Pedagogy and Paul's instructions regarding women

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December 12, 2019

Yesterday, Christianity Today posted an excerpt from Rebecca Laughlin’s Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion addressing Ephesians 5.22ff and the idea of women submitted to their husbands. Laughlin’s premise is that “Ephesians 5 grounds our roles in marriage not in gendered psychology but Christ-centered theology.” As a result, “Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of common conceptions of ‘traditional’ gender roles that have often amounted to privileging men and patronizing women.”

Insofar as the article represents Laughlin’s work, I want whole-heartedly support the direction of Laughlin’s interprets of Ephesians 5. The Roman world was a highly patriarchal society that placed a large amount of power and responsibility upon men and an emphasis on manliness, although it is not a perfect match with modern, Western visions of masculinity. In instructing husbands to love their wife as Christ loved and gave himself for the the church, Paul is making an implicit echo to the narrative traditions of Jesus who was a servant of humanity. While Paul could not have directly told husbands to be a servant of the wife as this would have deeply offended the sensibilities of Roman masculinity, calling them to act as Christ would be calling them to adopt the behaviors and attitudes of a servant.

However, I want to push our understanding of Paul’s instructions a bit further. It is important to keep in that Paul’s instructions to the wives in v. 22 did not include the verb for submit, but rather ὑποτάσσω is in v. 21 when Paul instructs the whole church to submit to each other. Through ellipsis, Paul’s instruction towards wives assumes this action of submission mentioned in the previous. Now, some have taken this as a basis to understand Paul instructing both men and women to be in mutual submission; if Paul calls the church to submit to each other and the wife is to submit each other, then does not also Paul consider the husband needing to submit to his wife. While I want to affirm the sentiment trying to be expressed in this interpretation and agree with the egalitarian values being sought, I would suggest that it is actually not a good interpretation of what Paul says towards husbands.

Rather than trying to suggest that Paul is teaching the idea of “mutual submission,” I am putting forward the idea that we need to shift what type of authority we are thinking and speaking of when we hear the word “submission.” We often hear the word submission against the background of a authoritarian hierarchy of command: the one who is in submission does anything and everything that the one with authority commands. I would push back against this interpretation in favor of a different type of authority: a pedagogical authority of learning. In short, it is perhaps best to state that Paul calling for the relationship between husband and wife should be formed in a Christ-centered manner where the husband takes on the role of the wise, sagacious teacher and the wife submits as a form of discipleship and learning.

We can begin to see this by digging a little deeper into what Paul means by “submission” in Ephesians 5. When he instructs the whole church to submit to each other, it comes on the heels of his casting the vision for their worship in 5.17-21:

So do not be foolish, but comprehend (συνίετε) what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (NRSV except text in bolded font)

Here, Paul encourages believers to push towards comprehension of God’s will and then provides three instructions that can be placed within the setting of worship: (1) being filling with the Holy Spirit, (2) musical worship, and (3) thanksgiving. While we might be inclined to see the enouragement to be filled with the Spirit as some sort of moment of experiential or ecstatic overwhelming by the Spirit, Paul’s principle understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in worship is as the one who enables believers to instruct and build up each other. We see this most evident in 1 Corinthians 14.26-32. As many people are variously gifted by the Spirit, so the whole church is taught by God through the Spirit’s gifts. We see this theme brought up elsewhere in Ephesians in 4.7-16. Christ’s work through the Holy Spirit is a gift given to teach and instruct the whole body of Christ.

So, when Paul calls the Church to submit to each other, Paul is referring to the manner in which fellow believers should learn from each other through the Spirit at work in them. Hence, Paul says they are to submit out of the fear of Christ, which is an echo of Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (NRSV) That Paul have Proverbs 9.10 in mind is further evident by the fact the Septuagint uses word σύνεσις for knowledge, which is a cognate συνίημι which Paul uses in Ephesians 5.17. Their submission to each other was a pedagogical submission to Christ through the fullest expression of the Holy Spirit, much like the disciples submitted to the rabbinic instruction of Christ.

While ὑποτάσσω was not a customary term for describing the teacher-disciple relationship and was more regularly used to refer to more traditional hierarchical relationships of command, it could occasionally be used to refer to the type of learning that people had from teachers of wisdom. For instance, consider what the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said in  Discourses 3.7.34:

Make us admire you, make us want to emulate you, as Socrates did with his followers. He was someone who truly knew how to govern his fellow men, because he led people to submit (ὑποτεταχότας) their desires to him, their aversions, their motives to act or not to act.1

Now, previously, Paul had described Jesus has put everything into submission in Ephesians 1.22. So, we may consider that Paul’s usage of ὑποτάσσω in 5.21 as referring to the way this submission to Christ is taking place in worship through the teaching of the Spirit. Believers are bringing their life into conformity to Christ through how they learn from each other.

So, when Paul then extends this submission to the wife’s relationship with her husband, Paul still has in mind this same pedagogical submission to Christ. In other words, Paul is essentially saying: “Wives, learn about God through your husbands.” We see a similar sentiment expressed in 1 Corinthians 14.34-35 when he talks about women being submissive rather than speaking. Paul has just told the whole church to be silent when another person is speaking by the inspiration of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 14.26-31. So, likewise for the women, instead of interrupting the worship if they needed to learn (μαθεῖν) something, Paul tells them to learn from their husbands at home.2 In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul envisions the whole church learning from each other AND for women to be able to learn from their husbands at home. Just as Paul transition between the whole church’s learning to the wives’ learning in 1 Corinthians, Paul does the same move in Ephesians 5.21-24.

The reason for this is best explained not by some intrinsic order of creation where only men should be teachers and women should be learners. Rather, what Paul is describing taking place among the Body of Christ is quite revolutionary for the day. The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, a slightly younger contemporary of Paul, made the argument that women should be able to learn philosophy alongside men because philosophy can also be deeply useful to the work that they do.3 To open up women to the place of discipleship and learning, Paul was doing something quite counter-cultural: women were just as capable of learning the Gospel of Jesus Christ and all its wisdom as men were. When the intellectual power of half the population was kept in the intellectual dark, Paul’s instructions to women is actually a statement of liberation: learn from your husbands the things of God. They are not reserved just for men.

This pedagogical relationship of wife to husband is then explicitly connected to the church’s pedagogical submission to Christ in Ephesians 5.24. Furthermore, the submission ‘in everything’ (ἐν παντί) Paul instucts them in corresponds to thanksgiving in worship in v. 20 in all times (πάντοτε) and for everything (ὑπὲρ πάντων). So, when Paul calls the women to submit, quite literally “in all,” he is talking about submission at all times and in regarding to everything that God has given. This is not a blank-check for the husband’s arbitrary authority to boss and command their wife to do whatever the husband things the wife should do, but rather that women were to learn about all aspects about the wisdom of God in Jesus Christ at all times through their husbands. In essence, Paul is saying to women “You are free to learn everything that men do. There is nothing off limits.” In their learning of Christ, women are called to submit to their husbands in regards to learning everything from God in all times.

Before pushing forward into what Paul says to the husbands, it is important to note that Paul does not live in a post-modern world where every person’s thoughts and teachings about God’s were considered to be equally valid. Thus, we don’t need to hear Paul saying that women should just accept anything and everything their husbands are saying about God and Christ. There is true teaching and false teaching in Paul’s mind. We can imagine that in Paul’s mind, any husband who would share a teaching about God that is in utter defiance with the whole Body of Christ, inspired by the Spirit, was teaching should not have been listened to. The women would have had the Church’s teaching to compare their husband’s teaching to, so if they say anything discrepancy that showed their husband was in error or in sin, they should follow what the Spirit is is teaching and not the error and sin of their husband.

So, there is no reason for us to think just anything the husband teaches should have been accepted arbitrarily. However, for Paul, the wife should not be the one trying to argue with their husband if there is some sin or error in what the husband is teaching. It is this type of resistance against the husband that I think Paul is forbidding in 1 Timothy 2.11-12. Rather than trying to counter the husband’s teaching when they are in error and sin, to whom Paul had just given instructions against men and their anger in 1 Timothy 2.8, they should not seek to forget the appropriate way to learn about God through a humble, submissive attitude rather than an argumentative, conflictual attitude.

Paul then appeals to the example of Eve in 1 Timothy 2.13-15, not as a demonstration of the inherent order of the relationships between men and women, but as a prototype of what happens when someone who is confused by God’s will. Notice the difference between what Eve says to the serpent that God commands about the tree of knowledge in Genesis 3.3 what God told Adam in Genesis 2.16: the initial question by the serpent manipulatively leads to Eve’s confusion about God’s will.4 Instead of seeking to argue with the husband and try to usurp the role of teaching, the wife can trust that there is salvation through the childbearing (διὰ τῆς τεκνογονίας), which is an echo of Genesis 3.15 and an allusion to Christ as the fulfillment, if only they continue their in faith, love, and holiness with modesty as the model virtue of a learning disciple.

I would put forward that in 1 Timothy 2.10-15, Paul assumes that the husband can act like one of the two other roles in the creation narrative: the role of Adam who receives the instruction from God and transmits it to Eve or the role of serpent who deceives Eve. If the husband is closer to the deceptive seducer, or even an angry abuser that Paul warns against in 1 Timothy 2.10, rather than Adam, the wife can still trust that God will continue to work and save her through Christ. She does not need to try to fight and argue to take over the role of teacher of her husband if she sees her husband is closer to the child of the serpent, that is the devil, but she should seek to continue to live her life in God’s will. The presence of the word μείνωσιν in 1 Timothy 2.15 can be used to describe a person who continues in the faith depite hardships and challenges, and in this case, is probably Paul referring to a woman continuing in the faith in case their husband is a faithless child of the devil that would deceive her rather than an Adam who would teach her what is true.

This leads me to return back to Ephesians 5 and looking at what Paul says to the husband. In calling the husband to love and give himself up like Christ did for the church in Ephesians 5.25, Paul’s instructions would not have not just been understood just as some sort of moral exhortation to be a sacrificial guy. Teachers of wisdom in the Greco-Roman world were expected to exemplify the very wisdom they taught in their lives. Furthermore, Jesus himself warns about teachers trying to judge and correct the ‘minor’ sins of others while they themselves have a near monopoly on that sin (Matthew 7.1-5). Teachers were expected and exhorted to exemplify the very wisdom that they taught. And so, men were to exemplify the wisdom of God in Christ, the servant of humanity, in their own relationship to their wife.

This would explain what Paul says in Ephesians 5.26 is connected to 5.25 with a ἵνα purpose clause. Paul speaks of Jesus cleansing the Church by his word. While Paul is explicitly speaking about what Christ does to and for the Church, since he has given Christ as a model for the husbands, what Christ is doing for the church, husbands  should do for their wives. Thus, the model of Christ when realized by the husband will lead to cleansing of the wive by the husbands words, that is their teaching, but only if the husband himself exemplifies the wisdom of Christ in his life that his words teach of. If there is a massive dissonance between the spiritual life of the husband and what they teach such that they do not wholly reflect Christ, there would be no spiritual power in their relationship to their spouse. The second ἵνα clause of Ephesians 5.27 then expresses Paul’s abiding concern that the husbands should be an embodied representative of Christ and His wisdom to his wife so that he may have a glorious wife who is holy and blemish, just as Christ presents a glorious church to himself.

What should be noted up to this point is how much Paul is framing his instructions to husbands by explicitly describing what Christ has done and is doing, while it is implicit that this is what he is calling the husbands to do. For Paul, Jesus was not some person who gives us theological evidence of am model for men to be kings over their wives as if Jesus is the embodiment of the order of creation. Rather, that men should become as Christ in their relationship to the wives such that how they treat their wives is spiritually Jesus Himself loving the church.

It is here that want to take an exegetical recess and wander into theology for just a moment. I recall something that one of my professors as Alan Torrance taught when I was at the University of St. Andrews. He would present to us the class the question “Why is it that Jesus was incarnated as a male?” His answer: “Because He became like the least of these.” I appreciated that answer, but I would like to push it just a bit further on that to make someone more explicit. “Why is it that Jesus was incarnated as a male?” The Incarnation was God’s response to redeem humanity from our sin, and so Jesus took on the gender that was more responsible for the sin tearing about the fabric of God’s creation and God’s image: men. Jesus came to redeem all sinners, especially many men who had fallen into deep sin and have caused untold traumas and horrors throughout human history and have lost what God created Adam to be. Ceasing to become like Adam in the garden, many men have become more like the serpent in the garden. And so, the last Adam comes to redeem humanity from the fallen Adam.

To return back to Ephesians 5, I would put forward that Paul’s instructions towards husbands is built on the assumption that in Christ they are being redeemed from the violence and abuse that men had inflicted and were inflicting in the highly patriarchal Roman society. That Paul is more spiritually concerned about men more than women is evident that he gives more than twice the space to address husbands than wives in Ephesians 5. This concern becomes more evident in Ephesians 5.28-31 when he talks about the body. Just as Paul calls for men to raise their worshipful hands in a holy manner rather than a raised, abusive hand of anger and abuse in 1 Timothy 2.10, likewise Paul exhorts husbands to in Ephesians 5.28-31 to take tender care of her wife’s body. Paul is recognizing the abusive tendencies among many men in the Roman society, and he spends time encouraging the men to not inflict physical harm on their wive’s body.

It was often the case that corporal punishment was a tactic used to try to teach others.5 So, Paul’s instructions to husbands in treated their wives’ bodies with care is also Paul outline what type of pedagogical training they should and should not give to their spouses. They should not try to teach through inflicting abuse, but rather as Christ gave Himself up to those who would abuse Him, so the husband should endure abuse for his wife.

In summary, then, I would put forward that that Pauline passages regularly used for the subjection of women such as Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 Timothy 2 is in fact Paul address pedagogical matters by seeking to bring women into the wisdom of Christ through how they are trained to learn about Christ and the way a faithful husband would disciple them. Paul’s overriding concern is that Christ become known and experienced and manifest, that Christ becomes all in all, including in the way a man teaches their wife as a member of the Church as the spiritual embodiment of Jesus Christ, who taught and redeemed the whole Church. For Paul, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not some basic axiom that then provides us some sort of disembodied salvation, but Jesus is bringing into submission the whole creation and filling it with God’s glory. As such, Paul understands the relationship of husband and wife in a Christ-o-centric way.

