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  • Alternative view 1 of Romans
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by Leander E. Keck

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Like widely differing siblings raised by the same parents, each letter produced by Paul has its own distinguishing character. For the historically minded critic, each letter’s unique traits provide important clues for detecting the circumstances in which Paul wrote it as well as what he hoped to achieve with it. Scholars assume that by examining the content


Like widely differing siblings raised by the same parents, each letter produced by Paul has its own distinguishing character. For the historically minded critic, each letter’s unique traits provide important clues for detecting the circumstances in which Paul wrote it as well as what he hoped to achieve with it. Scholars assume that by examining the content of the letter (the “answer”), they can infer the readers’ situation that Paul is addressing (the “question”)--a method sometimes called “mirror reading.” In the case of Romans, however, both the particular traits and the overall content are so unusual that scholars continue to debate why Paul wrote precisely this letter and what he hoped to achieve by it in Rome."

So begins Leander Keck's seminal work on the New Testament book of Romans. Keck asserts that because Romans is part of the New Testament, we can compare it with the other letters ascribed to Paul, as well as with what Acts reports about his message and mission. But the first readers of Romans had only this letter; they could compare it only with what they may have heard about him. While this commentary does from time to time compare Romans with what Paul had said before, it concentrates on Romans itself; what Paul says in this text should not be conflated with--nor inflated into--what he thought comprehensively, though it is essential to understand that as well.

"We do not really need another major commentary [on Romans] that loses us in the minutiae of word studies, literary parallels, sociological and rhetorical hypotheses; we have such in plenty. The Abingdon series, however, by its limited size, forces the contributor to focus on the primary task of the commentator: to clarify the meaning (intended or potential) of the words of the text and to provide some basic reflection on its/their continuing significance. And that is where Keck excels." - James D. G. Dunn, Review of Biblical Literature 04/2006.

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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Romans

By Leander E. Keck

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-05705-4



The Messenger and the Message (1:1-15)

This passage is the first half of the epistolary framework that surrounds the discourse part of Romans (the second part begins at 15:14). Here Paul presents himself as the bearer of the Good News of God by stating why the news is good. The unit is composed of two paragraphs. The "grace wish" at the end of verse 7 ends the first, the reference to Paul's desire to preach in Rome (v. 15) rounds out the second. English translations end verse 15 with "Rome," but Paul's Greek sentence ends with "preach the gospel" (euangelisasthai); this allows Paul to segue smoothly into a summary statement of the gospel in verses 16-17. It also helps the hearer follow the thought. Paul often ends a statement with a word that is the springboard for the next point—evidence that he composed the letter with great care.

* * *

Salutation (1:1-7)

Even before Phoebe, the presumed courier and reader of the letter (16:1-2), got to verse 15, the first long sentence (vv. 1-7) would have alerted the hearers that something unusual is afoot. According to well-established custom, letters first named the sender, then the recipient; next came the greeting. But before mentioning the recipients, Paul inserts verses 2-6, and then replaces the normal "Greeting!" (chairein) with a wish for grace (charis) and peace. Phoebe's hearers may have thought this is how Paul always wrote letters, but today's students, having Paul's other letters, know that only in writing to the Galatians did he also modify the salutation (Gal 1:1). They also know why: In that letter Paul defends himself and his gospel from gross distortion, and he signals what is to come by this modification. But the insertion here combines Christology and Paul's vocation, probably because that is on his mind right now. Romans is peculiar also in another detail: Paul writes in his name alone (the "we" in v. 5 is stylistic). Paul's coworker Timothy, cosender in most of his other letters, simply sends greetings (16:21). Romans appears as a personal statement.

In this personal self-presentation, Paul avoids all autobiographical information and instead concentrates on a theological self-interpretation, expressed in three significant phrases. (a) As in Gal 1:10 and Phil 1:1, he says he is Christ's "slave," which English translations consistently replace with "servant" in order to avoid the odious associations with slavery. But "servant" dilutes Paul's meaning, for in slavery the master acquires the person, not just the person's labor. But even though he uses the language of acquired property to speak of himself (and on occasion of others as well, see 1 Cor 6:20; 7:22-23), he sees himself not demeaned thereby but dignified, for the image implies that he is wholly at the disposal of Christ, whom he calls "Lord."

