Romans: Review on Esler

The Social Setting of Paul's LetterJust a reminder that one of the course requirements of the Romans module is a reading and analysis of Philip Esler’s important book Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter

You can find the book at though have a look at (where I got my cheaper copy)

Here’s a [quite academic] customer review to show you what I’ve got in mind:

  Loren Rosson III (New Hampshire, USA) –  

Philip Esler used social-identity theory to explain Galatians (1998), and he now uses recategorization theory to account for Romans, Paul’s most famous letter in which he addresses a church torn over ethnic conflict and pride. In the earlier letter, Paul was opposing Judean outsiders; in this letter he attempts to reconcile both Judean and Gentile insiders. Social theorists tell us that such recategorization can be successful only when the different ethnic groups have equal status in different ways — since if they were equal in the same way, they would continue to compete in a fashion destructive of unity.

So, for instance, Paul claims that just as Gentiles are under the domain of sin without the Torah (1:18-2:5), Judeans are under its power with the Torah (2:17-3:20) — and the transition passage stresses the impartiality of God in punishing members of each ethnic group at the judgment, “the Judean and the Greek”, those under the law and those not under the law (2:6-16). Likewise, just as Gentile believers have been liberated from the power of sin which ruled them as immoral pagans (6:15-23), Judean believers have been liberated from the power of sin which ruled them through the law (7:1-25). Judeans need to recognize that Gentiles are God’s elect and heirs to the promises of Abraham (9:1-11:12), but Gentiles need (even more) to understand that their benefits are a means to an end — to provoke Judeans to reacquire what is really theirs (11:13-32). The point here is that Paul’s success depends on careful attention to both ethnic groups, taking them down in different ways, but without erasing their ethnic identities in the process. That’s why the last thing he wants to say is, “In Christ there is neither Judean nor Greek”, as he did in Galatians.

This also accounts for Paul’s treatment of Abraham in Rom 4 and the Torah’s purpose in Rom 7. Abraham is a prototype for Judeans and Gentiles who have faith, against the polarizing implication of Gal 3:6-9 that Judeans have been disinherited. He became circumcised in order to seal his faith-righteousness, precisely in order to become the ancestor of two different ethnic groups (4:11-12). And the Torah is holy and passive in its relationship to sin, against the perverse claim in Gal 3:19-26 that it actively confined people under sin. Sin used the law to its advantage, and the Torah, though given for the promise of life, was unable to do the job God gave it (7:10-11). This may raise questions about God’s competency, but it exonerates him of perversity.

This is the book on Romans I’ve been waiting for, even if I still like Mark Nanos’ particular treatment of Rom 14:1-15:13 better than anyone else’s. Thanks to Esler, we can now appreciate Paul’s most famous letter through the eyes of those who inhabited the strange and distant world of the ancient Mediterranean. We see Paul’s eschatology as forthcoming-present more than future (Rom 8:18-39). We catch a glimpse of Paul as the victim of slander and gossip (Rom 3:8), the malicious “weapon of the weak” which crippled people’s honor on a daily basis. We appreciate the dual occasion of the letter — Paul’s impending missions to Jerusalem and Spain, intersecting the ethnic crisis in Rome — and how the two are truly inseparable. And we see Paul the Middle-Eastern all too familiar with the hostile nature of gift-giving, whose collection for the poor (Rom 15:28) was a slap in the face to his colleagues in Jerusalem, who really did “feed the hungry in order to heap burning coals upon the heads of others” (Rom 12:20).

Paul was on a battleground when he wrote his letters, reinterpreting scripture in legitimately offensive ways, in line with the canons of honor-shame. Esler has explained these battles (for both Galatians and Romans) with especially insightful uses of anthropological and social theory, which serve us better than thought-pattern theology or literary intertextual approaches. There’s a wide chasm separating us from the biblical world, and only when we acknowledge it can we begin to build bridges. Esler’s epilogue reminds us that there is a strong need for such bridges in today’s world: “Romans reveals its connection with the taproot of human experience in relation to violent ethnic conflict in the world.” This is a far cry from the way Augustine or Luther read the letter. Time to put theology of grace vs merit behind us once and for all.

This entry was posted in Bible, College, NEW TESTAMENT, PAULINE EPISTLES, Romans, Theological Education. Bookmark the permalink.

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