Reading the Body in Romans 2
Romans 2:29: “He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and [real] circumcision is a matter of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter [ἀλλ' ὁ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ 'Ιουδαῖος, καὶ περιτομὴ καρδίας ἐν πνεύματι οὐ γράμματι].” The semantic opposition between “in the spirit” and “in the letter” in this verse suggests strongly that “in the spirit” is a hermeneutical term. “In the spirit” means, then, in the spirit of the language, as opposed to its letter. In order to understand the hermeneutical radicality of the end of Romans 2, a detailed reading of the entire chapter will be necessary.
This chapter, a stone ignored by the builders of Reformation Paulinism, has become the cornerstone of a new interpretation of Paul, one that is directly contradictory to that of the Reformation. The reason that the chapter has been a scandal for Lutheran theology is that it seems to assert strongly the value and necessity of works over mere “hearing” of the Law, which seems to contradict Paul's insistence in Galatians 3 on precisely the “hearing” of faith in opposition to the despised “doing of works.” Since Lutheranism had understood that Paul's major message is that Judaism is inadequate—or even sinful—because of its valorization of good works, such verses as 13—“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be counted righteous”—seemed directly contradictory.
On the present reading, however, in Romans 2 Paul is not condemning Jews who keep the Law—as Reformation readers would have it—and certainly not attacking Judaism in general but rather criticizing Jews who believe that they are exempt from divine judgment, or even that they will be favored at the divine Assizes, simply by virtue of their being Jewish, without respect to their actual performance of the Law (Wilckens 1982; Dunn 1988; Watson 1986, 109–22). In other words, he is attacking Jews who think that works are not necessary for salvation, since God saves Israel, and only Israel, by grace alone. Such chauvinist notions, by no means universal in first-century Judaism, did exist. This interpretation can be supported from the very beginning of Romans 2 where in verses 1–3 Paul's diatribe is directed against one who condemns others for sins that he engages in himself. This condemnation is often taken to be an attack on simple hypocrisy, while I am suggesting that the person being attacked is not so much a hypocrite but rather a Jew who believes sincerely that mere possession, hearing, of the Law will save him.
Although at this stage, Paul addresses Everyman (οἦ ἄνθρωπε), this is, as Dunn perceptively suggests, to win rhetorical assent from his Jewish interlocutor, much as Nathan the prophet tells David a story about a man in general in order to win his assent before revealing that “You are that man” (Dunn 1988, 79). Paul is cleverly employing here topoi of Jewish attacks on gentile lawlessness, but will turn them, in the end, against the very Jews who employ them. As Dunn has shown, verse 2 is almost a parodic citation of the Psalms of Solomon:
Pss. sol.And those who do lawlessness shall not escape the judgment of the Lord.
Rom(Do you suppose you) who do the same things that you shall escape the judgment of God?
Pss. sol.καὶ οὐκ ἐκφεύξονται οἱ ἀνομίαν τὸ κρίμα κυρίος
Romκαὶ ποιῶν αὐτα, ὅτι οὺ ἐκφεύξῃ τὸ κρίμα τοῦ θεοῦ]. (Dunn 1988, 81)
The passage in the Psalms of Solomon is typical in that it is a condemnation of gentiles who do not have the Law, but Paul will turn it against the Jew who has the Law but does not keep it. His rhetorical strategy is, however, even more complex than that, for here he can be understood to be condemning simple hypocrisy, which his pious hearer will certainly condemn along with him: “The imaginary interlocutor is envisaged not as objecting to what Paul had said but as agreeing with it very strongly” (Dunn 1988, 81). This interlocutor will end up condemning himself through this very agreement when it is revealed later on in the chapter that Paul has a Jew specifically in mind and that it is not simply hypocrisy that Paul attacks here but the confidence of the Jew that his ethnic status will make the divine judgment lighter for him. That such confidence is not foreign to Pharisaic Judaism (or at any rate its successor) may certainly be established by such utterances as, “All Israel have a share in the Next World” without, of course, necessarily assuming that this rabbinic statement was already current at the time of Paul. Paul is systematically undermining a series of Jewish theologoumena, all of which would have been strong underpinnings for Jewish confidence in God (καυχάομαι ἐν θεῷ), not, I think, to be understood as boasting in the sense of prideful speech so much as a false sense of soteriological status by virtue of being part of the chosen People itself. I think that Dunn has put the matter with particular exactitude and sensitivity:
In all this it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that Paul's aim is directed at what he sees to be the overconfidence in their election on the part of many of his fellow Jews. We of the twentieth century listening to this can point to other statements from the Judaism of the same period…but we cannot assume that these writings are typical of the actual Judaism of Paul's time, any more than we can assume that Deuteronomy and Jeremiah are representative of the Israelite religion of their time. The passages from Jewish writings already adduced, when set alongside the attitude Paul attacks, provide sufficient evidence that Paul's interlocutor was no straw man. The dominant or at least a prominent mood within Judaism prior to A.D. 70 may well have been more buoyant and self-confident than that which the sayings and writings actually preserved from the period represent. (Dunn 1988, 91)
There certainly is one theological tendency within Judaism which ascribes a privilege with God to the chosenness itself. It is this tendency—more or less typical of the Judaism of his time and place—which Paul attacks, not because of its association with complacency or self-righteousness but because of its implications for Jewish relations with Others.
