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Reading Romans in Rome: Justification and the Law

What follows is pretty heavy stuff (after all, it’s Paul!), so some recommendations before you proceed:

1) Read Romans 2:1-4:25 first – straight through. What follows makes more sense if you do.

2) Keep your Bible handy for reference.

3) Take breaks if needed.

4) Take two aspirin (my wife’s recommendation after editing!).

All humor aside, I hope this will enrich your study of this week’s lesson.

To ease the struggle, here is the bulleted version:

  • Paul is talking about the law – at least two “versions.”
  • Paul does not do away with the law, but uses it for ethnic critique, to demonstrate humanity’s broken relationship with God.
  • Ethnic critique, by use of the law in Romans 1-4, becomes a means by which “God’s people” are realigned from a single exclusive ethnic group, to inclusive of all humanity.
  • Justification or righteousness is about reestablishing a “right relationship” between God and humanity through Jesus Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s promises and actions for restoration of relationship.
  • Abraham is Paul’s ideal example of how all this works.
  • Paul’s initial Roman audience “got it.”

* * *

The issues of “law” and “justification” in Romans are intertwined with ethnic identity, critique, and negotiation within first century Rome. [1] Paul utilizes conventions of contemporary ethnic debate to make his argument in regard to salvation for all peoples. In 2:9-10 the audience hears that those who do evil will suffer affliction – “Judean first and Greek,” or those “working the good” will receive glory, honor and peace, “Judean first and Greek.” [2]

Romans 2:11-16 begins a detailed argument: whether a Judean living by covenantal law, or a Greek, whose conduct is judged by “natural law,” must each “do” the law to be in right relationship with God. The audience understanding of natural law in 2:14-15 was likely grounded in Roman Stoic philosophy and ethics as articulated by Cicero, and other Roman contemporary philosophers. [3]

For Cicero, natural law originated with God, was founded in right reason and was absolute, eternal, immutable, a basis for divine judgment and punishment, of which justice or right relationship was an integral part. [4] Cicero’s philosophy, that natural Law was the basis of Justice, was drawn from earlier Greek sources. [5] Varro, Cicero’s contemporary, went further by identifying the source of natural law as Jupiter himself, whom he also linked with the Judean God. [6] Paul positions natural law as the basis of divine judgment for non-Judeans, and Mosiac Law as the basis for divine judgment on Judeans, both of which originate with the Father.

Paul’s critique (2:17-29) initially points to Judean failure to practice covenantal law, including a snide word play in Greek, critical of temple-robbing Judeans and Jerusalem – common in Egyptian sources. [7] The point was that Judeans who self-perceived ethnic and religious superiority by claiming adherence to Judean Law and covenant were, in reality, dishonoring God by their broken relationship with Him.

Paul then shifts focus to circumcision as an ethnic marker of Judean covenantal relationship with God. Some non-Judeans in Rome are known to have assimilated or accommodated many Judean religious characteristics, including Sabbath observance. However, non-Judean circumcision was a key contention, not only of religious, but also of ethnic change. [8] For non-Judeans, it was a key ethnic identifier used in critique of Judeans, (the circumcised). [9]

For Judeans, circumcision was the essential act for a male non-Judean to become a member of God’s covenant people. However, Paul adroitly refocuses circumcision from a physical ethnic symbol to a state of the heart in right relationship with God, by allusion to Jeremiah 4:4 and 9:25. This change lays the groundwork for a later argument of a supra-ethnic relationship with God in Romans 4, one in which faith becomes the means of righteousness (right relationship) with God, which preceded and now transcends circumcision.

Romans 3:1-20 focuses the ongoing Pauline diatribe on both Judean and non-Judean unrighteousness, in relation to Mosaic or divine natural law as used in Romans 2. The rhetoric culminates the critique of humanity in regard to Law by rendering all silent, (3:19-20), unable to renew or defend one’s sworn faith. Being forced to silence in Roman debate of contended faithfulness, righteousness, or relationship expressed guilt and reflected one’s inability to argue further. It was the epitome of unfaithfulness, worthy of wrath, unless mercy was granted. [10]

The faithful actions of God the Father to reconcile unrighteous humanity with Himself are the core motif in 3:21-31. The Law revealed the brokenness and unfaithfulness of humanity. Yet now, “apart from the Law,” the ongoing right relationship (righteousness) of the Father has been disclosed through the faithfulness of Jesus. His faithfulness is embodied in His right relationship with the Father, in regard to Mosaic and natural law, and as a living (and dying) example of the Father’s faithfulness.

While emphasis is usually given to the perception of Jesus as hilastarion (mercy seat), which resolves humanity’s sin, the imagery of Jesus being “publicly displayed” goes to the core of Roman conventions of faithfulness. What one swore in faith was often publicly displayed as fulfilled faithfulness – of promises lived out as right relationship. [11] Paul concludes that the faithfulness of God is publicly expressed through Jesus and thus accepted as redemption through Judean and non-Judean expression of sworn faith with God and that circumcision is no longer the definitive covenantal mark of right relationship with God (Rom 3:28-30), but rather the sworn and lived faith of those who take Jesus as Lord and accept Him as Son of God, raised from the dead. [12]

While the Romans 3:31 statement about faith establishing the Law is often read “backwards” into 3:21-30, it is also a framework for understanding Paul’s use of Abraham as an example of interactive divine and human faithfulness in Romans 4. Through Abraham’s experience with God, Paul demonstrates how faith does not nullify Judean Law, but is the basis for establishing the people of God – who lived similar faith to Abraham’s in right relationship with the Father – by God’s promise and action.

