Your missing N. T. WRIGHT

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Dan Francis | Forum Activity | Posted: Thu, Dec 29 2011 7:58 PM

Many of you have the N. T. WRIGHT collection, one thing you don't have  in Logos is his commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter's Bible ….

Here is a look at Romans 3:1-20

Romans 3:1-8, Israel’s Faithlessness and God’s Faithfulness

Link to: Romans 3:1


The force of this section is only grasped when two things are appreciated: the “symphonic” structure of the letter (see Introduction), in which themes are hinted at in advance of their full statement, and the underlying subject of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and Israel’s vocation to an answering faithfulness through which God’s purpose for the world will be accomplished. Paul is concerned here not so much with the sinfulness of all Jews, important though that is, as with Israel’s failure to carry out the divine commission, to be the means of the world’s salvation. The thought remains dense and sometimes elliptical, but the clear point emerges: God remains faithful to the covenant plan even though Israel has failed in the covenant task. 

Israel’s failure puts God into an apparently awkward position. Will not the divine righteousness at one level generate unrighteousness at another? Paul rebuts these charges briefly without actually



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answering them fully; he will return to them in due course.79 For the moment his aim is to assert the continuing faithfulness of God, despite Israel’s failure; this then clears the ground for the point (which many have assumed was the only one in the entire section) that Jews have joined Gentiles in the dock, guilty as charged.

3:1-2.  What then of Israel? The question is natural in view of the end of chap. 2. If God is capable of calling “Jews” from among the uncircumcised, what was the point of being Jewish, or being circumcised, in the first place? Paul, given the chance to offer a radically Marcionite answer (e.g., “None whatever!”), has no intention of doing so. The God revealed in Jesus Christ, as he will make clear in the next two chapters, remains the God of Abraham, the covenant God. His answer gives the clue to his real concern throughout the paragraph. The Jews were entrusted with God’s oracles. (Paul says “in the first place,” but never gets round to saying “in the second place.” Until, that is, chap. 9.)

“The oracles” ta; lovgia (ta logia) is an unusual phrase, found only here in Paul (it is used for the “oracles” of the prophet Balaam in Num 24:4, 16 and often for words spoken by God to Israel; e.g., Deut 33:9 and frequently in Psalm 119; in the NT, see Acts 7:38; Heb 5:12; 1 Pet 4:11). In its pagan usage it often referred to oracles in the technical sense: short utterances given, supposedly under inspiration, at shrines such as Delphi. A ruler would send emissaries to an oracular shrine, who would return entrusted with the (often cryptic) words of the deity, not for themselves but for their master. In addition, the priest or priestess at the shrine would themselves be “entrusted” by the god with the message for the recipient. This explains well enough the sense of Paul’s comment. The Jews were “entrusted” with messages for the world; not simply with Torah itself, but, through their living under Torah, with words of instruction, of life and light, for the Gentile world. They were to be God’s messengers. The fact that this theme is so evident in the present paragraph is further proof of the reading of 2:17-29 proposed above.

3:3.  Paul’s basic answer is the central point of the paragraph. Israel’s faithlessness cannot nullify God’s faithfulness. He expresses this as a question, but the Greek construction demonstrates that he clearly expects the answer “No.” We should note, despite the NIV’s translation “What if some did not have faith?,” that Paul is not so concerned with whether they “had faith” in the sense of “Christian faith,” a personal trust in the God who raises the dead, but rather with their faithfulness–faithfulness (that is) to the commission to be God’s messenger people. The Greek word pivsti" (pistis), used here for the first time in the body of the letter (i.e., since 1:17), is much broader than the English “faith,” particularly in some of its theological developments, and encompasses the meanings “trustworthiness” and “loyalty” as well as what we have come to think of as its more “religious” meanings (personal trust in, and knowledge of, God and belief in true statements about God). It is clearly the broader meaning that is on view here, both in its negative form, applied to Israel (unfaithfulness, untrustworthiness) and in its positive form, applied to God (faithfulness, reliability). The pivsti" qeou` (pistis theou), “God’s trustworthiness,” is thus clearly one aspect of, one way of referring to, the dikaiosuvnh qeou` (dikaiosyne theou), “God’s righteousness.” God’s covenant always envisaged Israel’s being faithful to the commission to be the light of the world; Israel’s untrustworthiness does not abolish God’s trustworthiness. It merely sharpens up the question: What will God do now?

3:4.  To back up the point, Paul quotes Ps 51:4 [50:6 LXX], the great prayer of repentance ascribed to David after his adultery with Bathsheba.80 The verse indicates the abject sorrow of the penitent, acknowledging that when God condemns this sin there will be no question about the rightness of the verdict. God’s words are true, even if all human words prove false. It is interesting to observe that when Paul alludes to or mentions David, here and in 4:6-8, it is in connection with sin and forgiveness.81 The psalm goes on, of course, to speak of the new heart that God will create within the penitent and the gift of the Holy Spirit–“new covenant” themes, in other words,



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that tie in, via Ezekiel 36, with the close of chap. 2. The verse Paul quotes stresses that sinful humanity, and sinful Israel, can have no claim on God.

