Commentary on Romans 3:21-31

Notes (NET Translation)

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed —

Romans 1:18-3:20 outlines the spiritual state of those who belong to the old era. “But now” God has intervened to inaugurate a new era.1 The “righteousness of God” is the justifying activity of God (see notes on 1:17).

In Rom. 2:1-3:20 Paul has made clear that the law has failed to rescue Jews from the power of sin because compliance with its demands to the extent necessary to secure justification has not been–and cannot be–forthcoming. “Apart from the law” might mean, then, “apart from doing the law”: God’s righteousness is now attained without any contribution from “works of the law.” While this may, indeed, be part of what Paul intends, it is questionable whether it goes far enough; for there is, as Paul will show in chap. 4, nothing really “new” about this: justification has always been by faith, apart from the law. Furthermore, it is not the manner in which God’s righteousness is received that Paul is talking about here, but the manner in which it is manifested–the divine side of this “process” by which people are made right with God. This phrase, then, reiterates the salvation-historical shift denoted by “but now.” In the new era inaugurated by Christ’s death God has acted to deliver and vindicate his people “apart from” the law. It is not primarily the law as something for humans to do, but the law as a system, as a stage in God’s unfolding plan, that is in view here. “Law” (nomos), then, refers to the “Mosaic covenant,” that (temporary) administration set up between God and his people to regulate their lives and reveal their sin until the establishment of the promise in Christ. One aspect of this covenant, of course, is those Jewish “identity markers,” such as circumcision, the Sabbath, and food laws; Paul is certainly affirming, then, that the righteousness of God is now being manifested “outside the national and religious parameters set by the law.” But Paul’s point cannot be confined to this. The reason these “identity markers” are no longer required is that the covenant of which they were a part has been made “obsolete” (cf. Heb. 8:7-13). It is this basic shift in salvation history that Paul alludes to here, and much of his discussion of the law in the rest of this letter (cf. 3:27-31; 4:15; 5:13, 20; 6:14; and especially chap. 7) is an attempt to explain this “apart from the law,” while at the same time justifying his assertion that faith “establishes” the law (cf. 3:31; 8:4).

But Paul hastens to balance this discontinuity in salvation history with a reminder of its continuity. While God’s justifying activity in the new age takes part outside the confines of the Old Covenant, the OT as a whole anticipates and predicts this new work of God: God’s righteousness is “witnessed to by the law and the prophets.”2

22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,

It is debated whether the righteousness of God is disclosed (a) through faith in Jesus Christ or (b) through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Both translations are legitimate renderings of the Greek word pistis.

Witherington III thinks it is through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ:

V 22 tells us that this righteousness is revealed either through faith in Christ or through the faith/faithfulness of Christ. The latter would presumably be a shorthand way of referring to Christ’s death: his faithfulness and obedience even to death on the cross revealed the righteousness of God. This interpretation is favored by several things: (1) It relieves us of the redundancy of Paul referring to Christian faith twice in this sentence. Instead, both objective and subjective means are referred to: the righteousness of God is revealed through the faithfulness of Christ (i.e., through the Christ-event), and it is revealed to all who believe. This, then, would be an expanded form of ek pisteos eis pistin in the brief introductory peroratio in 1.16-17. (2) This reading also gives proper force to the two prepositions “through” and “unto,” one referring to the means and the other the ultimate object or recipient of the revelation. (3) This comports well with the parallel dia clause in v. 24, which tells us that the gift of righteousness or being righted comes through the liberation or ransom provided in the Christ-event.3

Moo counters this position, successfully in my opinion, and argues that it is through faith in Jesus Christ:

The linguistic argument in favor of the alternative rendering is by no means compelling. In addition, contextual considerations favor the objective genitive in Rom. 3:22. While the Greek word pistis can mean “faithfulness” (see 3:3), and Paul can trace our justification to the obedience of Christ (5:19), little in this section of Romans would lead us to expect a mention of Christ’s “active obedience” as basic to our justification. Moreover, pistis in Paul almost always means “faith”; very strong contextual features must be present if any other meaning is to be adopted. But these are absent in 3:22. If, on the other hand, pistis is translated “faith,” it is necessary to introduce some very dubious theology in order to speak meaningfully about “the faith exercised by Jesus Christ.” Finally, and most damaging to the hypothesis in either form, is the consistent use of pistis throughout 3:21-4:25 to designate the faith exercised by people in God, or Christ, as the sole means of justification. Only very strong reasons would justify giving to pistis any other meaning in this, the theological summary on which the rest of the section depends. The simple references to “faith” in 3:28 and 3:30 are abbreviations of the “faith in Christ/Jesus” that is enunciated in 3:22 and 26 (cf. v. 25).

But if Paul mentions human faith in this phrase, why then does he add the phrase “for all who believe”? Comparison has been made with the combination “from faith for faith” in 1:17, but this is to appeal from the uncertain to the obscure (see the notes on 1:17). Paul’s purpose is probably to highlight the universal availability of God’s righteousness. This theme is not only one of the most conspicuous motifs of the epistle, but is explicitly mentioned in vv. 22b-23. God’s righteousness is available only through faith in Christ–but it is available to anyone who has faith in Christ.4

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

There is no distinction among people with respect to their standing before God.

The verb hysterouratai in v. 23 means “lack, fail to obtain, be wanting, or fall short.” Probably here Paul means that because all have sinned they lack the glory of God. This translation is supported by 1.23, which speaks of people exchanging such glory for something else when they choose to sin. Later rabbinic discussion talked about how Adam had such glory but lost it, but we find the notion already in 3 Baruch 4.16: “Adam was divested of the glory of God,” and Apocalypse of Moses 21.6: “O wicked woman, what have I done to you that you have deprived me of the glory of God?” So the reference to lost glory may prepare for the discussion of Adam and those who are in Adam which will follow in Romans 5-7. To speak of a “lack” suggests a loss of glory, so we must speak of a once and future glory.5

“God’s glory will be restored to those who believe in Christ when redemption is completed.”6

24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

According to Moo, to be justified is to be declared righteous. It means to be acquitted by God of all charges that could be brought against a person because of his sins.7 This justification is unmerited. The word “redemption” means liberation (e.g., of prisoners of war, slaves, criminals), often through payment. Paul may envision slaves to sin being liberated from the power of sin through Christ’s death.

If we ask further the question “To whom was the ‘ransom’ paid?” it is not clear that we need to answer it. The usage of the word makes it clear that there need be no specific person who “receives” the “payment.” Certainly we are not to think of Christ’s death as a payment of God made to Satan, a view that became very popular in the first centuries of the Christian church. A more biblical answer, and one that might be implied by v. 25, would be that God, the judge who must render just verdicts, is the recipient of the ransom. If so, an equal emphasis must be placed on the fact that God is also the originator of the liberating process.

As he does in Eph. 1:7 and Col. 1:14, Paul adds that this redemption is “in Christ Jesus.” It is not clear whether Paul means by it that the liberation was accomplished by Christ at the cross or that the liberation occurs “in relation to” Christ, whenever sinners trust Christ. Favoring the latter, however, is the connection of “redemption” with the forgiveness of sins in Eph. 1:7 and Col. 1:14, and 1 Cor. 1:30: “Christ was made . . . our redemption.” While, then, the “price” connoted by the word “redemption” was “paid” at the cross in the blood of Christ, the redeeming work that the payment made possible is, like justification, applied to each person when he or she believes.8

25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.

God takes the initiative in inaugurating the process of redemption. We should not think of the loving Christ trying to placate the angry Father. Both the Father and the Son have the same will for redemption. Both God’s love and God’s wrath meet in the atonement.

The verb translated “publicly displayed” can mean either “to set forth publicly” or “to plan or purpose”. Kruse takes it to be referring to God’s eternal purpose.

The Greek word hilasterion can mean “mercy seat”, “expiation” (the removal of guilt and the purifying of the sinner), or “propitiation” (appeasing God’s wrath). Scholars differ on exactly how to understand it in this verse but we need not take an either/or approach. If we understand hilasterion as mercy seat, this would mean Paul is alluding to the cover over the ark where God appeared and on which sacrificial blood was poured (Lev 16). This understanding agrees with Heb 9:5 and 21 of 27 occurrences of hilasterion in the LXX. The “mercy seat” was the place of atonement in the old covenant and so Paul is saying that Christ is the place of atonement in the new covenant. Whereas the ark of the covenant was in secret, the death of Christ was public. At the same time the Greek word hilasterion is connected to expiation and propitiation. Expiation refers to wiping away the guilt of sin and propitiation refers to turning away the wrath of God. Christ’s death was expiatory and propitiatory, in addition to being like the mercy seat.

Faith is the means by which people appropriate the benefits of the sacrifice of atonement (mercy seat). Christ’s death/blood is the means by which God is propitiated (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; 2:13; Col 1:20).

In this verse, God’s righteousness refers to his character. God “passed over” the sins that were committed before Christ’s crucifixion in the sense that he did not exact a full and immediate punishment of the sins but, rather, provided an opportunity for repentance (2:4). This does not mean that God failed to punish sins at all under the old covenant or that he never really forgave sins under the old covenant. “By passing over these sins God appears to have compromised his righteousness — any judge who passes over a person’s offenses without punishment cannot be said to be righteous/just.”9 Christ’s death is both a judgment on those past sins and a propitiatory sacrifice for those past sins (and all sins). Hence, it satisfies the demands of God’s character and demonstrates his righteousness.

26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.

The “present time” (kairos) is the correct time as determined by God. It is the time of salvation. Moo thinks the phrase “just and the justifier” should be translated “just even in justifying”. He takes Paul to be saying that God maintains his righteous character even while justifying sinful people. Christ’s death provides salvation to all who have faith in Jesus, not just to those who lived prior to his crucifixion.

27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith!

Paul returns to the diatribe style in verses 27-31. There is disagreement on whether nomos (translated as “principle” in the NET) refers to the Mosaic law or to a principle/rule. Either way, the Jew cannot boast on the basis of works (cf. 2:17-24) because justification comes by faith (3:28).

28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.

Verse 28 defines the principle of faith mentioned in verse 27. The words “we consider” imply that Paul thought his audience would agree with him on this point. One enters the people of God by faith, not by works of the law.

29 Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too!

“Or” introduces the alternative to the principle set forth in v. 28: if justification is by works of the law, then only those “in the law” can be justified, and God becomes the God of Jews only.10

There is only one God, and he is God of all creation and the entire human race, Gentiles as well as Jews. Despite the special place of Israel in salvation history (cf. 11:25-29), she cannot claim an exclusive relationship to God.11

30 Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

Paul takes one of the most basic of Jewish beliefs, monotheism, and turns it against Judaism. The “oneness” of God was confessed by the pious Jew every day: “the LORD our God is one LORD” (Deut. 6:4). Yet if this is so, then God must be God of the Gentiles; else they would be left with no god. To be sure, Jews also believed that God was God of the whole world. But the limitations they placed upon this concept illustrate the radicality of Paul’s argument. For, in Judaism, God was the God of Gentiles only by virtue of his creative work, while only the Jews enjoy any meaningful relationship with God; this is expressed in later Jewish text: “I am God over all that came into the world, but I have joined my name only with you [Israel]; I am not called the God of the idolaters, but the God of Israel.” Only by accepting the torah could Gentiles hope to become related to God in the same way as Jews. In this paragraph, and in many other places in Romans, Paul makes clear that the torah no longer functions as the “dividing wall” between those who are outside and those who are inside the sphere of God’s people. In the OT, while the law was not the means of salvation, it did function to “mark out” the people of God; and in Judaism, it became an impenetrable barrier. But for Paul monotheism, as he has come to see it in Christ, means that there can be no such barrier; all must have equal access to God, and this can be guaranteed only if faith, not works in obedience to the Jewish law, is made the “entrance requirement.”12

Faith, not circumcision, is decisive for entrance into the people of God. That the circumcised are said to be justified by faith and the uncircumcised are justified through faith is merely a stylistic variation.

31 Do we then nullify the law through faith? Absolutely not! Instead we uphold the law.

To put it another way, the questioner is asking, “If people are justified by faith does that mean the law has been nullified or invalidated?” Paul responds that he is actually upholding, establishing, fulfilling, or confirming the law. How is the law upheld through faith? According to Kruse, the gospel enables the fulfillment of what the law sought to bring about in human behavior (8:2-4) and it fulfills what is foreshadowed in the law’s account of Abraham’s justification (4:1-25).13 Schreiner says that it is because those who have faith in Christ will keep the moral norms of the law.14

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 221 
  2. Moo 1996, 222-223 
  3. Witherington III 2004, 101 
  4. Moo 1996, 225-226 
  5. Witherington III 2004, 102 
  6. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3981-3982 
  7. Moo 1996, 227–228 
  8. Moo 1996, 230 
  9. Kruse 2012, 192 
  10. Moo 1996, 251 
  11. Kruse 2012, 197 
  12. Moo 1996, 251–252 
  13. Kruse 2012, 199 
  14. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 4383-4384 

Commentary on Romans 3:1-20

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision?

Paul frequently uses the words “what, then,” in Romans to raise questions about what he has taught and so further his argument. While it is possible that Paul “quotes” a real interlocutor, it is more likely that he himself poses these questions to his readers. In other words, Paul is not so much reproducing for his readers an argument between himself and another person as he is posing questions and objections to himself in order to make his views clear to the Romans. Remembering Paul’s own rich Jewish heritage, we might even regard the dialogue as one between Paul the Jew and Paul the Christian. In chap. 2, Paul, writing from the vantage point of the fulfillment of salvation history in Christ, has asserted that possession of the law and circumcision–in a word, being Jewish–makes no essential difference for the day of judgment. The question in v. 1 is therefore entirely natural: “What, then, is the advantage of being a Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision?”1

2 Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.

Many advantages of the Jew are listed in 9:4-5: “To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever!” In this passage Paul focuses on being entrusted with the oracles of God in the form of the Scriptures (cf. Deut 4:8; Ps 147:19-20).

Rom. 3:3 suggests that the promises of salvation for Israel are uppermost in Paul’s mind. The advantage should not be restricted merely to the possession of the Scriptures and the stewardship required because of their possession. This would scarcely advance the argument beyond chapter 2 since the possession of the law by Israel, although an advantage in some respects, ensures only that Israel will be judged because of their failure to obey it. Rather, Paul declares something more profound about the “saving advantage” that ethnic Israel possessed: they had promises from God ensuring them of future salvation.2

3 What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God?

That some did not believe (were unfaithful) implies that some did believe (were faithful). Chapter 2 indicates that many Jews failed to obey the Law of Moses, while chapters 9-11 indicate that most Jews had failed to believe in Christ, the fulfillment of the OT covenant. Both kinds of unbelief are in view in verse 3. God’s faithfulness is contrasted to the faithlessness of the Jews.

4 Absolutely not! Let God be proven true, and every human being shown up as a liar, just as it is written: “so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged.”

The phrase “every human being shown up as a liar” is from Ps 116:11. God will remain faithful (true) to his promises even if every person is a liar (faithless, unreliable).

