The social context of Romans 2:17–29: the Jewish synagogue

In my book, I argue that Romans 2:17-29 is set in the Jewish synagogue.

Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans

We have argued that the differences between Rom 2:1–16 and Rom 2:17–29 imply that the latter pericope is a coherent textual unit with its own distinct setting. As we will see, this setting is best understood as the Jewish synagogue and its related Jewish community. This synagogue setting for Rom 2:17–29 is fundamental for the interpretation of the pericope. It enables us to understand Paul’s interlocutor as a synagogue-based Law-teacher, and thus as a paradigm for Jewish identity and vocation. It also enables us to understand the uncircumcised Law-keeper of vv. 25–27 as a Gentile synagogue adherent, and thus to make sense of Paul’s logic in these verses. Finally, it enables us to understand Paul’s statement about Jewishness in vv. 28–29 as just that—a statement about Jewishness, which would have been quite comprehensible (albeit controversial) in a first-century synagogue context. (pp. 147-148)

Capernaum SynagogueThere are a number of strong indications that Romans 2:17-29 is set in the Jewish synagogue:

  • The first, and most obvious, indication is that Paul explicitly addresses his interlocutor, for the first and only time in his letter, as a “publicly recognized Jew” (σὺ Ἰουδαῖος ἐπονομάζῃ).
  • Secondly, there is a strong emphasis on the “Law” (νόμος) as the basic constitutive element for all the other activities in Rom 2:17–29. This Law is the specific Law of Moses which is read in the synagogue and which (as Paul has already indicated) the Gentiles do not “have” (cf. Rom 2:14).
  • Thirdly, in Rom 2:25–29, Paul enters into an argument about the “reckoning” (verb λογίζεσθαι) of circumcision to somebody who is physically uncircumcised. Paul himself does not regard the “reckoning” of circumcision as an important issue anywhere else in his letter to the Romans. Paul is much more concerned about God’s “reckoning” of righteousness, which is clearly a different issue since, as Paul is at pains to point out, this latter kind of “reckoning” can occur regardless of a person’s circumcision or uncircumcision (Rom 4:9–12). Yet there was a debate among Paul’s Jewish contemporaries concerning the issue of whether uncircumcised Gentile adherents to the Jewish community were to be welcomed or treated like Jews.
  • Fourthly, the idea that Rom 2:17–29 is set in the context of a synagogue is consistent with other evidence about Paul’s practices (e.g. 2 Cor 11:24).

The full details of the argument and further references may be found in chapter 5 of the book (pp. 147-151). The chapter is available from the publisher in electronic format:

Windsor, Lionel J. Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul’s Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans. BZNW 205. Berlin / Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.

(Featured image courtesy of Hartley)