Paul’s monumental Epistle to the Romans presents a fundamental problem to any interpreter. Is it a doctrinae christianae compendium as Luther’s fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon understood the letter1 or is Paul addressing specific circumstances within the Roman Christian community? Reasoner (hereafter R.) formulates the question as, “Where is Romans on the continuum between general treatise for all Christians and focused memorandum for Roman churches?” (23). If the first position is adopted, then in what way does Paul’s “digression” about dietary issues in 14:1-15:13 relate to the theological system presented in the rest of the letter? If one adopts the second position, how does this same digression relate to the occasional nature of the letter? In this monograph, R.’s revised dissertation, he answers this question by analyzing Paul’s discussion of the conflict between the “strong” and the “weak” over dietary matters in Rom. 14:1-15:13. He concludes that this so-called “digression” is actually one part of an integrated whole in an occasional letter.
Because his work is a revised dissertation, R.’s study provides the reader with both the “curses” and “blessings” of a dissertation. One of the “blessings” is the expected review of literature in his first chapter, which is a marvelously concise summary of the immense literature on Romans. R. cites only the most relevant and pertinent studies, beginning with Origen’s Commentaria in epistolam beati Pauli ad Romas through Mark Nanos’ The Mystery of Romans 2 in 1996. He conveniently summarizes the status quaestionis in a simple diagram (4). In this diagram he summarizes the various exegetical conclusions in the literature in a short phrase, lists the exegetes associated with that conclusion, describes their interpretive strategies and the implications of their positions. This diagrammatic summary neatly and clearly encapsulates the chapter’s discussion and is a marvelous example of using diagrams to communicate abstract concepts.
R.’s preliminary spadework, or introductory material, is one of the curses. In his second chapter R. briefly discusses the textual boundaries of the “strong and weak” within Romans as a whole and then abruptly shifts to a discussion of whether Rom. 14:1-15:13 addresses a specific historical situation or whether it is “general, Pauline paraenesis” that parallels, and is informed by, the chronologically earlier 1 Corinthians 8-10. Specifically, R. disputes Robert J. Karris, who views this portion of Romans as not directly related to the historical situation in Rome but instead to ” possible situations within the Roman community or, if one accepts the hypothesis of Romans as an encyclical letter, within any Christian community.”3 Unfortunately, other important methodological arguments are scattered throughout the book. For example, R. critiques, in chapter five, J. Paul Sampley’s position that Paul is intentionally “oblique” in 14:1-15:13 and invented the nicknames
However, these are frustrating but minor points. What of R.’s central argument? The exegetical “meat” or heart of his study is his analysis of the vocabulary of social status in first century Rome, Paul’s dietary vocabulary, Greco-Roman dietary abstinence and asceticism, the Roman categorization of days according to religious criteria, and superstitio in first century Rome (chaps. 3, 4, 6-9). R. assembles a wide range of primary sources including some 20 early non-canonical Christian sources (including Cicero, Pliny, the sumptuary laws, Suetonius, Juvenal, but regrettably only one inscription) and authors (most notably 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas, both closely associated with late first and early second century Christian communities in Rome), Josephus, Philo, and 38 Greco-Roman sources or authors. From this material R. proves that first century Romans used
In chapter 10, R. discusses Paul’s theology in Rom. 14:1-15:13 in light of these conclusions. First, he well argues (on the basis of Cicero, Pliny, and the second century Christian 1 Clement and Shepherd of Hermas) that Paul’s solution to the tension between the
R. then sees Paul as addressing the
The frustrations of reading a dissertation-style monograph are very apparent in chapter 11. Here R. reduplicates the efforts of chapter 3 in his attempt to provide portraits of the “strong” and the “weak.” Despite this, R. provides relatively convincing arguments that the “strong” party had more social status than the “weak,” were Roman citizens, identified positively with Roman culture, and were more affluent than the “weak” party. In the same way, R. convincingly argues that the “weak” party had low social status, observed Jewish dietary laws, practiced vegetarianism for any one of a number of possible reasons, and observed the Sabbath and other fast days. On one hand, I agree with R. that the “strong” probably had connections to the imperial household, had contact with the equestrian and senatorial orders in Rome, and comfortably spoke Latin. On the other hand, I find his evidence for these arguments less than convincing. For example, he devotes only a short paragraph and two footnotes citing three secondary sources to support his argument that the “strong” spoke Latin.
In his twelfth and final chapter, R. addresses the knotty question “What is the topos of Romans?” in light of the contextual data about first century Roman society that he provided in his earlier chapters. After quickly reviewing alternative positions (Paul’s self-introduction, equality of Jew and Gentile, the
The diffusely written logic of R.’s monograph frustrates precisely because of its origins as a dissertation. This aside, R. has made a major contribution to New Testament studies by developing a specific socio-historical context for Romans thus moving interpretation beyond the theological biases of individual exegetes. For most readers of BMCR, R.’s monograph helps move Paul’s almost monolithic Romans from the stratosphere of early Christian theology (or the theologies of generations of Paul’s interpreters) into the religious and social context of both early Christianity and first century Roman religious life.
1. Philipp Melanchthon, Loci communes, 1521 (ed. R. Stupperich; Werke in Auswahl 2.1; Gütersloh, Bertelsmann, 1952) 7; cited by Reasoner, 1. Cf. Martin Luther’s “tower experience” which caused him to interpret Romans existentially, i.e., as a text addressing his personal spiritual situation (Martin Luther, M. Luther, Tomus primus omnium operum [Wittenberg: Hans Luft, 1545]; “Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings,” trans. Robert R. Heitner in Luther’s Works, vol. 34 [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960] 327-38 esp. 336-37). Modern interpreters continue to be divided over Romans as a compendium of Paul’s overarching theology or as an address to specific circumstances, e.g., Günter Bornkamm interpreted Romans as the former (“The Letter to the Romans as Paul’s Last Will and Testament,” in The Roman Debate, rev. and expanded ed; ed. Karl P. Donfried [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992] 16-28); most other scholars adopt the latter, e.g., Wolfgang Wiefel, “The Jewish Community in Ancient Rome and the Origins of Roman Christianity,” in The Roman Debate 85-101.
2. Mark D. Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).
3. Robert J. Karris, “Romans 14:1-15:13 and the Occasion of Romans,” in The Roman Debate 65-84; idem, “The Occasion of Romans: A Response to Professor Donfried,” ibid. 125-27.
4. J. Paul Sampley, “Paul’s Careful and Crafty Rhetorical Strategy in Romans 14:1-15:13,” in The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, ed. L. M. White and O. L. Yarbrough (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 40-52, quoting 46. As R. notes, a number of other exegetes have followed Sampley’s interpretation (89 n. 3).