Three Myths About Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Myth #1

Part 2 in our series on Paul’s letter to the Romans reveals the first of three myths people hold about Romans: that Paul expected the church to read his letter. For part 1, click here. The obvious question in many readers minds is how it could be possible for Paul to write a letter he did not expect his recipients to read. But more pressing is the question of how this has anything to do with our interpretation of Romans. In fact, believing that Paul intended the church to read his letter can hinder us from living a godly lifestyle.

If Paul did not intend the Romans to read the letter, then what did he intend? Simple: he intended them to hear it read to them. If that is so, then the nature of the letter to the Romans is different from what most scholars and commentators have been telling us for hundreds of years. Failure to realize that Romans was written as a speech, rather than a letter, has resulted in misinterpretation of a very important passage in Romans, with grave results. Let us see how Romans 7:14-25 should be interpreted, taking into account the rhetorical nature of Paul’s words.

Myth #1: Paul expected the congregation to read the letter.

I know it sounds crazy to think that Paul did not intend the church at Rome to read his letter, but in fact, most of the church at Rome could not read Paul’s letter even though they wanted to. The world in which Paul wrote his letters was largely illiterate. It is estimated that only 10%-20% of the Greco-Roman world in Paul’s day even knew how to read.[1] That means the great majority of Paul’s recipients had no way of reading the letters he wrote. Then why did he send his communications in the form of letters? The answer is rather simple. Letters were more a form of transportation than of communication. The ancient letter was a receptacle for holding the communication, which was meant to be delivered orally.

The Book of Revelation offers evidence of this. Revelation is written as a letter – the greeting appears in 1:4-5 –  and it contains specific letters to seven congregations (see ch. 2-3). Yet John did not intend his recipients to read his letter. In the introduction he says, “blessed is the one who reads…and blessed are those who hear it” (Rev 1:3). Notice that only one person is reading the letter, but multiple people are “hearing” it. That is because Revelation was written to be delivered orally to a group of people, most of whom could not read for themselves. Note Witherington’s words:

Most ancient documents, including letters, were not really texts in the modern sense at all.

They were composed with aural and oral potential in mind, and they were meant to be orally

delivered when they arrived at their destinations.”[2]

Romans is no different. It was not intended to be read by the congregation, but to the congregation. That is why the letter is constructed as a piece of oratory. Paul knew the rules of ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric, and his use of rhetorical devices runs throughout the letter.[3] If we recognize these devices, we can offer a correct interpretation of some confusing passages in Romans that historically have been misinterpreted by the church. One example will suffice.

Paul the impersonator

To this day, commentators debate over who Paul refers to with the use of the personal pronoun “I” in Rom 7:14-25. The majority position since the time of Augustine has been that Paul refers to himself, and in many cases it is asserted that he describes the normal Christian life when he tells of his inability to do what is right: “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v. 15).[4] This may describe the inner struggle of the commentator who interprets Paul this way, but it is not a fair description of the apostle. Paul referred to himself as a consummate Pharisee who was “blameless” regarding his observation of the law (Phil 3:6). Even his persecution of Christians was not the result of losing a struggle to do what was right; it was what he thought was right at the time, another proud notch in his belt demonstrating what a good Jew he was. How can we think that Paul had an easier time obeying the law before he met Christ than he did after his conversion?

One can only hope that the original recipients of Romans had an easier time understanding its meaning than we do today. Fortunately, they did, because the first century Greco-Roman world was more familiar with rhetorical techniques than most readers of Romans are today. It turns out Paul was employing a rhetorical device called impersonation in Romans 7. He impersonates two characters: one in verses 7-13 and another in verses 14-25.

Impersonation is a rhetorical device whereby an orator mimics another well-known person. For the impersonation to work effectively, the orator must change his voice. Paul does this with a shift of pronouns, from the third person to the first person, “I.” Also, by using past tense verbs in verses 7-13 Paul indicates he is impersonating a character from the past. When he shifts to the present tense in verse 14, he changes to impersonate someone in the present. But who is he impersonating?

