spiritual realm or heaven. In short, when Jesus became what he was after the resurrection, he did not cease to be the bodily person he was before. Perhaps kata (literally "according to") should be translated "in the sphere of" here. The unusual phrase "Spirit of Holiness" is surely not a reference to Jesus' human spirit. Rather it refers to the effect of the Holy Spirit on Jesus - Jesus enters an entirely sanctified or glorified condition when he is raised from the dead by the Spirit.

Does "in power" modify the noun phrase "Son of God," the verb "marked out/appointed," or less likely "the Spirit"? Käsemann rightly notes the parallels in the hymn fragments in 1 Tim. 3.16 and Heb. 1.13. This favors the conclusion that Paul means here that at the resurrection Jesus enters a phase of his career where he becomes Son of God in power. Previously, he was Son of God in weakness. He did not assume the role of glorified and exalted and all-powerful Lord until after the resurrection (so also Philippians 2), when he was appointed to such a role.

It is interesting that Paul uses the phrase "from the resurrection of the dead." Paul here and elsewhere (see 1 Corinthians 15) affirms the concept of a resurrection of one (and later of some-namely those who are in Christ) out from among the dead. In other words, Paul does not operate with a concept of the general resurrection of all the dead at one juncture in time. Like some other early Jews he works only with a concept of the resurrection of the righteous or saints. The resurrection of Jesus was the firstfruits of the resurrection of the righteous, and as such inaugurated the eschaton.

V. 5 affirms that Paul has received both "grace and apostleship," or if we have here a verbal hendiadys (two terms representing one thing) the grace of apostleship. Grace is, of course, God's undeserved benefit and love, and it is interesting that Paul wishes to affirm it in close connection with apostleship. He believes that being chosen an apostle was an undeserved benefit or blessing (cf. 1 Cor. 15.9). But here he is probably also affirming that the task/role/office cannot be undertaken without God's empowerment/blessing/enabling. Grace and commissioning as apostle are required if Paul is to do what God expects of him. Here as elsewhere, when Paul speaks of doing something by grace, he is referring to some extra strength or power and authority bestowed by God that one would not otherwise have.

Here we must say a bit more about the deliberative rhetoric Paul is offering and why he seems to adopt a somewhat humble and irenic tone in this discourse as compared to his letters to his own converts. Before he can advise or instruct, his authority must be declared and made plain to an audience which likely does not recognize that he has any authority over them. And since the authority of the speaker is the most crucial issue when one offers up declarative rhetoric, he must establish his credentials up front.

Furthermore, as Quintilian stresses, "It also makes a great deal of difference who it is that is offering the advice: for if his past has been illustrious, or if his distinguished birth or age or fortune excites high expectations, care must be taken that his words are not unworthy of him. If on the other hand he has none of these advantages he will have to adopt a humbler tone" (Instit. Or. 3.8.48). Paul is addressing an audience of largely Gentile Christians over which, as it would appear to them, he has no authority. Since it is quite clear from chs. 9-11 that this audience has an issue with Jews and Jewishness and what God thinks about these matters, Paul cannot appeal to his own illustrious past as a Jew, as he does in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, and elsewhere. He has no fortune to tout, nor does it appear that he can appeal to a distinguished birth. He does not possess, as far as the Gentile Christians in Rome would be concerned, the signs of honor that normally produced instant respect in Rome. Accordingly, it must suffice that he take a different rhetorical tact - he will stress that he is an apostle, indeed the apostle of the Gentiles, up front, and at the same time will take a hubris-free or humble approach to his discourse. Indeed, he will even go so far as to introduce himself first as a slave of Christ before calling himself apostle to the Gentiles. He is simply following the sort of advice he knew applied in his situation if Romans was to be a rhetorically effective piece of discourse.

Certainly one of the most debated of phrases in a document full of debatable points is "obedience of faith." Cranfield lists the following possible meanings: obedience to a body of doctrines known as "the faith," obedience to the authority of faith, obedience to God's faithfulness attested in the gospel, the obedience that faith works, the obedience required by faith, believing obedience, and faith that is a form of or consists in obedience. Cranfield, Käsemann, and Talbert favor some version of the last option. So Paul might mean that believing in Christ is a form of submission to Christ and so is obedience to Christ's demand that we believe in him. One may compare Gal. 3.2 and Rom. 10.16 and 15.18. But does God, in Paul's view, demand faith or rather call us to faith? Are we not called to both trust and then also to obey? Paul's specific concern here is with the obedience of faith among Gentiles, and it is quite apparent from chs. 12-15 that Paul wants not just trust or faith from Gentile converts but also obedience to God's demands. I would suggest that in fact Paul refers here to the obedience that flows forth from saving faith.

