Reading Romans as about Christians and not about Christians

As I have been going through Romans once again with my Sunday school class, it has increasingly become evident to me how hard it is – and at the same time how important it is – to realize that this isn’t a Christian document.

In saying that, I don’t mean that Paul’s message was not that which at a later time would be labelled “Christian.” But neither am I simply pointing out that, when Paul wrote, the label “Christian” had not caught on yet, and Paul does not use it.

But when we realize that Paul did not have a clear label such as “Christian” for the movement of which he was a part, it should make us wonder: Did Paul think of himself as part of a distinct group at all? Did he simply think of himself as Jewish?

When he advocated the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in the people of God, if there was no clearly distinct Christian church at this stage, then we must understand him to have been advocating the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in Judaism, the elimination for all intents and purposes of the Jew/Gentile distinction, to be replaced simply by a multi-ethnic Israel on the one hand, and those who refused to be a part of it on the other. Perhaps when we understand Paul this way, against the backdrop of increasing anti-Roman sentiment that would erupt within decades in a war against Rome, it becomes clear just what a radical message he was advocating. His letters are not an attempt to define “Christian” identity in a certain way, but an attempt to define Jewish identity in that way.

It may seem ironic, but one of the best ways to grasp this point, as a Christian reader of Romans, is to read Paul as talking about Christians. Not as a Christian so much as about Christians. Read him as though he were emphasizing that Christian boundary markers are of no importance. Christian and non-Christian are distinctions that do not matter – only keeping the commandments is what counts.

I’ve shared some thoughts along those lines before on my blog, but let me share something very recent along the same lines by Richard Hall. It is radical, and includes an expletive (those who’ve read Paul in Greek know that he was not above using them from time to time). And you will probably never read Romans in the same way again if you click through and read it. But I hope you will, and that after doing so, you’ll come back here and let me know how it affected you.

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    This is true…but many “Christians” seek to “Christianize” Judiasm! by “messianic” understandings of Jesus…and I think that is wrong headed…I think that humans all have a need to identify with a “real” or political world. This is where things get “messy”, as humans have to each come to understand “faith” in however they think is “best”, and we won’t all agree and “live happily ever after”…though we work for diplomacy…

    I don’t think “faith” means leaving our “heads” at the door or obeying scripture to the dot and tittle. Faith is how you understand life and all that is. Labels do injustice to the human, because they do make distinctions, which humans need as “identities”….but “identities” are also necessary to be “human”, too!

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    This is true…but many “Christians” seek to “Christianize” Judiasm! by “messianic” understandings of Jesus…and I think that is wrong headed…I think that humans all have a need to identify with a “real” or political world. This is where things get “messy”, as humans have to each come to understand “faith” in however they think is “best”, and we won’t all agree and “live happily ever after”…though we work for diplomacy…

    I don’t think “faith” means leaving our “heads” at the door or obeying scripture to the dot and tittle. Faith is how you understand life and all that is. Labels do injustice to the human, because they do make distinctions, which humans need as “identities”….but “identities” are also necessary to be “human”, too!

  • John Porter

    I know this isn’t the main point of your post, but I was still curious: What expletives does Paul use (and where)?

  • John Porter

    I know this isn’t the main point of your post, but I was still curious: What expletives does Paul use (and where)?

  • Metanoia1945

    Quite an indictment, but unfortunately true!

  • Metanoia1945

    Quite an indictment, but unfortunately true!

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    I didn’t see where your cross post was….so I couldn’t read it..

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    I didn’t see where your cross post was….so I couldn’t read it..

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

     I just read it, and I don’t believe in the supernatural arena, because I believe that ‘God” is just another name for one’s personal identity that is projected onto our values. Sometimes this identity is dependent upon one’s tradition, sometimes, it is not. Family or groups determine some people’s identities…and some cultures do not value independent identities, meaning a questioning of previously held opinions, convictions, or thinking…

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

     I just read it, and I don’t believe in the supernatural arena, because I believe that ‘God” is just another name for one’s personal identity that is projected onto our values. Sometimes this identity is dependent upon one’s tradition, sometimes, it is not. Family or groups determine some people’s identities…and some cultures do not value independent identities, meaning a questioning of previously held opinions, convictions, or thinking…

