A Rabbi Reviews Romans


A Rabbi Reads Romans: Responses to Neil Elliot's The Rhetoric of Romans

by Tzvee Zahavy

My present responses to Romans and to Elliot's book may have been conditioned a bit by the text. That is to say in light of Romans 3:1-9 I may be writing a form of diatribe. But I will try not to be carried away into the rhetoric of Romans.

When I first studied Romans, the longest letter of Paul, with Professor Horst Moehring in graduate school at Brown (c. 1974) I vividly remember one seminar when the complexities of saving righteousness, justification by faith, reconciliation and the Spirit, all seemed to make sense to me in the Pauline system. Somehow that lucid understanding has not been easy for me to recapture in the intervening years -- until I read Elliot's book. His is first-rate scholarship that interweaves summary with synthesis, theory with theology and a broad perspective with the necessary attention to detail. After reading Elliot's masterly treatment I have now regained a sense of Paul's agenda in the Letter to the Romans.

The Audiences

Paul meant his letter to be read by Christians. Students of the epistle debate whether the primary audience was to be a community of converts from Judaism or from the Gentile world. I wish I could be comfortable with those latter categories, but more on that later.

When you asked me to respond to this work you selected a much more complex audience. I presume you had in mind that I react as a scholar of the history of Judaism in Late Antiquity and as a Jew. Let me be a bit more specific regarding (as they say on the West Coast) where I come from. As a scholar I take seriously the basic presuppositions of the humanities and social sciences. As a Jew I look as Christian writings through the lenses of Orthodoxy and other forms of modern Jewish theology, including prominently the concerns of post-Holocaust philosophy and Zionist ideology.

Let me stay on the subject of alternative audiences before I turn to other concerns that touch on methodology and several substantive criticisms and queries. It is safe to conclude that Paul did not intend his audience to be either Priests, Pharisees or Roman civic functionaries. Nonetheless, they could have read the letter. How they might have reacted helps us understand the more complete contexts of early Pauline Christianity.

A reading of Paul by Jewish priests, Pharisees or later rabbis would likely be entitled, "The Rhetoric of a Heretic" or "The Heretic of Romans." Early Christianity, and Paul in particular, present challenges to the basic understanding in Judaism of the role of Torah, Miswot and Messiah. Paul pays little respect to Temple functionaries or priestly aristocracy. He shows little interest in scribal or pharisaic agenda. In the first century the concept of Torah was developing dynamically towards the theology of the dual Torah, the underpinning of nascent rabbinic Judaism. Keeping the commandments was more than a means to potentially imminent salvation. Pharisees and rabbis justified these obligations within a system that sought to balance the tensions between sanctification and redemption. And the spokesmen who advanced messianic ideals of later Judaism chose often to underline the faith in an age of perfection and to devalue the importance of an individual savior-persona.

"Pious Jews" of any kind of the age likely would point out the perils of these renunciations of Paul, the Torah-heresy, Miswah-heresy, and Messiah-heresy. More astute observers of the time might add that through these concepts Paul would undermine Priestly, or Pharisaic/proto-Rabbinic authority in the Jewish communities. Paul appears to disregard these concerns and to forge ahead with his program.

Let me turn to another perspective on the text. An imperial Roman functionary reading Romans might wonder, Who are these Christians and should we worry about their political significance? Are they sewing sedition and therefore dangerous? Or, are they reassuring us of their desire to practice good citizen ethics and therefore not to undermine civic authority. Are they good or bad for the Empire? A Roman reading would emphasize political and practical lines of speculation and have little access to early Christian theological speculation and even less entry into the worlds of Jewish reflection and belief.

Thinking along these lines helps us better understand the many-sided context of the original text. It also helps prepare us to respond to the more diverse setting of contemporary criticism. So let me skip 1900 years to Neil Elliot, our modern interpreter of Romans.

The Scholarship

Elliot succeeds because he systematically employs a critical methodology, rhetorical criticism. As a Jewish studies' scholar let me explain how I understand that approach. I also will comment as a spectator on the sidelines on what I see as his contribution to the ongoing Catholic-Protestant struggle over the theological interpretation of Romans.

A major premise of Rhetoric of Romans is, "The constraining power of audience and exigence in relations to Paul's persuasive purposes, as this may be analyzed through Paul's choice and development of topics, is the proper object of the rhetorical criticism of Romans (p. 66)." It is important to ask how this plan of investigation concurs with current modes research in the study of early rabbinic texts and in general fields of textual analysis in the humanities.