In v. 5 he puts special stress on his apostleship being to all the peoples, including, of course, the Romans. He believes that he has a task of winning the "obedience of faith" even from the Romans, even though they are not his converts. He has a divine commission to accomplish this task even in Rome, and when he does so it will be not for his own personal glory but for the sake of God's name. It was critical that from the very outset Paul establish his ethos, his authority in relationship to his audience, before he addressed them properly. It was not enough to ingratiate himself with the audience and establish rapport, as he does in the verses that follow; he also had to make clear his divine commission and task in relationship to the Roman Christians themselves. He wants to bestow on them a spiritual gift. Well and good. By what authority does he assume any claim on those who are not his converts? By God's commission that he be apostle to all the non-Jewish peoples.

To further punctuate his authority over the audience, Paul adds in v. 6 "among which non-Jewish peoples you are included." He thus stresses the overwhelmingly non-Jewish character of his audience. He is not unaware of the Jewish Christians in Rome or intending that they not hear this discourse. But his focus will be on those that he has specific apostolic authority and commission to deal with - Gentiles. Especially with a new audience of already converted Christians, Paul must be careful not to step beyond his divine commission.

He reminds his readers that they are among "the called of Jesus Christ."


Excerpted from Paul's Letter to the Romans by Ben Witherington III Darlene Hyatt Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Abbreviations xiv
Bibliography xvi
Introduction 1
Authorship and the Text-Critical Issues in Chapter 16 4
Integrity 5
Date 7
Audience 7
Structure and Rhetoric 16
Language, Style, and Intertextuality 23
The Commentary
Epistolary Prescript and Greeting--1.1-7 29
Bridging the Horizons 39
Exordium and Narratio--1.8-15 40
Bridging the Horizons 45
Propositio--1.16-17 47
Bridging the Horizons 56
Argument 1, Part 1 1.18-32: The Unbearable Likeness 58
Bridging the Horizons 70
Argument 1, Part 2 2.1-16: Critique of a Judgmental Gentile Hypocrite 73
Bridging the Horizons 84
Argument 2 2.17-3.20: Censoring a Censorious Jewish Teacher 85
Bridging the Horizons 97
Recapitulation and Expansion of Propositio--3.21-31: The Manifestation of the Righteousness of God Apart from the Law 99
Bridging the Horizons 113
Argument 3 4.1-25: Abraham as Forefather of All the "Righteous" by Faith 115
Bridging the Horizons 130
Argument 4 5.1-11: The Results of Rectification 131
Bridging the Horizons 139
Argument 5 5.12-21: From First Adam to Last (a Comparison) 141
Bridging the Horizons 152
Argument 6 Shall Sin, Death, and the Law Continue Now That Christ Has Come?
Part 1 6:1-14: Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? 154
Bridging the Horizons 165
Part 2 6.15-7.6: Slaves to Righteousness 167
Bridging the Horizons 177
Part 3 7.7-13: Retelling Adam's Tale 179
Bridging the Horizons 192
Part 4 7.14-25: Adam's Lost Race 193
Bridging the Horizons 205
Argument 7 8.1-17: Life in the Spirit; That Was Then, This Is Now 207
Bridging the Horizons 219
Argument 8 8.18-39: Life in Christ in Glory 220
Bridging the Horizons 235
Argument 9 9.1-11.36: God's Justice and Israel's Future 236
Bridging the Horizons 278
Argument 10 12.1-21: Living Sacrifices and Loving Service 280
Bridging the Horizons 297
Argument 11 13.1-14: Taxing Situations and the Debt of Love 304
Bridging the Horizons 318
Argument 12 14.1-15.13: The Weak and the Strong and What Goes Wrong 325
Bridging the Horizons 345
Peroratio I--15.14-21: The Knowledge and Apostle of the Gentiles 350
Bridging the Horizons 358
Good News Heading West--15.22-33: Travel Plans, Apostolic Parousia, Peroratio 361
Bridging the Horizons 372
A Letter of Recommendation and Reconciliation--16.1-27 375
Bridging the Horizons 402
Index of Modern Authors 406
Index of Biblical References 410
Index of Other Ancient Writings 417
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