Skip to content

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)

Published inPaulRomans

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • The Shambles, York, UKBuilt together (Ephesians 2:20–22)
    Is every church on its own? How are Christian believers connected with other believers with whom we don’t meet regularly: in our region, nation, and world?
  • “Do not weep for me, weep for yourselves…” (Luke 23:28)
    Why do Christians lament? Sometimes we lament out of sympathy, but sometimes we weep for ourselves. This is the kind of lament that Jesus calls for here.
  • Busts in Vatican Museum, RomeNo second-class Christians (Ephesians 2:19)
    Even if we don’t say it out loud, we can often act as if there are different classes of Christians. But the gospel teaches us there are no second-class Christians.
  • Photo by Larm Rmah on UnsplashChrist the missionary (Ephesians 2:17–18)
    Christ is a missionary. Christ does stranger evangelism. Christ preaches to the choir. Christ crosses cultures. Christ brings peace. So says the Apostle Paul. What does he mean?
  • Fragment of the Berlin WallChrist the wall breaker (Ephesians 2:14–16)
    In this broken and rebellious world, our healthy boundaries often become hostile walls. But the cross of Christ breaks down walls and brings reconciliation.
  • Photo by John Tyson on UnsplashThe blood that brings us close (Ephesians 2:11–13)
    Despite our best desires and efforts, we humans are not very good at living up close with others. This has become devastatingly obvious in the recent Christchurch shootings. Yet in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about a conflict that really was healed. This passage is about a real closeness that all believers in Christ must remember: a closeness that is fundamental to our identity.
  • Photo by foundinbklyn on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)Good works and salvation: What’s the connection? (Ephesians 2:8–10)
    A joke letter from an Australian church offering its financial donors priority access to heaven raises questions for all of us. Do our good deeds give us access to heaven? Or are our good deeds irrelevant? Where do our good deeds fit when it comes to salvation?
  • Security Threat. Photo by Andrew Neel on UnsplashA question of security (Ephesians 2:6–7)
    As I write this, New Zealand is shocked and grieving. My own nation Australia is shocked and grieving too, along with them. But news stories about terror attacks and shootings in our world are far too common, aren’t they? And whenever we hear of them, they bring to mind all sorts of questions. One of them is the question of security. As we grieve for the victims, we also think a little about ourselves. We wonder whether some day we too might be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a seemingly random attack happens. It’s unsettling. It’s not just a matter of national security; it’s also a matter of our own personal security. Paul is talking in Ephesians 2:6–7 about a security that belongs to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. It’s not a guarantee of perfect national security or job security or financial security or security in relationships and health. Nor is it a guarantee that we will always feel perfectly secure. But it is still a real security, more unshakeable and deep-rooted than any other kind of security could be. So what is this security, and where does it come from?
  • Walking past a telephone booth in OxfordThis love (Ephesians 2:4–5)
    “God loves you”: if I say just those three words, you may not hear what I want you to hear. This is because of a communication problem that arises whenever Christians try to talk about biblical concept of God’s “love”. When we say “love” we mean one thing—something wonderful and life-changing. But the word means quite different things to many English speakers. For example, the word “love” often means “strong desire”. So if I say “God loves you” then it might sound like I’m saying “God has strong feelings for you”. Another, increasingly common, understanding of “love” is the idea of “unconditional approval”. In this view, the way to “love” somebody is to affirm and approve of everything they do. So if I don’t approve of your actions and actively affirm everything you do, then by definition I’m not “loving” you (in fact, by definition I’m “hating” you). On this common definition of “love”, if I say “God loves you” then it might sound like I’m saying “God affirms everything about you and your actions”. But that’s not what the Bible means by God’s “love” either. Given this communication problem, how can I best explain the idea of God’s “love”? Well, it’s not actually that hard. The best way is to see how the word works when the Bible uses it. In Ephesians 2:4–5, Paul uses the word “love”. But he doesn’t just say “God loves you”. He explains and spells out what that love means. And he helps us to see what God’s love really means, and how amazing it is.
  • Entering a tomb in PompeiiWe too: the offenders (Ephesians 2:3)
    Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. But Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s people. And it’s something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor