Thanks to Jana Riess at RNS for this:
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the pinnacle of the apostle’s theology–a dense, rich text that Biblical studies experts have been poring over for centuries.
But I’m willing to bet that none of those scholars ever tried reading Romans from the end to the beginning, which is what evangelical scholar and popular author Scot McKnight does in his new book Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.
Backmasking Romans gives us a totally different perspective, McKnight says. All that historical context that’s at the end of the letter–information about the house churches in Rome, names of the women and men who were in charge, and hints about the deep divisions between Jews and Gentiles–is crucial for understanding the meaty theology in the first half.
What’s more, it’s crucial for understanding the divisions we’re experiencing right now. There may never have been a more important time for American Christians to study Romans than during the age of Donald Trump.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. — JKR
RNS: Tell us about that historical context. What do we know about the churches Paul was writing to in Rome?
McKnight: I think there are four major aspects to the context.
- The first is that there are probably five house churches in Rome, evidently comprised of mostly slaves with a clear presence of female leaders. So we know the social context. The churches were made up of perhaps one hundred mostly poor people.
- Phoebe is the letter courier. It is unlikely that Paul hired a professional reader from Rome to read to a group of poor Christians in Rome, so it is highly likely that Phoebe read the letter aloud at least five times, once for each house church. Furthermore, a letter-reader’s responsibility was not just to read, but to perform, to ad lib, and to answer questions.
- In the Book of Romans we see the most emphasis on the church’s division of any letter Paul wrote. There’s a chapter and a half of discussion and exhortation to the strong and the weak. “Strong” does not mean theologically brilliant; it means having high social status. And “Weak” does not mean being theologically unengaged, but socially having a low status. So Paul spends a lot of time talking about the tension between the high and low status believers in Rome, who are almost certainly divided between Gentile believers (the Strong) and Jewish believers (the Weak). The Strong though Torah observance was passé while the Weak thought the Strong’s disregard for the Bible’s teaching was disobedience.
- There’s an emphasis on Christian living in Romans 12 to 16, which can be summarized in the idea of learning to live in the way of Christ, which I call Christoformity.
RNS: That’s an interesting point, because so often in modern interpretation Romans is seen as a part of the Bible that’s all about individual salvation.
McKnight: Paul’s mission was not to get Gentiles saved, but to get saved Gentiles to live in peace with saved Jews. And I don’t think that’s our emphasis today. It’s not on the church, but on personal redemption.
Some would root that in Augustine’s Confessions, and others would see it as arising from the Enlightenment and its focus on the individual. That may be where we get our radical emphasis on individualism. Darrin McMahon’s research shows that it’s in the 17th century that personal happiness becomes a dominant idea. So something happened in modernity that turned the volume up several notches toward individualism.
RNS: At the very end of the book you say that in our current situation, Romans is more relevant to the American church than any other book of the Bible. Why is this needed right now?
McKnight: Let’s start with politics.