What is Romans Really About? (Revisited)

Romans by Jewett

When I read Romans straight through in one sitting a couple of years ago, I was surprised to see Paul’s emphasis on a community of believers. The justification by faith theme was there, to be sure, but I did not see quite the emphasis on individual and personal justification that I had expected. Of course Paul cares about individual justification, but his larger concern seems to be this: justification by faith in Jesus is available to all people. Because God’s salvation is pan-ethnic, Jew and Gentile should not fight but should celebrate instead their unity–since they both sin and are justified in the same way.

I’ve been encouraged the last couple of years to see a number of commentaries understanding the book in this same way. Robert Jewett describes his journey through Romans as a similar one.

Fortress Press is already a purveyor of some good Romans commentaries and monographs. I write here about Krister Stendahl’s Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Fortress also published the under-noticed Conflict and Identity in Romans by Philip Francis Esler, which I briefly note here. Jewett’s Romans: A Short Commentary is an abridgment of his more than 1,000 page Hermeneia volume on Romans. Kudos to Prof. Jewett and Fortress Press for publishing a shorter, more widely accessible, more affordable version of what has already become a bit of a classic among Romans commentaries.

In the Introduction to this short(er) commentary, Jewett writes:

The most troubling of [the interpretive] challenges was the slowly emerging awareness that the dominant paradigm for interpreting justification by faith as individual forgiveness of sins was not supported by the actual wording of Romans.

He states his case more strongly than I would, but he notes that the letter instead focuses on “honor and shame” and the effort to “bring together believing Jews and non-Jews in one community” (here he cites Halvor Moxnes). “I gradually recognized,” Jewett goes on, “that the central issue was setting the world right by overcoming its perverse systems of honor and shame.” The letter is “a magnificent example of evangelical persuasion.” In order to secure support for his missionary efforts in Spain, Paul would seek

that the gospel of impartial, divine righteousness revealed in Christ be clarified to rid it of prejudicial elements that were currently dividing the congregations in Rome. …The gospel offered grace to every group in equal measure, shattering the imperial premise of exceptionalism in virtue and honor.

The bigger brother
The bigger brother (click image for details)

This understanding of Romans is evident throughout the commentary. Though the 18 chapters proceed passage-by-passage, there is a lot of verse-level detail. There isn’t the same amount of text-critical or technical detail that you’d expect from a full-blown Hermeneia volume, but that’s the point. What is still very much present here is a sense of the theological import of each passage, as well as the important historical and literary background details.

Romans: A Short Commentary, like Stendhal’s volume, includes the author’s original translation of Romans at the back of the book. Having reference to the whole text is convenient, though this there is more flipping back and forth required than in Hermeneia, where the text is at the beginning of each commentary passage.

From the very beginning phrase, Jewett is at ease with the letter and draws the reader in with both expertise and readable style. On “Paul, slave of Christ Jesus,” a phrase which “sounds rather degrading to the modern ear,” Jewett notes, “This would have made perfect sense in a letter to Rome, where influential slaves in imperial service proudly bore the title ‘slave of Caesar.'” If there is a “single theme in Romans” (which Jewett seems to accept), it is “the gospel,” with Romans 1:16 “[setting] the tone for the entire letter.” His focus on the communal component of offering “your bodies as a sacrifice” in Romans 12 was fresh and interesting, too.

One unfortunate gap in the volume is exegesis of Romans 16:1-16 and 16:21-23. Though every other verse of Romans is otherwise covered, the commentary moves from “chapter 17” (which goes through 15:33) to “chapter 18” (which begins at 16:17). I can’t imagine this was an intentional oversight, especially given the importance of Romans 16 to Jewett’s read of the letter as a whole.

There is a page or so in the introduction where Jewett talks about those Paul greets and their congregations, but this shorter work does not further comment on the early part of chapter 16. The reader never gets to read Jewett’s elaboration on “the social structure of the Roman congregations,” even though he says elsewhere in this volume that “the actual climax of Paul’s letter runs from 15:14 through 16:24.”

Is Paul writing Romans 16:25-27 here?
Is Paul writing Romans 16:25-27 here?

The lack of any comment on these key verses is all the more felt by readers as a loss, since not all will find Jewett’s read of the rest of Romans 16 compelling. He says that the “varied endings of Paul’s letter” (16:17-20, 25-27) were “inserted into  Romans” after Paul died. This itself is not so bad (even if I’m not convinced), but part of his motivation for saying so is that these two endings are “anti-Pauline.” The “exhort” and “steer away” of 16:17, he says, are “angry, authoritarian, and discriminatory.” But how? What if Paul is chastising anti-Semites here?

And despite what I think is a convincing link between “obedience of faith to/for all the Gentiles” in 1:5 and 16:26, Jewett says that 16:25-27 is not by Paul. Worse, it has “encouraged the dominance of anti-Semitism in Christian theology,” since in it only Gentiles and not Jews are mentioned. He contrasts that with the opening chapter’s “the Jew first and then to the Greek.” While he makes a good case for the semantic style of this doxology being less like the rest of Romans, I think he over-reads the anti-Jewish element, which I don’t see at all. It comes across as an argument from silence to say that lack of mention of Jewish believers in 16:25-27 means that the writer now is “excluding” them.

So I would go elsewhere for exegesis on chapter 16.

The book is otherwise fairly well-reasoned, thoroughly-researched, and a nice distillation of Jewett’s massive work in the Hermeneia series. Readers will also note that Jewett is humble enough to offer adjustments of his exegesis from Hermeneia(E.g., “What I overlooked was….”) Readers, then, get even more up-to-date thinking and research from Prof. Jewett.

If you’re studying Romans in depth, you’ll still want to try to take a gander at the larger volume. But this smaller volume will do as an initial entry point into Jewett’s copious research on Paul’s important letter.

Thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy of Romans: A Shorter Commentary. Its publisher’s product page is here, and it is for sale at Amazon here.

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