III. The Recipe for Romans: Words
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | July 9, 2020Last week I wrote about the people behind the letter to the Romans: the Apostle Paul and the community of Christians in Rome to whom he is writing. This week, our focus is on the other main ingredient in this letter: words.
These two ingredients are related. When we study a New Testament letter, we are ‘overhearing’ one side of a conversation. To a large extent, the people having that conversation determine the meaning of the words they use. For example, if I overhear someone say the word port in conversation, it matters a great deal whether that conversation is between sailors on a ship, sommeliers at a wine tasting, or owners of rival shipping companies arguing on a pier. A word like port can mean different things depending on the tongues that speak it and the ears that hear it.
I bring this up because for us 21st century Christians in the United States, words like slave, gospel, righteousness, wickedness, faith, son, and atonement mean and conjure certain things. But if we overhear those words being used by a group of 1st century Christians like Paul and the Roman church to whom he’s writing, those words may change: their meanings get thicker, thinner, or even a bit slippery compared to how we normally use them. I’m going to go through these words one at a time and offer a little bit of nuance as to what they mean in Paul’s day as compared to what they tend to mean in a church like ours in 21st century America. Hopefully, this will help make Romans strange to us again so that we can hear God speaking to us through it with newer ears.
Slave: If you’re using the NRSV bible translation, then lots of times in Romans you will see the word “servant.” Usually, when you see the word “servant” in Romans, you should read it as slave. As we saw last week, there are likely slaves who are hearing Paul’s letter read aloud. Paul, a free Roman citizen, opens his letter by referring to himself as the slave of Jesus Christ. In Rome, slaves were considered to belong to their master’s household. Unlike slavery in American history, slavery in Rome was not racialized. A slave could be a Jew, a Greek, or something else entirely. Often slaves in Rome were ‘war prizes’ Rome brought back as captives from one of its many wars and battles. Slaves belonged to their master’s household and were effectively severed entirely from their own families. While slaves could exercise a degree of power and influence—a slave could be a steward in charge of a vast household with lots of resources, for example—slaves nonetheless had to obey their master’s. If a master was violent, lustful, greedy, etc. (as was frequently the case), then the slaves in that household likely suffered constantly.
Gospel: When you see this word, you might read it as “good news of the victory.” The word literally means, “good news.” The Greek form of this gives us our word, evangelism. For us 21st century Christians, the phrase “good news” automatically conjures in our minds the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we are evangelizing someone, we are telling them this good news about Jesus. But in Rome, good news was proclaimed whenever Caesar (or another general) returned victorious from a battle or war. The good news of the general’s victory would spread and folks would celebrate Rome’s greatness. So when Paul uses the phrase “the gospel of God…the gospel concerning his Son,” we might read it as something like, “the good news of the victory of God…the good news of the victory of his Son.” Just as a Roman general might go out to conquer in the name of the emperor, Rome and its gods, and then return victorious to the imperial capital, Jesus ‘goes out’ into sin and death and returns victorious over the death and hell by the power of God—and the victorious Jesus brings with Him his ‘war prizes’: slaves to the Lord Jesus Christ, slaves like the apostle Paul.
Righteousness: When you see “righteousness,” try reading it as justice. The reason for this is that nowadays “righteousness” is a word we use almost exclusively in a religious context, and we use this word primarily to talk about our relationship to God. For Paul and his interlocutors, however, there isn’t a clear divide between religious contexts and non-religious contexts. This word we see as “righteousness” therefore has both a ‘vertical’ reference to God and a ‘horizontal’ reference to human communities like cities, empires, and religious assemblies. ‘Righteousness’ for Paul is what happens when God puts the world back together as it should be; it has a civic connotation as well as a religious one. Therefore, justice works better for us because in our ears justice makes sense both at church and in the wider world of economics, the legal system, politics, etc. The NRSV sometimes translates it this way for us, too.
Wickedness: When you see “wickedness,” try reading it as injustice. In Greek, this word is literally just the negated form of the noun the NRSV translates as “righteousness.” In Greek, it’s literally “unrighteousness.” Since we’re reading “righteousness” as justice, this one is injustice.
Faith: Faith is a pretty good translation, but we need to thicken it a little. Nowadays, when we say faith, we are normally talking about belief. If I say, “I have faith in Jesus Christ,” I am saying that I believe in Jesus and that my belief leads me to (or helps me to) trust Jesus. If we’re going to overhear Paul using this word, however, we need to add a layer. This word also has the connotation of faithfulness. This is important because faithfulness has an active, relational nuance to it. Here is what I mean: If I am faithful in my role as a husband, then I don’t just believe that Lucy is my wife and that I trust her; I also care for Lucy, take out the trash, wash the dishes, and things like that. We have to keep both in mind when we see this word. Notice that this fits with how we are translating “righteousness.” In Romans 1:17, Paul quotes the prophet Habbakuk and says, “the one who is righteous will live by faith.” We might shift this to, “the one who is just will live by faithfulness.” Just as justice has a ‘horizontal’ dynamic that involves human communities, so too does faithfulness imply an active fidelity in some kind of relationship or role. This word can also communicate something like integrity.