This tendency is countered from within Judaism itself with another that regards chosenness not as privilege but as obligation. As Dunn has remarked, in verses 4–5 Paul is essentially appealing to biblical theology itself, as revealed in such Deuteronomistic sources as Deuteronomy 9–10 and Jeremiah:
Or do you think lightly of the wealth of his goodness and of his forbearance and patience, disregarding the fact that the kindness of God is to lead you to repentance? As a result of your hardness and impenitent heart you are storing up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath when will be revealed the righteous judgment of God. (Romans 2:4–5)
In Deuteronomy 10 it is clear that the only privilege that Jews have owing to their ancestry is to have it demanded of them that they repent and “circumcise the foreskins of their hearts.” Indeed, it is the very appeal to the ancestors and the choice of their descendants that issues in the charge, “So now you must circumcise the foreskin of your hearts,” because God “is no respecter of persons” (verse 17). A persistent danger in the concept of chosenness is that it leads to a conviction that one is privileged with God, while the Deuteronomist (and Paul in his wake) argues that chosenness is rather a special burden, a demand for repentance. Since Paul's Jewish interlocutor is not repentant but rather relies on the privilege to save himself, he is storing up not merit but rather wrath for the day of judgment (verse 5), and because God is no respecter of persons, therefore the judgment will fall equally on Jew and gentile alike—the Jew first simply because she has been given the special commandment and the special opportunity to repent and circumcise the foreskin of her heart. Now when Paul in verse 6 argues that God will render to each according to his works, he is not contradicting his doctrine of justification by faith but rather using a Jewish topos to convince (or trap) his Jewish hearer: Do not be confident in your Jewishness to save you, O Jew, for this serves only to increase the obligation upon you to repent and do good. God judges all according to their works and not according to their ancestry. Paul is engaging here not the contrast of works of the Torah, i.e., ritual acts, to faith but rather the contrast of privileged and static possession of the Law to doing that which God wants of us. In verse 11, Paul clearly echoes Deuteronomy 10:17 by clinching his argument that Jew and gentile will be judged alike with the claim that “there is no respecting of persons with God” (οὐ γάρ ἐστιν προσωπολημψία παρὰ τῷ θεῷ—אושמ ןיא 'ה ינפל מינפ). Election will not avail on the day of judgment.
However, Paul is also setting another rhetorical trap for the Jew, because once more, the Jew will nod her head and indicate that she agrees that God will judge people by their works, but the Jew will have in mind both ethical behavior—faithfulness to the Covenant—and the performance of such rituals as circumcision, kashruth, and keeping of the Sabbaths. In the context of this reading of Romans 2, the next section is crystal clear in its meaning and no scandal for Pauline interpretation at all:
For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law; and as many as have sinned within the law shall be condemned through the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be counted righteous. For when Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they not having the law are the law for themselves: they demonstrate the work of the law written on their hearts. (2:12–15)
Dunn has already written on this passage, “The aim of this argument is clearly to puncture a Jewish assurance falsely based on the fact of having the law, of being the chosen people of God. His argument is that this assurance must be false simply because there are Gentiles who show more evidence in themselves of what the law points to than many Jews…who keep the law at one level (circumcision) but who are not properly to be described as real Jews, as ‘doers of the law’” (Dunn 1988, 107 [emphasis added]). This talk of “what the law points to” and of levels of understanding certainly implies ascribing to Paul willy-nilly an allegoristic notion of hermeneutic. I will argue that this ascription is correct, and that even those Pauline scholars who most vigorously deny it are in fact assuming it unconsciously.
Let us look more closely at the text. Paul's argument here is actually twofold. He continues his critique of a Jewish theological notion—mightily contested by both the prophetic and Pharisaic traditions within Judaism—that mere possession of the Law counts for righteousness for all Jews. It is this which Paul refers to as “hearing of the law”—here to be understood as listening to it being read (Dunn 1988, 104–05). Paul, however, goes further than this, for he argues as well that gentiles who do not have the specific, the written Law can yet be a law unto themselves. It is possible to do what the Law requires without having the Law at all. How can this be so, since the Law requires such practices as circumcision about which without the Law one would not even know? Only because the true interpretation of circumcision is the allegorical one, the one available to all, men and women, Jews and Greeks, not an inscription of the flesh, σάρξ, רשב, penis, but an inscription in the spirit, figured as a writing on the heart, thus continuing the allusions to Deuteronomy 10 and Jeremiah 4! The connection between the allegorical interpretation of the Torah and its universal applicability is compelling. In a sense, what Paul says here is not unique, because certainly for many first-century Jews, the notion of a natural law (whether already figured as commandments to the children of Noah or not) which gentiles could keep, and indeed the concomitant possibility of gentiles being fully acceptable to God, would not have been foreign. Once more, I think that what renders the Pauline move so special is the factor—not, to be sure, emphasized particularly here—that Jews and gentiles will be justified in the same way, by the same standard. This point has been made by several commentators on this verse cited by Dunn, who insist that “the whole point of what Paul is saying here would be lost if νόμος was understood as other than as a reference to the law, the law given to Israel” (Dunn 1988, 99). Note the difference between “works of the law,” ἐργα τοῦ νόμου, and here the singular ἐργον τοῦ νόμου. The first, the specific physical works of the Law, which represent difference, is a pejorative term in Paul's economy, while the second, the singular spiritual universal one work of the Law is positive.
In the next several verses, Paul addresses a “Jew”:
But if you are called a “Jew” and rely on the law and boast in God, and know his will and approve the things that matter, being instructed from the law.…You then who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach “Do not steal,” do you steal? You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you commit sacrilege? You who boast in the law—through transgression of the law you dishonor God. For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you,” as it is written. (17–24)
Once again, the simplest and most straightforward interpretation of this passage is that of Dunn, who sees it as a continuation of Paul's diatribe against the Jewish assumption that being a member of the covenanted People will provide some kind of privilege at the last Assizes. Paul argues—and here his argument, particularly in verse 24, could be found in many rabbinic texts—that Jews who profess the Law and do not perform it are worse, indeed, than gentiles who do not have the Law at all. Such Jews profane the name of the Lord. I think, moreover, that the “you” here is a figure for the Jews as a collective and Paul's argument is not so much against hypocrisy but against a self-righteous assumption that Jews are privileged as a whole because of their possession of the Law, when, in fact, there are many Jews who steal: “The argument is that the transgression of any individual Jew is enough to call in question the Jewish assumption that as a Jew he stands in a position of privilege and superiority before God as compared with the Gentile. The point is that once the typical Jew's a priori status as Jew before God by virtue of his people's election is seen to be called in question, then the broader indictment of man in general (1:18–32) can be seen to apply more clearly to Jew as well as Gentile (2:9–11)” (Dunn 1988, 116). The diatribe is, on this reading, a continuation of Paul's critique of religious chauvinism and nothing else. Furthermore, this passage makes manifest the precise connection between the Jewish ethnocentrism and the Law. It is having the Law and knowing God's will that leads the Jews to their assumption of privilege vis-à-vis the gentiles (Dunn 1988, 117).
As I have said, up to this point in Romans 2, Paul has essentially produced a sermon to which many if not most Pharisaic preachers as heirs of the prophets could have and would have assented. Although there certainly was a doctrine that Jews have a privileged position in salvation history, it is a perversion of that doctrine to imagine that it therefore did not require them to be faithful servants of the Law (within human limitations and possibilities) in order to earn that privileged position. Indeed, the privilege consists primarily in the guarantee that in the end of days they will be able to repent, and then God will restore Israel to its glory as he had promised to her ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God's covenant with Israel is exactly as Paul represents it in Romans 11, a covenant of grace enabling Jews to repent and be saved. Generally, Jews would have held exactly what Paul argues for, namely that only repentance will guarantee the Jew justification. Jewish theology did not provide for justification on the basis of being Jewish alone, although there were some strains that came close to such a view. The sense of Jewish privilege was rather that at the last all of the lost sheep would indeed repent and return to the fold—a position that even Paul did not abandon (see Romans 11:24). Dunn has gotten this just right in my view:
Paul does not imply that the typical Jew is content simply to have the law; what the law supports is a whole way of life, as Paul knew well (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:6). But it was a way of life where distinctiveness of the Jew from the non-Jew was always to the fore (as the next clauses confirm). What Paul is attacking, therefore, is precisely the Jewish reliance on this distinctiveness. (Dunn 1988, 111)
Insofar as Paul here is simply attacking hypocrisy, then, there is nothing in his preaching that is foreign to the prophets or indeed the Rabbis. Undoubtedly, certain Jews misunderstood the notion of Chosenness and indeed were led into the error of sola gratia.
