Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Part V
By Darrell Sutton
Sects that employ predestinarian systems (theological determinism) must adopt rigorous forms of textual analysis and interpretation to shore up their ideological frameworks. Romans, chapter eleven, which adresses the foreordination of human destinies, tends to inspire longer and detailed explorations. Scholars seem to enjoy the entanglements they encounter in its theological presentation. The notions included are not novel or unusual – e.g., Heracles disregarded his sufferings and his disdain for Deianira once he learned that he was doomed to die by the premeditated will of the gods; but when Pauline (or Judaic) statements on ‘fate’ and ‘foresight’ are presented to modern minds, normally they are off-putting, and without question would not have been favorably received among ancient Greeks and Romans within the Mediterranean basin who appreciated Eleusinian mysteries, exotic Orphic ideas or the cult of Cybele.
In ancient Italy, speakers of Latin regularly paid homage to the gods and goddesses they believed properly served their best interests. These factors are delineated fully in that “Augustan epic” composed by Virgil. The Aeneid tells the tale of Rome’s sacred origins. Virgil’s poem honored Homer’s legacy, and the deities portrayed in his verse were well known on street corners in Rome, indeed more or less throughout the Roman Republic. The mention of divine beings in early Roman writings permeated speeches and public documents, much like Christian themes were trumpeted later and openly in England during the Victorian era.
In matters of moral excellence, cultivated Roman writers acknowledged their debt to Hellas, nonetheless they believed their present ethos was equal to, or superior to, all former cultures and existing societies. Cicero said as much when declaiming the uniqueness of his people: he spoke of the Romans’ solemnity, steadiness, greatness of mind, faith, virtue etc., in ‘quae enim tanta gravitas, quae tanta constantia, magnitude animi, probitas, fides, quae tam excellens in omni genere virtus in ullis fuit?’ – Cic. Tusc. Disp. i.2.
For these reasons, Roman citizens would have had little use for an eastern god that could not safeguard its devotees from neighboring aggressors, permitting them to be made subject to the imperium of Rome. The passages below from Paul’s epistle to Roman believers, in either Greek or Latin idiom, represent classic Judeo-Christian conceptions formally expressed, and literary ideas that were advertised to spur debate. They are worthy of reflection, and benefit readers whose desire is to grasp how first century Christians, both Jewish and non-Jewish, conceptualised their God and their relation to their spiritual kin: Israel, the people nominally created by Jehovah.
Paul’s expressions in the Latin Vulgate are clear and compact. In forceful idiom and verbiage, chapter eleven offers a summary of what Paul has stated in previous chapters regarding Israel’s status ‘coram deo’, before God. These thirty-six verses bring to an end my abiding endeavor to translate anew chapters 1-11 of Paul’s interesting epistle to the Romans.
11: 1-6 Paul, a type of Israel, and the remnant according to the election of grace
11: 7-10 Israeli disinterest in God’s electing grace
11: 11-14 God’s redemptive project unites Jews and non-Jews [in Christ]
11: 15-25 Reconciling gentiles to God despite Jewish unbelief
11:26-32 Israel, God’s beloved, finds mercy in their unbelief
11: 33-36 Paul utters praises to God
1 I ask, as well, has God now thrown away his people? Absolutely not. Indeed I, too, am an Israelite of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he knew previously [foresaw]. Do you not know what scripture says of Elijah? just how he besought God [with objections] against Israel? 3‘Lord, they murdered your prophets, they displaced your altars. I too am left alone, and they indeed pursue my life.’ 4 But what does God say in response to him? ‘I retained for myself seven thousand me who did not bend their knees before Baal.’ 5 There is a saved remnant at this time, all the same, conforming to the determination of grace. 6 And if by grace, [it is] not of works now. Otherwise, grace is not grace.
7 What then? Whatever thing Israel wanted was not obtained. But the election followed on; truly the others were blinded. 8 Exactly as it was written, ‘God gave them a spirit of slumber, eyes so that they cannot see, ears so that they cannot hear, down to this present day.’ 9 And David declares, ‘May their table be made a snare, and a deception, a cause of offense, and a retribution to them.’ 10 ‘May their eyes become dim, that they cannot see and always bend their back’ [or, stoop].
11 So I ask, ‘did they stagger that they might fall down?’ Absolutely not. But [on account of] that fault, salvation is [intended] for the gentiles, to provoke them to be jealous. 12 What if their fault are the riches of the world and the decline of them the riches of the gentiles, how much greater their abundance? 13 For I declare to you gentiles in so far as I am an apostle of the gentiles, I will regard-with-reverence my ministry [efforts]: 14 if, somehow, I might provoke my flesh to be envious and may save a number of them.
15 Even if the dismissal of them is the world’s reconciliation, oh what an acquisition without life from the dead! 16 If the portion is holy, the lump as well. And if the root is holy, the branches too. 17 And if some of the branches are broken, but you, being a wild olive tree, were joined to them, sharing too in the root and fullness of the olive tree, 18 do not boast against the root. And if you boast, [remember,] you are not sustaining the root, but the root, [supports] you.
19 Will you say then, the branches are broken off that I should be inserted? 20 Good. They are separated by unbelief. You indeed stand by faith. Do not relish the exalted but be reverent. 21 For if God did not spare the native branches, no, not by chance will he spare you. 22 Perceive then the goodness and severity of God. To those who in fact were cut off, severity; but to you also, God’s goodness. If you will be persistent in excellence; otherwise, you too will be cast away. 23 And them too, if they persist not in unbelief will be implanted. For God is able to graft them in again.
24 If you were cut out of an olive tree, [one] wild by nature, and against nature grafted into a good olive tree, how much more these, which are according to nature inserted into their own olive tree? 25 For I do not wish you to be ignorant brothers of this mystery, that you not be firmly set in your own wisdom seeing that blindness touched Israel in part, while the fullness of non-Jews do enter. 26 And as you see, all Israel will be saved: just as it is written,
‘Out of Zion will come one who takes control [who] will remove irreverence from Jacob. 27 And this covenant from me [is] for them when I will take away their sins’.
28 Certainly concerning the Gospel [they are] unfriendly on account of you; but regarding election, ‘precious’ because of the Father. 29 Namely, God’s gifts and callings are without repentance. 30 I mean, just as you did not believe God at one time, now however, you were shown compassion through their unbelief. 31 And as has been stated, they also have not believed now [in] the mercy that is yours, that they should find mercy. 32 Truly God shut them all up in unbelief that he might be compassionate to them all.
33 O the extent of the riches and wisdom of God! How incomprehensible are his judgements and his unsearchable ways! 34 For who has understood the mind of the Lord? Or who was his advisor? 35 Or who first gave [anything] to him?, then it will be restored to him. 36 Seeing that all things are by him and through him and for him, forever praise him! Amen.