Lectionary Year A
February 24, 2002
Romans 4:1-5,13-17

Step IV: Context

A. Primitive Christianity

(JFC) Early Christians learned their theology from Jewish Rabbis, Teachers and other Old Testament students and scholars who were "works righteousness" oriented. They needed help getting free from such foreign (to the Apostle Paul, who had been so confined previously) shackles. The Apostle Paul seems to be attempting to aid that process in Romans. He uses scriptural (the Old Testament, of course) quotes to backup his argument(s). These new, first generation Christians had long revered the Scriptures of their former faith. Paul gives the impression in Romans 4 to be using their long-time familiarity in Abraham. He repeats, even more pointedly, also in Galatians 2:16 and 5:6 where he remarks about the lack of necessity for circumcision for God's blessings. There he emphasizes that all that counts is "faith working (or made effective) through love." Furthermore, Paul again addresses the question of the need for the law in Galatians 3:19; there he identifies the law's need "because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; . . ." (NRSV). And, James 2:23 quotes Scripture's being fulfilled where it says, "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," which concludes, "and he was called the friend of God."

B. Old Testament and Judaism

(JFC) People with whom God made the old covenant (in the Old Testament), much "works righteousness" orientated, also held it in high regard, to be sure. The quote in Romans 4:3 comes from Genesis 15:1-6, where God promises the aging Abram and the barren Sarai issue/descendents/offspring as many as the stars in the sky! Additionally, Genesis 17 and 18 tell of God's changing Abram's name to Abraham and of God's talks with Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, re: his being the father of many nations, etc. And, Psalm 31:1, in the Septuagint, asks God for forgiveness, rescue and deliverance in "Thy righteousness". God's righteousness is declared in many Psalms, too.

Re: the future, Paul W. Meyer, in Harper's Bible Commentary, states, "by Paul's own time (Sir. 44:21) the tradition had expanded it into an end-time promise of inheriting the whole world.(Rom. 4:13), a code word of all the benefits that the descendants of the patriarch might hope for." From about 150-300 CE, the Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers (12:62) praise God as "the one who delivered Abraham from ancestral godlessness, and appointed him heir of the world, and showed to him your Christ, . . ." In the second century BCE, Jubilees questions Reuben's "life and forgiveness" after he (33:15f) "lay with his father's concubine and while she had a husband and while her husband, Jacob, his father, was alive". The reasoning states, "For the ordinance and judgment and law had not been revealed till then (as) completed for everyone, but in your days (it is) like the law of (appointed) times and days and an eternal law for everlasting generations." Then, a few generations after that composition, Joseph and Aseneth's prayer (12:e) is to God as "one who made the (things that) are and the (things) that have an appearance from the non-appearing and non-being." And later (20:p) they give "glory to God who gives life to the dead." A footnote there indicates that, "Around the beginning of our era 'He who gives life to the dead' had become all but a definition of God in Judaism." Oh?

C. Hellenistic World

(JFC) These philosophers could always appreciate the manner in which this passage begins, with provoking dialogue. They would also be pleased about how the passage proceeds, with questions and answers, presumably, even if they disagree with some of those answers. And, too, they would like the "believing God" which Abraham is reported here to have done, as well. Furthermore, the values of the law and its being put into a smaller perspective as stated in these verses might stimulate some of their discussions. Moreover, Abraham's prominence would also please them, as well.

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