3:5-6.  This raises an apparent problem, caused perhaps by the language of the psalm as much as anything else. It might seem as though God were acting as judge and executioner in a case where the two parties at law were Israel and–God’s own self! This would constitute flagrant injustice; how could the party on trial also judge the case fairly? But Paul is quick to point out that God is not actually at law with Israel; God is the cosmic judge, who must bring justice to the whole world. Some scriptural passages do speak of God having a lawsuit against Israel, but the more fundamental truth is that God is the judge.82 

3:7-8.  The same objection is now put from another angle, returning to the truth/falsehood antithesis of v. 4. This is not so much a legal dilemma, but an apparent absurdity at a less formal level.

Paul slips into the first-person singular (“my falsehood,” “why am I condemned?”). This does not mean that he is thinking of himself as an individual, nor simply that he is personalizing the argument for the sake of rhetorical impact. He is in effect anticipating the rhetorical move of 7:7-25 (see the commentary at that point), where the “I” is a way of talking about Israel while not seeming to stand over against “his kinsmen according to the flesh.” The fact that he moves back to treating Jews in general in v. 9 strongly supports this reading. The question is then, if Israel’s falsehood means that God’s truthfulness shines out all the more brightly, why should God object? Surely “I” should not then be condemned–in other words, surely God cannot actually endorse what was said in 2:17-29, not least 2:27? The deepest charge against Israel in 2:17-24, after all, was that God’s name was being blasphemed because of Israel’s disobedience to Torah. Very well, if God’s glory is enhanced by this process, surely God will now be pleased? Why should “I” then be condemned as though “I” were a aJmartwlov" (hamarto los), a “sinner,” a mere pagan, one of the lesser breeds outside the Torah?83 (This question again reflects the charge Paul has been mounting throughout the previous paragraphs: The condemnation incurred by the pagans falls on Israel as well.)

Paul does not deign to answer this question, but instead amplifies it by referring to a still more blatant attack on the integrity of his theology. Some, he says, have been slandering him (lit., “blaspheming” him; but the word had a more general sense); some are reporting him as saying “let us do evil that good may come.”84 In other words, the “evil” of Israel’s failure has brought the “good” of the gospel–a point one can understand people thinking on the basis of, say, Rom 11:11-15–so why not apply the principle more generally?

Paul’s only comment on this is the heavily ironic one: Here at least is someone whose condemnation is manifestly just. If nothing else about God’s judgment is certain, it is thoroughly deserved by people who can say such a thing–either in general, or as a caricature of Paul’s teaching.

Why has Paul allowed himself even to note these problems, providing so much puzzlement for subsequent readers, without giving answers? Part of the answer, as we hinted earlier, is that he had to acknowledge them after what he had said in 2:25-29 (and indeed 2:13-15). But a further and deeper reason, which will emerge in 3:21-26, is that the gospel itself reveals God’s righteousness, precisely that righteousness that is called into question in the ways outlined so briefly here.

The fuller answer, though, comes in chaps. 9—11, where the same questions recur:



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3:1, “What is the point of being a Jew?” corresponds to 9:1-5 as a whole;

3:3, “Has Israel’s failure impugned the faithfulness of God to the words previously issued?” corresponds to 9:6, “It is not as though God’s word had failed”;

3:5, “Is God then unjust?” corresponds to 9:14, “Is there injustice with God?”;

3:7, “Why am I still condemned?” corresponds to 9:19, “Why does God still find fault?”

3:9, as we shall see below, corresponds in all sorts of ways to 9:30—10:21. In addition, the narrative logic of chap. 3, in which the failure of Israel leads to the fresh revelation of God’s righteousness (3:21-26), corresponds closely to the narrative logic of the whole of 9—11, focused particularly on 10:1-4.


We should also note that in 7:7-25 we find a much fuller presentation of Israel’s failure and of the strange way in which the Torah was involved in it, which develops the thought of 2:17-29 and prepares the way for chaps. 9—11. There, too, the first-order problem is not “legalism” so much as lawbreaking. The second-order problem there is the plight of Israel, called to be under Torah and yet discovering that it condemns rather than giving life–again, not too far from 2:17-29, and ending with a cry of frustration that bears some relation to the (admittedly more cynical) questions of 3:7-8. There, too, the statement of the problem in 7:7-25 prepares the ground for the statement of the solution in 8:1-11, just as the present passage prepares for 3:21—4:25, both “solutions” hinging on the death of Jesus. All in all, then, the present paragraph is thoroughly integrated into the rest of the letter.

All this indicates how Paul’s mind works as he paints on this grand theological canvas, and how vital it is, if we are to grasp his full picture, to look to other places where the same theme is treated. At the same time, we must remember the role of the passage in its own context. Paul is doing much more than rehearsing the same argument two or three times, in more detail perhaps, just for the sake of it. So what role does the rapid listing of questions in 3:1-8 play within 1:18—3:20, the section within which it belongs?

The paragraph forms a vital part of three things that are going on simultaneously here. First, it is part of the specific theme of universal human sinfulness (see below on 3:19-20). If Jews are to be included in this indictment–the basic problem being not that they are legalists or moralists, but that their boast is undercut by their own lawbreaking–this raises questions that must be addressed, or at least noted, before the conclusion can be drawn (3:10-20). Thus the sequence of thought runs: 2:17-29, initial accusation against Israel; 3:1-8, weighty theological objections to such an accusation (if it is true, what does that do to your wider theology?); 3:9-20, confirming the truth of the initial accusation.

Second, the paragraph belongs also with the second-order charge that Paul levels against Israel: that, commissioned to be God’s messenger people, the light of the world, it was disloyal to God and failed in the commission. Since the commission was God’s answer to the problem of idolatry and dissolution (1:18-32), the problem might now seem insoluble. Paul here asserts that God will remain faithful; in other words, that despite Israel’s failure the problem of universal sin will be addressed and dealt with.

