The next two books are closely related and should be studied together. They both deal with the identity of Paul’s imaginary interlocutor in Romans 2. Most commentators take this fictional character to be a Jew, but the authors of these two books argue that he is a Gentile. This may seem unlikely at first. After all Paul seems pretty explicit: “If you call yourself a Jew ...” (Rom 2:17). But the case is stronger than you might think.
Thorsteinsson critiques the standard model (first articulated by Marxsen in 1963 and developed by Wiefel in 1970) that the audience of Romans is composed of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Thorsteinsson argues that the intended audience of Romans is all the Gentile Christians in Rome. The explicit audience identifiers must take precedence over any implicit ones. Jewish Christians may have been present, but the intended audience is exclusively Gentile. The double character of Romans can be explained by the fact that many of the Gentile Christians had considerable knowledge of Judaism through past or present involvement in the Jewish community in Rome.
In addition, Thorsteinsson examines the concept of Greco-Roman diatribe and finds this not to be a useful category for interpreting Romans. Instead, he argues that ancient epistles often had a lively dialogical quality, even to the point where the author created fictitious conversation partners. Thorsteinsson concludes that the fictitious epistolary interlocutor normally speaks for the letter recipient unless otherwise stated. Also, the identity of the interlocutor remains the same throughout a given letter.
If the recipient of Romans is exclusively Gentile, and if fictitious epistolary interlocutors normally give voice to the perceived views of the letter recipients, then the interlocutor of Romans 2 must be Gentile. But how can this be when Paul says, “If you call yourself a Jew” (2:17)? The answer is that the interlocutor is a Gentile who wants to be called a Jew, i.e., someone who is considering becoming a proselyte by means of circumcision. “Paul is making use of an imaginary gentile interlocutor in order to persuade his gentile audience that the proper path for them to salvation is not through ‘physical’ circumcision. They are not to become Jews in order to be saved on the day of judgment. Instead, they should seize the chance that is now being offered to them, namely, to be justified through ‘circumcision of the heart’ alone. This message stands at the core of the ‘good news’ preached by Paul to the gentiles in Rome” (p. 246).
If Thorsteinsson takes Paul’s imaginary interlocutor throughout Romans to be a Gentile who is considering becoming a proselyte, Rodríguez takes Paul’s imaginary interlocutor to be a Gentile who has become a proselyte. He is not merely considering it but has actually submitted to circumcision, has taken on the yoke of the law, and therefore “calls [him]self a Jew” (Rom 2:17). Rodríguez claims in his preface that this understanding “makes all the difference” in how own interprets the epistle as a whole and “avoids and/or solves a number of perennial problems” (pp. x-xi). He then attempts to show this by giving a running exposition of the letter as a whole, though not the detailed verse-by-verse exegesis one would find in a commentary.
My evaluation is largely negative. First, I don’t think it is necessary to view Paul’s imaginary interlocutor as having the same profile (whether Jew, Gentile, proselyte, or whatever) throughout the book. Rodríguez follows Thorsteinsson on this point, but I’m not convinced.
Second, while I agree with Rodríguez (and Stowers and Das) that the encoded audience of Romans is Gentile, I struggle to understand how the interlocutor can stand in for or represent the Gentile audience if the interlocutor is a proselyte, which would in effect make him a Jew at least in terms of religion. True, he is ethnically Gentile but in religious terms he is no longer a Gentile but a Jew. How can an imaginary Jew, who presumably is not a believer in Jesus the Messiah, function as a rhetorical device for Paul to engage in dialogue or diatribe in a way that will resonate with his Gentile Christian audience?
Third, the portions of Romans in which Paul engages with the hypothetical interlocutor are too limited to expect that reconceiving the profile of the interlocutor will revolutionize our reading of the whole letter. The interlocutor is present mainly in the beginning of the letter (2:1 – 3:9), although an interlocutor of some sort pops up at points in Romans 9-11 (e.g., 9:19-20), but, again, I’m not sure he is the same person as the earlier one.
Fourth, Rodríguez makes a bold interpretive move when he argues that Paul takes on the character of the imaginary proselyte in Romans 7. I agree that Romans 7 is not autobiographical but speech in character (as argued well by Stowers). However, to say that the figure in Romans 7 is a proselyte (not just a Gentile God-fearer who is attracted to the Jewish law and attempting to keep the moral parts of it) is going too far. There is little in Romans 7 to indicate that the “I” has been circumcised. Also, it is hard to understand why Paul would assume the character of the very person he had been arguing against up to that point.
Finally, I must point out my dissatisfaction with Rodríguez’s overall “new perspective-ish” approach to Romans. His reading of Romans is influenced by N. T. Wright, Robert Jewett, James D. G. Dunn, Katherine Grieb, and others in that vein. He interprets “the righteousness of God” as “God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness,” and takes “the faith of Jesus Christ” as a subjective genitive meaning “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” (Note that James D. G. Dunn is a rare NPP scholar who defends the traditional objective genitive interpretation of pistis Christou). These two key phrases are interconnected, yielding a concept such as: “God’s covenant faithfulness has been revealed in the faithfulness of Christ.”
As a side note, it would be nice if the scholars who adopt this approach to Romans would provide a more detailed exposition of the conceptual linkage between the two faithfulnesses, that of God and that of Christ. How does the faithfulness of Christ “reveal” the faithfulness of God? What is the mechanism of this? Furthermore, why is the faithfulness of God denoted using the word dikaiosynē and the faithfulness of Christ by the word pistis? If Paul wanted to link them, why did he use different words? And, then, why does he confuse us by later separating the two words when he speaks of dikaiosynē as something that is received by pistis, or when he speaks of the dikaiosynē of pistis (the righteousness of faith)?
I know that this approach is becoming more and more in vogue these days, but I still hold to the old perspective reading and think it makes better sense of Romans both at the grammatical and semantic level and at the larger theological level. I would argue that “the righteousness of God apart from the law” is the same thing as “the righteousness of faith” in Romans. In other words, we receive the status of righteousness “before God” (Rom 2:13) as a gift from God, received by faith, apart from doing what the law requires. This gift of righteousness is based on the atoning death of Christ (Rom 3:21-26), so that God might be just when he reckons sinners as righteous in his sight.
One question that kept coming to mind as I read Rodríguez’s book, was, “How much of his fresh reading of Romans is indebted to the covenant-faithfulness theory, and how much is dependent on his taking the interlocutor as a proselyte?” I felt that there were long stretches of his exposition that did not depend on the proselyte theory (which is not surprising since the epistle has long stretches where the interlocutor is absent) but that did depend quite heavily on the covenant-faithfulness theory.
Although I am critical of the book, I don’t want to give the impression that I do not appreciate anything about it. There are three strands of his argument that I agree with. First, I am totally convinced (along with Stowers and Das) that the encoded readers of Romans are Gentile believers in Rome.
Second, I agree with much of Rodríguez’s approach to Romans 6-7. He views this section of the letter as Paul’s effort to dissuade his Gentile audience from submitting to the law. As God-fearers who had formerly been attracted to the monotheism and morality of Judaism, they looked, even after their conversion to Christ, with longing to the law as if it might enable them to keep sin in check and assist them in becoming more righteous. Paul shows that the law only stirs up sin and makes it worse, and that the true power for godliness comes from Christ and the Spirit.
Third, I agree with his argument that Paul views the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God as part and parcel of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. This last point includes his interpretation of “all Israel” in Rom 11:26 as the Israel of God, including Jews and Gentiles, an interpretation that N. T. Wright also advocates (one of the exegetical points in Romans where I agree with Wright).