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“Paul within Judaism” and Romans 2:17–29

I’ve recently published a Novum Testamentum article on the purpose and argument of Romans 2:17–29. This passage is often important in discussions surrounding the “Paul within Judaism” perspective. That’s not surprising, since the passage is full of terms and concepts relating to Jewish identity. Paul begins: “Now if you are called a Jew…”

In this post, I want to show how the exegetical conclusions in my article both:

  1. support one key feature of the “Paul within Judaism” perspective, and
  2. directly undermine another common feature of the “Paul within Judaism” perspective.

“Paul within Judaism”: Two key features (Zetterholm)

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Magnus Zetterholm provides a summary of the Paul within Judaism perspective.1 He identifies two key features:

Feature 1: Paul retains his distinct Jewish identity

Firstly, the Paul within Judaism perspective regards Paul as retaining his distinct Jewish identity, even as a believer in Christ. This means Paul was Torah observant, in some form. Of course, the precise details of what “Torah observance” would have looked like can be disputed. After all, the nature of Jewish Torah-observance amongst different Jewish groups (and even individuals) varied in the ancient world, as it does today (Zetterholm, 176–87).

Romans 2:17–29 is relevant to this issue, since many interpreters regard Paul in vv. 28–29 as applying the terms “Jew” and “circumcision” to gentile believers in Christ—thus denying Jewish distinctiveness.

Feature 2: Paul’s gospel is not for Jews. It is only for gentiles

Secondly, the Paul within Judaism perspective (according to Zetterholm) regards Paul’s gospel as only intended for gentiles, not for Jews (pp. 186–93). In fact, Zetterholm goes so far as to claim that this is a sina qua non:

For the Paul within Judaism Perspective this is imperative: if Paul’s gospel concerns the whole of humanity, this [Paul within Judaism] perspective is simply incorrect.

Magnus Zetterholm, “The Paul within Judaism Perspective”, in Perspectives on Paul: Five Views (ed. McKnight & Oropeza; BakerAcademic, 2020), p. 187.

Personally, I think is over-reach, since there are interpreters who would identify with the Paul within Judaism perspective but would still agree that Paul’s gospel concerns the whole of humanity, at least in some way. Nevertheless, Zetterholm has identified a strong and common emphasis in the Paul within Judaism perspective: the tendency to minimise any application of Paul’s gospel to Jewish people.

Again, Romans 2:17–29 is relevant to this issue. A recent and increasingly cited interpretation of Romans 2:17–29 by Runar Thorsteinsson, followed by Matthew Thiessen and Rafael Rodríguez,2 argues that Paul is not addressing a Jewish person at all in Romans 2. Rather, Paul is here speaking to a gentile who is trying to become Jewish, i.e. convert to Judaism, to escape divine judgment. Thorsteinsson renders Romans 2:17 as “you [want to] call yourself a Jew”, and on this basis argues that Paul’s interlocutor is not actually Jewish. Thus, Paul’s gospel is not directed at Jews–here, or anywhere.

Yes no

My article on Romans 2:17–29

As a result of looking closely at Romans 2:17–19 (see my Novum Testament article), I’m convinced that the “Paul within Judaism” perspective is:

  1. correct to assert that Paul sees value in a distinct Jewish identity, even as a believer in Christ; but
  2. incorrect to assert that Paul’s gospel is directed only at gentiles, not Jews.

Here are my reasons in brief, based on the argument in the article. For more details on any of these, please see the full article.

Romans 1:16–17 concerns all humanity, while asserting Jewish priority

Romans 1:16–17 acts as a thematic statement for Romans. The gospel is for all humanity (“all who believe”), but within this, there is an element of Jewish priority (“Jew first”).

Romans 1:18–2:16 is addressed to all humanity (Jews and gentiles)

Jonathan Linebaugh has demonstrated that when Paul speaks explicitly of the wrath of God being revealed against “all impiety and unrighteousness of humans” (πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων, Romans 1:18), Paul is indeed directing his critique against all humanity, not just gentiles.3

Furthermore, the key repeated terms in 2:1–16 indicate that Paul is addressing all humanity. These terms are ἄνθρωπος “human” and πᾶς “all”. While the element of Jewish priority does appear briefly in 2:1–16 (at the end of 2:9 and 2:10), it is not central to the topic of 2:1–16. Rather, it is used to anticipate the following section, in which Jewish priority is central (2:17–29).

Romans 2:17 is addressed to a Jew (not a gentile)

In Romans 2:17–29, the element of Jewish priority comes into focus. Against Thorsteinsson, Thiessen and others, Romans 2:17 cannot be translated “If you call yourself a Jew”. It must mean “if you are called a Jew”. I examine in detail the meaning of this Greek verb. I also show that the translation “If you call yourself a Jew” is simply a modern assumption. Paul is addressing a Jew here: “If you are called/named a Jew”.

For more on this, see my blog post with associated video: The mistranslation “call yourself a Jew”: A myth-busting story (Romans 2:17).

Romans 2:17–27 is about Jewish teachers (not just a “typical Jew”)

While it is true that Paul is addressing a Jew in 2:17–29, he is not simply talking to a “typical Jew” about issues of salvation (as many modern commentators assume). Rather, in Romans 2:17–20, Paul is deliberately framing his interlocutor as a well-known Jewish teacher. This has significant implications for the purpose and meaning of this passage, and more broadly it goes to the heart of the nature of Jewish priority anticipated in 1:16 (and 2:9–10).