Third, therefore, and overarching both of these, the paragraph is part of the larger theme of God’s righteousness revealed in the gospel. The character of God is a major theme here; within vv. 2-7 alone Paul deals with God’s oracles, God’s faithfulness, God’s truth (twice), God’s justice, God’s wrath, God’s judgment, and God’s glory. He has already argued in 1:18—2:29 that the gospel reveals God’s impartial judgment, enabling one to understand present moral chaos as an anticipation of the coming wrath. Objections to this are noted in 3:1-8 (it seems to impugn God’s character), and they are answered in such a way as to prepare for the description of the unveiling of God’s righteousness (3:21—4:25). If God is to be true to character, if the promises are to be fulfilled, what is needed is a faithful Israelite who will act on behalf of, and in the place of, faithless Israel. Paul will argue in 3:21-26 that God has provided exactly that.

First, however, the lawcourt scene must be rounded off. The Gentile world has long since been arraigned and found guilty. Paul will now insist that all Jews belong in the dock as well, with nothing to say in their own defense. (See Reflections at 3:9-20.)



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Romans 3:9-20, Torah Puts Jews in the Dock Alongside Gentiles

Link to: Romans 3:9


“Whatever Torah says, it speaks to those under the law” (lit., “in the law,” 3:19). This is the clue to the present paragraph, with its string of scriptural quotations. Having already argued for the universality of Gentile sin and guilt, Paul now needs to emphasize that the Jews must be seen in the dock alongside the pagans. This has been where his argument has been going for some while, but 2:17-29 and 3:1-9 are not just part of the indictment; they are aimed at answering potential objections, at getting rid of excuses, before the final word is spoken. 

The biblical quotations come from Israel’s Scriptures and are themselves indictments, not of pagans, but of Jews. Scripture itself, in other words, bears witness against those to whom it was entrusted, leaving the whole world accountable to God (cf. 10:19-21). Paul sums up the problem in terms of the impossibility of anyone being justified by Torah, since all Torah can now do is to point to



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sin. This will enable him to move at once to demonstrate how the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel has dealt with precisely this problem.

3:9.  The words of v. 9 could, as they stand, bear several different meanings. Once the train of thought of the chapter as a whole is grasped, however, the options are reduced effectively to one.85 Paul has been arguing that the privileges of the Jews are real, even though they have been squandered; he has answered his own question of v. 1 with “much in every way.” This verse asks a different question: So, then, are we Jews in a better position, in absolute terms? Are we still, in J. B. Phillips’s translation, “a march ahead” of everyone else? Since the answer is filled out not only in the second half of v. 9 but also in vv. 10-20 as a whole, we can deduce that it almost certainly should be “no, not at all.”86 

Paul now begins a lawcourt metaphor, which he will develop further in vv. 19-20. He has already laid a charge, like a plaintiff in a case; a charge against both Jews and Greeks (“Greeks” here, as usual, is a metonym for “Gentiles in general”), alleging that they are both “under sin” (NIV, taking the text exactly), i.e., “under the power of sin” (NRSV). By “already charged” he is referring back, obviously, to the argument that began in 1:18. He has not, however, mentioned the word aJmartiva (hamartia, “sin”) up to this point and has only used the cognate verb aJmartavnw (hamartano) in 2:12, first of Gentiles and then of Jews (see also aJmartwlov" hamarto los in 3:7). Clearly Paul regards “laying a charge of being under (the power of) sin” as an accurate summary of all that he has said so far. This introduces us to another major theme in the letter, that of “sin” as a personified force and of the slavery of humankind to this force.

In Paul’s usage, “sin” refers not just to individual human acts of “sin,” of missing the mark (the basic meaning of the word) as regards the divine intention for full human flourishing and fulfillment. “Sin” takes on a malevolent life of its own, exercising power over persons and communities. It is almost as though by “sin” Paul is referring to what in some other parts of the Bible is meant by “Satan” (though Paul can use that language too; e.g., 16:20); this is particularly striking in 7:7-25. By analyzing the human plight in this way he is able to introduce the notion of enslavement to sin (e.g., 6:20) and thereby to clear the way for his own version of the story of the exodus: for Pharaoh, read “sin”; for Passover and Red Sea, read the death and resurrection of Jesus; for the arrival at Sinai and the giving of Torah, read the Spirit; for inheriting the promised land, read the renewal of all creation. This sequence of thought, as we shall see, determines a good deal of the shape of Romans 5—8. In the present chapter this is anticipated in the dense description of the death of Jesus in 3:24-26 (on which see below).

3:10-18.  Paul arranges his string of biblical quotations quite carefully.87 He opens with the general charge that no one is “righteous,” anticipating the conclusion in v. 20. The rest of the description is framed by charges of impiety: Nobody understands, or seeks after God (v. 11); nobody keeps the fear of God before their eyes (v. 18). Within this, he draws up a comprehensive charge of going astray (v. 12), wicked speech (vv. 13-14), and violent behavior (vv. 15-17).

