Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Romans 1:18-32 and Wisdom of Solomon

The incredibly strong similarities between Romans 1:18-32 and Wisdom of Solomon 13-14 have long been noted by scholars. Paul appears to be deliberately quoting (paraphrasing) a Jewish piece of anti-gentile propaganda.

Isn't that a strange thing for Paul to do? Yes. We would expect Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, not to agree with such anti-Gentile and pro-Jewish sentiments.

Indeed, immediately after the quote, Paul launches into a critique of people who hold the quoted view.

Romans 1:18-32 seems to be an instance of an ancient literary device called "speech-in-character" (prosopopoeia). Or, more simply put, is what we would call a "dialog" or "debate", with Paul deliberately presenting an opposition viewpoint and responding. It is now well-established that in Romans 7 Paul uses a lengthy speech-in-character without warning his readers. Equally, in many part of Romans that take a question and answer format, Paul is obviously engaging in a pseudo-dialog with opposing viewpoints.

Seeing Wisdom of Solomon as representing Paul's ongoing debate opponent through the rest of Romans 2-4 is particularly helpful. Wisdom 15-19 takes the view that God has chosen the Jews, protects them from sin, and that as a result Jews do not sin like the Gentiles do. It is exactly such a viewpoint that Paul is arguing against in Romans 2-4 - he asserts that there is equality before God and that the Jews do not enjoy special sinlessness.

A important point is that Paul has no need to prove that every human individual sins (hence the oft-observed fact that his argument fails to prove this is irrelevant). Rather, he wants to prove that some Jews in history have been particularly sinful on occasion and that therefore the Jews as a people are not protected from sin simply by virtue of being Jews as Wisdom of Solomon claims.

The long and the short of this is that Romans 1:18-32 is not Paul speaking (just like much of Romans 7), and that Paul in fact disagrees with the speaker on many issues, and the speaker becomes Paul's debate partner for that section of Romans.


Blogger Andrew Perriman said...

Andrew, this is a very interesting argument, but I still don't really see the basis for thinking that Paul disagreed with the anti-Gentile propaganda of Wisdom 13-14. He speaks clearly enough of the wrath of God coming against the 'Greeks' because of ungodliness and wickedness, and he naturally expected Gentiles to abandon the worship of idols in order to worship the true Creator God (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9). So why would he disagree with the traditional Jewish view that Gentile immorality is a consequence of the rejection of the Creator in favour of idols and that the whole religious system of paganism is under divine judgment?

Blogger Andrew said...

Doubtless Paul agrees with his Jewish opponent on many issues of theology (the existence of one God, that idol worship is bad etc). However, his critique is of the overall thrust of the Wisdom of Solomon's anti-gentile paradigm. It exaggerates gentile failure and Jewish glory respectively and it is that which Paul is seeking to correct.

Paul can hardly argue that no gentiles have ever worshipped idols or ever done evil things, but he wants to challenge the beliefs of innate Jewish superiority that are present in the propaganda literature he is quoting. Since, of course, he is seeking to create a Church in which Christian Gentiles can as Gentiles have equality with Christian Jews without having to become Jewish.

Blogger Andrew Perriman said...

I agree that he means to challenge Jewish chauvinism - the closest parallels to the distinctive language of Romans 1:18-32 is probably to be found in Old Testament critiques of Jewish idolatry. Indeed, the basic argument of Romans 1-3 is that Jews are no better than Gentiles. But it still seems unnecessary to take the step of saying that he essentially disagrees with the critique of Wisdom 13-14. Surely what he is saying is that the Gentiles are bad and the Jews are no better, despite their vaunted status as God's people. Both groups are subject to the wrath of God.

It's just that I see nothing in Paul's argument to suggest that he is quoting an opinion with which he disagrees.

Blogger Andrew said...

the closest parallels to the distinctive language of Romans 1:18-32 is probably to be found in Old Testament critiques of Jewish idolatry.

Well, they would be the closest parallels if not for Wisdom of Solomon 13-14. The fact that every single verse in Rom 1:18-32 has a direct correspondence with a verse or passage in W.S. 13-14 is generally considered to indicate direct and deliberate usage on Paul's part. Of course, his source *could* be the other vaguely similar passages in the OT... but surely its more likely that a much closer match is the source? That seems to be the generally accepted reasoning anyway.

There are a variety of reasons to think Paul disagrees with the quotation which I will post later in a new post. However, once it is accepted that:
(1) W.S. is Paul's debate opponent for this section of Romans; and
(2) W.S. is speaking here.
Then the conclusion naturally follows that:
(c) Implicitly, Paul disagrees with the view being presented - although of course as a fellow Jew he may also agree with some of it.

Blogger Andrew Perriman said...

Yes, there is a close relationship of some sort between the argument of Romans 1:18-32 and the critique of paganism in Wisdom 13-14. That does not necessarily mean that Paul was quoting or even familiar with the Wisdom of Solomon - he may simply have been drawing on the same broad tradition, much of which can be found directly in the Old Testament. It certainly does not mean that he was quoting it with disapproval.

Also two key thoughts (as far as I can see) are not found in Wisdom 13-14 but occur in biblical accounts of Israel's idolatry in the wilderness: i) exchanging the true God for man-made idols, and ii) God's giving those who worship idols over to the consequences of their idolatry. Indeed, I'm not sure I see much of Paul's language in Romans 1:18-32 in the Wisdom passage (phthartos in Rom. 1:23 and Wis. 14:8 would be one example). That would need looking at much more closely.

If this is right and Romans 1:18-32 already contains an implicit critique of Jewish idolatry and immorality, it is much less likely that he is quoting Wisdom for the purpose of simply disagreeing with its bias against the Gentiles.

But the real problem is that I see no textual reason to think that in this passage Paul introduces Wisdom of Solomon as a debate partner. How was his readership supposed to know that he was being ironic here?

When we get to 2:1 his argument is that no one (Jew or Gentile) has any grounds for passing judgment on another because both groups are subject to the wrath of God: the Gentiles because they exchanged the glory of God for images, and the Jews because too often they behaved just like Gentiles. The argument carries all the way through to 2:11. At what point does Paul actually contradict his debate partner?


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