You might have noticed I try to write a new part of my “Was Mary Really a Virgin?” series each Friday. But I just spent four straight nights working on a paper for my New Testament class until 2 a.m. or later. Needless to say, I didn’t have much energy for researching and writing anything this morning.
So instead you get a “special treat:” A preview of the first few paragraphs of my paper. I know, I know, but try to stay in your chairs.
“I’ve written to you in a sort of daring way,” Paul says to his Roman audience, “partly to remind you of what you already know.”
Paul’s letter to Rome is indeed frank, honest, filled with encouragement and exhortation – but it has also been the source of constant debate and disagreement. However daring Paul felt he was being, he apparently wasn’t daring enough for the context of his thoughts to have survived entirely intact over the subsequent two millennia. Indeed, the proposed reasons for Paul’s authorship of Romans are numerous.
For all the parsing of the Romans text to ascertain a purpose for Paul’s epistle to a church he did not found, few have delved into the historical context of Roman Christianity itself. Likewise, few have explored the historical background of Paul’s rhetoric in Romans. And fewer still have attempted to marry the results of these seemingly disparate studies – looking at the context and the rhetoric together. We find that such a study strengthens some arguments that have been advanced for the purpose of Romans while undercutting others. Mostly, however, we find that Romans, far from being anything so simple as a theological treatise, carries implicitly a history of violence, anti-Semitism and imperial tyranny that forever shaped Christianity. Daring, indeed.
Mirror reading Paul’s choice of theological emphasis through the bulk of Romans produces many theories of purpose – indeed, numerous scholars have done just that. But this gets the order backward. Rather than divining the context of Romans based on its text, where scholars tend to pick and choose the emphases that fit their preferences, we should instead allow the context to drive our understanding of Paul’s letter.