Feast upon the Word Blog

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Paul’s legacy: Romans 13:1-7, the confusion

Posted by cherylem on October 16, 2007

Remember that I am basing these posts on Neil Elliott’s LIBERATING PAUL: THE JUSTICE OF GOD AND THE POLITICS OF THE APOSTLE. This is my sixth post regarding Paul’s legacy, and the second post regarding Romans 13:1-7 (you need to read Romans 13:1-7: the problem first.

(I started linking all the scriptural references in this post but ran out of time – so only the first references are linked.)

While Elliott says (p. 27) that a significant minority of scholars argue that Romans 13:1-7 is a late interpolation, he is not one of those. Elliott goes on to explain that there is an absence of “any manuscript evidence for the interference of copyists.” So he sides with the majority of scholars, and says that “we must find some satisfactory explanation for the very uncharacteristic remarks in Romans 13:1-7 without dismissing the passage as an interpolation.”

Elliott instead points out tensions between these verses and Paul’s other writings: for instance see 1 Corinthians 7:31 (the schema of this world is passing away), 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 (the subordination of all earthly powers to God as a longed-for end time event). In these Pauline writings earthly governments are not presented as “a present reality that is in essence good.” Elliott quotes James Kallas “Paul could not have ascribed such an exalted status to Rome without being not only hypocritical and servile but untrue to his whole theological position.”

Later in the book (p. 181 ff) Elliott addresses in greater detail the confusion regarding how to interpret these verses. He gives a brief survey of varying explanations as to why Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7.

Elliot points out that some of Paul’s interpreters believe that “Since Paul anticipated the imminent return of the Messiah and the glorious liberation of the messianic age, we are told, he considered efforts to ameliorate social injustices a waste of time, like ‘tinkering with the engines on a sinking ship’ (John Ziesler).” Indeed, yet others say that Paul went further, encouraging conformity to the structures and institutions of Roman society, however unjust, in the interim before the return of Christ (Albert Schweitzer); thus, surprisingly to some, “social conservatism and apocalyptic enthusiasm . . . seem to coincide” in his thought (J. Christiaan Becker).”

This interpretation of Paul’s ethic is “something like a religious accommodation to the social sphere (Becker),” a “realistic” assessment of the real options, a “love-patriarchalism” which purchased the new sect’s survival and cohesion at the cost of challenging social structures (Gerd Theissen), or even of Paul’s paradoxical acceptance that “good violence” is necessary for most of the world . . . an order of sacred violence to which “there is no practical alternative at present (Robert Hamerton-Kelly).”

These interpretations become more confusing when the following is taken into account (regarding the present order of things during Paul’s lifetime):

1) Paul risked his apostolate itself to persuade a slaveholder to release his slave (Philemon 8-21 )

2) Paul challenged the Corinthians to abandon their Eucharistic assemblies if they could not feed the hungry in their midst (1 Cor. 11:33-34)

3) Paul faced political opposition – the Nabaean king Aretas IV tried to arrest Paul in Damascus (2 Cor. 11:32-33)

4) Additionally, Paul was, with apparent regularity, hauled before civil magistrates, thrown into Roman prisons, and condemned as a menace to public order (Philemon 1, 9, 13; Philippians 1:7, 12-14, 16; 4:14, 1 Thessalonians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 4:9; 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, 6:5, 11:23).

Regarding the fourth point, Elliott asks: Why did Paul so consistently provoke this response from civil governments if his gospel was as unpolitical as many interpreters suggest?

Elliott wonders if we appropriately can speak of Paul’s “political engagement” at all. To this rhetorical question, he answers yes.

For Paul, Elliott says, the rhapsodies about a “golden age” of Roman Imperial rule are a fraud. There is only “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), a “crooked and perverse generation” (Philemon 2:15), the age that is “passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31), the present “night” of stupor and drunkenness (1 Thessalonians 5:7), an age subject to impending divine wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10, Romans 5:9).

[Elliot acknowledges that others say these words derive from Jewish apocalypticism, and are not necessarily political in nature.]

Continuing, Elliot points out that Romans 12:14, 17-21 (just one chapter prior to our text) could hardly be expected to be read as praising the current authorities (the persecutors of the early Christians).

Faced with all this confusion, some modern interpreters rely on historical context (Elliott says while these studies are illuminating, none have proven sufficient to explain why this exhortation appears just here in the letter to Rome). These ideas include:

a) By virtue of heavenly citizenship new Christians viewed earthly authorities with contempt; Romans 13:1-7 was correcting this point of view.

b) Around 58 C.E. there was unrest regarding paying taxes in Rome – Paul is writing regarding this very specific situation (but this has no explicit support in the text).

c) These verses have to be set in the context of Jewish nationalism (Marcus Borg), and the “tumults” of the times.

d) Again, the political realities of the current situation have to be understood (James D.G. Dunn), meaning the dreadful risk gentile Christians had of being identified with Jews, who were being heavily and very cruelly persecuted. Therefore, gentile Christians needed to be told to be obedient.

So, if all this seems confusing to you, that’s because these explanations, taken together, are confusing and unsatisfying. Indeed, Elliott claims that all these interpretations are distortions of Paul’s thoughts and work. Yet the distortions have resulted in the seven verses in Romans causing “more unhappiness and misery in the Christian East and West than any other seven verses in the New Testament by the license they have given to tyrants, and the support for tyrants the Church has felt called on to offer as a result (J.C. O’Neill)” and in the process they have poisoned our perception of Paul . . . These verses have proven to be perhaps “the most influential part of the New Testament on the level of world history (Ernst Bammel)” – and arguably the most disastrous.”

Elliott claims that “for better or worse, any attempt to recover the “liberating Paul” stands or falls with the interpretation of Romans 13:1-7.

Elliott’s effort to come up with an interpretation of these verses will be the subject of my next post.

2 Responses to “Paul’s legacy: Romans 13:1-7, the confusion”

  1. Robert C. said

    Very insightful—thanks again for making the time to write these posts!

  2. […] Paul’s legacy: Romans 13:1-7, the confusion […]

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