As always with Paul’s biblical quotations, it is worth checking the contexts to see whether he might have intended wider reference than simply the words quoted.88 After the opening line, which corresponds both to Eccl 7:20 and Ps 14:1, Paul quotes at length from Ps 14:53, which ends with a prayer that God would deliver Israel out of captivity. He then moves to Ps 5:9, the denunciation of those whose throat is an open sepulcher and who deceive with their tongue; the previous verse



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prays that YHWH would lead the psalmist “in your righteousness.” Continuing in vv. 13-14 the theme of the wickedness of the mouth and tongue, Ps 140:3 adds to Paul’s list of charges that the unrighteous have adders’ poison under their lips, and Ps 10:7 that their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Both psalms beseech YHWH that he would act at last, to judge the wicked and establish the kingdom for ever. All of these wider themes, clearly, fit within the overall subject matter of Romans 1—3.

We then move in v. 15 to Isa 59:7-8, the complaint that the wicked are swift to shed blood, bring ruin and destruction, and do not know the way of peace. Of all the chapters in the Hebrew Scriptures, this is the one that most strikingly depicts YHWH discovering that there is no righteousness to be had in the world, and so putting on the clothes of righteousness and salvation to rescue the covenant people and judge their adversaries (59:16-18). The chapter ends with YHWH coming to Zion as redeemer–a passage Paul will quote in 11:26–and establishing the divine covenant with Israel, putting the divine spirit within them. Psalm 36:2, the final quotation (“there is no fear of God before their eyes”), moves on to a paean of praise of God’s mercy and faithfulness (36:5), God’s righteousness and judgments (v. 6), and ends with a prayer for God’s mercy and righteousness to abide with Israel and for the wicked to be judged at last (36:10-12).

This is too much for coincidence. What looked at first like a repetitious list of biblical quotations, apparently laboring the point that all are deeply wicked, turns out to be a subtle sequence of thought, linking in at virtually every point with the themes from Paul’s surrounding argument. The surface meaning of the text is clear, that all who are “under the law” are condemned as sinners; but the subtext is saying all the time, “Yes; and in precisely this situation God will act, because of the divine righteousness, to judge the world, to rescue the helpless, to establish the covenant.” Had Paul been a composer, we may suspect that he would not only have written strong, clear tunes; he would also have been a master of harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration.

3:19.  To conclude the matter, Paul returns to lawcourt imagery. The Torah (here taken as the whole of the Jewish scriptures, not merely as the first five books) addresses those “in the law,” so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world be accountable to God. The stopping of the mouth, by placing a hand over it, was a conventional sign to indicate that one had no more to say in one’s own defense; if an obviously guilty defendant continued to speak, the court might of course order that his mouth be stopped for him (cf. Acts 23:2; the NIV’s and NRSV’s “silenced” describes the effect, but loses the forensic significance of the physical stopping of the mouth). The term uJpovdiko" (hypodikos, “accountable”) probably carries a negative sense; not just “answerable” (which might imply that a good answer could be forthcoming), but “guilty and punishable.” This is confirmed by the “because” at the start of the next verse, explaining as it does why the only evidence that can be produced is evidence of sin. The case has been heard; the defendants have no more to say; they stand in the dock awaiting the verdict, which can only go one way.

3:20.  The diovti (dioti) that opens v. 20 certainly means “for” (NRSV) or “because,” not “therefore.”89 This verse offers the logical ground for 3:19, not the other way around. The Torah speaks to those under the Torah, says Paul, with the result that every mouth is stopped, because (v. 20a) nobody will be justified by works of Torah, because (v. 20b) through Torah comes knowledge of sin.90 To remove all doubt, turn the sequence the other way around: Torah brings knowledge of sin, therefore no one will be justified by “works of Torah,” therefore when Torah speaks it leaves those “under Torah” without any defense. Paul has, no doubt, left this point (about the role of Torah in the process) until last in order that he may then state the new point of 3:21 with maximum rhetorical effect.

This verse is one of those points in a Pauline argument where each phrase needs to be weighed with particular care.



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To begin with the subject of the sentence: “No human being” (NRSV) and “no one” (NIV) do not capture the nuance of Paul’s phrase. In alluding to Ps 143:2 [142:2 LXX], it is striking that he says, literally, “all flesh [pa`sa savrx pasa sarx] shall not be justified.”91 “Flesh,” as we saw at 1:3, is a heavily loaded term for Paul. It designates, not so much ordinary physicality as opposed to non-material existence, but rather humankind seen as physically corruptible and morally rebellious, heading for death in both senses. It can also carry the sense of Jewish “flesh,” sharing the problem of “fleshly” humanity, with the “fleshly” badge of circumcision only serving to emphasize this identification. That, indeed, is an important part of the argument of Galatians. Although, therefore, Paul’s “all flesh” here means the whole of humanity, it is strikingly appropriate, within his wider theology, that he should use it when insisting that the Jews must join the Gentiles as guilty defendants before the judgment seat of God.

Though Paul is not quoting the psalm verbatim, he clearly intends to refer to it. Once more he seems to have the wider scriptural context in mind.92 Psalm 143 is a prayer invoking the faithfulness and righteousness of YHWH (Ps 143:1), pleading for deliverance, not on the basis of any merit (since, as v. 2 says, no one living is righteous before God), but simply for the sake of God’s name and God’s righteousness (v. 11). Though the surface level of Paul’s argument demands that he quote v. 2, the underlying theme of the whole section now drawing to a close, and of that about to begin, is the righteousness of God. God, being righteous, must judge the wicked; but those who are not righteous themselves may nevertheless cast themselves on God’s righteousness to find deliverance.

