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Towards a Re-Reading of Romans 1-3

Last week I spent a good amount of time working on a re-reading of Romans 1-3. I've been reading Douglas Campbell's critique of the standard interpretation of Romans 1-4 and with those criticisms in mind I decided to tackle the first three chapters of Romans afresh. I came out of the time with a significantly different approach to these opening chapters than I had in the past. I was debating whether or not I should post some of my insights here, but after continuing to read Campbell's book and noticing some key affinities between my new view and that of Stanley Stowers I decided I'd go ahead and post them. These are not final thoughts on the text, I will certainly revisit it further this summer after I read Campbell's analysis, but I do feel that I have made a definite shift in my understanding of Romans has happened so I thought I'd share it here. This is a start towards a re-reading of Romans 1-3.

The key, in my opinion, to Romans 1-3, comes from one observation and two methodological decisions. The key observation is that we have more voices than just Paul's present in these chapters. This is undisputed, but it's still the interpretive key. The question is, when are we hearing Paul and when are we hearing an opponent?

The key methodological decisions are, first, let Paul's definition of the gospel in 1:1-6 and further discussion in 1:16-17 control our analysis. Anything attributed to Paul in the rest of these chapters must not contradict or be in major tension with these key sections. Second, in all likelihood, there will be some coherence between Paul's thought in Romans and Galatians, as he's probably dealing with the same problem. Ultimately, when contrasting views are present, we should assign to Paul the one that sounds most like him elsewhere. I don't think that anything I've said is not obvious, but I'm not sure that many interpreters are intentional about applying these rules as they work through their interpretation of these chapters.

Probably the best place to start our discussion is in Romans 2:6-16. Before I give you the link to read the text (and please do read it), I want to ask a question. If someone were to ask you to summarize what you think the false teachers in Galatia taught, what would you say? Now read Romans 2:6-16. How close are the two? It certainly doesn't sound like Paul to me. Now let's skip ahead to Romans 3:1-8. Who's asking the questions and who's answering? The traditional view has had Paul as the one answering the questions, but if Romans 2:6-16 represents Paul's opponent, then I would argue that Paul is the one asking the questions. The one answering sounds like Romans 2:6-16, with a preoccupation with the judgment of God. All of Romans 1-3 actually falls out fairly neatly then (though there are a couple of places where it's difficult to determine who is who). You have one person focused on judgment and righteousness by works of the law, and also marginalizes Jesus role to that of eschatological judge only. The other (Paul) focuses on God's benevolence and has a gospel infused with an emphasis on Christ (see esp. Rom. 3:21-31 - the Christological focus has strong affinities to Rom. 1:1-6 in particular).

Why would Paul do this? Why would he intersperse his argument with that of the false teachers? Paul had never been to Rome. He wanted to get the Roman Christians behind him in his mission to Spain. They had probably heard mixed reviews, so he wanted to set the record straight. What better way than a debate between him and his opponents? That's what I believe we have in Romans 1-3 (and possibly Romans 4, I haven't gotten that far yet). There are, in my opinion, clear markers in the text that signal shifts (e.g., nuni de at the start of 3:21 and the very different style of Rom 1:19-31, which I also assign to the teachers) in addition to differences in content. Also, we must remember that Romans was delivered orally, so Phoebe could have made it clear who was speaking when very easily. Additionally, if, as I think, Galatians is better dated later rather than earlier, then the controversy was still fresh and very relevant.


  1. Fascinating. How about a blog post that has these passages set out with who you think the speaker is clearly marked? Would make your argument a bit easier to follow.

  2. I thought about that, but this post might have been too long if I included it here. I'll put up a separate post that separates it out with minimal commentary. Thanks for the nudge!


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