  • Gary

    Interesting…”Perhaps when we understand Paul this way, against the backdrop of increasing anti-Roman sentiment that would erupt within decades in a war against Rome”…”Christian and non-Christian are distinctions that do not matter – only keeping the commandments is what counts”…If Paul was placed in our current times, I wonder if he would see his past environment reflected in current conflicts between fundamentalist and what they view as the enemy, a Godless people/government (like Rome)? With the fundamentalists like the Pharisees, acting self-rightous, sitting on the street corners (churches), praying so everyone can see them, thinking they are better than everyone “outside” their culture. Also holding on to their traditions (from the OT) so hard that they reject the knowledge of science and common sense, and the fact that the human brain was given to them by God to think….The fundamentalists by-and-large reject diversity, science, and change (just as Paul found the OT Jews at the time rejected the new ideas of Christianity, and the new technology offered by the “Godless” Roman state). Of course this analogy breaks down since the Romans at the time had their own Gods, and our current government offers people the right to worship, or not worship, whoever they want. Oops, except the Romans within a few hundred years converted to Christianity. Go figure. And the more interesting perturbation I find, the pre-millennial dispensationalists are waiting for Israel to take over all the land promised to them in the Abraham covenant (Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, etc), even though it was conditional, and now obsolete Heb 8:13; waiting for the 3rd temple to be built (though nothing is said about building a 3rd temple explicitly in the bible); and Jesus is coming to preside over sacrifices in the temple (though Hebrews says explicitly that there is no more need for sacrifices). All the while rejecting science for earth and life creation, and berating the government for having “socialistic” programs that actually help the poor (social security, medicare). Seems like the Fundamentalists = the Phasisees in the hard-headed world of not accepting the obvious, and, amazingly, not following Jesus’s advice, and sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow Him, if they really want to be perfect. I am not perfect, so…

  • Gary

    Interesting…”Perhaps when we understand Paul this way, against the backdrop of increasing anti-Roman sentiment that would erupt within decades in a war against Rome”…”Christian and non-Christian are distinctions that do not matter – only keeping the commandments is what counts”…If Paul was placed in our current times, I wonder if he would see his past environment reflected in current conflicts between fundamentalist and what they view as the enemy, a Godless people/government (like Rome)? With the fundamentalists like the Pharisees, acting self-rightous, sitting on the street corners (churches), praying so everyone can see them, thinking they are better than everyone “outside” their culture. Also holding on to their traditions (from the OT) so hard that they reject the knowledge of science and common sense, and the fact that the human brain was given to them by God to think….The fundamentalists by-and-large reject diversity, science, and change (just as Paul found the OT Jews at the time rejected the new ideas of Christianity, and the new technology offered by the “Godless” Roman state). Of course this analogy breaks down since the Romans at the time had their own Gods, and our current government offers people the right to worship, or not worship, whoever they want. Oops, except the Romans within a few hundred years converted to Christianity. Go figure. And the more interesting perturbation I find, the pre-millennial dispensationalists are waiting for Israel to take over all the land promised to them in the Abraham covenant (Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, etc), even though it was conditional, and now obsolete Heb 8:13; waiting for the 3rd temple to be built (though nothing is said about building a 3rd temple explicitly in the bible); and Jesus is coming to preside over sacrifices in the temple (though Hebrews says explicitly that there is no more need for sacrifices). All the while rejecting science for earth and life creation, and berating the government for having “socialistic” programs that actually help the poor (social security, medicare). Seems like the Fundamentalists = the Phasisees in the hard-headed world of not accepting the obvious, and, amazingly, not following Jesus’s advice, and sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow Him, if they really want to be perfect. I am not perfect, so…

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-8cfc84c1fc941a6bb2f8c4f705307079:disqus  Philippians 3:8, although those who think Paul used profanity there may just be full of skubalon.  :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-8cfc84c1fc941a6bb2f8c4f705307079:disqus  Philippians 3:8, although those who think Paul used profanity there may just be full of skubalon.  :-)

  • Gary

    As a storyteller (Doug Elliott) once said, “It starts with an “S”, and it ends with “T”, it comes out of you, and it comes out of me, I know what you’re thinking, you can call it that, but let’s be scientific, and call it SCAT.”

  • Gary

    As a storyteller (Doug Elliott) once said, “It starts with an “S”, and it ends with “T”, it comes out of you, and it comes out of me, I know what you’re thinking, you can call it that, but let’s be scientific, and call it SCAT.”

  • Yme Woensdregt

    My NT prof at seminary (Lloyd Gaston) was always pushing the edges on reading Paul as coming out of a strong Jewish milieu … and would regularly “paraphrase” Paul as Richard Hall did. Gaston would beat us over the head with the phrase “Paul wasn’t a Christian” (In fact, that was the first sentence he uttered in NT101). For a few years, this ruined Paul for me in terms of preaching. But in these last days, it has become a rich and fertile field in which I might dig and plant and be rooted ….

    Thanks for this

  • Yme Woensdregt

    My NT prof at seminary (Lloyd Gaston) was always pushing the edges on reading Paul as coming out of a strong Jewish milieu … and would regularly “paraphrase” Paul as Richard Hall did. Gaston would beat us over the head with the phrase “Paul wasn’t a Christian” (In fact, that was the first sentence he uttered in NT101). For a few years, this ruined Paul for me in terms of preaching. But in these last days, it has become a rich and fertile field in which I might dig and plant and be rooted ….

    Thanks for this

  • Yme Woensdregt

    My NT prof at seminary (Lloyd Gaston) was always pushing the edges on reading Paul as coming out of a strong Jewish milieu … and would regularly “paraphrase” Paul as Richard Hall did. Gaston would beat us over the head with the phrase “Paul wasn’t a Christian” (In fact, that was the first sentence he uttered in NT101). For a few years, this ruined Paul for me in terms of preaching. But in these last days, it has become a rich and fertile field in which I might dig and plant and be rooted ….