What, then, does Paul mean, “by works of the law shall no flesh be justified before God”? How does this relate to 2:13, where “the doers of the law” shall be justified? 

The question can only be answered fully in relation to the many other passages where Paul speaks of “works of the law.” But a preliminary answer may be given here, to be filled out as the commentary progresses and with additional sidelong glances at Galatians.

Justification, in this passage, is clearly a lawcourt term. We may remind ourselves that the Greek words “justify” (dikaiovw dikaioo) and “justification” (dikaivwsi" dikaio sis) belong to the same root as “righteous” (divkaio" dikaios) and “righteousness” (dikaiosuvnh dikaiosyne). Attempts to clarify this in English by choosing one of the two roots and forcing it through (“just, justice” rather than “righteous, righteousness”; “rightwise, rightwising” rather than “justify,” “justification”) bring other problems and have not commanded general assent. As noted in the Introduction, when Paul uses this language he has three interlocking spheres of reference in mind. The language most naturally belongs in the lawcourt;93 the overarching concept in Paul’s mind is God’s covenant with Israel, the covenant through which (as though in a cosmic lawcourt) the world will be put to rights. And the critical turn in the argument is eschatological: Paul’s affirmation that the final lawcourt scene has been brought forward into the present, that the divine “righteousness” has been disclosed already in Jesus the Messiah.

Put simply, then, Paul’s point here is that the verdict of the court, i.e., of God, cannot be that those who have “works of Torah” on their record will receive the verdict “righteous.” We remind ourselves again that he is not speaking of Gentiles here, but of Jews; we already know, from 1:18—2:16, that Gentiles will not be justified as they stand. “The Jew” of 2:17 will come into court, metaphorically speaking, and “rest in the Torah,” producing “works of Torah”; these, it will be claimed, demonstrate that he or she is indeed a member of Israel, part of God’s covenant people. No, says Paul. To cite one’s possession of Torah as support will not do. Torah will simply remind you that you are a sinner like the Gentiles. That was the point of the hints in 1:18—2:16 and of the direct charge in 2:17-29–not, as is sometimes said, that the Jews are “legalists,” but that they have broken the law they were given. And transgression of Torah shows that Jews, like Gentiles, are “under the power of sin” (3:9). To appeal to



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Torah is like calling a defense witness who endorses what the prosecution has been saying all along. (This is the point that Paul will develop, via such apparent throwaway lines as 5:20, in 7:7-25; cf. too 1 Cor 15:56.)

What then are these “works of Torah”? How does this indictment against those who have “works of Torah” on their record square with what Paul says about himself in Phil 3:6, that concerning “righteousness in Torah” he had become “blameless”? How does it fit with wider, non-Christian evidence for Jewish beliefs about Torah in Paul’s day?

The only pre-Christian Jewish text we possess that uses the phrase “works of Torah” is a recently published Dead Sea Scroll, the already well-known 4QMMT.94 “We have indeed sent you,” writes the author to his readers, “this selection of works of the Torah according to our decision, for your welfare and the welfare of your people.”95 However, this cannot be used as a template for Paul’s meaning of the phrase itself, since the “works” spoken of there are (a) post-biblical rulings concerning temple purity, aimed at (b) defining one group of Jews over against others. It is clear from Romans and Galatians, as we shall see, that when Paul speaks of “works of the law” he is thinking rather of (a) biblical rules that (b) defined Jews (and proselytes) over against pagans. The phrase is, after all, quite general, and we may suppose that it had a wider currency than just Paul and Qumran, even though only they out of our surviving literature use it, and that infrequently.

The main positive thing that this Qumran text contributes to the present discussion, though, is a sense of how “works of the Torah” could function within the language of justification. The third and final section of MMT tells the story of Israel, from the promises and warnings of Deuteronomy up to the writer’s own day. Deuteronomy 30 promised a historical sequence: covenantal blessing, curse, then blessing again. The initial blessing and curse, says the text, came upon Israel in the time of the monarchy, with the curse being, more or less, the exile. Now, however, the second blessing promised by the same text has come upon Israel, precisely in the life of the sect, the secretly inaugurated new covenant people, yet to be finally and publicly vindicated. The members of the sect are already marked out as the eschatological Israel, ahead of the time when they will be vindicated as such. The thing that marks them out in the present is precisely the specific “works of the Torah” that the text urges upon its readers–the detailed post-biblical regulations deemed necessary by the sect. These “works of Torah,” then, were the sign that the future verdict (God’s vindication of the sect) was anticipated in the present; the sect could be confident now of their membership in the renewed covenant, the community of fresh blessing, the “returned-from-exile” people spoken of in Deuteronomy 30. When we widen the horizon from the sectarian “works” mentioned in the scroll to the more fundamental biblical “works” Paul has in mind, the position he is opposing can be stated thus: “works of Torah” are the sign, in the present, of that membership in Israel, God’s covenant people, which will be vindicated in the future when the long-awaited “righteousness of God” is finally unveiled in action.

