reading Paul: 2

Nota bene: This is not a scholarly exercise but rather a readerly one. My students and I are not reading theologians or scholars of the New Testament. We are going so far as to try to forget what we know about the later development of Christianity. (Trying and failing, of course, but that doesn’t make the trying valueless.) We seek to place ourselves imaginatively in the minds of those for whom the Way was an emergent phenomenon. What did Paul’s letters sound like to them


Now we come to Romans, and what a change. All of our previous readings have been letters in the primary familiar sense of that term, clearly written from a distinct person to distinct other persons, emotionally colored by a highly particular history of experience. Not so this one. The differences are obvious from the opening salutation — dignified, expansive, layered with dependent clauses, adumbrating the themes of the letter as a whole: 

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

There’s no question that this is no hurriedly-dashed-off note, but rather a considered performance, full of oratorical flourishes. We might expect from this not a few notes based on the questions and concerns of a particular local congregation, but rather a highly organized treatise. And indeed that’s just what we get: a semi-systematic exposition of the Gospel as Paul understood it, in a fashion almost denuded of personality, at least as compared to the previous letters.

And as far as Chapter 8. After the glorious heights of that section of the letter — “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” — the tone alters markedly. Paul’s personality asserts itself, and we see flashes of the cranky and anxious man we have come to know from earlier letters. But now it is not “anxiety for all the churches” that afflicts him, but rather for the children of Israel: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” And what is perhaps even more striking about this section of the letter is how uncertain Paul’s views are: it seems obvious that he has received no clear revelation of the precise relationship of the Lord’s covenant with Israel and the salvation that has been accomplished by Jesus Christ. So in the end he can only say: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”