Ruminating Romans: What Did the Teacher Teach?

J. Louis Martyn suggests that one of St Paul’s purposes in writing his Epistle to the Romans was to clarify some of the arguments that he presented in his Epistle to the Galatians and to correct misconstruals of his earlier missive (Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, pp. 37-45). His Epistle to the Galatians had no doubt been harshly interpreted by his adversaries in Galatia (whom Martyn calls “the Teachers”) and likely communicated to the “false brethren” in Jerusalem (Gal 2:4). Given that Paul was planning to soon visit Jerusalem, and then afterwards to travel to Rome on his way to Spain, he writes to Rome to constructively present his understanding of Torah, Israel, justification, and the Gentile mission of the Church. “Seen in this way,” Martyn writes, “parts of Romans constitute an interpretation of Galatians about the Law and about Israel” (p. 42). Douglas Campbell, as we have seen, has taken Martyn’s proposal one step further and suggested that the same false gospelers who had undermined his missionary work in Galatia had finally arrived, or were about to arrive, in Rome. In either case, it would behoove us to have a better understanding of Paul’s opponents in Galatia.

Martyn speculatively analyzes the identity and theology of the Teachers in his magnificent Anchor Bible Commentary on Galatians, but he summarizes his conclusions in a chapter in Theological Issues. I say “speculatively,” because we do not actually have any writings from the Teachers and thus have to rely exclusively upon Paul’s letters, as well as Second Temple Jewish writings and first and second century Christian writings.

First, the Teachers are Christian Jews. Martyn makes a distinction between “Jewish Christians” and “Christian Jews.” The former are Jews who confess Jesus as Lord and Messiah and who support, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the Torah-free mission to the Gentiles. Peter, Barnabas, James, and Paul would be included in this category. The latter are Jews who confess Jesus as Lord and Messiah but ultimately subordinate him to Torah. They are opposed to the Pauline missionary strategy and insist that all Gentile converts must become practicing Jews. Included in this category with the Teachers are the “false brethren” (Gal 2:4) and the messianic Pharisees (Acts 15:1-5).

Second, the Teachers are evangelists. They, like Paul, are active in missionary work. Perhaps they evangelized Jews in the cities they visited, but they predominently engaged in ministry to Gentiles. To the Gentiles they proclaimed a message which they also called “the gospel.” Paul, of course, believes that their gospel is “another gospel”; but “no less than Paul himself,” Martyn writes, “the Teachers are in the proper sense of the term evangelists, probably finding their basic identity not as persons who struggle against Paul, but rather as those who preach ‘the good news of God’s Messiah.’ They are, then, Jews who have come into Galatia proclaiming what they call the gospel, God’s good news” (Theological Issues, p. 13).

Third, the essence of their gospel is Torah. As followers of the risen Messiah, they understand their mission as introducing Torah to the Gentiles and incorporating them into Torah-observant Israel. Theirs is a nomistic message. Salvation requires obedience to Torah, both for the Jew and for the Gentile. The death and resurrection of Jesus has signalled the inauguration of the kingdom. Now is the time for the ingathering of the Gentiles; now is the time to make the unrighteous heathen children of Abraham. Their motivation seems to have been similar to that expressed in the Ascents of James:

It was necessary, then, that the Gentiles be called … so that the number [of descendants] which was shown to Abraham would be satisfied; thus the preaching of the kingdom of God has been sent into all the world. (Quoted by Martyn, p. 15)

It’s difficult to know exactly how they understood the person of Jesus Christ, but whatever they believed and preached about Jesus, the Law remained “both the foundation and essence of their good news” (p. 13). The Torah of Moses orders the cosmos and is divine wisdom for all human beings.

Fourth, Gentiles enter into salvation by ritual incorporation into the people of Torah, which necessarily entails the circumcision of male proseyltes:

Circumcision is the commandment par excellence, the commandment which signifies full participation in the people of God. The Teachers, then, are circumcised, Christian Jews who preach circumcision to Gentiles as the act appropriate to the universal good news of God’s law, the observance of which is the condition for God’s pouring out his Holy Spirit. They also preach the necessity of the observance of holy times (Gal 4:10) and the keeping of dietary regulations (2:11-14). (pp. 16-17)

Fifth, if Gentiles reject the gospel of the Teachers, they will incur the wrath of God at the final judgment. Martyn imagines the Teachers saying something like the following to the Galatian Christians: “Only if you pass through the gate of repentance into the genuine observance of God’s Law, will you be included in God’s people Israel, thus being saved on the day of judgment” (p. 16). It is not enough to believe on Jesus as Savior and be baptized in his name. To follow Christ is to observe Torah. Perhaps they quoted the words of our Lord:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20)

“In their own terms,” Martyn explains, “they are presumably certain that Christ came in order to fulfill the Law and the prophets, perhaps even to complete Moses’ ministry by bringing the Law to the Gentiles. For them the Messiah is the Messiah of the Law, deriving his identity from the fact that he confirms—and perhaps normatively interprets—the Law” (p. 17).

