Reading In and Around the Bible: Romans

Returning to my notes upon reading sections of the Bible for the first time. The last couple posts here were about Genesis, but before that I’d finished the New Testament, and left off with the two books of Corinthians, trying to read Paul’s epistles more-or-less in chronological order as written. Eventually I stopped bothering with that and just read them in Bible order; and some of the later ‘books’ are so short, and similar to the others, I took no specific notes.

List of previous posts:
Intro and sources used (NRSV, KJV via Wells’ SAB, Miller, Asimov); Matthew; Mark; Luke; John; Acts; Paul #1: 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Galatians; Paul #2: 1 and 2 Corinthians.

So next, chronologically after Corinthians, and first of those I hadn’t read in Bible order, is Romans.

The longest of Paul’s letters, and thus placed immediately after Acts in the NT, but not written until 57 CE or so, following the five earlier epistles I’ve already talked about but which come later in the NT.

What’s strikes me about these epistles of Paul is that they are perhaps the only books in the entire Bible that are fairly likely to have been written by the claimed author (though even some of Paul’s are doubtful). The OT books were oral stories written anonymously after hundreds of years; the NT gospels also were oral traditions not assigned their authors for a century or more after they were written (which was decades after the events they describe). Acts is assigned to the author of Luke, but there are several odd first-person passages that interrupt the third-person narrative, that suggest at least two authors crudely edited together.

Paul’s epistles, therefore, bear a common resemblance not seen anywhere else in the Bible. They are consequently rather repetitious—basically, it strikes me, a series of long-winded sermons by a zealous proselytizer who repeats certain hobby-horse themes (the evils of sex beyond the necessities for reproduction, the resurrection as evidence of immortality, correspondence to OT prophecy, the centrality of sin) and ignores other elements of what became central to Christianity, notably the supposed virgin birth and most of the life of Jesus. (The NT gospels were still oral stories at the time Paul wrote his letters, not part of any ‘bible’ Paul had to consult.)

That these epistles are all from one hand in a way somewhat undermines them. Why take them any more seriously than the sermons of any preacher today? Pat Robertson, say? They’re just one guy’s opinions (and the huge variations among the sermons of modern day preachers, who find very different lessons from their common Bible, should caution us in this regard), whereas the legends and histories and gospels that weren’t written down until having survived being retold for decades or centuries – stories that both grew in the telling, as stories always do, but which also were shaped by the needs of the storytellers and those being told the stories – were in some sense more robust and tempered by time, somewhat more, so to speak, authoritative. They were the results of many tellers, not just one. Be that as it may.

Romans: Paul assures his followers in Rome that everyone is a sinner and deserves the death penalty (including notably the homosexuals), but that they’ll be forgiven if they believe in Jesus.

  • 1:20, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature … have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” Argument from design. This line of thinking still persists, though it’s mostly disappeared among the educated. It was the basis for Thomas Paine’s deism in his The Age of Reason (1796), which I read recently and will discuss soon.
  • 1:24, “There God gave them up in the lusts…”, where “them” refers to those who suffer “wickedness” in 1:18; that is, only nonbelievers suffer “degrading” passion. (Remember Paul is the ascetic who’d just as soon everyone remain unmarried.)
  • 1:27, “…men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another”. These are the famous lines in the NT that Christians like to quote, in addition to Leviticus in OT, to condemn homosexuality, and consign homosexuals to death. (And there are numerous modern Christian preachers who take Paul at his word and advocate government extermination of homosexuals — see references in my previous posts on this blog.) Oxford suggests that Paul is talking more about “immoderate indulgence” that “weakens the body” more than about orientation; Miller also offers alternate explanations for what Paul was talking about; as recently does Matthew Vines; but all of these attempts seem to deny the plain meaning of Paul’s words, attempts to explain away the uncomfortable parts in order to save the whole. (More likely is the instinctive animus toward behavior that doesn’t promote tribal growth, as I discussed in previous post.)
  • 1:32, all these people with debased minds “deserve to die”.
  • Ch2, But don’t judge those wicked others because you do those things too! This line of thinking about how we are all sinners presumably has appeal to some (i.e. bad people), but ignores the obvious evidence that most people are more-or-less good in their conduct toward others, in contrast to a minority who are genuinely harmful toward others. Belief in Jesus, being born again, strikes me as a get-out-of-jail free card for even the worst murderer to get into heaven at the last minute of their lives, if they just *believe*. (Where as nonbelievers like me, no matter how much good we do in our lives, are consigned to Hell.)
  • 2:25, still obsessed with circumcision.
  • Ch3, Jews are special.
  • 3:10, OT scripture citations about awful everyone is; how Paul does dwell on this, in an almost a sadistic way.
  • Ch4, yet more!
  • 5:12, “and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” Seriously? (Do animals die because they too are sinners?)
  • 5:18, Paul finds some kind of parallel between the lives of Adam and Jesus. He’s just making this up; a skilled rhetorician can explain anything.
  • 6:4, Paul claims Jesus’ resurrection implies immortality for believers. (Thomas Paine describes why this doesn’t follow at all.)
  • 6:9, famous line: “death no longer has dominion over him” in NRSV; “death hath no more dominion over him” in KJV.
  • 6:15, in several places Paul asks a rhetorical questions and answers himself “By no means!”, in NRSV. In KJV these passages are translated as “God forbid”.
  • 6:23, famous line: “For the wages of sin is death”.
  • Ch7, Paul is obsessed with sin, and the “law”.
  • Ch8, more rhetorical parallels; sermonizing. (How does he know?)
  • 8:18, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us”. Again, moaning about the sorry state of the world is a historical cliché across all time (usually accompanied by a longing for a lost, glorious past – c.f Donald Trump!); and here is Paul yet again alluding to the second coming, which has never happened.
  • Ch9, It’s all about Israel; more from scripture. What went wrong? Rationalization. (No doubt every oppressed people throughout history has excuses for their misfortunes, and their leaders promise them eventual redemption. Human nature. We hear about the winners, but not the many more losers whose leaders made similar promises.)
  • 9:11ff, “Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad…” suggests it doesn’t matter what you do in your life, you are predestined to be either saved or damned. (Wells’ SAB.)
  • Ch10, Yet more on this theme. Paul can explain away anything.
  • Ch12, Welcome persecution! 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them”. Oxford notes how this echoes statements of Jesus, though obviously Paul can’t be quoting as he does from OT. Presumably oral ‘gospels’ about Jesus were in the air, and collections of Jesus’ sayings.
  • Ch13, Instruction to obey authorities, always sensible advice. More echoes of Jesus’ sayings.
  • 13:9, a very similar list of commandments as Jesus sometimes cited, leaving out the strictly religious proscriptions.
  • 13:11, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” places a fairly tight schedule on the second coming, which, of course, never happened. (How did Paul think he knew?)
  • Ch14-16, more about not passing judgment, his travel plans, and introductions with long lists of names. Asimov, p435ff, traces the significance of some of them that are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.
  • 16:17, “I urge you… keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them”. Not exactly a recipe for multiculturalism or a modern pluralistic society—but advice that some Christians seem intent on passing into law via “religious freedom” bills that allow them to discriminate and disassociate with people who are unlike themselves.
This entry was posted in Bible. Bookmark the permalink.