Paul cues his audience to identify the person he is impersonating by saying something that the audience will quickly recognize could only have been said by the person being impersonated. In the 1990s, it was popular to quote lines like, “I’ll be back” or “I didn’t inhale,” and everyone knew who we were “impersonating.” Only a decade or two later, many – especially young – people, do not recognize these once famous lines. With that in mind, we should accept that we might not recognize the lines used by a 1st century impersonator as readily as the original audience did. Nevertheless, Paul used a line in each of his impersonations to indicate who he was impersonating.

In verse 9 Paul says something that only one person in human history could have said: “Once I was alive apart from law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” Paul is speaking about spiritual life, because sin caused its end. Commentators ponder whether Paul refers to his bar mitzvah or his conversion, or maybe to Israel at Sinai. But none of these suggestions adequately reflects Paul’s words. No Jew would ever consider himself to be “apart from law” at any point in his life. Circumcised on the eighth day, observing Sabbath and the feast days and the food diet, even a Jewish baby is subject to the law. Bar mitzvah is the maturing into manhood under the law, not the introduction to the law. Neither an unconverted Paul nor Israel at Sinai were apart from law, or alive before entering into covenant with God. Only one person could accurately say “Once I was alive apart from law.” That person is Adam.

Only Adam was truly alive when he was created. All other humans are born dead, spiritually speaking. And only Adam was truly apart from law, for before the commandment not to eat of a certain tree, there was no law. Paul’s recipients would have caught on to this and they would have been able to recognize that Paul referred to Adam. Here are a few markers that helped them.

The word “commandment” is given, not “law,” suggesting this is not a reference to the Mosaic law. The word is also singular, not plural, which would be necessary, since only one commandment was given to Adam in the garden. Also, in verses 7 and 8 Paul refers not to sin in general, but to coveting in particular. To the modern reader this sounds like just an example of sin, or to Paul’s particular problem. But the 1st century hearer knew that Jewish tradition taught that the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden was the breaking of the 10th Commandment.[5] The reference to coveting in verses 7-8 point the hearers straight to the Garden of Eden and the sin of Adam. If Paul was impersonating Adam in verses 7-13, then who was he impersonating in verses 14-25. The answer to this question gets at the heart of our discussion.

Was Paul a slave to sin?

The most popular interpretation of a passage is not necessarily the correct one. This is especially true when an interpretation is the product of tradition, not exegetical precision. The reason so many commentators think Paul refers to himself as a mature believer in verses 14-25 is because this is what Augustine taught, and his view was adopted by Luther. Most commentaries on Romans are highly influenced by Luther’s views. If constantly struggling with sin and frequently failing in our struggle is normal for Christians, then we are in a lot of trouble. If the blood of Jesus is not powerful enough to rescue us from sin, then how can we be sure it will be powerful enough to raise us from the dead? A powerless gospel is being preached in pulpits all over the Western world. Perhaps if we interpret Romans 7:15-25 the way Paul intended, we will see that there really is power in the blood of Jesus and that he really does set us free from the power of sin.

In verse 14 Paul shifts to present tense verbs, indicating he is no longer impersonating Adam, but continuing to use the pronoun, “I,” he is still engaged in impersonation. Who is he impersonating? This time it is not a well known  individual, per se. It is any person who is “in Adam.” This is clear from his opening statement: “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (v. 14). To those who think Paul is referring to himself we ask, would Paul ever refer to himself by saying he is unspiritual? Would he ever say he is sold as a slave to sin? At the least, we must conclude that this cannot be Paul as a believer. But the present tense verbs seem to require that if the “I” is Paul, it must be the present time Paul, which is Paul as a believer.

