New Commentary on Romans

New Commentary on Romans December 1, 2022

Stephen Westerholm has just released an interesting new commentary on the book of Romans. It’s called Romans: Text, Readers, and the History of Interpretation.

I caught up with Stephen to discuss his new book.


There are countless books on Romans. Why did you choose to take the time to write yours?

That’s a very good question! I was writing a book on important figures in the history of biblical interpretation (Reading Sacred Scripture, to which my son Martin also contributed) when I was asked to contribute the volume on Romans for a new series of commentaries: the “Illuminations” series, to be published by Eerdmans.

I had never thought I would write a commentary on Romans (many good ones are already available), but the emphasis of this new series on the history of interpretation intrigued me, partly because it overlapped with what I was already doing, partly because it struck me that a commentary with this focus would indeed represent a distinct and important contribution to the literature on Romans.

So when I completed the first project, I began work on the second by studying important interpreters of Romans, from Origen to Barth. Although I originally intended the review of these interpreters to be included in the introduction to the commentary, it grew to such a length that I decided (together with Eerdmans) to make it a separate publication.

What’s unique about your book from that of others on Romans?

The commentary will be different from other commentaries in the importance it places on the history of interpretation. And although there are other books discussing how Romans has been interpreted over the centuries, I have included in my study a number of interesting figures generally overlooked in such studies.

In some cases, it is fascinating to see how people famous for other reasons read the epistle: people like Philipp Jakob Spener, the “father” of the Pietist movement; John Locke, the philosopher; Cotton Mather, minister at Boston’s Second Church from 1685-1728; and John William Colenso, who drew upon his experience as Bishop of Natal and his familiarity with the Zulu people in his interpretation of Paul. But since Paul was not writing for scholars, and the overwhelming majority of his readers are not scholars either, I have included more popular interpreters of Romans as well (such as Richard Baxter and Martyn Lloyd-Jones). I looked as well at early translations of Romans into English—and found it a fascinating study.

For non-scholars, what is the significance of the manuscript textual data that you write about in Part 1?

Of course, readers of Romans should focus, first and foremost, on the content of the letter, not on different readings found in the early manuscripts (they are almost always very minor in character). Indeed, most readers—including some of the epistle’s most important interpreters—simply ignore these variants. So a study of the textual history of Romans is not for everybody.

Nonetheless, consciously or unconsciously, all readers of Romans depend on the work of textual scholars who furnish the text they read (if they read the letter in Greek) or the text on which their English translations are based. It is only natural, then, that at least some readers of Romans will want to learn about the evidence that lies behind these Greek texts, and how the evidence is evaluated. For such readers, I have attempted to provide an accessible introduction to the textual history of Romans.

What exactly is the “Paul within Judaism” school?

“Paul within Judaism” scholars see Paul as living all his days “within Judaism,” observing even the “ritual” aspects of Jewish law, and never critiquing Judaism as such. They see his concern, in Romans as in Galatians, as limited to the issue how gentile “sinners” could become righteous and enjoy salvation; and any negative comments Paul makes about the Mosaic law are thought to reflect its effects solely on gentiles. Such a reading of the apostle only becomes possible if we understand his intended first readers, in Romans as in his other epistles, as exclusively gentile—and “Paul within Judaism” scholars insist on that point.

Why is understanding this “school” important for those who teach Romans?

That, of course, depends on the context in which they are teaching; but in contexts where students expect to learn about recent scholarship on Paul, this “school” should be included. And we all need to remember that, even as an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul worshiped Israel’s God, studied the Jewish scriptures, and saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. His problem with Jews who did not believe in Christ was not that they were following the wrong “religion,” but that they failed to acknowledge recent crucial developments in the redemptive work of their God.

Summarize the interpretation of Romans during the patristic period.

I’m not sure that that can be done concisely. The three most significant patristic interpreters were Origen, Chrysostom, and Augustine—and each was very different from the other two. Of course, Romans was sacred scripture for them all, so they naturally looked to the letter for answers to issues in their own times: for example, how to respond to Marcion, the gnostics, and (in Augustine’s case) the Pelagians. But it should also be said that these three (and a number of other patristic interpreters) were serious students of Paul; and they were much closer to his world than we are. They may certainly be read with profit even today.

Summarize the interpretation of Romans during themedieval period.

The two medieval interpreters at whom I looked in some detail were Abelard and Aquinas; they are both worthy of study in their own right. But, as with Origen, Chrysostom, and Augustine, so Abelard and Aquinas were too different from each other to permit much in the way of generalizations.

Indeed, Abelard was too idiosyncratic, and Aquinas too brilliant, to be regarded as representative of their period in any case. Broadly speaking, however, the period was more concerned with preserving patristic interpretations than with advancing new (and therefore suspect!) interpretations. It is also important to note that, in western Europe during this period, the Bible was being studied almost exclusively in Latin, not Hebrew or Greek.

Summarize the interpretation of Romans during the 16th century.

It was first in the 16th century that the New Testament was published in Greek, and Protestant interpreters in particular based their study of Romans on the Greek text. Of course, the religious controversies of the period profoundly affected biblical interpretation—and Romans was a major battlefield!

But, again, serious students of Romans today can learn much from the theological insights of a Luther (however colored they were by conditions in his time) and the disciplined attention to the text of a Calvin. And (as noted above) early translations of the New Testament from Greek into English, and even from Latin into English, provide a fascinating subject for study. The achievements of William Tyndale in particular, under conditions of extreme duress and, ultimately, at the cost of his life, are simply astonishing.

Out of all the interpreters you feature during the Modern period, which one do you believe understood the true meaning of Romans the best?

That’s not an easy question to answer. I would say that Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer was the most careful exegete—and that Karl Barth was far from it! On the other hand, there is a reason why Barth’s commentary is so famous; and no other commentator can match Barth inconveying Paul’s sense of what it means for a human being to live before God. And without that sense, one cannot understand Romans.

Why didn’t you cover the commentators of the 20th and 21st centuries like F. F. Bruce, Witherington, N. T. Wright, Longenecker, etc.?

Well, I did have to draw a line somewhere if I was ever to finish the project! But my survey was meant in the first place to prepare myself for writing, and my readers for appreciating, a commentary on Romans that places great emphasis on the history of interpretation. Most commentators engage with other interpreters from the 20th and 21st centuries, so there was no need to draw attention to them.But most of the interpreters at whom I have looked are passed over where the history of interpretation is not a focus; and I hope to draw on them in writing the commentary.

In your opinion, what are the 2 best books unveiling Romans written to the left brain?

The commentaries of Aquinas and Cranfield come immediately to mind!

In your opinion, what are the 2 best books unveiling Romans written to the heart/spirit?

That’s tricky; perhaps Luther’s various treatments of Romans (not just his commentary) and Barth’s commentary—though some will say that those choices reveal more about me than about Luther and Barth!

During the writing of your book list three “aha” moments that opened your eyes to see Romans like you hadn’t previously.

I don’t know if these qualify as “aha” moments, but I was particularly impressed by Aquinas’s disciplined approach to unfolding Paul’s argument; by Luther’s personal engagement and wrestling with the text; and by Barth’s insistence that we come to Romans not to learn about Paul, but to learn about the God of whom he writes.

I can only hope and pray for grace and strength to complete the commentary I have begun, and that I and my readers will gain a better grasp of Paul’s argument, will wrestle seriously with its implications, and will come to know better what it means to live before God as followers of Jesus Christ.

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