The phrase “so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged” is taken from Ps 51:4. Another translation is: “so that you will be justified in your words, and that you might triumph when you judge.”3 In that verse David confesses his sin with Bathsheba and pleads for forgiveness. The section quoted by Paul describes God’s righteousness in judgment. Any judgment upon David would be just. Up to this point in the chapter Paul has focused on God’s promises of salvation. He now notes that God is also faithful to his promises when judging the disobedient because God’s word promises judgment for disobedience, not just blessing for obedience (cf. Neh 9:32-33).

As Paul has shown at length in chap. 2, the special place of the Jews in God’s plan does not protect them from the judgment of God. In 3:1-4, Paul reaffirms their special status by appealing to the invariability of God with respect to his word. But he also reminds us that this word includes warnings of judgment as well as promises of blessing. It is “the Jew first,” but in judgment (2:9) as well as blessing (1:16; 2:10).4

5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is he? (I am speaking in human terms.)

The precise meaning of this verse is difficult to determine. Schreiner starts by noting that Paul has been teaching (Rom 1-3) that human beings are unable to keep God’s law (8:5-8) and that their election by God is their only hope for salvation (Rom 9-11). Schreiner understands the objection in verse 5 to be saying: “Paul, your gospel teaches that the unrighteousness of Jews has a good end, in that it highlights God’s righteousness and justice in judging sinners. But the flaw in your theology is that the corruption of the Jews is so radical that the only way God can fulfill his saving promises to them is by a sovereign divine choice (cf. Rom. 9-11). If Jews can do nothing to contribute to their own salvation and are fundamentally corrupt, then is not God ‘unrighteous’ (adikos) to inflict his wrath on them?”5

6 Absolutely not! For otherwise how could God judge the world?

Paul’s point appears to be that if God were said to be unjust in bringing his wrath upon unrighteous Jews, the corollary would be that he could not judge the (Gentile) world either. It is, however, a sine qua non that God is the judge of the whole world (cf., e.g., Pss 7:6; 9:7; Isa 2:4; 34:8). It is also a given in the OT that the judge of all the earth will do right (cf. Gen 18:25).6

This issue is picked up again in chapters 9-11.

7 For if by my lie the truth of God enhances his glory, why am I still actually being judged as a sinner?

The logical progression of the passage in verses 7-8 is uncertain. The main issue is whether these verses (a) contain objections to Paul’s teaching or (b) contain Paul’s reply to his objectors. Moo states that verse 7 does not naturally follow from verse 6 and reads more naturally as a reiteration of the objection from verse 5. The first person singular is a rhetorical variant of the first person plural in verse 5. Verses 5-6 contrast human unrighteousness with God’s righteousness and verses 7-8 contrast human falsehood with God’s truthfulness.

8 And why not say, “Let us do evil so that good may come of it”? — as some who slander us allege that we say. (Their condemnation is deserved!)

The “and” at the start of verse 8 suggests this verse is a continuation of the objection in verse 7. Paul indicates that he has been falsely charged with advocating immoral behavior so that God’s glory could be enhanced. Strangely, he does not answer the objection.

Why, then, does Paul not answer the objection? A very common suggestion is that Paul does so, but not until Rom. 6–note the similarity between what is said here and 6:1: “should we continue in sin in order that grace might increase?” However, 6:1 is the question of a Christian in light of the abundance of God’s grace; the objection here is posed by a Jew, questioning whether his or her actions really have any meaning in light of Paul’s assertion that even sin leads to God’s glory. And Paul’s response in Rom. 6 is not really appropriate to the issue raised here. We must suppose, then, that Paul intends the very absurdity of the objection to imply its dismissal. The viewpoint taken by the Jewish objector, that it would not be right for God to punish his people for their sins, is implied to be fallacious, and, indeed, blasphemous, by the absurd conclusion to which his objection leads.7

The “their” who is condemned could be the people who do evil so that good may come of it and/or those who slander Paul.

The closest, and most natural, antecedent is the subject of the main clause in v. 8–those who object that Paul’s doctrine encourages the practice of sin. But, since these people are expressing essentially the same viewpoint as the “I” in v. 7, Paul’s sentence of condemnation embraces the objectors in vv. 7-8 as a whole. Paul, then, both rejects the excuse put forward in v. 7–God is “just” to judge the sinner whose “lie” brings God glory–and imposes the sentence appropriate for the “blasphemy” of those who have maligned Paul and, by implication, the God who has manifested his righteousness in Christ.8

9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin,

The meaning of the Greek translated “Are we better off?” is difficult to determine. The “we” can probably be identified as the Jews since they have been the subject of discussion in verses 1-8. The meaning of the Greek verb proechometha (“better off”) is not clear. The question could be “Are we Jews surpassed [by the Gentiles]?” or “Do we Jews have an advantage?” That the Jews have a salvation-historical advantage, according to verses 1-2, makes the latter question the more likely alternative. Regardless, the answer to question is “no” because Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.

At first sight, it might seem that this answer conflicts with what Paul has said in vv. 1-2. But Paul is making complementary, not contradictory, points. The Jews have an unassailable salvation-historical advantage: God has spoken to them and he has given them promises that will not be retracted (vv. 1-2). But, as Paul has repeatedly emphasized in chap. 2, the Jews have no advantage at all when it comes to God’s impartial judgment of every person “according to his or her works.” And this is the issue that Paul is addressing in v. 9, as his explanation of his negative response indicates: “we have already accused all people, whether Jews or Greeks, of being under sin.” Paul is referring to the comprehensive indictment of humanity in 1:18-2:29, as first the Greek or the Gentile (1:19b-32) and then the Jew (2:1-29) were brought before the divine bar and found wanting. We have, then, in this statement, Paul’s own comment on his purpose in this section of his letter. All people who have not experienced the righteousness of God by faith are “under sin”: that is, they are helpless captives to its power.9

Schreiner emphasizes that sin is a power and not only a kind of action:

For instance, sin is described as reigning (5:21), enslaving (6:6), ruling (6:12), and exercising lordship (6:14). People are described as slaves to (6:16, 17, 20) or freed from (6:18, 22) sin. Sin as a power cannot ultimately be separated from acts of sin. The catena in verses 10-18 bears this out. Sin as a power rules over all people, but it manifests itself in specific acts, as verses 10-17 attest. The anthropological dimensions of the Pauline doctrine of sin here should not be overlooked. Paul had a darker view of human ability than some Jews in that the latter believed that human beings had the capability to observe the law. Judaism acknowledged that all people without exception were sinners. But Paul thought that sin had wrapped its tentacles so tightly around human beings that they could not keep the law. This state of affairs obtained not only for the Gentiles but also for the Jews, who were God’s covenant people.10

10 just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one, 11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.”

The statement, ‘there is no one righteous’, comes from Ecclesiastes 7:20: ‘Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous; no one who does what is right and never sins’, and the claim that ‘there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God’ draws upon Psalm 14:2 (LXX 13:2): ‘The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God’, and Psalm 53:2 (LXX 52:3): ‘God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God’, while the quotation, ‘All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one’, comes from Psalm 14:3 (LXX 13:3): ‘All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one’, and Psalm 53:3 (LXX 52:4): ‘Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one’.11

As is the case with most of the quotations in this series, Paul’s wording agrees closely with the LXX. But there is one important difference: where the Psalms text has “there is no one who does good,” Paul has “there is no one who is righteous.” Granted the importance of the language of “righteousness” in this part of Romans (cf. 3:4, 5, 8, 19, 20), the word is almost certainly Paul’s own editorial change. It will thus carry with it Paul’s specifically forensic nuance (cf. 1:17). What he means is that there is not a single person who, apart from God’s justifying grace, can stand as “right” before God. This meaning is not far from David’s intention in the Psalm, as he unfolds the myriad dimensions of human folly.12

13 “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.”

The quotations in verses 13-17 provide descriptions of representative sins instead of focusing on the universality of sin. This verse juxtaposes Ps 5:9 and Ps 140:3. The phrase “their throats are open graves” either denotes inner corruption from which hurtful speech flows or the deadly effects of speech.

14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

This statement is from Ps 10:7.

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood, 16 ruin and misery are in their paths, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.”

Verses 15-17 are based on Isa 59:7-8 (verse 15 may be based on Prov 1:16).

18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

This citation is from Ps 36:1. The root of sin is a failure to fear God.

In verses 10-18, Paul quotes a number of OT passages. In their original contexts, the passages do not say there are no righteous persons at all. Rather, the texts distinguish between the righteous and the unrighteous. This has led G. Davies to wonder whether Paul is really saying all people without exception are sinners. Schreiner explains why Davies’s position is wrong:

Although Davies’s solution is initially plausible, it should be rejected. Dunn argues perceptively that Paul uses the OT texts in a more sophisticated way. Those texts that distinguished between the righteous and wicked are now turned against Jews who believed they were righteous, in order to prosecute the theme that all are guilty before God. By abolishing the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, Paul overturns the Jewish concept of covenantal protection. The sin of the Jews places them in the same situation as the Gentiles: guilty before God. The indictment of “all” as sinners is confirmed by the remarkable emphasis on universality noted earlier. To say that “all” are under sin, both Jews and Gentiles (v. 9), and to exclude everyone in such emphatic terms from being righteous, understanding, and so on surely suggests that Paul is speaking universally. Indeed, we shall see that the all-pervasiveness of sin continues to be prominent in verses 19-20. Thus we can be assured that Paul intends to say that all without exception, including the Jews, are sinners and guilty before God.13

Kruse adds:

Paul’s purpose in listing these quotations is to say that as a people Jews are no better than Gentiles. Paul would certainly know of the many righteous persons spoken of in the OT, not least Abraham, to whom he refers in the next chapter (4:1-25). However, it must be said that such ‘righteous’ persons are not the morally flawless, but those who have responded with repentance to the goodness of God. Not one of them would have been declared righteous by God because of their peerless behavior. Thus Paul’s conclusion that follows in the next verse stands.14

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

In the context of the previous OT quotations, the “law” means all of Scripture. Those under the law are the Jewish people.

The hina (in order that) conveys purpose, indicating why the law was given to the Jews. The purpose explicated is rather surprising. The law was given to the Jews so that “every mouth should be closed and the whole world answerable to God” (pan stoma phrage kai hypodikos genetai pas ho kosmos to theo; cf. Job 40:4-5). How could the whole world be liable to God’s judgment because of a law given to the Jews? The answer is not that difficult. If the Jews, who had the privilege of being God’s covenantal and elect people, could not keep the law, then it follows that no one, including the Gentiles, can.[^BECNT3630]

“Paul’s point is that the Jewish law, by condemning Jewish failures, silences all claims by Jews to be superior to Gentiles.”15 If the Jews, God’s chosen people, will be accountable then so too will the Gentiles, who cannot claim God’s special favor, be accountable.

The terminology of this clause reflects the imagery of the courtroom. “Shutting the mouth” connotes the situation of the defendant who has no more to say in response to the charges brought against him or her. The Greek word translated “accountable” occurs nowhere else in the Scriptures, but it is used in extrabiblical Greek to mean “answerable to” or “liable to prosecution,” “accountable.” Paul pictures God both as the one offended and as the judge who weighs the evidence and pronounces the verdict. The image, then, is of all humanity standing before God, accountable to him for willful and inexcusable violations of his will, awaiting the sentence of condemnation that their actions deserve.16

20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

This verse, an allusion to Ps 143:2, draws 1:18-3:20 to a close. The future tense of the verb “to declare righteous” indicates that the final judgment is in view.

“Works of the law,” then, as most interpreters have recognized, refers simply to “things that are done in obedience to the law.” Paul uses the phrase “works of the law” instead of the simple “works” because he is particularly concerned in this context to deny to Jews an escape from the general sentence pronounced in v. 19. But, since “works of the law” are simply what we might call “good works” defined in Jewish terms, the principle enunciated here has universal application; nothing a person does, whatever the object of obedience or the motivation of that obedience, can bring him or her into favor with God. It is just at this point that the significance of the meaning we have given “works of the law” emerges so clearly. Any restricted definition of “works of the law” can have the effect of opening the door to the possibility of justification by works–“good” deeds that are done in the right spirit, with God’s enabling grace, or something of the sort. This, we are convinced, would be to misunderstand Paul at a vital point. The heart of his contention in this section of Romans is that no one is capable of doing anything to gain acceptance with God; this is why for everyone faith in Christ is the only possible way to God. In this verse, Paul does not spell out the “logic” of why works cannot justify. But the context, where the principle that “doers of the law will be justified” has been enunciated (2:13), and where it has been shown that all are under the power of sin (3:9; cf. 3:10-18), suggests that it is because no one is able to do the law sufficiently well to gain favor with God.

The last part of v. 20 supports Paul’s contention in the first part of the verse by setting forth what it is that the law does accomplish (as opposed to that which it cannot accomplish). The law does not justify; rather, “through” it comes “knowledge of sin.” Since “knowledge” in the Bible can sometimes designate personal experience of something (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21, where Christ is said not to have “known” sin), “knowledge of sin” might mean the actual experience of sinning. On this view, the law, because it encourages people to perform good works, entices them to seek to determine their own destiny and to “boast” in their accomplishments. Thus are people (and especially Jews) led by the law into sinning. This conception, which is particularly associated with Bultmann and his followers, is a basic misrepresentation of Paul. He does not view the attempt to do the law as bad, nor is the doing of the law wrong. It is people’s failure to do it that creates the problem. “Knowledge of sin,” on the other hand, does not simply mean that the law defines sin; rather, what is meant is that the law gives to people an understanding of “sin” (singular) as a power that holds everyone in bondage and brings guilt and condemnation. The law presents people with the demand of God. In our constant failure to attain the goal of that demand, we recognize ourselves to be sinners and justly condemned for our failures.17

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 180-181 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3232-3236 
  3. Moo 1996, 186 
  4. Moo 1996, 188 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3374-3378 
  6. Kruse 2012, 162 
  7. Moo 1996, 195 
  8. Moo 1996, 196 
  9. Moo 1996, 200-201 
  10. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3549-3557 
  11. Kruse 2012, 166 
  12. Moo 1996, 203 
  13. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3612-3621 
  14. Kruse 2012, 169 
  15. Kruse 2012, 170 
  16. Moo 1996, 205 
  17. Moo 1996, 209-210 

Commentary on Romans 2:17-29

Notes (NET Translation)

17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God

Paul resumes the diatribe style and explicitly identifies the person he addresses as a Jew (the “you” is singular). In 2:17-18 he “lists five privileges that the one who calls himself a Jew claims to enjoy; he relies upon the law; he brags about his relationship with God; he knows God’s will; he is able to approve what is superior; and he is instructed by the law.”1 These privileges are legitimate in themselves. Paul is criticizing disobedience to the law, not the privileges.

18 and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law,

The phrase “approve the superior things” could also be translated “approve those things that are best” or “distinguish the things that really matter.”2 “In the context of 2:18-20 ‘what is superior’ is the knowledge of God’s will in terms of moral instruction that Jews have access to through the law and therefore could pass on to others.”3

19 and if you are convinced that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,

Israel was intended to be a light to the Gentiles (Isa 42:6-7; 49:6).

