I’ve been claiming that Romans is Paul’s pastoral counsel to a church in crisis. Rather than referring to events throughout salvation history, Paul’s discussion in Romans 5 has to do with dynamics currently up and running in the Roman Christian community.
I wrote yesterday that Paul’s statements in vv. 20-21 have to do with recent events. That is, Paul is referring to the return of the Jewish faction of the Christian community that is agitating for its former role of influence and place of prominence. They are using the Law to buttress their claims for priority among God’s people.
The result, understandably, is division and discouragement.
That Paul would refer to this renewed emphasis on Law-observance in this way (“the Law came in,” v. 20) finds a precedent in Augustine’s reference to a similar phenomenon about 15 years earlier.
Robert Jewett says the following in the introduction to his commentary:
Martin Hengel, followed by Herman Lichtenberger, draws an inference from Augustine’s remark in Ep. 102.8 that the “Law of the Jews” arrived in Rome from Syria either during or shortly after Caligula’s reign (37-41 C.E.), namely that this pertained to what was perceived to be a form of Judaism brought into the synagogues from the east. The information that Augustine says came from Porphyrius’s tract against the Christians is as follows: “It was after a long time that the Jewish law appeared and flourished within the region of Syria, and after that, it gradually moved toward the coasts of Italy; but this was not earlier than the end of the reign of Caesar Gaius, or at the earliest, while he ruled.” Since Augustine had earlier contrasted the lex Judaica vetus with the lex nova of Christianity, and in view of the unlikelihood that Porphyrius believed that Judaism itself first arrived in Rome at this late date, he probably refers to a particular Jewish teaching derived from Syria, which was the area from which the first organized Christian mission movement is reported in Acts 13-14 (p. 58).
In light of this, I think it makes good sense that many of Paul’s references to “the Law” in Romans are his shorthand way of referring to the renewed emphasis on the Law as the means of supporting the Jewish Christians’ claims.
The theological payoff of this reading of Romans is that in some instances, at least, Paul isn’t necessarily elaborating a “theology of the Mosaic Law,” but talking about one sub-group’s inappropriate behavior, which just so happens to include misusing Scripture.
Paul is not developing a salvation-historical argument in Romans 5, but speaking of the spiritual and cosmic dynamics that operate in a community as a result of the crossover of the ages.
He is initiating his apocalyptic analysis of the situation in the Roman churches and their experience since the return of the Jewish-Christians. Since coming back to Rome, they’ve advocated a reading of Torah that fosters Jewish identity and the priority of Jewish-Christians over gentiles in the Roman churches.
Paul is saying, in vv. 20-21, that a certain reading of the Law returned to Rome when the Jewish-Christians returned and with that came the increase in transgressions—that is, it brought along a very clear demarcation of who was in and who was out, and the return of this reading of the Law constituted the strengthening of the cosmic power of Sin. Sin reigns where there are divisions and hierarchies based on ethnicity, and the result of this is the death of a community. This is why they are all frustrated and defeated.
Recognizing that Paul is not discussing abstract theology but analyzing the situation pastorally makes Romans eminently practical and applicable in contemporary church situations. How often do our uses of Scripture endorse our own prejudices, creating resentment and fostering divisions?