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: Why should we read Romans backwards?
McKnight: Romans is the most significant theological text in the New Testament for the development of Christian theology, and yet today it’s a network of arguments and problems. In reading Romans over the years, I became convinced that the book became abstract theology, if not systematic theology, and it totally lost connection with its historical context.
And here’s why: it’s a lot of work to read Romans 1 through 8. When you add Romans 9 to 11, it’s even more work. By the time people get to Romans 12, they’re exhausted, and they skim over it. They make a pledge that next time, they will just use Galatians! It’s the Readers Digest version of Romans.
So what is the most important social and church context for understanding Romans—namely chapters 12 through 16—is often ignored when people only read Romans 1 through 11. And yet this letter, like all of Paul’s letters, is addressed to a specific context and a particular set of people. So ignoring 12–16 flattens the reading of the book and misses the historical context.
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.
Paul did not write this letter to get Romans saved. It is not an evangelistic letter. He wrote this letter to saved Christians to get them to eat together in peace, to live as siblings as Christ, not as enemies with one another.
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Source: Religion News Service