Epistle to the Romans, part 1

Salvador Dali, Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)

Epistle to the Romans, part 1

A new translation by Darrell Sutton of Paul’s timeless text


October 31, 1517 was a fateful day in early-modern German history. For it was on that date that Martin Luther (1483-1546) published his Ninety-five Theses on the Power of Indulgences. In honor of the 500th year anniversary of the German Protestant Reformation, and to mark subsequent transformational events that occurred at that time among Roman Catholics, a new translation of seminal chapters 1-5 in the Latin Vulgate text of Romans, is proffered to readers. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is a key component-text of western civilization: the bulk of eastern Europe was untouched by these reforms. Romans became the main theological treatise for Christians of the later Renaissance era and of the Post-Reformation period, the interpretation of which instigated divisions between leaders, brought about schisms in nation-states and ignited strife in families. Adherents of a form of Erasmian reform Catholicism shunned the more militant views espoused in the Counter-Reformation. They forged ahead in another direction: Chrysostom’s (AD349-407) homilies on the text of Romans were more agreeable to them than the construal of Augustine (AD354-430). The internecine debates over Romans’ subject matter paved the way for so much of the harm and the good that was done in the name of religion.

However, there is a context for, and reasons behind, the composition of Paul’s intriguing letter. Twenty centuries ago, the culture of a diverse and free-thinking population of ancient Rome centered on law and polity and on conceptions of deities and on their cults. Since Roman citizens were not insulated against the forceful ideas of Greeks of previous generations, the religion of “Homer”, as elaborated in the Iliad and in the Odyssey for example, became a model for Roman spiritual life. Followers showed their devotion to Graeco-Roman deities in various ways and through various ceremonies; the licentious behavior portrayed on stage and adapted by Romans for comedies, tragedies and other dramas in their theatres drew massive crowds; nonetheless through brutal conquest Roman culture extended into the far corners of the earth: the Roman soldier remained an intimidating figure.

Far from tending toward a narrow view of ethical codes of conduct, Romans more or less embraced both religious and irreligious mind-sets, adopting an eclectic stance toward the gods of their neighbors and of conquered peoples. Paul’s letter to a Christian community dwelling in the Empire’s capital was written when Rome’s ascent to power was not yet complete, and was composed to offer disciples of Jesus an alternative perspective to the ones officially approved for public consumption: for example, see the nationalistic but reverential shades of thought in Virgil’s Aeneid. Paul’s epistle also provides another viewpoint to contrast with the popularly accepted views found in Lucretius’ verse poem De Rerum Natura. Some nobles and plebeians rejoiced over its theistic and deceptively atheistic view. Paul was a Hellenized Jew, a polyglot, and one of cosmopolitan bent. His beliefs constrained his behavior and restricted his admiration of the positive virtues of pagan lines of reasoning and ways of life; although in his corpus of epistles, in various places, he does cite or allude to several secular writers in antiquity.

The Pauline worldview is not difficult to describe. His way of thinking, so disagreeable to most denizens of the empire who embraced syncretic philosophies, left little room for ambiguity. For him mankind was ill, afflicted with sin and slowly dying. Paul then conceived the notion that mankind, yet in the throes of impending death, stumbles along committing one misdeed after another without realizing that judgment waits on the horizon. He is utterly convinced that human beings are uninformed about what is at the core of their offenses against God, not knowing that inbred sin is the captive culprit within them. And that emancipation from that congenital problem can be effected only by the application of certain redeeming qualities to the individual’s heart – by faith in Christ.

Paul’s views may be summarized thus: a sovereign God, with no rivals, specially chose the Jewish tribes through whose lineage the savior, Jesus, emerged. His appearance instituted a New Covenant, and by means of Jesus’ cruel death and his ostensible resurrection, certain longstanding Hebrew legal and liturgical precepts were abolished at Calvary. In this new era, God superimposes his will upon all devotees who convert to this mode of thought. The consequences of the acceptance of said God’s rule affects an adherent’s piety, morality and civility – in that order.