20 an educator of the senseless, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the essential features of knowledge and of the truth —

As he did in v. 18, Paul adds to his list of Jewish prerogatives a participial clause in which he traces the benefits enjoyed by the Jews to the law. Paul highlights the sufficiency of the law by claiming that it contains “the embodiment of knowledge and truth.” Paul has asserted that all people, including especially those without special revelation, have access to “knowledge” and “truth” (1:18-19, 25, 28, 32) and are hence “without excuse” when they turn from it. The Jew has this knowledge and truth embodied in far clearer and more detailed form in the law, a claim he acknowledges, and indeed boasts of. Even more than the Gentile, therefore, the Jewish person is “without excuse” before God (2:1).4

21 therefore you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?

The argument veers in a different direction in verses 21-24. Despite the advantages of the Jews, they have failed to live up to their calling. The οὖν (oun, therefore) in verse 21 confirms that Paul draws a conclusion from the preceding verses, although in an unexpected and surprising way. Four rhetorical questions advance the argument in verses 21-22, with a climactic conclusion drawn in verses 23-24. The first rhetorical question (“therefore, the one who teaches others, do you not teach yourself?”) functions as the heading that is broken down more specifically in the three succeeding questions. Paul does not object to Jews teaching others. That is their calling! He questions whether the Jews violated the very law they treasured and taught to others, and implies that they were guilty of hypocrisy (cf. Matt. 23:3-4).5

22 You who tell others not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?

Paul’s claim that the Jew “detests idols” is clear enough, and captures an important element of Jewish religion in the first century. The threat to Jewish existence posed by the inroads of Hellenism and the dispersion of Jews throughout pagan society had led to increased emphasis on the need to avoid such pagan practices. Idolatry, in the technical sense, was generally unknown among Jews at this time. Indeed, what Paul accuses the Jew of doing is not specifically worshiping idols, but “robbing temples.” What Paul means by this accusation is not clear.

(1) He might use the word in its natural, literal sense. While evidence that Jews engaged in the robbing of temples is scarce, there is some reason to think that the strictures against using the precious metals from idolatrous articles (cf. Deut. 7:26) were being relaxed and disobeyed. Paul could, then, be citing the use of such articles stolen from pagan temples as an example of a practice that contradicted the Jews’ avowed abhorrence of idolatry.

(2) Paul might apply the word to the robbing of the Jerusalem Temple, which would be taking place when Jews failed to pay the “temple tax” that was required of all Jews for the support of the worship of the Lord.

(3) Paul might apply the word to sacrilege in a general sense. For Paul’s accusation to make sense, this sacrilege would have to involve various acts (or attitudes) of impiety toward the God of Israel–as, for instance, elevating the law to such an extent that it infringed on the rights and honor of the Lord himself. Each of these alternatives has its problems. Both the second and the third suffer from the difficulty that an act committed against the Jewish Temple or God is not a contradiction to the Jews’ abhorrence of idols. If we adopt the first alternative, on the other hand, Paul would be accusing his Jewish target of an offense that was, at best, rare. Nevertheless, this difficulty is not as great as the one faced by the second and third alternatives. Moreover, this interpretation places this third accusation on the same footing as the first two (see below).

Why has Paul chosen examples of such serious and relatively infrequent activities to accuse Jews generally of failing to live out the law they reverence? How could his accusations be convincing to those Jews, surely in the majority, who had never stolen, committed adultery, or robbed a temple? Some interpreters conclude that Paul must view each of these activities in the light of the “deepening” of the law taught by Jesus (Matt. 5:21-48). “When theft, adultery, and sacrilege are strictly and radically understood, there is no man who is not guilty of all three.” But there is nothing in the context to make such an understanding of these activities likely, and much that is against it. Paul’s purpose in Rom. 2 is to convince Jews of the inadequacy of their works, defined according to the standard of the law itself. For him to accuse them of breaches of the law in the radicalized sense in which Jesus taught it would be to leave this intent behind.

Another suggestion is made by Watson, who notes that the context especially stresses the teaching activity of Jews. He thinks that Paul may be criticizing leaders of the Jewish community in Rome who had been active in proselytizing, but whose immorality had led to their expulsion from the city. Watson’s interpretation grows out of his reconstruction of the social situation addressed by Paul in Romans, a reconstruction that reads more into the text than is justified. Nevertheless, there may be an element of truth in his suggestion, in the sense that Paul’s intention seems to be to cite these breaches of the law as exemplary of the contrast between words and works, possession of the law and obedience of it, that is the leitmotif of Rom. 2. It is not, then, that all Jews commit these sins, but that these sins are representative of the contradiction between claim and conduct that does pervade Judaism. Paul may, then, have chosen these particular sins in order to make a contrast with the commands of the Decalogue (if “robbing temples” can be construed as a violation of the first commandment) or to follow the pattern of other “vice lists,” in which items such as murder, adultery, and sacrilege often appeared, or, perhaps most likely, to show the equivalence between the sins of Jews and of Gentiles (cf. 2:3).6

The lead question contains the theme: Do you Jews violate the very law you teach? The three questions that follow provide colorful examples of the principle that they transgress the law they proclaim. To conclude that these examples charge every Jew of committing these particular sins is a mistake. Paul uses particularly blatant and shocking examples (like any good preacher) to illustrate the principle that Jews violated the law that they possessed. . . . Furthermore, the indictment is against the Jews as a nation, as Ito rightly observes. They have not experienced God’s saving righteousness because of their sin.7

While it is difficult to be certain about the precise meaning of Paul’s reference to robbing temples, the overall purpose of 2:21-22 is clear enough. It highlights the hypocrisy of his dialogue partner and those whom he represents, that is, Jews who teach others but do not practice what they preach.8

23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by transgressing the law!

The ultimate reason the Jews were given the law was so that their lives would bring honor and glory to the name of God. By their transgression, however, they have brought scorn and dishonor upon his name. Just as the Gentiles failed to bring him glory by repudiating the revelation available from the created order, the Jews failed to honor him by practicing the law that was vouchsafed to them.9

24 For just as it is written, “the name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

This quotation is from Isa 52:5.

Isaiah was speaking of the Jews’ Babylonian captivity, during which time God’s name had been blasphemed among the Gentiles. As his people were punished for their disobedience to his law, it provided occasion for God’s name to be profaned among the Gentiles. Paul implies that his dialogue partner’s failure to obey the law is likewise bringing God’s name into dispute.10

In Isaiah, the blaspheming of God’s name occurs through the oppression of Israel, God’s chosen people, by foreign powers. Paul ascribes the cause of the blasphemy to the disobedient lives of his people. Perhaps Paul intends the reader to see the irony in having responsibility for dishonoring God’s name transferred from the Gentiles to the people of Israel.11

25 For circumcision has its value if you practice the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.

The Jew might believe that circumcision marks him out as belonging to God’s chosen people and thus not in danger of God’s wrath. Paul contests the value of circumcision from shielding the Jew from God’s judgment and wrath.

What does Paul mean by “practice the law”? Does it mean perfect conformity to the letter of the law or not?

The following arguments are made in support of the claim that “practice the law” means an imperfect but heartfelt obedience to the law:

  1. The OT, like Paul in vv 28-29, stresses that the attitude of the heart is necessary to truly obey the law.
  2. First century Judaism taught that the law was doable. In vv 26-27 Paul seems to think that it is possible to obey the law.

The following argument is made in support of the claim that “practice the law” means perfect obedience of the law:

  1. Throughout Romans Paul maintains a distinction between faith on the one hand and “the law”, “works,” or “doing” on the other (3:27; 4:1-5, 13-16; 10:5-8; cf. Gal 3:12). It is faith that saves so it is unlikely he is according salvific value to circumcision or doing the law.

To become uncircumcised is to become like a Gentile and to forfeit any defense being among God’s chosen people might provide on judgment day.

26 Therefore if the uncircumcised man obeys the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?

As in 2:14, we must ask whether the obedience of the Gentiles is (1) hypothetical, (2) the obedience of those who have responded to the light they have perceived, or (3) the obedience of Christian Gentiles.

Douglas J. Moo takes it as hypothetical:

Who are these uncircumcised Gentiles who keep the law and are saved on the day of judgment? We have already dismissed the possibility that Paul would describe Gentiles apart from faith in Christ as saved through their obedience to the light they have received. However, if one finds a reference to Gentile Christians in earlier verses of the chapter where a similar positive assessment of Gentiles is made (2:7, 10, 14-15), it is natural to make the same identification here. But even some who do not think these earlier verses refer to Gentile Christians are persuaded that they are in view here. Partly, this is because of the apparent realism of v. 27 and the fact that v. 29 alludes, however ambiguously, to Christians. But it is also argued that the phrase “guards the just decrees of the law” is a stronger expression than, for instance, “do the things of the law” (v. 14) and signifies a full and complete fulfillment of the law such as is possible only for Christians. This is questionable. Although Paul says that Christians who are walking by the Spirit have fulfilled in them “the just decree of the law” (Rom. 8:4), both the singular noun and the passive verb differentiate that statement from what Paul says here. Yet Paul does not depict the Christian as one who is under obligation to the specific stipulations of the Mosaic law. The Christian is no longer “under the [Mosaic] law” (6:14, 15), but under “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2; cf. 1 Cor. 9:20). Finally, the context suggests that as transgression of the law disbars the Jew from salvation (v. 25), so obedience to the law grants the Gentile membership among the saved. But it is impossible that Paul would have described any Christian as having been granted this status as a result of obeying the law.

We therefore conclude that Paul is again here citing God’s standard of judgment apart from the gospel as a means of erasing the distinction at this point between Jew and Gentile. Paul is not pointing the way to salvation but is showing Jews that their position, despite their covenant privileges, is essentially no different from that of the Gentiles: disobedience brings condemnation; obedience brings salvation. Paul’s way of putting the matter in this context could, of course, suggest that there actually are people who meet this requirement for salvation; but his later argument quickly disabuses us of any such idea (cf. 3:9, 20).

Nevertheless, we should not miss the revolutionary implications of what Paul suggests here. Circumcision was, after all, commanded in the law–yet Paul can say that people who are not circumcised can do the law. This assumption looks toward a new understanding of what the covenant is and what God requires of his people, an understanding that arises from the conviction that a new stage in salvation history has begun. Without directly describing Christians here, then, Paul’s logic anticipates his teaching that it is faith and the indwelling of the Spirit that meet God’s demand and so bring people into relationship with God. We may paraphrase: “if it should be that there were an uncircumcised person who perfectly kept the law (which in this sense there is not, though in another sense, as we will see, there is), that person would be considered a full member of the people of God.”12

Thomas R. Schreiner believes Christian Gentiles are in view:

That Paul refers to genuine obedience is suggested in both verses 26 and 27, where the uncircumcised observe the law. In verse 26 the Gentiles “keep the ordinances of the law” (τὰ δικαιώματα τοῦ νόμου ϕυλάσσῃ, ta dikaiōmata tou nomou phylassē), and in verse 27 they “fulfill the law” (τὸν νόμον τελοῦσα, ton nomon telousa). Nothing indicates that the obedience described here is hypothetical. For instance, Paul does not mention the judgment of Gentiles, as was evident in 2:12 and 16. Moo suggests incorrectly that Paul in verse 27 is thinking of Gentiles who will judge Jews “not by keeping the law, but by faith.” Against this, the text specifically refers to the keeping of the law twice, and says nothing at all about faith. Of course, the obedience of the law spoken of here flows from faith, but it is obedience that has its source in faith. We should not miss the accent here, which is on keeping the law. Moo goes astray not by emphasizing faith but by separating keeping the law from faith. No significance should probably be ascribed to the different verbs employed for keeping the law. The words πράσσειν (prassein, to practice, v. 25), ϕυλάσσειν (phylassein, to keep, v. 26), and τέλειν (telein, to fulfill, v. 27) are overlapping synonyms. The word δικαιώματα is often used of OT commandments (e.g., Deut. 4:40; 6:2; 7:11; Ezek. 11:20; 18:9; 20:18-19), and thus the OT law is in view, although a distinction in the law seems to be contemplated since circumcision is excluded from the “ordinances.” A parallel text in Rom. 8:4 suggests as well that 2:26 refers to believers fulfilling τὸ δικαίωμα τοῦ νόμου (to dikaiōma tou nomou, the ordinance of the law) by the power of the Holy Spirit. The singular δικαίωμα signals that the law is a unity. No material difference exists between the singular in 8:4 and the plural in 2:26, since the singular in the former text comprehends the diversity of the law’s requirements.

Verse 26 also shows that believers are in view by saying that the “uncircumcision” of Gentiles “will be reckoned as circumcision” (εἰς περιτομὴν λογισθήσεται, eis peritomēn logisthēsetai). I noted above that circumcision was the covenant sign that one belonged to the people of God. To be considered as circumcised means that the Gentile who keeps the commandments is part of God’s people, the redeemed community. The future tense of λογισθήσεται implies that such a reckoning will occur on the day of judgment, while the passive intimates that God does the reckoning. In addition, Paul uses λογίζεσθαι often, especially in Romans (cf. Rom. 3:28; 4:3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24; 9:8; 2 Cor. 5:19; Gal. 3:6), of those who are reckoned to be in a right relationship with God. To interpret the reckoning here in a weaker sense is unpersuasive. The most natural way to take the clause is that Gentiles who observe the commandments will be reckoned righteous before God on the last day.

The decisive argument for seeing genuine obedience by Gentiles in verses 26-27 and for identifying these Gentiles as Christians is the γάρ (gar, for) that links verses 28-29 with verses 25-27. The γάρ has a twofold significance in these verses. First, it confirms that no salvific advantage exists in being physically circumcised and possessing the law (vv. 25-27). To be an ethnic Jew (ὁ ἐν τῷ ϕανερῷ Ἰουδαῖος, ho en tō phanerō Ioudaios, a Jew outwardly, v. 28) or to be physically circumcised (ἡ ἐν τῷ ϕανερῷ ἐν σαρκὶ περιτομή, hē en tō phanerō en sarki peritomē, circumcision that is outward in the flesh) does not mean that one is a true Jew or truly circumcised. Again the notion that the Jews could rely on the Mosaic covenant for their salvation is undermined.

Second, the γάρ strengthens the case for the Gentile Christian interpretation in verses 26-27. How can uncircumcised (ἀκροβυστία, akrobystia) Gentiles belong to the people of God if they do not adopt the covenant sign of circumcision and attach themselves to Judaism? Paul’s answer in verse 29 is that physical circumcision and being an ethnic Jew are unnecessary to belong to the people of God. What counts is being “a Jew in secret” (ὁ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ Ἰουδαῖος, ho en tō kryptō Ioudaios), that is, in the heart, and possessing “the circumcision of the heart” (περιτομὴ καρδίας, peritomē kardias). Paul’s radical shift from the covenant with Moses is apparent. Contrary to Gen. 17:9-14 he asserts that submission to physical circumcision for membership in the covenant is unnecessary. All that is needed is the spiritual circumcision of the heart. Of course, both the OT (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4) and second temple Judaism (Jub. 1.23; 1QS 5.5; Philo, Spec. Laws 1.1 § 6; 1.61 § § 304-5; Migr. Abr. 16 § § 89-93) emphasized the need for a circumcised heart. But both spiritual circumcision and physical circumcision were considered essential. No thought of abandoning the physical rite was contemplated. Paul transcends his contemporaries in insisting that physical circumcision is expendable. I noted earlier that a few lax Jews questioned the necessity of circumcision for conversion to Judaism. Paul’s position on circumcision differs dramatically from theirs as well. They questioned imposing circumcision on Gentiles because it was culturally or politically difficult for Gentiles to join the Jewish people (cf. Josephus, Ant. 20.2.4 § § 38-41). Paul, however, rejected the imposition of circumcision on Gentiles in principle, for it was part of an old covenant that was temporary (cf. 2 Cor. 3:4-11) and the day of distinctions between Jews and Gentiles had ended (Eph. 2:11-22).13

27 And will not the physically uncircumcised man who keeps the law judge you who, despite the written code and circumcision, transgress the law?