But Paul has already cued the hearer to understand that the “I” here is not Paul as a believer or any other Christian, for Paul already said in 6:17-18: “You used to be slaves to sin…You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” Having said this, he knows his hearers will understand that the “I” in 7:14-25 is an unconverted person. There is no other conclusion we can draw without making Paul contradict himself. Therefore, there is no way that 7:14-25 can be considered the normal Christian life.

The struggle Paul descries in chapter 7 is the struggle of every man who is caught between two ages. The age to come speaks of righteousness, and the law describes what this righteousness looks like. But the present evil age constantly tells us it is impossible to live up to the standards of the law. The sin problem that Adam left us makes it impossible for us to fully obey the law’s demands. This is the dilemma that Jesus solved by dying for our sins. When we are living in our “Adam-ness” we struggle with sin. When we are converted and become “in Christ,” the struggle ends, and by the Spirit we walk in newness of life. That is what Paul describes in chapter 8.

Understanding Paul as a rhetor using impersonation in chapter 7 makes chapters 5-8 fit together into a cohesive whole. Chapter 5 shows the contrast between what Adam brought humanity and what Jesus brought humanity. Chapter 6 describes the benefits of crossing over from Adam to Christ. we are set free from sin and bondage and death. Chapter 7 shows the struggle of the person who wants to be free from what Adam gave him, but lacks the power to do so. The law only points out their failure, lacking the power to bring change. Chapter 8 shows how Christ, through the Spirit, provides the power to be set free from sin and death.

Most readers of Romans are unable to show a logical flow of thought from Romans 5 to Romans 8. Worse is the lack of ability of most Christians to live the kind of life described in Romans 8, seeing their lives more accurately described in chapter 7. The power to live a life pleasing to God is present in every believer in the form of the Holy Spirit. The first step is to believe that it is possible to live free from the power of sin. This does not mean never sinning again. But  it does mean never having to sin again. There will be times when we fail, when we accidentally do something wrong, but there is never a time when we have to commit an intentional act of sin. The power of sin over our lives is broken! we do not have to keep repeating the sins of our past.

Misinterpreting Romans 7 has had the effect of convincing millions of believers that they cannot expect to have victory over sin in this life, and if they do not believe it is possible, they will never experience the victory. Correctly interpreting Romans 7 opens the door for believers to believe they can be free, and to begin to live the kind of life described in chapter 8. In my next article I will expose the myth that Romans is a theological treatise. When we understand that Paul wrote this letter to a specific congregation that had unique problems that Paul addresses in the letter, we will be better able to understand Paul’s purpose in writing Romans, and to interpret some key theological passages in the letter.

[1] Ben Witherington III, What’s In the Word: Rethinking the Socio-Rhetorical Character of the New Testament (Waco: Baylor Univ., 2009), 7-8. Witherington notes that, “as far as we can tell, no documents in antiquity were intended for ‘silent’ reading…They were always meant to be read out loud, usually to a group of people” (8).

[2] Witherington, What’s in the Word, 8.

[3] Ben Witherington III has written a series of commentaries based on the observation that Paul’s letters were pieces of oratory. For more understanding of the use of rhetoric in Paul’s letters, consult these commentaries, esp. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[4] C.E.B. Cranfield; John Murray; C.K. Barrett; Leon Morris; Anders Nygren; and James D.G. Dunn are among those who have written highly acclaimed commentaries asserting that Paul refers to himself as a mature Christian. According to these commentators, the most a believer can expect from God is a life of frustration and futility at continued failed attempts to live pleasing to him. Some of these commentaries are the most highly regarded and most influential in print today. The majority position is that the “I” refers to Paul as a Jew under the law. They still take the pronoun literally, not recognizing the rhetorical device being employed.

[5] See 4 Ezra 7:11; BSanh. 50b.