In 4:3, Paul cites his premise in regard to Abraham’s faith from Genesis 15:6, “Now Abraham had faith with God, and it was credited to him for righteousness.” He clarifies his emphasis in 4:5, that the one who makes faith with God is the one who has his faith credited as right relationship with the Father. God declares the “impious” in right relationship with Him based upon faith in the Father’s promises fulfilled in Jesus.

What is important for Paul and his audience is that Abraham’s faith with God was credited to him before he was circumcised. Paul rearranges circumcision from a mark of the covenant and ethnic exclusivity to a seal of right relationship for Judeans in 4:11. Paul concludes that Abraham was the human forefather of not only Judeans, but also non-Judeans who had entered into a faith-based covenant with God that also resulted in righteousness – right relationship (4:9-13).

That Paul’s conceptualization of faith is embedded in Roman culture is apparent in his use of faith sworn by promises. [13] Romans 4:13 depicts God as the one who made promises to Abraham, thus God first expresses faith and righteousness – right relation by promissory faith-making with Abraham (Genesis 15:1-17).

This motif was understood within Judeanism immersed in Greco-Roman culture, as shown in Philo’s discussion in Allegorical Interpretation. [14] Philo, (a Judean, and Paul’s contemporary), claimed that “God is the only faithful (pistos) being” in regard to oaths, stating that only God is ultimately capable of faithfully honoring what is sworn, because God alone is truly honorable, as His promises are fulfilled by his actions. [15] Philo further argues that God honored the faith of Abraham, and (God) gave him “faith” in return, “namely a confirmation by an oath of the gifts which he (God) had promised him (Abraham).” [16]

Paul similarly presents Abraham, in 4:20-22, as one certain that God would do as He promised. Abraham’s faith was confirmed by God fulfilling His promise, in Paul’s argument, since Abraham was “the father of many nations” – those who entered into a faith relationship with God by claiming Jesus as Lord, whom the Father raised from the dead, and whose faithfulness unto death returned all humans to right relationship with the Father, no matter their ethnicity.

Paul’s rhetoric results in affirmation of Judean Law, yet shifts circumcision, as a ritually required marker of ethnicity-based covenant relationship with God, to Judeans only. The Father is reaffirmed as the One who made the promise of salvation possible through the faithful life and death of Jesus, and who desires all to enter into a faith relationship with Him. Jesus’ faithfulness resolves the broken relationship of humanity in regard to divine Law, and restores all human beings who keep faith with Him into intimate right relationship (or righteousness) with the Father, which results in eternal life.

* * *


[1] This presentation uses the concept of “right relationship” to express the meaning of justification as equivalent to righteousness.

[2] The ethnic term “Judean” is used here instead of Jews. See Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 43-44.

[3] “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, though neither have any effect on the wicked. It is a sin to try to [sic] alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment.” Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Re Publica, 3.22, in De Re Publica, De Legibus, trans. Clinton W. Keyes, Loeb Classical Library, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928), 211.

[4] Neal Wood, Cicero’s Social and Political Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 70-78.

[5] Robert T. Radford, Cicero: A Study in the Origins of Republican Philosophy (New York: Rodopi, 2002), 43-46.

[6] See W. Ward Fowler, Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2004), 162-164.

[7] Romans 2:23; “….and then came into that land which is called Judea, and there they built a city, and dwelt therein, and that their city was named Hierosyla, from this their robbing of the temples; but that still, upon the success they had afterwards, they in time changed its denomination, that it might not be a reproach to them, and called the city Hierosolyma, and themselves Hierosolymites.” Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, in Contra Apionem, trans. William Whiston, 1.34.

[8] Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 154-58.

[9] Feldman, 156.

[10] For a fuller treatment, see the chapters on shame and confession in Carlin A. Barton, Roman Honor: the fire in the bones (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[11] For a fuller treatment of public display of documents, agreements and treaties of fulfilled faith, see Elizabeth A. Meyer, Legitimacy and Law in the Roman World: Tabulae in Roman Belief and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 91-125.

[12] The elements of faith-making for salvation are detailed in Rom. 1:1-4, 4:23-25, and 10:5-13.

[13] The use of promise and giving in faith-making is clearest in stipulation or verbal obligation contracts — see Meyer, 115-18, 125, 154-63.

[14] Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. Charles Duke Yonge, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996, 1993), Allegorical Interpretation, 3.203-204.

[15] Ed. cit., 3.204-205.

[16] Philo, in Yonge (trans.), Abraham, 273; for a fuller exploration see Benjamin E. Holdsworth, Reading Romans in Rome: A Reception of Romans in the Roman Context of Ethnicity and Faith (PhD thesis, Durham University, 2009), 203-7.

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