In his propositio for his letters to the Romans in 1.16-17, Paul briefly describes two key themes that are salient throughout his letter: (1) salvation through faith as not being an exclusive privileges of Jews as mentioned in 1.16 and (2) this salvation is universal because God has revealed of His righteousness through faith. However, in reading Romans 1.16, there can a tendency to downplay the centrality of Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι in Rom 1.16d. For instance, in recounting the argument of Romans 1.15-17, Schreiner does not even mention Paul’s reference to the Jews and Gentiles.1 Rather, he places the emphasis on the universality of salvation in his commentary, with 1.16d being a description of Paul’s missionary strategy.2
However, this tendency isn’t universal among the scholarship. There is often an attempt to make sense of 1.16 along the opposing themes of universality and particularity. Douglas Moo believes that an appropriate understanding of Romans rests on how one brings the universalism and particularism together in 1.16.5 Similarly but without the abstract language of universality and particularity, Ben Witherington perceives a balance between the “all” of 1.16c and “to the Jew first” in 1.16d.6
However, there is a problem with interpreting Romans 1.16 in terms of the theme/counter-theme set of universalism and particular. The abstract themes of universality and particularity is largely a modern, Enlightenment preoccupation that is mapped on top of the more subconscious theme/counter-theme set of inclusion and exclusion. In other words, there is an inclination to construe universality in terms of inclusivity and particularism in terms of exclusivity. There are no doubt some reasons for drawing this connection as there is a general association between universality and inclusivity, as there also is with particularism and exclusivity. As a consequence, reading Romans through post-Enlightenment lenses can lead to a reading of Romans as about the universal inclusion, as opposed to particular exclusion. While it is certainly a legitimate theological interpretation of Romans to recognize that the Gospel is God’s universal gift to all humanity as there are parts of what Paul says that is consistent with a specific brand of universality, whether Paul was communicating in these categories is more suspect.
When Paul mentions both Jews and Greeks immediately together in Romans 2.9-10, 3.9, and 10.12, Paul establishes that there are no significant differences between the two peoples. They are judged and rewarded equally, they are equally under the power of sin, and God’s make no distinction between them when they call on him. In each of these three places, the concern about differences is principally about status in relation to God’s mercies and judgment. Even in 3.9, the significance of the statement that both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin, which is then demonstrated through a catena of OT Scriptures in 3.10-18, is that the whole world is accountable to God as stated in 3.19. Paul’s concern to place both Jews and Greeks as having an equal status before God connects with various other themes and language throughout Romans, such as boasting as a matter of claiming higher social status, shame (Romans 1.16, 6.21 9.33, 10.11), access to God (προσαγωγὴν: Rom. 5.2), slavery in chapters 6-7, subjugation and victory in 512-21, 8.37, 11.12, etc. In other words, Paul’s concern about the Jews and Gentiles does not amount to modern concerns about universality/particularity and inclusion/exclusion, as much as those may occasionally be a concern at select points, as much as matters of social status and hierarchy.
It seems then Romans 1.16 gives a taste of what Paul is going to address as to how Jew and Gentiles are socially integrated into the “all” who believe. But mentioning the Jew comes first, Paul’s language appears on the surface to be suggested is that there is a hierarchical priority of Israelites over Gentiles in God’s salvation. One way a Jew might read Paul to be saying is that “Everyone is included in God’s Kingdom, but Jews have priority.” However, Paul argument goes decisively against this, instead saying that the graciously chosen Israelites as being the first people whom God “knew” (προέγνω: Romans 11.2). Jews are first in terms of salvation history, rather than first in terms of social standing before God. If this case, one of Paul’s discursive purposes in Romans as briefly given in Romans 1.16 is to define the status of Jews in relationship to Gentiles.
Furthermore, given that social status is tied up with a sense of people’s and group’s identity, especially for Israel whose self-definition was grounded in their relationship to YHWH, Paul’s putting forward matters of status as part of the purpose of his letter ties into matters of Jewish identity. As I have argued in my last post, Romans 9-11 seems to be about dissociating the inherent connection between the identifies of Israel and God’s people such that they can not be considered synonymous and coextensive upon a look at Israel’s Scriptures. In other words, matters of social status are intrinsically tied to matters of identity.
