Jewish Identity & the Law: Jason Staples on Romans 2 & 10

Jewish Identity & the Law: Jason Staples on Romans 2 & 10 April 4, 2024

We are back again with some more questions for Jason A. Staples. This time we discuss Jewish identity, living by the Law (Torah), and Christ as the “end” of the Law. In our first episode, we covered, among other things, Israel’s restoration related to the end times. All these and many other issues are addressed more fully in Dr. Staples’s recent book, Paul and the Resurrection of Israel: Jews, Former Gentiles, Israelites (Cambridge University Press, 2024).

To refresh our memory, Dr. Staples comes from the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University, where he is an assistant teaching professor. It is my pleasure once again to converse with him.

Part 2 of the Interview


I like that you argue that gentiles are not the only audience of Paul’s. So how do you interpret the “so-called” Jew in Romans 2:17? There’s lots of controversy over that verse being really about a gentile wanting to be Jew. Let me cite if for you:

Romans 2:17 Now if you call yourself/are called (ἐπονομάζῃ/eponamazê) a Jew and rely on the Law and boast in God,

Used by the author's permission: Jason Staples
Jason Staples’s daughters holding up his books: Paul and the Resurrection of Israel and The Idea of Israel

2:18 and you know the divine will and you determine vital matters, being instructed from the Law, 2:19 and so you have convinced yourself to be a guide of the blind, a light of those in darkness, 2:20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having the embodiment of the knowledge and truth in the Law. 2:21 You, then, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach to another not to steal, do you steal? 2:22 You who say not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who detests idols, do you commit sacrilege? 2:23 You who boasts in the Law, on account of your transgression of the Law you dishonor God! 2:24 For, “the name of God is being blasphemed among the nations because of you,” just as it is written.

What is your viewpoint of this text?


When I wrote my dissertation, I was open to the recent proposal that Romans 2:17 refers to someone born a gentile who has been circumcised and “calls himself a Jew,” though Paul denies Jewish status to such a person. But as I worked on this book, it became increasingly clear that view doesn’t hold up.

For one thing, Lionel Windsor published 2021 a careful analysis of the phrase in question. He concluded that in every case elsewhere in Greek literature, this form of the word eponomazô/ἐπονομάζω (here, ἐπονομάζῃ) means “are called.” A different grammatical construction is always used for the reflexive “call yourself” meaning. The same year (2021), Markus Öhler published a book chapter concluding the same on other grounds.

So, Rom 2:17 does not say, “If you call yourself a Jew,” as argued by those who have suggested he’s referring to a newly-circumcised convert to Judaism not otherwise received as a Jew by others. Instead, it says, “if you are called a Jew,” referring to someone who is recognized as a Jew by others—the very definition of what constitutes “Jewishness” from a sociological perspective.


It’s interesting that three prominent critiques of this same interpretation were all published in the same year—2021 is when my own article came out on this subject through Academia Letters: “Is the Jew in Romans 2:17 Really a Gentile? Second Thoughts on a Recent Interpretation”.


When Paul objects to gentiles being circumcised in Galatians, it’s not because circumcision doesn’t work to convert them into Jews. Quite the contrary! It’s because it works all too well! Genevive Dibley’s chapter in Israel and the Nations is brilliant on this point, such that “every man who becomes circumcised is obligated to keep the whole Torah” (Galatians 5:3).

By becoming Jews through circumcision, they effectively bring themselves under the very curse of the Torah from which Jesus came to rescue Israel (Galatians 3:10–14). After all, the covenant curses only apply to those to whom the covenant applies—that is, Israel.

That whole line of argumentation in Galatians is incoherent if Paul doesn’t think circumcision actually works in terms of making gentiles into Jews. The problem as Paul sees it is that becoming a Jew isn’t a solution for gentiles, for Jews themselves need the transformation and deliverance the messiah came to bring to Israel. Paul is operating within typical contemporary Jewish theology in that respect. It was commonplace in early Judaism that Israel required divine deliverance due to Israel’s historic covenantal disobedience. Paul merely argues that this deliverance is already happening through Jesus.

So, in Romans 2:17, instead of narrowing the scope to gentile converts and ruling native-born Jews out of the argument, the “if you are called a Jew” phrase instead serves exactly the opposite function. That is, it broadens the scope to include anyone who might be identified as a Jew, whether by birth or conversion. Paul is casting a wide net here.


In the same context of Romans 2, Paul goes on to write:

2:25 For circumcision is of value if you observe the Law, but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become a foreskin! 2:26 Thus if the one with the foreskin keeps the righteous requirements of the Law, will not his foreskin be reckoned as circumcision? 2:27 Then the one who by nature has a foreskin, who fulfills the Law, will judge you who, with the written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the Law! 2:28 For a person is not a Jew who is one merely outwardly, nor is circumcision merely something outwardly in the flesh, 2:29 but he is a Jew in secret [ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ/ en tô kruptô], and circumcision is of the heart in Spirit not in written code. This person’s praise is not from humans but from God.