Son: This word has some weight to it for two reasons. First, in the Greco-Roman world, the relationship between fathers and sons had all the weight that it does in contemporary households and then some. The son was the chief inheritor of whatever household or kingdom belonged to the father, and the son was seen as doing his father’s work. This was of major importance in a Roman household. It also had resonances across the Roman Empire more broadly: Caesar was seen as the Pater Patriae, the ‘Father of the Fatherland.’ The whole empire was like a household of which Caesar was the father. Second, and relatedly, Caesar was also considered the divine son of the gods. The big national myth Rome told about itself was that Caesar was descended from a mythical hero named Aeneas. Because Aeneas’ mother was the goddess Venus, in Rome’s mind, Caesar was quite literally descended from gods. There was even a big public forum (kind of like a city park) in Rome where there was a massive statue of Caesar Augustus, with his goddess mother standing behind him!
Now, throw the Christian story into this: Jesus is the real Son of the real God, and even more astonishing, God’s Holy Spirit is busy adopting people into God’s family (Romans 8:15-16)! In Romans 8:14 and 17, the NRSV says “children [of God],” but it’s really sons. Moreover, the phrase “spirit of adoption” in 8:15 is more literally made sons. This emphasis on sons is not about the exclusion of daughters but about the Holy Spirit bringing believers (male and female) into a relationship with God that is like the relationship Jesus has as God’s Son. The baptized are adopted by God as sons—with all the ancient Roman contextual weight of that gendered word—and therefore do God the Father’s work and inherit God the Father’s household kingdom.
Atonement: This one has a very particular place it shows up in the NRSV, and that’s Romans 3:25 where Paul says that God put Jesus Christ forward “as a sacrifice of atonement.” When we talk about Jesus atoning for our sins nowadays, we usually mean something like Jesus paying the price for our transgressions. To get a better sense of how Paul is using this phrase, and how his Roman interlocutors are hearing it (especially the Jewish ones), we need to trim a little of the ‘paying the price’ bits and then thicken this word with some Jewish Temple ritual. When Paul describes Jesus as a “sacrifice of atonement,” he is evoking the image of the Yom Kippur ritual. Yom Kippur is the big “Day of Atonement” (or “Day of Purifications”) in the Jewish liturgical calendar. The details of the ritual are described in detail in Leviticus 16. What is important is that the Yom Kippur ritual is sort of a big ‘reset button’ on all the sins and impurities that have ‘contaminated’ the Jewish community and the Temple over the preceding year. It involves (amongst other things) the high priest going into the holy of holies and sprinkling sacrificial blood on the Ark of the Covenant. The covering or lid of the Ark where the blood is sprinkled is called the “mercy seat,” and above the mercy seat, in the cloud of incense, is where God appears (Leviticus 16:2). In the Greek bible Paul would have read, the word we see as “mercy seat” is the same word he uses to refer to the “sacrifice of atonement” in Romans 3.
The Yom Kippur “Day of Atonement” sacrifice is a very big deal. Again, it cleaned the slate, so to speak, and by wiping out all the sins of the Israelites it allowed the right relationship between them and God to continue. By using this language in Romans, Paul is effectively saying, “What the Yom Kippur sacrifice does for Israelites is what Jesus’ death on the cross does for Gentiles who have faith in Jesus.”
Of all the metaphors and rhetorical brilliance in Romans, this may be the single greatest stroke of Paul’s genius. There is nothing about’ Jesus crucifixion that is at all like a Yom Kippur festival. Golgotha was not the innermost sanctum of the Temple; Roman soldiers are not Temple priests; Jesus is a person, not an animal; the cross of imperial execution is not a Jewish altar of devotion to God. What Paul communicates to the Romans by using this ‘atonement’ language in this letter is the utter freedom and grace of God: when humanity crucified Jesus, God—in all his freedom and love—received it as though it were a Yom Kippur sacrifice, wiping out all of our sins. The imaginative leap Paul invites his readers and hearers to make is stunning. One might even say, inspired.
We had another good bible study this past Wednesday, and we’ll be at it again this Wednesday evening at 7pm via Zoom. We’ll pick up with Romans 2:12 and get as far as we get!
 Exceptions are 13:6 and possibly 14:4. In 13:6, the NRSV uses “servants” to denote worldly authorities. ‘Servants’ here should be more nearly ‘public servants.’ In 14:4, the NRSV uses “servant” to denote a domestic slave, only in Greek this word can connote a level of intimacy or affection.)
 The ancient world of Greece and Rome did have a hierarchy of skin color which was heavily based on Aristotle’s work with ‘categories.’ But this preference for Mediterranean skin tones (as opposed to black Africans or pale Eastern Europeans) was not about race as we understand it. For a concise and helpful history of this history, see the opening chapters of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (New York: Bold Type Books, 2017).