Attempts to try to read Paul providing some inherent order of authority between the genders in fact replaces Christ with the idols of order, power, and dominance that manifest themselves through one’s hermeneutic. Paul nowhere says says he is describing a fixed, universal relationship between men and women. Paul is not a child of the Enlightenment. In fact, Paul thinks the present order of the world is passing away (1 Cor. 7.31) to make way for the new creation in Christ. In trying to find some fixed order and relationship between men and women in Paul’s letters and other parts of the Bible, many Christians have been unwittingly serving an idol of their own making and, as a result, are vulnerable to the seduction of the serpent to become children of the serpent. Just look at John MacArthur who told Beth Moore to “Go home!” a few weeks back. Just as the serpent deceived Eve and as a result of the sin, women experienced a curse that would make them subject to the domination of the husband (Gen 3.16), so John MacArthur sought to do the same work the ancient serpent did. Let those who are the children of God do as Christ does and those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Trauma and writing

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December 11, 2019

It is often recommend that people seeing a therapist should seek to journal their thoughts. The advice of how to journal can be diverse, but there is evidence that journaling provides a useful therapeutic tool to aid in the process of recovery.

There are probably multiple mechanisms that go into why writing can be therapeutic. In many cases, it may be beneficial to simply write about one’s thoughts and feelings to help people to discover and reflect what is going on in them. I certainly agree with tihs idea, but I want to suggest from my own experiences that there may be another benefit, particuarly in cases of post traumatic stress: the restoration of our linguistic capacities so as to be able to effectively comprehend and integrate our live experiences.

One of the effects of long-term, persistent physiological response of stress is the steady stream of cortisol that is put into the blood stream. Coritsol is incredibly helpful is enable us to respond effective to the stress of the immediate circumstance. However, the value of cortisol is more so for the short term, whereas in the long run it can have deleterious effects on a person’s well-being and mental capacity. One particularly pernicious side effect is the damage that is done to memory through damage to the hippocampus, the part of our brain that is responsible for encoding and recalling most of our memories.

It has been theorized that the hippocampus is an important part of our usage and understanding of language. A famous patient known HM who had both of his medial temporal lobes surgically removed began to have severe memory problems, including all memories after he was 16 and basic life facts such as his age, what he had just eaten, etc. In addition to these memory deficits, he also was largely unable to learn the meanings of new words.1 Developing a hypothesis for this reason, one of the roles of the hippocampus in encoding and recalling memories is integrate and activate information from various sensory modalites elsewhere in the brain to fire synchronously. This allows us to remember various details such as a person’s first date with their spouse, the excitement we had when we first got a driver’s licence, the pain we experienced when someone we love died, etc. It would also likely have a role in our memory of the basic concrete conceptualizations for the words we use, such as associated the word ‘dog’ with a animal that has a littany of features that we might consider prototypical of dogs such as four legs, a tail, barking, often a pet, etc. While episodic memory is more complex than semantic memory in virtue of episodic memory being filled with a lot more necessary details, both require the ability of the brain to integrate various information from throughout the brain into a composite whole.

If there is this vital connection between the hippocampus and the semantic memory of language, then we are one step away from possibly explaining the instrumental role of journaling in healing from trauma. Through writing, it can suggested that we are retraining our brains in the usage of memory so as to be able to more effectively integrate life experiences, past and future. Journaling and other forms of thoughtful, reflective writing, in effect, offers a form of “exercise” for the hippocampus in order to overcome the deleterious effects that perpetually high degrees of stress can cause. The hippocampus happens to be one of the few areas of the brain where adults reguarly have neurogenesis in which the hippocampus integrates new neurons. Just as the hippocampus is suscpetible to degradion under stress, it is also able to be made new.

If this is the case, it isn’t necessary the case that we need to write directly about traumatic memories or other problems that ail us. It is only necessary that we write about things that are related to our trauma. Upon the emergence, strengthening, and consolodiation of semantic memories, the hippocampus is further ‘strengthened’ so as to also be able to the concepts uses in language to also process and integrate traumatic experiences. This reintegration can happen outside of our cosncious thoughts about the trauma, as the brain processes a whole lot more than what goes on in our conscious awareness.

I am also left with a curiosity about the possible value of learning a new language for traumatied people. In the past month, I have spent every day trying to learn German, while also taking small bits of time to try to refresh my somewhat rusty Greek, my largely forgotten Hebrew, and my Latin that I have engaged with in very shorts spurts since taking it in college. I have found that my thinking has been benefitted while facing this linguistic challenge, althugh I am not sure if it is the confidence that comes from successfully learning a language or from the stand point of broading my languages skills that provides a mental benefit. Probably a combination of both.

Romans 1.6 and the Romans Debate

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December 11, 2019

The appropriate interpretation of Romans 1.6 has represented a point of debate between Biblical scholars. It starts with the question of how to approriately translated the Greek. There are two basic options for translating the passage. Then, from these two options, many scholars then glean information that they use to help them reconstruct the puprose nad occasion of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

The first option essentially takes prepositional prase ἐν οἷς as the predicate nominative for ἐστε, which then renders κλητοὶ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as function in apposition. This translation would come out to be something along the lines of: “You yourselves are also among them [i.e. the Gentiles], the called of Jesus Christ.” In this case, Paul is construed as suggesting that Paul’s Roman audience is primarily made of Gentile Christians, who Paul makes reference to in v. 5.1 Andrew Das goes so far as to take this Romans 1.6 in support of his argument that the Roman audience was exclusvely Gentile Christians.2 As a consequence, it is common by interpreters to suggest that Paul is giving a grounds for his authority to right to the church in Rome because Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles has authority over the Gentiles Christians in Rome.3

However, there are three points of evidence against Paul’s identification of his audience with Gentiles Christians. Firstly, Paul’s letter has many implicit allusion to the Old Testament Scriptures and, as I have aruged in previous posts, is implicitly engaging in the rebuttal of other Second Temple Jewish literature such as Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees. It is highly unlikely that Paul would expect a Gentile audience to have such background knowledge necessary to understand his epistle, much less feel the need to rebut such STJ wisdom.

Furthermore, Paul explicitly says that his own mission is to preach where Christ is not named and not to be build on another person’s foundation (Romans 15.20-21). Given that Paul had no relationship to Rome, it would be contradictory for Paul to try to now establish his authority over the Gentile Christians in Rome and then to speak as he does in Romans 15.20-21. While certainly it is possible that a person might conceal an attempt to assert his authority over someone by saying they are not trying to assert such an authority, one would expect such a person to early on mask their claim to authority to mask their intetentions and then let loose their real intentions later on. However, if these interpretations are correct about Romans 1.6, then Paul is doing the exact opposite, giving a claim to his authority and then later in the letter denying it. At this point, then, if there is a contraction between the construal and interpretation of implicit argument made in Romans 1.5-7 wuith what is said in Romans 15.20-21, it would behoove us to to ask if the attempts to explain Romans 1.5-7 are on shaky ground. Are they assuming an attempt to make an appeal to authority over the audience in Rome that just isn’t there?

Finally, if Paul was attempting to identify the Romans Christians as Gentiles, then Paul’s language is a very awkward way to say it. He could have simply written something along the lines of ἐστε καὶ ἔθνη rather than saying it more awkwardly in ἐν οἷς ἐστε. In which case, it would behoove proponents of this first option to ask if there is a better way to make sense of the syntax and discourse. This is not mention that treating ἐν οἷς as the predicative nominative of ἐστε is overlooking the more common function of prepositional phrases: to function adverbially to describe the verb. If, for instance, the equivalent preopositional phrase ἐν αυτοῖς had occurred at the end of Romans 1.6,4, there would not be quite the temptation to treat it as as functioning as a predicate of ἐστε rather than κλητοὶ, which is words in the nominative case that is typically expected for the predicate of εἰμίIn other words, it seems to be the case for at least some of the reason for favoring this first option is due to treating word order as indicating grammatical function. Perhaps, then, it is better to ask if there is another reason for the fronting of ἐν οἷς rather than to treat it as the predicate of ἐστε.

This leads to the second option, which I feel does a better job (1) undersatnding the Greek syntax, (2) fits within the immediate discourse of Romans 1.1-7, and (3) is more coherent with entirety of Paul’s epistle.  Rather than awkardly taking ἐν οἷς as grammatically functioning as the predicate nominative of ἐστε, it should instead be seen as what Steven Runge describes a framing device based upon being placed before the verb. As Steven Runge observes:

Koiné Greek is a verb-prominent language, where the least-marked and most basic order of clause components is for the verb to be placed in the initial position. When other elements are placed in the initial position, such placement is motivated by some pragmatic reason. This claim is based not on statistics, but on the varying effects that are achieved by “fronting” of clause elements.5

Runge then assigns two functions to the topical frame: 1) “to highlight the introducton of a new participant or topic” or 2) “to draw attention to the change in topics.”6 I would argue that it is better to suggest ἐν οἷς functions as a topical frame to switch the topic from Paul’s own apostolic mission to that of the Gentiles themselves. In other words, in Romans 1.6 Paul is switching the discursive topic away form his own ministry and mission to saying something about the Gentiles themselves. I will say more about the significance of this switch in a moment.

As a consequence, there is no need to regard the fronting ἐν οἷς as giving it the function of the predicative of ἐστε. Instead, the predicate can be identified with the only non-reduntant nominative substantive in the entire sentence: κλητοὶ. As a result, a rather literal translation of Romans 1.6 can be given as “among whom, you are also yourselves the called of Jesus Christ.” 

Going back to the first option, if κλητοὶ is regarded as an appositional nominative as it would be in the first option, this would suggest the idea of the Roman audience being called is peripherial information given in addition to them also being Gentiles. This peripherial information may be given to explicitly identify the Gentiles inclusion into Jesus Christ. While such an appelative might be helpful in reminding Gentile beleivers that they are recipients of God’s promises alongside Jewish believers, we see no further evidence of focus by Paul on the inclusion of Gentiles until Romans 9-11. The most we get in Romans 1-4 is that the Jews and Gentiles stand on the same moral ground, but there is no discussion about the Gentiles inclusion. If Paul was concerned enough about the Roman audience undersatnding their inclusion in Jesus Christ, would we not expect more explicit discussions about the inclusion o the Gentiles to occured in Romans 1-8, rather than waiting for it to occur in chapters 9-11? It would make more rhetorical sense for Paul to bring up what he believes to be relevant to the audience early in the letter, rather than delaying it till the second half of the letter.

However, by making the focus on the Paul’s sentence to being able to identify Paul’s Roman audience as κλητοὶ, the primary information that is encoded about the audience in the sentence. Their presence among the Gentiles as given in adverbial ἐν οἷς is secondary information. In which case, we can notice something that PAul is doing in Romans 1.1-7. The second self-description that Paul gives of himself is that he is a κλητὸς ἀπόστολος. The only other time that Paul introduces himself with κλητὸς ἀπόστολος is in 1 Corinthians, where he later references to his audience as τοῖς κλητοῖς (1 Cor 1.24). In 1 Corinthians, Paul does not used κλητὸς to designate Gentiles from Jews, but rather uses it to describe both Jews and Gentiles. Part of the purpose of Paul in 1 Corinthians is to persuade the the Corinthians to imitate him and how he relates to other teachers, including Apollos who does not have apostolic authority, rather than engaging in a competitive conflict by identifying with different pneumatically gifted teachers. By calling both himself and the audience as κλητὸς, he is subtly drawing upon their common identity, which would function to get them to imitate his own non-competitive attutude of servanthood. I would suggest a somewhat similar function in Romans 1.1-7. By calling both himself and the audience as κλητὸς, Paul is encouraging the Roman audience to share in his own mission to the Gentiles. In other words, just as Paul is (1) called an apostle and (2) is in mission to the Gentiles, so too does he invite the Roman Christians as (1) being called to Jesus Christ to (2) join in the mission to the Gentiles among whom them reside. Thus, there is, I would argue, an informational symmetry between Romans 1.1-5 and the way Paul ‘encodes’ the information in Romans 1.6 on two levels: (1) personal information about Paul and the audience as κλητὸς and (2) a common mission opportunity among the Gentiles.

This informational symmetry would explain the presence of the καὶ as it is Paul’s acknowledge that the the audience, expressly referred to by the otherwise informationally redunant ὑμεῖς, is similar to Paul. Responding to the similar argument by Francis Watson and Steven Mason that the καὶ modifies “called to belong to Jesus Christ” to draw a connection between Paul’s calling and the audnience’s, Das argues that the καὶ is better understood as referring to the inclusion of the Gentiles. Das argues against Mason’s and Watson’s argument by suggesting it wrongly prioritizes the more distant information in Romans 1.1 over the more immediate ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν in Romans 1.5.7

For Das’ argument to work, it entails an exegetical principle that the more immediate information is more sigificant for the meaning of a discourse. In other words, the information in Romans 1.5 is more significant for undersatnd the following verse rather the information about Paul in Romans 1.1. However, this is a fundamentally fallacious understanding of how discourse works. In the flow of communication, the most significant information for undersatnding a clause or sentence is not necessarily the immediately preceding clause or sentence. Sometimes, the most important information is at the beginning of a discursive unit, such as a section or paragraph. This is often the case at the end of a discursive unity, where the end of the unit brings all the information together to provide coherence and conclusion to the entire unit. When we are moving towards the end of a discourse, it is more likely that was comes towards the beginning of the discourse may have more bearing on the meaning and function of the discourse. This doesn’t dismiss the role of the immediately preceding discourse as negligible, as it should be default still be considered relevant informaton, but it may not be the most important information.

In that case, it can be argued that informaton in Romans 1.1-4 is more important than 1.5 for understanding why Paul uses the καὶ in verse 6. The καὶ functions to draw a comparison between Paul and the audience. This connection is evidenced by the fact that καὶ is immediatelly followed by ὑμεῖς, which would otherwise be redunant based upon the encoding of the audience in ἐστε. The typical pattern for καὶ is that it draws a connection of what precedes with what immediately follows. In this case, it draws a connection between Paul’s self-description in Romans 1.1-5 with the audience referred to by ὑμεῖς: both Paul and the audience are called and live among the Gentiles.

