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.
- Stanley Kent Stowers, The Diatribe and Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981), 85-118.
- Richard Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans. NIGTC. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 505-507; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 177-179.
- Stowers, The Diatribe and Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 119-120.
- N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 837-838.
- Ibid., 838.