maandag 11 februari 2013

Review of: Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary (Hermeneia), Fortress, 2008; in: Interpretation

Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary (Hermeneia), Fortress, 2008

Review in: Interpretation 2008 62: 194
Review door: Charles H. Talbert (!)
Gevonden op:

Romans: A Commentary
by Robert Jewett
Hermeneia. Fortress, Minneapolis, 2007.
1140 pp. $90.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-8006-6084-0.

ROBERT JEWETT, WHO SINCE 2000 has served as Guest Professor at the University of Heidelberg, has produced a major research commentary on Paul's premier letter for the Hermeneia Series. Each thought unit follows this format: original translation with explanation of text-critical issues, analysis (overview of the thought of the unit as a whole), rhetorical disposition (basically an outline of the unit), and exegesis (detailed comments in a verse by verse fashion). Numerous footnotes carry on a dialogue with secondary literature and cite relevant primary source materials.

Written in 56-57 CE. from Corinth, Romans is a work of Christian rhetoric that aims to persuade. It is organized in terms of an Exordium (1:1-12), a Narrano (1:13-15), a Propositio (1:16-17), a Probatio (1:18-15:13), and a Perorano (15:14-16:24). The Probatio consists of four proofs: 1:18-4:25 (Jews and Gentiles are set right by the impartial righteousness of God that overturns all claims of cultural superiority); 5:1-8:39 (life in Christ is a new system of honor that replaces the quest for status through conformity to the Law); 9:1-11:36 (the triumph of divine righteousness in the gospel's mission to Israel and the Gentiles); and 12:1-15:13 (living together according to the gospel so as to sustain the hope of global transformation). Romans is generically a fusion of the ambassadorial letter with the parenetic letter, the hortatory letter, and the philosophical diatribe. A situational letter, not a theological treatise, it aims to persuade the Roman house churches to support Paul's projected mission to Spain.

The need for such a letter lay in the divisions among the various congregations in Rome. These house churches apparently had imbibed the Roman imperial premise of exceptionalism in virtue and honor. This cultural value was the source of the churches' divisions. Hence, in this letter Paul had to clarify the gospel of impartial divine righteousness revealed in Christ so as to rid the churches of their prejudicial elements that were dividing them. In the cross, Paul argued, Christ overturned the honor system that dominated the Mediterranean world. Jews and Gentiles were, therefore, on the same footing before God. Only if the house churches in the city could come together in their support would the mission to Spain proposed by the apostle be a possibility. Given the lack of a Jewish presence in Spain and the various language groups other than Greek, Paul would have needed Roman help in locating ahead of time bases of operation, as well as logistical support, including translators. Phoebe was sent to Rome with the letter to facilitate all of this.

There is a single theme in Romans: the gospel, stated in the thesis sentence of 1:16-17. Paul's thesis is that the preaching of the gospel to establish faith communities, rather than force of arms, is the means by which God's global righteousness is manifest in a progressive manner. This revelation of divine righteousness in the gospel proceeds only on the basis of faith. Faith is understood as participation in faith communities where righteous relationships are maintained. Those righteous relations are based on the fundamental lack of distinction between believers either in shame or honor, because all fall short and all are set right as a sheer gift. God breaks through the barriers of honor and shame that separate. Faith is the sole requirement, that is, accepting the message about Jesus' shameful death and joining the community of the shamed who are now honored by God.

This is a fresh reading of Romans in terms of the honor-shame culture of the ancient Mediterranean world. It also sees small groups as the object of God's righteousness. Like all fresh readings, it may push the envelope a bit too far. God's righteousness (saving activity) certainly cannot be reduced to "rightwising" (Kendrick Grobel's term for justification, now picked up by Jewett) individuals, but neither can it exclude individuals. Communities that are being redeemed cannot be comprised of unredeemed individuals. One must conclude, then, that God's righteousness (saving activity) aims at rightwising individuals, communities, and ultimately the cosmos. Would it not be correct to say that, in the Roman situation, Paul is trying to get the communities to overcome their divisions, especially between Jewish and Gentile members, by realizing the communal implications of their justification as individuals? I see nothing in the argument of the letter as Jewett sketches it that would preclude this reading.

The author says that he employs all the methods of historical-critical exegesis in his commentary. The full array of his exegetical skills is certainly impressive. At times one wonders whether or not hermeneutical concerns have surfaced in the midst of historical description. Two instances maybe mentioned. First, in the discussion of 1:24-32, after an excellent survey of ancient materials, Jewett says that in using the category "according to nature" Paul is raising a cultural norm to the level of a "natural" and thus a biological principle, "which would probably have to be formulated differently today" (p. 177). It seems to me that in this case it is precisely a biological base that enables the apostolic claim to transcend cultural relativity. Is the reader here encountering, then, not historical exegesis but a hermeneutical move? Second, in the exegesis of 3:21-26 one encounters this statement: "God's very being as a righteous God is expressed as she makes groups righteous by faith" (p. 293). If the reference to God as "she" is not a typo, it certainly is a hermeneutical move and not historical-critical exegesis.

Jewett rightly, in my opinion, translates hilasterion as "mercy seat" in 3:25. He also, in my opinion, rightly says that the Atonement Day ritual served to remove pollution that affected the mercy seat and thereby cleansed God's earthly throne so that the divine presence could dwell in the midst of the people and God could speak from it. The sins of the people, however, were laid on the scapegoat to be driven out into the wilderness. One set of sacrifices cleansed the mercy seat space, while another served to cleanse the people. If so, then the translation "whom God put forth as a mercy seat through faith in his blood" makes no sense. What would make sense is a translation that runs "whom God put forth as a mercy seat through his (Jesus') faithfulness by means of his blood." This translation would convey that Jesus' death purified the seat where God's presence dwelt and from which God spoke, namely, the person of Jesus. Are there shades of Anselm in Jewett's translation that prevent a right reading of the text?

One cannot conclude without appreciatively noting two significant readings espoused by the author. One is his recognition oí prosopopoeia (speech-in-character) in Rom 7. The other is his translation of Junia instead of Junias in 16:5. It is good to see these readings incorporated into this fine research commentary provided by a mature and creative scholar.

Charles H. Talbert

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