Book Plunge: If You Call Yourself A Jew

What do I think of Rafael Rodriguez’s book published by Cascade books? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

First off, some of you are wondering where the blog has been. We had some web site difficulties, but it looks like things are working now and hopefully they will stay working. We have been unable to record the last two episodes of the Deeper Waters Podcast, but we will be putting up soon the wonderful interview I had with Craig Keener on December 5th. For now, let’s look into the book we’re reviewing today.

I must admit my possible bias upfront and how I am entering dangerous territory in some ways. I am studying a Romans course next semester and the book that I am writing a review for here is actually not only on the reading list, but is in fact a book written by my teaching professor himself. Still, I will try to be as impartial as I can. Where there is something to praise, I plan to praise, and where there is something to critique, I hope to critique.

The idea Rodriguez starts with is that too often we have assumed that there were Jews of a sizable portion in Rome who had returned after the ban of Claudius was lifted. We know from Seutonius that the Jews had been expelled around 49 A.D. and this matches with what happens in Acts when Priscilla and Aquila show up and Paul starts working with them. They did get to come back and many commentators on Romans think that there was a sizable portion in the Roman church and Paul wrote to deal with a situation that was involving relations between Jews and Gentiles. This is something common, but Rodriguez calls it into question.

At the start, I do wish there had been some clarification here. It would be good for it to be said that there was no sizable population because sometimes I got the impression that it was believed that there weren’t any Jews in the Roman church. I would doubt this on simply historical grounds and on purely historical grounds, I do not think there is any way we could know this since we don’t exactly have the demographics of the Roman church. There is unfortunately no doubt going to be a lot of speculation on history whichever way we go since the specifics are not spelled out for us. We know Paul wrote Romans. We have a good idea of when he wrote it. We know he wrote it to the Romans church. We know what he wrote to them. It’s the why that’s often so difficult.

Rodriguez is not so sure on this point. Some of us will look at passages like Romans 2 which seem to be talking to a Jewish audience and saying “Well this sure looks like someone Jewish to me?” Rodriguez suggests that instead of seeing it as a Jew that Paul has in mind for who he’s interacting with, imagine Paul has in mind an interlocutor who is in fact a Gentile that has chosen to live under Jewish Law. What would such a person have to say about the righteousness found in Christ? After all, Paul makes the statement of “If you call yourself a Jew.” Could it be this is someone who sees themselves as a Jew not by nationality, but rather by an adoption of sorts?

It’s not really a far-fetched idea. I have heard some people theorize for instance that the Judaizers who went to the churches in Galatia might not have been Jews themselves but Gentiles who had chosen to live under Jewish Law. Rodriguez theorizes that if you take the position that he does, it changes the way the whole letter is read including when you get to chapters 9-11 which are often a hotspot of controversy in the book. I cannot say that I am fully persuaded by his hypothesis at this point, but I can definitely say that it does make sense and is no doubt worthy of further investigation.

From then on, the book becomes a commentary as well on the passages and often this can be a commentary that will be theologically motivating. The reader will be greatly blessed by reading this even if one does not agree with the hypothesis overall as there are some excellent writings on Christian living. This is not a book just meant to argue a case for a position on Romans after all, but to leave the reader with a greater understanding of Romans.

I do also agree with Rodriguez that the passage in Romans 7 is not autobiographical. Although many Christians can relate to it, Paul is not describing his own life before becoming a Christian. I don’t think Rodriguez’s interpretation of the Gentile interlocutor is as convincing as Ben Witherington’s idea that Paul is speaking as Adam and I do not think going back to Romans 5 is going back too far in the letter. Despite that, I am thankful that Rodriguez definitely recognizes that this is not Paul speaking of himself.

I did often wish that there would have been more on some difficult passages. For instance, what about in Romans 8 where it talks about he who put creation in bondage. Who is the he? There was not much if anything said on this and I would have liked to have seen that. I wouldn’t have minded also seeing some more expounding on a passage such as Romans 9:5 where it speaks about Jesus and describes Him as God.

I also was not convinced by his handling of Romans 16. I found that too brief and with the suggestion that the people there were not part of the Roman church. It could be, but I’m just not sold yet and that passage does indeed show that there were a number of people in the congregation then who would have been of Jewish descent. A most interesting case would have been Junia who Witherington thinks could have been Joanna from Luke 8:3 with a Greco-Roman name and possibly a new husband as well.

Also, I think Rodriguez does play too little with the extra-biblical data. While it can be that too many commentators have looked outside the text for information instead of focusing on the text, there is in fact a danger of missing the context the letter was written in and if we want to know who the audience was, any information from outside of the text should be taken seriously. Rodriguez does interact with this, but not as much as I would like.

Despite this, Rodriguez’s book is an easy read and in fact one the layman with some background knowledge could read. If you want to be a student of Romans, this is an idea worth considering. I hope more scholars will consider the idea of Rodriguez since it is an intriguing one and I must say I am certainly open to it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters