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Who is the uncircumcised Law-keeper in Romans 2:26-27?

In my book, I argue that the uncircumcised Law-keeper in Romans 2:26-27 should be understood as a Gentile synagogue adherent. This not only makes sense of Paul’s individual choice of words in Rom 2:25–27, but also of the overall logic of his argument.

Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to RomansMy position is different to the two most common positions taken on the identity of this person:

The first position regards the uncircumcised Law-keeper as a “righteous pagan”—a person who is generally moral without any substantial knowledge of the Law of Moses. This righteous pagan may be regarded as a hypothetical construct or a real possibility. The second position regards the figure as a proleptic description of a Gentile Christ-believer. However, there are problems with both of these positions. (p. 171)

Paul’s argument is as follows:

1) A commonly held truth (verse 25)

For circumcision would be valuable
if you were to practise the Law;
but if you were to transgress the Law,
your circumcision would become uncircumcision. (Rom 2:25)

Paul is not negating the value of physical circumcision here; he is simply saying that physical circumcision derives all its value from Law-keeping and thus has no independent status. At this point, then, Paul is in substantial agreement with other Jewish interpreters of his day. Nevertheless, the idea that circumcision can “become uncircumcision” is stated in rather stark terms. It paves the way for Paul’s next assertion in verse 26, which would have been more controversial. (p. 175)

2) A contested issue (verse 26)

So—if the “uncircumcised” were to observe the regulations of the Law,
would not his uncircumcision be reckoned as circumcision? (Rom 2:26)

Paul’s figure of the uncircumcised Law-keeper would not, therefore, have been “astonishing” to his contemporaries. Strict Pharisees may have disagreed with Paul, but they would have been aware that this kind of view, as exemplified by the positions of Philo and Ananias, existed. Paul is, in fact, using a scripturally derived and generally accepted truth (Rom 2:25) to take a particular position in an intra-Jewish debate (Rom 2:26). From the premise that circumcision can become uncircumcision through Law-breaking (v. 25) Paul infers (οὖν) the converse: that an uncircumcised synagogue adherent could be “reckoned as circumcised,” provided he kept the Law (v. 26). (p. 179)

3) The radical consequences (verse 27)

And the natural “uncircumcision” who keeps the Law would judge you
who, though having the letter and circumcision, are a transgressor of the Law.
(Rom 2:27)

In verse 27, Paul pushes the consequences of his argument even further. Indeed, by the end of verse 27, the mainstream view of Jewish identity and vocation has been entirely reversed. Instead of Jews teaching Gentiles by virtue of their possession and superior knowledge of the Law of Moses, the Law-keeping Gentile synagogue adherent is said to “judge” (verb κρίνειν) the Law-breaking Jewish synagogue teacher! (p. 180)

Thus:

The effect of Paul’s argument is to undermine further the understanding of Jewish identity found in the synagogue, especially amongst its teachers. By using the figure of the Gentile synagogue adherent, Paul is turning the mainstream understanding of Jewish identity and Jewish vocation on its head and exposing its contradictions … This, in turn, supports Paul’s contention in Rom 2:28–29 that true Jewish identity is not to be understood in the terms of the mainstream Jewish community, but must be understood in another way. (pp. 180-181)

Note that this makes more sense of Paul’s choice of certain words in Rom 2:25-27:

On the word “reckoned” (v. 26):

This “reckoning” (verb λογίζεσθαι) in Rom 2:26 is thus best understood as a human activity (as in Rom 2:3, 3:28, 6:11, 8:18, 8:36, 14:14) rather than a divine activity (as in Rom 4 and Rom 9:8) … In fact, to see a reference here to divine vindication by virtue of a conjectured parallel between the phrase “reckoned as circumcised” (Rom 2:26) and “reckoned as righteousness” (Gen 15:6, see also numerous references in Rom 4) would create a contradiction in Paul’s overall argument—for Paul specifically states that God reckons righteousness regardless of circumcision (Rom 4:9–12). (p. 179)

On the word “judge” (v. 26):

A number of commentators see the word κρίνειν as a reference to the eschatological judgment of sinful Jews by righteous pagans. However, in Romans 2–3, eschatological judgment is depicted as an exclusively divine activity. Hence, like the word λογίζεσθαι in v. 26, this “judgment” in v. 27 is best understood as a pre-eschatological activity, which Paul envisages as a possibility in the synagogue context. (p. 180)

The full details of the argument and further references may be found in chapter 5 of the book (pp. 170-181). 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.

 

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