At the end of the chapter, however, in verses 28 and 29, Paul draws a conclusion that would have shocked his Pharisaic teachers. The rhetoric of the chapter as a whole would have led an imaginary Jewish listener to assent to it at every point, and then the ending would have the effect mutatis mutandis that “You are that man” has at the end of Nathan's speech to David.
Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.
οὐ γὰρ ὁ ἐν τῷ φανερῷ 'Ιουδαῖός ἐστιν οὐδὲ ἡ ἐν τῷ φανερῷ ἐν σαρκὶ περιτομή. ἀλλ' ὁ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ 'Ιουδαῖος, καὶ περιτομεὲ καρδίας ἐν πνεύματι οὐ γράμματι.
Paul argues that the “Jew” is characterized by inner, invisible dispositions and not outer, visible circumcision, by circumcision of the heart, the spiritual (allegorical) circumcision, and not by the literal circumcision of the flesh. Note that here Paul goes beyond the claims he has been making in the chapter. This is not mere recapitulation but a fundamentally new idea, one that requires us to reinterpret the first part of the chapter in its wake. Up to this point, Paul has been arguing that mere possession or hearing of the Law will not justify any Jew, i.e., that being a member of the covenant people carries with it no grace; only works will do. A typical Jewish recipient of that message—particularly one “softened” up by Romans 1, with its fairly typical denunciation of gentile immorality—could easily assent to Paul's argument. After all, as I have claimed, the extreme notion that membership in the Jewish People was enough alone to guarantee salvation was hardly widespread.
But now we come to the climax and crux of the chapter, for here Paul thoroughly redefines precisely those theological terms to which we can expect that his Jewish interlocutor would have been assenting until now. The Jew has agreed that being Jewish is not sufficient for salvation, and one needs works as well. However, as Paul reveals now, when he speaks of good works, he does not mean what Jews intend by this—that is, he does not mean keeping (in theory and intent) all of the commandments, whether ritual or moral in nature, both those that divide the Jews from other peoples and those that bind them to others. The first category—synecdochized here by circumcision but certainly including food rules and Sabbaths—means nothing in the work of salvation. Such rules are only outer practices that signify the second category, that which Paul calls otherwise “the law of faith working through love.” In other words, in this coda to the chapter which seems until now to be calling Jews to repent and keep the Law as they have understood it—a keeping that maintains ethnic identity and specificity—, Paul introduces his major concern throughout his ministry: producing a new, single human essence, one of “true Jews” whose “circumcision” does not mark off their bodies as ethnically distinct from any other human bodies. Paul has been hinting that this is his theme throughout the chapter. Twice he has told us that judgment and reward will come to “the Jew first and then to the Greek.” He has, moreover, informed us that the gentiles, even though they do not have the Law, nevertheless have a law written on their hearts, to which the evidence of their ethical debates and attacks of conscience attest. Paul's universalist theme is thus clearly announced, and this ending merely confirms it powerfully. “True Jewishness” ends up having nothing to do with family connection (descent from Abraham according to the flesh), history (having the Law), or maintaining the cultural/religious practices of the historical Jewish community (circumcision), but paradoxically consists of participating in a universalism, an allegory that dissolves those essences and meanings entirely. As we shall see in the final chapters of this book, this dissolution of Jewish identity by spiritualizing and allegorizing it is a familiar move of European culture until today.
Hermeneutics or Ethics? Westerholm's Reading
Some modern interpreters contrast their interpretations of the end of Romans 2 with that current among earlier interpreters as ethical versus hermeneutical. Objections have been raised to the hermeneutical interpretation which I am espousing here. In a recent article, Stephen Westerholm has argued very cogently that the opposition of “spirit” and “letter” is an ethical one for Paul. His interpretation of Romans 2 runs as follows. Paul's target in Romans 2 is hypocrisy, and “in 2.17 he names his imaginary interlocutor a Jew, and notes the things of which the Jew boasts: he possesses the law of God, which embodies knowledge and truth; instructed in its precepts, he can play the role of leader for the blind, of light for those in darkness (vv. 17–20)” (Westerholm 1984, 233). At this point, according to Westerholm, Paul argues (similarly to the interpretation that I have proposed above) that Jews who do not keep the Law will be judged according to the Law. We now come to the crux of the interpretation, verses 27–29. Westerholm convincingly argues that διὰ γράμματος καὶ περιτομῆς in verse 27 does not indicate that the letter (written code) and circumcision are liabilities; they are not indices of a perverted understanding of the commands of God, but they are simply not sufficient in themselves. I am in complete agreement with this interpretation thus far; however, at this point I part from Westerholm.
