R. Longenecker’s New Book: Introducing Romans

R. Longenecker’s New Book: Introducing Romans May 24, 2011

If you keep up with who’s writing which new commentary, you may know that Richard Longenecker has been working on a massive Romans commentary for the NIGTC series. He had so much “introductory” material that he was given the go-ahead to pre-publish some of it to reduce the size of the forthcoming commentary (so I understand).

The result is the newly published book Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous letter (Eerdmans, 2011). It is nearly 500 pages long and very detailed. (Compare this to C.K. Barrett’s famous commentary on the entire text of Romans which comes in at just under 300 pages!).

Longenecker divides this volume up into five sections.

The first part is: “IMPORTANT MATTERS LARGELY UNCONTESTED TODAY” (Author, amanuensis, involvement of others; integrity; date/situation). I will not comment on these issues.

Part 2: Addresses and Purpose.

When it comes to the “who” of the addressees, Longenecker is wise to avoid an “either”/”or” approach in terms of Jews and Gentiles and their composition. He prefers to look at the orientation of the addresses, rather than trying to reconstruct their ethnic make-up. From his historical analysis, he argues that “the early Christian faith at Rome had a distinctly Jewish character, whether as practiced and proclaimed by Jewish believers themselves or as accepted by Gentiles, or both” (p. 72). He also argues that, based on evidence from some archaeological and historical sources, the many synagogues in Rome had no central leadership, so they probably all looked to Palestine for authority and cohesion. Longenecker reasons that the early churches, being as “Jewish” in character as they were, adopted this stance as well, finding leadership in the Jerusalem church.

Thus: “we should lay emphasis on the axis that runs from Roman Christianity back to the Jerusalem church in Judea as being of primary importance” (p. 82). One implication, for Longenecker, is that these Roman churches would have “had a high respect for the Mosaic law” (p. 83).


In chapter five, Longenecker moves into a discussion of the purpose of Romans. He surveys and finds lacking dozens of proposals. This remarkable “survey of literature” is worthwhile, as he cogently refutes a number of leading theories.

His own perspective is this:

Priority in understanding the purpose of Romans should be given to the “epistolary frame” – especially the beginning of the letter.  Longenecker focuses on Paul’s own comment that he wishes to give a “spiritual gift” which is probably his own recounting of the Gospel “in order that they might understand accurately and more appreciatively what he was proclaiming in his mission to the Gentiles” (148).

Additionally, he wanted to seek their help in his mission to Spain.

Bound up in his desire to do these things would be his own need to establish lines of agreement and also points where his own ministry may have been brought into question (especially related to the Mosaic law). In that sense, he also needed to set forth

how that message of God’s direct acceptance of Gentiles through Christ, apart from any Jewish prolegomena or Jewish Christian contextualization, related to the hope of Israel, which they evidently saw as being fulfilled through the missionary outreach of Jewish Christians generally and in their midst at Rome in particular. (151)

Longenecker sees an apologetic thrust to this, as Paul pre-emtively defended his own authority and message, as in his claim not to be ashamed (1:16). But Longenecker sees this issue, not as primary (in response to “enemies”), but “subsidiary” – it is there, but not the “main purpose.”

Chapter six gets into how scholars have looked at rhetorical and epistolary features of Romans. I actually agree with Longenecker that Romans does not fit the deliberative, forensic, or epideictic categories of rhetoric. Rather, and I agree again with this, it seems to generally work with the notion of a “protreptic letter” (Aune; Stowers) – focusing on supporting a particular way of life.

In terms of epistolary categories, under the category of “letters of exhortation and advice,” Longenecker points to the “protreptic letters” as an epistolary form (as well as rhetorical category).

How do we see rhetorical expression and letter-form working together in Romans? Longenecker, again, is wise to point to the idea of a “letter essay” – “as instructional material set within an epistolary frame [which] seems to provide the most likely life setting and cultural context for a proper interpretation of the letter” (217).

Skipping to chapter nine (perhaps the next chapter most full of “controversial” arguments), Longenecker deals with “Major Interpretive Approaches Prominent Today” (p. 290f). In terms of the perennially thorny issue of the use of the phrase “righteousness of God,” Longenecker tries to transcend the issue in this way: Paul would have shared in common with the Roman Christians a very Jewish view that the RoG was an attributive of God – his saving justice. And, yet, while building bridges with this mutual affirmation, he wished to point out to them “a more objective or communicative sense” (p. 293).

By “objective,” Longenecker later clarifies in this way: “Paul’s emphasis in his Gentile mission…on God’s righteousness as a gift given by God to those whom he reconciles to himself through the work of Christ, the ministry of his Holy Spirit, and their response of faith” (p. 304).

Given his interest in the “objective” and “communicative” aspect of the righteousness of God, I would have expected him to buy into the objective interpretation of pistis Christou – but he goes the other way! He favors the subjective approach – the faithfulness of Christ (see his arguments 317-323).

He also finds much fault with the New Perspective on Paul, especially as articulated by E.P. Sanders and James Dunn. My critique of Longenecker here, though, would be that he misunderstands Dunn when he thinks Dunn views “works of the law” only as circumcision, Sabbath, and dietary regulations. Dunn has clarified a number of times that he views this phrase more holistically, but circumcision is a primary focus or entry point of the discussion.

In terms of the “heart” of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Longenecker himself urges that it can be found in Romans 5-8 with the key themes of peace and reconciliation (and Romans 1-4 really lays out tracks of mutuality and common-agreement that Paul has with the Roman churches; he established common theological ground before getting into “his gospel”).


Strong Points

Longenecker has done penetrating and broad research on the background of Romans! He works with literature from English and German sources and works back quite far in the history of interpretation. He models good research in general.

He touches on all the major issues and has a number of good insights into various areas, such as a historical reconstruction on the life of the churches in Rome.

His discussion of rhetoric and epistolary analysis is quite good and he gives a nice history of the study of both fields vis-a-vis NT studies.

In general, he is judicious and gracious. I appreciate his sensitivity to that, given the complexity of interpreting Romans.


While there are a number of strong features of this book, I found some limitations as well.

First of all, he left out some key players in some of the discussions. For example, he did not address Andrew Das’ book on the (nearly or totally exclusively) Gentile make-up of the Roman churches. Nor did he engage in the work of Mark Nanos on the relationship between churches and synagogues in Rome. While one cannot expect Longenecker to do everything, these seem like major omissions (to me). Also, when it comes to pistis Christou, I was surprised that the work of Barry Matlock was absent, especially since he is one of the major voices in this discussion. In terms of the socio-rhetorical strategy of Romans, I also expected a heavier interaction with the work of Francis Watson.

Secondly, while I like some repetition in the book, I found this introduction tediously repetitive. It is not as much that it seemed that Longenecker was trying to repeat himself – that would have come out OK. It seems (and this is just a theory) that the book was originally written in various different parts and edited together. However, when all together it is obvious that there is too much repetition. For example, he quotes the same block quote on 117 and 155, almost as if he didn’t know he had already made that quote! I don’t mean to be insulting – I just wish it would have been smoothed out a bit better on final editing. Perhaps Longenecker and Eerdmans, on the balance, were erring on the side of more repetition in case people only read selective portions. Fair enough.

My overall impression is that Romans experts will not find much “new stuff” in here and the few key insights Longenecker has do not make huge changes in how one interprets Romans (I don’t think). However, for students especially, Longenecker does a fine job of doing what the title suggests: Introducing Romans. In that sense, it would make a fine reference work or textbook.

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