Martyn has more to say about the Teachers, but that should suffice for our immediate purposes. So how does Martyn’s construal of the Teachers accord with what we learn about them from Romans? Assume for the moment that Campbell is correct that Rom 1:18-3:20 represents an imaginary debate between Paul and the Teachers (grammatically encoded as singular in the debate, i.e., “the Teacher”). 1:18-32 represents the typical rhetorical opening or exordium of the Teachers. If properly declaimed, it contains everything the Roman Christians need to know in order to identify the rhetorical speaker, either because they have already heard the preaching of the Teachers or will be hearing it very shortly.

We immediately note the emphasis on divine retribution and the severity and universality of pagan sin, beginning with the turn away from God in his natural revelation, moving into idolatry and sexual immorality, and ending with the Teacher’s firm insistence upon culpability. All who do such things deserve death and will be eternally condemned.

Romans 1:18-32 asserts strenuously and at some length that God will judge the pagans both strictly and fairly for their sins. The pagans’ knowledge of God, rejection of God, and willful turns to various prohibited and unnatural activities elicit the just response from God of angry condemnation and death (although this is fully actualized only on the day of judgment). Directly implicit in this discourse is the principle of soteriological desert—and nothing more. God acts here in relation to humanity in accordance with retributive justice. And so he sentences the sinful pagans to death for their indiscretions. The discourse underscores this presupposition by taking pains to point out repeatedly the pagans’ deliberate turn from right to wrong behavior; they bear responsibility for their current plight, having known God initially but consistently refused to respond appropriately (see 1:19, 21-22, 28). Fairly applied, however, this principle can play out in two directions. The consistent doers of bad deeds will of course be judged wicked and condemned to punishment and death, but the consistent doers of good deeds will be judged “righteous” and gifted with eschatological life, because they will deserve it. (The Deliverance of God, pp. 549-550)

Here, from Paul’s point of view (as interpreted by Campbell and Martyn), is a gospel that is no gospel, as it flows from an understanding of deity that Paul no longer shares, if he ever did. The God of the Teacher is a deity of retributive justice who punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous (Rom 2:5-6). Hence the decisive importance of Torah and repentance for the Teacher: Torah embodies divine instruction on how to faithfully obey God and conform one’s life to his sacred will, with the assurance that if one faithfully observes its commands, one will enjoy the blessings of the age to come; but if one disobeys, there will be only wrath and judgment. If Campbell is correct that 1:18-32 represents the exordium of the message of his Galatian opponents, then what we have here is the Teacher laying the groundwork for his concluding exhortation to his Gentile audience: “Become a member of the people of Israel, be circumcised, obey the commands of Torah. If you do not, you will be judged and damned.” Or in the words of the Judeans who disrupted the church in Antioch: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

If I were the Apostle Paul, I would instruct those charged with publicly declaiming my letter to dramatize the Teacher as a TV evangelist with a heavy Southern drawl.

(Go to “Have You Righteoused Today?”)

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5 Responses to Ruminating Romans: What Did the Teacher Teach?

  1. Rhonda says:

    “dramatize the Teacher as a TV evangelist with a heavy Southern drawl”
    My thoughts exactly as I read through this!

    “Martyn speculatively analyzes the identity and theology of the Teachers…I say “speculatively,” because we do not actually have any writings from the Teachers and thus have to rely exclusively upon Paul’s letters, as well as Second Temple Jewish writings and first and second century Christian writings.”
    I get “edgy” with such “speculation”… We live daily with the consequences from those who used the Holy Scriptures “only” to “write” the early Church along with their failure to realize that it was the Church that wrote the Holy Scriptures for those in the Church. This speculation is interesting, but that’s about it…for me anyway. I’ll keep tracking through the series though 😉

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      But what’s the alternative, Rhonda? If we don’t attempt to figure out who Paul’s opponents in Galatia were and what they were teaching, how we can make a good guess about what Paul’s letter is actually all about?

      I am not suggesting that the meaning of the biblical text is restricted to its literal or historical meaning, but I don’t see how we can skip the historical meaning altogether, as if the New Testament simply fell out of the sky, and it only means whatever we the Church–presumably under the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit–thinks it means.

      I’m starting to get an idea for a new article. 🙂

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      • Rhonda says:

        I hear you, Fr. Aidan, I really do. Nor do I propose any alternatives…that is far above my “pay scale”, especially as a layman 😉 If I had to propose a guess I too would go with Judaizers (or Jewish Christians as Martyn puts it) due to St. Paul’s emphasis in his writings (law vs. grace, justification by faith vs. works of the law, circumcision of the heart vs. the flesh, kosher dietary laws, etc.). It seems that Paul spent most of his time combating the view that Christianity was not just continued, revised or updated versions of Judaism.

        We moderns tend to forget that things change, including cultures. Few today realize that Judaism used to place proselytizing (missionizing, evangelizing) as a high priority, so it is highly probably that St. Paul encountered Jewish missionaries as well as Jewish Christian missionaries. Perhaps St. Paul was writing against these Jewish missionaries as well? The arguments to refute both would be similar in my way of thinking. I know, I said I had no alternatives…oops 😛

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Such speculation! 🙂

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      • Rhonda says:

        Guilty as charged! If only that was the least of my faults 😉

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