2012.12.17 | Frank J. Matera, Romans. Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010. 416 pages. (PB) $29.99. ISBN 9780801031892.
Review by Samuli Siikavirta, University of Cambridge.
Many thanks to Baker Academic for kindly providing us with a review copy.
Frank J. Matera’s Romans commentary is meant for “students at the master’s level” (4) and, despite fulfilling this purpose well, it gives some food for thought to more advanced scholars alike. The Paideia series as a whole, in which Matera’s commentary stands, is student-friendly in its threefold exegetical subdivisions: “Introductory Issues” for the background, “Tracing the Train of Thought” for a focus on the rhetorical flow of the text and “Theological Issues” for the significance of the text for Pauline and, indeed, Christian theology from Antiquity through key points along the text’s history of interpretation to the present.
Old Testament and intertestamental authors, Early Church Fathers, mediaeval theologians, Reformers and modern scholars are quoted as conversation partners. As the author himself notes (4), an introductory mid-sized commentary cannot be expected to tackle with all problems in depth, but as an introduction, it does its job very well.
Matera follows the agenda of the Paideia series carefully throughout the text of the epistle, avoiding jargon that beginners might find confusing. The Greek is transliterated, thus removing linguistic obstacles from anyone unfamiliar with it or in the process of learning it. Unlike most commentaries, the book also includes 15 illustrations that may help visual learners remember the theological content of the epistle by linking it with e.g. archaeology or church art. The 21-page-long introduction sets the scene for what lies ahead in the commentary: Paul’s context, the Roman context, purpose of Romans and the manuscript record of Romans are all touched on before a summary of the content of the entire epistle. A helpful thematic outline of the letter is placed in each section to remind the reader of the context of the passage in question. The bibliography at the end (349–59) gives a concise overview of some of the most helpful literature, again directed at the student. It is easy to agree with another recent review by Pablo T. Gadenz that Matera’s commentary is indeed “a student’s ideal point of entry into the world of scholarship on Romans”.
In the substance of the commentary, Matera “sticks to standard viewpoints”, as Nijay K. Gupta has rightly pointed out in his February 2011 review. Nevertheless, some interesting observations can be made about Matera’s reading of Romans. An all-encompassing summary cannot be undertaken here, but suffice it to focus on a few characteristics.
The author maintains that the Roman congregation was predominantly Gentile, with “some Jewish Christ-believers as well” (7). The divisions between the “weak” and the “strong”, then, whatever was meant by them (see table on p. 307), was not “the occasion for this letter in which Paul is primarily concerned to present his gospel to the Romans” (309). Matera’s half-way approach acknowledges the importance of this instruction but does not take it as the main theme. Paul’s primary audience would have belonged to the “strong” (307).
To this audience, Paul wants to communicate one clear point. “From start to finish, Romans is about God”, Matera notes (21), and God’s righteousness in particular is taken to be its key theme. This can be seen in the headings for different parts of the epistle (14-15) and throughout the commentary. God’s righteousness is what the Christ message is all about, what unites Jew and Gentile in Christ and what should be reflected in the lives of Christians. God’s righteousness revealed in Christ for all is Paul’s thematic statement in the letter (27, 91). It is, after all, God’s righteousness in Jesus that saves Jew and Gentile alike “on the basis of faith” – not “doing the works of the law” (68). Matera’s reading of sin as a personified power (or a cosmic force, 137) fits within this picture, for it is only Christ’s righteousness that can free man from sin’s power (84, 87 etc.). Similarly, the indicative echomen in 5:1 is preferred to the subjunctive reading, because “reconciliation is something that God effects for humanity; it is not something that humanity does for itself” (126). Also hagiasmos in 6:19 is primarily about God’s holiness communicated to believers and only secondarily about a moral demand (157). Not even faith can justify one as a human merit, but “God’s grace in Jesus Christ on the basis of faith and apart from doing the works of the law” can (100). Also Matera’s discussion of predestination shows that he is clearly anti-Pelagian and quite Augustinian: he accepts predestination so long as it is viewed as a means to describe the mystery of God’s sovereignty and righteousness despite Israel’s failure to believe. After all, God’s righteousness is the basis of our salvation (231-234). Thus Matera’s definition of God’s righteousness is christocentric and grace-oriented.
It is logical, then, that Matera reads pistis Christou (Rom. 3:22) as a subjective genitive (faithfulness of Christ, 97), although “[a]s is the case with ‘the righteousness of God,’ the ‘faithfulness of Christ’ and ‘faith in Christ’ are not mutually exclusive” (93). Such a balanced view that does not fully exclude the objective reading is welcomed by students, who need to learn about both sides of the argument.
When it comes to the Christian identity, Matera notes rightly the similarity between Paul’s apostolic self-identification as a “slave of Christ Jesus” in 1:1a and the general Christian slavery to righteousness in chapter 6 (29). Taking the “I” in chapter 7 as speech in the character of “unredeemed humanity as seen from the perspective of one who has been redeemed in Christ” (177; cf. 166, 167), however, Matera does not consider the option that in Romans 7, Paul might be using himself as an example in a similar way.