Translating Romans’ ideas

A few other preliminary remarks are required before passing on to the translation. My method of approach to Romans was to encounter it as would a foreigner who was unacquainted with any of Paul’s ideas. Paul is direct and plainspoken. An ancient Roman would have been astonished to come across a text so impractical and confrontational. The imposition of an aggressive monotheism in the place of the rank and file of Roman deities was forbidding. The below translation is what I commonly call a ‘Mirror-Text.’ It is provisional but reflective of the original ideas viewed by an ancient community. A translation is a literary mirror of another text; but the mirror-text provides a wide variety of nuances which are too important to ignore. Nuances may exist which might be able to shine a light on an idea with better results than was possible with the initial wording of a text, which, too, might have been a word appropriated from another dialect of speech. In all that follows I have worked from the esteemed 1592 Textus Vulgatae Clementinae edition of the Bible and from the Novum Testamentum Latine, edited by Nestle-Aland. The latter text maintains numerous punctuation errors. Their use of the exclamation mark is excessive. Since punctuation is used to organize writing into clauses, phrases and sentences, an improperly punctuated text will turn the reader’s thoughts in wrong directions. Such a significant point is underscored by a maxim usually attributed to Erasmus (1466-1536), ‘that a heresy might be engendered even by a misplaced comma.’

In translating the Latin text, the relative clause introduced by ‘who’, ‘that’ or ‘which’ often is concealed in the textual discourse, but very often is necessary for the gloss (e.g. 14.1). I made an earnest effort to stay as close to the Latin form as is reasonably possible. I failed at some places. If necessary, transpositions or conjectures are noted here and there to fix the text according to what I perceive to be the earliest original reading. It is not possible always to establish authorial intent; but the treatment of lexica involves certainties of a high order. I am not unaware of the readings in the Greek text. Other ancient translations are comparatively used throughout. The criticism of the Latin text of Romans is not secondary to Greek studies, it is ancillary. The importance of the Latin text is commended by the high regard any individual who esteems it may place upon it. Each translation stands amid a line of historic tradition. In this case Romans supplies the data necessary for a proper investigation of the reading material believers in ancient times had at their disposal. As an inflected language, Latin serves as a suitable mirror for observation of the technicalities of its structure at various stages of progress.

Romans and criticism of its Latin texts

The story of the textual criticism of the Latin text of Romans may be told in few sentences. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, produced in AD384, established itself as the main text for the “Catholic” Church of the Western hemisphere. This Latin text, particularly, persisted in the West for over a millennium – in contrast to the use of the Septuagint in the Orthodox Churches – until the revival of Greek studies, during which time Erasmus published a Greek New Testament (1516) with an innovative Latin translation. The editio princeps of the Latin Vulgate was published in 1452, essentially a reproduction of a 13th century text copied by the University of Paris. A 15th century manuscript produced for William Gray of Balliol College conserves pre-Vulgate variants in abundance, with much biblical lemmata. But A. Souter’s Pelagius’ Expositions of Thirteen Epistles of St. Paul, Vol. I: Introduction; Vol. II: Text, Cambridge, 1922 and 1926, offers other proof of readings actively used at one time. The Chester Beatty biblical papyri, with its early 3rd century fragments of the Pauline epistles, displays surprisingly similarity to the transmitted Latin vulgate at Rom. V-VI and at VIII-XI, attesting the antiquity of certain forms of old Latin readings.

Small efforts at “critical” work on Pauline texts had been carried out. Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (1455-1536), a French Humanist, issued his commentaries on the letters of Paul in 1512. Corrections could be made on the text; the 1509 Basel edition of the Vulgate was in circulation. Variations in mss were less in number than in the extant scholia and marginalia. To the degree that Erasmus’ Latin translation of the Greek text of Romans may be considered a consequence of the sub-discipline of textual criticism, it represents the high point of philological work on Romans in his day. Ideally a translator should construct, for private use, his or her own interlinear gloss of the text studied. I do not refer to the medieval type of paraphrase of the text, but the modern sense of interlinear wording: a strict, but literal rendering of each word in each sentence throughout, ensuring that the grammar is rightly understood and nuance perceived. It is upon an interlinear gloss that a translator should build a smooth, idiomatic translation.

