The Law’s Return to Rome

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?

7 responses to “The Law’s Return to Rome

  • Andrew

    If Paul’s discussion in Romans 5 has to do with dynamics currently up and running in the Roman Christian community do we really need to pay attention to it since it is addressing a specificity directed concern rather than a universal one?

    If a pastor writes to a church about a specific problem they are having, and that letter falls into our hands, is it not fallacious thinking to then apply his recommendation (to that church) universally? (isn’t this the fallacy of converse accident “dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter” which says a single instance is not enough to establish the truth of such a general principle).

    If we adopt Paul’s discussion in Roman’s 5 in other instances, not only is our theology fallacious, but we’re using his words in unintended ways, giving our prejudices a chance to slip in:

    Recognizing that Paul is not discussing abstract theology but analysing 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?

    This last insight is very exciting, because it suggests the way ahead. It suggest if we have to choose perspectives, we choose Paul’s which means we understand it, and the concerns of the community he was serving. So let’s explore the claim “the Law of the Jews” arrived in Rome from Syria either during or shortly after Caligula’s reign (37-41 C.E.)” to see if we can expose the concerns of early Jewish converts to the faith.

    Let’s assume the Law of the Jews indeed arrived in Rome from Syria in Caligula’s reign, what else was happening to Jewish identity that they could have been worried about?

    – 900 years previous the Kingdom of Israel (constituting the bulk of the Israelites) rebelled against the Jews [1 Kings 12:1-18][2 Chron 10]
    – Josephus said (in Antiquities, XI, v. 2.) about the Israelites, in contrast to the Jews returning from Babylon “but then the entire body of the people of Israel remained in that country; wherefore there are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers.
    – Likewise the Pharisees in Jerusalem were thinking about them, knonwing [John 7:35] “The Jews said to one another, ‘Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion amongst the Greeks and teach the Greeks?
    – We also know that the House of Judah was swallowed into the nation of Edom by John Hyrcanus in 125 BCE, and that Judeans were detested the Edomites denying them citizenship in Judah for 3 generations [Deut 23:8-9].

    Multiple sources (including non-biblical) show that Romans Jewish identity was greatly influence by the division and discouragement caused by the absence of the paganized Israelites (who Hosea called “Not My People” [Hos 1:9-10] and by the infusion of non-Israelite Edomites (1QM, and 4Q491-497)

    – Roman Jewish identity could have been worrying about the relationship between Roman Jews and pagan Israelites;
    – Roman Jewish identity could have been worrying about the relationship between Israelite Jews and Edomite Jews; or
    – Roman Jewish identity could have been worrying about the relationship between Israelite Jews and the pagans followers of a man who clearly rejected the false religiosity of Jewish tradition.

    If it were the third concern, and his audience were followers of Christ, doesn’t it seem highly doubtful his audience would try to use the Law the prophets to bolster their position given that Christ’s own ministry was clearly hostile this approach? (No other secular source shows this as a concern for these people in any event) Why would Paul even mention [Rom 4:16-23] Abraham and Sarah if he were talking about a pagan threat?

    Isn’t it more likely the argument Paul made confronted the division and discouragement Jewish identity’s faced by either its infusion into Edom or the cutting off of Israel. The continued possession of the Law and the prophets would absolutely be seen as a qualifier (or badge of legitimacy) either against the Edomite Jews who never possessed the Law but were now Jews, or against the paganized Israelites who did, but willingly rejected it and were not Jews but may have been followers of Christ?

    Against pagans who never had any relation to the Law or prophets, Paul’s arguments are meaningless. Against Israelites who had rejected the Law and the prophets, or against Edomites who had rejected faith – don’t Paul’s argument make much more sense?

    • timgombis

      No, I don’t think Paul’s argument makes sense against that backdrop. I think his letter makes sense if interpreted in terms of what we can reconstruct of the situation in Rome. That’s a pretty basic principle of exegesis and I don’t see a reason to interpret Romans according to another method.

  • Andrew T.

    I only proposed it because methodologically there are non-biblical sources (so multiple attestations) suggesting these issues that I mention were universal concerns to the Jewish community, both in Rome and throughout the Roman Empire.

    The idea that Roman Jews were most preoccupied with the threat a community of pagans who worshiped a man that openly rejected Jewish tradition as a means to holiness would not uphold Jewish tradition in their new faith seems unlikely given the weight of other concerns. It’s hard to see how that could have been more of a concern than these other factors multiply attested (by secular and Jewish historians) when there were much more significant issues which threatened Jewish identity (such as the tiny House of Judah absorbing the entire 12 tribes of Edom). For heavens sake, an Edomite was on the throne of David! With respect to identity, isn’t that a bigger deal?

    So for example, to put this in context, is it likely the Romans Jews were most worried about pagan customs when Judah was being ruled by Edomite Herodians rather than House of David Judeans (Hasmoneans replaced by Herodians)?

    Since support for the Herodians was a product of Roman policy, I can’t see how that wasn’t a concern to Roman Jews.

  • chappymartin

    Dr. Gombis,

    I hesitate to follow your interpretation. It is way too subtle. Paul does not hesitate to mention specific actions – The Peter incident, circumcision, celebrating certain day, months, years. I do think that the historical setting was probably the cause of the grief but I would not translate that one verse so specifically. It also ignores Romans 5:13

    • timgombis

      You’re right that Paul doesn’t hesitate to be direct, but the incidents you mention are from Galatians. Paul’s rhetorical strategy there is different than with the Romans. He knew the Galatians, but not the Romans. He’s much more indirect in Romans than in Galatians.

      Aside from that, however, I do think that the statement of the law coming in is a pretty direct statement of the return of the law. They probably knew what he was referring to, even if it’s lost on modern readers.

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