I diverted from Acts to the General Epistles and Revelation. Now I’m finally back to Paul’s letters, beginning with Romans.
I love Judaism and have been influenced and inspired by Jews, Jewish devotion, and the Jewish commitment to “repair of the world” (tikkun olam).
So I feel sad when I read my own sacred scriptures when Jews and Judaism are caricatured and harshly labeled, depicted as a legalistic and substandard religion. Many Christians to this day think that Judaism is a religion in which one must earn God’s mercy via rigorous observance of laws---something no religion has ever taught, let alone Judaism.(1) Such scriptural language reflects the intense discussion of the first century, what defines a Jew and Judaism in light of belief that Jesus is the Jewish mashiach, or "Messiah".
The frequent Old Testament characterization of the Hebrews as “stiff-necked” and perennially disobedient fit within the early Jesus Believers’ narrative: God's people were rejecting their prophet and messiah just as their ancestors had always done.
But for Jews, Jesus just didn’t fit. If he was the messiah, nothing seemed changed and, if anything, things were worse for Jews because of Jesus belief. The Christians (a new term then, perhaps not yet widespread) looked disdainfully at Jews and, in time, would oppose and persecute Jews---in spite of the teachings of love and service that their own Christian scriptures taught. Jews responded with rejection and sometimes violence, which was a reason some of the New Testament authors write painfully of fellow Jews.
Further, even if the Christian movement were considered a Jewish sect (as it still was in the first century), Gentiles were being welcomed into fellowship with no obligation to follow Torah. Nor did Christians support Jews during the Roman war and the Bar Kokhba period---and, in fact, considered Jewish suffering as something they’d earned from disobedience. (2)
So (as Lawrence Stiffman discusses), the halakhah and the work of the Tannaim sages of the Mishnah preserved Jewish identity and heritage.(3) People like Paul were vitally concerned with Jewish identity, too—but they struggled with how to define a Jew now that Gentiles, unconverted to Judaism and unconfirmed to halakhic definitions of Judaism, joined with some Jews within the Jesus-Belief community. In his historical situation, the New Testament is not about Gentiles who thought Jews should convert; the New Testament reflects an intense discussion of what defines Jewishness if Jesus is the Jewish messiah, believed in by more and more non-Jews for whom the Jewish religion had previously just been another odd religion among many.
Of course, the Old Testament has many depictions of Gentiles eventually coming to Jerusalem to worship God. Some of the most beautiful are in Isaiah. The God of the Jews would become the God of the whole world. Early Christians thus combed the scriptures for indications that Jesus was the true Messiah, that he would open blessings for Gentiles--and that his suffering and execution, as well as his spiritual power that was being spread through preaching rather than (for now) cosmic events--were always subtle but true aspects of Old Testament witness. (Shameless plug: my little book, Walking with Jesus through the Old Testament, discusses many of the scriptures used in the New Testament to elucidate the meaning of Jesus.)
Mark D. Nanos points out tensions in Paul’s life and writings that made him such a key in the eventual separation of Judaism and Christianity. Paul faulted Jews who did not embrace his gospel and who opposed him. Yet Paul himself (famously) needed a vivid supernatural experience to convince himself.(4)
So Paul was also not anti-Jewish, nor anti-Torah. He was upset that what he believed should be happening was not happening. The Messiah had come; the worldwide power and redemption promised in the Torah and Prophets were happening through the Holy Spirit in powerful experiences among his and other congregations. For him, it was a great thing that non-Jews were becoming children of Abraham via God’s love and power! He hoped deeply that the message of his and other preachers (the true preachers, anyway: there were many false preachers with unsound doctrine) would soon bring about the worldwide redemption of Jews and Gentiles alike. Thus, the urgency of Paul’s message, his frustration at those who opposed his message, his very emotional entreaties in his several letters.
Yet Paul’s work helped drive a deeper wedge between Jews and Christian Gentiles and (something that would horribly distress Paul, if he could know) led to Christian mistreatment of Jews over the ensuing centuries. Many Jews and Christians have rejoiced together that, in the twentieth century, Nostra Aetate document of Vatican II and powerful interfaith dialogue experiences (I’m part of two local groups) have helped bring into fellowship two groups that, in Julie Galambush’s phrase, so reluctantly parted centuries ago.(5)
There is much writing about Paul and Judaism. Here are some books that I've been studying this winter:
E. P. Sanders, Paul the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).
E. P. Sanders, Comparing Judaism and Christianity: Common Judaism, Paul, and the Inner and the
Outer in Ancient Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016).
E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017)
Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Hovoken: Ktav Publishing House, 1991).
Larewence H. Schiffman, Who Was a Jew? Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism (Hovoken: Ktav Publishing House 1985).
Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism (Eugene, OR: Casade Books, 2017)
A. Andrew Das, Paul and the Stories of Israel: Grand Thematic Narratives in Galatians (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016)
And there are many more! This doesn't even scratch the surface.
