Thursday, June 05, 2008

Robert Jewett: Romans for the 21st Century

Today I had the privelege to attend a lecture by eminent New Testament Pauline Scholar, Robert Jewett, at PTC.

Jewett's lecture followed through 4 main points in arguing his case. His basic observation was that all, or almost all, studies on Romans neglect the 'welcome' language in the final third of the book, and that many people continue to function as if Romans finished or climaxed in 1-8, or at best 1-11.

His initial case was a review of the importance of understanding honour/shame as a dominant sociological paradigm in the 1st century, as seen in the work of E.A. Judge and J.E. Lendon. This being the case, the key issue in Romans is not individual guilt/forgiveness, which has been a post-Roman Western obsession, but honour and shame. Jewett argues that justification language refers to God righting a perverted honour/shame system, which all nations operate with, and equally extending honour/shame to all people - that justification by faith should really be understood as the divine righteousness as impartiality.

He then contextualises Romans as a letter from Paul to the Romans occasioned by Paul's plans for Spain. Spain at the time confronts Paul with particular missional difficulties. The lack of Jewish population, the Imperial dominated business context, the need for double translation (-> Latin -> Celto-Iberian dialects), etc., and the disdain of Romans for provincial Spaniards and barbarians. These cause Paul to address issues of division and superiority in the Roman house-churches.

This leads Jewett to formulate the gospel of the shameful cross in terms of the perversity of all human honour/shame systems, and God's impartial righteousness being revealed by calling for the mutual acceptance of human beings, in welcoming and hospitality, disregarding social and religious boundaries.

I found Jewett's lecture stimulating, but troubling. In response to a question he situated himself neither with traditionalists nor the New Perspectivists. I found myself unpersuaded on the issue of the language of justification/righteousness in Paul, largely because he didn't present a case on that point. He is clearly right about both the importance of honour/shame culture to understanding the NT socio-cultural context, and thus the NT, as well as pointing to the occasional nature of Romans, and the importance of both Paul's projected Hispania mission and the local Roman churches' context. Jewett's understanding of the 'gospel' though sounded very weak, liberal, and left me wondering how he reads the rest of the NT concerning salvation. While I am happy to concede that the shameful proclamation of the cross does indeed equally condemn all our honour/shame cultures, I would argue that the honour/shame dimension of the gospel proclamation is one facet of the gospel, certainly not the entirety. I don't want to overstate Jewett's position, given that this is my first and only encounter with his thought, but that's what I found most worrying about his reading of Romans

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