Westerholm himself remarks:
Perhaps it takes a rabbinic Jew to sense the oddity—from our perspective—of this sentence, which simply repeats the oddity of Paul's formulation itself. Everything makes sense until the very last clause, but keeping the Law while being uncircumcised is simply an oxymoron from the perspective of rabbinic Judaism, because being circumcised is part of the Law! On the one hand, rabbinic Judaism was to develop (and perhaps the Pharisees already had) a doctrine whereby gentiles do not need to keep the Law at all in order to be justified. There is a separate Law for them: the seven commandments given to Noah. On the other hand, “the” Law can only mean one thing: the aggregate of all of the commandments both ritual—between humanity and God—and ethical—between humans and other humans. To be sure, there is a disagreement between Paul and “most Jews” as to whether gentiles need to be circumcised in order to become part of the People of God, but even more to the point, there is a fundamental gap in the definition of the Law. For prophet or Pharisee, it is possible to preach: “What good is keeping this ceremonial part of the Law, if you do not keep that ethical part of the Law?”  For Paul alone is it possible to generalize the one part as the Law tout court. For Paul, Law has come to mean something new, vis-à-vis Pharisaic Judaism; it has come to mean “the law of faith working through love,” in which “circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing” (1 Corinthians 7:19). Now whether he has crossed the line or not into true allegory, and I believe he has, in any case, once this new law of faith is defined as being that which is “in the spirit; not in the written,” ἐν πνεύματι οὐ γράμματι, we already have a hermeneutical moment, a moment of interpretation. Furthermore, the written is particular, the spiritual universal in Paul's scheme of things, a point to be further supported below. One of the best examples of Paul's allegorical readings of the commandments—in addition, of course, to his reading of circumcision—is found in 1 Corinthians 5:6–8, where the commandment to purge the house of leaven for Passover is reinterpreted ecclesiologically to mean that one must purge the Christian communities of the old leaven of the puffing up of pride (verse 2), as well as the leaven of “vice and wickedness.” Paul's reading here is very similar indeed to that of Philo in the Special Laws, where leaven is also interpreted as pride (Philo 1937, 193). The historical rite of a particular tribe has been transformed into an ahistorical, abstract, and universal human “truth,” the very essence of allegory.
When in v. 26, Paul writes that the “uncircumcision” of a Gentile who keeps the law will be counted as circumcision, his argument is admittedly one which most Jews of this time would have rejected, believing that literal circumcision was a prerequisite for a Gentile's admission to the people of God. Still, Paul evidently feels that he is simply pressing the logic of the situation to its conclusion: just as the (physical) circumcision of the Jew will be disregarded if he transgresses the law, so the (physical) uncircumcision of the Gentile will be disregarded if he keeps it. (Westerholm 1984, 235)
Westerholm's own conclusions regarding the usage of “letter” and “spirit” in Romans 2 brings this point out clearly. Westerholm adheres to the view that “‘Letter’ in Rom. 2.27 does not refer to a particular interpretation of the Old Testament law, but to the possession of God's commands in written form.” Paul is then preaching against a view that mere possession of the written text is sufficient for divine approval, whereas in truth only observance will win such approval. So far, so good—that is, the same as I wish to interpret. In the next paragraph of Westerholm's text, however, the enormous difference appears, for there he argues, “Similarly, circumcision which is (ἐν) γράμματι in v. 29 does not refer to a particular interpretation of circumcision, but simply to circumcision in a physical, external form.…Physical circumcision is contrasted with circumcision ἐν πνεύματι, which may or may not be meant to refer to the mark of the new age. In any case, it speaks of an inner reality which is not content with external forms, whatever limited legitimacy the latter may possess” (Westerholm 1984, 236). This very opposition, however, between a circumcision which is physical and one which is an inner reality is in its very essence a “particular interpretation of circumcision”! What else can it possibly be, especially if Paul argues that this inner reality is more important than and supersedes the physical observance? This does not preclude the ethical interpretation of “in the spirit” which Westerholm argues for; Paul is protesting an ethical defect in Romans 2—whether hypocrisy, as Westerholm would have it, or excessive reliance on ethnic privilege, as I interpret it. But there is no contradiction between an ethical reading of the opposition and a hermeneutical one. They go together and are homologous with each other.