Here in 2:27 Paul makes an even more drastic statement: the obedient Gentile will condemn the Jew who, though privileged to have the written code (the law) and to bear the mark of the covenant in his flesh (circumcision), is nevertheless a ‘lawbreaker’. The apostle has in mind not so much Gentiles acting as judges but rather as witnesses for the prosecution. Their obedience to the law will constitute the ‘evidence of what the Jew ought to have been and could have been’.14

28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh,

29 but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code. This person’s praise is not from people but from God.

From the earliest history of Israel, God called on the people to display the kind of inner transformation that could be called a “circumcision of the heart” (e.g., Deut. 10:16; cf. Jer. 4:4). Significantly, it was also recognized that only God could ultimately bring about this heart transformation (Deut. 30:6). There thus grew up in Judaism the expectation that God would one day circumcise the hearts of his people through the work of the Spirit. Thus Paul’s call for a “circumcision of the heart, in the Spirit,” is not entirely original. But the unprecedented addition of the negative phrase “not in letter” raises the question whether or not he is using the concept with a deeper significance.

The “letter/spirit” contrast Paul uses here has played a prominent role in church history, where it was often applied to interpretation: the “letter” denoting the literal, surface meaning of a text and the “spirit” its deeper, allegorical sense. Paul, however, never uses the contrast with this application. As we have seen (see v. 27), Paul uses “letter” to refer to the law of Moses “as written.” In the current context, because of its proximity to “heart” and apparent contrast with “manifest,” some interpreters think that “spirit” might refer to the inner aspect of the human being. But the immediate contrast here is with “letter”; and this suggests that “spirit,” like “letter,” refers to a God-given entity. Thus, as in the other Pauline “letter/spirit” passages (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6-7), “spirit” should be capitalized: it refers to God’s Holy Spirit. Paul’s “letter”/”Spirit” contrast is a salvation-historical one, “letter” describing the past era in which God’s law through Moses played a central role and “Spirit” summing up the new era in which God’s Spirit is poured out in eschatological fullness and power. It is only the circumcision “in the Spirit” that ultimately counts.15

The Spirit’s work on the heart logically precedes the observance of the law by the Gentiles. Autonomous works are rejected, but works that are the fruit of the Spirit’s work are necessary to be saved. Paul is not speaking of perfect obedience, but of obedience that clarifies that one has been transformed. This fits with Gal. 3:1-5 and Rom. 8:9, where reception of the Spirit is the mark that one belongs to the people of God. The good works done are not an achieving of salvation, then, but the outflow of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life. The obedience by the Gentiles is not perfect (see exegesis and exposition of Rom. 7:14-25), but it constitutes a significant and substantial indication of the Spirit’s presence.16

Comment

A Jew might believe that by possessing the law he has a special status before God. Paul’s argument in these verses is that knowledge of the law and physical circumcision have no value unless the law is obeyed. For both the Jew and the Gentile it is what is done that is important.

Circumcision, like the law, was a sign of the Jew’s privileged position as a member of the chosen people, participant in the covenant that God established with Abraham (Gen. 17). Later Judaism claimed that “no person who is circumcised will go down to Gehenna,” and the importance of the rite throughout the Second Temple period suggests that this view was prevalent in Paul’s day also. But Paul goes even further. Not only does disobedience of the law endanger the circumcised Jew’s salvation; obedience of the law can bring salvation to the uncircumcised Gentile.17

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Kruse 2012, 145 
  2. Moo 1996, 160-161 
  3. Kruse 2012, 148 
  4. Moo 1996, 162-163 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2899-2904 
  6. Moo 1996, 163-165 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2938-2945 
  8. Kruse 2012, 151 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2953-2956 
  10. Kruse 2012, 152 
  11. Moo 1996, 166 
  12. Moo 1996, 169-171 
  13. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3053-3098 
  14. Kruse 2012, 154-155 
  15. Moo 1996, 174-175 
  16. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3154-3159 
  17. Moo 1996, 166-167 

Re: Biblical Slavery for Foreigners

TL;DR

  • A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law: Volume 1 edited by Raymond Westbrook is available for free at the Internet Archive. Brill is asking $460 for both volumes. As far as I know Internet Archive is not hosting the book illegally.
  • A definition of slavery is hard to come by because, in my opinion, there are degrees of freedom. Depending on the definition of slavery and the circumstances, it is not clear that all forms of slavery are always wrong. Could it at times be the least evil option?
  • Exodus 21:16 forbids kidnapping people and making them slaves.
  • Deuteronomy 23:15-16 appears to make slavery in ancient Israel a voluntary institution.
  • The following are my comments from this thread, which has reach the point of diminishing returns. Perhaps someone will find them interesting, useful, or thought-provoking.

Many Christian apologists will not accept the idea that biblical slavery in the Old Testament was indeed slavery.

You make it sound like there is one, and only one, kind of slavery. But your source says (p. 40):

Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for “slave” in all the region’s languages illustrates. “Slave” could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his “slaves,” even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the “slave” of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were “slaves” of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as “your slave.” There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge.

A better criterion for a legal definition of slavery is its property aspect, since persons were recognized as a category of property that might be owned by private individuals. A slave was therefore a person to whom the law of property applied rather than family or contract law. Even this definition is not wholly exclusive, since family and contract law occasionally intruded upon the rules of ownership. Furthermore, the relationship between master and slave was subject to legal restrictions based on the humanity of the slave and concerns of social justice.”

They think it was all voluntary indentured servitude, or something link it.

Your source states (p. 1007):

A slave could also be freed by running away. According to Deuteronomy, a runaway slave is not to be returned to its master. He should be sheltered if he wishes or allowed to go free, and he must not be taken advantage of (Deut. 23:16–17). This provision is strikingly different from the laws of slavery in the surrounding nations and is explained as due to Israel’s own history as slaves. It would have the effect of turning slavery into a voluntary institution.

Here’s a quote from A History Of Ancient Near Eastern Law on slavery

You’re quote is from the introduction of a book that covers three millenia of history from a wide geographical area. It is not addressing biblical law in particular.

The foreigner, by contrast, could be enslaved through capture in war, kidnapping, or force, unless protected by the local ruler or given resident alien status.

Exodus 21:16 prescribes the death penalty for a man who kidnaps a man and sells him. Speaking of Israel, your source says, “Foreign slaves could be acquired by war, purchase, or birth” (p. 1004).


I’m aware of that. That says nothing about how there were people who were actual slaves in the way we normally use the term, and people who “could be enslaved through capture in war, kidnapping, or force,” were actual slaves. This is a vain attempt by you to deny or ignore that real deal slavery that existed in the ANE and that it was condoned by Yahweh.

If you are aware that there are different kinds of slavery then you should not speak about “real slaves” or anachronistically assert that biblical slavery was little different from slavery in the antebellum South. It’s also intellectually dishonest to re-use the phrase from the introduction (“could be enslaved through capture in war, kidnapping, or force”) when the phrase from the chapter on Israel omits kidnapping and force.

Well of course a slave could get freedom by running away, that’s no shocker. But again, this applies to Hebrew slaves, not foreign slaves.

The “shocker” is that a runaway slave should not be returned, which effectively turned slavery into a voluntary institution. On what basis do you hold that Deuteronomy 23:15-16 (“If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.”) applies only to Hebrew slaves?

On the page right before that (1006) it says: “4.5.4.6 Foreign slaves bought from the surrounding nations or from foreigners living in Israel do not go out: they are inherited as property (Lev. 25:44-46).” Slavery for foreigners was life long, not temporary indentured servitude.

Leviticus 25 merely notes that foreign slaves were not freed in the Jubilee Year. It does not say a foreign slave could never be freed.

That applies to Hebrew slaves, not foreigners. 4.5.2.2 from p. 1004 affirms that.

How is Exodus 21:16 (“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.”) restricted to slaves, let alone Hebrew slaves? The quote from 4.5.2.2 does not mention the kidnapping of slaves.

You’re doing exactly what this post is about: Christians denying that the Bible had real slavery and pretending it was all voluntary indentured servitude.

I never said all forms of slavery in the Bible are forms of voluntary indentured servitude.


Foreigners could be “enslaved through capture in war, kidnapping, or force”, but not Israelites, so you’re being dishonest or ignorant by not understanding this difference.

Why is it so difficult for you to distinguish between the two quotes?

Introduction: “The foreigner, by contrast, could be enslaved through capture in war, kidnapping, or force.”

Chapter on Israel: “Foreign slaves could be acquired by war, purchase, or birth.”

Are you unable to see that kidnapping and force are not mentioned in the chapter on Israel?

It says nothing about foreign slaves held by Israelites who escape. It refers to foreign slaves held by other nations who escape to Israel. Thom Stark comments: “The “you” here is the Israelite people, not the individual Israelite. Look at v. 4, for instance: “. . . because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.” The “you” here is the same as the “you” in v. 15. It refers to Israel as a singular entity. Thus, “Escape to you” means “come to the land of Israel for refuge.” So, no, this mandate did not apply to slaves already owned by Israelites.”

Stark’s argument fails. First, eleven verses separate v. 4 from v. 15. The topic changes from the assembly (vv. 1-8), to uncleanness in the camp (vv. 9-14), and then to miscellaneous laws (vv. 15-25). It need not be the case that the “you” referenced in v. 4 is identical to the “you” referenced in v. 15.

Second, he seems to be taking an either/or approach instead of a both/and approach. In other words, he seems to think that a law applies to Israel or to an individual Israelite. In fact, the law applies both to Israel and to each individual Israelite. Verses 12-13, concerning relieving oneself outside the camp, clearly apply to individuals (unless you think each and every Israelite went to the bathroom at the exact same time).

Third, he just tries to tell us what the Hebrew words must really mean because the words themselves don’t actually agree with Stark’s interpretation. Christopher J. H. Wright notes: “So starkly different is this law that some scholars think it can have applied only to foreign slaves seeking asylum in Israel. The law does not state that” (p. 336 of Old Testament Ethics for the People of God).

Yes it does! 4.5.2.2 says “Foreign slaves could be acquired by war, purchase, or birth.” That clearly shows a distinction between foreign slaves and Israelite slaves.

First, you ignored my request to explain why Exodus 21:16 is restricted to Hebrew slaves. Second, your quote does not mention kidnapping. Being captured in war is not the same as kidnapping.

Do you acknowledge that some forms of slavery condoned in the Bible are forced, involuntary servitude – what we normally think of as slavery?

The short answer is yes (with the caveat that you could flee). The long answer is that there does not seem to be a universally agreed upon definition of slavery. When we Americans think of slavery, we usually think of slavery as it existed in the antebellum South. But this was not the kind of slavery that existed in ancient Israel.


I’m not interested in a long debate over the meaning of “you” in this Bible verse, the bottom line is that slavery for foreigners in Israel was not voluntary indentured servitude.

You’re the one who started that argument. The bottom line is that even foreign slaves could flee from their masters to gain freedom.

Someone captured in war has had their power taken away by military defeat. They are taken as slaves by force because they have no choice. It is the same thing as being kidnapped.

Going to war is a choice with known risks. This is quite different from going about your business peacefully and being taken by force. You might as well tell me that becoming a prisoner of war is the same thing as being thrown into an unmarked van as you walk down the street.

First, black slaves in the south could flee – to the north. That’s what the underground railroad was for.

Various fugitive slave laws called for the return of escaped slaves. Those who assisted runaway slaves may have been committing a crime. Even free blacks from the north might be kidnapped and sold into slavery. The underground railroad helped escaped slaves avoid pursuers who could legally recapture the slaves. Canada, when slavery was abolished there, was a safer destination than the northern states for slaves to settle (all else being equal).

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, modern-day Israel is smaller than the state of New York. I’m guessing ancient Israel at its largest would still fit inside the state (and many others). According to biblical law, a slave could escape within this relatively small geographical area. Slave catchers could not kidnap him and the place he settled was not to return him. So obtaining freedom in ancient Israel was much easier than in the antebellum South.

Second, slavery does not have to be exactly like it was in the American South to be slavery.

I agree as far as that goes. But each kind of slavery should be viewed on its own terms. To view slavery in ancient Israel through the prism of slavery in the antebellum South is to distort your understanding of slavery in ancient Israel. There were multiple kinds of slavery in ancient Israel itself.

I know theists like to stress that it was different as if that means it was morally OK, it doesn’t.

You’re begging the question. If you want to claim that all forms of slavery are morally wrong then you need to start with a definition of slavery. I think that will be a difficult task because there is no clear dividing line between freedom and slavery. You also need to consider how circumstances from today might be different from circumstances in the past.

Third, as Stark notes in his book, slavery in the OT was in many ways just like slavery in the south. Slavery for foreigners in Israel was very similar to slavery to black people in the South. You need to stop denying this.

You haven’t quoted that portion of Stark’s book. I could agree with some vague statement like: “Slavery in the antebellum South had some points in common with slavery in ancient Israel.” I can’t agree with your statements that “slavery for foreigners in Israel was very similar to slavery to black people in the South” or that biblical slavery was “little different from the kind we had in the antebellum South.”


I don’t understand how that says anything helpful in your favor. Any slave could escape to freedom. The OT does not clearly say that foreign slaves owned by Israelites were given freedom if they escaped and stayed in Israel.

As noted earlier, the law “would have the effect of turning slavery into a voluntary institution” (p. 1007 of A History Of Ancient Near Eastern Law). Deuteronomy 23:15 mentions “a slave” and, since a foreign slave owned by Israelites is “a slave”, the OT is clear that said slave could escape and live freely in Israel.

Sometimes people are forced into war, it is not always a choice. If someone forces you into war and you lose and become their slave as a result by force, it is little different from being thrown into an unmarked van as you walk down the street.

The key point is that Israelites could not kidnap and enslave foreigners in peace time (this includes non-Israelites living within the land of Israel).

So? The Bible condones lifelong slavery for foreigners in Israel and even says that the treatments that apply to Israelite slaves do not apply to foreign slaves.

So it was relatively easy to gain freedom in ancient Israel if you wanted it.

The Bible also says it is unlawful and against god to disobey a master as in 1 Peter 2:18 – “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”

Peter is addressing slaves in the Roman Empire, not ancient Israel. Peter is quite aware that slave masters can be perverse (2:18) and cause their slaves to suffer unjustly (2:19) so he is not saying a master is always acting in obedience to God. He is telling his readers to revere God, not their masters, in order to find favor with God (2:19). “If you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God” (2:20). Note that it does not condone doing evil if the master asks it because obedience to God trumps obedience to the master.

