Tracing Paul’s argument in Romans: from Abraham to Jesus and beyond

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The second of two posts on Romans.

In my previous post, I offered a picture of the context at Rome which causes Paul to write this letter. It is written to a city in which divisions between Jews and Greeks focussed on claims about Jesus have previously boiled over, and may be heating up again. I noted that more than in most letters, with Romans you need a grasp of the overall argument to see the meaning of any individual reading. Today I offer that kind of outline of how I read this letter. There are others.

The Colosseum, built after Paul’s day, reminds us how much violence was a feature of life in the Roman Empire

Paul’s first three chapters, after an opening greeting, step straight into this. Paul initially takes up and repeats the common criticisms Jews made of the pagan world, and then he echoes some not atypical Roman anti-Semitic attacks on Jews. Both are shown to deserve the criticism the other dishes out, but Paul goes on to privilege the Jewish scriptural tradition, not because it was given to the Jews, but because it was given by God. God will be faithful even when God’s people are not. In point of fact, the scripture reinforces the mutual criticism Jew and Greek heap on each other, for it says “There is no-one righteous, no, not one.” (Rom 3:10)1

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A letter, not a compendium of theology: Paul writes to the Romans

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The first of two posts on Romans.

Rome’s chariot race track was already an established feature in Paul’s day.

Romans is Paul’s longest letter (just beating 1 Corinthians to the punch). It’s worth noting that this is why it comes first in the New Testament: Paul’s letters are organised in order of decreasing length. The Sunday lectionary contains readings from all its chapters except 2 and 3, so we need to spend a bit of time on it.

The number of readings reflects both its length, and the way it has been thought of, especially since the Reformation, as the most important of Paul’s letters, and a kind of compendium of his thought. Despite that long tradition, most people nowadays go at least part way to accepting that it is a response to specific circumstances, just like Paul’s other letters. It is written for a particular situation, not as a timeless treatise of theology. Different scholars give more or less weight to a whole range of different reasons, so I am going simply to outline my own speculation, which I think helps make sense of the letter’s content.

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