Das argues against this connection between a common κλητὸς by suggesting there is a fundamental distinction between Paul’s calling as an apoistle and the audience’s calling to Jesus Christ.8 This fundamentally misunderstands how Paul’s understands the social significance of the Body of Christ. While Paul may use the shorthand phrase κλητὸς ἀπόστολος, Paul does understand the calling from God to be to a specific role, but rather as part of God’s revelation of Jesus Christ, as both Galatians 1.15 and 1 Corinthians 1.24. Instead, the apostolic mission along with other offices and gifts are a consequence of being in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12.27-31) and the unity of God (Ephesians 4.1-13). In other words, Paul’s apostolic mission is how God’s calling to know Christ and be united in Christ works itself out for Paul’s life, but the calling is to the body of Christ. The shorthand κλητὸς ἀπόστολος in Romans and 1 Corinthians is better understood not as a term of distinction between Paul’s callings and the audiences, but only as a shorthand autobiographical description of Paul’s own story; Paul considers himself to have been designated an apostle when he was called by Christ, as Galatians 1.15 suggests. In which case, Das’ objection to the connection between Paul and the Roman audience’s calling falls apart as an artifically technical designation or an anachronistic retrojections of modern undersatndings about the language about calling to specific positions of religious authority that does not take into account how Paul uses the language of calling and apostleship.9

As such, the simplest understanding of both the syntax and the overall discursive significance of Romans 1.6 seems to be that Paul is trying to connect the Roman audience’s identity and mission with his own. If this is the case, there may be one more similarity that is implicitly drawn between Paul and the audience: that they are both Jewish. Paul’s connection of his own identity and mission in Romans 1.1 is contextualized within understanding the Gospel about Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, including Jesus as having a royal, Davidic lineage. Paul’s portrayal of  the Gospel he preaches as a fulfillment of the Scriptures would function to make salient Paul’s own Jewishness in virtue of his implicit faithfulness to the Scripture narrative. Paul is partly bringing his own Jewishness to the foreground in Romans 1.1-5. We later see in Romans 9.1-5 that Paul expressed his own wishes in such a way as to affirm his own commitment to his fellow Jews; Paul’s own identity as a Jew is in some degree relevant in Romans. In this case, then, we may also surmise that Paul’s intended audience is also exclusively or primarily Jewish.

In fact, there are multiple good reasons for suggesting such. Firstly, Paul’s self-description in Romans 9.1-5 would make better sense if he was addressing Jews who might have been suspicious of Paul’s loyalty to Israel due to rumors about how Paul’s Gospel and mission is oriented towards bringing in Gentiles: Is Paul really a Jew? Does Paul’s laying aside the Torah suggest he is not authnetically Jewish?

Also, how relevant would Paul have considered Romans 11.1-32, in which the primary focus of Paul’s discourse is to affirm God’s continued faithfulness to Israel, for a Gentile audience? It would certainly be relevant for a Jewish audience that Paul had concerns might suspect him of not being a loyal Jew, but how relevant would it be for a Gentile audience? One could argue that Paul is trying to teach the Gentiles to not be arrogant towards the Jews in Romans 11.1-32 based upon thinking 11.13-24 is evidence that Paul has a Gentile audience. However, we would firstly be lead to ask whether the whole of Romans 9-11 could have been written fundamentally differently so as to argue against derision towards Jews. Furthermore, such an argument for a Gentile audience would unwarrantingly takes 11.13-24 as evidence of the audience, overlooking how Paul uses protreptic and diatribal rhetorical convenctions to argue with hypothetical interlocuters throughout the letter. Taking these objections and rehtorical conventions together, it is better to see Romans 11.1-32 as Paul attempting to persuade his fellow Jews that he is not preaching a Gospel that has God abandoning Israel and his diatribal takedown of a hypotherical Gentile functions to rhetorically solidify that Paul is not capitulating and accomodating to Gentiles, but that he would rebuke them for wrongly judgment Jews.

More significantly, if Paul is primarily addressing his fellow Jews in his letter to the Romans, then we have a simple way of undersatnding what Paul says about them in Romans 1.6: that they are diaspora Jews who have been called to Christ. ἐν οἷς is a brief reference to Paul’s audience as part of the Jewish diaspora in Rome. This would then explain how ἐν οἷς in verse 6 as a topical frame swithcing topic functions: it functions to shift the topic away from Paul’s own mission in Romans 1.1-5 to the Gentiles to the Jewish Christian’s own presence among the Gentiles.

There is further validation for this explanaton in Romans 2-3. NT Wright has argued that Paul highlight’s Israel’s vocational failures to be a light ot the world in Romans 2.17-24.10 While Wright may be overstating the discursive significance of Israel’s vocation in Romans 2.17-24, there is some language that may be considered to echoes of the theme of Israel’s own vocation, such as bringing light to the darkness as an implicit reference toa specific Jewish self-understanding, which may have been based upon Isaiah 42.6 and other Isaianic passages.11 As such, a devout Jew living in the diaspora could be inclined to understand themselves as somehow being a light to the Gentiles. Paul later affirms that God has entrusted Israel with His word for this purpose in Romans 3.212

In this case, Paul’s implicitly understood reference to the Jewish’ audience status as living in the diaspora in Rome does get brought up later in Romans 2-3, even if it is not the most discursively dominant theme of those chapters. As one would expect for a compentent communicator, the significant information that Paul brings up about his audience in the introduction of his epistle is then brought up early in his argument. In other words, whereas interpreting Romans 1.6 as a refering to a Gentile audience and their inclusion would effectly make Paul “burying the lead” of his argument of Romans 1-15, regarding Romans 1.6 as a reference to diaspora Jews means that Paul actaully addresses relevant themes related to this reference in the beginning of his argument.

As such, this undersatnding of Romans 1.6 provides a basis for providing a solution to the “Romans debate” in offering the beginning of how Paul could have understood his purpose in delivering the epistle to the Romans that can also provide a reasonably coherent connection between the epistolary frame of Romans 1.1-7 with the fuller theological argument in Romans. Paul is seeking to persuade the Jewish Christians to be involved in Paul’s hopeful plans to evangelize the Gentiles in Rome by (1) persuading them that he is remains loyal to the God known in Israel’s Scriptures and is committed to the well-being of the Jewish people and (2) dissuading them from holding to any form of Jewish self-understanding given in or derived from some STJ literature, such as the Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees that would make the Jewish Christians in Rome hostile to the Gentiles Paul is seeking to preach the Gospel to. Romans 1.6 serves as the very beginning of Paul’s efforts to address the Jewish Christians in Rome so as to invite them to share in Paul’s own undersatnding about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his self-understanding of his Jewish socail identity. He starts his letter by suggesting they have a common ground (1) as being called, (2) as having a mission among the Gentiles, and (3), implicitly understood, as Jews. Paul makes an understood reference to the audience’s self-undersatnding as diasporic Jews, which would make the Jewish self-undersatnding of their spiriutal vocation more salient. This then sets up for his protreptic argument of Romans 1-11, which seeks to furher increase their ‘commonness’ by aruging for an intellectual “conversion” to his own theological position about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the resulting significance of Jewish identity and way of life.

The obscurity and significance of Romans 3.1-8

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December 2, 2019

Throughout the commentaries, there is a sense of puzzlement that is apparent when interpreters come to Romans 3.1-8. From Romans 1.18-2.29, Paul’s rhetorical style resembles the Cynic-Stoic diatribe as Stanley Stowers helpfully expands upon.1 However, in 3.1-8, Paul’s rhetoric becomes a series of rapid-fire questions that has provoked a discussion as to whether this passage can be legitimately be called a diatribe.2 Stowers regards 3.1-8 to contain a series of objections and false conclusions from a hypothetical interlocutor, along with various other verses such as Romans 6.1 and 6.15.3 Nevertheless, the rapid-fire question and response of Romans 3.1-8 is in contrast to the more extended response to the objections on Romans 6. Why is Paul’s rhetoric so ‘hurried’ so as to lack a clear explanation?

I want to put forward the premise that if Paul is addressing a form of Jewish, nationalistic zeal that has a deep, latent hostility towards Rome and her imperial power, then we may be able to explain the style of Romans 3.1-8. If such a Maccabean-like zeal is present among Jews, and particularly Jewish Christians in Rome, Paul can not safely make a direct reference to such hostility in a letter that is going to the heart of the empire. What if someone deeply sympathetic to the Roman power, perhaps among the Gentiles that are in the Roman church, were to hear of signs of a revolt against the empire as Paul’s letter is read in the churches in Rome? Even as Paul seeks to rebut such militaristic and nationalistic zeal, he can not speak fo it directly. Jews were previously expelled from Rome under Claudius. Great care must be taken to not stoke the fires of suspicion. So, Paul could not make such a direct reference, nor could he spend much time expanding upon it.

Romans 3.1-8 may be Paul explaining the failure of the view that God’s righteousness is demonstrated through God giving political and social power to the righteous. The rhetoric at the conclusion of Romans 1.18-32 saying that the people committed the various sins deserve death could be interpreted by the more militant as a justification for religious violence against the Roman world. Paul’s rhetoric in Romans cuts against such rhetoric, reminding that even the wisest of Israel are not immune from many of the same sins that the self-professed wise among the Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world. Jew and Gentile are not different in terms of their innate moral character, as Paul will go on to powerfully argue in Romans 3.9-20 that the Torah address the sinfulness of the Jews that echoes the condemnation thrown onto the Gentile world in Romans 1.18-32.

Just prior in Romans 2.25-29, Paul reminds the audience that the value of circumcision is in the heart of the obedient Jew, not in the flesh. While containing a Deuteronomic echo in Deuteronomy 10.16 and 30.6, amongst other passages, it may also contain an ideological echo of the story of forced circumcision during the Maccabean rebellion as told in 1 Maccabees 2.45-28:

And Mattathias and his friends went around and tore down the altars; they forcibly (ἐν ἰσχύι) circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel. They hunted down the arrogant, and the work prospered in their hands. They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand. (NRSV)

This forced circumcision was in response to the attempts by Antiochus to eliminate Israel’s distinctiveness by forbidding the covenantal life of Israel in their obedience to Torah and circumcision, under the penalty of death (1 Maccabees 1.41-61). As such, Matthias’s forced circumcision of the boys was simultaneously an act of obedience and an act of political rebellion. Among the more zealous and militant, circumcision could have come to be valued more for its marker of social identity in distinguishing Israel from the Gentile nations, with an expectation that God will deliver them because of their circumcision. Additionally, this act of forced circumcision leads Matthias and his men preserving the books of the Torah, which were being torn and burned (1 Maccabees 1.56). In this event, the act of corporate circumcision (and not personal being circumcised) functioned as a national symbol for the preservation of the Torah in its written form. The relationship of circumcision as a personal symbol of Torah obedience is transformed into a socio-political act of preserving the written Torah. The Maccabean narrative could be interpreted as treating the act of physical circumcision as a “socio-political sacrament” that would give Israel victory over her enemies.

It is this subtle yet critical disconnection of circumcision with a faithfulness that Paul corrects in Romans 2.25-29. In Deuteronomy 30.1-5 God promises to restore Israel to the land after exile when they obey God. This promise is based upon the promise that God will circumcise Israel’s heart and then God will send curses upon Israel’s enemies as Israel lives in obedience as given in Deuteronomy 30.6-10. Here, the circumcision that delivers Israel is not Israel’s own physical circumcision, but God’s own circumcision of the person’s heart that leads to obedience and then deliverance.

However, Paul’s argument assumes knowledge of the Deuteronomic promises, as the paradoxical description of a circumcised Jew as uncircumcised, and the uncircumcised as circumcised, would echo the circumcision of the heart to any Jewish who was familiar with Torah and Deuteronomy. But by waiting until vs. 28-29 to make a more deliberate reference to the spiritual form of circumcision, Paul’s argument is structured so as to first focus on the faithfulness of the very opponent of the Maccabean narrative, the Gentiles. If an uncircumcised Gentile who keeps the righteousness (δικαίωμα) of the Torah acts like one who has been a recipient of God’s circumcision of the heart, they would be the ones who should be the recipients of God’s deliverance in virtue of being truly circumcised in the heart. This would flip the script on the narrative that connects physical circumcision with God’s socio-political deliverance. Paul appeals to the very type of person who would be considered odious to a Jew that was particularly militant, nationalistic to shame them into realizing they are not in any better position before God than the Gentile is. Paul is making moves towards demonstrating that God’s salvation is for the Jew AND the Greek (Rom 1.16) by presenting an uncircumcised Gentile a potential recipient of God’s deliverance. This would have the effect of undercutting the sharp, exclusively narrow distinctions drawn between Jew and Gentile among the more nationalistic, militant, and zealous.

If this reading is an appropriate interpretation of Paul’s discourse, then we can imagine that Romans 2.25-29 contains an indirect echo of the Maccabean narrative. Paul can’t address it directly, but any Jew who was immersed in the Scriptures, Israel’s recent history, and the socio-political hostilities of the present time would be familiar with the idea of circumcision having implications of nationalistic and ethnic loyalty and conflict. Paul can address this understanding of circumcision by echoing the Deuteronomic teaching about circumcision of the heart, without making direct reference to passages such as Deuteronomy 30, as the language of verse 7 could be interpreted as applying to the Romans in Paul’s day.

However, to become more detailed than this would risk triggering Roman interference and investigation.  He can’t safely expand it to say that the value of circumcision is as a “political sacrament” to ensure Israel’s deliverance from the Romans. Hence, Paul’s discourse becomes even more limited in Romans 3.1-8, as Paul shifts to reframe how it is that a Jew should understand their own history.

Firstly, the benefit of a Jew’s status and circumcision should be found in salvation history with God entrusting His sayings to them (Romans 3.1-2). Jews can understand the significance of their life by looking to God’s purposeful actions in history to make His will known to Israel to then pass it on, rather than trying to derive some future socio-political expectation. As N.T. Wright notes:

The word ‘entrusted’ is always used by Paul in the same sense that it bears in secular Greek: to entrust someone with something is to give them something which they must take care of and pass on to the appropriate person. Paul was ‘entrusted’ with a commission, according to 1 Corinthians 9.17; with the gospel to the uncircumcised, in Galatians 2.7; with the gospel, according to 1 Thessalonians 2.4. In no case did this commission or this gospel relate ultimately to Paul himself; it was given to Paul in order that it be given through Paul to the people for whom it was intended. This, indeed, may be why Paul speaks, uniquely for him, of ‘the oracles’. God’s purpose, he believed, was that through Israel the gentile world might hear what, to them, would appear to be ‘divine oracles’, even though Israel would have known they were more than that. The whole sentence, and the whole drift of the passage ever since 2.17, is not primarily about ‘Israel’s guilt’, but about God’s purpose, through Israel, for the world.4

While Wright perhaps overstates the discursive significance of God’s purpose for Israel in Paul’s whole argument, we see God’s purpose for Israel being brought to the foreground briefly in Romans 3.2 to try to reframe the way the Jewish Christians in Rome understand the importance and purpose of their way of life.