(b) In claiming that he is "a called apostle" he is not saying that he is "called an apostle" (by others) or that he is "called to be an apostle" (as translations have it), as if invited to that status; rather, he is saying that "call" is the means by which he became an apostle. This "call" is neither an invitation nor a summons but God's sovereign action, God's deliberate choice (as in 8:28). Paul neither volunteered to be an apostle, nor did he view himself as the church's apostle. In Gal 1:1 he insists that he did not owe his apostleship to any human agency but, as he explains in verse 15, only to God's revealing his Son to him. In 1 Cor 15:3-9 he speaks of this as the Risen Christ's appearing to him—a disruptive event that he insisted made him as much an apostle as the original disciples. For Paul, God's intervention in his persecuting activity (not mentioned in Romans) shows that his apostleship is a gift of God's grace (Rom 1:5; 1 Cor 15:10).

(c) Being "set apart for the gospel of God" also refers to God's action, for the passive voice (not evident in English) implies that God is the actor. Galatians 1:15 lies behind this phrase also. There Paul wrote that God "set me apart before I was born"—thereby claiming that his apostleship was not the result of historical circumstances but of God's destiny for him, now activated. His language paraphrases that of God's Servant in Isa 49:1 and about Jeremiah (Jer 1:5). In the present, Paul is Christ's slave; in the past he was made "a called apostle," but even before he was born God had selected him. He owes his vocation to God's specific action, not just to God in a general way. Paul was not plagued by "low esteem." He knows who he is, and why he has become who he is. Near the end of the letter he will note that he had written "rather boldly ... because of the grace given me by God" (15:15). Today's readers too will note his alacrity.

Already in his earliest letter, Paul wrote of "the gospel of God" (1 Thess 2:2, 8, 9). To argue whether "of God" also there means that it is God's gospel, about God, or from God is to engage in sophistry, for all three dimensions are included in Paul's understanding. While he uses "the gospel of Christ" much more frequently, he never writes of "the gospel of Jesus" (Jesus' own message).

The word "gospel" (from the Old English godspel, "a good spiel" or message) translates accurately the Greek noun euangelion, whose Latin equivalent is retained in the German Evangelium and in the French evangile. Although the Greek verb euangelizomai lies behind "evangelize," New Testament translations use "preach/proclaim the gospel" and render euangelistes (used only three times) as "evangelist," not as "gospeller," the long-abandoned Old and Middle English word. Paul apparently appropriated the verb from the LXX, where it renders the Hebrew word meaning "to announce good news," especially news of God's impending salvation (as in Isa 40:9; [and 52:7, which Paul quotes in 10:15]; 60:6; 61:1). In using this verb to speak of the meaning of Christ, Paul expresses his conviction that what Isaiah had announced had become an event, Jesus Christ. Since Isaiah never uses the noun (and the LXX rarely), Paul probably appropriated it from common Greek usage. He was not, however, the first to use it for a message with religious significance, for a famous inscription (from shortly before the birth of Jesus) announced that "the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning for the world of good tidings [euangelia, plural!] that came by reason of him" (full text with commentary in Boring et al. 1995, 169). Whether Paul used the noun (always in sg.) as a deliberate challenge to Roman imperial propaganda, as claimed by some (e.g., Georgi 1997, 150-51), is not clear, especially in light of Rom 13:1-7 (see comment).

Verses 2-4 outline the content of "the gospel of God." The first thing Paul says about it is that God had "promised it beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures concerning his Son" (AT). The importance of this concise clause is hard to exaggerate. Built into it are the following claims: (a) God keeps the promise as documented in scripture. (b) God's prophets were Paul's predecessors in being "set apart" for conveying God's Word. (That is why Paul can appropriate the prophets' self-interpretation to speak of himself.) (c) The gospel cannot be construed as an alternative to scripture, let alone as its abrogation; it must be seen as the means by which God's fidelity to God's own promise is made known. (d) Paul did not read his scriptures (our Old Testament) for "background information," but as precedent (explained in chap. 4) and as promise, here the promise of the gospel. Indeed, here NRSV probably misreads Paul's Greek syntax, for by inserting "the gospel" at the beginning of verse 3, it has Paul begin afresh with "the gospel concerning his Son" (as do many commentators), whereas his sentence reads more naturally as "which he promised in the holy scriptures concerning his Son, who ..." (so NIV; Hays 2002, 280 n. 18). Paul finds the gospel promised (not predicted) in scripture because he sees in Christ God's enacted faithfulness.