The correspondence between status and identity becomes most salient in Romans 2.17-24, where a figure whose characteristics are those of a Jewish sage is said to boast about their relationship to God. However, in fact their behavior is inconsistent with what they teach to the point that the Gentiles blaspheme God as a result. While one might interpret this to be an act of hypocrisy as if a teacher is saying “never commit adultery, “never steal,” etc. and then goes and does the very specific thing that goes against his prohibitions, another explanation is that Jewish sages are very selective and inconsistent in what they condemn. Considering matters more relevant to Jewish matters more important, they cast judgment on Gentiles for violating matters important to Jews, while they fail to then apply any sense of consistency to other matters that are less immediately relevant to them Jews. As Wayne Meeks notes, “Most individuals tend to measure themselves by standards of some group that is very important to them-their reference group, whether or not they belong in it-rather than by the standards of the whole society.”7 In the celebration of their own Jewish identity and faithfulness to they Torah that they consider to give them a special relationship with God, God, who the Jewish sage teaches about, has becomes treated with contempt, thereby undermining the very status the teacher so sets themselves up to have. This Jewish sage has acted in a way that appears deeply inconsistent with what they teach.
So, while we see the interconnection of social status and identity in Romans 2.17-24, we also see an additional, third theme at play that makes sense of the whole: praxis. Romans 2.17 provides specific instances of identity, praxis, and social status in being a Jew, depending on Torah, and a boast of their relationship to God.
It it these three themes of social status, identity, and praxis that can be used to make sense of Romans 1.16. Most salient is the language of social status through a relationship to God: the language of shame, power, salvation, and the Jew as first all convey notions of social status. However, reference to Jew and Greek also contains reference to social identity. Finally, believers as the recipients of salvation becomes a key theme in describing the Pauline praxis, as faith is contrasted with the works of the Torah.
Most attempts to understand Romans, including Romans 1.16-17 try to make sense of Paul’s letter by reference to specific words such as faith/faithfulness, salvation, and righteousness. This would certainly seem plausible as one would expect Paul’s letter to be understood in terms of what has been said. Nevertheless, texts becomes meaningful discourses because there are concepts and worldviews that stand in the background, rarely explicitly mentioned, that allow what is explicitly written or said to become meaningful. What is said is only meaningful in light of specific background beliefs, knowledge, and assumptions that are present. If words and grammar are the visible flesh of a meaningful discourse, then background beliefs, knowledge, and assumptions are the bones that holds the flesh together and give it the specific shape it has. Put more analytically, the relationships of the various parts of Paul’s argument are not to be described by and found in simply the language that is used, but specific concepts and ideas in their Jewish and Greco-Roman background that Paul’s language would bring out background and more so into the “midground,” operated somewhere between the conscious foreground and the otherwise subconscious background, where it isn’t explicitly expressed but it is nevertheless understood.
This midground is conjunction of various cognitive structures and schemas. The midground can include theology and worldviews, as per NT Wright, but it also includes shared knowledge, personal circumstances and perspectives, etc. What is necessary for some cognitive schema to be in the midground is that it is (a) thinkable by the communicators and interpreters, (b) is encoded in their memory, whether long-term or short-term memory, (c) the words and phrases used in communication have significant associations with these schemas and (d) there is minimal amount of explicit reference to these schemas. So, on the one hand, Romans should be understood along the lines of more circumstantial and social concerns, such as social as per Philip Esler.
Nevertheless, because theological beliefs can match (a) and (b) as necessary conditions of midground schemas, and we can argue that much of what Paul said in Romans can be considered connected to theological schemas about God without them being regularly expressed, it can be argued that a good, coherent interpretation of Romans must take into account theological matters in order to make sense of it. The connection of Romans 1.16, as containing associations with social status, identity, and praxis, with Romans 1.17 through the conjunction γὰρ suggests that the theological schemas related to God’s righteousness and revelation suggest that we need to include theology as a fourth theme to make sense of Romans.
In other words, for Paul, concerns about social status, social identity, and praxis were all understood to be situated around a theological center: the revelation of Jesus Christ as the righteousness of God. Before God, all human boasted is found to be sorely mistake. Before God, there is no favoritism for Jew or Gentile. Before God, there is no ethical substitutions for faith that seeks to comprehend God righteousness in Christ except through the Holy Spirit. For Paul. the revelation of Christ, while consistent with and the fulfillment of God’s purpose as told in Israel’s Scriptures, is not tame, regulated, or determined by any preexisting hermeneutical commitments that outlines a specific way of life to be faithful, which incorporates status, identity, and praxis, but instead, one’s way of life should be found to be a part of one’s service to the Lord.
In conclusion, I put forward that to make coherent sense of Romans, there are four over-arching conceptual domains of social status, identity, praxis, and theology into which Paul’s discourse can be understood. Of course, these four domains are not free floating domains from which anyone can pick whatever knowledge they have in those four domains to interpret Paul, but there are specific schemas and themes that cognitively belong to each of those domains.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans. Second Edition. BECNT. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 120-123
- Ibid., 125-126.
- Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 68.3 Richard Longenecker notes that the usage of πρῶτον signals a “particularistic, prioritizing thrust.”4Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans. NIGTC. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 166.
- Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 51.
- Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians. Second Edition. (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2003), 54.