“The Law came in…”

Too much salvation-history and far too much systematic theology is read into Romans.  I do realize, of course, that Paul writes about the promise to Abraham, Israel’s mission and failure, and the Law’s role on the stage of human history.  But it seems to me that we ought to give serious consideration to reading some passages more mundanely.  Perhaps Paul is speaking of matters “closer to the ground” than we’ve realized.

After all, Paul writes a pastoral letter to the Roman church(es) and not a systematic theology.  Most commentators begin with this observation and then forget about it altogether when it comes to considering isolated passages.

An example is Romans 5:20-21.  Verses 18-19 summarize a salvation-historical section involving the emergence of the cosmic power of Sin, humanity in Adam, and salvation in Christ.

Paul then relates all of this to the Roman church(es) in vv. 20-21.  It can be read as follows:

The Law came in (to Rome) with the result that transgressions would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded even more, so that as sin reigned in (spreading) death (throughout the Roman community), grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul may be referring to the renewed emphasis on Jewish identity with the return of Jewish-Christians from expulsion in 54 C.E.  With their return and the accompanying emphasis on the Law, the Jewish calendar, and Jewish patterns of community life, the mixed-race Roman Christian community is divided and discouraged.

That Paul would refer to this renewed emphasis on Law-observance in this way (“the Law came in”) 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).

It makes good sense to envision a returning Jewish faction of the Christian community agitating for its former role of influence and place of prominence.  They are using the Law to buttress their claims for priority in God’s economy.

The result, understandably, is division and discouragement.

Scholars have struggled to get to grips with Paul’s negative statements about “the Law,” which seem at odds with a genuine understanding of the Law as Scripture.  Might it be that Paul occasionally uses nomos as shorthand for this renewed emphasis, this misuse of the Law which has created and is fostering division?

More to come on this angle of approach to Romans…

9 thoughts on ““The Law came in…”

  1. Craig Benno

    I whole heartedly agree with your post here Tim. I believe that Paul uses both Jewish and Greek terminology when addressing the Jews and Gentile believers… and pulls the rug from under their feet..

    In chapters 12 / 13 he starts to build them up as a unified body… in chapter 13 we see a reversed swing when he tells the Jews to obey the Gentile rulers and tells the Gentiles that the Jewish law is good….

    Unless we are able to see and immerse ourselves into the narrative story of Romans we will always continue to miss what Paul is saying.

  2. Ryan C

    Even before Augustine, Origen noted the diversity of meanings for “law” in Romans. There is a short study of this called “The Diversity of Laws in Origen’s Commentary on Romans” by R. Roukema. I don’t know if Origen makes the same observation as Augustine, but it may be worth checking out.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this. It’s been long-recognized that Paul uses “law” in various ways, but it’s less common to note that he may use it to refer to the re-emphasis on the Law observance at Rome, or that he uses it to refer to the pressures to Judaize in Galatians. I think his negative statements especially have to do with the pressures being brought to bear in those situations. They have far less–if anything–to do with Paul’s abstracted “view” of the Mosaic Law.

  3. Brian LePort

    I am excited to hear more on this. I think the first concern I would have with this reading would be it seems to move from a universal observation in 5.12-19 and then it would have to localize without any obvious hints in vv. 20-21. This doesn’t mean it is not a legitimate reading, but I wonder why it would be more justified than the traditional one?

    1. timgombis

      Hey Brian,

      It seems to me that far more of Romans 1-4 is actually closer to the ground than salvation-historical, so Rom. 5:12-19 being salvation-historical is actually the more radical departure from the normal frame of reference. And even his discussion of Adam-Christ in vv. 12-19 have reference to the two realms of humanity that the Roman Christians can inhabit via alternative habits of life there in Rome.

      Beyond that, vv. 18-19 are a summary of what has just gone before. When Paul gets to his statements in vv. 20-21, he begins without a conjunction, likely indicating a slight change of focus, but at least a turn to applying the more abstracted realities described in vv. 12-19 directly to the Roman church(es).

      Further, anyone and everyone struggles to make sense of Paul when he says things about the Mosaic Law that Jesus and the OT would never say about the Law. Everyone scurries for a possible referent for “Law,” and in this scenario, it seems like a very good option.

      1. Brian LePort

        It does seem like a good option and it would do a lot for reconciling Paul’s own statements about the Law, let alone those of the prophets, Psalmist, Christ, etc.

        You make a good point about the Roman context of 1-4. Now I’ll need to go back and reread everything with this in mind.

  4. Pingback: Elsewhere (06.22.2011) « Near Emmaus

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