Thursday, July 05, 2007

Romans, Jews and Gentiles, chapter 9

There seems to be a good bit of diversity in scholarly opinion at the moment about whether Paul's letter to the Romans had a target audience of a mixed Jew-Gentile church, a predominantly Jewish church, an Israelite only church, or a Gentile only church. The Gentile-only hypothesis seems to be gaining ground in recent years. At the moment I think this theory faces some serious difficulties when it comes to interpreting Romans 1-2, but I may yet be convinced.

Some clarity may be brought to this situation about the audience and argument of Romans as recent historical research into the meanings of key terms becomes better known:
  • "Jew" (lit. Judean), person following the ancestral customs of the Judeans. Not necessarily of Judean ancestry, though usually so.
  • "Greek", a person following Greek customs and speaking Greek. Not necessarily of Greek ancestry, though usually so.
  • "Israelite", a person descended from Jacob.
  • "Gentiles" (lit. nations). It is still debated whether this word can mean "Israelites living among the nations" or "anyone living among the nations" or whether it refers solely to people of non-Israelite descent, or whether it can mean different ones of these at different times.
I have always had a kind of default view that Paul was writing to a Roman church containing a mixed population of Jewish Israelites and Greek Gentiles, and that he was arguing for equality between the two. So I was intrigued to see in Witherington's commentary on Romans that I have just started reading, him suggest that Paul is trying to maintain a slight Jewish privilege to a Gentile audience. Such passages as "first the Jew then the Greek" come to my mind, implying equality yet primacy for Jews. So Witherington's suggestion may well have merit. But I was even more intrigued when he suggested that this idea be applied to Romans 9-11 in his introduction (I'm not up to those chapters in the commentary itself yet).

As a bit of background, I've long been a Romans 9 skeptic... ie all the interpretations of this complex passage I have ever seen or heard or tried to construct myself have struck me as unconvincing and implausible, because the models are a poor fit with the text. But it struck me that that Witherington's idea that Paul is defending Jewish/Israelite primacy to a predominantly Greek/Gentile church is quite possibly very helpful in making sense of the passage. Perhaps then, some of my difficulties in understanding the passage came from my assumptions of a Jewish Christian Israelite audience of Romans. If Paul is defending God's choice of Jews as his People to a Gentile congregation it makes sense of some parts of Rom 9 that didn't make much sense if Paul is defending God's rejection of Jews to a Jewish congregation.

I always find it interesting to see how perfectly innocent seeming assumptions can cause real difficulties in weird ways.


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