In his important, and massive, book The Deliverance of God, Douglas A. Campbell advances a controversial hypothesis about the Epistle to the Romans that has Pauline scholars all astir. As far as I can tell, few have embraced the hypothesis, yet neither can they dismiss it as without merit. Campbell’s proposal is this: Romans 1:18-3:20 is written as a diatribe. By this term Campbell does not mean a bitter and violent verbal attack. He refers, rather, to a Greco-Roman rhetorical device by which the speaker engages in a dialogue with imaginary interlocutors or opponents. This device was popular among Cynic and Stoic rhetoricians and philosophers.
Ancient diatribe is essentially a distinctive mode of discourse built largely with apostrophe and speech-in-character. A constructed character is generally addressed by the discourse’s central protagonist—who is a broadly Socratic figure—by means of the literary technique of apostrophe, so much of the discourse unfolds through the use of second person singular grammar. And that interlocutor then responds, whether in brief or at length, through the literary technique of speech-in-character, so here the author puts words in this character’s mouth. The result is a dramatic discourse mimicking the to and fro of debate and conversation, although slipping where necessary into more extended speeches by one or the other party. (p. 535)
Scholars have long recognized the presence of diatribal material in Paul’s letters (e.g., Rom 3:1-9); but as we shall see, Campbell believes that the diatribal device is used far more extensively in Romans than heretofore believed. For example, he believes that Rom 1:18-32 in fact is spoken by the opponent whom Paul is seeking to refute. Go pick up your Bible and quickly read through this passage. You will probably have the same initial reaction that I did: there are no clues whatsoever that Paul has shifted into a diatribal mode. But, Campbell responds, that is because we are reading the text in an English translation. In the original Greek, however, one can discern a definite change in literary style; in fact, the stylistic differences have led some scholars to speculate that this long passage was interpolated into Paul’s letter. Campbell, along with most scholars, rejects the suggestion of interpolation; but that still leaves us with the question, why the change? The unusual style, he argues, signals “a change in authorial voice” (p. 534). The original readers of the letter would have recognized the shift. The change in authorial voice doesn’t automatically announce “here comes a diatribe!” but it does tell the reader that something different may be going on here.
Campbell then goes on to remind us of something that we all already know but probably have never thought much about—namely, Paul composed his letters with the expectation that they would be read aloud to the recipients. Think auditors, not readers. Consider this for a second. If Romans was originally composed to be spoken, and if he composed part of it as diatribe, then he probably would have given the bearer of the letter (Phoebe? [Rom 16:1-2]) sufficient instruction on how it was to be read:
Modern readers tend to norm the process of reading in terms of a silent, rather isolated engagement by a literate individual with a written text. But this is a relatively recent historical trajectory, brought about by the Reformation and subsequent Protestant emphases on Scripture, individualism, and even interiority, and in part by the advent of widespread literacy and the equally widespread availability of texts in an industrial age. For most people in the ancient world, reading was an aural and usually corporate experience. The people themselves were largely illiterate; their “reading” was an experience of hearing the text. Indeed, even private reading was usually done aloud. This fundamentally oral/aural world was the setting in which Paul’s letters were composed and read—a setting that we must recover, as best we can, if we are to hear them as Paul’s Roman Christian auditors probably did.
Paul’s letters were read out loud by someone—presumably the letter bearer—to an audience. They were performed. In this sense, each letter exists for us rather like the script of an old play—but a script that often preserves only one actor’s lines (although an important one). All the explicit stage directions, instructions from the playwright and director, not to mention the original coached performances, have been lost. And there would have been multiple performances. Romans, for example, probably involved repeated presentations to the small cells of Christians scattered through the suburbs of that large ancient city. A complete description of the preserved script’s possible meanings, then, should take into account the broader range of effects that its full-blooded performance would have entailed within a communal setting. It was an unfolding play busy with drama, insinuation, color, plot, and movement. And like most plays, it probably had protagonists in some sort of conflict, whether in jest or in a more serious vein. In short, interpretation is best understood as the recovery of a set of performances by a letter bearer to an audience of listening Christians. (p. 531)
I have never looked at the New Testament epistles in this light, and yet it’s obvious. If I have written a letter with the intention that it is to be read out loud to a group of people, I will be sure that the letter-reader understands what I have written, and I will instruct him how to perform it properly. And if I have employed the rhetorical device of diatribe in the letter, I will probably instruct him, for example, to alter the intonation and quality of his voice when he speaks “in character,” just so the audience cannot miss the dialogue between “persons.” And if I am parodying my opponent’s position, then the change in voice actually becomes crucial. This is not something new for first century audiences–they have heard this kind of discourse many times before.
This possibility does not, of course, prove that Paul composed Rom 1:18-32 as a speech spoken by the opponent whose views he is seeking to refute; but we at least have to entertain the possibility and determine whether Campbell’s proposal offers a superior reading of the letter.
Campbell has not yet convinced me, but I am intrigued. If it’s true, this will solve many problems that have befuddled exegetes and theologians in their reading of Romans 1-4.
If Rom 1:18-3:20 in fact is a conversation between Paul and the Teacher, what would it look like? Fortunately, someone else on the net has done the hard work for us:
Paul’s Introduction of Theme
(1) 14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15 — hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 The deliverance of God is revealed through the gospel by means of faithfulness for faithfulness; as it is written, “The Righteous One, by means of faithfulness, will live.”
The Opposing Teacher’s Introduction of Theme
18″For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die — yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”
Paul’s First Rebuttal: The Teacher’s ‘Wrath of God’ Seen Instead as the Human Wrath of Judging
(2) 1 Therefore you have no excuse, Every Person, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2 You say, ‘we know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ 3 How do you think about it when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself: that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you disregard the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience — unaware that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 So by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
The Opposing Teacher’s Restatement of the Standard View of God’s Judgment
6 … Who will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7 to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God does not respect mere appearance. 12 All who have sinned lawlessly will also perish lawlessly, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who will be righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
Paul’s Next Rebuttal: Gentiles Who Live by the Law Vs. Jews Who Don’t
14 But when Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves; 15 they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when God will judge the secret thoughts of all, according to my gospel, through Jesus Christ.
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God 18 and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, 19 and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, 21 you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
25 Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
First Dialogue of Paul and the Teacher — Paul as Questioner
(3) Paul: 1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?
Teacher: 2 Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.
Paul: 3 What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?
Teacher: 4 By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true, as it is written, “So that you may be justified in your words, and prevail in your judging.”
Paul: 5 But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)
Teacher: 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world?
Paul: 7 But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), “Let us do evil so that good may come”?
Teacher: Their condemnation is deserved!
Paul Marshals Scripture Citations Before Climaxing His Argument
Paul: 9 What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, 10 as it is written:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”
13 “Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of vipers is under their lips.”
14″Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery are in their paths, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
(Source: “A New Way to Read Romans“)
Try reading the above “script” out loud, changing your voice for Paul and the Teacher. Does it make sense as a dialogue? And remember: according to Campbell, the Teacher is a Jewish-Christian who is urging Gentile Christians to submit fully to Torah (in other words, to become Jews) so that they may partake in the fullness of salvation (see “Why Did St Paul Write his Epistle?“; also listen to this audio interview with Campbell). Through the diatribal debate St Paul hopes to pull the rug out from under the Teacher by demonstrating that his teaching on law and final judgment can be easily turned back upon him.