What Paul says about God's Son in verses 3-4 continues to generate far-ranging discussions because the interpretation of these verses has consequences for Paul's Christology generally as well as for its place in the history of early Christology, though tracing those consequences is not the task of this commentary. The pivot on which those discussions turn is the claim that both the parallel structure and the unusual phrasing indicate that Paul is quoting a tradition (formulated in Jewish Christian circles) that he modifies to conform more closely to his own Christology (see, e.g., Jewett 1995, 97-104). Those not persuaded by this hypothesis (e.g., Wright 2002) hold that Paul is simply using traditional phrases. This is certainly a simpler explanation at first glance, but a second look raises the question, Why, in presenting himself and summarizing the gospel, did Paul not mention either the cross or the significance of Jesus for the human condition? Moreover, he uses "spirit of holiness," not his way of referring to the Holy Spirit. Such considerations make it likely that Paul is adopting, and perhaps adapting, a piece of tradition without saying so. What matters here, of course, is understanding the text before us.

The deliberate parallel structure of the two lines implies a contrast between the status of the Son in the first line and the second:

concerning his Son who was descended from David according to the flesh
who was declared Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness
by resurrection from the dead

Jesus Christ our Lord. (NRSV, modified)

"Descended from David" alludes to a common Jewish qualification of the Messiah, sometimes distilled in the title "Son of David," based on passages like 1 Sam 7:14. In these two lines, Christ's status is expressed in three types of contrasts: (a) action at pivotal points: descent and declaration; (b) origin: Davidic paternity and divine paternity; (c) modality of existence: "according to the flesh" and "according to the spirit of holiness" (a phrase used only here in the New Testament). The resurrection is clearly the climax.

This overview invites a closer look. (a) If Paul is indeed quoting, then the initial "who" has replaced some other word that had begun the statement. Was it "the Messiah"? "Jesus"? In any case, Paul introduces the statement here with "his Son," in keeping with 8:3, where he writes of God "sending his own Son," and especially with Gal 4:4, "God sent his Son, born of a woman...." In other words, as Paul saw it, God's Son "pre-existed" before he became a human being "according to the flesh" (a few scholars disagree; e.g., Dunn 1980, 33-46). Thus, by first mentioning "his Son," Paul aligned the tradition behind verses 34 with Phil 2:6-11 (also regarded widely as a tradition), which begins with preexistence and ends with post-existence. Since some Jews called the Davidic messianic figure "son of God" (one utterly obedient to God, as in Matt 5:9 [obscured by NRSV's "children of God"]), Paul could easily assimilate that view of "son of God" into his pre-existence Son Christology. As a result, the Christ-event is framed by the Son's arrival on the human scene by becoming a descendant of David and by his departure from it by resurrection, which designated him Son of God.

(b) The precise meaning of the contrast between "according to the flesh" and "according to the spirit of holiness" is not altogether clear. When REB translates the former as "on the human level" and the latter as "on the level of the spirit," it suggests the later doctrine of two simultaneous "natures" of Christ, which NIV makes explicit with "as to his human nature." But Paul is probably talking about the sequence of the Son's status (a terse narrative being implied), not about his "natures." Significant for understanding these lines is the phrase "with power" (v. 4). Because it clearly mars the symmetry of the lines, Paul may have added it to the tradition. But is the phrase used adjectivally or adverbially? Does it qualify "Son of God," implying that as a result of the resurrection the Son had power that the Son as descendant of David did not have? Or does it modify the verb, as in NIV and REB? REB reads "he was proclaimed Son of God by an act of power," and NIV has "was declared with power to be the Son of God." But because "with power" comes after "Son of God" and not after "declared," NRSV is to be preferred. It was the resurrection that designated Christ as "Son of God with power."