Would you have preferred Peter tell slaves to disobey their masters? Paul Achtemeier explains the consequences of that approach (1 Peter, p. 195):

“Yet any attempt to carry out a social revolution in terms of eliminating the practice of slavery would have had terrible consequences, resulting in the slaves’ crucifixion and the extermination of the Christian community. To live in the Roman world, slaves had to continue to subordinate themselves to their masters, however unjust the master and unfair the social institution of slavery. Yet it was precisely that situation that made slaves paradigmatic for the status of all Christians within Greco-Roman society, and let the author to address these exhortations to that particular class of Christians.”

Sure, for foreign slaves who escaped to Israel, not for foreign slaves held by Israelites.

I’ve already rebutted your argument for that conclusion. You claimed you weren’t interested in that debate and now you’re just reasserting your conclusion. Make up your mind.

I generally use the common definition of a slave, which is a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another, by force and against their will. This definition would cover slaves in the antebellum South and foreign slaves in ancient Israel.

What does it mean to be the property of another? Does it add anything to the definition of a slave that isn’t covered by “wholly subject to another”?

And foreign slaves in Israel were not wholly subject to their masters. For example, the master could not kill the slave. You can try to modify your definition to something other than “wholly subject to another” but then there’s the large gray area between subject to no one and partially subject to another.

I’m only trying to say that the form of slavery in in the antebellum South and foreign slaves in ancient Israel were very similar and morally wrong.

What, on your view, makes it wrong? What if all your options are sub-optimal? Suppose your options after winning a war were: (1) release the enemy so it can wage war later; (2) annihilate the enemy; (3) enslave the enemy.

What they had in common outweighs what they didn’t. Both slavery in the antebellum South and foreign slaves in ancient Israel was lifelong, could legally involve cruel treatment, was forced against the person’s will, involved the slave as inherited property, and had an ethnic component to it. Those to me are quite abhorrent conditions, clearly immoral, and totally incompatible with omnibenevolence.

Slavery in ancient Israel was lifelong only if the slave did not escape. Forms of cruel treatment were outlawed and could result in the freeing of the slave. The only way an Israelite started the enslavement of a foreigner was through winning a war (a purchased slave was already a slave before he came to Israel). This is not an ethnic matter. A resident alien could be the same ethnicity as a foreign warrior but he could not be enslaved on that basis. Even when you try to show similarities you overlook the differences.


Even if true, Israelite law allows for slavery that was lifelong, could legally involve cruel treatment, was forced against the person’s will, involved the slave as inherited property, and had an ethnic component to it.

If true? Exodus 21:16 outlaws kidnapping. You’ve given no reason to restrict that law to Hebrew slaves.

That’s not clear. All the Israelites had to do was make it such that foreign slaves were treated exactly like Israelite slaves if they wanted to prevent cruel treatment, and lifelong servitude.

Why would a mortal enemy be treated the same way as an ally?

He’s saying that god wants slaves to submit to their masters, even the cruel ones, and that doesn’t mean escaping.

If escape would mean death then it would be bad advice. Paul tells slaves “if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21). The NT authors were well aware that slavery was a bad position to be in. They needed to offer practical advice.

Yeah. I’d prefer Peter not condone slavery at all, as I would all the rest of the writers of the Bible.

That’s a yes, I would have liked Peter to tell slaves to disobey their masters and be slaughtered? Giving practical advice to a slave is not the same as condoning the Roman institution of slavery. By calling some slave masters perverse and unjust it’s clear Peter is not condoning the institution.

I don’t find this argument that god had to compromise persuasive, especially since Christians always claim that their early followers were prepared to die for what they believed.

If, say, a slave master asked the slave to commit sexual immorality then, because the slave serves God not the master, she could disobey such a command and face the punishment. That doesn’t mean the slave should disobey every command.

It also admits that Christianity has sub-optimal morality.

Christianity teaches that we live in a fallen world so it is not surprising that tough moral decisions will have to be made. If your morality doesn’t work in a sub-optimal world then what good is it in this world?

You’ve offered another view, that’s not a rebuttal. It makes no sense for the Israelites to specify that foreign slaves can be treated cruel, and serve for life, but that they can escape and never be forced to into slavery again. Those verses makes much better sense if they applied to foreign slaved who escaped to Israel.

I showed why Stark’s argument failed. Your new argument could be applied to Hebrew slaves. Why specify that a Hebrew could become a slave if he could just escape? It’s as if the OT laws undermine the institution of slavery, is it not?

Well in both the antebellum South and in ancient Israel, slaves were property of their owners and property laws applied to their treatment and status. Slaves are their owner’s “money.”

An ancient Israelite could buy wood and destroy it in a fire, but he could not buy a slave and destroy it in a fire, so slaves were not treated the same way as property nor did they have the same status. Perhaps you could salvage this definition by saying a slave could be bought, sold, or traded.

They could beat them cruelly and within an inch of their life, so long as they do not die with in a day or two.

That would still mean they were not wholly subject to their masters so that part of your definition has to go.

Concerning Exodus 21:20-21, the rabbis restricted the “rod” to an implement that does not normally have lethal potentiality and restricted the strikes to parts of the body that were not particularly vulnerable (Nahum Sarna, Exodus, p. 124). The Hebrew verb behind “survives” (md) refers to standing up. As in verse 19, an erect posture and the ability to walk constitutes evidence of good health. Exodus 21:26-27 states that if a master destroys a slave’s eye or tooth the slave shall go free.

Don’t wage war at all. Remember the Israelites were the aggressors in the OT with the Canaanites, because they wanted their land.

The Israelites were not always the aggressors. So how would you answer the question?

Beatings, and a totally loss of dignity were allowed. The OT even specifies that foreign slaves need not be treated as “humanely” as Israelite slaves.

Which passage do you have in mind? I believe it speaks to the kind of work to be done, not the punishments meted out.

You forgot that foreign slaves can be born into lifelong slavery, as one of the ways they can be acquired was by birth, so your wrong there.

Which biblical passage says a foreign slave can be acquired by birth?

And also, for Israelite slaves, if their master gives them a wife, their kids belong to the master, and they must choose in their 7th year to give up their wife and kids and go free, or be their master’s slave for life and keep their wife and kids. This is emotional blackmail.

He does not have to “give up” his wife and kids. His wife and kids just don’t go free until their terms of service are up. Concerning Exodus 21:4, Douglas Stuart writes (Exodus, p. 479-480):

“Does this mean that the wife and children stayed as slaves/servants for the rest of their lives? Not at all. If a servant wanted his wife and children to go free also, he seems to have had three main options: (a) He could simply wait for them all to finish their terms of service, while he himself worked somewhere else. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that he either could not live with his family or would have to pay for his own room and board at his former boss’s farm. (b) He could find a good job somewhere and earn enough money to pay his former boss to get his wife and children out of their contractual obligation. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that it would have been difficult to find any job that would allow him to earn enough money to support himself and at the same time accumulate the sort of wealth that would cover the cost of compensating a boss for several years’ worth of the labor of several full-time workers, which is what the wife and children represented to the boss. (c) He could agree to continue to work permanently for his boss. The disadvantage of this latter arrangement is that it would keep him a contract employee for the rest of his life. The advantage is that it would allow him to stay with his family, all of whom would have their basic needs met as well as having the spendable income they earned through the terms of their contracts and all of whom would have reasonably stable financial circumstances during their lifetimes. The attractiveness of such an arrangement on balance is presumably one factor that underlies the following law about the option of voluntary permanent service.”


That law only applied to Hebrews. As Stark notes:

I note that Stark provides no argument and no biblical citations. It’s just assertion.

It’s not practical advise, it’s condoning slavery. The writers of the Bible had plenty of time to espouse views that the institution of slavery itself was morally abominable, and they could have done that while still telling slaves to obey their masters.

Since Peter was condemning certain slave masters at the very time he was telling slaves to obey their masters it is strange that you see this as condoning slavery.

Where does it say that in the Bible?

Pretty much the entire Bible is about serving God above all else.

You didn’t actually show why Stark’s argument failed.

You’re going to have to actually address my points if you want this to fly.

They had virtually no autonomy. Wholly subject can mean anything that has to do with them while they are alive.

The point still stands that slave masters could not do anything they wanted with foreign slaves. You’ll have to modify your definition to something like “partially subject to another” but that’s too ambiguous.

The ox goring laws in Exodus 21:30-32 show that a slaves life was much less valuable than a free person’s.

That’s what it might appear like on first blush, but Douglas Stuart notes (Exodus, p. 497-498):

“A servant who was gored by a bull was presumably doing what his master told him to do by command. Typically, a servant told to work with or around a bull did not have the same freedom of independent decision making that someone else might have, and thus the servant’s master had to share some of the responsibility for the servant’s death with the owner of the bull that did the goring. This means that the owner of the bull was not as guilty in such a case as if the bull simply gored someone who happened to be walking along near its owner’s property. The law in this case then provided a severe penalty (thirty shekels of silver and the loss of the bull) to its owner but did not assume that he alone was fully responsible for the death of the servant. Naturally, the judges would have been free to impose the death penalty if it were decided that, for example, the bull’s owner had intentionally let a goring bull loose against someone’s servant who was, say, simply delivering a message to the bull’s owner from his employer. That would be a case of murder, and that would make the status of the servant irrelevant.”

Now onto your question, if, as you claim, Israelite law made it so that the enslaved could just run away and be giving freedom, then your whole tri-chotomy makes no sense. If my choices are (1) release the enemy so it can wage war later; (2) annihilate the enemy; (3) enslave the enemy, then option (3) combined with your claim that slaves could just run away basically leads to (1). Would you agree with this?

It’s a possibility, but it’s also a possibility that the foreigners will stay in Israel for some period of time and their hatred of the Israelites will lessen. The point is that it is not as obvious as we may think that slavery is always wrong.

Lev 25:44-46

OK, as I thought that refers to the kind of labor (John E. Hartley, Leviticus, p. 441), not the kind of punishment. Job, a foreigner (1:3), expects God to judge him if his mistreats his slaves: “If I have disregarded the right of my male servants or my female servants when they disputed with me, then what will I do when God confronts me in judgment; when he intervenes, how will I respond to him? Did not the one who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us in the womb?” (Job 31:13-15).

Leviticus 25:44-46 says “Also, you may get children as slaves if they come from the families of the foreigners living in your land. These child slaves will belong to you. You may even pass these foreign slaves on to your children after you die so that they will belong to them. They will be your slaves forever.”

Your translation uses the ambiguous “get”. Other translations make it clear that the children can be bought, implying they were already slaves or being sold into slavery by their poor parents. It does not say they were slaves from birth.

Where does it say in Exodus that the 7-year law applied to women? What “terms of service” is Stuart referring to here? I see none.

Most of the laws of the Torah use the male pronoun but apply to both males and females. Hence, Exodus 21:1-6 is not restricted to males. Exodus 21:7-11 concerns a father selling his daughter to become the wife of the master or the master’s son. The “terms of service” are simply what ever terms the master and slave agree to.


No. Jesus even said you have duties to government and duties to god, and that you can do both. There is nothing that says slaves do not have to obey their masters when it comes to sex.

Yes, you normally can obey God and the government but this is not always the case. Jesus states that the greatest commandment is love of God and that involves following his commandments. If the commands of God contradict the commands of a slave master then you follow the commands of God.

As I just mentioned, you even try to argue that it is necessary to subdue a “mortal enemy” from waging war later by making them slaves for life. Yet you say the law also says that they can escape without punishment anytime they want – which will allow them to wage war later. That makes no sense. This would make better sense if Deut was talking about foreign slaves escaping to Israel.

The enslavement of enemies was one example to show how it is not obvious that slavery is always wrong. I think Deuteronomy 23:15 applies to any slave. It would also allow foreign slaves not captured in war (e.g., purchased) to escape. The passage should not be interpreted in light of just one hypothetical, it undermines all forms of slavery.

Wholly subject to another person does not have to include being able to legally kill them.

I think it does. Once you start allowing exceptions like this where do you draw the line between wholly subject and partially subject?

Stuart provides no argument and no biblical citations. It’s just assertion.

He provides relevant historical context. Recall that normally killing a slave would be murder so clearly the slave was not less valuable than a free person. There must be something special about the ox goring case and Stuart provides historical information to explain it.

Your view that slaves could just walk away unpunished makes no sense given your own hypothetical scenario, which you seem to say requires either slaughtering the enemy or enslaving them for life to prevent them from killing you later. It would be like putting criminals in prison, and then allowing them to run away whenever they want with no penalty. Do you really think Yahweh is that stupid?

This isn’t about what God would do, it’s about what humans should do in difficult situations. If you think the situation you envision is going to happen, why wouldn’t you kill your enemy or make sure he can’t escape?

Then why even make it a point that you don’t have to treat foreign slaves with the same concern as Israelite slaves? If god really wanted to make this easy for you, he could have easliy done so.

You’re making it difficult for yourself. It is not a matter of “concern” so much as a matter of the kind of labor a foreigner could be put to.

If you’re capturing someone, either by kidnapping or war, and the slave women is pregnant, her child when born is property of her master, and he can sell the child whenever he wants. This was the fate of some foreign slaves in ancient Israel.

Then I’ll have to ask again for the biblical passage you have in mind because the one you provided last time doesn’t say this.

That’s nonsense.

I’ve explained the two passages (Exodus 21:1-6 and Exodus 21:7-11) to you.


I haven’t read anything in the Bible about that.

Really? You can’t think of anywhere in the Bible that stresses obedience to God over obedience to man?

The laws about how and when a master kills his slave do not change the notion of being wholly owned much. It’s the only exception.

But it isn’t the only exception. A master cannot seriously injure a slave. A master cannot make his slave work on the Sabbath. Your definition of slavery is entirely ad hoc.

The fact that the penalty for an ox killing a slave vs. a free person shows the slave’s life is less valuable.

No it doesn’t since, if the life of a free person was more valuable than the life of a slave, a master who killed a slave would not be charged with murder.

but let’s remember that the Israelites were the aggressors with the Canaanites.

If you’re referring to the conquest under Joshua I believe the Canaanites were either killed or expelled from the land, not enslaved.

Lev 25:44-46 allows for the scenario I described.

The passage does not say the child of a slave woman is the slave of the master forever.

First, he continues to ignore the very next verse (v. 7), which states clearly that a female slave “shall not go out” on the seventh year as the male slaves do.

Stark is a bungler. Verses 8-10 indicate that the father sold the daughter to another for the purpose of marriage. This is not just any female slave. It is a particular kind of transaction. Nahum Sarna (Exodus, p. 120) explains at length:

“The Hebrew term amah, used here, does not mean a slave girl in the usual sense, since her status is quite different from that of the male slave. The following laws safeguard her rights and protect her from sexual exploitation.

“In the ancient world, a father, driven by poverty, might sell his daughter into a well-to-do family in order to ensure her future security. The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son. Documents recording legal arrangements of this kind have survived from Nuzi. The Torah stipulates that the girl must be treated as a free woman; should the designated husband take an additional wife, he is still obligated to support her. A breach of faith gains her her freedom, and the master receives no compensation for the purchase price.

