The Fruits of this Interpretation: Romans 6 and 8
Whether or not the specifics of this interpretation of Romans 7 as Adam midrash bear fruit and multiply, it nevertheless seems to me to be a highly plausible, if not ineluctable, line of interpretation that sees Paul's focus here as on sexuality and the contrast that he is drawing between fleshly life, with its getting of children, and spiritual life, where the propagation is of spiritual fruits for God. One of the ways of testing a new interpretation of a text is, of course, to observe that it renders clear other aspects of its context that were otherwise difficult to understand. Observing the thematic that I have hypothesized for chapter 7 will help us to solve several interpretative conundra in chapters 6 and 8.
The analogies between the nexus of Law and desire in Romans 7:5–6 and the similar one of 6:12–14 are obvious, and we are justified, therefore, in seeing these verses as glossing each other. Here, however, as in the parable that opens chapter 7, there seem to be the same paradoxes about who is dead and who alive:
We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed.
τοῦτο γινώσκοντες ὅτι ὁ παλαιὸς ἡμῶν ἄνθρωπος ουνεσταυρῶθη, ἵνα καταργηθῇ τὸ σῶμα τῆς ἁμαρτίας. (6:6)
Paul, having just argued that Christians have been crucified and died, now argues that they have been brought from death to life:
Do not let sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Μὴ οὖν βασιλευέτω ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐν τῷ θνητῷ ὑμῶν σώματι εἰς τὸ ὑπακούειν ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις αὐτοῦ. μηδὲ παριστάνετε τὰ μέλη ὑμῶν ὅπλα ἀδικίας τῇ ἁμαρτίᾳ, ἀλλὰ παραστήσατε ἑαυτοὺς τῷ θεῷ ὡσεί ἐκ νεκρῶν ζῶντας καὶ τὰ μέλη ὑμῶν ὅπλα δικαιοσύνης τῷ θεῷ. ἁμαρτία γὰρ ὑμῶν οὐ κυριεύσει οὐ γάρ ἐστε ὑπὸ νόμον ἀλλὰ ὑπὸ χάριν. (6:12–14)
There are two cruxes here. The first is the apparently self-contradictory account of the relation of life to death. On the one hand, Christians are enjoined to die with Christ; on the other, they have been brought from death to life. In other words, they have participated in both the death and the resurrection of Christ. But the Christians to whom Paul is speaking are still alive, and in the same bodies they were always in. Paul is speaking, in the past tense, of that which has already happened to Christians, not of future expectation. Second, how is the non-obedience to one's passions equivalent to not being under Law, or even more sharply, how can sin have no dominion over you because you are not under Law?
These two interpretative cruxes may both be solved according to the These two interpretative cruxes may both be solved according to the present line of interpretation that precisely the body of sin of which Paul speaks is the sexual body. Thus Christians have through the crucifixion died to a certain mode of living and progressed to another mode of living, both of which are, however, available in this life. I interpret this as a reference to a life which is responsible to the needs of the flesh, a fleshy life, the life of procreation, on the one hand, and a life that is dedicated to spiritual pursuits on the other. Christians have already died to the life of the body; they are no longer engaged in the getting of children together with its messy entanglements in passion, heat, jealousy—all that later Christian writers will refer to as concupiscence—which all lead to death. Rather, having been freed from “all of that,” they have been brought from a condition of physical death to a condition of spiritual life. This answers, moreover, the second question as well, for it is the Torah, the Jewish Law, which enjoins the procreation of children and thus directly and necessarily stirs the passions. In other words, literally by being not under Law, that is by not being obligated to procreate, the Christian is freed from the dominion of sinful passion, that is free to remove sexuality from her person, and thus able to free herself from being under sin.
Chapter 8 continues the theme of the immortality granted those who abandon the birth and death cycle from which Christ, through his birth and death, has freed them. The hypothesis that I have offered enables us to make sense of at least one passage which has been hardly intelligible until now, verses 9 through 13:
But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead, dwells within you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. (8:9–13)
Ἄρα οὖν, ἀδελφόι, ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ τοῦ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆν, εἰ γὰρ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆτε, μέλλετε άποθνᾐσκειν εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις τοῦ σώματος θανατοῦτε, ζήσεσθε. (8:12–13)
These verses have caused interpreters no end of trouble. Now it is particularly the last two (italicized) verses that have caused the trouble. What does Paul mean by saying that Christians are under an obligation, but not one of the flesh? Some commentators assume an otherwise totally unknown and unalluded to gnostic sect in Rome that had practiced obligatory libertinism. According to my reading, we need assume no bizarre gnostic obligations to libertinism behind this verse. If we assume that “the flesh” here means the fleshly obligations of the Law, both their literal sense and the fact that they are concerned with the flesh, then the answer is clear. “Obligated to the flesh” in 8:12 means simply the obligation to procreate. Christians have obligations, but they do not have the obligation of keeping the fleshy commandments of the Torah and particularly, I think, in this context, the commandment to procreate, to which Paul refers as “deeds of the body.”
Adam's situation is the situation of the Jews. As Dunn and others have pointed out, then, “when we were in the flesh” must mean simply “in our pre-Christian state,” when we considered membership in the literal Israel according to the flesh (1 Corinthians 10:18) as decisive for salvation and propagation of the race as a central value and also when we were alive in our fleshly bodies and subject to the Law, before we died to the Law. If you continue in that mode of existence, then you will die, “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body [sex and procreation] you will live” (8:13). He furthermore repeats this point at the end of the letter, when he writes, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh that desires be aroused [εἰς ἐπιθυμίας]” (13:14), which ought, on my hypothesis, to be glossed: Be baptized into the body of Christ and the new family of the spirit and make no provision for physical progeny, which provision necessitates the arousal of desires! Dying to the Law in baptism is functionally identical to the baptism of converts into Judaism who are also understood as having died to their old existence and been reborn to a new one, and it is precisely this understanding of baptism that Paul is employing. Paul and the other (formerly Jewish) Christians are no longer “in the flesh” and are thus freed of the consequences of being in the flesh.