Paul, like all writers of his time, composed his letters without punctuation, divisions between words, paragraphs, or other divisions. He or his scribe wrote in scripto continua, unbroken lines of capital letters from margin to margin.
Consider the possibility that before you ever picked up the book of Romans, those who produced your copy of the Bible “Christianized” it. I am not saying that the translation committee set out to deceive or that there is a conspiracy afloat. But I am saying that your Bible already is formatted in a way that universalizes and Christianizes Paul. In fact, even a Greek New Testament does this and even a Bible that does not have paragraph or section headings.
To give a tangible demonstration of scripto continua, consider the chapter division at Romans 2:1 (which Stowers thinks was a mistake) and what Romans 1:32-2:1 looked like (by analogy, using the ESV translation to illustrate):
Some damaging readings of Romans, the anti-Jewish sort of readings, have been around for a long time. Even in the days of Greek manuscripts, as early as the fourth century, certain assumptions about Paul and the Jewish people were embedded in the line divisions and the shape of the text. “The oldest extant manuscripts of Paul’s letters are already edited and have a definite interpretive shape” (10).
Understandably — we are all human — early readers of Romans were thinkers eager for answers to the common problems of the human condition. They read Romans as God’s letter to all people giving readers Jesus as the answer. And this reading is not completely wrong. But the details lost on this reading are nonetheless crucial and this forgetting has had tragic results in Western history.
Would the Holocaust have been possible in the Christianized West if Romans had been read in the manner Paul intended it? If a straight line of mis-characterizing Judaism from the church fathers to Luther had not happened, would Germans and others in the Axis alliance have been able to get Christians to demonize Jews? And the reading of Romans (and Galatians) was largely behind this prejudicial view. Who would think that simple matters like punctuation, chapter division, and determination of the intended reader of a letter could make such a difference!
Stowers reminds us that Romans is a letter, written for a specific occasion, to a certain kind of reader (and the intended reader Stowers argues for will surprise you). It is not a universal letter from God to humankind. For those of us who read Romans as part of the basis of our faith, we are to keep in mind we may not be the exact audience intended and we need to make adjustments as we interpret the message. Paul wrote, says Stowers, as a Jewish sectarian (a member of a Jewish sub-group, the Pharisees) preaching “the redemption of the gentiles” (10).
The breaking up of Paul’s scripto continua into clauses, sentences, verses, paragraphs, and chapters with punctuation marks was already the beginning of interpreting Paul’s message. It is not a neutral exercise breaking up an unbroken text into grammatical and syntactical pieces to make it readable. And nothing illustrates this better than the way Romans 2 is laid out.
The church has read Romans 2:1-16 as a critique of a Jewish hypocrite. This has been done in ignorance of Greek rhetorical style. Augustine, a master of Greek rhetoric, even missed it. After a rather stereotypical catalogue of gentile sins (1:18-32), Paul addresses someone who judges and looks down on people who practice such things. Never mind, notes Stowers, that they are falling into Paul’s trap. Among the sins catalogued have been arrogance and pretentiousness (vs. 30, haughty and boastful in the ESV). Those who would nod their head and look down on people caught in the morass represented by 1:18-32 are guilty of this very vice.
The true form of 2:1-16 has been overlooked (a Greek diatribe, see more below) and the intended recipient of Paul’s criticism has been mis-identified. The intended readers of the letter to the Romans are gentiles who have been involved in Judaism, have never personally met Paul, and who are either being influenced by Jewish teachers or are likely to be influenced soon by them.
A diatribe is a kind of “moral-philosophical lecture” and will often involve a sort of conversation the writer makes up, intended to garner audience sympathies and then turn the tables on them. The writer speaks for the differing voices in this imaginary conversation. An apostrophe is when the writer stops directly addressing the whole audience of his letter and speaks to an imaginary individual — a stereotypical personage, perhaps — in the second person: “you have no excuse, O man.” Romans 2:1-5 is such as apostrophe.
And the apostrophe of Romans 2:1-5 criticizes someone who would look down on people — thus elevating themselves — as in the judgmental moral monologue found in Romans 1:18-32. How ironic that the typical religious reader falls right into Paul’s trap! It is much like the moral snare Jesus laid for his audience in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (causing most hearers to think to themselves, “Thank you, God, I am not like that Pharisee!”). So Romans 1:18-32 represents another voice besides Paul’s and is not what Paul thinks at all (which is already a major departure from the usual reading of Romans).