However, whereas Wright considers verse 3 to continue to refer to God’s purpose for Israel’s as contained in the Abrahamic and Isaianic vocation,5, the focus on some people who refused to believe (ἠπίστησάν τινες) may be more appropriately taken to be in reference to the Jews who assimilated into the Greco-Roman culture and left their ethnic heritage behind, much as many did under Antiochos. 1 Maccabees 1.52-53 portrays the unfaithfulness of many Jews in forsaking the law as contributing to the marginalization of the (faithful) Israel from power and into hiding. In this light, the question of Romans 3.3 may be comprehended asking a question about the tension between political assimilation that takes away the power to resist militaristic and social incursions and God’s promise to Abraham to give the promised land to his descendants. If the faithful few’s zealous devotion to circumcision and protection of the Torah is not what brings about God’s deliverance, does that not leave Israel’s future susceptible to the weakness of those who cease to remain believe and remain true to God’s word to Israel? Isn’t Israel weak for exploitation, conquering, and destruction if the faithfulness of a few does not evoke God’s response to deliverance against Israel’s enemies?

This explains Paul’s response in quoting from Psalm 51.4b in Romans 3.4. While directly quoting the passage about God’s rightness in his status as a judge, the psalm makes multiples references to God’s deliverance and protection of David and Jerusalem (Psalm 51.14, 18-19). God is capable of delivering and protecting His people, even in the midst of people’s sin, such as David’s mentioned in Psalm 51.1-4a. God’s faithfulness to the Abrahamic promise is not conditioned upon Israel’s faithfulness, but in fact God protects Israel simply based upon God’s own forgiving response to faithlessness.

This then leads to the question of Romans 3.5 that expresses an objection to such an understanding of God’s deliverance. If God acts to deliver and protect is evidenced and brought out (συνίστημι) in response to Israel’s faithlessness, then doesn’t that mean God is actually wrong to punish people for their faithlessness? The simultaneous punishment and deliverance of faithless Israel, which paradoxical reality expressed throughout the prophets, seems to be unjustly contradictory and capricious. Paul’s response to this object is to remind the hypothetical interlocutor in 3.6 that God’s deliverance does not undercut the necessity and importance of God’s judgment of the world. Paul’s argument here works not by some logical chain of reasoning that demands the conclusion, but rather by seeking to rhetorically persuade a militaristic Jew that God’s judgment of the evils of the Roman world, very indirectly referred to by τὸν κόσμον, is still a part of God’s plan, even if He simultaneously delivers Israel because of their faithlessness.

The final two objections expressed in 3.7 and 3.8 are essentially such absurd reasoning against Paul’s argument that it reveals the wickedness of anyone who would dare to make such an argument. Both objections are rationalizations of doing evil: the former that it is wrong for God to punish sin since God delivers in response to faithlessness and the latter that it is actually beneficial to do evil so that God will deliver. These objections do not merit much of a response from Paul other than to simply express that those who think in such a way deserve to be condemned. They represent in Paul’s mind the dead-end of the nationalistic zealot who is intent to reject everything Paul presents with a fallacious form of a reductio ad absurdum that has fallen deep down the slippery slope.

Up to this point, I have argued that the best way to make sense of Romans 3.1-8 is Paul’s abbreviated rebuttal of a zealous Jew who can’t wait to see the uncircumcised Gentiles to “get theirs” in lines with the Maccabean history. It represents the conclusion of Paul’s argument in Romans 1.18-3.9 that seeks to deconstruct a Maccabean-like zeal against the Greco-Roman world. Whereas Paul’s discourse in Romans 1.18-32 would evoke a strong emotional desire for judgment and violence in any zealots in the audience, 2.1-24 undercuts any sense of the substantial, theological difference between Jew and Gentile. Romans 2.25-29 would then undercut the ‘mythology’/’ideology’ attached to circumcision that empowered such vitriol by interpreted an uncircumcised Gentile who obey’s God’s will through the lens of the Deuteronomic vision and purpose for circumcision. Then, Paul gives a response to the objections in Romans 3.1-8 that he imagines might be lobbed against Paul’s “de-politicizing” and “de-militarizing” of circumcision. Romans 1.18-3.8 is structured so as to gradually but decisively reframe the way Jews should understanding of God’s judgment and deliverance in light of Israel’s Scriptures and history.

Having rhetorically vanquished the interlocutor up to this point, Paul moves to giving the ‘prolegomena’ in Romans 3.9-20 that is necessary before understanding Paul’s understanding of God’s righteousness: Israel is not ethically superior to the Gentiles in virtue of having the Torah because the Torah testifies about the sinfulness of those living under Torah. As such, Romans 3.9-20 represents a marked shift in Paul’s argument from Romans 1.18-3.8. While there are thematic connections to the previous discourse, it serves more so to transition to the vision of God’s righteousness found in Jesus Christ rather than to continued the argument of 1.18-3.8. Now that he brush has been cleared by rhetorically undercutting a militaristic vision of God’s deliverance against the ungodly Gentiles, Paul can transitioning towards expressing the theological, historical, and eschatological significance of the Gospel that he preaches. To that end, I would argue that Romans 3.9-20 should be understood as a transitional section prepares for 3.21-26, which means that objections in Romans 3.1-8 should be considered the end of Paul’s rhetorical confutatio.

Remembering our history: Salvation Army, Disney, and boycotts

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November 29, 2019

Evangelical and traditional Christians across the United States had arms up in outrage a couple of weeks ago at the news that Chik-Fil-A would stop donating to the Salvation Army and other organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Having been under fire from LGBTQ activists with persistent boycotts, in addition to influencing various cities and venues to refuse to do business with Chik-Fil-A, such as the San Antonio airport and the Oracle mall in the city of Reading in the UK. While Chik-Fil-A’s actions may be understood to represent a “capitulation” to the LGBTQ advocates, at the same time, they are trying to branch out into the international market and their initial reception in the UK was meet with vociferous resistance. If they were to expand their operations to Europe, they had to address some of the political baggage that comes from their charitable contributes in the past.

Now, before continuing my main point, let me say one thing: Firstly, the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and other organizations do not have a right to charitable contributions. It is a grievous incident based upon a false portrayal of the Salvation Army and the work they do and their non-discriminatory support of the homeless including the LGBTQ, but as a charity, they are not automatically favored over other charities that do the same thing. The question is certainly up to see how Chik-Fil-A directs their charitable donations in the future in ways that make up for the loss to the Salvation Army, but the SA, while a clearly visible and well-known charity, do not have a right to Chik-Fil-A’s support. Nevertheless, while SA does not have a right to the CFA, the smearing of the SA for a larger social movement is a momentous injustice.

However, we Christians who hold to a traditional sexual ethic might be tempted to think the LGBTQ activists who put pressures and boycotts based upon this smear campaign are the source of the problem. We might believe that they are aggressive deceivers and propagandists who are out to support their political agenda. We very well might be correct in that assertion. And yet, there is something we as Christians might be tempted to forget. Much like the hypocrisy of politicians that can criticize the behaviors and traits of their opponents while forgetting it when it is true of their own members, we can risk falling into hypocrisy if we forget how right-wing Christians in the United States have also tried to pressure corporations to boycotts based upon their perceived support of homosexuality. Anyone remember the Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Disney until they stop promoting homosexuality? (Click the following article if you forgot: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1997-06-18-9706180143-story.html). For what: for having a day that allowed gay people to I am reminded of these words from Jesus:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Matthew 7.1-2; NRSV)

Far from the misquoted verse that people use to say we should not think negatively about what other people are doing, this verse warns more so the ways in which people actively seek to discipline and fix perceived ethical wrongs may come back to bite them.  The following verses in Matthew 7.3-5 show that the context of these verses is better understood against the backdrop of how some teachers in Second Temple Judaism would try to correct the moral wrongs and evils they saw in others. Jesus’ words were a warning that what you give may come back to you; the way you treat others can become the way you get treated.

Bothers and sisters, what is happening to Chik-Fil-A is nothing more than the page out of the playbook of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 20th century. And, unfortunately, because the SBC took pains to try to be a representative of Christian moral values on the nation, including those who did not share the same moral values, we see the fruits of this as Chik-Fil-A, who as a corporation does not share the same values as LGBTQ activists,  has now come under a similar pressure. The one difference: there are greater social and political affinities with the LGBTQ activists than there were the SBC, and so Chik-Fil-A has undergone greater social pressure than Disney did.

I am reminded of the words of Paul in Romans 2.17-24, who upon criticizing the Jewish sages who stood as the prevailing representatives of Judaism in his day, tell them that they are responsible for the Gentile’s blasphemy against God. Likewise, the SBC and the Moral Majority of the late 20th century are responsible for what we are witnessing now.

It is majorly unfortunate that so many Jews in Paul’s day faced the stereotypes and injustices they did in the Roman Empire, in part contributed to the way the reputedly wise stood as representatives of the Jewish faith. It is likewise very unfortunate that wonderful charities like the Salvation Army and the corporations like Chik-Fil-A that have supported them have come under fire.

How then should we as Christians who stay true to the Scriptures respond? Hear Paul’s words in Romans 12.19-21:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NRSV)

We can perhaps hear in Paul’s words an echo of Jesus Christ. Soon after rebuking the judgments of people who try to fix other people’s sins, he commends his hearers to the following:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7.12; NRSV)

To be clear, Jesus, nor Paul after Him, are saying you shouldn’t call a spade a spade or speak up about what is false and wrong. So don’t hear my words as a call to say “Shut up and don’t complain because we are getting what we deserve. Just be nice” That is not the point. The point is that the way to respond in the face of such a social crisis is not to try to further correct the problems we see in our social opponents nor to try to get revenge against ‘them’ as they did against ‘us,’ but to act to creation the good relations that we wish we they would have with us. All too often, we say we want peace with those we disagree with and yet our actions suggest we treat them as our enemy. Perhaps we should reverse this, allowing our words to speak of the unfairness and injustice but at the same time bringing an offer to share a new way of engaging with each other by our words and actions that try to create peace.

It is my hypothesis that some of the Jewish Christians in Rome did not heed Paul’s advice very well. As put forward in previous posts, I have argued that Paul is deconstructing a portrayal of Jewish faith and practice as expressed in some literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon that took a decidedly negative view towards the pagan, Gentile world. Some of the rhetoric of the Wisdom of Solomon borders on the rhetoric of hatred, and this hatred seemed to extend to everyone beyond faithful Israel living under God’s wisdom and Torah. An outsider might consider such a harsh, dualistic worldview that has a viciously narrow exclusivism would be seen as a hatred of humanity. And what is it that we see Christians accused of after the burning of Rome in 64 AD? Of “hatred towards the human race” as recorded by Tacitus (Annals, 15.44). Perhaps after the burning of Rome, some Jewish Christians influenced by the bitterly judgmental rhetoric of the Wisdom of Solomon started to celebrate the fire as God’s judgment against the Roman world, seeing in it the beginnings of a new Exodus. From this bitterly negative judgment, the early Christians as a whole may have suffered a false and grievous injustice because some in the name of God judged all humanity and celebrated the burning of the Meditteranean’s center of power.

Similarly, if the religious teachers in Judea had heeded Jesus’ words, the Jewish revolt of 66 AD would not have occurred, or at least would not have received such a strong support, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

So, let us learn from our history, sisters and brothers. Let us see a new way forward to seek to bring God’s shalom, alongside the word of God’s truth, to cultivate something that can make spiritual war against the rhetorical aad political wars against flesh and blood that we have been fighting.

The Jewish sage of Romans 2.17-24

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November 28, 2019

With the earliest leaders of the Protestant Reformation, we can see a trend in their interpreting Paul’s letter to the Romans as a general criticism of Judaism and Jews. In his preface to Romans, Martin Luther comments that

In chapter 2, St. Paul extends his rebuke to those who appear outwardly pious or who sin secretly. Such were the Jews, and such are hypocrities still, who live virtuous lives but without eagerness and love; in their heart they are enemies of God’s law and like to judge other people.

John Calvin notes about Romans 2.17:

Having now completed what he meant to say of the Gentiles, he returns to the Jews; and that he might, with greater force, beat down their great vanity, he allows them all those privileges, by which they were beyond measure transported and inflated: and then he shows how insufficient they were for the attainment of true glory, yea, how they turned to their reproach. Under the name Jew he includes all the privileges of the nation, which they vainly pretended were derived from the law and the prophets; and so he comprehends all the Israelites, all of whom were then, without any difference, called Jews.

A couple of centuries later, John Wesley understands Romans 2.17-24 addressed towards Jews as a nation in his Notes on the New Testament. If Paul’s message of justification by faith was understood to be in contrast to any usage of the Jewish Torah, then it would seem ‘natural’ to understand Paul’s language in Romans 2 to implicate Jews as a nation for hypocrisy. 

However, with the emergence of the New Perspective on Paul, recent scholarship has attempted to replace their generic criticisms, if not stereotype caricatures, of Jews with an attempt to understand the target of Paul’s criticism as being more specific than a generic criticism. The primary interpretive shift has been to suggest the criticism is to suggest a mistaken notion of pride and understanding of Jewish privilege. For instance, James Dunn thinks the passages “is not intended as an accusation of wholesale Jewish profligacy, but as a pricking of a balloon of Jewish pride and presumption that being the people of God’s law puts them in a uniquely privileged position in relation to the rest of humankind.”1 Even more recent commentators who are still sympathetic to the traditional Protestant interpretation of Paul, such as Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner, see Paul’s rhetoric directed towards Jews wrongly understanding their privilege and standing in the covenant.2 Undergirding this interpretation seems to be the idea there Paul refers to a mistaken, if not self-deceived, sense of a Jew’s own privilege with God in virtue of their ethnicity.