(c) Nor is it obvious that "descended" and "declared" are adequate translations. The former renders genomenou, from the word that means "happen, occur, come to pass" and sometimes "born" (so here NASB). The text speaks of an event (lit., came to pass, occurred), not simply descent or lineage. (Paul shows no awareness of the problem that Matthew addressed: how to combine the Virgin Birth with Davidic descent through Joseph; see Matt 1:16.) This event is contrasted with another: "was declared to be Son of God with power ... by [or on the basis of] resurrection." Behind this "declared" is the participle of horizo, to mark off, define, determine, designate, and hence appoint (as in Acts 10:42; 17:31). Thus the statement asserts that the Son, having occurred from the stock of David, was designated or appointed to a higher status, Son of God with power—power greater than he enjoyed as a historical figure. Now he is "Jesus Christ our Lord" (Paul never uses "Lord" for the pre-existent Son of God).

This remarkable christological statement expresses the identity and significance of the Son by concentrating on his becoming a historical figure and on his being given (by God) a new trans-historical status by resurrection. (For Paul, resurrection is never confused with mere resuscitation; it always entails transformation.) Here, what matters for Christ's identity is his Sonship before he became "Son of David" and his present Sonship with power because (or since) he was resurrected. Everything between these transitional events (Jesus' ministry) is bypassed; the crucifixion is assumed. This Christology lies at the heart of the good news of God in Romans.

By ending the christological statement with "Jesus Christ our Lord," Paul sets up the rest of the paragraph, which makes the common Lordship concrete in what he says about his relation to the Roman believers. He begins by explaining his apostleship ("grace and apostleship" are not two gifts but one, expressed by a hendiadys, two words meaning one thing, as in "each and every"). Its goal is "the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles." By adding "for the sake of his name" (viz., Lord), the apostle alludes to his own obedience as Christ's slave and to the readers' status as well. "The obedience of faith" concisely fuses Paul's insistence that faith is the obedient response to the gospel with his equal insistence that this faith must be actualized in a new moral life under Christ. Unfortunately, what Paul fused, REB separated: "obedience and faith"; RSV has "obedience to the faith," as if Paul's aim were to achieve submission to a body of doctrine; here NIV is better: "the obedience that comes from faith." Better yet, "the obedience that is faith" (taking "of faith" as explanatory).

Paul deliberately points out that his vocation is "among all the Gentiles" because this includes the letter's recipients who, like Paul, are "called ones who belong to Jesus Christ" (AT). Romans is a word from the called writer to the called readers; Jesus Christ is their common Lord. Verses 5-6 show that Paul sees himself writing to Christian Gentiles, though the Roman house churches surely included believing Jews as well, as the names in chapter 16 show (see comment).

Not until verse 7 does Paul resume the letter-writing convention (sender to recipient), which verses 2-6 interrupted. (A few manuscripts omit "in Rome" here and in v. 15.) The fact that Paul addresses the readers as "God's beloved" instead of "the church," as he does in all his other letters except Philippians, has generated various explanations (e.g., Klein 1969, 29-43, see introduction, p. 26), none of them convincing. The phrase "grace and peace" is formulaic, but its content is pertinent to the situation in Rome, where believers are squabbling; in fact, 15:7 may be regarded as the hortatory application of the "grace wish" in verse 7.

* * *

The salutation is at least as provocative today as when Paul dictated it. Woven into this one long sentence are theological perspectives and assertions that are unexpected in a statement designed to outline the gospel as the good news about that Reality called "God." Yet Paul neither trumpets a "new theology" nor informs the readers how to have a more intense "experience" of God. Instead, he announces what God has done: kept the promised gospel by resurrecting Jesus from the domain of death. God's deed arcs from the promise made in the past to the promise now kept. Remarkably, here it is not Christ that was promised but the gospel, though the event of Christ is its core content.


Excerpted from Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Romans by Leander E. Keck. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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.

Meet the Author

Leander E. Keck, convener of the Editorial Board and Senior New Testament Editor, is Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology Emeritus at Yale Divinity School.

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