Thoughts on Romans

This is clearly a very carefully structured and intertextual letter. It reminded me a bit of a prose version of Isaiah: just the type of thing that is dangerous to quote bits of out of context, which is mostly how I’ve encountered it. Even the lections seem too short to do the larger text justice. I found some of the arguments difficult to follow; I’m sure that’s because I’m not trained in the rhetorical conventions and thus either don’t recognize them, or don’t find them persuasive, or both.

I had some basic questions about the church in Rome, that I gather everybody else does too: who founded it, and when? Was it founded as a mixed community, or as a primarily Gentile or Jewish one? I’d previously been taught that it was founded as a mixed community; then after the expulsion of the Jews, the Gentiles continued to practice Christianity, but without a solid grounding in the Jewish scriptural and liturgical traditions; and Paul’s letter was an attempt to “recolonize their imaginations” with Jewish symbols so that the gospel and eucharist would make more sense. (Catalano & Koch) I don’t see much evidence for that in the text, except in the sense that Paul is doing this rabbinic exegetical riffing. I did wonder if there had been a local tendency to perceive the expulsion of the Jews from Rome as a judgment on their not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

The question of the relationship between Jews and Christians is the dominant issue for me in the letter, and I’m convinced it is also the dominant paradigm by which to interpret this letter to a mixed community that is obviously experiencing some difficulties. We should also expect that what he writes here is either consistent with, or an evolution to or from, his writings elsewhere on Jewish practice. Paul’s distress over Jews who have rejected Christ is clearly heartfelt, as is his wish to become sin for them as Christ became sin for us. He does seem to reject the idea that the Mosaic covenant is still active, but my sense is that this is grounded not in a particular logical argument, but that his eschatological imagination, thoroughly shaped by Isaiah, has no room for the persistence of the conditions of the former age in the new eschatological age when the Holy Spirit is being poured out and the Gentiles are being ushered in. His inspiring texts at 11:12 and 15 suggests to me that he has a sort of photo-negative version of Isaiah in mind: that in the fullness of the current eschatological age, all of Israel will come back in along with the Gentiles; thus the image of Israel coming to believe in time serves Paul’s imagination in the same way that the image of the Gentiles coming to believe served Isaiah’s.

Gorman’s discussion of Romans 1-2 as berating first Gentiles, then Jews, is consistent with and adds an important dimension to Alison’s reading of Romans 1. Osiek notes that some key terms (justify, reconcile, redeem) are taken from the world of finance; if so, this is important for understanding and possibly for preaching, in our finance-saturated world. Osiek also notes that Paul is adopting the spirit/flesh terminology and convention of the Greco-Roman world but riffs on it in the same creative spirit with which he riffs on Scripture. Gorman and Osiek both point out that Paul’s anthropology assumes that all persons live under the power of some master: either sin or Christ. I wonder if this was self-evident from the societal structures of the time but is now a dead metaphor for us. (On the other hand, it’s pretty coherent with the assertion of mimetic theory that we are bound to imitate someone, and our choice is simply who to imitate. Paul’s statement that the Law does not empower anyone to obey it, but the Spirit does empower us to live in righteousness is consistent with this, and with the mimetic pneumatology I wrote about last semester.)

The Roman Catholic lectionary contains significantly less from Romans than the RCL, Lutheran, and UMC lectionaries do. It omits 4:1-17, 6:12-23, 7:13-25, 10:8-18 (so do Methodists; everyone else reads it on the Feast of St. Andrew), most of 11:1-32 (all but 13-15, 29-32), and 12:9-21. Episcopalians omit 8:22-27. Only Catholics and Episcopalians read 11:33-36.

Sources Consulted

Alison, James. But the Bible says…? A Catholic Reading of Romans 1. Accessed 12 June 2012.

Catalano, Rosann M. and Janis L. Koch. Mini-course on polemical texts. Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies. Spring 2006.

Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and his Letters. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2004.

Just, Felix. The Catholic Lectionary Website. Accessed June 12, 2012.

Osiek, Carolyn. “Reader’s Guide.” The Catholic Study Bible. New York: Oxford, 2006.

Woodard, Jenee. The Text This Week. Accessed June 12, 2012.

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