Who Are You, O Man? (Maybe the Author of Wisdom of Solomon?)

Who Are You, O Man? (Maybe the Author of Wisdom of Solomon?) February 9, 2013

Someone shared a link the other day to a blog post which Don Burrows wrote a couple of years ago, about Paul's letter to the Romans, and in particular the interpretation of the “clobber passage” in chapter 1 in the context of the letter as a whole. I shared the link on Facebook, but wanted to not only share the link here as well, but dig deeper into the subject.

The blog post asks who the “man” is that is addressed in the vocative at the start of the section which, in modern Bibles, is numbered so as to be the beginning of a second chapter (such divisions are not in the Greek text).

An interesting and plausible suggestion is that the man who is addressed at the start of chapter 2 is the same man who had been speaking in the previous section, Romans 1:18-32.

The views voiced there would then not be those of Paul (unsurprisingly, since the one holding them is condemned!) but of another figure.

I had come close to this idea in thinking about the passage in the past, suggesting that Paul at this point begins speaking in a style and with a content that is not his own. Imagine Marcus Borg preaching a sermon in which he briefly adopts the rhetoric and language of a conservative preacher, only to then turn the condemnation of others which is typical in such preaching back on those who offer it, in order to make his point.

But I decided today to look into the possible evidence for this in more detail. Consulting a work like A New Reader's Lexicon of the Greek New Testament is one way of getting a sense of how many words in this passage are rare or unique. But using BibleWorks 9 also proved especially helpful. As Paul piles on the insults aimed at the character of Gentiles, in a manner typical of Jewish polemic in Romans 1:29-31, BibleWorks was able to tell me something that other sources did not: just how many words are not merely rare, but the only instances of Paul using the word among the entirety of the authentic epistles. Here is a particularly concentrated string of Pauline hapax legomena:

πεπληρωμένους πάσῃ ἀδικίᾳ πονηρίᾳ πλεονεξίᾳ κακίᾳ, μεστοὺς φθόνου φόνου ἔριδος δόλου κακοηθείας, ψιθυριστάς (Rom 1:29 BNT)

Why is Paul's language so different here? One plausible explanation is because he is mimicking the speech of one or more others. Indeed, it is not impossible to envisage him actually drawing on some other person's well-known tirade against Gentiles in order to make his depiction of that position particularly relevant and poignant, quite possibly specifically that in Wisdom of Solomon 12-14.

And so, the rhetorical turn indicated by the vocative at the start of chapter 2, the move to condemn the speaker voicing the point of view articulated in chapter 1, and the distinctive vocabulary do all seem to reinforce this point: The views articulated in Romans 1:18-32 cannot be treated as Paul's. This doesn't mean that Paul disagreed with all the points, any more than it can be assumed that a Christian and an atheist, or two people of different political parties, will disagree on everything, even when they quote one another polemically or satirically. But it does mean that one ought not to use Romans 1:18-32 to determine Paul's own views. We should rather treat this passage like we do Paul's quotations of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians. Those phrases may, in some instances, be ones that Paul could be happy with. But we are not always certain that is the case, and we often have reason to think that Paul himself would have preferred to put things differently.

So where does this leave the issue of Paul's thoughts on same sex relations? It seems to render the passage irrelevant, rather like Genesis 19 when interpreted correctly. This is particularly noteworthy, given that some view Romans 1 as the clearest example of Pauline condemnation of same-sex relations!

I'll refrain from prolonging the discussion further, and hope that this will soark discussion in the comments section. What do readers think? Is it safe to conclude that the use of Romans 1 as a clobber passage in the modern era is problematic not merely because of contemporary concerns, but because of exegetical considerations internal to the text itself?


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  • Yes Romans 1 is a trap. I wrote a series on this in 2008 – and have this lead up to chapter 2 reflecting what I thought in 1998:

    Ten years later, do I still think the trap closes? Yes. And it is confirmed when I read the closing bracket in Romans chapter 14 – why do you judge your brother? The best answer is given by the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov – because the people cannot stand the freedom You have placed them in. That is why we misread Romans. As I noted in a recent comment somewhere, we have no capacity to judge till we have died. (We learn that we have died in Romans 6 and how to make it effective for us in Romans 8.)

  • Jeremy Wales

    As I read it, Paul is certainly mirroring typically Jewish condemnation of Gentile sin in Rom 1, presumably to get the Jewish section of his audience on-side before including them in the condemnation also, so that by Rom 3 it will be clear that the *whole* world, not just lawless Gentiles but also law-hearing Jews, needs rescue by Jesus. The problem with using 2.1 to dissociate Paul from that condemnation, however, is that he clearly *includes* the “Man” who speaks 1.18-32 *in that same* condemnation. Paul does *not* condemn “him” merely for the act of judging itself. He condemns “him” because “he” has committed the *same sins* while *also* judging, which is even worse (see 2.2-3 etc.). So it is clear that Paul agrees with the condemnation of sins described in 1.18-32. Indeed, his argument in Rom 2 depends on it.

  • Jeremiah

    Campbell deals with this in Deliverance of God

  • William J E Dempsey

    It’s sometimes said that much of the Bible is written as a rabbinical debate; two voices in opposition, each advocating a different theological position. In this case, one voice is for a stern moralism, while the other voice is against it, and against judgmentalism in general. These may be actual debates of live persons – and/or one commentary/marginalia theme vs. a counter response.

    “Who are you O man” interestingly, begins to invoke some conscious awareness, by authors of the Bible, of an all-too- human (rabbinic?) origin to much of the Bible. As we begin to see two quarreling individuals here. As the authors of the Bible. One wondering who the man was, that wrote the earlier condemnation.

    The Bible sometimes alluded to the human element in (and possible origin of) our holy texts: “what is man that you are mindful of him?”

  • Eric Thurman

    Am I misremembering or did Stanley Stowers make a similar exegetical
    argument in Rereading Romans (which, alas, is not on the bookshelf next
    to me at the moment)?

    • I’m not sure. I know Douglas Campbell recently made this argument, but I am uncertain about Stowers off the top of my head.

  • Ignatz

    Oh, yes. Romans 2:1 is Paul’s actual point.

    The chapter separation makes people stop at the end of the chapter. And the King James versicles encourage readers to treat each verse as though it was a free-standing thought.

    As Bob says (below), it’s a trap. Paul knows some readers are reading that and saying, “Yeah – THOSE people.” And then suddenly says, “No! I’m talking about YOU people!”

  • Ignatz

    Just to make sure I’m understanding this, James, are you saying the every word in that section of Romans 1:29 is unique in Pauline literature?

    • No, not at all. If you try it in your own language, you’ll see that there is no way to make a sentence without using words that you have used before elsewhere in writing.

  • arcseconds

    “Who are you, O Man? (Maybe the Author of Wisdom of Solomon?)” is a cool title, I gotta say.

    Not only is it a snappy way to introduce the possibility under discussion, it also brings to mind some kind of drama. Perhaps a scene from Scooby-Doo:

    Thelma: Who are you, O Man?
    (Thelma rips of the latex mask of the restrained villain)
    Thelma (rhetorically, and dramatically) : Maybe *the Author of the Wisdom of Solomon*?
    The Author of the Wisdom of Solomon: And I would have got away with it too, if it hadn’t been for you pesky kids!

    • I would love to do an image, and explain the “Scooby Doo ending” to Paul’s argument…