“Rabbinic interpretation restricted the power of the father to dispose of his daughter in this way. He could do so only so long as she was a minor, that is, below the age of twelve years and a day, and then only if he was utterly destitute. She could not sell herself into slavery nor could she be sold by a court as an insolvent thief, as could a male, in order to make restitution for the stolen articles. Further, she could not be designated to be the wife of the master or his son without her knowledge.

“The status of the amah in biblical times is demonstrated in practice through the discovery of a preexilic epitaph of a royal steward from the village of Siloam outside Jerusalem. The inscription mentions his amah, and it is clear that he arranged to be buried next to her. Another discovery is the seal of “Alyah the amah of Hananel,” who obviously enjoyed superior social rank. In like vein, an extant Babylonian document mentions a slave girl of a married couple who is described as both the assat, “wife,” of the husband and the amat of the wife.”

If this was just a “contractual arrangement,” as Copan incessantly characterizes the situation, why was a whole lifetime of service necessary in order to remain with his wife?

But the text doesn’t say a lifetime of service was necessary. With its if clause, verse 6 merely describes one possibility open to the male slave.

Wait, the children belong to the master? I thought they were just along for the ride until the wife finished her contract! No, the text plainly says that the children are the master’s slaves too.

Yes, the master is required to provide for the basic needs of the children too. Would Stark have preferred the children be separated from their mother?


I can think of a view places where it says slaves have to obey their master, but none where it says slaves can refuse to do anything their master tells them that they think is sinful, especially foreign slaves who are not fully subject to the Bible’s laws for Israelites.

The greatest commandment (to love God) takes precedence over all other commandments. You don’t need an explicit commandment to tell slaves not to obey their masters if the masters tell them to disobey God. And you’re now taking an NT statement and applying it to the OT. Two different kinds of slavery are in view.

No it isn’t. A master could seriously injure a slave, just not kill him within a few days. As for working on the Sabbath, that applied to everyone under Mosaic law.

Both those statements don’t change the fact that there are now at least three exceptions to your definition of slavery. Either your definition of slavery is wrong or “real” slavery didn’t exist in ancient Israel.

Then why the money difference?

That was already explained in the quote I provided on the law.

“When the Israelites grew stronger, they forced the Canaanites to work as slaves, but they never did drive them out of the land.” Judges 1:28

Fair point. Sometimes, when they failed to kill or expel the Canaanites, they enslaved them.

Are you fucking kidding me. Verse 7 specifies selling of the daughter as a servant, verse 9 says “If” the master selects her for his son to be his wife, that indicates the verse 7 is referring to something different from a marriage. And the whole scenario we’re talking about is if a master gives his male slave a female wife, so this is definitely not a case where “The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son.” Utter nonsense.

Exodus 21:2-6 and Exodus 21:7-11 are two separate laws. Verses 7-11 have nothing to do with a master giving his male slave a female wife.

And you didn’t address anything Stark talks about directly. He’s not a bungler. Your view makes no sense of the text itself. Did you even read the Stark quote?

I did address it. I quoted three parts of it.

Yeah it is option c in your quote from Stuart, which makes no sense whatsoever if female slaves were to only serve 6 years as the males do. Face it dude, you’re wrong here.

If there are two other options then option (c) is not necessary. Simple logic shows Stark to be wrong. And Stuart explains how it makes sense.

No, he’d prefer the children to go free with the freed male slave as any normal person would do.

By “normal person” you mean a 21st century American with little knowledge of the harsh realities of ancient life. Keeping the child with the mother would guarantee the child had shelter and food (and its mother’s milk if it had not been weened). The freed male slave would be able to get his feet on the ground without having the additional responsibility of caring for his child. Remember, this is a man who seven years earlier had to sell himself into slavery because of debt.


Would that apply to foreign slaves in the OT?

Should a foreign slave living in OT times obey God instead of his master if it comes to that? Yes.

Forced lifelong labor and servitude existed in ancient Israel. If that’s not real slavery I don’t know what is. It certainly was not all indentured servitude. This is all perfectly compatible with my definition of slavery or any common definition.

Your definition requires that the slave be wholly subject to another. You need to change “wholly” to something else. Welcome to the gray area.

It says nothing about the penalty for an ox killing someone else’s slave who happened to be walking by.

It supplies an explanation for the difference in penalty between the two cases whereas your claim does not.

I’m not talking about Exodus 21:2-6, I’m talking about your previous inability to see that in Exodus 21:7-11, verse 7 is not talking about selling a daughter into marriage because verse 9 mentions that scenario, saying “If” the father wants to give the servant to his son. That indicates that verse 7 is not talking about a sale for marriage. Do you acknowledge Stark’s view now?

Verse 8 explains that the father could marry the woman. My quote from Sarna shows how similar language was used in the ANE and how it was interpreted in rabbinic tradition. So, no, I still think Stark is wrong.

Do you acknowledge that female Israelite slaves serve for life according to Exodus?

Of course not. Exodus 21:11 provides an example.

How can I make a coherent sense of your views? I can’t.

Because you’re a poor reader. Ex 21:2-6: An Israelite could be an indentured servant for seven years. Ex 21:7-11: A father could sell his daughter into a marriage.

And even if he can’t, there is no reason why he should have to serve his master for life if he wants to stay with his wife and kids.

As I’ve said repeatedly, the Bible does not say he has to do this. It is but one option. Believe it or not, some people in the ancient world preferred to be lifelong slaves instead of freemen because it was a better existence.

The Perils of Assisted Reproductive Technology #1

Chicago Court Gives Woman Frozen Embryos Despite Ex-Boyfriend’s Objections

In a closely watched, long-running dispute over who gets custody of frozen embryos when the man and woman who created them disagree, an appeals court in Chicago ruled 2 to 1 on Friday that a woman whose fertility was destroyed by cancer treatment could use embryos she created with her ex-boyfriend, over his objections.

Just because you want to have your own biological children does not mean it is wise to do so. If you can’t make a lifelong commitment to each other then don’t create a new baby together. Treat a child as a gift, not as a product. And, since embryos are human beings, this couple have children. Thanks to the wonders of artificial reproductive technology, most of the embryos will remain frozen for an indefinite period of time and then destroyed.

The court ruled that there had been an oral contract between the parties — Karla Dunston and Jacob Szafranski. “Karla asked if he would ‘be willing to provide sperm to make pre-embryos with her,’” the court wrote. “He responded, ‘Yes,’ telling Karla that he wanted to help her have a child.”

Mr. Szafranski plans to appeal the case to the State Supreme Court, said his lawyer, Brian A. Schroeder.

They hope to establish that the decision to procreate is a fundamental human right that the courts should not impose on a man, any more than on a pregnant woman.

The problem is that the man has already procreated (and so has a pregnant woman). An embryo is a new human being. What they really hope to establish is the right of a man to kill embryos.

Where such cases have gone to court, the party that does not want the embryos used has usually been the winner. But there is little consistency between the states in how to resolve such cases.

The states seem pretty consistent in disregarding the interests of actual or potential children.

In the Illinois case, Dr. Dunston, a Chicago emergency room physician who had been given a cancer diagnosis, asked Mr. Szafranski to contribute sperm to create embryos that could be used after her treatment. But Mr. Szafranski broke up with her while she was in treatment and denied her permission to use the embryos. She had promised not to seek money or other support from him to raise any child born from the embryos.

But doesn’t a father have a duty to raise and support his child? Would a child have any interest in knowing her biological father?

While the case has been pending, Dr. Dunston, 43, has had a child using a donated embryo.

One can’t help but wonder whether this child will be deprived of knowing its biological parents.

Mr. Szafranski, 33, a firefighter, paramedic and nurse, has testified that a relationship with another woman ended because of her discomfort over the possibility of his fathering Dr. Dunston’s child.

This guy can’t win. Reproduction is not a game. Poor decisions in this area can ripple out.

Commentary on Romans 2:1-16

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things.

The best solution is to understand the “therefore” to relate, not to the description of (mainly) Gentile sin in 1:21-32, but to the announcement of God’s wrath and the reality of the knowledge of God in 1:18-19. For 1:18-19, which functions as a kind of heading for all of 1:18-3:20, includes reference to all humanity. On this reading, Paul would be saying in 2:1 that because God’s wrath is revealed against all people, and because all people have been given knowledge of God, therefore even the person who judges is “without excuse” before God. Although it might be objected that connecting 2:1 with 1:18-19 skips over too much intervening material, it can be said in response that 1:18-19 establishes what is Paul’s main point in 1:18-32, so that the “therefore” in 2:1 resumes the main sequence of Paul’s argument.1

In 1:18-32 Paul used the third person plural (‘they’) when depicting the sins of humanity. But in 2:1ff., where he exposes the hypocrisy and impending judgment of those who take the high moral ground in relation to those who practice evil, the apostle uses the second person singular (‘you’). (The use of the second person is dropped in 2:2, 6-16, but resumed again in 2:17ff.) It is a mistake to think that Paul’s use of the second person singular indicates that he is addressing directly one of his Roman Christian audiences or even all of them — elsewhere in the letter he makes quite clear that he has a high opinion of their Christian standing (cf. 1:8; 15:14). It is better to regard his use of the second person singular as an application of the rhetorical device known as the diatribe. Using this device, an orator/author does not address his audience directly, but instead engages a hypothetical dialogue partner. The dialogue between orator/author and the hypothetical dialogue partner is intended to be heard by the audience and to be a vehicle for their instruction. In the case of 2:1-16 Paul is explaining for the benefit of his audience that people who know what God requires but do not carry it out are left exposed to the righteous judgment of God.2

When Paul claims that such people ‘have no excuse’, he uses an expression also found in 1:20, where he says that humanity is ‘without excuse’ for practicing idolatry because from the creation of the world God has revealed his eternal power and deity to them through the things he has made. Thus, as far as accountability before God is concerned, Paul implies that those (primarily Jewish people) who know enough of what God requires to pronounce judgment upon others while being guilty of the same things themselves, are no better than the rest of humanity; no better than idolaters.3

The idea that condemnation is due to judging itself, though initially plausible, is mistaken. It cuts short the flow of the argument of verse 1 in that Paul proceeds to explain why those who judge and condemn others are themselves condemned. They condemn themselves because (gar) they practice the same things (ta gar auta prasseis ho krinon, for you, the one judging, practice the same things). Judging itself is not condemned, for Paul expects Jews to agree that Gentiles who engage in such behavior are deserving of wrath.4

[T]he similarity of “you are doing the very same things” and “those who are doing these things” in 1:32 suggests that we should look to 1:29-31 rather than to 1:20-28 for the sins Paul has in mind here in 2:1. Many of these sins–for example, pride, arrogance, gossiping, maligning others, and lack of affection–are as prevalent in the Jewish as in the Gentile world. In fact, Paul will accuse the Jews of some of these same sins in vv. 17-24.5

2 Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things.

In saying that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth “Paul is affirming that God’s judgment against sin is fully in accord with the facts, that it is just.”6

3 And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment?

4 Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?

The “or” at the beginning of this verse does not set forth an alternative to v. 3 but introduces a rhetorical question that brings to light the false assumptions of the person who is addressed in v. 3. Paul wants to show the person who thinks she can sin and yet avoid judgment that she is, in fact, “showing contempt for” God’s mercy. Three terms, all dependent on “riches,” describe this mercy of God. “Goodness” is attributed to God by Paul in Rom. 11:11a and c (where its opposite is “severity”) and in Eph. 2:7; Tit. 3:4. It is used several times in the LXX of the Psalms to designate God’s goodness toward his people. “Forbearance” and “patience” denote the expression of God’s goodness in his patient withholding of the judgment that is rightfully due the sinner.7

5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed!

The root problem of the Jews is uncovered in verse 5. The kindness and patience of God were intended to lead them to repentance. Yet they failed to repent “because they had a hard and unrepentant heart” (kata de ten skleroteta sou kai ametanoeton kardian). In saying that their evil actions stemmed from a hard and unrepentant heart, Paul was probably influenced by Jewish tradition, which located human inability to obey in an uncircumcised (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4) or hard heart (T. Sim. 6.2; 1 Enoch 16.3). Indeed, verse 5 foreshadows by way of contrast the end of the chapter (v. 29), where a circumcised heart becomes a reality only by the work of the Holy Spirit. What Paul suggests here is that Jews who do not believe in Jesus as Messiah have not yet been the beneficiaries of the new covenant work of the Spirit by which the law is written on the heart. Their disobedience shows that they have not yet received the circumcision of the heart (Deut. 30:6) that the Jews were to receive after the exile. In other words, the Jews of Paul’s day who did not believe in Jesus had still not experienced the future promises of salvation pledged in the prophets. Israel expected to rule the world, but Rome ruled the world instead. Israel’s punishment was due to disobedience rooted in a hard heart that had no inclination to keep God’s commands.8

The word thesaurizeis (you are storing up, v. 5) is probably ironical, for it typically denotes the future bliss Jews would have because of their good works (Tob. 4:9-10; 2 Esdr. [4 Ezra] 6:5; 7:77; 8:33, 36; 2 Bar. 14.12). Paul does not dispute that good works would lead to future bliss. Rather he asserts that those good works are lacking, and therefore the Jews are storing up wrath for themselves. They will experience this wrath on the day of the Lord (compare esp. Zeph. 1:15, 18; 2:2-3, where the day of the Lord and wrath are linked) in which his eschatological wrath and righteousness will be revealed.9

6 He will reward each one according to his works:

The phrase “will reward each one according to his works” is almost exactly the same as the phrase in Prov 24:12 LXX.10

7 eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality,

In the ancient Greco-Roman world to receive honor was to be publicly acknowledged or praised for one’s worth. It was something much sought after, and its opposite, to be exposed to shame, was to be avoided at all costs.11

“Immortality” involves the resurrection of the body (1 Cor 15:42, 50, 53-54; 2 Tim 1:10) not (just) the immortality of the soul.

8 but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness.

Paul contrasts those who by ‘doing good seek glory, honor and immortality’ with those who ‘are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil’. The word translated ‘self-seeking’ is found only in the writings of Aristotle prior to NT times. There it ‘denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means’. While the meaning of the word in the NT is debatable, translations such as ‘selfishness’ and ‘selfish ambition’ make good sense in each of the contexts in which they occur (2:8; 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20; Phil 1:17; 2:3; Jas 3:14, 16). It would appear, then, that Paul is saying that those who disobey the truth are motivated by ‘self-seeking’.12

The “truth” in question is God’s truth, his revelation.

9 There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek,

In an ironic twist, Paul uses the same phrase that maintained the priority of the Jew as the recipient of the good news of salvation (1:16) to assert the same priority in judgment. As the word of the promise has gone “first” to the Jew, so does punishment for failure to respond to that word go “first” to the Jew. In contrast to the Jews’ tendency to regard their election as a guarantee that they would be “first” in salvation and “last” in judgment, Paul insists that their priority be applied equally to both.13

In this context the formula, ‘first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’, carries the idea that there will be no special considerations for the Jewish people when it comes to judgment.14

10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek.

11 For there is no partiality with God.

The words, ‘God does not show favoritism’, could stand as the heading over the whole of 2:1-16, and what Paul means by it is spelled out further in the verses that follow (2:12-16). Paul’s emphasis here upon the fact that God does not show favoritism reflects the fact that his hypothetical dialogue partner in 2:1-16 is indeed a representative Jew, one who would expect to receive favorable treatment from God because he is a Jew.15

12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

The “law” is the Law of Moses. Gentiles are those “apart from the law” and Jews are those “under the law”. Verses 14-16 imply that the Gentiles are judged fairly because they are conscious of moral norms but do not consistently keep them.