In other words, Paul’s foreground issue in Romans 2:17–29 is not the end-times judgment of the sinful Jew. This is not because Paul doesn’t care about this. Paul has already addressed God’s judgment on human sinfulness (including Jewish sinfulness) in 2:1–16. Rather, Paul’s main concern in this passage (2:17–29) 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. I.e. 2:17–29 is not primarily about whether a Jew will be judged. It is about whether a Jewish law-teacher can help other human beings to do right (and so avoid judgment).

Thus, 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. Paul wouldn’t deny this, but it’s not what he’s saying here. 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.

Romans 2:28–29 is about two kinds of Jewish identity and priority

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), and ends up rendering Paul’s argument fractured and incoherent.

Rather, in Romans 2:28–29, Paul is describing two different conceptions of Jewish identity and priority. There is a direct parallel between vv. 28–29 and the anticipatory phrases in vv. 9–10. The first kind of Jew (v. 28) is the prototypical doer of evil within humanity (cf. v. 9). The second kind of Jew (v. 29), circumcised in heart, is the prototypical doer of good within humanity (cf. v. 10).

The first conception of Jewish identity and priority (v. 28) uses key terms to summarise the public well-known law-teacher whom Paul has just been describing–i.e. the Jew who teaches humanity the law and yet fails to keep it (cf. 2:17–27).

The second conception (v. 29) provides an alternative understanding of Jewish identity and priority, described in terms of Old Testament prophetic eschatology. Unlike the Jewish law-teacher, this kind of “Jew” is hidden now, and receives no honour or public praise from humanity. But he will receive eschatological “praise from God”.

Later in Romans (see especially 11:1–14), it becomes clear that the second, eschatological conception of Jewish identity is fulfilled in Jews like Paul, who both believe the gospel of Christ and proclaim it to humanity.

However, the immediate discourse in 3:1ff. concerns the first kind of Jew, i.e. the Jewish law-teacher who fails to keep the law.

Romans 3:1ff. connects God’s particular condemnation of Jewish sin with God’s universal condemnation of all humanity

I argue in my article that Romans 3:1 is consistently mistranslated, to make it sound as if Paul is talking here about Jewish “advantage [in salvation]” over gentiles. Looking more closely at the Greek, however, the questions in the verse aren’t about the salvific “advantage” of the Jew over the gentile. This common mistranslation (which I myself used to follow) is 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 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]?

Romans 3:1, my translation

The answer “much in every way” (3:2) is thus not an affirmation that Jews have some kind of special “advantage” over gentiles when it comes to salvation. Quite the opposite! Rather, it is the start of Paul’s argument in which he shows that even notorious Jewish sinfulness and condemnation (i.e. what he has just been talking about in 2:17–29) has an important place in God’s worldwide purposes. This explains the element of Jewish priority from the point of view of human sin.

In Romans 3:3ff. Paul is not claiming that Jewish law-teachers are more sinful than other human beings. However, he is saying that the sin of Jewish law-teachers has a particular effect and indeed a role in God’s purposes for humanity. The particular sinfulness of “some” Jewish law teachers, according to Paul, demonstrates that God is a just judge. This ultimately plays a role in leading people to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In other words, my new reading shows how Paul’s argument about Jewish priority in sin in Romans 2:17–29 flows into his wider discussion of sin, judgment, and ultimately the justification of all humanity in Romans 3. Furthermore, according to my interpretation, there is also no need to assume dissonances, contradictions, or unmarked speech-in-character, etc. as many modern interpretations do.

Summary: Romans 2:17–29 and “Paul within Judaism”

To summarise: my investigation of Romans 2:17–29 shows that the “Paul within Judaism” perspective is:

  1. correct to assert that Paul sees value in a distinct Jewish identity, even as a believer in Christ; but
  2. incorrect to assert that Paul’s gospel is directed only at gentiles, not Jews.

If I were to place my reading in any particular “camp”, I would call it:

  1. Post-supersessionist. Paul sees value in a distinct Jewish identity, especially with respect to Jewish priority in law-teaching (negatively) and gospel-preaching (positively) (see also my book Paul and the Vocation of Israel).
  2. Not “Paul within Judaism” (at least not as Zetterholm defines it). Paul’s gospel is certainly addressed to Jews (as “first” within humanity).
  1. M. Zetterholm, “The Paul within Judaism Perspective”, Perspectives on Paul: Five Views (ed. McKnight & Oropeza; BakerAcademic, 2020), pp. 171–93.
  2. R.M. Thorsteinsson, Paul’s Interlocutor in Romans 2: Function and Identity in the Context of Ancient Epistolography (Almqvist & Wiksell, 2003), 151–242; M. Thiessen, Paul and the Gentile Problem (OUP, 2017), 43–71; R. Rodríguez, If You Call Yourself a Jew: Reappraising Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Cascade, 2014), 47–72.
  3. J. A. Linebaugh, “Announcing the Human: Rethinking the Relationship between Wisdom of Solomon 13–15 and Romans 1.18–2.11,” NTS 57 (2011): 214–237.