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Reading Romans Backwards: A gospel in search of peace in the midst of the empire, by Scot McKnight

08 November 2019

Henry Wansbrough reviews an analysis of the Pauline epistle

TRUE to its title, the book starts with a thorough investigation of the Christian community — or, rather, communities — to which the epistle was sent at Rome (Romans 16). The community already had a varied and turbulent history behind it, and Scot McKnight envisages Phoebe (whom Paul introduces as the letter-carrier) reading out the letter in each of the half-dozen communities. Indeed, he envisages her “performing” the letter to each, to the extent that it almost seems that we are reading Phoebe’s performances and extemporisation rather than Paul’s own letter.

Working backwards, we then come to the analysis of the two main groups, the strong and the weak, whom Paul addresses in Romans 14-15. Paul introduces them here and in 1 Corinthians uniquely on the basis of a differing attitude to the observance of food laws. McKnight regards this distinction as being symptomatic of a fundamental attitude to observance of the Jewish law, though it is equally possible that the main dispute was over whether it was permissible for Christians to eat meat that was sold cheaper in the markets because it had been offered to idols.

For many interpreters, this is a particular problem, introduced by Paul as part of his discussion of behaviour annexed to the more important exposition of the saving work of Christ. For McKnight, however, this distinction dominates the letter and is symptomatic of the attitude to the Jewish Law and to the salvation won by Christ, and, therefore, as McKnight puts it, of the believer’s becoming “Christoform”.

Romans is pastoral theology, aiming at peace, not privilege and power. Only in the final pages does it become clear that, for McKnight, this attitude of hard-line observance “shouts to the American church” of today about “its classism, its racism, its sexism and its materialism”.

The whole letter is, therefore, not an exposition of the triumph of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection over the power of evil, with some moral teaching tacked on at the end, or even about the position of the Chosen People in God’s plan of salvation, so much as the opposition between the two attitudes of the strong and the weak with regard to the observance of the Jewish law.

The language and style of the book are refreshingly unacademic, though to a UK reader it sometimes borders on a carelessness that makes it hard to understand. Points are emphasised by a liberal use of italics. A Pauline passage has “sharp turns and sudden uphill climbs and twists into hairpin downhill spins”.

Some of the individual explanations of crucial passages are outstandingly lucid and clear, for instance on the spread of sin from Adam. At other times, the breakneck speed of discussion leaves obscurity: for example, the meaning of “righteousness” lacks sufficient Old Testament background to become clear. The explanation of 7.7-25, which seemed to me simply brilliant, would remain obscure to many who lack understanding of the rhetorical ploy of prosopopoeia.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Reading Romans Backwards: A gospel in search of peace in the midst of the empire
Scot McKnight
SCM Press £19.99
CT Bookshop special price £15.99

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