2 comments on “Three Myths About Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Myth #1

  1. Joel Wolfe says:

    Steve, I was interested to see what you had to say about Romans when you announced you would be starting this blog. I have enjoyed thinking through again this section of Romans in light of your recent post, but I find myself in a bit of a quandary. On one hand, I would like to post my thoughts, which are a critique of the position you take. On the other, after writing them, I see that they run to over a page in length, and I don’t know what the proper etiquette for blog responses is. I have decided to post these thoughts, even though lengthy, but if in the future you prefer I don’t, just send me a message that these are not the type of responses you have in mind.

    I prefer the majority interpretation, and I think it may be a stretch to say that the majority interpretation is “the product of tradition, not exegetical precision.” All interpreters are looking at the text, and I think the view you present has some weaknesses.

    You contrast Romans 7 with Paul’s blamelessness as a Pharisee. I suggest that he is discussing different issues in those two settings, and don’t forget that Paul also said, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified… Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 9:27; 10:12 NKJV). These statements would align at least as well, and maybe better, with the majority view as with the view you propose.

    The shift from past tense to present tense can be explained based on the topics being addressed in each section as easily as proposing they shift to indicate he is impersonating a different person.

    Paul’s statement of being alive in verse 9 does make sense apart from assigning it to Adam only – it is a picture of what he describes in verse 5: “For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death.” Death is pictured as the result of the law stirring one’s passions (not the initial state of the person). Paul restates this in a vivid way using first person past tense to illustrate that all (including himself) have been impacted by the law in this way. He is not referring to one specific event – so trying to assign it to bar mitzvah or conversion does not fit Paul’s use.

    You argue that the word “commandment” is used rather than “law”, and that this suggests the reference is not to the Mosaic law. Law is used in verses 7, 8, 9 and 12 and commandment used in verses 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. This doesn’t support the distinction you make. It is better to see commandment as a referring to a specific statement in the law, which corresponds with Paul’s use in Eph. 6:2 when referring to honoring father and mother.

    Rather than his use of the specific commandment of coveting being a reference to a Jewish tradition regarding Adam and Eve, it can as easily be explained by the commandment’s internal nature and applicability to all. It also readily sets up the internal battle that he portrays in the next section.

    You proposed that the second person Paul impersonates is “any person who is ‘in Adam’” or “an unconverted person” and give some arguments for that view. You avoid, however, this person’s statements that “I delight in the law of God according to the inward man” (v. 22) and “with the mind I myself serve the law of God” (v. 25). I think these muddy the water of your argument.

    The struggle Paul describes in chapter 7 is not just about 2 ages, but also about the role of the law in those two ages. You correctly contrast being in Adam and being in Christ, but fail to point out the overlap of these realities for the Christian. If they did not overlap, Paul would not have told the church, “reckon yourselves…”, “do not let sin reign…”, do not present your members…”, and “present yourselves to God…” (6:11-13). The Christian can live in their “Adam-ness”. The good news is that they don’t have to – they have been set free. But the path to that freedom is not found in returning to a law oriented mindset, but to the life of faith empowered by the Spirit. The section of Romans 7 that you ascribe to Paul’s second impersonation I would say is describing how the law can function negatively in the Christian’s life. The good news is that the Christian can be set free from a law orientation to a faith orientation empowered by the Spirit, which Paul goes on to describe.

    The logical flow of Romans does fit the perspective I’ve described in the previous paragraph. Yes, chapter 6 does describe the benefits, but don’t miss that these benefits are not automatically applied. Chapters 7 and 8 unpack this reality and describe the power of sin under the law but the greater power of the work of the Spirit accessed by those who by faith set their minds on the things of the Spirit (8:5).

    I think that if believers do not have victory over sin, maybe the issue is that they have not learned to walk in the life of the Spirit described in Romans 8 rather than that they need a new interpretation of Romans 7.

  2. Theodore A. Jones says:

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    You’ll never figure Romans out unless you understand which law Paul is referencing. 2;13 is not referencing the OT code. The law that is referenced in 2:13 is a word that has been added into law after the murder, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. It should have been apparent to you that OP’s conjecture was hot air since you can’t interpret a statement by starting in the middle.

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