I do not feel confident enough to say that this program places the present treatment squarely or peripherally within current radically new forms of literary critical scholarship. These are not my primary areas of expertise. Nevertheless, it would seem to me that rhetorical criticism shares the concerns of some new schools, though it remains a distinctive methodology. For example, it draws on aspects of formalism, searching for patterns and oppositions. It rejects the disjuncture of technique from meanings, feelings, intentions and real circumstances.

Second, rhetorical criticism, like the new hermeneutic or linguistic criticism, emphasizes the situational interpretation of texts and posits that literature is but a creation of the culture of the reader. It would reject, I presume, the notion that all literary meanings change dramatically over time. That assumption would make theology irrelevant.Third, I find very little in common between rhetorical criticism and semiotics, structuralism, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxian analysis or deconstructionism. That I would even presume to ask about the shared components of method, suggests part of my bias. I see rhetorical criticism as a vigorous method and assume it should somehow be placed in the company of other "hot" schools of criticism.

In reality what we do in the most up-to-date forms of critical study of religious texts rarely coincides with the avant-garde of literary criticism. We remain conservative even in our eagerness to explore the newest methodologies. There is a better basis for comparison between rhetorical criticism and more closely related disciplines that I know more intimately, namely the latest methods for the study of the Tanakh and of Rabbinic literature.

When a rhetorical critic looks at limited units of discourse, the process appears to be a relatively conservative examination of limited structures. One could say by analogy at this level that Elliot, the rhetorical critic is to Romans as the Talmud is to the Mishnah. But we are told that this is not the purpose of the agendum,

The rhetorical character of Romans depends upon the function of the whole letter to provide a fitting redisposition of the constraints that constitute a rhetorical situation. `Rhetorical situation' is not an aspect of isolated pericopes, but of the whole unit of discourse (in this case the letter itself) (p. 95).

Here Elliot departs from the view of George Kennedy, a founder of rhetorical criticism, who prefers to situate the `situation' in segments of a text, roughly corresponding to the Sitz im Leben of form criticism (p. 95, n. 1).

In scholarship on early rabbinic texts, edited one to two hundred years later than Romans, a similar discussion over method ensues. My work, for instance, on Mishnah and Tosefta tractate Berakhot claims no kinship between rabbinic and Hellenistic rhetorical conventions. However, I do strive for an interpretation based on formal criteria for exegesis. I look at the text not as individual pericopae but at the level of the nine short chapters of the tractate and this within Mishnah, a larger corpus of similar works.

My research is based on the methodologies first proposed for our materials by Jacob Neusner. Like rhetorical criticism, these methods drew at first from O.T. form-criticism. Neusner's study of the Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70 C.E. started with a narrower definition of form-critical goals. He broadened this in his studies of Mishnah first to individual tractates, then to orders of the Mishnah and finally to the entire documentary corpus. He has carried this rhetorical agendum beyond and into the study of the Talmud of the Land of Israel, the Babylonian Talmud and the major rabbinic midrashic corpora.

In each instance current methods in rabbinics seeks to resolve the tension between reading for meaning in individual pericopae and seeking interpretation out of the entire literature. We take as the most meaningful unit of discourse a tractate or an individual compilation and seek to decode it through its choice of rhetorical conventions and its substantive agendum.

I find another major parallel methodological advance shared by recent critical scholarship in rabbinics and the new critical agenda, like rhetorical criticism for the Pauline materials. Both insist on limiting the cross application of textual materials. I believe we are paralyzed cognitively if we allow every statement anywhere in rabbinic literature to be adduced as proof for every claim regarding the literary and substantive interpretation of the text.

So too it appears many now would argue in the case of New Testament studies. If every statement in the Pauline corpus relates to every other, we can prove just about anything and we have proven virtually nothing. Rhetorical criticism as practiced by Elliot undertakes analysis above the level of isolated units of discourse and on the level of letter, but not at the level of the entire corpus.

I see another similarity between the latest methods in critical studies of rabbinic literature and rhetorical critical studies. In both there is an attempt to make reference and draw wisdom from social-scientific principles. Elliot for instance discusses the ethos of early Christian communities and uses notions of social boundaries in his examination of paraenesis. He invokes the idea of secondary social functions for paraenetic discourse (p. 100). Slowly but surely social-scientific categories of analysis like these are penetrating the study of the history of religions and of sacred literature.

Likewise, Neusner experiments with anthropological categories in his studies of the Mishnaic laws of purities. He draws upon sociological classifications to pursue the meanings of other texts in, for instance, the mishnaic laws of women. In my publications I have borrowed from anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers in delineating some of the major phenomena of the laws and aspects of the historical development of early rabbinic prayers and blessings.

