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The named Jew and the name of God: A new reading of Romans 2:17–29

I’ve just had an article published in the journal Novum Testamentum. In the article, I provide a detailed defence of a new reading of Romans 2:17–29.

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Most commentators don’t spend much time in this passage. They tend to concentrate much more attention on the previous passage (Romans 2:1–16). This means commentators tend to be far too quick to make assumptions about what Romans 2:17–29 is “all about” (i.e. the topic), and so–I argue–end up misconstruing what Paul is actually trying to say in the passage (i.e. the argument). English translations of the passage tend to reflect these assumptions and so perpetuate the misconstruals.

I offer an alternative reading of the passage, which is based on detailed engagement with the precise details of the Greek text of this passage. I try to avoid falling into the trap of simply importing all the ideas from the previous passage (i.e. Romans 2:1–16), and instead try to look in detail at the specific concerns of this passage (i.e. Romans 2:17–29).

While my reading of Romans 2:17–29 doesn’t take the usual view about the topic and purpose of this particular passage (i.e. that Paul is trying to undermine Jewish advantage in salvation), I think it actually does a better job of supporting classic reformed understandings of the wider context (especially 3:1–8). That’s because my reading of Rom 2:17–29 doesn’t end up with the strange dissonances that result from traditional readings, and so doesn’t require the usual special pleading and exegetical backflips to make sense of the flow of the argument into the following passage (3:1–8). Thus, I argue that my new reading of 2:17–19 fits more smoothly into Paul’s discussion of sin and justification in chapter 3. And that means it supports classic reformed understandings of the nature of sin and justification. At the same time, my reading highlights a theme in Romans that is quite prominent for Paul’s argument but is often neglected or (unintentionally) downplayed in reformed readings of Romans: the theme of preaching and ministry.

How to access the article

The article is available via this link, if you have a subscription to the journal:

Lionel J. Windsor, “The named Jew and the name of God: The argument of Romans 2:17–29 in light of Roman attitudes to Jewish teachers,” Novum Testamentum 63.2 (2021), 229–248.

If you don’t have a subscription, you can still read the full manuscript, which the publisher has allowed me to post on this website. Download it here:

A summary of my new reading of Romans 2:17–29

Here’s a summary of my new reading and its significance (from the article):

It will be argued that Paul is not directly discussing the eschatological soteriological status of his interlocutor in Rom 2:17–29. While soteriological concerns are clearly in the foreground of 2:1–16, in verse 17, Paul turns to develop his argument further, focusing on a related but distinct topic: the effectiveness of typical Jewish teaching to solve the previously identified problems of human foolishness, wickedness, and impiety. While the soteriological concerns of 2:1–16 are still relevant to the argument of 2:17–29, such concerns move into the background, and pedagogical concerns move into the foreground. If the discourse is reread in light of this precise topic and focus, several key details in the argumentation of Rom 2:17–29 become more comprehensible, hitherto neglected exegetical possibilities are opened up for serious consideration, and fresh light may be shed on the subsequent argument.

Lionel J. Windsor, “The named Jew and the name of God”, 233.

In other words: I think Romans 2:17–29 isn’t directly about salvation, but about teaching. I don’t deny that salvation is a very important topic in Romans, including in the immediately preceding passage (Romans 2:1–16). I also affirm that issues relating to salvation form a vital backdrop to the argument of Romans 2:17–29. However, I argue that the foreground issue in this particular passage (Romans 2:17–29) is not salvation itself, but something related yet distinct: teaching, and particularly Jewish teaching of the law.

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Why is a new reading of Romans 2:17–29 needed?

As I mentioned above, one of the reasons I believe that we need a new reading of Romans 2:17–29 is that it is an incredibly neglected passage. Preachers tend to ignore it or skip over it. So do scholars. Thus Longenecker, in his recent commentary, writes: “there is probably no more ignored passage in the NT than Rom 2:17–29” (p. 291). Most interpreters tend to spend a great deal of time in Romans 2:1–16, then rush through Romans 2:17–29 quite quickly, almost as an afterthought. So do many preaching programs. Typically, they assume that the second half of Romans 2 is just a re-hash of the first half of Romans 2, containing some kind of slightly impenetrable argument that all Jews are sinners.

However, this assumption creates all sorts of strange issues and dissonances. Most traditional interpreters tend to ignore these issues or leave them behind in their rush to get on into chapter 3. On the other hand, several recent, less traditional, interpreters have used these issues and dissonances as evidence to prove that traditional (e.g. reformed, Lutheran, etc.) views of the whole purpose and argument of Romans 1–3 are just plain wrong.

That’s why I thought a good long hard look at the second half of Romans 2 was in order. And this is what I’ve done in this article.

I argue that my reading makes much more sense of the precise details of the text in Romans 2:17–29. Please note that many of these precise details are obscured by modern translations, which tend to smooth the English over to fit in with their assumptions. So if you really want to see the details of the text clearly and follow my argument, you need to look at the Greek text rather than rely on modern English translations. If you can’t read Greek, you can try an older translation like the King James Version, which tends to be more literal and follow the text more word-for-word than modern versions like the ESV etc.