13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous.

Paul’s point here is that being a ‘hearer’ of the law does not guarantee righteousness in God’s sight. One must be a ‘doer’ of the law as well. His purpose is to show that Jewish knowledge of the law is no ground for being ‘declared righteous’ by God. Jewish people will be judged in accordance with their obedience to the law. And shortly Paul will argue that his Jewish dialogue partner and those whom he represents are guilty of disobedience to the law, despite their possession and knowledge of it (2:17-24). When Paul says that ‘it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous’, he employs the future tense, suggesting that it is future justification that he has in mind (cf. 2:16).16

14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves.

What is the significance of ‘by nature’ in this clause? Does it qualify the verb ‘do’, thus yielding a translation like that of the NIV: ‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law’. Or does it qualify ‘Gentiles’, thus yielding a translation like ‘Gentiles, who by nature do not have the law, do the things required by the law’. There are good reasons for adopting the latter option, including the fact that when Paul uses ‘by nature’ elsewhere it always qualifies a state of being, never an action, and the fact that in 2:12 he speaks of those ‘who sin apart from the law’ (Gentiles) perishing ‘apart from the law’ and so characterizing the Gentiles as those who do not have the law by virtue of being Gentiles. In 2:14, then, it is better to see ‘by nature’ qualifying what the Gentiles are (those who do not have the law) than what they do (the things required by the law). So Paul’s point is that these Gentiles who, as Gentiles, do not have the privilege of possessing the law nevertheless do what the law requires.17

Scholars are divided as to the identity of the Gentiles who do the things required by the law. Some believe Paul describes Gentile Christians who manifest the new life of the Spirit by their obedience to the law. Others believe he describes pagans who occasionally obey the law but that this is not sufficient for salvation.

The following arguments are made in support of the position that Gentile Christians are described:

  1. The “for” that opens verse 14 connects to verse 13b: “those who do the law will be declared righteous.” Since verse 13b speaks of obedience to the law bringing justification it is most natural to believe that verse 14 speaks of obedience to the law bringing justification. Those Gentiles who are justified are Christians, not pagans.
  2. The phrase “the work of the law is written in their hearts” (v 15) clearly alludes to Jer 31:33. Since Jer 31:33 refers to a godly moral disposition, not just an innate moral sense, a reference to Christians is more likely.
  3. The conflicting thoughts (v 15) indicates that the obedience is imperfect but not that it is insignificant. The Gentiles in view could still be Christians benefiting from the work of the Holy Spirit.

The following arguments are made in support of the position that pagan Gentiles are described:

  1. The “for” that opens verse 14 connects to verse 13a: “it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God.” The point of verses 14-15 is that Gentiles possess the moral norms of the law. This moral law is written on their hearts and attested by their conscience (v 15). The Jews do not possess an advantage by merely hearing the law.
  2. Verse 15 does not say the law is written on their hearts, rather it says the work of the law is written on their hearts. Therefore, there is no allusion to Jer 31:33. The “work of the law” refers to the moral commands of the law.
  3. To say the Gentiles are “a law to themselves” is an unusual way of describing Christians. Normally Paul describes Christian obedience to the law in term of fulfillment (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14) or as enabled by the Holy Spirit (Rom 2:26-29; 8:4). The phrase better fits the conception of a natural law written on the hearts of all people.

I believe it is more likely that pagan Gentiles are in view in verses 14-16.

15 They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them,

Paul does not view the conscience as moderns often do, as primarily a negative inner voice. In his view conscience can either approve or disapprove, commend or condemn, render an account of what has been thought, said, or done.18

The clause “their thoughts among themselves both accusing and excusing them” might add a second, independent idea to the witness of the conscience, but it probably expands it: the witness of the conscience consists in the mixed verdict of one’s thoughts.19

Some have seized on the reference to “excusing” as evidence that this final verdict could bring salvation to some Gentiles apart from the gospel. But this misses the connection in which the idea stands. Bengel is on the mark: “The concessive particle, even, shows that the thoughts have far more to accuse, than defend, and the defense itself . . . does not extend to the whole, but only to a part of the conduct, and this very part in turn proves us to be debtors as to the whole. . . .”20

16 on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

There is considerable doubt whether “Christ Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” is original. The oldest extant witnesses support “Christ Jesus”.21 Verse 15 describes the present work of the conscience while verse 16 describes the final judgment.

The accusing and defending work of the conscience in the present will reach its consummation, full validity, and clarification on the day of judgment, when God will judge the secrets of all. Käsemann observes rightly that the work of the conscience without God’s judgment leaves the passage hanging in the air. God’s judgment brings the entire passage to a climax and recalls the introductory words in verse 12. Not only is his judgment climactic; it is also comprehensive. He will judge the secrets of all, assuring the reader that the judgment will truly be impartial (v. 11) since it is based on a thorough understanding of both actions and motives (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5). Moreover, by appending this verse Paul defends his gospel against Jewish critics who believed that he diminished the importance of good works. The gospel that Paul preaches to the Gentiles does not invalidate the law. On the contrary it teaches that Jesus Christ will judge all people according to their obedience of the law.22

When Paul refers to “my gospel,” he does not mean a particular form of teaching peculiar to him, but the gospel, common to all Christians, which has been entrusted by God to Paul for his preservation and proclamation (cf. 1:1).23

Comment

Justification by Works?

This passage speaks of people being judged on the basis of their works (2:6, 9-10, 13-15). This appears to contradict 3:20: “For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law.” It is debated how Paul reconciles both beliefs.

Douglas J. Moo states:

First, to what degree and in what sense does Paul regard the law as a means of justification? The view that God gave the law to Israel as a means of justification is now generally discredited, and rightly so. The OT presents the law as a means of regulating the covenant relationship that had already been established through God’s grace. But, granted that the law was not given for the purpose of securing one’s relationship before God, it may still be questioned whether it sets forth in theory a means of justification. We would argue that it does. Verses such as Rom. 2:7, 10, 13, and 7:10 suggest that Paul agreed with the Jewish belief that justification could, in theory, be secured through works. Where Paul disagreed with Judaism was in his belief that the power of sin prevents any person, even the Jew who depends on his or her covenant status, from actually achieving justification in that manner. While, therefore, one could be justified by doing the law in theory, in practice it is impossible. This issue is related in traditional Reformed theology to the debate over the existence and nature of the “covenant of works” and the place of the Mosaic law within that covenant.

Second, how does our suggestion that Paul assumes the impossibility of fulfilling the law square with contemporary Jewish beliefs? Sanders claims that they cannot be reconciled. He argues that Jews in Paul’s day considered it possible, indeed easy, to “do the law.” Perfection was not considered necessary; the intention to obey was what was important, along with repentance and other means of atonement when failures occurred. How, then, could Paul assume that no one can do the law?

Sanders’s own answer is to call into question whether Paul indeed teaches that it is impossible to do the law. But, contrary to Sanders, Gal. 3:10-13, along with 5:3, seems to imply just this. It must be said, however, that Paul never makes this clear in Romans. But what he does make clear is that everyone has failed to match up to the standard necessary to secure justification (compare 2:13 with 3:9, 19-20). Another possible answer is to say that Paul views the law as impossible to do only after the coming of Christ. But Paul’s whole purpose in this part of Romans is to justify the need of “the revelation of the righteousness of God” in Christ (1:17; 3:21). He can hardly establish the need for this revelation by citing the problems people face after it has arrived.

The best answer appears to be that Paul takes a more radical viewpoint of what “doing the law” involves. Because he denies any salvific value to the Mosaic law and the covenant of which it is a part, he recognizes that it is not enough–and never has been–to seek to do the law, however sincerely. For, from the first, it has been faith in the promise of God, and only faith, that justifies (cf. chap. 4). This being the case, only a perfect doing of the law would suffice to justify a person before God. True, an insistence on perfect obedience is a departure from the Jewish view. But this is just what Paul has implied by putting Jews and Gentiles on the same footing with respect to works and judgment in 2:1-16. What he says here plainly implies that the covenantal structure within which the Jews thought their sins could be taken care of was itself denied by Paul. The enormity of God’s Son being crucified led Paul to take a far more pessimistic view of human sin than was typical of Judaism: sins that, for the Jews, simply needed to be atoned for within the covenant meant for Paul a breaking of the covenantal structure itself.24

Thomas R. Schreiner writes:

The main reason Paul introduced the issue of repayment according to works is to show the Jews that God is impartial, that there will be no special favoritism for them. The connection forged between verses 5 and 6 supports this view. The Jews are storing up wrath for themselves because God renders to each person in accord with his or her works. He states twice that repayment in accord with works applies “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (vv. 9-10). By underlining the priority of the Jews Paul stresses that they are not exempt from the principle of retribution according to works. Indeed, like Amos (Amos 3:2) Paul implies that the special privilege of the Jews involves greater responsibility. One should conclude, then, that Paul’s primary purpose is to argue that Jews who lack good works will not escape judgment.

The main purpose of this section is to demonstrate that the Jews fall short of God’s righteousness. Nonetheless, one must still account for the assertion that those who do good works will be granted eternal life. Probably the dominant interpretation is that these verses are hypothetical. Eternal life would be given if one did good works and kept the law perfectly, but no one does the requisite good works, and thus all deserve judgment. The advantage of this interpretation is that it retains the focus of this section of Romans: judgment on all who sinned. It also neatly harmonizes with 3:19-20. No one can ever be justified by the works of the law since no one practices what the law commands.

Others argue that Paul is snared in a contradiction here, in that righteousness by works is enunciated in Rom. 2 and then declared to be impossible in 3:19-20. Still other scholars claim that the text refers to those who are justified by observing the law. Such keeping of the law is the result of God’s grace, but it does not necessarily involve the hearing of the gospel. Finally, many scholars contend that Paul describes Christians whose obedience to the law is a means by which they will be saved in the eschatological day. The possibility that Paul speaks hypothetically is attractive, especially since it explains satisfactorily how Paul can say justification is by works in chapter 2 and then disavow it in chapter 3. Interestingly, the claim that Paul speaks hypothetically and that he contradicts himself is called into question by the same piece of evidence: Paul elsewhere teaches that works are necessary to enter the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 5:21). Since Paul asserts that works are necessary for salvation and also that one cannot be justified by works of the law, it is probable that he did not see these two themes as contradictory. Paul’s insistence elsewhere that works are necessary to enter the kingdom suggests that the similar theme here cannot be dismissed as hypothetical. The promise of eternal life for those who do good works in Rom. 2:7, 10, in any case, seems straightforward enough. At this stage in the argument of Romans, however, it is impossible to argue conclusively against the hypothetical interpretation. The flow of the argument in Rom. 2-3 could very well indicate that Paul depicts hypothetical obedience in this particular context. Even less evidence exists in these verses to discern whether hearing the gospel is necessary to observe the law. When examining 2:25-29, I will argue that these verses are the key to resolving this dispute, and that this passage tilts the scales decisively toward the view that in verses 7 and 10 Paul is speaking of Christians who keep the law by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can also conclude from this that Paul is not as far from James as some suggest, for he shared in common with the latter the conviction that good works are essential for participation in the coming age.25

Ben Witherington III says:

There are two viable explanations for this seeming contradiction: (1) Paul could indeed be focusing here on Gentiles outside of Christ (even though the critique of judgmentalism could also apply to those in Christ), and he does indeed believe that they will be judged on the basis of their works, just as he believes Jews outside of Christ will be judged on the basis of what they do in relationship to the Law’s requirements. But of course Paul also believes, as 1.18-32 shows, that people will be judged, or, better said, are being judged, on the basis of what they have done with what they know of God as well. (2) While Paul believes that initial justification or conversion is by grace through faith, he also affirms that Christians’ works, what they do after conversion, will be judged by God. This is clear from 1 Cor. 3.12-15, but 2 Cor. 5.10 is even more transparent: “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” That is, while Paul certainly affirms salvation by grace through faith, he also affirms a judgment on the works of every human being, whether Christian or not. What is not made clear is the relationship between salvation by grace through faith and a judgment on all persons’ works. Perhaps, 1 Corinthians 3 gives a clue: while a minister’s works may prove to be worthless when tested on judgment day, he nonetheless will escape judgment of himself as a person, but only just–as through fire.26

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 129-130 
  2. Kruse 2012, 119 
  3. Kruse 2012, 120 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2440-2444 
  5. Moo 1996, 131 
  6. Moo 1996, 131 
  7. Moo 1996, 132-133 
  8. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2464-2475 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2479-2484 
  10. Kruse 2012, 124 
  11. Kruse 2012, 125 
  12. Kruse 2012, 126-127 
  13. Moo 1996, 139 
  14. Kruse 2012, 128 
  15. Kruse 2012, 128 
  16. Kruse 2012, 129 
  17. Kruse 2012, 131 
  18. Witherington III 2004, 82-83 
  19. Moo 1996, 153 
  20. Moo 1996, 153 
  21. Metzger 2005, 448 
  22. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2785-2793 
  23. Moo 1996, 155 
  24. Moo 1996, 155-157 
  25. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2564-2596 
  26. Witherington III 2004, 80-81 

Quotes from Thomas E. Woods Jr.

The following quotes are from the recommended book How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods Jr. (Kindle Edition. Regnery Publishing, 2005).

