Scot McKnight’s Reading Romans Backwards— a Review

Scot McKnight’s Reading Romans Backwards— a Review October 28, 2019

Scot McKnight, 236 pages, $17.65 paperback.

It is the measure of a good book that it manages to stir up serious discussion and rethinking on a subject that is an already very heavily trod path by scholars. If the book can also manage to shoo away a few sacred cows which should have been put out to pasture long ago, so much the better (like the notion that obedience to God has little do with salvation since it is sole fidei, sola gratia). If the book can also do this in a perspicuous and svelte manner, this is a plus as well, since there are far too many obese books on Romans. Scot McKnight’s new book entitled Reading Romans Backwards, accomplishes all this and more.

On p. 142, Scot sums up what he sees as the logic of Romans: “Romans 12-16 is the context, 9-11 is the narrative approach to the problem of that context, and Romans 1-4 is Paul’s rebuttal of the Weak’s claim to priority, elective privilege, and approach to how to live as followers of Jesus in Rome. Their claim was that ‘if everyone would agree with us and follow the Torah, then we’d be one big happy family.’ Paul’s Abraham-rooted gospel of redemption in Christ by grace through faith is what creates the big happy family, not Torah observance. So Romans 5-8 maps Paul’s theory of the theological rationale for the lived theology of Romans 12-16. That is, Romans 5-8 is the solution to the problem of tension between the Weak and the Strong in the Roman house churches.”

Thus, the whole of Romans is read backwards as reflecting McKnight’s view of the Weak and Strong in Rome, mentioned in Rom. 14. He argues that only some of the Jewish Christians are being characterized as the Weak and some of the Gentile Christians are characterized as the Strong. But the whole argument, from Romans 1 on involves talking about either the weak ( e.g in Rom. 1-4) or strong (e.g Rom. 5-8) as Paul toggles back and forth between two parts of his audience. Of course, what this implies is that Paul knows a lot more about the social situation on the ground in Rome than one might have expected for a man who had never yet visited Rome and did not found the congregations there.
And this assumption is a weakness of this book, for even a close look at the list of names in Rom. 16 does not provide us with a list of a bunch of Pauline Jewish converts who could have been called ‘the weak’ in Rome. Rather there are some of his co-workers, like Priscilla and Aquila and Andronicus and Junia, and other Jews that he knows who are now in Rome. Epenetus is mentioned as the first convert in Asia, but nothing in Rom. 16 suggests he is characterizing any of these Jews listed as ‘the weak’. One suspects Paul is talking in more general terms in Rom. 14, than he does in 1 Cor. 8-10 where he knows exactly what is going on there. Nor is there anything in Romans to suggest that some of the Jewish Christians in Rome were acting like the Judaizers in Galatia, and trying to get the ‘strong’ Gentiles to keep kosher etc. But it is with this strong assumption about two specific groups within the Roman house churches who cannot be equated with all Jews or all Gentiles in those churches that McKnight wishes to re-read Romans (in the light of Rom. 14) from start to finish.

So for example, when McKnight gets to Rom. 1-2, because he sees this as a part of the critique of the weak (found in all Rom. 1-4), he tries to argue that Rom. 1.18-32 is the polemic of the ‘weak’ against pagan idolatry and immorality, which Paul then turns around and criticizes on the grounds that the interlocutor in Rom. 2.1-16 is a judgmental Jewish Christian. To the contrary, Rom. 2.1-16 is about a judgmental Gentile Christian, which as Paul points out, was formerly like those he is critiquing in 1.18-32, whereas Rom. 2.17ff. is indeed about a judgmental Jewish commentator. Yes, there is a toggling back and forth at times between critique of Gentiles and critique of Jews in Romans, but not in the way McKnight sees the matter, and not just of the limited group of weak and strong judgmental persons. Paul is an equal opportunity critiquer of all Jewish and Gentile Christians, in Rome and elsewhere. As Paul will say in Rom. 3— ‘all have sinned and fallen short’, and so yes, all come under God’s judgment on sin. There’s no room for self-congratulatory boasting or preening by anyone.

Scot rightly recognized Paul is doing speech in character in Rom. 7.7-13, but wrongly identifies the speaker as a generic judgmental person, presumably a Jew, when speech in character requires the speaker to be a known historical figure, and Paul has just referenced such a person in Rom. 5.12-21—namely Adam, who best fits the descriptions in Rom. 7.7-13 as a person who had only one commandment from God and who existed before there was any law at all.

Or take another example, from the discussion of Rom. 13— here Paul is seen as exhorting specifically the Jewish Christians to respect the authorities and pay their taxes. But surely Paul is telling all the Christians in Rome to be good citizens and do this. Gentiles in Rome were famous for belly-aching about the Emperor’s taxes.
What surfaces in the extended discussion of Rom. 9-11 is McKnight thinks this discussion is needed by the weak Jews with too many scruples in Rome who want the Gentile converts to keep Torah. Those chapters are better taken as a lesson for Gentile converts with anti-Semitic tendencies who thought God had replaced his first chosen people with another one—Gentiles and perhaps especially Roman Gentiles, now riding high on the wave of Empire which was swamping the whole Mediterranean crescent. Paul is answering the question—Has God abandoned his first chosen people with an emphatic NO! and the audience that needed to hear that was surely the Gentiles in Rome, not the Jewish Christians who would agree with much of what Paul says in Rom. 9-11.

One of the great virtues of this book throughout is Scot’s insistence that Paul is doing lived theology, not abstract theology, and that what we call the theology and ethics of Romans is intricately intertwined. Just so. One could have wished for more discussion on this topic throughout the book, even if it meant less reading of the whole of Romans in light of Rom. 14.

And in the end, even the house churches in Rome would not have read Romans backwards, they would have listened to it forwards, and as such, they could not have guessed from Rom. 1-13 that the real target audience for Paul’s exhortations was a subset of the whole Christian community in Rome, namely was the weak Jewish Christians who wanted everyone to be Torah true, and the strong, higher status Gentile Christians mentioned in Rom. 14-15 that looked down on the newly returned from exile Jewish Christians.

This book is to be highly commended for taking the road less traveled in understanding Romans, and some fine and fresh insights into the most famous Pauline letter come to light, even if at the end of the day it does not provide the best explanation for the whole of Paul’s rhetoric and reason for writing this famous document.

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