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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 53, 2005

BEN WITHERINGTON III and DARLENE HYATT, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). Pp. xxxviii+421. $US36.00.

Ben Witherington III is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore Kentucky. This volume on Paul’s Letter to the Romans is an addition to his series of socio-rhetorical commentaries on books of the New Testament (earlier volumes include commentaries on First and Second Corinthians, Hebrews, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospel of Mark). He notes that there is yet no full-scale socio-rhetorical commentary on Romans, and hopes that this work will moves things along somewhat in this direction. There is no doubt that this book achieves that purpose, and does so with admirable clarity.

Witherington provides a 25-page introduction dealing with “authorship and the text-critical issues in chapter 16”; “integrity”; “date”; “audience”; “structure and rhetoric”; “language, style, and intertextuality.” The commentary proper treats the text according to the following divisions: epistolary prescript and greeting (1:1–7); exordium and narration (1:8–15); proposition (1:16–17); argument one, part one (1:18–32): the unbearable likeness; argument one, part two (2:1–16): critique of a judgmental Gentile hypocrite; argument two (2:17–3:20): censoring a censorious Jewish teacher; recapitulation and expansion of proposition (3:21–31): the manifestation of the righteousness of God apart from the law; argument three (4:1–25): Abraham as forefather of all the “righteous” by faith; argument four (5:1–11): the results of rectification; argument five (5:12–21): from first Adam to last (a comparison); argument six (6:1–7:25): shall sin, death, and the law continue now that Christ has come? [part one (6:1–14) shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?; part two (6:15–7:6): slaves to righteousness; part three (7:7–13): retelling Adam’s tale; part four (7:14–25): Adam’s lost race]; argument seven (8:1–17): life in the Spirit, that was then, this is now; argument eight (8:18–39): life in Christ in glory; argument nine (9:1–11:36): God’s justice and Israel’s future; argument ten (12:1–21): living sacrifices and loving service; argument eleven (13:1–14): taxing situations and the debt of love; argument twelve (14:1–15:13): the weak and the strong and what goes wrong; peroratio I (15:14–21): the knowledge and apostle of the Gentiles; good news heading west (15:22–33): travel plans, apostolic parousia, peroratio; a letter of recommendation and reconciliation (16:1–27).

Several things distinguish this commentary. First, Witherington applies to the exegetical task a sound knowledge of the contribution that social and rhetorical analyses can offer. He disagrees with those who categorise the rhetoric of Romans as epideictic, arguing rather that is a piece of deliberative discourse. Witherington employs his understanding of rhetorical norms, for example, when explaining difficult passages like 7:7–13 and 7:14–25. Here, the apostle employs the rhetorical device of “speech in character” (prosopopoeia). Thus, 7:7–13 is best understood “in the light of the story of Adam, with Adam speaking of his own experience.” The fictive ‘I’ of 7:7–13 is carried over into 7:14–25, where, citing Käsemann, Witherington says, “Egö means mankind under the shadow of Adam; hence it does not embrace Christian existence in its ongoing temptation. … What is being said here is already over for the Christian according to chapter 6 and chapter 8. The apostle is not even describing the content of his own experience of conversion.”

Second, Witherington notes, “there really has never been, since the English Reformation, a major exegetical study of Romans which intentionally takes into account Arminian and Wesleyan readings as opposed to more Augustinian/Lutheran/Calvinist readings of Romans,” which have dominated recent Protestant exegesis of Romans, at least. To a certain extent, this commentary redresses this trend, though the exegesis is not pre-determined by Wesleyan theology—exegesis should never be determined by prior theological assumptions.

Third, after each section of the commentary on the text, reflections are provided, under the heading, “Bridging the Horizons,” which seek to apply the text for present day readers. Some of this material was provided by Darlene Hyatt, a graduate student at Asbury Theological Seminary who, presumably in this connection, was associated with Witherington in the production of the commentary.

Witherington argues that the intended readers of Paul’s letter were Gentile Christians (though he believes the church contained a minority of Jewish members whom Paul would have been happy to have overhear his instruction to the Gentile believers).

While one of the purposes of the letter was to gather support for his mission to Spain, a second purpose was to establish good relationships with the Christians of Rome—people for whom he felt responsibility as the apostle to the Gentiles. He wants them to endorse his vision of a church made up of Jews and Gentiles united by their common faith in Jesus Christ, and, therefore, seeks to overcome the disunity existing between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman church.

This is a fine addition to Witherington’s series of socio-rhetorical commentaries; one that will benefit both students and fellow scholars. The extensive bibliography includes a substantial list of rhetorical resources related to Romans.

Review by
Colin G. Kruse
Bible College of Victoria
PO Box 380
Lilydale VIC 3140, Australia