Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

I have not been reporting on my theological readings mostly because I don’t read a book straight through very often. I use them to research specific information as it need it.

But this book is an exception. Witherington published it in 2004. He is the Amos Prefessor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, and is on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University, Scotland. He earned his PhD from Durham University in England.

What sets this commentary apart from the crowd? He has time traveled to the First Century to understand how Greeks thought, wrote, and spoke. To say he knows Greek is misleading; he understands every nuance. He can taste and smell every word. He has read Quintilian, the greatest teacher of oratory in the Greek world and he shows us how well Paul mastered the lessons.

You might wonder why the letter was written in Greek since it was bound for Rome. Even though Paul had Roman citizenship, he grew up in a Greek world and likely did not speak much Latin. But also, Greek was very common among the lower classes in Rome. All the writings of the NT were in Greek. The letter followed that standard. Paul we know dictated his letter for the most part. He paid a scribe to take down his speech knowing it would be read to the congregation and passed around to be read by other congregations.

It is important to keep in mind that the entire letter is a speech, a sermon if you want.

Paul, of course, had never been in Rome when he wrote this letter, but it is clear that he knows of some of their problems. The worst conflict was between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. Many have tried to argue that Paul was opposed to the Jews, but that would be a serious misreading of the text. All of the Jews, Christian or not, had been expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius. When Nero replaced Claudius, the Jews were allowed to return. While the Jewish Christians were away, the Gentile Christians had taken all the leadership roles and given up following some of the Jewish ways of doing worship. Paul had to calm both sides and tell them to play nice.

If you could read only one letter by Paul, this is probably the one to go with because it is packed with most of the NT theology. But go ahead and read the others as well.

Mike Lawrence

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