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Reading Romans

Reading Romans

As a part of my preparation for Lent, I have been studying the apostle Paul's Epistle to the Romans.  I have read and pondered this letter all of my adult life, and everytime I read it , I feel challenged by its depth and its message.  Unlike most of the other letters, which are constructed as ad hoc responses to local church problems, Romans contains a systematic presentation of the apostolic message and Paul's reflection upon it.

This time I chose to read this letter with the help of N.T. Wright's commentary in Volume X of The New Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon Press, 2002).  The New Interpreter's Bible is the jewel of publications by Abingdon Press, and it deserves to be in the library of every church and pastor who can afford it ($820.00).

A brilliant theologian, and now an Anglican bishop, Wright has produced a masterpiece of historical scholarship in his three volumes of a projected five volume series, The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress, 1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996), and The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).  Fortunately, Wright is not only a scholar, but also a good writer who can present his views in a more popular form, such as The Challenge of Jesus (InterVarsity Press, 1999).   I wanted to see how Wright's knowledge of Jewish thought and literature and his ability to discern the message of the early church might illuminate the meaning of the Epistle to the Romans.

I was  not disappointed. Wright's commentary is not an easy or quick read, but it is worth all the time and the energy.  There are many things one could say about Wright's insights into Paul's thought in Romans, but I want to mention only one thing.

Wright's commentary on Romans demonstrates how Paul, the other apostles, and the early church could claim with confidence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Isael, and how the Scriptures of the Old Testament are truly fulfilled in his life, death and resurrection. 

The early Christians asserted that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Scriptures (for example, see Luke 24:27).  This assertion is built into the creed of the church.  The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed states that Jesus "rose again in accordance with the Scriptures," and that the Holy Spirit had "spoken through the prophets."  Yet many may view this assertion as a shallow ,or even very distorted, interpretation of the Old Testament by the early church.  It has not been unusal for both scholars and ordinary Christians to conclude that the story of Jesus does not seem to have that much connection to the Old Testament except for the obvious facts that Jesus was a Jew, he acted like a prophet of Israel, and he lived during a time of messianic expectation.  Also, when we look at an early Christian writing, like Paul's Epistle to the Romans, we see a lot of quotes from the Old Testament, but they seem like proof texts or forced attempts to make the new Christiam message have some connection to the Jewish Scriptures, no matter how strained  the connection is.  We assume that the early Christians tried to force the interpretation of the Scriptures in order to give their own message more authority.

What Wright accomplishes in a masterful manner is to unveil the way Paul reads the Old Testament and finds in it a coherent story that makes sense finally only in light of the news that the crucified and risen Jesus, the son of David, is the Messiah of Israel through whom God has inaugurated a new age for the fulfilment of the divine purpose for all of creation.  By looking at the context of the Scriptural texts Paul quotes, and by taking into account the views of Jews in the time of Second Temple Judaism, Wright demonstates the coherence, logic, depth, and complexity of Paul's reading of the Old Testament.  After studying Wright's reading of Paul, we can understand why the early church was convinced that Jesus is  truly the Messiah in fulfillment of the Scriptures,  and that his death is redemptive, and his resurrection is the sign of the coming new creation. Not only can we  understand why the early church had this belief, but we today are challenged to have what Paul called "the obedience of faith" in God's purposes for the creation revealed in the story of Israel and Jesus. 

In a day when many curious church members are reading some of the precious speculations of the agnostic scholars of the Jesus Seminar  (proving once again, in our own generation, how there will always be religious entrepeneurs to produce what Martin Kahler called "Christ-novels" in his 1896 classic, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ), we are fortunate to have a scholar like Wright who is more interested in discovering the genuine historical and theological origins of Christian belief  than peddling his own religious philosophy or politics in the guise of being the only one who really knows who the "real Jesus" was.

I commend to you N.T. Wright's commentary on the Epistle to the Romans in The New Interpreter's Bible.  It is an ideal work to study during Lent when, following the lectionary,  the church is hearing the story of salvation being read and proclaimed during the Sunday Service.  I realize that for both clergy and laity it is not easy to take the time or find the energy to do this kind of reading.  Yet I believe it is worth it.  We will acquire not only a better intellectual grasp of Paul's thought , but also encounter the power of the Gospel as news which transforms our preaching and teaching, our faith in God and in the mission of the church, and our way of living as disciples of Jesus Christ.