On finally to Romans.
Romans is among Paul’s last letters but is certainly a magnum opus. While in seminary, I had a mini-spiritual experience of God’s great love and acceptance as I wrote a modest teaching outline of the book for a Sunday school class that I was teaching. I felt so loved and redeemed by Christ!
Paul wants to visit the congregation in Rome, has not yet done so (Acts provide some of the narrative of Paul’s eventual journey to Rome), and in the letter, he discusses his plans to meet the people and, after a while, to go to Spain. He hopes the Romans will support his planned travels.
He begins with an affirmation of the Gospel and its power. He describes the world’s need of God. The Gentiles can potentially be faithful to God via the majesty of the cosmos and their own consciousnesses; but many do not, and God gave up on them. But he continues in chapter 2, that even those who follow moral law are prone to be more tolerant of their own sins and those of others; and so their moral law ends up condemning them, too.
As far as the Jews are concerned: Paul is proud of his own Jewishness and heritage, and praises them as those who have God’s law and covenant. Jews have a wonderful gift of the Torah, which in turn is precious. But they, too, may fall into disobedience and break the covenant. Ultimately, Psalm 14:1-3 says it well: no one is righteous before God, neither Jew nor Gentile.
THUS, God’s gift of Christ is so precious. God is righteous—but God’s righteousness is understood in the way God helps sinners. Via faith in Christ, people have a rich redemption and salvation.
The Torah is wonderful, but Paul tells his readers not forget that God views all people impartially. Just look at Abraham: he lived over 400 years before the Torah, and God declared him righteous, and Abraham responded in faith. So faith is always primary. As for us, God’s gift of Christ was provided when people were still in sin—either through breaking the moral and religious law, or through Gentile rebellion. God did this while all were “enemies” of God—-further showing how wonderful is God’s love and salvation. Audaciously, Paul even declares that the salvation of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin; for Christ’s righteous multiplies the power of grace more significantly than Adam’s sin.
In the middle of the letter, Paul makes a subtle connection to the Exodus—the great story of God’s rescue. Those who are in sin are slaves (the unspoken allusion is to Egyptian slavery), but and the outcome (“wages”) of the “work” of slavery is only death. But the outcome of God’s rescue of us through Christ is life and prosperity.
But there is still struggle. He does not refer to the struggles of the Israelites in the Wilderness, so my connection may be tenuous. The great blessing of God doesn’t prevent us from struggling with sin and the downsides of human nature. Romans 7:7-25 is surely a favorite passage for many of us because we recognize our own frailty and futility in Paul’s words. But he comes back to God’s righteousness—God delivers us while we are sinners.
Chapter 8 is another favorite for many of us as Paul describes the wonderful blessings of Christ: the Spirit, the possibility of holy living, the future glory, the help that is available to us in time of need and crisis, the guarantee that God loves us no matter what.
This is Paul’s message that he plans to continue bringing to the Gentiles; but what of the Jews who have not believed? In chapter 9-11, Paul hopes that as he (and other preachers and teachers) can continue to bring the Gospel of the Jewish Jesus to non-Jews, then Jews will see what is happening in the Gentile world and will believe in Jesus, too. As he said earlier, God’s Torah and covenant are great blessings to Jews, and God has by no means rejected his ancient covenant with the Jews.
Paul finally says that God will have mercy on us all, and that God’s ways and wisdom are deep and unsearchable (11:32-36). His urgency to spread the Gospel, though, has motivated Christian missionaries for the history of the faith.
Paul next turns to ethical teaching. He calls believers to surrender to God and be transformed by God’s grace. He explains the proper use of divine gifts, and Christians’ conduct in personal relations, as well as Christians’ conduct to the secular authorities. He returns to the theme of judging: we should not pass judgment on one another! (How often have many of us used Romans 1:26-27 out of context to harshly judge LGBTQ persons, never thinking about the irregularities of our own sexuality!) Romans 14:13-23 is a condensed version of what he discusses more fully in the earlier 1 Corinthians: we should try not to make others “stumble” in their faith.
He concludes with more affirmation of Christ in his own ministry, and of his future hoped-for plans. In chapter 16, he greets several people by name—-interestingly, because he hasn’t yet visited this church—but either these are people at another church, to which these greetings have been appended to Romans, or he just knows a lot of the folks through his networks. It's worth noting that Paul greets several woman leaders in the church. As history moved on, Christian leadership would turn into an all-guys group--but fortunately that has changed in many Christian denominations.
1. E. P. Sanders, Comparing Judaism and Christianity: Common Judaism, Paul, and the Inner and the Outer in Ancient Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016). 237.
2. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Who Was a Jew? Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism (Hovoken: Ktav Publishing House, 1985) 75-78.
4. Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism (Eugene, OR: Casade Books, 2017), 46-50.
5. Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting, How the New Testament's Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (New York: HarperOne, 2006).