A quick update today to let you know I’ve posted my latest paper. In our New Testament class, we were assigned a 20-page paper dealing with an introductory critical issue involving one of the books of the New Testament. I picked Paul’s purposes for writing Romans, mostly as a way to do some exegesis of Romans 1, which is kind of a clobber chapter for those who condemn homosexuality. (The treatment of sex in the Bible is something of an interest of mine and may turn into a thesis or a dissertation down the road. You might recall that my Old Testament exegesis paper was on Leviticus 18.)
Well, the paper was returned this week (got an “A”!), and as is my custom, I’m posting it here. So what’s it about?
Most scholarship on Romans traditionally has seen the letter as a summary of Paul’s theology, given its broad treatment of a lot of the themes Paul uses in his other letters. But scholars don’t really buy into that anymore – if Paul intended it to summarize his theology, he did a pretty bad job (he leaves out big pieces, such as eschatology, for example). So scholars tend to agree that Paul wrote Romans for a specific historically rooted reason, just as he wrote all of his other letters (except Ephesians, which appears to be a generic circular letter with the name of the church left blank in the earliest manuscripts).
But what is the reason? Most scholars mine the text for explicit clues and they engage in what’s known as “mirror reading” – that is, assuming the situation is related to the opposite of what is said in the letter. Does Paul say to unify? Perhaps they’re dealing with division. That sort of thing. Mirror reading is rather speculative in nature, but it can be useful.
But text mining and mirror reading are not so useful in the case of Romans because Paul isn’t writing to a church he founded, and because of that, he pulls his punches, tones down his language and works much more subtly than in, say, Galatians or 1 Corinthians. So scholars who simply look for the specifics of the letter or mirror read into it find some of the reasons Paul writes, but not the core issue. So, yes, he wanted support for his proposed trip to Spain, and yes, he wanted to address divisions within the Roman church, and yes, he wanted prayer, if not money, for his collection for Jerusalem.
But only when we look at the historical context of Rome around 54 C.E., which is about when Paul wrote the letter, can we get a better idea of what challenges the assemblies there faced. Further, the historical context of Paul’s own rhetoric also helps us get a better idea of those challenges. Because Paul uses language his audience would understand, and that language – the style of it – often says as much as the words themselves.
Mirror reading can tell us that when Paul talks about the weak and the strong later in the letter, he’s trying to unify factions within the church. But what kind of factions? And how deep do these divisions run? And how primary is it if he only devotes one or two chapters at the end of a 16-chapter letter? Mirror reading can’t tell us that, and the letter itself is too subtle to tell us outright. But analyzing the context of both Rome and the rhetoric Paul uses can tell us much more.
So check out the paper if you have the time and tell me what you think. Also, you can check out the other papers I’ve written if boring yourself interests you.