It is vital to keep our balance at this point. One of the great gains of the last quarter of a century in Pauline scholarship has been to recognize that Paul’s contemporaries–and Paul himself prior to his conversion–were not “legalists,” if by that we mean that they were attempting to earn favor with God, to earn grace as it were, by the performance of law-prescribed works.96 Paul’s fellow



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Jews were not proto-Pelagians, attempting to pull themselves up by their moral shoelaces. They were, rather, responding out of gratitude to the God who had chosen and called Israel to be the covenant people and who had given Israel the law both as the sign of that covenant membership and as the means of making it real. Paul’s critique is not that the Torah was a bad thing that the Jews should not have followed, nor that their Torah-observance was done in order to stake a claim on God that God had not already granted in the covenant. His point, rather, was that all who attempted to legitimate their covenant status by appealing to possession of Torah would find that the Torah itself accused them of sin. If “the Jew” appealed to Torah to say “This shows that I am different from the Gentiles,” Torah itself, according to Paul, would say “No, it doesn’t; it shows that you are the same as the Gentiles.”

The “works” that were regarded in Paul’s day as particularly demonstrating covenant membership were, of course, those things that marked out the Jews from their pagan neighbors, not least in the diaspora: the sabbath, the food laws, and circumcision. A strong case can therefore be made for seeing “works of the law,” in Romans and Galatians, as highlighting these elements in particular.97 This case rests on the larger thrust of Paul’s argument, in which “the Jew” is appealing not to perfect performance of every last commandment, but to possession of Torah as the badge of being God’s special people. Special they are, but also sinning; and sin means that the specialness is of no ultimate avail.

Why, then, could Paul say of himself, in Phil 3:6, that concerning “righteousness under the law” he was “found blameless”? Presumably he meant that, as a good Jew, he regularly used the means of forgiveness and purification that were on offer in the Temple and the sacrificial cult and took part in the great fasts and feasts through which the devout Jew was assured of God’s forgiveness and favor. Thus at any moment he was a Jew in good standing; not that he had always done what Torah prescribed (we must not suppose the pre-Christian Paul to have been so ignorant of his own motivation and behavior), but that he had always repented and sought God’s forgiveness through the appropriate methods. Torah, he might have said, can show me that I am a sinner and can also show me the way of forgiveness. We must assume that someone who followed this path would consider themselves “blameless according to the law.”

Further discussion of this point must be postponed until we arrive at 7:7-25, since that passage needs to be factored into the argument in various ways. But one major difference between what Paul says in Philippians and what he says in Romans 3 is that in the present passage his primary concern is not to analyze every single individual and to demonstrate somehow that he or she really is sinful, but rather to show that possession of Torah itself cannot sustain the claim that “the Jew” is automatically in covenant with God, automatically a cut above the Gentiles. And, in referring to those (like his own former self) who are “under the law,” he looks at them in their totality, sin included. Just as Israel cannot be affirmed in the present as the inalienable covenant people of God because of the presence, within Israel, of various kinds of sin that demonstrate the failure of the national vocation (2:17-24), so no Jews, however blameless in terms of current status, can be affirmed as they stand as complete and adequate human beings, since all alike commit sin. If God is the righteous judge, God cannot allow particular members of that nation to escape the judgment they incur just as do all Gentiles.

If, however, God is truly “righteous” in the widest senses, including that of keeping the covenant promises made long ago, how then can that “righteousness” be put into operation without contradicting itself? This question was raised extremely sharply for Paul’s near-contemporaries by the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce. For Paul, it had already been raised, and answered, by the events concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Paul is now in a position to address this question, one of the most fundamental that he and his contemporaries were ever to face. 



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1.  Before we “translate” or “apply” these severe and often dense verses to our own day, we must consider the relevance of their own unique meaning in Paul’s own time. Part of the burden of eschatology–part of the problem, that is, of believing in a God who (though always active within the world in various ways) acted uniquely and decisively at one moment in history, and part of the problem of living on the basis of that one-off action–is that one is committed to getting inside that historical situation in all its differentness to our own day, to understanding what it was that God was up to then. Preachers of the gospel cannot escape the task of being ancient historians. The alternative is shallow anachronism.

Paul insists that God will be just and faithful, despite the faithlessness of the particular humans to whom the divine oracles had been entrusted. In the post-Enlightenment world, ironically, the goodness and justice of God are often called into account precisely because of the suggestion that God might act in a particular and decisive way, in one place and time rather than at another. The rhetoric of the last two hundred years has been in favor of broad general truths, timeless and abstract religious or ethical norms or guidelines. Projecting our hard-won (and often deeply ambiguous) democracy onto the heavens, we demand that all humans should have the same vote and voice. How, we ask, can a unique act of God be fair?

This question is, at one level, a manifestation of the old discussion, associated with Barth and others, as to whether Christianity is a “religion” or rather a “revelation.” In these debates, however, it was often assumed that the Jews followed a “religion,” and were indeed the archetypical manifestation of homo religiosus, religious humanity. (This is a major theme in the great commentary of Ernst Käsemann.) We have learned, painfully enough, the danger of such caricatured generalizations. What Saul of Tarsus and his contemporaries were longing for, in any case, was a revelation, an unveiling, the fresh action of their God within history. That was how wrongs would be put right, how justice would come at last. The irony of our changing points of view, the transformation of assumptions between Paul’s day and ours, is that this idea of a specific and decisive act of God, in one place and time beyond all others, is itself now felt to be wrong or unjust. We here reach basic questions of worldview, and choices have to be made. The whole New Testament witnesses to a unique act of God, such as Saul of Tarsus had expected, but at a different level, of a totally different kind. Yes, says Paul the Apostle, God has acted in history to unveil that faithfulness of which Scripture spoke. But no, the action was not what Israel, Saul of Tarsus included, had expected.

