Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

  • Ben Witherington, Darlene Hyatt
  • Jan 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Witherington III, Ben, with Darlene Hyatt Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans. 2004 xxxviii + 421 pp. $36.00. ISBN 0-8028-4504-5.

Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, has distinguished himself as one of the most prolific evangelical commentators. He has particularly specialized in writing commentaries on New Testament books reflecting in depth on their sociological and rhetorical backgrounds. This commentary on Romans is no exception, though by his own admission because of its theological importance, he goes into a bit more depth on classic interpretive questions as well.

Concerning introductory matters, Witherington believes that Paul wrote to mostly Gentile Christians who reflected a broad cross-section of socio-economic life in Rome in about 57, using the literary genre of ambassadorial letter and deliberative rhetoric, to try to bring unity to an ethnically divided church exacerbated by the five-year expulsion of all Jews from Rome under Claudius from 49 to 54 (many of whom had now returned). Witherington also discusses and defends the literary integrity of chapter 16, despite the various textual variants and frequent scholarly proposals that such a rich list of names would fit better with his letter to the Ephesians (a church Paul spent more time with than any other) than with Romans (a church which Paul himself had not even visited). Following classical rhetorical outlines, Witherington sees 1:1-7 as an epistolary prescript and greeting; 1:8-15 as an exordium and narratio; 1:16-17 as the propositio or thesis paragraph of the epistle; 15:14-33 as a two-part peroratio; and 16:1-27 as a letter of recommendation and reconciliation. In between, the large body of the letter spanning 1:18-15:13 is divided into twelve separate arguments to further Paul's case.

A short review can only sample some of the more distinctive positions Witherington takes on classic interpretive cruxes. With many recent scholars, he prefers the translation of pistis Christou as "the faithfulness of Christ" rather than "(believers') faith in Christ." He sees in chapters 1 and 2 a robust natural theology and understands 2:1-16 to reflect Paul's dialogue with an imaginary morally superior Gentile (the address to the Jews beginning only in 2:17). With respect to dikaiosune, it is too overladen with Calvinist and Lutheran notions of imputed righteousness, when in fact the commercial or accounting concept of reckoned righteousness better gets at Paul's original meaning. The difficult problem of how Adam's sin influenced the rest of humanity in 5:12 he solves by thinking that Paul, like 4 Ezra, was thinking of seminal transmission. The controversial 7:7-25 becomes a retelling of Adam's story, so that verses 14-25 reflect a pre-Christian tension and not even a distinctively Jewish one.

Witherington's Wesleyan convictions clearly come to the fore in his interpretation of chapters 8 and 9. Predestination is collective, in Christ, and in Old Testament contexts largely temporal in nature. While nothing external to believers can separate them from God's love, people can opt to wrench themselves away from it and forfeit salvation. Witherington's treatment of 11:25 looks forward to a widespread outpouring of faith in Jesus as messiah in conjunction with his return, thus keeping Paul's theology from being supersessionist.

Witherington presents an outstanding treatment of Romans 12 and 13, particularly with respect to the role of the governing authorities. The very fact that they are ordained by God challenges the Roman imperial notions of the divinity of the emperor himself and thus reflects a subversive attitude to the emperors' claims. In addition, the submission believers owe to political authorities is limited by their not contravening God's word or God's will, and perhaps also by the generally positive nature of government during the first five years of Nero's reign during which this letter was penned. The problem of weaker and stronger brothers in chapters 14-15 follows largely Jew-Gentile lines. But with the majority, both are Christians, contra the recent challenge of Mark Nanos, who argues that the weak in question are non-Christian Jews. Somewhat speculatively, Witherington suspects that most or all the named individuals in chapter 16 are Jews, or at least God-fearers, and thus among the weak addressed in chapters 14-15. This explains why Paul mentions so many of them in hopes of encouraging the Gentile majority to accept them more.

There are very few points with which to quibble apart from the broader theological frameworks that govern this commentary. Obviously, staunch Calvinists will disagree with Witherington's readings at many points, just as he does with theirs. But that debate will not be solved by the exegesis of Romans alone. One is surprised, given Witherington's otherwise very judicious and broad use of secondary literature, that he betrays no awareness of Tom Schreiner's major commentary on the Greek text from 1998. There seems to be a basic grammatical gaffe committed in translating a portion of 3:25 as "faith in Christ's blood." If it is true that, as Witherington likes to say more than once in several of his commentaries, a person is eternally secure only when securely in eternity, then how can he confidently proclaim that, "If one has been set right in the present, one will be saved from the wrath to come" (p. 140)? It is surprising that there is no discussion or acknowledgment of the possibility of 8:28 containing an adverbial accusative, as in the NIV translation: "In all things God works for the good of those who love him . . . " And, as in most of his books, there are just a few more typographical errors than one would expect to find, but perhaps that is the price one pays for churning out as much material as he does. I did notice descendant misspelled three times with an "e" replacing the "a."

Notwithstanding these comments, which the genre of a review virtually requires one to make, once again Witherington has produced what is overall a fine, thorough, and generally reliable guide to Paul's meaning and flow of thought in this perhaps most treasured of all his letters. With the number of commentaries Witherington now has under his belt, one wonders if he has the goal of completing a series on the entire New Testament! If so, we wish him Godspeed and look forward to each new commentary that he chooses to write.

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

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