Compared with other civilizations, it may be asserted that Western civilization has enjoyed certain competitive advantages. The chief of those advantages has been our Catholic faith. Far from acting as a brake on progress, our faith has been a guide and source of inspiration toward the heights of cultural advancement. Our Catholic faith leads us initially to God, Who, of course, is beyond our comprehension. At the same time, our Catholic faith requires an affirmation about human reason and Being. What a curious religion, that invites its believers to believe in their own reason! This is the religion that preserved classical writings during the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire. This is the religion that inspired Charlemagne to dream of creating a new Athens. This is the religion that, during the Carolingian Renaissance, fostered the pursuit of philosophical and scientific investigation. (Cardinal Antonio Canizares; Kindle Location 144)

The point is that in our present cultural milieu it is easy to forget–or not to learn in the first place–just how much our civilization owes to the Catholic Church. To be sure, most people recognize the influence of the Church in music, art, and architecture. The purpose of this book, however, is to demonstrate that the Church’s influence on Western civilization goes well beyond these areas. (p. 2)

Given the strong identification of the barbarian peoples with their kings, it was generally enough to convert the monarch, and the people would eventually follow. This was not always an easy or smooth process; in the centuries to come, Catholic priests from among the Franks would say Mass but also continue to offer sacrifice to the old nature gods. For that reason, it was not enough simply to convert the barbarians; the Church had to continue to guide them, both to guarantee that the conversion had truly taken hold and to ensure that the faith would begin to transform their government and way of life. (p. 13)

Teaching the Germanic people grammatically correct Latin–a difficult skill to acquire during the unsettled sixth and seventh centuries–was an essential element of the Carolingian Renaissance. Knowledge of Latin made possible both the study of the Latin Church fathers and the classical world of ancient Rome. In fact, the oldest surviving copies of most ancient Roman literature date back to the ninth century, when Carolingian scholars rescued them from oblivion. (p. 17)

Fredegise, Alcuin’s successor as abbot at Saint Martin’s, played a definitive part in the development and introduction of Carolingian minuscule. Now Western Europe had a script that could be read and written with relative ease. The introduction of lowercase letters, spaces between words, and other measures intended to increase readability quickened both reading and writing. Two recent scholars describe its “unsurpassed grace and lucidity, which must have had a tremendous effect on the survival of classical literature by casting it in a form that all could read with both ease and pleasure.” “It would be no exaggeration,” writes Philippe Wolff, “to link this development with that of printing itself as the two decisive steps in the growth of a civilization based on the written word.” Carolingian minuscule–developed by the monks of the Catholic Church–was crucial to building the literacy of Western civilization. (p. 18)

This preservation both of the West’s classical heritage and of the accomplishments of the Carolingian Renaissance was no simple matter. Invading hordes had sacked many a monastery and set fire to libraries whose volumes were far more precious to the intellectual community of the time than modern readers, accustomed to an inexpensive and abundant supply of books, can readily appreciate. As Dawson rightly notes, it was the monks who kept the light of learning from being extinguished. (p. 22)

Although they [monks] cleared forests that stood in the way of human habitation and use, they were also careful to plant trees and conserve forests when possible. (p. 30)

Wherever they went, the monks introduced crops, industries, or production methods with which the people had not been previously familiar. Here they would introduce the rearing of cattle and horses, there the brewing of beer or the raising of bees or fruit. In Sweden, the corn trade owed its existence to the monks; in Parma, it was cheese making; in Ireland, salmon fisheries–and, in a great many places, the finest vineyards. Monks stored up the waters from springs in order to distribute them in times of drought. In fact, it was the monks of the monasteries of Saint Laurent and Saint Martin who, spying the waters of springs that were distributing themselves uselessly over the meadows of Saint Gervais and Belleville, directed them to Paris. In Lombardy, the peasants learned irrigation from the monks, which contributed mightily to making that area so well known throughout Europe for its fertility and riches. The monks were also the first to work toward improving cattle breeds, rather than leaving the process to chance. (p. 31)

The monks were also important architects of medieval technology. The Cistercians, a reform-minded Benedictine order established at Citeaux in 1098, are especially well known for their technological sophistication. Thanks to the great network of communication that existed between the various monasteries, technological information was able to spread rapidly. Thus we find very similar water-powered systems at monasteries that were at great distances from each other, even thousands of miles away. “These monasteries,” a scholar writes, “were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe, and perhaps in the world, before that time.” (p. 33)

The monks “had the potential to move to blast furnaces that produced nothing but cast iron. They were poised to do it on a large scale, but by breaking up the virtual monopoly, Henry VIII effectively broke up that potential.”

Had it not been for a greedy king’s suppression of the English monasteries, therefore, the monks appear to have been on the verge of ushering in the industrial era and its related explosion in wealth, population, and life expectancy figures. That development would instead have to wait two and a half more centuries. (pp. 37-38)

The fact is, the Church cherished, preserved, studied, and taught the works of the ancients, which would otherwise have been lost. (p. 41)

The monastic contribution to Western civilization, as we have seen, is immense. Among other things, the monks taught metallurgy, introduced new crops, copied ancient texts, preserved literacy, pioneered in technology, invented champagne, improved the European landscape, provided for wanderers of every stripe, and looked after the lost and shipwrecked. Who else in the history of Western civilization can boast such a record? (p. 46)

The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world. The Church developed the university system because, according to historian Lowrie Daly, it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.” (p. 47)

When the university system was still young, therefore, the popes were its most consistent protectors and the authority to which students and faculty alike regularly had recourse. The Church granted charters, protected the university’s rights, sided with scholars against obnoxious interference by overbearing authorities, built an international academic community with the ius ubique docendi privilege, and (as we shall see) permitted and fostered the kind of robust and largely unfettered scholarly debate and discussion that we associate with the university. In the universities and elsewhere, no other institution did more to promote the dissemination of knowledge than the Catholic Church. (p. 51)

Contrary to the general impression that theological presuppositions colored all of their investigations, medieval scholars by and large respected the autonomy of what was referred to as natural philosophy (a branch of study that concerned itself with the functioning of the physical world and particularly with change and motion in that world). Seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena, they kept their studies separate from theology. Natural philosophers in the arts faculties, writes Edward Grant in God and Reason in the Middle Ages, “were expected to refrain from introducing theology and matters of faith into natural philosophy.” (p. 56)

Had the Middle Ages really been a time when all questions were to be resolved by mere appeals to authority, this commitment to the study of formal logic would make no sense. Rather, the commitment to the discipline of logic reveals a civilization that aimed to understand and to persuade. To that end, educated men wanted students to be able to detect logical fallacies and to be able to form logically sound arguments. (pp. 57-58)

Father Clavius, one of the great mathematicians of his day, had headed the commission that yielded the Gregorian calendar (which went into effect in 1582), which resolved the inaccuracies that had plagued the old Julian calendar. His calculations regarding the length of the solar year and the number of days necessary to keep the calendar in line with the solar year–ninety-seven leap days every four hundred years, he explained–were so precise that scholars to this day remain stumped as to how he did it. (p. 70)

This point may appear so obvious as to be of little interest. But the idea of a rational, orderly universe–enormously fruitful and indeed indispensable for the progress of science–has eluded entire civilizations. (p. 76)

Such stillbirths can be accounted for by each of these cultures’ conceptions of the universe and their lack of belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed His creation with consistent physical laws. To the contrary, they conceived of the universe as a huge organism dominated by a pantheon of deities and destined to go through endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. This made the development of science impossible. The animism that characterized ancient cultures, which conceived of the divine as immanent in created things, hindered the growth of science by making the idea of constant natural laws foreign. Created things had minds and wills of their own–an idea that all but precluded the possibility of thinking of them as behaving according to regular, fixed patterns. (pp. 76-77)

This point finds surprising support in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the nineteenth century’s greatest critics of Christianity. “Strictly speaking,” argued Nietzsche, “there is no such thing as science ‘without any presuppositions’. . . a philosophy, a ‘faith,’ must always be there first, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a method, a right to exist. . . . It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science.” (p. 81)

It is a relatively simple matter to show that many great scientists, like Louis Pasteur, have been Catholic. Much more revealing, however, is the surprising number of Catholic churchmen, priests in particular, whose scientific work has been so extensive and significant. Here were men who in most cases had taken holy orders and had committed themselves to the highest and most significant spiritual commitment the Church affords. Their insatiable curiosity about the universe God created and their commitment to scientific research reveals, far more than could any merely theoretical discussion, that the relationship between Church and science is naturally one of friendship rather than of antagonism and suspicion. (p. 94)

The Jesuits were also the first to introduce Western science into such far-off places as China and India. (p. 101)

Jesuits made important contributions to the scientific knowledge and infrastructure of other less developed nations not only in Asia but also in Africa and Central and South America. (p. 102)

The Jesuits’ contributions to seismology (the study of earthquakes) have been so substantial that the field itself has sometimes been called “the Jesuit science.” (p. 109)

The fact remains, as J. L. Heilbron of the University of California– Berkeley points out, that “[t]he Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.” (p. 113)

In areas unrelated to art, though, the Renaissance period actually constituted a time of retrogression. The study of English and continental literatures would hardly miss the removal of the fifteenth century. At the same time, the scientific life of Europe all but came to a standstill. With the exception of the Copernican theory of the universe, the history of Western science between 1350 and 1600 is one of relative stagnation. Western philosophy, which had flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, has comparatively little to show for itself during the same period.

One could even say that the Renaissance was in many regards a time of irrationalism. It was during the Renaissance that alchemy reached its height, for example. Astrology grew ever more influential. Persecutions of witches, erroneously associated with the Middle Ages, became widespread only during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (p. 126)

Vitoria borrowed two important principles from Saint Thomas Aquinas: 1) the divine law, which proceeds from grace, does not annul human law, which proceeds from natural reason; and 2) those things that are natural to man are neither to be taken from nor given to him on account of sin. Surely no Catholic would argue that it is a less serious crime to murder a non-baptized person than a baptized one. This is what Vitoria meant: The treatment to which all human beings are entitled–e.g., not to be killed, expropriated, etc.–derives from their status as men rather than as members of the faithful in the state of grace. Father Domingo de Soto, Vitoria’s colleague at the University of Salamanca, stated the matter plainly: “Those who are in the grace of God are not a whit better off than the sinner or the pagan in what concerns natural rights.” (p. 141)

In sum, Spanish theologians of the sixteenth century held the behavior of their own civilization up to critical scrutiny and found it wanting. They proposed that in matters of natural right the other peoples of the world were their equals, and that the commonwealths of pagan peoples were entitled to the same treatment that the nations of Christian Europe accorded to one another. That Catholic priests gave Western civilization the philosophical tools with which to approach non-Western peoples in a spirit of equality is quite an extraordinary thing. If we consider the Age of Discovery in the light of sound historical judgment, we must conclude that the Spaniards’ ability to look objectively at these foreign peoples and recognize their common humanity was no small accomplishment, particularly when measured against the parochialism that has so often colored one people’s conception of another.

Such impartiality could not have been expected to develop out of American Indian cultures. “The Indians of the same region or language group did not even have a common name for themselves,” explains Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison. “Each tribe called itself something like ‘We, the People,’ and referred to its neighbors by a word that meant ‘the Barbarians,’ ‘Sons of She-Dog,’ or something equally insulting.” That a counterexample like the Iroquois Confederation comes so readily to mind is an indication of its exceptional character. The conception of an international order of states large and small, of varying levels of civilization and refinement, operating on a principle of equality, could not have found fertile soil amid such narrow chauvinism. The Catholic conception of the fundamental unity of the human race, on the other hand, informed the deliberations of the great sixteenth-century Spanish theologians who insisted on universal principles that must govern the interaction of states. If we criticize Spanish excesses in the New World, therefore, it is thanks to the moral tools provided by the Catholic theologians of Spain itself that we are able to do so. (pp. 151-152)

It would take many large volumes to record the complete history of Catholic charitable work carried on by individuals, parishes, dioceses, monasteries, missionaries, friars, nuns, and lay organizations. Suffice it to say that Catholic charity has had no peer in the amount and variety of good work it has done and the human suffering and misery it has alleviated. Let us go still further: the Catholic Church invented charity as we know it in the West. (p. 172)

It is open to debate whether institutions resembling hospitals in the modern sense can be said to have existed in ancient Greece and Rome. Many historians have doubted it, while others have pointed out an unusual exception here and there. Yet even these exceptions involved the care of sick or wounded soldiers rather than of the general population. With regard to the establishment of institutions staffed by physicians who made diagnoses and prescribed remedies, and where nursing provisions were also available, the Church appears to have pioneered. (p. 178)

So impressive has Catholic charitable work been that even the Church’s own enemies have grudgingly acknowledged it. The pagan writer Lucian (130–200) observed in astonishment, “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren!” Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor who made a futile, if energetic, attempt in the 360s to return the empire to its earlier paganism, conceded that the Christians outshone the pagans in their devotion to charitable work. “Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor,” he wrote, “the hated Galileans [that is, the Christians] devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.” Martin Luther, as inveterate an enemy of the Catholic Church as ever lived, was forced to admit: “Under the papacy the people were at least charitable, and force was not required to obtain alms. Today, under the reign of the Gospel [by which he meant Protestantism], in place of giving they rob each other, and it might be said that no one thinks he has anything till he gets possession of the property of his neighbor.” (p. 182)

Just as the sixteenth-century attack on the monasteries by the Crown debilitated the network of charity that those institutions had supported, the French Revolution’s eighteenth-century attack on the Church likewise struck at the source of so much good work. In November 1789, the revolutionary French government nationalized (that is, confiscated) Church property. The archbishop of Aix en Provence warned that such an act of theft threatened educational and welfare provisions for the French people. He was right, of course. In 1847, France had 47 percent fewer hospitals than in the year of the confiscation, and in 1799 the 50,000 students enrolled in universities ten years earlier had dwindled to a mere 12,000. (p. 187)

Many of the most important principles of the Western moral tradition derive from the distinctly Catholic idea of the sacredness of human life. The insistence on the uniqueness and value of each person, by virtue of the immortal soul, was nowhere to be found in the ancient world. Indeed, the poor, weak, or sickly were typically treated with contempt by non-Catholics and sometimes even abandoned altogether. That, as we have seen, is what made Catholic charity so significant, and something new in the Western world.

Catholics spoke out against, and eventually abolished, the practice of infanticide, which had been considered morally acceptable even in ancient Greece and Rome. Plato, for example, had said that a poor man whose sickness made him unable to work any longer should be left to die. Seneca wrote: “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.” Deformed male children and many healthy female children (inconvenient in patriarchal societies) were simply abandoned. As a result, the male population of the ancient Roman world outnumbered the female population by some 30 percent. The Church could never accept such behavior.

We see the Church’s commitment to the sacred nature of human life in the Western condemnation of suicide, a practice that had its defenders in the ancient world. Aristotle had criticized the practice of suicide, but others among the ancients, particularly the Stoics, favored suicide as an acceptable method of escaping physical pain or emotional frustration. A number of well-known Stoics themselves committed suicide. What better proof of one’s detachment from the world than control of the moment of departure? (pp. 205-206)

The Church taught that intimate relations were to be confined to husband and wife. Even Edward Gibbon, who blamed Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, was compelled to admit: “The dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians.” The second-century Greek physician Galen, so struck by the rectitude of Christian sexual behavior, described them as “so far advanced in self-discipline and . . . intense desire to attain moral excellence that they are in no way inferior to true philosophers.”

Adultery, according to the Church, was not confined to a wife’s infidelity to her husband, as the ancient world so often had it, but also extended to a husband’s unfaithfulness to his wife. The Church’s influence in this area was of great historical significance, which is why Edward Westermarck, an accomplished historian of the institution of marriage, credited Christian influence with the equalization of the sin of adultery.

These principles account in part for why women formed so much of the Christian population of the early centuries of the Church. So numerous were female Christians that the Romans used to dismiss Christianity as a religion for women. Part of the attraction that the faith held for women was that the Church sanctified marriage, elevating it to the level of a sacrament, and prohibited divorce (which really meant that men could not leave their wives with nothing to go marry another woman). Women also attained substantially more autonomy thanks to Catholicism. “Women found protection in the teachings of the Church,” writes philosopher Robert Phillips, “and were permitted to form communities of religious who would be self-governing–something unheard of in any culture of the ancient world. . . . Look at the catalogue of saints filled up with women. Where in the world were women able to run their own schools, convents, colleges, hospitals and orphanages, outside of Catholicism?” (pp. 214-215)

The self-imposed historical amnesia of the West today cannot undo the past or the Church’s central role in building Western civilization. “I am not a Catholic,” wrote French philosopher Simone Weil, “but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of the centuries has nourished all of our European civilization, as something that one cannot renounce without becoming degraded.” That is a lesson that Western civilization, cut off more and more from its Catholic foundations, is in the process of learning the hard way. (pp. 226-228)