On the surface, this interpretation of Paul’s criticism seems plausible. After all, Romans 2.17-24 does portray the focus of Paul’s criticism as someone who simultaneously personally appropriate the privileges God has given Israel while at the same time being morally inconsistent with what they teach. Such a portrayal is consistent with our understanding of pride and arrogance. However, I would contend that simply because Paul’s language is consistent with our modern understanding of pride, hypocrisy, and self-deception does not mean that Paul’s primary discursive is to criticize pride. I don’t think Paul is giving primary psychological critique. Echoing Krister Stendahl’s criticism of the introspective “Paul,” my primary concern is how we treat the psychological factors as the primary, most important factors for making coherent sense of Paul’s discourse and communicative purpose. Certainly, concerns about the psychological status of affairs can be relevant to Paul as even a cursory overview of Romans 7 can show. That doesn’t mean, however, that Paul’s ethical criticisms are primary levied against the wrong psychological states such as pride and self-deception. Just because an idea can offer feasible explanations for our perspectives into what Paul is saying does not mean we have found the most coherent understanding of what is being communicated.

Other ways of handling Romans 2.17-24 exist. NT Wright argues that Paul is subtly highlighting the failure of Israel to fulfill its vocation to be a light to the world.3 While I think such an idea may certainly exist in the background for Paul, I would suggest the indirectness of portends to similar criticism as one offered against the psychological interpretation: offering a plausible explanation for why Paul thinks does not necessarily mean we have found a coherent understanding of the discourse.

I find Richard Longnecker’s point about Romans 2.17-24 to be the best direction to take. It is not directed towards Jews in corporately and universally, but rather towards a specific type of person:

The referent throughout this second part of Rom 2, as it will be in 3: 1-20, is certainly the Jews of Paul’s day. It is probably not, however, to be understood in terms of Jews generally or Judaism per se. Rather, the referent is most likely some type of proud and censorious, but entirely inconsistent, Jew who viewed himself as a moral teacher of pagan Gentiles, but who caused the name of God to be dishonored among those same Gentiles because he himself failed to live up to the moral standards of the Mosaic law.4

Similarly, Douglas Campbell in The Deliverance of God sees Paul’s discourse in 2.17-21 similarily:

For now, it suffices to register, on the one hand, a dominant Jewish figure who is clearly committed to the law, meaning here probably the Jewish Scriptures as a whole, although they were doubtless centered on the Pentateuch… This figure will bring the illumination, wisdom, and maturity of the law to those who currently lack it.5

Campbell further notes that the charges of 2.21-23 are “difficult to integrate into any sensible reconstruction or critique of Judaism in general.”6 Both Longnecker and Campbell recognize a specific figure as the target of Paul’s discourse, rather than a generic description of Jews.

However, I would contend that Longenecker’s and Campbell’s explanations fall short of adequately explaining 2.17-24. Longnecker suggests that this Jewish figure considered himself a teacher of the pagans. However, this designation does not fit well within Paul’s broader point about uncircumcision Gentiles who obey the righteous regulations (δικαίωμα) of the Torah without having the Torah (2.14, 26). There is nothing in Paul’s discourse to suggest that Paul considers this Jewish teacher to be a teacher of Gentiles specifically.

Meanwhile, Campbell believes this figure that Paul describes is an actual flesh-and-blood human being that is working as a counter-missionary “Teacher” against Paul’s Gospel.7 However, the characterization of this teacher in Paul’s diatribe more closely resembles the literary portrayal of the wise figure of Solomon in Wisdom of Solomon 7.15-22a:

May God grant me to speak with judgment,
and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;
for he is the guide (ὁδηγός) even of wisdom
and the corrector (διορθωτής) of the wise.
For both we and our words are in his hand,
as are all understanding and skill in crafts.
For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,
the powers of spirits and the thoughts of human beings,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. (NRSV)

Previously, it is said that the wisdom this Solomonic figure is connected with their keeping of God’s laws in Wisdom 6.17-20:

The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction,
and concern for instruction is love of her,
and love of her is the keeping of her laws (νόμων),
and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality,
and immortality brings one near to God;
so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom. (NRSV)

If we take these two passages together, we see the interrelation of five motifs: (1) the possession of wisdom, (2) pedagogical authority, (3) Torah/νόμος, (4) boasting of a relationship with God, and (5) immortality. The first four of these motifs occur together in Romans 2.17-20, with the fifth one of immortality being an important theme in Romans 2.6-16. The constellation of these five themes in Romans 2.6-20 that are also together in Wisdom of Solomon 6-7 suggests that Paul is addressing Jewish sage as typified in the Wisdom of Solomon, and in addition, also 1 Maccabees (I will offer support for this in a moment). The figure of 2.17-24 is better understood as a figure whose characteristics are drawn from Jewish literature rather than Paul’s knowledge of a specific flesh-and-blood Teacher that Paul is engaging in an argumentative conflict with.

This potential derivation from the Wisdom of Solomon would offer further insight to the relationship between Romans 1.18-32 and 2.17-24: Paul indicts the Jewish sage of 5 sins things that are present in Paul’s indictment of the Gentile sage figure in 1.18-32, whose portrayal contains echoes from the Wisdom of Solomon 13-14. Both portrayals share pedagogical failure (1.32 and 2.21a), stealing (1.29-318 and 2.21b), adultery (1.26-279 and 2.22a), sacrilegious cultic behavior (1.23-25 and 2.22b), and boasting the possession of knowledge (1.22 and 2.23). I would put forward the hypothesis that this is best explained by Paul trying to subvert the influence and authority that Jewish literature such as Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees would have in created an ethnic divide of the Jews from the Gentiles based upon moral and ethical superiority in virtue of Israel’s relationship to God, Torah, and circumcision. Both the pagan and Jewish figures of wisdom are caught in moral trespass: even the most revered Jewish teachers are not immune to sin and unrighteousness that is portrayed occurring in the Greco-Roman world. Paul essentially shows that the Wisdom of Solomon’s portrayal of the wise figure is essentially self-deceived and overlooks the reality of things.

This is where 1 Maccabees comes in. One of the charges against the Jewish sage is that they commit ἱεροσυλέω in 2.22b. The precise behavior that Paul is referring to here has been debated. Longenecker describes two possible options here: sacrilege of the temple of Jerusalem and stealing from heathen temples. While noting that Jewish religious leaders were often accused of the desecration of the temple, Longenecker favors the latter option without any evidence in support except the reference to John Chrysostom in the 4th century AD.10 However, I would argue that Paul has an understood reference to a particular type of sacrilegious offense in Jewish history: the way that the Maccabean cleansing of the temple went against the regulations Torah. In 1 Maccabees 4.41-51, priestly students of the Torah were put in charge of cleansing the sanctuary after the Gentiles had defiled it. They decided to tear down the altar, took away and stored the defiled stones elsewhere while they made a new altar of unhewn stores according to the Torah. However, in Leviticus 8.14-15, Moses used the blood of a sacrificed bull to cleanse the altar. If this would have been considered a sacrilegious offense of the Torah’s purity regulations surrounding Torah, such a mistake from priestly authorities familiar with the Torah could no doubt be seen as indicting these actions, especially by those critical of the Hasmoneans. This specific event would explain Paul’s usage of the word ἱεροσυλέω, as it was primarily intended to describe vandalism of a team through plundering it, with the act of removing the defiles stones that should have been purified would be considered an act of sacrilegious removal.

There are other reasons to consider that Paul makes other implicit references to 1 Maccabees elsewhere in Romans. Paul’s discussion about Abraham in Romans 4.1ff echoes the speech of Matthias in 1 Maccabees 2.51. Furthermore, if Paul is repeated criticism of the cleansing of the Temple as described in 1 Maccabees 4, then we may have an answer for why Paul transitions to discussion circumcision in Romans 2.25-29. The narrative of 1 Maccabees may be considered to portray the act of circumcising the boys living in Israel as being responsible for allowing their work to oppose the arrogant and protect the Torah from the Gentiles to prosper (1 Maccabees 2.45-48). If the Maccabean narrative had been told in such a way as to extol the power of circumcision and zealous protection of the Torah as a way to ensure the success of nationalist endeavors, then Paul’s reminder that circumcision is only of value if one obeys the Torah, which echoes Deuteronomy 10.16 and other Deuteronomic passages, is a way of deconstructing a nationalistic myth as given in 1 Maccabees. Hence, Paul’s language about the advantage of being a Jew and circumcision in Romans 3.1 is a question from a hypothetical interlocutor that sees the social advantage of circumcision and Torah to provide God’s assurance of success against imperial overlords. Paul appeals to God’s salvation history as sayings of God as an act of revelation Israel was entrusted with as the benefit, rather than any militaristic power embued within Torah and circumcision.

In conclusion, I would offer up the hypothesis that in Romans 2.17-24, Paul crafts a picture of a Jewish sage that is cobbled together various pieces of Jewish literature that could have been used in support of Jewish nationalism resistance to Roman imperialism. Whereas this nationalistic picture would have portrayed the injustices and evils of the Gentile world to their intrinsically sinful nature that makes them hopelessly and unchangably lost and mired in their wickedness as portrayed in Wisdom of Solomon 12.3-11, Paul charges that the disregarding of God in the Greco-Roman world is more the responsibility of this Jewish sage in causing the Gentiles to blaspheme God, with Paul quotations of Isaiah 52.5 in Romans 2.24 offered as a Scriptural prick against the pride of this literarily-crafted Jewish sage to delegitimate the narrative that blaming the Gentiles for their own disregarding of God in Romans 1.18-23. Whatever responsibility wise of the wise figure Greco-Roman society may have had in the literary portrayal of the Wisdom of Solomon, the Jewish sage is also complicit and responsible in some degree for the idolatry of the Gentiles. To that end, NT Wright’s remarks that 2.17-24 describes the failure to successfully uphold Israel’s vocation to be a light to the nations can be said to be present in the background, along with the ascriptions of pride offered by Dunn, Moo, Schreiner, and others.

However, at the center for Paul’s discursive purpose in Romans 2.17-24 is the deconstruction of the idealized figure of Jewish wisdom (much like he does briefly in 1 Corinthians 1.18-25) drawn from Jewish literature. Real-life versions of these literary figures, including both traditions derives from Jewish sages of past and teachers in Paul’s own day, would contribute to a division between Jews and Gentiles being cast and legitimate by their interpretive applications of the Torah, that the works of the Torah, which would create a division on many lines, including through dietary conventions (Romans 14).11 The literary portrayal of a Jewish sage would be a sufficient stand-in for the traditions of the elders that would have given various prescriptions for how faithful Jews could obey the Torah and be confident that they had a place in the age to come. As Paul’s portrayal demonstrates these pedagogical figures and students of Torah in Israel’s past didn’t successfully obey Torah themselves, the shocking conclusion is that the Torah is not able to make people righteous. This explains the movement we see in Romans 3.11-20, as Paul goes from the particular failures of the Jewish sage to a recognition that being locked in sin is endemic to Israel’s history told in the Scriptures. If the Torah leaves people in sin, then the tradition of the elders as referred to as the works of the Torah (which would later become known as the Oral Torah and Halakha in post-70 AD Rabbinic Judaism) is of no power to bring God’s righteousness, because even the wisest of the Jewish teachers are caught up in the sins they taught against.

So, while we can perhaps say that Paul’s discourse in Romans 2.17-24 can be considered a literary stand-in that represents the Jewish sages of Israel’s recent history, Paul is not leveling a general critique against all Jews individually or corporately, but rather pointing out the weaknesses of the Jewish leaders and teachers who are reputedly to have helped Israel to obey the righteousness of Torah.

A closer look at Romans 1.26-27

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November 25, 2019

Last week, I made an overarching argument that the “homosexuality” passages in the Pauline corpus are actually expressing Paul’s condemnation of married men who abandon their wives and substitute them with other males. For years, I was in support of the interpretation that Romans 1.26-27, 1 Corinthians 6.9, and 1 Timothy 1.10 all referred to any sexual intercourse between people of the same gender. However, last week, I changed my mind. What leads to that change of mind?

There are three parallel reasons. Firstly, at the level of critical thinking, I am aware that in various social conflicts, there is the tendency to appeal to authorities that legitimate our perspective and to develop a rigid understanding of those authorities. In other words, in Christian conflicts on matters of theology and ethics, there is a pronounced tendency to see specific Scriptural passages as supporting our theology and we tend to become rather resistant to reading those passages in different ways. We overlook some of the details in a passage that may challenge our interpretations so as to keep our views fixed.

This is true across the board and not simply a statement against evangelicals in regards to homosexuality, because I witness it just as pervasively on the progressive wing of the conflict over sexuality. In fact, to be forthright in my opinions, I think progressives minded Christians may be more susceptible to trying to do this. While appealing to Scriptures about love and justice, they developed a way of interpreting the “homosexuality” passages that avoided two ideas that provided the most likely foundation for understanding those passages: the resemblance of the gender language in Romans 1.26-27 with Genesis 1.27 and the resemblance of the term ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.10 with Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13.1 Even the best argument I saw for a reinterpretation of the “homosexuality” passages failed on these two points. Claiming that Paul was talking about pederasty was not sufficient to make sense of the language Paul used: Paul uses the gender language of Genesis 1.27 and Leviticus 18.22/20.13, rather than the language that would have conventionally been used to describe pederasty. Paul addressed this sin from his Jewish background in the Scriptures, not as a Greco-Roman expressing contempt for pederasty. These are important exegetical details that I feel confident in saying that they should not be glossed over, but they rarely are present in the arguments I have seen by those who sought to reinterpret these passages as not addressing homosexuality.

Nevertheless, even if people in the other “tribe” become rigid in their interpretations, it doesn’t take away from the reality that my “tribe” does it or that I do it too. However, it is next to impossible to identify the way we become rigid in our interpretation in such a way that we overlook important details when we are in a state of rigidity. We are not conscious of most of the cognitive processes of construal and interpretation, nor are we consciously aware of how we unconsciously devalue and ignore the details that would challenge our present thinking. The best we can do is be aware of this reality and seek to be open to adjusting and changing when solid warrants are presented in favor of changing. This entails us paying close attention longer than we might otherwise be inclined to do so because we think we already know the truth or see the error because most of the time our entrenchment in a specific way of thinking and interpretation is unconsciously reinforced by feelings of anger, derision, incredulity, arrogance, etc. that would lead us to stop directing attention in a way that we are open to learn more deeply: instead, our attention becomes directed as figure out all the problems with those people or that interpretation. However, besides this, we can’t know from the inside where our errors might be; we can only try to push work against those feelings that instinctual arise in a way that exceeds actual harm that would keep us entrenched in our line of thinking.