Who do you think is being identified as the secret or inward Jew in 2:29?


The basic argument of Romans 2 is that because final judgment will be based on works—a bedrock teaching that appears in nearly every Pauline letter*—Jewish status is insufficient to ensure a good judgment. Thus, Paul argues that if someone otherwise called a Jew does not adequately do the just things required in Torah, that person’s Jewishness is thereby forfeited.

Consequently, the ultimate maintenance of Jewish status requires the spirit, which circumcises the heart and thereby grants the capacity to fully obey and pass through judgment unscathed and with one’s Jewishness intact.

The “secret” or “inward” Jew of Rom 2:28–29 is therefore the one whose heart is circumcised to match the flesh. Of note, I don’t think these verses mean gentile converts become Jews. Instead, Paul is arguing that those who are physically circumcised still need heart circumcision by the spirit in order to be Jewish both inside and out.


In our earlier episode, you brought up that Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12 and Romans 10:5 functions as a positive statement: “the human who does these things will live by them.” Many interpret Leviticus 18:5 negatively, as human works or doing the law in contrast with faith. Could you elaborate on the reasons for your interpretation?


Leviticus 18:5 says “the human who does these things will live by them,” referring to the Torah’s commands. On my reading, Paul understands this verse as referring specifically to the singular person—Jesus. It is he who will fulfill all these things properly and gain “life,” that is, eternal life, the power over death.

I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that when Paul cites this verse in Galatians 3:12, the very next word is “Christ,” the very one Paul argues accomplished Leviticus 18:5. Nor is it an accident that in Romans he cites Leviticus 18:5 immediately after declaring that “Christ is the telos [end/goal] of the Torah” (Romans 10:4).

That is, by receiving the life promised by the Torah, Jesus has brought the Torah to its ultimate purpose, and Jesus’s resurrection is the proof that he’s the one of whom the Torah speaks. Paul thus enlists the Torah as witness to Jesus’s messianic status.

On my reading, Paul sees Leviticus 18:5 as a proof-text for the resurrection in parallel with Habakkuk 2:4, “the just one [Jesus] by fidelity will live.” Each verse promises life, and each refers to the singular individual who gains that life.

I get pretty deep into the grammatical weeds in the book’s discussion of these passages, but I think this reading of Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 makes the most sense both in the flow of his arguments and in that it seems very unlikely to me that Paul would cite a passage from Torah against his own gospel, which he presents as the proper fulfillment of Torah.


I have a different understanding of Habakkuk 2:4, but I want to stay on track here with your point about Romans 10:4. Could you elaborate some more on Paul’s claim that Christ is the telos [end/goal] of the law? In your view is this related to Moses’s prediction of another prophet in Deuteronomy 18:15–22?


Absolutely. For one thing, the final independent clause of the Torah—the literal “end of the Torah”—says, “Since that day, a prophet has not risen in Israel like Moses….” (Deut 34:10–12). In the Greek version,** the word for “arisen” here is anistēmi, a word used of the resurrection in the New Testament.

As I mentioned above, Paul argues that Jesus’s resurrection is the proof of his authority. Jesus is the prophet who has “arisen,” making him the one to whom the very end of the Torah points.

Beyond that, this final statement of the Torah signals back to Deut 18:15–22, where Moses says, “YHWH your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers. To him you shall listen” (18:15). Since the people would not listen to God directly (18:16–17), God promises to “raise up a prophet like you [Moses] from among their brothers, and I will put my words in his mouth, and he will speak to them” (18:18).

It’s, therefore, no accident that right after calling the Messiah “the end of the Torah,” Romans 10:6–8 then cites Deuteronomy 30:12–14, which promises a time when the word of God will finally be put into the mouth and heart of the people.

It’s a very compressed and complex passage, but the point is that Jesus is the “prophet like Moses” who, having arisen from the dead, delivers the Torah to the people’s hearts, transforming them in a way that Moses himself could not.


* Apart from Romans 2:6–16, see for example, Rom 14:10–12; 1 Cor 4:4–5; 2 Cor 5:10; 11:25 cf. Col 3:24–25.

 ** The standard Greek version of the Torah and Deut 34 is the Septuagint (LXX). For an English translation of this text, see, for example, NETS.

About B. J. Oropeza
B. J. Oropeza, Ph.D., Durham University (England), is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University and Seminary. Among his many publications are Perspectives on Paul: Five Views (Baker Academic), Scripture, Texts, and Tracings in Galatians and 1 Thessalonians (Fortress Academic), and commentaries on 1 Corinthians (New Covenant commentary series: Cascade), and 2 Corinthians (Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity: SBL Press). He can be followed on X-Twitter (@bjoropeza1) and Instagram (@bjoropeza1). You can read more about the author here.

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