Matera seems to stand half way between the New Perspective and the “Lutheran” reading of the erga nomou (3:20). With Dunn, he acknowledges that the Jewish identity markers of circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath observance were certainly “part of what Paul means”, but he takes into consideration 4QMMT 3.29 and the overall argument of Romans suggesting that the phrase also “has a broader meaning that refers to the prescriptions or commandments of the Mosaic law” (86 cf. 242). This, again, shows the author taking the middle ground position on a disputed question.
Against Dunn, Matera takes baptism in chapter 6 to refer to the actual rite of baptism (148-149, cf. 155 on 6:17), and against Jewett, he maintains that baptismal theology is definitely “close at hand”, even if it is not the main topic of the chapter (150-151). Baptism makes Paul look back at Christ’s death and one’s baptismal incorporation into it, at the present moral obligation of the newness of life given through baptism in the power of the Spirit (7:6) and at the future resurrection with Christ (150). Thus, In a way that sounds a lot like what Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, Matera emphasises Paul’s baptismal teaching as a foundational aspect of his ethics: “Baptism is an entrance into Christ’s death, which Christians make the pattern of their lives by crucifying ‘the flesh with its passions and desires’ (Gal. 5:24). When this kind of death occurs – initially at baptism and repeatedly in the Christian life – the believer is no longer enslaved to the power of sin.” (151) Further: “This sacramental union with Christ is, for believers, the foundation of the believer’s ethical life” (161). Matera points out correctly that chapters 6 (“moral life in relation to baptism”) and 8 (“moral life in relation to the Spirit”) are the best starting-points to constructing a Pauline ethic – not chapters 12-13 (284). Matera acknowledges that Paul, “a supreme realist”, teaches that sin will exercise an influence over believers and that believers must undergo an on-going struggle against it (153).
Matera subscribes to the indicative-imperative model to explain the relationship between theology and ethics in Romans. Perhaps choosing to take a moderate position so as not to confuse the student, he does not dialogue with scholars who criticise the schema (see my review of Horn, F.W., Zimmermann, R. (eds.), Jenseits von Indikativ und Imperativ: Kontexte und Normen neutestamentlicher Ethik / Contexts and Norms of New Testament Ethics, 2009.). He does talk a lot about self-identification and the mind, which could be valid ways to get around the indicative-imperative language: Romans 5:12–8:18 “deals with humanity’s solidarity with either sinful Adam or the life-giving Christ” (123), and in 12:1-3, “a new way of thinking about themselves in accord with the norm of faith” is what is crucial (289). However, he settles with the old terminology. In the more paraenetic part of chapter 6, he writes about Paul’s imperatives instead of e.g. the baptismal Christian identity in a Bultmannian-sounding way (158). The excursion on the indicative and the imperative (161-163) is an attempt to reconcile the Wernlean-Bultmannian terminology with Paul’s baptismal teaching. Paul’s exhortation not to let sin reign over them “is a real imperative grounded in an existential reality” as dead to sin in Christ through baptism, because “it is this new reality (the indicative) that enables them to live in the way Paul commands them (the imperative)” (163). This is a well-argued argument that does not, however, appease those who find the linguistic terminology potentially misleading. Perhaps summarising ethics as imperatives is not a problem for Matera, because “those who are in Christ can do what the carnal self wanted to do but could not do” (183), even though moral conduct is also “the manifestation of the Spirit at work within them” but requires the Mosaic law for guidance (209).
With regard to Israel in Romans 11:26, Matera interprets “all Israel” to mean ethnic and “Historical Israel (past, present, and future)” (273). He strongly opposes the view that for Paul, the church is a new Israel that replaces the old, holding that Israel remains Israel even when cut off from the tree (278-279). His hope is that this reading could strengthen Jewish-Christian relations (280).
Frank Matera is not afraid to let his faith perspective show in his writing. He lets it come through subtly yet clearly. For instance, “as offensive as it may sound to secular ears, Paul speaks God’s word, a word that condemns and saves, a word that exposes and purifies, those who hear it” (39), is a sentence with an unabashedly Christian undertone. His pastoral approach can also be seen in his dealing with Paul’s judgment on same-sex relations in 1:26-27. Matera maintains (contra Scroggs) that in the light of the Levitical prohibition of homosexual intercourse, the passage is more likely to be addressing relations between adults than pederasty. However, he emphasises that Paul condemns other sins more frequently and that for Paul, all sinners are in equal need of God’s saving grace. “The most prudent course of action in the present time, then, is to treat all with compassion, aware that only God is in a position to judge another person”, Matera instructs (57). Many readers sharing his moderate-sounding American Roman Catholic perspective will find Matera’s text refreshing in this regard. Others may struggle with it.
It is without hesitation that I recommend Frank J. Matera’s Romans commentary as a carefully written and good value point-of-departure to students venturing into the field of Romans.
University of Cambridge