The Paul’s audience would recognize, and probably find a mirror image of themselves, in the “pretentious moralist familiar from Hellenistic philosophical literature” (12). A reader in modern times, familiar with the kind make-believe we see in religious communities, where it is pretended that the members are better on average than society in general, will find an analogy here. “Those worldly people!” is the thought we are tempted to have and many of us fail to resist the urge. Consider, for example, the way some religious people put down celebrities, a popular target of moral pretentiousness.
Interestingly, many of the early readers of Romans understood Romans 1:18-2:16 as a unified section and saw much more closely what Paul had in mind. Origin thought the criticism was leveled at leaders in the Jesus-believing congregations. Chrystostom saw it as a barb aimed at government leaders. Pelagius (ironically, given the bad name history has given him) may have seen it most clearly of all and said it was addressed to “morally arrogant gentiles” (12).
It was Augustine who emphasized first a sharp break in subject at 2:1. Romans 2:1-5, said Augustine, is about a self-superior Jew. The standard reading had begun, that 1:18-32 represents Paul’s denunciation of Gentile pagan sin and 2:1-5 equalizes the critique by turning it on “the Jews.” Jews are not specifically addressed until vs. 17 and questions whether the addressee in 2:1-5 is Jewish at all. The addressee is Jewish, but it is a Jewish Yeshua-believing teacher, whose views do not represent “the Jews” or Judaism as a whole.
Deteriorating Jewish-Christian relations were largely to blame for Augustine’s mis-reading (13). The situation of Paul, from within Judaism and not from the outside of it, was not something Augustine could really comprehend. In his time, Judaism and Christianity were distinct from one another and there had been hostility from both sides (13). And Augustine, in arguing against Pelagius, developed a fictional notion of Judaism in which he “made the Jew the archetypal sinner and rebel against God’s grace” (13). Augustine arguably misunderstood Pelagius and definitely misunderstood Judaism.
“The apostle refutes the faults of the Jews, saying that as far as their guilt is concerned they are the same as the gentiles and in a certain respect even worse” (14).
In 1:18-32 we find a way of looking at the evil of the nations of the world based on Jewish readings of Genesis 4-11 (the post-Eden, Noahic, Table of Nations, and Tower of Babel accounts). The peoples of the world worshipped created things and degraded into senseless evil. And then reads 2:1-5 as addressed to an imaginary Gentile, warning him that he is under judgment for hypocrisy and practicing the same evil he condemns in others. 2:6-16 declares that God judges all impartially by the standards of the law and the gospel. But God has delayed judgment to leave time for the gentiles to come to him (2:4-5).
Far from being a diatribe against “the faults of the Jews,” Romans 2:1-16 is directed against people within the audience Paul indicates in his letter to the Romans: “you gentiles” (11:13; 15:11). When chapters are divided in the wrong places (between 1:32 and 2:1), the unity of a section is lost. When other divisions are ignored (between 2:16 and 2:17) a similar distortion occurs (so that the named recipient of criticism in 2:17 can be extrapolated back into 2:1).
1:18-32 is Paul mock-quoting the opening argument of a Jewish Yeshua-believing teacher (a rival to Paul who declares a different gospel). Then 2:1-3:20 is a dialogue of Paul with his imaginary rival and the interpreter needs to look for clues as to when Paul is speaking or when he is writing speech-in-character (prosopopia), representing the voice of the Jewish teacher. The effect of Romans 1:18-3:20 in Campbell’s reading is to discredit and gospel of works of the law, in which Jews alone get mercy from God and Gentiles must become Jews to have any such hope. Paul criticizes the view as internally self-contradictory and then in Romans 5-8 gives his own account of the Gospel.
But before considering complex theories and all of the details, realize one simple point. A lot of interpretive decisions were made for you before you picked up Romans. Ignoring verse divisions, chapter divisions, and paragraph breaks created by committees is one way to begin taking Romans back. Trying, as best we can, to read Romans as its original recipients would is the key. Knowing a bit about Greek style in writing rhetoric is indispensable. Forgetting caricatures of Judaism drawn from unbalanced reading of Jesus’ criticisms of some Pharisees in his time should be a prerequisite. And it might be worth supposing, from what we know of Gentile god-fearers in the first century, that the Gentile readers of the letter to the Romans respected Jewish teaching. It might be further worth supposing that Paul saw himself as a better Jewish teacher than any they might be getting advice from.