Sunday, December 04, 2005
Thomas Tobin, Paul's Rhetoric inits Contexts
One of the best books on Romans I've read in a while is Thomas H. Tobin's Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts: The Arguments of Romans.
Tobin advocates that the best way to understand Romans is not a verse-by-verse approach, but rather, through an argument-by-argument analysis.
He thinks Romans needs to be understood in light of two context: First, the Roman Christians (Jews and Genitiles) who have been expelled from the Roman Jewish community, but still maintain observance of the ethical aspects of the Jewish law. They have also heard reports about Paul and his churches (mediated through persons mentioned in Romans 16) and they regard Paul with some suspicion. Reports about his epistle to the Galatians raises their concern that Paul is anti-law and anti-Israel. They have also heard reports of the antinomian and outlandish behaviour of Corinthians and are worried that Paul's law free gospel and idea of law-free spirit-walking ethics promotes vice rather than cures it. They do not think Paul's gospel can create ethics superior to the Greco-Roman world (which the Roman Christians think that they have in the Mosaic law). Second, the situation of Paul himself. The primary Pauline context is his experience of the risen Christ that has lead him to believe that righteousness is through Christ, not through the law, and is equally available for Jews and Gentiles. Also Paul's debates about the law in Galatia that led him to make some stark and strongly worded remarks about the law.
In this context, Paul is attempting to assuage the Romans about any reservations they have about him and persuade them to adopt his point of view about the law and Christian behaviour. Towards that end Paul significantly re-thinks and revizes some of his earlier statements in Galatians about the law and Israel and appeals to convictions common to both himself and the Roman Christians.
Strengths of the book:
1. I am now a believer in the rhetorical approach to Romans. Previously I had wondered whether the whole rhetoric thing was just a convoluted way of saying that the epistle has a beginning, a middle and an end (see the book by Phil Kerns in the SNTS series). But the parrallels in language that Tobin draws with Epictetus and Paul has convinced me that Romans is a rhetorical piece.
2. Tobin gives an excellent overview of the situation of Christianity and Judaism in Rome in the 30s-50s AD.
3. Tobin puts forward a good case for the thematic and rhetorical unity of Romans 8-11.
Tobin supposes that the Roman Christians observed only the ethical aspects of the law. However, this presuposes that the law could be divided into civil, cermonial and ethical aspects; a tripartite distinction that far as I know does not precede Aquinas (I wait to be corrected on that). Thus, for the Roman Christians nomos was nomos and it had to be obeyed in its entirety, even if they were convinced of the moral superiority of the law over the perceived immorality of the Greco-Roman world.
Tobin makes too much of every little difference between Romans and Galatians to the extent that Paul is back-tracking over everything. There is no doubt that Paul uses a much different "tone" in talking about the law than in Galatians, but I'm not so sure that retreats so completely from his previous polemics.
I think Romans 5 and 8 should be viewed and transitory sections that recapitulate main themes and prepare the way for following material, rather than seeing Romans 8-11 has a cohesive unity.
All in all I have found this book helpful in preparing my course notes on Romans, it has stimulated my thinking about the letter, it is well written, well argued, and certainly worthy of purchasing.