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…