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.
- James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), EPUB Edition, “3. Favored Status No Security (2:17-24).”
- Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 156-159; Thomas Schreiner, Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 239ff.
- N.T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 489-509.
- Richard Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans. New International Greek Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016).
- Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 560.
- Ibid., 561.
- Ibid., 562; see also pages 495-511 for the broader theory that Romans 1-11 is Paul’s engagement in a debate with this actual teacher.
- Many of the sins of violence and injustice listed in Paul’s diatribe of Romans 1.29-31 are said by the Wisdom of Solomon 2.6-20 to be rooted in the hedonistic desire that leads to the oppression of the righteous, which is analogous to stealing.
- On Romans 1.26-27 primarily as a description of the violation of the bonds of marriage, see my previous post “A closer look at Romans 1.26-27.”
- Longenecker, The Epistles to the Romans, 306-308.
- Scot McKnight’s Reading Romans Backwards is a very useful read here to consider how Paul’s letter can be understood in terms of the division created between Jews and Gentiles as represented in the dietary customs. While I think Paul’s discourse in Romans 14 functions as a more indirect description of division along dietary lines that his audience in Rome would have been able to map themselves against, rather than a description of specific parties existing among the Christian gatherings in Rome, nevertheless I do think there is a strong reason to consider there is a strong reason to connect Paul’s purpose in Romans with his discourse about diet in Romans 14.