Again I would ask the indulgence of my readers if I use this blog to engage with serious criticism from one valued reader, Ksarant, whose comments can be seen at blogs 2218 and 2219, and in the Appendix below. In dealing with his comments on my interpretation of Romans chapter 5, I will transliterate Greek words into the English alphabet, so that readers who don’t know Greek may grasp the points being made.
Ksarant asks where on earth I get the translation “ through his faithfulness” in verse 2. The first answer is that I am using a Greek text which includes the words “en tay pistei,” which are found in some of the most ancient manuscripts. The words mean “in the faith” or “in the faithfulness” and expand the meaning of the words “through whom we have a way.” We could translate, “through whom, by faith, we have a way” but many scholars have emphasised recently that the word pistos should not automatically be assigned to human trust in Jesus. Rather we should ask if it can be assigned to Jesus’ trust in God, or his faithfulness to God’s purpose. This choice becomes very important when the text concerns human salvation or as in this case, human access to the favour of God: is it our faith which creates this access, or is the faithfulness of Jesus to God’s love for humanity which took him to his death on the execution stake? I favour the choice I have made in my translation, that it is through Jesus’ obedient faithfulness to God’s love, that human beings can hear God pleading for them to be reconciled to Him/Her. This translation seems to me to fit the rest of what Paul is saying in this chapter. Shortly afterwards, he declares that human hope is not disappointed because the love of God is poured into out hearts. Paul’s argument at all points emphasises the abundant love of God for humanity, rather than any so- called “juridical” transaction (like something that might settled in a court), as Ksarant argues.
The next criticism is about Paul’s imaginative use of the story of Adam, because after all it is just a myth. We should be very careful in using “myth” as a term of abuse. Myths are not history, it is true: probably Odysseus never existed; but the myth of Odysseus has throughout history illuminated the blundering search of men and women for their homeland, as that of Penelope has illuminated the faithfulness of those who wait for the blundering traveller to return. Myth is an imaginative and profound story of human experience. For Paul, whose people’s knowledge of history was intertwined with myth, Adam was neither a historical person (as palaeontologists might imagine the first human beings), nor a fairy tale (like Harry Potter), but a character representing humanity as understood in Jewish faith. He is imagined as the progenitor of human beings. But Paul is clear that Adam’s sin was not automatically transferred to subsequent human beings. He states that sin spread to all humanity “because they all sinned”. Adam does not pass on sin as a biological determinant, but more as a persuasive mindset. Every human being is born into a world in which sin is present and persuasive; Adam, the mythological representative of humanity, also chooses sin when offered a choice.
Yes, Paul makes full use of the myth to describe the plight of humanity, especially in the connection he makes between sin and death. Paul’s training in Jewish understanding of scripture led him to think that God had created a perfect humanity, with freewill to remain perfect and to live eternally with God; or to choose sin, which also meant mortality, as God had somehow to put limits on the sinfulness of every individual life.
We do not think in this way but see death as natural. So is this Pauline idea simply nonsense? At one level it seems to be so, and we must never allow ourselves to deny the truths of biology by hanging on to the words of the Bible. But for those, like Paul, who trust in the promise of resurrection in Jesus, death will look unnatural, an oppressive power pushing human beings to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. It can be seen by those whose lives have suffered constant oppression, as the last enemy, which will extinguish their meaningless existence. It can be seen as linked to sin in the murder and violence which stalk the earth. I am saying that if we wrongly take the link between sin and death as a biological fact, we are mistaken; but if we understand it as a mythological story, it points to truths that are not grasped by our sciences. The human love of death, as seen in so many responses to global warming, for example, is linked to sin, and refusal to listen to the Creator.
Paul did not invent “original sin”, although he saw human beings as sinful with the one exception of Jesus. But we must not therefore make him into a miserable judgemental pessimist who can be made responsible for all the sins of Christendom down the ages. His definition of sin after all is “falling short of the splendour of God,” and he also believed that through Jesus Messiah that splendour could be recovered.
Finally, there’s the criticism that Paul makes God responsible for an increase in sin by giving the Jewish people the Law. In chapter 7, he explicitly deals with this accusation, saying that the Law is holy but the power of sin uses the it as a temptation. He gives as an example the command not to covet. The power of sin, he says, used his knowledge of this prohibition to tempt him into covetous behaviour. Clearly Paul is not suggesting that God’s command caused more sin, but that it was used by Sin as a way of encouraging more sinning. He is explicit in chapter 5 that this increase in sin was overwhelmed by the answering increase in God’s favour to humanity, through Jesus.
I see chapters 5 as Paul’s declaration of the love of God which transforms human beings and makes them just, while keeping his own feet and those of his readers on the ground, by putting God’s goodness in the context of the sin and death which it overcomes. God in Jesus through the Spirit makes us just, hallelujah. But he doesn’t let us forget that we have to be made just because otherwise we live in injustice and belong to Adam rather than Messiah Jesus.
APPENDIX: KSARANT’S COMMENT
So you choose Romans 5 to respond to my rejection of Paul. This is precisely one of the chapters that I most reject, and your translation does not improve matters. How you get “his faithfulness” in verse 2 is beyond me. Clearly you subscribe to the theses promoted by some recent scholars about the faith of Jesus. That’s fine, it’s not an issue with me, because I don’t really care what Paul thought about this and many other matters. My problem with the chapter you chose to demonstrate Paul’s “grand imagination” is that it is precisely writings like this that promoted mythological and juridical understandings of salvation. Why should I believe anything Paul writes here if Adam is just a myth? Meaningless nonsense about death spreading to all human beings because Adam sinned. Not only does Paul rely on myth, but he expands the myth’s reach way beyond even what the original myth maker(s) had in mind! Here is Paul the creator of the dogma of “original sin” which has plagued Christianity for 2,000 years. And all that stuff that you so appropriately put in parentheses? Just more examples of Paul’s meaningless rhetoric. And his attitude to the Law? What Jew would agree that the Law caused more wrongdoing? Is Paul obsessed with sin or not? You like this guy? But thanks for at least translating verse 20 correctly – which shows how sick Paul’s mind could get. ‘Multiplied’ is indeed an accurate translation of pleonásē. So God provided the Law through Moses in order that there would be more sin in the world, just so that God souls show off his grace in response? Only in Paul’s mind. Now if you had chosen Romans 8 as an example of Paul’s “grand imagination” I probably would have written nothing in response. But Romans 5? Ugh.