A new proposal of Romans’ origins

The early writers of biblical texts were more or less broad-based. One of these authors of Scripture, Paul, was educated in multiple languages: Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin (cf. Acts 21:37,39;22:2-3). I conjecture that Paul the Apostle could and did write multiple texts in different languages. It is not incorrect to presume that he wrote on the same topics in different languages. No reference is made to secondary texts of this type, but this is not remarkable if a particular text was sent to a fellowship who expected texts in a dialect understandable to them or, who received letters of which other parties were not made aware. This set of circumstances is not too difficult to surmise. Luke’s introduction (1:1-4) to his Gospel asserts that others had written of Jesus, his works and person. Luke then states that he examined these materials personally (possibly interviewed people too) to gain expert acquaintance with the matter which would form the basis of the narrative he was to write. His procedure was more or less different from the scientific methods of investigation used by the ancient Roman author and historian, Asconius (9BC-AD76), who explicated points of history and politics in the speeches of Cicero (106BC-43BC).

Luke explicitly speaks of other treatises or accounts; he does not define the nature of those accounts: that is to say, his statements do not necessitate that the other materials were written exclusively in Greek. He does not explicitly identify the languages in which all the accounts of Jesus’ deeds were written; nor do his remarks inform us of the number of dialects with which he was acquainted. With so many pilgrims coming from afar to Israel to see the miracles Jesus performed, it is unrealistic to believe that no one recorded or rehearsed memories of this man of wonder in their own tongues. Even John implied that there were not enough libraries to house the reminiscences which could be written (Jn. 21:25). So why is it implausible to conceive that lay people too could have written down Paul’s statements?

The Vulgate of Romans’ text contains numerous Latin phrases whose syntactical features are datable to the century of Christ’s birth. It is common knowledge that Jerome translated the Gospels. His work on the Pauline epistles and other parts of the New Testament are debated, with some believing that he performed very little revision on some portions, that he collated and edited various segments of the Vetus Itala. It is my contention that some parts of the old Latin are likely to derive from Paul’s hand, from his original speeches or writings. The main objection to my hypothesis is the presupposition that Greek texts anti-date all other readings or manuscripts. If this is true, then things must proceed in the same uncritical manner in which they have proceeded for the last 150 years. And if that presupposition holds up, it does so only because of a single verdict: that the early disciples wrote in Greek dialects alone, and that the use of other languages was impossible for them or divinely forbidden. To neither of these ideas can I subscribe. Papias acknowledged the existence of a Gospel of Matthew in a Semitic tongue; it is demonstrable that in some places the Greek text of the synoptic Gospels employs Aramaic and/or Semitic pericopae; but here and there a MS reading relies specifically upon a Hebrew vorlage for its composition. Even though a Greek text may derive from an older period in antiquity, it is not the age of the tissue of papyri that adds to its value. It is the antiquity of a transmitted reading, which may happen to be preserved in a MS whose age does not descend beyond the medieval period.

Biblical scholar Darrell Sutton is rector of the Tabernacle in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small village in the Great Plains. He also teaches Semitic languages and edits an academic bulletin entitled ‘The DS Commentary on Books’

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2 Responses to Epistle to the Romans, part 1

  1. I found that a wonderfully informed and exciting argument, am looking forward to its continuation.

  2. David Ashton says:

    I would be interested in an intelligible exegesis of Romans 8.29 that did not imply that the overwhelming majority of mankind have been condemned automatically from conception to eternal conscious damnation.

    I am also interested in the knowledge of pagan philosophy shown by the author of Romans because I have been working on a libretto for a composer friend on an original Opera based on the Fourth Gospel regarded as a theological drama that could have been adapted for Greco-Roman theatre performance.

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