    Thanks for this

  • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

    Dr. McGrath wrote: “But when we realize that Paul did not have a
    clear label such as “Christian” for the movement of which he was
    a part, it should make us wonder: Did Paul think of himself as part of a distinct group at all?”

    BM: According to ‘Acts’ (11:26), the appellation “Christians”
    was given to the members of a sectarian group in Antioch then mostly composed of Jews, likely because those claimed that (Jesus) Christ was their king, somewhat replacing Caesar: the Greek word for “Christian” is ‘xristianos’. It seems to be derived
    from ‘xristos’ (“Christ”) the same way ‘kaisarianos’ (meaning supporter of Caesar in Greek) was from ‘kaisaros’ (“Caesar”). Both derivations are fairly irregular.

    From that, I take “Christians” started as a pejorative name given by others, politically dangerous, implying a switch of allegiance, suggesting Christ as “King” (which was not part of Paul Christology). So I am not surprised Paul avoided “Christians”, more so to differentiate his “in Christ” with believers of Christ_is_King_and_will_come_back_to_earth (to kick
    out the Romans, as implied!).

    Dr. McGrath wrote: “we must understand him to have been advocating the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in Judaism”

    BM: I do not agree. Judaizers wanted that, James wanted that but not Paul (at least at the end of his ministry). Instead, I see Paul wanted his “in Christ” followers (Gentiles & Jews) to be seen as God’s people and elects, as members of a new assembly placed above non-believers (Gentiles & Jews), in a faith superseding the Law for Jews and for Gentiles (for the later, in regard of the Law preventing them to be among the chosen people).

  • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

    Dr. McGrath wrote: “But when we realize that Paul did not have a
    clear label such as “Christian” for the movement of which he was
    a part, it should make us wonder: Did Paul think of himself as part of a distinct group at all?”

    BM: According to ‘Acts’ (11:26), the appellation “Christians”
    was given to the members of a sectarian group in Antioch then mostly composed of Jews, likely because those claimed that (Jesus) Christ was their king, somewhat replacing Caesar: the Greek word for “Christian” is ‘xristianos’. It seems to be derived
    from ‘xristos’ (“Christ”) the same way ‘kaisarianos’ (meaning supporter of Caesar in Greek) was from ‘kaisaros’ (“Caesar”). Both derivations are fairly irregular.

    From that, I take “Christians” started as a pejorative name given by others, politically dangerous, implying a switch of allegiance, suggesting Christ as “King” (which was not part of Paul Christology). So I am not surprised Paul avoided “Christians”, more so to differentiate his “in Christ” with believers of Christ_is_King_and_will_come_back_to_earth (to kick
    out the Romans, as implied!).

    Dr. McGrath wrote: “we must understand him to have been advocating the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in Judaism”

    BM: I do not agree. Judaizers wanted that, James wanted that but not Paul (at least at the end of his ministry). Instead, I see Paul wanted his “in Christ” followers (Gentiles & Jews) to be seen as God’s people and elects, as members of a new assembly placed above non-believers (Gentiles & Jews), in a faith superseding the Law for Jews and for Gentiles (for the later, in regard of the Law preventing them to be among the chosen people).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Bernard, I think Paul would view his community as the true Judaism. I’m not sure that Christian should be so political in of it’s self, though any group claiming to follow the messaih would be viewed that way. There is just a need to lable new groups, and groups with pretentions of

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    Bernard, I’m not sure that the label Christian was necessarily meant to imply sedition on their part, but only to give a label that reflected the group, which is preaching a Christ (though some used Nazarenes), but not to use there more pretentious self given name, the “Followers of the Way” since out-siders would view them as only following a way, and probably not the right way.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Bernard, to “Judaize” was to adopt Jewish ways of living, and so the “Judaizers” were Gentiles who adopted Jewish customs. Just a terminological point. But on your main point, was it not that the other Jewish Christians you mention wanted to include circumcised Gentiles, in contrast with Paul?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Bernard, to “Judaize” was to adopt Jewish ways of living, and so the “Judaizers” were Gentiles who adopted Jewish customs. Just a terminological point. But on your main point, was it not that the other Jewish Christians you mention wanted to include circumcised Gentiles, in contrast with Paul?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Yme, glad you’re no longer at a point where this post would have ruined Paul for you, as that definitely was not my intention! :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Yme, glad you’re no longer at a point where this post would have ruined Paul for you, as that definitely was not my intention! :-)

  • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

    to Dr. McGrath,
    First point well taken.
    On your second point, maybe, but in ‘Galatians’, it is not clear that these Jewish Christians really wanted to circumcise Paul’s converts. Maybe Paul used some scare tactics in order to keep his “in Christ”.

  • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

    to Dr. McGrath,
    First point well taken.
    On your second point, maybe, but in ‘Galatians’, it is not clear that these Jewish Christians really wanted to circumcise Paul’s converts. Maybe Paul used some scare tactics in order to keep his “in Christ”.


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