- Time (Staying loose with time works for this group.)
- Chronology of 1st-century events and authorship (It was claimed that all the gospels were written by the year 50, whereas Paul’s letters were written in the 70s. Even conservative scholars often disagree—by a few years or even decades—on the dating of this gospel or that letter, but I’ve never seen a claim that more than one gospel was essentially complete by 50 A.D. Moreover, Paul is almost universally assumed to have died in the 60s; to claim his letters were written after 70 A.D. effectively challenges his authorship.)
- Intertextual references (I heard it asserted that Paul used the gospels in his letters. Nope. See above. Paul used Isaiah and other sources, but not the gospels per se.)
This little group of people—much like the last Bible class, “life group,” or ladies’ class, or small church group many of you were probably involved in earlier this week—also displayed a lack of awareness of issues encountered in translating from one language to another. Discussion points sometimes arose out of a favorite English translation—as though some wording that makes someone feel good inside has anything to do with interpretation, Paul, or God.
Last Sunday’s “study” specifically peered at Romans 5:17 through 6:14. This is a weighty passage filled with consequential theology and historical references. Some of the group’s carelessnesses and confusions caused me disturbance because the passage is so significant, but I doubt anyone’s standing with God was threatened during the hour. Sometimes I just have to swallow hard and let the silliness continue. In the course of swallowing last Sunday, though, my eyes fell on this phrase:
Now the law came in to increase the trespass (Romans 5:20a, ESV)
I couldn’t resist looking up and learning that the first verb there (“came in”) is rare. It is only used one other time in the NT, and that too is in a Pauline letter. This other occurrence (Gal 2:4) is patently negative:
Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery . . . (Gal 2:4a, ESV)
So, “came in” is the same verb as “slipped in.” This observation would lead a careful Bible reader to presume that the picture painted in 5:20a is not some dramatic, cataclysmic entrance of the awesome marvel that the Jews and certain of their Christian successors reverently call The Law. More study would be needed; first, in the subcontext and then in the full context of Romans; later, in other Pauline literature and in lexicons, to name some key sources. I feel I’m on pretty solid ground in reading this “coming in” of the Law as surreptitious, stealthy, or even sinister. (I am not here making a statement about all of the Pharisees, about post-exilic or synagogal Judaism, or about covenantal theology of today. I am speaking only about Romans 5:20 at the moment.) The degree or tint of the negative sense is debatable, but the sense is negative. A later discussion with a friend indicated that a reputable commentator he read also found this verb to have been pejorative. A look at the BDAG lexicon confirms the “stealthy slipping in” sense. [Even when I’m ticked off or feeling beaten down, as I have been a lot in the last week or so, I can take a few reasonable steps on which to base assertions. Please read on.]
Moreover, having learned a few things about hina (ἵνα) clauses, I wondered about the import of the entire clause “that transgression might increase.” It is the word “that” which determines the sense of rest of the clause. In this case, does the “that” denote purpose, i.e., that the purpose of the Law’s slipping in was so that transgression would increase, or could this be understood in a different way? The ESV has “the Law came in to increase the trespass,” and that is a rendering that attributes purpose to the “entrance” of the Law. Even more so with the NASB: “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase.” That may not be the best reading of the hina clause here. While it might be a hina clause of purpose (the Law came in so that the trespasses would increase), a hina clause of result (the Law came in, with the result that trespasses increased), or some other type of hina clause seems a better option here. Taking a step back into Paul’s context, I cannot make sense of a reading of this clause that would assign an revered, honor-worthy purposefulness to the Law.
Playing fast and loose with scripture is something most believers seem to tolerate pretty easily. Speaking frankly, I’m not at all sure that the good people who were playing the “Bible study” game last Sunday could have taken any more investigation, and the leader of the study made it clear that he wouldn’t be very interested in more than the 45-second comment I made. There’s only so much the seat can endure, and only so much apparent serious interpretation that people in our information-inundated, exceedingly complex world can take. Those people last Sunday were good people, and they have decent values. It’s still hard for me to take the loose, unfounded readings and studyings, no matter how sincere the good-hearted the people are.
I’m told that Jimmy Allen, longtime Harding Bible professor, would say “If you get Romans, God’s got you.” His second book on Romans carried the subtitle “The Clearest Gospel of All.” I don’t know about those assertions, and I do know that I don’t get Romans, but I do figure I learned just a little last Sunday. A little too fast, but my reading of Romans 5:20 is less loose in the end.