DID PAUL really write the Bible book of Romans?
I’m finishing the Casual English Bible paraphrase of everything Paul wrote. I saved Romans for last, in the hopes that paraphrasing everything else first would prepare me for this tough, abstract letter, which is often considered Christianity’s first systematic theology.
I don’t think Romans is like anything else Paul wrote.
Sure, there’s crossover, with shared ideas and lingo. But parts of this book read like Paul wrote them after a meal of mushrooms. I’m talking about the kind of mushrooms that grow under cow patties.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful. Merely ignorant.
There are times when I absolutely cannot figure out what he’s trying to say.
When I turn to Bible scholars for help, I find that I’m in good company. Helpless.
I would imagine that Paul was in his right mind when he wrote even the most obliquely abstract sentences in this letter. Christians in Rome who got the letter may well have understood exactly what he meant.
But as I sit here trying to figure out how to put his words in simple English, sometimes the best I can do is thank God for footnotes.
One thing Paul does a lot in Romans is quote the Old Testament out of context. That’s certainly how it comes across to some people.
We can see the connection to the Old Testament in some cases elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, it’s easy to see Jesus in Isaiah’s prediction of a child who would be born in Isaiah’s lifetime:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
The connection is so obvious that we explain this prophecy as double dipping the timeline. We admit that it was intended for Isaiah’s day several centuries before Jesus. But we say it also obviously applies to Jesus—and that anyone who can’t see the connection must be Jewish.
We explain Paul the same way. But sometimes he stretches the Old Testament so far that I find myself cross-eyed, trying to see it the way he does.
Here’s an example from Romans nine, the hardest chapter I’ve had to work on so far.
Paul is talking about God making salvation available to the non-Jews. Paul adds that not many tradition-minded Jews are buying into the story of Jesus as the Messiah.
He said Isaiah predicted that.
“It seems like there are as many Jews as there are grains of sand in the sea. But only some of the Jews will survive” (Romans 9:27 Casual English Bible).
Isaiah didn’t seem to be talking about the Jews in Paul’s day. Instead, he seemed to be talking about Jews in the northern Jewish nation of Israel. Assyrians from what is now northern Iraq invaded and erased Israel from the world map. Many Jewish survivors were taken back to Iraq and Iran as captives or to be resettled there, in away from their homeland so they wouldn’t restart their nation and cause more trouble. A few Jews were left behind.
What Paul did sounds like an allegory. That’s when you read a story and you don’t take it literally. Instead you see hidden meanings beneath the words.
That’s probably a better way to interpret what Paul is doing than to think of him as writing after a meal of mushrooms.
But I’ve got to tell you that some of this allegory is really hard to swallow.
I don’t mean to diminish Paul at all. Much of what he writes in the book is beautiful. But some of it is absolutely confounding.
I think that’s why Bible scholars love it so much. Solving puzzles is their thing.
They’re still working on this one. So am I. Finishing Romans 10, on my way through the 16 chapters. When I finish Romans, I’ll post it on the Casual English Bible with the rest of Paul’s letters, along with Genesis, Luke, and Acts.
I think after Romans, I’m going to want to reward myself with the book of James, which is full of proverb-style one-liners.
Free books for these two folks
I try to give away free books every week. I’ll give one to the following two subscribers to this blog. All they have to do is send me an email and I’ll give them a list of books they can choose from.
- Theresa Sheaffer
- David Buhler