N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
A major part of Wright’s book is a fresh look at several passages in Romans, primarily in chapters 1 – 8. The book assumes the reader has a copy of Romans handy or else is very familiar with the text. I thought it might be helpful to consider Wright’s arguments with the text in the post — so readers have an easier time of following the arguments.
You may notice as we go that I’ve not covered all of Wright’s arguments. That’s on purpose. You need to buy the book to get the rest.
Wright works from the New Revised Standard Version, but I’m going to use the NET Bible translation, which makes several revisions that lean Wright’s way because the scholarly consensus has shifted in his direction on several important phrases and words. It’s far superior to the NIV (and related translations), as well as the KJV and NKJV for a technical reading of Romans. The NIV is particularly weak in Romans and Galatians for scholarly study.
The NET Bible is available for free at several sites and is included in most Bible software because of its liberal licensing policy. The home site offers links to translator notes, that are often very helpful and more free from bias than many commentaries. I find them invaluable. (I really wish the NIV and other popular translations would print translator notes. I mean, so often I think, “What on earth were you thinking …?”)
On your smartphone or tablet, you can download the free Lumina app and get the free Bible translation, cross references, and translator notes — and be the smartest person in your Bible class! There’s also a print version you can buy. Unfortunately, it looks like the print versions with notes are sold out.
Where Wright doesn’t cover a part of Romans in the current book, I refer to his commentary in the New Interpreters Bible series, as well as other earlier works by him. The result a Wright-ish commentary on the first few chapters of Romans, with my own ruminations and reflections added here and there, since as a good Anglican, Wright doesn’t seem very concerned with the Church of Christ perspective on some of these questions.
(Rom. 1:17 NET) 17 For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live.”
“Righteousness of God” appears several times in Romans and is obviously central to Paul’s thinking. This is arguable the theme sentence of the book, and the point is that the gospel reveals the “righteousness of God.”
The temptation is to take “righteousness” to mean “good moral character,” but the gospel is about grace, not morality. Morality is what you have to do to be good. Grace is doing even more.
The Greek is hotly debated, of course. “Righteousness” translates δικαιοσύνη dikaiosynē. Wright argues that Paul uses this word to refer to God’s covenant faithfulness or, better yet, loving covenant faithfulness.
In Israel’s scriptures, to which Paul explicitly appeals in 3: 21b (“the law and the prophets bore witness to it”), God’s “righteousness” is not simply God’s status of being morally upright. It is, more specifically, God’s faithfulness to the covenant— the covenant not only with Abraham and Israel, but through Israel to the wider world.
The actual phrase “God’s righteousness” itself is rare in the Old Testament, but there are plenty of occurrences of “my righteousness,” “his righteousness,” or “your righteousness” and statements about God doing what is right or being in the right, which point this way, however much they are sometimes obscured by different translations — a problem for which there is no space here. [JFG: ESV is more consistent than most in this regard.]
A careful reading through the Psalms and Isaiah 40 – 55 will make the point. Again and again the meaning of “righteousness” is not simply that God does what is right (though that is of course true as well), but that, as one focused example of this, he is faithful to his covenanted promises, utterly reliable in following through what he said he would do, specifically in relation to the covenant that he made with Israel and through Israel for the world.
Of course, in Deuteronomy and the prophets this “faithfulness” can mean, and often does, that God will punish his people if they commit idolatry: the covenant stipulated that this would happen, and when it does (particularly in the exile, seen in Deut. 28– 29 as the ultimate consequence of idolatry), it is a sign not of God’s unfaithfulness, but of his faithfulness.
Perhaps the most obvious example of all this is Daniel 9, where the divine righteousness is seen at work in both the covenantal punishment of Israel’s sins by exile (vv. 4– 14) and then the promised and prayed-for covenant restoration (vv. 15– 19).
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4867-4880). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Now, this is a big, big deal. It means that Romans is not about the “Romans Road” atonement theory, or how to go to heaven when we die, or even faith in preference to works (although it will have a lot to say on these subjects) but God’s faithfulness to his covenants with Abraham and Israel. Therefore, we’d expect a chapter focused on God’s covenant with Abraham (and there it is in chapter 4!) and maybe a long section on how the law of Moses applies today (chapters 5 – 7 cover that). Indeed, Paul might even go clean back to Adam as modern theologians do to explain God’s covenants (chapter 5!).
And we might see a history of how man fell away from worshiping God and began to worship idols and so God entered history to begin his plan to rescue mankind from idolatry (chapter 1 through 8, in fact).
I can’t understate the importance of this translation of the “righteousness of God” for the interpretation of the entirety of Romans. And I think Wright is right. I covered his arguments in some detail back in The New Perspective: The Righteousness of God and The Cruciform God: Righteousness and Faith, Part 1. (Please don’t disagree without bothering to read the linked material. Please.)
Why was Romans written?
Scholars love debating this question. There’s one piece of background information that rarely makes it to the pulpit/Bible class level that I find very helpful. In fact, many older commentaries skip this.
Claudius, who ruled Rome from A.D. 41 to 54, found the Pax Romana threatened by Jewish disturbances from Rome to distant Egypt. In his first year of office he imposed a restraining order on the Jews, “forbidding them to meet together in accordance with their ancestral way of life.” … The Roman historian Suetonius says, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [JFG: surely intending Christos or the Christ], [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” It is virtually certain that this is the same event referred to in Acts 18:2 when Paul teamed up in Corinth with Aquila “who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome.” …
The expulsion of Jews from Rome dramatically changed the constituency of the fledgling Christian communities there. A movement that from its inception had identified more or less with Judaism was now confronted with a predominantly, if not exclusively, Gentile Christian membership. Freed from the influence of scrupulous Jewish Christians, particularly in dietary matters, the Gentile Christian communities would have grown numerically stronger. But more importantly, they more than likely developed a distinctly antinomian [refusal to keep kosher] consciousness during the absence of their Jewish Christian counterparts. How long this situation lasted we cannot say, but the five years between the proclamation of the edict in A.D. 49 and Claudius’ death in A.D. 54 is a reasonable guess.
This changed when Claudius died and the edict lapsed. It is not difficult to imagine the difficulties which must have ensued when Jewish Christians returning from exile tried to reestablish themselves in Christian communities that had since matured in Gentile character, especially regarding laxness toward the Torah.
... If our dating of Romans is correct—and the date cannot have been more than a year or two away from A.D. 57—then Romans was written only a few years after the onset of this social and religious maelstrom.
James R. Edwards, Romans, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 9–11.
Paul doubtlessly had many reasons to write Romans, but one reason was surely to better define the relationship of Jews and Judaism with Gentiles and Christianity. Paul is very focused on the history of salvation, based on the Torah, from Adam to the present, with great emphasis on how to situate Christianity within God’s dealings with both Jews and Gentiles. Rom 14-15 seems to specifically deal with Jews and Gentiles regarding food laws and Jewish holy days. Rom 9-11 is all about the salvation of the Jews. And you can’t miss the Jew/Gentile distinctions Paul makes in Rom 1 -8.
We Westerners unconsciously edit out the Jewish references as we read, assuming they are no longer relevant. Hence, “the Jew first and also the Greek,” which appears three times in Romans, is taken as irrelevant to the modern reader. But in fact Paul’s point in chapters 1 through 5 is to demonstrate the equality of Jews and Gentiles before God despite their different salvation histories. And we miss much of what Paul is saying if we ignore this.
Thus, Paul wants to talk about God’s faithfulness to his covenants because that’s how Jews and Gentiles are saved, the Jews first but also the Greeks. It fits. And it’s highly relevant today because it allows us to correct some serious misreadings of Romans.