As I mentioned, I believe if you read Romans 2:17–29 the way I do instead of the way many modern interpreters do, you’ll end up with a reading of Romans 3 that’s closer to classical reformed understandings of sin and justification, without the dissonances. And you’ll also see how the topics of teaching and ministry are important in Romans, and deeply connected to the issues of the gospel, salvation, justification, etc.

What are some of the key points in this article?

Some particular features of my article are:

  • The opening words of Romans 2:17 should not be translated “If you call yourself a Jew”. This is a common modern (20th century) mistranslation that fails to take into account how the Greek verb eponomazō was actually used in Paul’s day. I go into great detail looking at the meaning of this Greek verb in many ancient texts. I also show how the translation “If you call yourself a Jew” has no serious scholarly backing; it’s just a modern assumption that tends not to be questioned. My own translation is a return to earlier translations: “If you are called/named a Jew”. This corresponds to pretty much all of translations in English, French and German before the 20th century.
  • In Romans 2:17–20, Paul is not merely describing his interlocutor as a “typical Jew”. Rather, he is deliberately framing his interlocutor as a well-known Jewish teacher.
  • Paul’s foreground issue in Romans 2:17–29 is not the end-times judgment of the sinful Jew, as most interpreters assume. Rather, Paul’s main concern in this passage is whether typical Jewish law-teaching is able to solve the problems of human foolishness, wickedness and ungodliness that he has laid out in 1:18–32.
  • Paul’s primary aim in this passage is not to demonstrate that the “typical Jew” is a sinner under judgment and has no advantages over others. Rather, Paul’s primary aim is to show that well-known Jewish law-teaching activity has failed to bring about God’s glory among the nations.
Breaking news: Religious Scandal in Rome
  • Romans 2:21–22 is alluding to a notorious incident involving rogue Jewish teachers in Rome, which would have been well-known at the time Paul was writing. The purpose of the allusion is to show the failure of Jewish law-teaching, not (primarily) to prove the sinfulness of all Jews.
  • Of course, I don’t deny that Paul believes in the sinfulness of all Jews. But that’s not what this particular passage (Romans 2:17–29) is all about. Actually, Paul doesn’t need to show that all Jews are sinful in 2:17–29, because he’s already demonstrated that quite adequately. How? By arguing that all “humans” are sinful (1:18, 2:1–16)–and by pointing out the obvious fact that Jews are humans. In 2:17, having made his point about human sinfulness and judgment (2:1–16), Paul turns to a related but distinct topic: Jewish teaching.
  • Romans 2:25–27 isn’t about God’s eschatological judgment of Jews. It’s describing how Roman gentiles who are being instructed by Jews so often condemn Jewish law-teachers when Jewish law-teachers break the law. Paul is thus highlighting the terrible consequences of typical Jewish law-based teaching for the honour of God’s “name” among the nations (cf. 2:23–24).
  • In Romans 2:28–29, Paul is not redefining the terms “Jew” and “circumcision” in order to redefine the boundaries of salvation. Nor is he saying that all Christians are secretly Jews. While this is what many commentators assume, it creates a major contradiction with 3:1–2 (which many commentators actually point out). Rather, in Romans 2:28–29, Paul is putting forward an alternative understanding of Jewish identity, described in terms of Old Testament prophetic eschatology. This kind of Jew, unlike the public well-known law-teacher, is hidden now and receives no praise from people. But in the end he will receive true “praise from God”. Ultimately Paul is talking about Jews like himself–not law-breaking law-teachers, but gospel-believing gospel-preachers.
  • The questions in Romans 3:1 aren’t about the salvific “advantage” of the Jew over the gentile. This is a mistranslation, based on a misunderstanding of the topic of the previous discourse. The questions are better understood in terms of the issues in the previous discourse. A better (and smoother) translation of the Greek would be: “Then what is the abundance/overflow of the Jew [for the honour of God’s name among the nations]? Or what help does circumcision provide [for the honour of God’s name among the nations]?” The answer “much in every way” (3:2) is not an affirmation that Jews have some kind of special advantage over gentiles when it comes to salvation. Rather, it is the start of Paul’s argument in which he shows that even notorious Jewish sinfulness and condemnation has an important place in God’s worldwide purposes. It demonstrates that God is a just judge and plays a role in leading people to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, my new reading shows how Paul’s argument flows into a discussion of sin, judgment, and justification in Romans 3 without the need to assume dissonances, contradictions, or unmarked speech-in-character, etc. as many modern interpretations.
  • Note: I’ve changed my mind on the meaning of Romans 3:1 since I wrote my book Paul and the Vocation of Israel. The reason I changed my mind is that I did more research and took a much closer look at Romans 2:17–29.

The article is available via this link, if you have a subscription to the journal:

Lionel J. Windsor, “The named Jew and the name of God: The argument of Romans 2:17–29 in light of Roman attitudes to Jewish teachers,” Novum Testamentum 63.2 (2021), 229–248.

If you don’t have a subscription, you can still read the full manuscript, which the publisher has allowed me to post on this website. Download it here:

Published inRomans

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • The Named Jew and the Name of God: A new reading of Romans 2:17–29

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