Secondly, at a personal level, I have some degree of empathy with Christians who have an exclusive same-sex attraction and nevertheless feel a commitment to celibacy. While I am opposite-sex attracted, due to personal trauma, I have experienced the emotional pain of being unable to even form emotional intimacy, much less see anything approaching marriage on the horizon. This is a pain that can largely be experienced in a Western society that has hypersexualized us through music, film, advertisements, and politics, which supersaturated our society with appeals to sex that has the power to grab our attention, sell products, and trigger emotions useful for political movements. In such a society, there is an extreme pain that can from being celibate, straight or gay/lesbian, even as we recognize the theological goodness of such a path of life: we experience the conflict of culturally heightened desire with our celibacy and the social judgment that comes from being celibate in a society where a heavy importance is laid on our sexual identities and experiences. In addition, the response from evangelicals to this hypersexualization has been to try to “purify” themselves more and more from sex, without a lot of success I might add, which meanwhile leads to the harsh judgment of even those same-sex attracted people who are celibate because of the type of desire that they have. I have long felt there had to have been a better reading and understanding of the passages on sexuality that they were often given in some evangelical circles.2

This brings me to the last and the most important reason when it comes to Biblical interpretation: what ultimately lead to the change in my interpretation of Romans 1.26-27 was my research on the intertextual between Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon. Many scholars have observed there are a lot of similarities between Paul’s language in Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon, especially in Romans 1.18-32. One of my research goals was to find all the passages in Romans that we could argue has echoes of the Wisdom of Solomon in mind. Over time I found many of them. However, I could not find any passage in the Wisdom of Solomon that resembles Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1.26-27. The closest I could find was this in Wisdom of Solomon 14.22-31:

Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace. For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. For their worshipers either rave in exultation, or prophesy lies, or live unrighteously, or readily commit perjury; for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm. But just penalties will overtake them on two counts: because they thought wrongly about God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness. For it is not the power of the things by which people swear, but the just penalty for those who sin, that always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous. (NRSV)

The overriding focus of this passage is adultery and the disruption of marriages. While the language of “sexual perversion” (γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή) and “debauchery” (ἀσέλγεια) may be applicable to what Paul describes in Romans 1.26-27 and Paul uses the similar term μεταλλάσσω to describe what the women, there is a dearth of gender language for Paul’s gendered discourse to echo. Instead, it seems to me that Paul’s gendered language is better understood as simultaneously echoes Genesis 1.27 and the judgment expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon 14.24-26 against marital infidelity and disorder.

This observation and interpretation is strengthened by the fact that each of the five sins attributed to the hypothetical Jewish sage in Romans 2.21-23 are mirrored in Romans 1.18-32, except in reverse order. The failure of the Jewish sage to teach themselves appropriately is paralleled by the reputedly wise of 1.18-32 to teach others to do things that deserve death by applauding them in 1.32. Then, the concern about the sage stealing echoes some of the sins in 1.29-31, particularly those related to theft such as covetousness and envy. Additionally, many of the other sins listed in verses 29-31 were instrumental in the ungodly oppressing the righteous our of greed as described in Wisdom of Solomon 2.6-20, further strengthen the connection between the sage’s sins in 2.21-23 and the condemnation of Gentiles in 1.18-32. Skipping the adultery for the moment, we also see that the abhorrence of idols and sacrilege of the temples in Romans 2.22b can be considered to correspond to the idolatry condemned in 1.23. Finally, the Jewish sages’ boast in the Torah in 2.23 is reflected in the boasting of wisdom in 1.22.

With these four aforementioned correspondences between 1.18-32 and 2.21-23, this would suggest that the charge about the Jewish sage’s potential adultery in 2.22 corresponds to 1.26-27. If Paul’s concern in 1.26-27 is about expressing condemnation of homosexuality in all forms, this would not fit with the concern about adultery: adultery was about the violation of the marital covenant, not simply any sexual sin. If Paul (a) is drawing a parallel between 1.18-32 and 2.21-23 and (b) was directly speaking about homosexuality in any form, then the parallel between the two would suggest the language of fornication in 2.22, not adultery. Therefore, if the parallel between the two passages holds, it is more plausible to suggest that what Paul describes is one way in which marriages in the Greco-Roman world would have fallen short of the Jewish ideal of marital fidelity and integrity. Add on top of this (1) the routine echoes of the Wisdom of Solomon that focus on marital infidelity and (2) the usage of the word ἀφίημι in 1.27 that could be used in terms of marital isolation and abandonment, we have a strong basis to think Paul is portraying the way in which marriage has been devalued in the wider society, particularly in Rome.

Rather condemning solely on the grounds of saw between males, what seems to take the focus for Paul is to describe the way that the change in sexual behavior and passions of the reputedly wise reflects their fall into idolatry. In 1.24, Paul describes them as (1) exchanging (μετήλλαξαν) God for the lie and (2) as their hearts in worship being drawn to these idols. These two ascriptions are reflected in the female’s exchange (μετήλλαξαν) in 1.26 and the male’s passion for other males in 1.27.

Additionally, while the language of nature used here (φυσικός) in 1.26-27 could be used by ancient philosophers to describe the order of the world, in Second Temple Jewish literature it was more commonly that the word for nature (φύσις) was used in connection with the emotional, behavior, and cognitive impulses of humans, animals, and maybe even God (Wis 7.20, 13.1; 4 Mac. 1.20, 5.7-8, 5.25, 13.27, 15.13, 15.25, and 16.3). Therefore, instead of describing the violation of a specific gender-order in creation, Paul describes the change of the natural desire that husband and wife have for each other for other sexual activity and desires.

Taking this all together, a Jew hearing Paul’s discourse in 1.26-27 would have been much more likely to hear Paul condemning the devaluation of the marital bonds rather than our modern concerns about homosexuality. The language of the discourse and the various echoes present evidence that is closer to adultery was being described.

That said, it is important to know that this interpretation does not simply explain away the sexual intercourse between two men as mentioned in 1.27 as simply being incidental to Paul’s discourse. Paul says that reputedly wise have degrading (ἀτιμίας) passions in 1.26 that reflects the degrading (ἀτιμάζεσθαι) of their bodies mentioned in 1.24. Degradation is a term of dishonor, which puts one in ill repute for one is doing and has done. The language suggests that in general, the men and women have brought a social dishonor upon themselves for what they have done. Given that shame was connected to a social hierarchy of status, such language suggests that these women and men have actively lowered themselves in their status by the specific behavior attributed to them. They didn’t simply violate the marital bed, but they did it in a way that was beneath who they were. Such language from Paul does not simply describe the sin of adultery, but focuses on the very manner in which they were devaluing their marriage bed.

This language of degradation probably echoes the idea of “abomination” in Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13. The Greek term for “abomination” in the Septuagint in those passages is βδέλυγμα. This is the same term used in the Wisdom of Solomon 12.23 to describe the torment God brings upon people for their own “abominations” (βδελυγμάτων). While the Wisdom of Solomon uses such language as a description of people’s idolatrous behavior here and in 14.11, it has a consequence in trapped people in sin. Paul’s language about the men’s own actions bringing punishment upon themselves in Rom 1.27 echoes this similar idea. While the evidence here is more spotty, there is certainly grounds to think that Paul considered the degradation of the body in idolatry and of the degradations of sexual passions to correspond to each other, just as the language of idolatry in Wisdom of Solomon and in the Leviticus prohibition in 18.22 and 20.13 share the similar language of βδέλυγμα. If that is the case, Paul is not just concerned about marital infidelity, but the very way the marital infidelity has occured.

A close look at the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 would be in support of this particularly egregious form of marital infidelity. While most translations of the Hebrew render those passages in a way that the gendered phrase מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה (Lit.: “bed/couch of a woman/wife”) in an adverbial way that is used to describe the way a man lies with a male (“as with a woman”), this is neither necessary reading of the Hebrew nor the natural way the Greek Septuagint would read. In Genesis 49.4, the similar Hebrew phrase מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ (Lit.: “bed of your father”) is used to describe the way in which Reuben violated the sexual boundaries of his father Jacob’s relationship with his concubine Bilhah previously mentioned in Genesis 35.22. Such a phrase is used to describe the violation of a sexual boundary, which can support understanding Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 as the violation of the marital relationship between husband and wife. However, for our purposes here in understanding Paul, the Greek Septuagint is more important as the usage of cognates to describe the sexual transgression (κοιμηθήσῃ and κοίτην) suggests that the accusative κοίτην is the grammatical direct object, meaning that the principal focus of the action in Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 is how a man wrongly lays upon the “bed/couch of the woman/wife” (κοίτην γυναικός). Rather than function as an adverbial phrase, it is the principal description of the action, whereas the prepositional phrase μετὰ ἄρσενος (“with a male”) provides additional information as to how this action is performed. In other words, Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 could have, if not likely would have, been read as a form of a violation of the marital relationship in both the Hebrew and the Greek by a married man having sexual relations with another male.3

If Paul has Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 in mind in Romans 1.27, especially if he interprets those passages as describing a particularly egregious form of marital infidelity, then intercourse between two members of the same sex is not just a throw-away bit of information that is largely irrelevant to what Paul says except as a way to describe a form of adultery, but that this specific type of marital infidelity is particularly degrading. However, this form of degradation would be best understood against the backdrop of the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2, where the “natural” attraction of male and female is rooted in the way God created humanity. The point being here is that while Paul does not express a condemnation all of what we refer to today when talking about homosexuality, his language and the possible echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures make the best sense only if there would be considered something deviant about sexual relations between two people of the same gender. At the risk of using somewhat sexually objectifying language, the two genders are not considered equivalent substitutes in terms of sexual partners.

To conclude, this interpretation of Paul in Romans 1.26-27 leaves us in an ambiguous place in regards to our modern discussions of sexuality. On the one hand, Paul is not talking about we refer to as homosexuality. Yet, on the other hand, there is still a pronounced “heteronormativity” that is central to how Paul understands sex and marriage. To say that Paul would only be concerned about marital infidelity would be to force an interpretation on the discourse that does not make good sense of the details of the discourse in Paul’s social, historical, and religious context. In this case, what we would be left with are texts that are not as clear as we traditionally leaning Christians have made them out to be in addressing the modern question of how churches and denominations are to view sexual intercourse and/or marriage between two people of the same gender.

Nevertheless, despite the ambiguity, there are some things any church or denomination that believes the Scriptures are authoritative when interpreted in terms of their original discursive and literary intentions would be able to say. If correct, this interpretation would still strongly reject the push against the idea of “full inclusion” as there is no equivalent substitute for the marriage of a husband and wife for those who take the whole Biblical narrative and texts about marriage and sex seriously. However, at the same time, we would also be able to conclude that Paul does not have in mind people with same-sex orientations, but those men whose sexual passion for their wives changed towards other men *as a result of the idolatry they engaged in.* People who are lesbian or gay absolutely and unequivocally do not deserve to be punished for their same-sex attraction or sexual activity, nor should they be humiliated, harassed, and mistreated. Since the interpretation offered above would also explain Paul’s usage of ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, Paul’s language is not saying that people who consider themselves gays or lesbians are going to hell.4

New Testament studies as history, literature, and theology

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November 25, 2019

In the recently released introduction to the study of the New Testament, The New Testament in its World, N.T. Wright (along with Michael F. Bird) dedicates the first section to the question of what the New Testament properly ought to be considered, especially by Christians. Imagining how prominent figures of ancient Greek, Rome, and Judaism might understand the New Testament, Wright offers the following:

In the end, however, their conclusions would probably converge around three things: history, literature, and theology. These writings, they would recognize, claim to be based on real people and real events. They employ different styles and genres which have at least partial analogues in the wider worlds of their day. And they all assume the existence and living activity of a creator God, the God of Israel, claiming that this God has now acted decisively and uniquely in the man Jesus. There might be other categories, too: philosophy, politics, and even economics come to mind. ‘Religion’, to repeat, is too muddled a category to be much use. History, literature, and theology, held together in a new kind of creative tension, are the best starting-points to help us understand what sort of thing the New Testament actually is. (Emphasis my own)1

As he goes on to observe in the conclusion of this chapter and the next three chapters that covers the place of history, literature, and theology in the New Testament, the place of each of these three is not uncontested nor universal, even among scholars. For instance, it is well known the aversion, if not sometimes distrust, that some biblical scholars who are concerned highly about the questions of history have about history. Wright references Wayne Meek’s distaste for the phrases “Biblical theology” and “New Testament theology.”2 Additionally, the way we understand the New Testament as literature is variously debated. Do we seek to understand the intentions of the author or the implied narrator, or should it be understood primarily by reference to the response it evokes in readers? If our own interpretations and response to the Scriptures are what is important, then what place does history have in grounding how we interpret the New Testament? 

This is not to mention the messiness that comes into play by trying to work history, literature, and theology together. Each three as specific fields of intellectual inquiry and study have very different cognitive, epistemological, and hermeneutical principles that determine (1) how the inquiry should proceed and (2) how one can rightly extend the extent of one’s knowledge. (What follows is a general description of the common approach taken in each field, but it is meant to more provide the prototypical manner in which the fields of inquiry work, but not to be a definitive account of all such inquiry).

Academic history relies upon a high degree of historical evidence to ground one’s claims about history, and as such is often implicitly foundationalist in its epistemology. Especially in forms of historiography influenced by the Enlightenment, historical evidence is interpreted separately and in isolation from other historical evidence and then those various pieces that are brought together into a historical reconstruction. As a result, an understanding of history is developed that relies upon certain fixed points we know of that is then put together into a coherent account.

Literary studies are concerned with the way a text reads as a whole, which tends to operate more with a coherentist epistemology (even if it is not formally expressed in literary studies). One can not rightly understand one part of a work of literature without reference to the rest. Context is king, but we can’t be really sure whether the specific passage in question should be reread in light of the context, or the context should be alternatively understood in light of the passage. This leaves every reading underdetermined, leaving it such that other readings may be just as legitimate.

Insofar as Christian theology contains particular beliefs about God who is known to us but is different from us such that He is not knowable in the traditional forms of knowing, neither foundationalist nor coherentists account guide theology, but it becomes an externalist account that relies upon the Scriptures somehow being inspired, that is reliable, source of understanding about God. As a consequence, theological knowledge is conditioned to our knowledge being formed by the object of our knowledge,3 whereas history and literary studies reconstruct and create understandings, respectively.

You can imagine, then, the messiness that comes from trying to bring these three fields of inquiries together that can lead to different readings. A historical reading might focus on the relationship of Paul’s discourse to Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from Rome based upon key historical data points in the works of the book of Acts, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio in probably the late 40s AD and its chronological nearness to Paul’s letter in the mid-50s AD. However, a literary reading of Romans may come to the judgment that Paul’s rhetoric is protreptic in nature by taking the structure of the letter as a whole, which finds its origins in Hellenistic philosophy as a form of “conversion” literature. Then, a theological interpretation about Romans may think that Paul is addressing how people can have confidence that they may find life and peace with God through Jesus Christ. Each of these three readings could suggest a different “purpose” for Paul’s letter[/note]addressing Jewish hostilities towards Rome and the Gentiles; converting the Roman Christians to a specific way of thinking; helping people to find and know God’s love and forgiveness[/note] arrived at by paying attention to different information in Romans and pertinent to it, processing it differently4, with differing purposes for the interpreters. Trying to blend these three readings of Paul based upon those three modes of inquiry could potentially lead to more disagreement than cohesion between them.

However, it is important at this point to recognize that there is an important difference between an etic analysis and emic comprehension. As we approach a text with a critical, analytical rigor, we have a tendency to focus on specific words, concepts, structures, purposes, meanings, etc. that we observe within the text so as to understand the text. In so doing, our attention marshaled for the purpose of the analysis is focused on making the contents of these ideas clearly understood and employ these ideas for making further inferences. Consequently, such an analysis necessitates the reduction of cognitive ambiguity to perform these tasks as we focus on some salient property of the text and/or our interpretation of it. In such a case, trying to bring together three different portrayals of Paul’s letter to the Romans can lead to tension between the three portrayals because they would each fight for primacy and attention that would lead to some or all of the readings to become more blurry and ambiguous in order to bring them all together; all three can not be the primary purpose of Romans that is constituent for Paul’s meaning at the same time.

However, an emic, insider understanding of a text is not concerned with analytic clarity and precision. Rather, for people competent to understand a particular communication based upon having (1) a common language, (2) similar culture, and (3) overlapping understanding of the circumstances, they will usually comprehend the communication naturally and intuitively with only the occasional need to analyze and critically assess what has been said. They just understand much of the communication in its various facets, how it relates to the circumstances it is intended to address, and how the structure of the communication flows and fits together. Amidst this, communications are multi-functional, producing various construals and understandings, which when individually taken under the cognitive-reflective microscope of analysis would appear to be distinct and different from the other construals and understandings, but in the specific event of communication and comprehension, they are just understood in such a way as they fit together.

When we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we do not have a natural comprehension of his communication as a whole. We may have enough of an understanding to extrapolate some important historical matters, or to give a description of the structure and form of Romans, or to have a sense of what it means to be a Christian in light of Romans, but we don’t have an emic comprehension that would give us a higher-definition comprehension of each of those matters in isolation and blended together. And if we seek to make progress towards that type of high-definition comprehension, we have to start by analyzing it from what knowledge we believed we have in history, literature, and/or theology and proceed from there to push further. This mode of analytic inquiry is a necessity due to the epistemic gap that exists by being separated by 2000 years with a different culture and life experiences than Paul and the Roman Christians at the time.

Nevertheless, if we are not careful to distinguish between the way we understand something due to the analysis of the outsider from the way we would comprehend something as an insider, we can have problems synthesizing together the findings that come together from different modes of inquiry. Instead, we may be tempted to reduce the meaning of Paul’s letter to the Romans down to the purposes and meanings that are more relevant to our preferred mode of inquiry, rejecting or relativizing the rest away.

But, if Wright is correct that the New Testament would have been understood as history, literature, and theology together, then we may become impoverished of meaning due to our intellectual inquiries, as they may keep us locked into very specific patterns of textual construal and interpretation. The very thing that is necessary to cross the threshold of basic awareness about the text to a comprehension of the communication may become the very thing that locks us away from comprehension; intellectual inquiry and analysis may be a necessity, but it certainly isn’t sufficient.

However, any attempt to try to give specific intellectual prescriptions to change the three fields of inquiries as strangers and opponents in a debate into friends who share with and change each other would miss the point: I can not tell you how to get to a deeper comprehension by reference to anything that comes outside of that comprehension: I may have a nugget of insight here or there that is helpful along the way, but in the end, I can not provide any guidelines for how they should be combined that would not already assume a certain meaning in the first place. At that point, I would simply be encouraging you to see history, literature, and theology come together in the way that I would think they should come together.

However, a specific metaphor may be useful to help people break down the cognitive antinomies that can exist by bringing together different fields of inquiry. Imagine a house, whose foundation supports the exterior walls (and the roof also) and the inner walls of the house, which in turn determines how the living space feels and can be arranged and used for personal use. While there are multiple ways the walls can be arranged upon a foundation, for a specific floor plan to be put in place and remain there is the need for the foundation. However, at the same time, the floor plan is developed with the purpose of humans inhabiting and living so that that the foundation is planned and laid with that floor plan in mind.  The setting and usage of the foundation, walls, and interior space are all a function of each other. In terms of physics, the foundation determines the walls, which shapes the interior life, whereas, in terms of human life, the purpose of the interior determines the walls, which determines the foundations. If we imagine history as the foundation, literature as the walls, and theology as the interior, we can comprehension through metaphor the interworkings of the three fields together.

Beyond this metaphorical image for the blending of meaning, a second way forward it to have a different rationale for our intellectual inquiries into the New Testament. Often times, academic inquiry works on the premise of discovery, finding something that was unknown and/or innovating to create something previously unimagine or unimplemented. The drive for novelty makes intellectual inquiry proceed by going from the known to the unknown. However, let me suggest a different vision of New Testament studies that finds its intellectual inspiration in Wittgenstein: an academic inquiry into the New Testament is more about repairing our own reading and our own comprehension more so than it is about directly giving to us the meaning of the New Testament texts. We are fundamentally in ignorance and error about the meaning of the New Testament (from a Christian perspective, we can push this forward to see we are spiritually and morally blind to its meaning due to sin), although to what extent we are in error we can’t know just by looking at the Bible. Nevertheless, we can identify some interpretations as being much less realistic and not having as much fidelity to the texts, being much more like a cheap, bootlegged knock-off of New Testament than an adequate representation of its meaning. While we may not know exactly what it is we will find, we can identify something that doesn’t work. We may be able to repair our understanding through different forms of historical, literary, and theological inquiry that can help us to sift the wheat from the chaff, to know what wounds in our own comprehension need mending and rest or even emergency surgery to repair and heal. While the intellectual inquiries will not directly deliver to us the meaning of the New Testament in all its historical, literary, and theological significance, we can recognize their tremendous usefulness while recognizing their fundamental limitations in not able directly able to provide us an emic understanding of the New Testament.5

It is this recognition that allows us to engage in Wright’s hermeneutics of love, where love is “the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change oneself in relation to the other.”6 If we recognize our inquiries into the New Testament are more about self-repair than discovery, our attentive engagement with the New Testament, or even our whole-hearted engagement with the God the New Testament witnesses to, can help us to see where we are in need of repair so that we can receive the other as they are, rather than as something we wish and expect them to be. It is there that the blending of the understanding of history, literature, and theology in the New Testament can come together where our intellectual inquiry was ill-equipped to do so.

The New Testament and “homosexuality”

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November 19, 2019

As a Christian in the West and as a United Methodist elder, I have been faced time and time again with the question about homosexuality that permeates the wider social and political discourse. On the one hand, I recognize much of the pain that lesbian and gay people have experienced over the years in the forms of bullying and fear of being condemned and hated by God. I can only attribute such harm done by what I attribute to two different yet interrelated and occasionally overlapping sources.

Firstly, there is an arrogance in Western culture, and especially in American culture, that is based upon the drive to superiority that forms bullies to cowardly target those who have less status, which people with “deviant” sexualities have been considered to have. This brings me to the second source, a dominant form of evangelical theology that has had an particular, long-term influence in the United States, although to be clear here my judgment is not directed towards all evangelicals or evangelical theology. Essentially, this dominant strand focused on behavior and belief management through an exaggeration of the idea of hell and eternal that goes far beyond the actual Scriptures, to the point that the idea of hell has been read into the phrase “will not inherit the kingdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, wrongly in my mind, that has been used against people who are gay and lesbian. The unfortunately all-too-common interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah’s great sin being that of homosexuality only add’s fuel to this destructive fire. This is only exacerbated by the fact that this prevailing stream of evangelical theology has developed a view of sex that can be summarized as “any stimulation of the sexual organs or the thinking of such an act except when a man and woman is married is a sin.” Far beyond what I take to be the basic concern for sexual restraint and sanctity of the marriage bed in the Old and New Testament, they see an exaggerated, overgeneralized understanding about sex that then places a gay or lesbian person as some of the most egregious violators of these sexual norms. brings Combine the cultural predilection towards arrogant dominance with exaggerated ideas about judgment and sex and you have a deadly cocktail that would deeply harm people who are suspected of being “sexually deviant.”

And yet, on the other hand, despite my awareness of these problems, I am left with another fundamental point of truth: the Scriptures are decisively what we might label today as “hetero-normative,” in that they testify to a vision of sex and marriage being shared between a female and a male. Whatever else we might say about the sexual coupling of two people of the same sex, it would in no way be considered the same or equivalent to the vision of husband and wife joined together. This is such an important part of the Scripture narrative that when God creates humanity in His image, the only way God’s image is described is in humanity’s maleness and femaleness in the context of being fruitful and multiplying so as to subdue God’s creation. While we who believe in Jesus as the Lord of creation can know that God’s image is not essentially sexual because Jesus was never married and was celibate, nevertheless God creates humanity such that His image as humanity’s vocation is ti be realized in the partnering of men and women. Given the prevalence of the image of God and of new creation in the New Testament, particularly the Pauline epistles, we can’t just perform some sort of intellectual magic to pretend that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 is a relic of days long past without ripping New Testament Christianity out from its Jewish context. Whatever else we can say about the understanding about sex in the Bible, the Scriptures are uniformly heteronormative. This is true just not in a conventional way, but in a theological way.

However, it is at this point where I feel like the understanding of sex in Christianity’s history and the Scriptures begin to dovetail from each other in a subtle cognitive way that would have tremendous societal implications down the line. For the West, we have historically thought about good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood in terms of mutually exclusive categories in which something is either one or the other, which is known in logic as the law of the excluded middle. While this logical law is tremendously helpful in trying to ascertain matters of fact about essentially discrete possibilities, it’s usefulness for understanding other matters, including ethics, is not as clear. However, this law of logical reasoning began to become part of Greek philosophical thinking, with the end result of that we reason out various matters in terms of the mutually exclusive binary. And, as this form of thinking in Greek philosophy had a greater and greater influenced on the development of Christianity as it became a more predominately ‘Gentile’ religion, it would contribute the ethical reasoning that deviance from the male-female prototype describing in the creation narrative would be considered categorically wrong and sinful, including homosexuality.

Now, if you are at all familiar with progressive ‘critiques’ of the Christian understanding of sexuality, this criticism of binary thinking would not be unfamiliar to you. Propagators of progressive sexuality often use “binary” with a hint of contempt, often with an implied sense that such an idea is so intellectually unenlightened and regressive so as to automatically invalidate almost everything Christianity has historically said about sex to be entirely suspect. For them, this error of “binary” thinking is a justification for a broad-based criticism of Christian ethics about sex. I am not, however, embracing a broad-based criticism but rather a much narrower criticism: this blending of the broad contours of the Biblical teachings about sex and this mode of binary reasoning has lead to a particular hermeneutic about what specific texts about ‘homosexuality,’ particularly in the New Testament, are talking about. Passages such as Romans 1.26-27, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, and 1 Timothy 1.10 are referring to people who engage in wrong type of sexual activity, a deviance from the model of sexual life between a husband and wife solely in virtue of the two sexual partners being the same gender.

On the surface of it, this type of reading is credible. The Greek word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 and 1 Timothy 1.10 is ἀρσενοκοίτης, which is an incredibly rare term that is best explained as being derived from the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18.22. That Paul, a Jew, uses such a term that is otherwise incredibly rare but strongly resembles the preferred Greek translation of the Old Testament is very powerful evidence, albeit not entirely indefeasible, that Paul is in some way thinking about Levitical sexual prohibitions in those two passages. And since Leviticus 18.22 seems on the surface to be pretty cut and dry in our minds, the traditional reading suggests Paul is giving what may be said to be a blanket condemnation of all sexual activity between two people of the same sex.

If, however, Paul’s own reasoning and understanding of Torah is not constrained to a binary view of mutually exclusive categories that regards all deviance from a set ideal and standard to be in error, sin, etc. but rather is a form of prototype reasoning in which some degrees of deviance may be ‘acceptable’ but that there are certain thresholds of deviance that deviate far too much, which is the more natural way we as humans reason unless we learn to embrace a more deliberate, analytic approach that makes sharp, mutually exclusive distinctions, then Paul’s rhetoric against ‘homosexual’ behavior may be understood to be based upon something more than just the deviance of gender. Rather, I want to suggest a much more plausible way an ancient Jew would have understood sex is that they held the ideal prototype of a man and woman in deep intimacy together, but the type of sexual deviance they feared was not a mixing of the gender but the utter disregard of that bond of intimacy and family.

If we look at the later Jewish Talmudic commentary on the Mishnah, we see very little concern about “homosexuality.” The one text in the Talmud that interprets Leviticus 20.13 (Sanhedrin 54a) is part of an attempt to offer an interpretation of the Levitical sexual prohibitions in which they describe in legal terms the type of activity that would make men guilty of breaking this regulation. But aside from that, there does not seem to be much anxiety in ancient Judaism about homosexual intercourse. When the sins of Sodom are expanded upon in Sanhedrin 109a-b, the list of offenses attributed to them includes various forms of evil and injustice but there is no concern to try to suggest Sodom came under judgment due to male sexual intercourse with men.

