A Rereading of Romans, Part 1

At the recommendation of a friend, I started reading A Rereading of Romans, by Stanley K. Stowers, after it arrived in the mail today. After fifty-four pages, out of a total of 329 (not including notes and index), I'm not sure what to make of it.

The prefatory material on what it means to read a document in context is very well done. As an example, Romans was written in Koine Greek with no punctuation or chapter and verse divisions. It was one long block of text written on a scroll. When we read Romans in our Bibles, we have the added interpretation of the editors who parsed the text into chunks to supposedly make it easier for us to understand the text.

On the other hand, Stowers claims:

A thorough rereading of Romans is timely and vital because the traditional model for understanding Paul's letter has begun to disintegrate under the weight of its own contradictions. —pg. 5

It remains to be seen what these contradictions might be. Stowers cites Sanders, who wrote:

Paul's case for universal sinfulness, as it is stated in Rom. 1:18 – 2:29 is not convincing: It is internally inconsistent and rests on the gross exaggeration. —pg. 5

Whether or not something convinces a reader isn't always due to the text. Sometimes it is dependent on the receptiveness of the reader to accept the thesis of the writer. I find Romans 1:18-2:29, consistent, convincing, and congruent with man's nature. But even if, for the sake of argument, Sanders is correct, one still has to deal with the inescapable observation that everyone dies.

Moving on, in the first chapter, Stowers seems to very much want to make the case that the letter was intended for a purely gentile audience. Why he wants to disassociate Jews as being part of the intended readers is not yet clear. On page 30 he writes:

If Christianity is by definition a universal answer to a single universal predicament manifest in every individual, and the church constitutes all those who have been saved from this predicament, the church must consist of all, both Jews and gentiles. Dogmatic rather than historical assumption still dominate the reading of the letter.

I'm puzzled by this passage, because Christianity is a universal answer to single universal predicament. Romans 5:12 -18 is summarized by 1 Cor 15:22: "for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ." There is no conflict between dogma and historical assumption.

So even if Jewish readers are not explicitly a part of Paul's target audience, they would still be implicitly included. Certainly, Romans is just as profitable to a Jewish reader as it is to a Gentile reader. After all, the author was Jewish, and in Romans 1:16 he specifically says: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."

The historical background to this epistle is fascinating; all the more so since the tendency in modern American churches is to read the Bible in isolation from all other texts, be they historic, political, or scientific. The opening chapters of Genesis, for example, take a completely different turn when one realizes that the cosmology therein is Egyptian.

Chapter 2 begins with the theme of self-mastery in Romans. This was an immediate turn off. First, Stowers doesn't define what "self" is in Christian theology. Paul certainly doesn't help matters when, in Galatians, he writes: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me." Perhaps that doesn't fit into the prevailing notions of self-mastery in the Greco-Roman world, but one has to give Paul the room to say something totally new to his readers. Second, I find an implied ordering in "self-mastery" that suggests that it is the individual that masters the self when, in actual fact, it is the Lord Jesus Christ who masters the individual. Perhaps if he had used "mastery of self" I wouldn't find this portion so exasperating. It will be interesting to see how, or even if, he ties this portion of this thesis in with Romans 9.

Nevertheless, on pages 36-41, Stowers gives an overview of what he thinks Romans says. I find no fault with it. But, as it is said, the devil is in the details.

The first fifty-four pages have been both maddening and delightful. This looks to be an interesting journey.

Next part…
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