By way of a self-criticism, as much as a critique of Elliot, I propose that much more must be done to integrate social-scientific principles into our analysis of ancient religious texts. Right now this brand of analysis seems to be an attractive appendage to our scholarship, rather than an integral element to our research agenda.

A Wider Spectrum

We are guilty on both sides of another yet more serious deficiency -- tunnel vision. Our depth perception is extensive in our respective areas of expertise. Elliot evinces great acumen in his control of the sources of concern within Pauline scholarship and in regard to the rhetoric of the Roman context. Comparable studies into Judaic evidence show equivalent discernment.

Yet our peripheral vision beyond the borders of one system and into other ranges, remains exceedingly limited. Let me use the discussion of the second apostrophe in Romans 2:17-29 and the passage that follows at 3:1-9 to illustrate this point. There the Jew is addressed, characterized and contrasted with the Gentile described previously in 1:18-32.

Stowers has shown this to be a diatribal form of indictment. That means that the Jew of the passage is no more than an imaginary partner in discourse. Elliot improves on the analysis adding the new observation of a positive turn in the text:

The syntactical and stylistic marker themselves point us away from polemic and apologetic and toward collaboration and pedagogy: Paul calls upon the Jewish interlocutor to help him make a point (p. 139).

This makes the Jew a "paradigm, not the target of Paul's rhetoric (p. 141)."

This is certainly the kind of scholarly conclusion that we must foster. I would like to see at least two of the implications of this insight carried further by New Testament critics.

First, as a paradigm, there is little if any relation between the Jew in Romans and the Jews of the Roman world. Second, there is no grounds for using idealized hypothetical discourse for actual confrontation with Jews either through later forms of disputation or, worse, physical persecution.

On the first point, scholarship in the study of Judaism has revealed the extent of the varieties of religious alternatives even in the first century life of the Jews. From the work of Goodenough and others in his wake, we have extensive evidence of a Hellenistic Judaism bound up with forms of cosmic mystery religions. How does this alternative relate to the rhetorical Jew in Romans? And beyond that, Neusner uses a tripartite dichotomy to define Jewish communities of the first century: sage, priest, messiah. And now we are aware more of the limitations of our knowledge of the early Pharisees. What about the rhetorical Jew and the Zealots in Jerusalem? We are cognizant of the complex political apocalypticism that lead to the imminent destruction of the Temple less than two decades after the publication of Romans.

Nowhere does Paul indicate that he characterizes some Jews, not all. Even in the scholarly discussion about the Jew in Romans, little attention is given to account for the diversity and difficulty of determining the nature of various forms of Judaism in the Empire, the types of Jews Paul might have known, or the kind of Jew he was before his conversion.

I wonder how to determine whether the argument in chapters 1-3, "would carry any conviction with a Jewish audience (p. 171)." Don't we need to first establish a more nuanced definition of alternatives within Judaism of the time? Can we relate to an "intelligent of devout Jew (p. 172)" parrying Paul's thrusts? These categories are not sufficiently nuanced for any advanced analysis in the history of Judaism.

Technique or Theology

Is there any defense of the denial of the necessity to take up the questions of "Paul's contribution to the history of Christian anti-Judaism and, consequently, of how his theology should be evaluated today (p. 171)?" From a parochial Jewish point of view, I would hope that Christian theologians put this as a high priority on any post-Holocaust agenda of scholarship or religious discourse.

The scholarly response, even when positive, remains indirect. Accordingly, serious inquiry will rescue the rhetorical Jew from the non-sequitur between the characterization of Romans 2:17-29 and the conclusion of 3:9 (pp. 194 ff). Scholarship can help to deflate the impact of the attack on rhetorical Jewish boasting in the law by pointing out the ambiguity of the charge and by questioning the intelligibility of the argument (p. 207).

Elliot's conclusion is unambiguous and highly intelligible: "`The dialogue with Judaism' contained in Romans 1-4 does not present itself as an attack on Judaism or as an indictment of the Jew (p. 283)." The rhetorical Jew serves a formal purpose to contrast proper conduct with sin. Paul argues that he and not the teacher of the Torah will determine who is righteous (pp. 283 ff).

Romans then is primarily a source of rhetoric and not of theology. If this rescues the letter from "the bonds of Lutheranism (p. 299)," then well and good. If it undermines the centrality of to Romans of "Justification by faith," that is fine.

For Jewish readers it is an important breakthrough to conclude on the basis of solid scholarship (p. 296) that, "Paul does not accuse the Jews generally of a self-striving after righteousness through words; now does he at any time declare either the Torah or Israel's covenant obsolete or invalidated."

The scholarship and logic are solid and sound. Should we then not conclude that this ought to be the teaching of the Church?