Romans: A Commentary. By Robert Jewett


Pp. lxx, 1140 , Minneapolis , Fortress , 2007 , $90.00 .

This book, the most recently released volume in the prestigious Hermeneia commentary series, contains the fruit of twenty-six years of research and learning by a distinguished Pauline scholar. Following the series format, Professor Jewett – after a lengthy introduction – offers for each pericope a literal translation, extensive text-critical notes, and ample analysis. The details given in the text-critical notes are particularly helpful, as Jewett offers explanations for textual variants, many of which reveal various theological tendenzen in the early transmission of Romans.

Jewett places his interpretation within the context of the ‘Romans debate’ of the last thirty years: Is Romans best understood as a theological treatise or as a situational letter (i.e., as primarily addressing the situation in the churches at Rome)? Jewett contends that neither alternative is satisfactory – the former, because it takes insufficient account of Rom 12–16; the latter, because it contradicts Paul's principle of noninterference as articulated in 15:20. Instead, Jewett proposes that Romans is properly understood as ‘ambassadorial letter’ in which Paul, as one called to be an apostle, sought support for his proposed missionary endeavor to bring the gospel to the ‘barbarians’ in Spain.

Methodologically, Jewett employs what he calls a ‘sociohistorical and rhetorical approach.’ In the introduction he posits the critical sociohistorical background for understanding the letter. In terms of the situation in Rome, Jewett homes in on the tensions and struggles between Jewish Christians and the Gentile majority (caused in large part by Claudius's expulsion of Jewish Christian leaders from Rome in 49 C.E. and their subsequent return after Nero became emperor). Such tensions and struggles revealed, among other things, that the Roman Christians themselves were caught up in the cultural mores of competition for superiority. Jewett also insists that the cultural situation of Spain be taken into account. Indeed, this insistence is an important contribution to the study of Romans. Prominent features of the cultural situation of Spain include the lack of Jewish population (which would undercut Paul's normal strategy of beginning his mission work in the synagogue) and language barriers.

Jewett's rhetorical approach is evident at both the macro and micro levels of the text of Romans. At the macro level he proposes the following five-part rhetorical structure: 1:1–12 is the exordium; 1:13–15 the narratio; 1:16–17 the propositio or thesis statement; 1:18–15:13 the probatio or ‘proof,’ which is further subdivided into four major sections; and 15:14–16:23 the peroratio. Of particular note is his insistence that 15:14ff forms the rhetorical climax and highpoint of the letter and that chap. 16 provides critical data for reconstructing some of the Christian assemblies in Rome. At the micro level Jewett expertly explains Paul's use of diatribe, series of numbers, and stylistic features (e.g., parallelisms and word plays) – as well as how the audience would have experienced these. Jewett also provides a valuable discussion on the role that the reader of the letter (in this case, Phoebe's servant Tertius) would play in properly inflecting and interpreting the text.

Jewett argues that Paul sent Phoebe, a patron for his missionary work, to Rome to deliver the letter and explain its contents. Paul's strategy was to offer an account of the gospel he preached, thereby dispelling any misconceptions or misgivings Roman Christians may have had about him. Moreover, he wanted the various house and tenement churches in Rome to transcend ethnic and ideological differences and so welcome one another. In doing do, they would give living testimony to the gospel of God's impartial righteousness that Paul wanted to preach in Spain. Lastly, Jewett's reconstruction involves the Apostle's hope that the Roman Christians would give logistical advice and counsel for his mission to Spain (e.g., providing contacts). One may question – given Jewett's contention that the vast majority of Roman Christians were slaves, former slaves, and lower-class handworkers – how much logistical support they could render Paul (although Jewett proposes that 16:10–11 offers clues of churches that had ties to governmental circles).

It remains to give a flavor of Jewett's exegetical work. He interprets – rightly, in my opinion – the pivotal phrase ‘righteousness of God’ (dikaiosyné theou) in the letter's thesis statement (1:16–17) and its re-statement (3:21) as a subjective genitive. That is, Jewett argues that the phrase refers to God's activity of cosmic restoration through Christ, a restoration especially manifested in Christian communities formed through the proclamation of the gospel. It is thus surprising to read, when Jewett comments on 3:22, that the phrase ‘God's righteousness’ should now be understood as an objective genitive, as referring to the righteousness imparted to all human beings. A related issue involves the rendering of the disputed phrase pistis Iésou Christou: Has God's righteousness been revealed through Christ's faithfulness? Through humans' faith in Christ? Or both? Jewett favors the latter. While he appropriately brackets later theological debates in his interpretation, he offers little exegetical support for it. Rather, he wonders whether Paul intended to leave the phrase ambiguous because different Christian groups in Rome may have understood it differently.

Romans contains a number of interpretive cruces. For instance, to whom does the ‘I’ refer in 7:7–25 (where Paul relates the distress of one who does the very thing that he or she did not intend to do). Jewett argues that the Apostle refers here to his pre-conversion days, when his religious zeal led him to oppose God's Messiah. The passage functions not only to show how the power of sin co-opted the Jewish law (which is good in and of itself); it also suggests to the factions in the Roman churches the counter productiveness of competitive zeal. Jewett reads the controverted ending of 9:5 as an ascription of divinity to Christ. He interprets 10:4 – where Paul refers to Christ as the telos of the law – as referring to Messiah Jesus as the goal of the Jewish Torah, not its cessation. Finally, Jewett contends that, when Paul exclaims in 11:26 that ‘all Israel will be saved,’ the Apostle intends all members of ethnic Israel. While this interpretation may be right, Jewett's claim that all previous references to Israel in the letter have ethnic Israel in view is belied by 9:6 (‘not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel’).

To be sure, Jewett's massive commentary will (and should) elicit the active engagement of biblical scholars and exegetes. His mastery of ancient texts, of the history of interpretation, and of the incredible volume of secondary literature is extraordinary. In my opinion, Jewett's stress on the missionary purpose of Romans moves the ‘Romans debate’ in the right direction. Unfortunately, the book's sheer bulk will probably relegate it to being a reference work consulted for interpretation of individual passages.