It is here that I want to focus on Romans 1.26-27. Paul’s usage of the less frequently used ἄρσην and θῆλυς to refer to a male and female, rather than ἀνήρ and γυνή suggests that he is using the language for a specific reason, which I think most likely to be echoing the language of the creation of humanity in LXX Genesis 1.27 to the Jewish Christians in Rome. However, at this point, we as Western Christian influenced by the heritage of Greek reasoning permeating out understanding of Christian theology and ethics has us focus on the language about nature φυσικός and think that homosexuality is against the nature of God’s creation, where nature is male-and-female and unnatural is the confusion of this gender coupling. While certainly, Paul is talking about some sort of sexual activity that goes God’s creation, it seems the language of nature is used not to provide a strict outline of how creation must work but part of Paul’s attempt to echo the creation narrative.

However, it is important to note at this point that we never see Paul explicitly state that homosexual activity is “unnatural.” It is only said that women exchange the natural for what is not natural, whereas Paul is more specific when talking about men engaging in sex with each other. We are naturally inclined to fill in the blanks and that Paul is describing the homosexual activity for both men and women, but this may be a misleading hermeneutic habit. Why is Paul not more specific when it comes to what the women did when he is willing to do the same for the men? Also, PAul uses different verbs to describe the women exchanging (μεταλλάσσω) the natural for the unnatural and the men abandoning (ἀφίημι)women as sexual partners. Furthermore, Paul’s statement about the penalty of sin is only directed at the men, and not the women. We may be inclined to assume that the women and men described engaged in equivalent behaviors, but that is an assumption that isn’t explicitly clear in the text. In fact, the evidence is there to suggest that the “sins” of the women and men are different because of the different descriptions of the offending behaviors and only the men described as receiving a penalty.

Whatever the women Paul is talking about did, it is only said to be against nature. Only if as assume that Paul is using the language of nature to describe the fixed gender order in creation rather would we take it to refer to lesbianism. However, Paul’s language may be considered a suggestive euphemism to some other type of sexual behavior that didn’t involve humans at all. Out of propriety, I will leave for you the reader to research ancient portrayals of sex for Roman women if you need to know more, but I will that I am not implying zoophilia as there is no historical evidence for that being it. Whatever it is the women did, Paul connects it (ὁμοίως) to what the men did as they “gave up the natural relation with women” and burned with a sexual passion for other males.

What I think is critical here is that Paul’s language is not more evocative of the transgression of specific norms about gender, but rather the violation of the sanctity of the marriage bond. The verb ἀφίημι could be used in the context of the breaking of a marital relationship, such as by divorce or death. While not a technical term for divorce or a dissolvement of a marital covenant, it certainly can be used to connote a sense of martial isolation or abandonment. Here in Romans, I would suggest it is likely a reference to the sexual abandonment of one’s wife in favor of other males. This was an occasional reality in the ancient Greco-Roman society, where husbands would prefer the pederastic relationship with a young boy over sexual intercourse with their wives. In such a case of abandonment, the women would likewise resort to other forms to satisfy their libido that are against nature and, as a consequence, the men are understood to be punished for their error.

If my interpretation of Romans 1.26-27 is correct, then what is of primary concern in Paul’s description is the abandonment by men of their marital ‘duties.’ This suggests that what is most wrong about their error is the violation of the sexual coupling that exists between husband and wife. Paul does not have in mind our modern conceptions of “homosexuality” as someone who is gay or lesbian and only seeks sexual relations with people of the same gender. Whatever else we might say about that from a Biblical understanding of sex and marriage, this most likely not the practice that Paul is referring to, nor is Paul’s language about “nature” intended to be descriptive of a universal, fixed sexual order in creation, but rather the relational and sexual bond between husband and wife. In other words, what Paul describes of the men is much closer to what we would categorize as adultery today.

It is this type of substitution within the bonds of marriage that I think Paul is also referring to by the word ἀρσενοκοίτης 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 and 1 Timothy 1.10. Rather than understanding Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 as an indirect description of a specific type of sexual act as can be seen being described in the Talmudic interpretation of Leviticus 20.13, the Levitical image of lying with a man as with a woman is understood more so in the substitution of the martial relationship with sexual intercourse with another male. ἀρσενοκοίτης would them be used to refer to Roman men who engaged in pederastic relationships with boys as a preferential substitute to sexual relations with their wives. While we can not directly verify that this is how Paul understood the Levitical passages, we can certainly surmise it as a reasonable interpretation that coheres with (1) the interpretation I provided of Romans 1.26-27 and (2) a common practice in Greco-Roman society.

The suggestion I am trying to make here is that Paul, as the only source in the New Testament that directly talks about ‘homosexuality,” does not understand the account of humanity’s creation as primarily being about the right gender for sexual coupling. Rather, he understands the creation narrative to describe the important relationship between males and females that is necessary for humanity to fulfill their vocation in being as God’s image. As such, the sanctity of the marital bond is the primary narrative significance, not some universal order for sexual activity. What is considered to be an egregious sexual violation is sexual activity that violates that basic bond between a husband and a wife. A legitimate theological employment of Paul’s understanding of sex and marriage in the context of the Jewish canon of Scripture would unapologetically be “heteronormative” because the particularity of the sexual partnering of a husband and wife that is necessary part of humanity’s corporate vocation to be in God’s image in creation can not be replaced by other types of bonds of sex and intimacy, even if not every individual must be married, sexually active, and having children to participate in humanity’s corporate vocation to be in God’s image. However, at the same time, I would argue that the Pauline passages, and even the Old Testament passages that we construe to be talking about “homosexuality,” were not written to address the idea of a gay or a lesbian person who is ‘oriented’ towards people of the same gender.

While the progressive ‘spirit’ that seeks to change the historical and traditional teaching of the Church on sexuality would lead to a massive divergence and ignoring of the significant particularity of the creation narrative that undergirds the various Biblical understandings about sex, how we as part of the Body of Christ seek to incorporate gay and lesbian people into the life of our fellowships is something that I would suggest is more discernment than the unequivocal no that is commonly given to them. What some call for in “full inclusion” that in effect seeks to get the Church as a whole to testify to the functional equivalence of same-sex coupling with opposite-sex coupling is in my mind too strong of deviance from the Biblical and creation narrative; it smells too much of cultural appropriation of a historical religion for other wider socio-political agendas. However, what it is that we would say about an exclusively same-sex attracted person who seeks a marital union may be open to some degree of accommodation at some level without sacrificing what the Scriptures testifies to the *corporate*, not individualistic, the vocation of humanity to be in God’s image.

To conclude: I would suggest that the Church throughout history and tradition got the big picture correct. However, due to the unintended influences from Greek styles of reasoning and gradual growth in the numbers and influence of Gentiles that beckoned a movement away from the emic understanding of the Jewish ethos about sex and marriage, some of the details of the tradition may not be truly present in the Scriptural witness. I say this with theological humility, however, as I am by no means an expert on the whole tradition. I only have some strong confidence in my exegetical argument, whereas I am more hopeful that there are more ways to allow gay and lesbian people to feel at home in the Body of Christ while not capitulating to visions of alternative sexuality that would fundamentally dismiss and overlook what has pivotal importance in the Scriptures.

“Works of Torah” as the halakha

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November 11, 2019

In my previous post, Martin Luther and the works of Torah, I argued the basic premise that Luther was closer to understanding the phrase “works of the Law” in Paul’s epistles than the early Catholic view and the similar but slightly different view of the “works of the law” as boundary markers of Jewish identity. However, I still took Luther to have misinterpreted the phrase in a couple of ways, including the idea that Paul is referring to human efforts to obey God. While not inconsistent with Paul’s overall presentation of the Gospel, I argued that “works of the law” refers to a set of prescribed works gleaned from the interpretation of the Torah.

Now, if you are familiar with Jewish traditions and history, you would be familiar with the idea of the Oral Torah, which according to Jewish tradition were a set of traditions reputedly passed down orally from Moses down to the period of the Second Temple. The Oral Torah was to give clarity and understand that was not had in the Written Torah. However, these traditions were then written down in the 2nd century CE in the Mishnah. Most likely, however, these oral traditions did not actually come passed down from Moses, but it was a set of traditions that started after the return from the Babylonian exile with Ezra the scribe and then gradually expanded upon by later Jewish sages and scribes until Paul’s day.

This Oral Torah, otherwise known as halakhah, were legal rulings and practices that would allow devout Jews to obey every commandment (also known as mitzvot) from God in the Pentateuch because it was hard to understand. This would make it hard to obey God’s commandments if one did not understand what they were all referring to. Halakah offered educated interpretations of the Torah so that devout Jews could learn how to obey God’s commandments.

Essentially, devotion to the Torah in Second Temple Judaism recognized the distinction between the Torah from Moses and the interpretive application of the Torah. However, unlike our modern critical tendency to separate the sacred text from the interpreter of a text and not investing the authority of the sacred text into the interpretation, this wasn’t the case among the prevailing form of Pharisaical Judaism in the Second Temple period. The tradition that the Oral Torah originated from Moses represented the belief that the Oral Torah was authoritative alongside the Written Torah. So, devout Jews, especially those who believed in the authority of the Rabbis, they would not have made spoken of the halakhic application of the Torah as different from the Torah. Rather, they might be inclined to think of the relationship between the mitzvot of the Written Torah and the halakah of the Oral Torah as two sides of the same coin. Given the necessity of these traditions to interpret the Written Torah, one could not seek to try to obey God’s commandments apart from them.

So, when Paul refers to the works of the Torah, I think he is specifically referring to the halakhic prescriptions. Rather than ruling out the role of Torah outright, Paul focuses on the way the Torah gets used by these traditions. To that end, Paul’s rejection would be similar to the Qumran community. The Qumran community’s dependence upon the “Teacher of righteousness” perhaps shows them as one group who rejected the interpretive traditions of the Pharisees, starting a sect based upon a splitting off from the tradition. In a similar fashion, I would suggest Paul is doing something similar with Jesus as the central figure, analogous to the Qumran’s Teacher of righteousness.

Are there any signals of this being Paul’s meaning by the phrase “works of the Torah?” I would suggest there is one place where it becomes very evident, Romans 3.27-31.

Romans 3.27-31:

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (NRSV)

Paul’s discourse makes the best sense here if we recognize the relationship devout Jews saw between the Torah and its interpretive application. Paul’s vision of God’s righteousness in Romans 3.21-26 is taken to exclude the possibility of boasting by a Torah observant Jew referred to in 2.17. This likely refers to a type of boasting in the expectation of God’s vindication of faithful Israelite’s who know God because of their observation of Torah, which is a theme throughout the Wisdom of Solomon. As a result, the interchange between the hypothetical interlocutor and Paul seems to be addressing what grounds Paul rejects such boasting. Then, the questions “By what law? By that of works?” makes coherent sense if works of the Torah refers to the halakhic interpretation. It would read as if the interlocutor is asking Paul as if he is relying on some halakha to exclude this type of boast. His appeal to the law of faith cements Paul’s point: Paul gives no place for boasting not based upon the Rabbinic interpretive traditions but based upon the faith of Jesus Christ as has just been described in 3.21-26. This will be further will be expanded upon by going back to the Pentateuch and recounting the narrative of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4. In so doing, Paul goes back to the Torah and derives a different interpretation that diverges from the halakhic traditions. In other words, Romans 3.27-31 becomes readily understood in a coherent manner if we interpret Paul’s discussions with the interlocuter based upon the Jewish halakhic tradition and Paul’s rejection of it.

Furthermore, in Romans 2.15, Paul describes the work of the Torah (τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου) being written upon the heart of the Gentile. Here, Paul echoes the promises of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31.31-34, where God places His instruction/Torah in people’s hearts.  This phrase does not readily make sense as a reference to the written Torah. Nor, would Paul likely use the phrase the work of the Torah to refer to the memory of the written Torah, as this defeats the purpose of Paul’s example (see the previous verse 2.14). In addition, the New Covenant promise of God writing the Torah in the heart would not likely be understood as giving Israelites a memory of the Torah, as the Torah prescribed practices for the Israelites to keep God’s Torah in memory (Deut. 6.5-6). In this light, it is best to take the phrase “the work of the Torah” as referring to the way the Gentile without the Torah has a certain type of custom or practice guides and directs him that is consistent with the meaning of the Torah. In that case, we can look at Paul’s usage of ἔργον in relationship to the Torah to refer to specific types of practices followed that are considered to accomplish what God commands in the Torah.

This understanding of the works of the Torah referring to specific types of practices and customs that are consistent with God’s commandments in the Torah can also help to make sense of Paul’s understanding of his rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2.11-21. For many years, I have thought there seemed to be an inconsistency between Paul’s rebuke of Peter for refusing table fellowship with the Gentiles in 11-13 and Paul’s speech to Peter in 14-21. Strictly speaking, issues of table fellowship are not mentioned in the Pentateuch, so how then does Paul’s speech about the works of the Torah fit with his rebuke of Peter. However, it appears to me that the problem was that I assumed works of the Torah referred to the commandments/mitzvot of the Torah rather than to the interpretive application/halakah. The exclusion of table fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles was a part of the interpretive traditions. Works of the Torah as referring to halakhic interpretive applications of Torah makes Paul’s account much more coherent in my mind.

However, to be clear, Paul doesn’t ascribe to some ancient form of sola scriptura that rejects the traditions to simply develop a new ethical program fresh from the Torah. Rather, for Paul, the works of the Torah can not redeem because a person’s response to the Torah was to act against the very thing God’s commanded in the Torah (Rom. 7). As a result, any interpretive application of the Torah is fated to leave people short of God’s glory and righteousness as the powers of sin make obedience to God impossible. The Torah is intrinsically incapable of breaking the powers of sin and death. Consequently, Paul does not think that God intended the Torah to redeem Israel from sin, but as a ‘guide’ for Israel until the coming of Christ. As a consequence, any human attempt to obey the Torah would fall short. Nevertheless, God can use the Torah to make His will known, but Jewish believers would experience this impact of the Torah through their baptismal union in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Circumcision and the interpretive applications of the Torah would be to no avail for them.

In conclusion, I would proffer that the works of the Torah as the halakhic interpretive application of the Torah offers a viable route that goes between the traditional, Lutheran understanding of justification and the New Perspective on Paul’s emphasis of works of the Torah as distinguishing marks between Jew and Gentile. This focus of the NPP can be integrated into this as certainly the interpretive applications of the Torah were made in such a way that heavily distinguish Israelites from the Gentiles that impacted the way the early Church related to the Gentiles. At the same time, Paul is providing a marked limitation of human attempts to obey the Torah that Luther and later Reformers remarked about, while not having to diverge into metaphysical accounts of free will that Luther read into Paul’s comments about the works of the Torah.