It is late 2017, I am about to begin the process of researching and formulating my honours thesis, and I am overwhelmed by the potentially endless possibilities for exploration. I knew I had the desire to spend my investigative efforts in the letters of St Paul, though I had no idea what topics, ideas, themes, sections of letters or even which letters as a whole, I would be focusing on. To say that I was apprehensive would be an understatement. A year later, with the assistance of a supervisor possessing hawk-like sensibilities (which I suppose is appropriate of a Bishop), I finished St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Rhetoric of Eschatological Hope. In the time from the initial ideation of my thesis to its final completion, I had narrowed down my investigation to looking at St Paul’s letter to the Romans, particularly through the lens of what he had to say about the ultimate hope of Christians, and how this structured what he said.
What I ultimately came to argue was that Romans 1:1-7 and Romans 15:7 – 13 is written so that the beginning and the end of the letter mirror each other and frame the content that comes between – a beginning and ending “bracket” defined by its similar material, which help us to read and understand everything contained therein. (This is what we call in Biblical Criticism, an inclusio). In other words, the beginning and the end seem to tell us that part of the overall purpose of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, is that he is trying to give us a sense of the ultimate hope that we have in Christ.
Let me very briefly explain how this is the case.
- In Romans 15:1-6, which comes right before the conclusion, Paul commands the Roman congregations to act in a certain way on a particular premise:“We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.””
In essence, he says that they are to bear with each other (which in this circumstance, refers to bearing with each other amidst the tensions between Jew and Gentile Christian worshippers who were having issues over holy days and meat sacrificed to idols) because Christ is their model for action, himself having enduring suffering. This is ultimately justified on an appeal to the purpose of the Old Testament (OT) Scriptures:“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”In other words, the Scriptures were written to grant hope to the community of God. Particularly interesting is that the OT is quoted as if prophesying to Christ’s activity. In some sense, Paul is assuming that the OT is embodied in Christ. Not only this, but this hope is given so that the community can be unified in worship of God.
- This helps us to interpret Romans 15:7-13, because we can see that it effectively copies Romans 15:1-6, saying much the same thing whilst keeping to a similar structure. It does, however, further develop the initial ideas in two ways: Paul expands his particular command into a universalised ethic of “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” He then reaffirms the established OT interpretive framework by quoting sections from the three main sections of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Law the Prophets and the Writings), each of these referring to how the Jews and Gentiles will worship God together. Paul is obviously concerned with building to a rhetorical climax with eschatological hope as front and centre. This is only confirmed by the ecstatic closing sentence in verse 13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
- Comparing this to Romans 1:1-7, we find that Romans 15:7-13 is simply an expanded and developed version of Paul’s initial gospel proclamation in the beginning. I recommend that you read the two side by side and see how the themes communicated in the first chapter are expanded in the fifteenth. For instance, 1:1 – 2 finds echoes in the appeal to the patriarchs and the explicit Scriptural references in 15:8 – 10. 1:3 – 4 is echoed in 15:12 – 13 in the references to the root of Jesse; a repetition of the theme of resurrection in Christ’s rising from the dead and the rising to rule the Gentiles (which is likely a double entendre); and that the same Spirit of power that raised Christ from the dead is the one by whose power those in Christ abound in hope. The connections here are manifold, and difficult to explain in detail with such limited space.
It seems, then, that the idea of hope is being used to frame the letter, and that Paul is trying to build this sense of eschatological hope into his audience, as part and parcel of his apostolic calling in proclaiming the gospel. It is, therefore, not illogical to think that at least part of the overall purpose of the letter is so that Paul’s readers might have hope. What are some of the implications of this? I’ll continue that in Part 2 tomorrow.