The “modern” objection to the idea of God’s acting decisively and uniquely is based, it seems, on a false impression about what such actions mean. If the main purpose of divine revelation were to convey information to humans, or to give a set of rules to be kept, then it would seem unfair and arbitrary to give these to some and then to judge the others despite their disadvantage. If the main purpose was to straighten out a few design faults in creation, to perform “miracles” that helped certain people out of insoluble or life-threatening situations, this too would seem grossly unfair; why would a good God, capable of doing this sort of thing, not do it at other times, when faced (for instance) with the chance to prevent genocide? 

These are, however, by no means the only possible models of divine action in the world. All analogies are imperfect; but we can conceive of other, perhaps better, ways of looking at the question. An architect has to produce a single blueprint at one time and place, so that the building may be constructed for the benefit of all. A medical researcher has to produce medications at one time and place, so that all may eventually be cured. A gardener has to plant a fruit tree in one place and at one time, so that there may be fruit for all. God, in the Jewish thought that Paul reflects, needed to act decisively at one time and in one place, so that there might be salvation for all. We should not allow the rhetoric of modernity to rob us of the glory of the gospel:



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a God with muddy boots and dirty hands, busy at the center of the mess so that all may be cleaned up and sorted out.

2. The question of the point of being Jewish, once its own unique dimensions have been grasped, broadens out in our own day to the question of the point of being human. This has been asked in the twentieth century over and over, as philosophers, writers, and artists, as well as theologians, have reflected on the horrors of our “civilized” world, producing ever more cunning machines for making war but still unable to invent one that will make peace. Just as the Jewish vocation was to bring God’s light to the Gentiles, so the human vocation was to reflect God’s image into the world. Manifest human failure to do this could lead to the equivalent, for this question, of the Marcionite rejection of Judaism as a whole, i.e., a denial of the entire God-given human vocation. This, indeed, is what we find in some New Age thinking today, with humans being regarded as simply part of the world’s problem, rather than potential contributors to the solution. 

But Paul would be as adamant on this point as he is on his own topic: Let God be true, though everyone should prove false. God has created humans to reflect the divine image in worship and service, and God will be true to that promise. “The righteousness of God” can be called upon to fulfill the purpose of creation, not just of Israel. How this will happen, Paul will work out from 3:21 through to the end of chap. 8. To claim that it will happen is the equivalent, for these questions, of Paul’s brief and clipped responses in 3:1-8. That it has already happened is the burden of his song in 3:21—4:25, summed up in 5:12-21: God has provided an obedient human being, in whom the original purpose of Genesis 1 has at last been fulfilled (see also 1 Cor 15:20-28; Phil 3:20-21; and, further afield, the whole argument of Heb 2:5-10).

3. The charge of universal human sinfulness is of course as controversial today as ever. Nobody, almost by definition, likes the humiliation of recognizing their sinful condition (or, if they do, we may raise questions about their balance of mind). Just as much psychology tacitly avoids the category of “evil,” preferring to see varieties of human behavior in less threatening terms, so many Christians, eager for the great acceptance, the astonishing welcome, of the gospel, use this as a reason for denying human sinfulness. But, of course, if humans are not deeply sinful the gospel is no longer astonishing; indeed, it is not good news at all, since there was no problem to which it was the shocking, startling answer. Tragically, just as those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it, so those who turn a blind eye to wickedness are always in danger of perpetrating it. If there is no disease, why worry about precautions, let alone cure? If the human race is morally sound (no doubt with a few glitches here and there), we should eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall live. Oddly enough, at the same time as postmodernity is urging us to be suspicious of every action, every word, and every motive, the imperative it sanctions–to be true to oneself, even though “oneself” may be constantly changing–is itself deeply suspect. Tyrants, bullies, extortioners, adulterers, and murderers are all being true to themselves. And those who look at such activities and thank God that they are not like that need once more to go deeper (2:1-16), to examine the secrets of their own hearts.

4. There is much to learn from the way in which Paul has pulled together the awful catalog  of sin in 3:10-18. Under the surface-level indictment there is hope, precisely because this wickedness is shown up by the righteousness of God, which can then be appealed to for mercy. How easy it is for preachers either to denounce wickedness in a dualistic fashion, or to abstain from such denunciations because they sound too depressing, too dismissive. Paul’s denunciations, for those with ears to hear, are always hinting at the solution. His robust faith in God’s forgiving faithfulness enables him to call a spade a spade.

5. The dismissal of “works of the law” as the means of justification has all kinds of overtones. Paul’s fundamental meaning is that no Jew can use possession of the Torah, and performance of



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its key symbolic “works” of ethnic demarcation, as demonstration in the present time that they belong to the eschatological people of God, the people who will inherit the age to come. Torah is incapable of performing this function: When appealed to, it reminds its possessors of their own sin.

This Israel-specific and context-specific argument and meaning, vital though it is, must send off warning signals in other spheres as well. To the Roman moralist of Paul’s day, it might have said that clear thought and noble intention were not enough; the clearer the thought, the nobler the intention, the more this clarity and nobility would condemn the actual behavior. To an anxious monk of the early sixteenth century, fretting about his own justification, Paul’s words rang other bells. Performance of Christian duties is not enough. Despite the Reformation, the message had still not been heard by the devout John Wesley, until a fresh hearing of Luther’s commentary on Galatians caused light to dawn. In the post-Enlightenment period, many, including many Christians, have assumed that “the law,” here and elsewhere, refers to the Kantian idea of a categorical moral imperative suspended over all humans, and have preached this “law” to make people recognize their guilt, in order then to declare the gospel to them.

These are important overtones of Paul’s statement here, but they are not its fundamental note. If we play an overtone, thinking it to be a fundamental, we shall set off new and different sets of overtones, which will not then harmonize with Paul’s original sound. Sadly, this has occurred again and again, not least within the Reformation tradition, which, eager for the universal relevance and the essential pro me (i.e., “for me”) of the gospel, and regarding Israel mainly as a classic example of the wrong way of approaching God or “religion,” has created a would-be “Pauline” theology in which half of what Paul was most eager to say in Romans has been screened out. Provided, however, one is careful to tell again the unique story of Israel and Jesus, not as an example of something else but as the fundamental truth of the gospel, many of the things the Reformers wanted to insist on can be retained and, indeed, enhanced.

Posts 570
Rev Chris | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 29 2011 8:03 PM

Thanks - but I have the NIB commentary in print and on Logos prepub. Smile

Pastor, seminary trustee, and app developer.  Check out my latest app for churches: The Church App

Posts 8928
DAL | Forum Activity | Replied: Fri, Dec 30 2011 7:05 AM

Alright Dan, we get it -- You are a HUGE FAN of the NIB...LOL...Now, if you would, please, copy and paste the whole thing and send it to me in word format so I can convert it to a Personal Book.  That'll save me a lot of money...Wink [JK]


Posts 1022
David Carter | Forum Activity | Replied: Fri, Dec 30 2011 7:26 AM

Your link doesn't work - but this one does Smile

Posts 8967
Matthew C Jones | Forum Activity | Replied: Fri, Dec 30 2011 7:38 AM

Dan Francis:
Many of you have the N. T. WRIGHT collection, one thing you don't have  in Logos is his commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter's Bible


I appreciate your fervor for the New Interpreter's Bible. If you keep this up you just might sell a few copies. Confused

"Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds." KJV

Logos 7 Collectors Edition

Posts 5321
Dan Francis | Forum Activity | Replied: Fri, Dec 30 2011 8:20 PM

Super Tramp:
"Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds." KJV


Well maybe a snippet from Walter Kaiser might seal the deal for you… (just a couple paragraphs)….



The question most contemporary readers of this book raise is this: Of what use can the book of Leviticus be for us today? The answer, of course, must not be contrived or involve a manipulation of the text, as some have done by allegorizing and reducing the book to 


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a series of symbols with modern values and meanings. Philo, some of the early church fathers, and Cabalistic interpreters have already traversed this route—with minimal results!

First and foremost, in all attempts of modern persons to worship God, the fact of God’s absolute otherness and transcendence must influence all initial thoughts about approaching or entering into the divine presence. However, that sense of divine transcendence must also signal the divine separateness from sin and help create the call for followers of God to be holy. God’s mercy is available to those who are penitent, as exemplified in this book.

But if the age and strange features of these rituals cause a stumbling block, let us realize that, although the Aaronic priesthood and blood sacrifices have disappeared, the spiritual truth they signal remains constant. Some would say that what Leviticus depicts in a specific ritual points to a later type that would fulfill in the abstract what had earlier been put in a more figurative form.

Posts 8967
Matthew C Jones | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Dec 31 2011 8:02 PM

Dan Francis:
Well maybe a snippet from Walter Kaiser might seal the deal for you…

Ha ha Dan. You take no prisoners!

How did you know Kaiser is one of those highly respected names on my list?   I am very interested in getting both New Interpreters' sets.

I only hope it does not ship any time near when the mega Jonathan Edwards set ships. All three products are expensive enough to be out of my reach unless we get to apply Logos Credit to them. We presently can not do that, but I am hopeful that will change by their ship dates.

I am pleased with the new lower prices on Interpreter's. Both sets were going to cost $1200; a little too rich for me. But the new lower prices put them at my "hopeful" level. My father had the original versions in his traditional hardback library when I was little. It is funny how early exposure has a lifelong effect on people. Keep sharing as much as you like from these.

New Interpreter's Bible (12 vols.)  $479.95

New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols.)   $139.95     Buy-of-the-month

Logos 7 Collectors Edition

Posts 5321
Dan Francis | Forum Activity | Replied: Sun, Jan 1 2012 12:22 PM

Super Tramp:

I hope both items get into publication too… the dictionary is going to be a harder sell i think.. I really like it but it's got so many strong competitors out there. I personally like the conciseness of the dictionary and often go there before heading to anchor or ISBE. 



ps: Here is a little gem from Colossians-

Since Christ is the one at work in creation as well as in redemption, then the created world is immeasurably enhanced, not relegated to some inferior status by the work of reconciliation. Salvation is not rescue from a totally evil world but the claiming of the rightful possession of this world by the one who was an agent in its creation. The scope of salvation is as broad as life and as vast as the cosmos.

The effect of such a belief should be to make redeemed humans more fully human. It should enable them to appreciate the creation and to work to transform the structures of this world rather than to produce a private piety or spirituality that attempts to cut itself off from the body, ignores the natural environment, and disdains culture. If reconciliation of all things in Christ is at the center of God's purposes, then the pursuit of peace and acts of reconciliation by Christians serve those purposes. Working for a fair distribution of the world's resources, being concerned for animal welfare, and struggling to prevent the collapse of the ecosystem through the pollution of air, soil, and water have everything to do with this passage's celebration of cosmic reconciliation. --ANDREW T. LINCOLN, New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. XI 

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