Romans was the only letter written by Paul to a community of Jesus followers that he had not visited (Rom 1:8-12; 15:22-29). He wrote to the "saints" in Rome in preparation for a visit, possibly to deflect criticisms of him and his views prior to his arrival, with the hope of making a favorable impression upon a church from which he sought support for his further missionary work (Rom 15:22-23).57 Romans follows some of the conventions of Greek letters—the body of the letter is framed with an initial greeting and thanksgiving and concluded with a final greeting and blessings58—but it is much longer than a common letter. It has been called a "letter essay" that combines several genres,59 an extended Cynic-Stoic diatribe with an epistolary frame,60 or a npOTpenxiKO~ logo~ (a speech intended to attract students) in letter form.61 The issue of genre is far from settled. Still, Paul's familiarity with the basics of Greek rhetoric is clear.62 I do not propose to solve the issue of rhetorical genre here. For my purposes, it is enough to note that Romans offers a coherent argument containing motifs, figures, and stylistic devices found in Greek rhetoric, techniques that Paul employed for his own purposes.63
Romans is among the more logical and carefully constructed of Paul's letters. Paul offered a careful presentation of his mission, a mission that seems to have included the following points: (a) gentiles are under the indictment of sin (1:18-3:20); (b) Christ provided the solution to the problem of gentile sin (3:21-8:38); (c) even though the Judean law did not solve the problem, at least for gentiles, God's promises to Israel were not negated but rather fulfilled in Christ (9:1-11:36); (d) gentiles, now transformed by Christ, should live moral lives in harmony with one another as they wait for the "the hour" when Christ will return and God's final judgment will be revealed (12:1-15:13).64 Sexual morality was clearly not the, or even a, central concern of Romans. Nevertheless, significant portions of Paul's larger arguments were presented in sexual terms. His argument may not have been about sex or gender or status per se, yet he repeatedly used sex, gender, and status to think with.65
Claims about sexual behavior, the body, slaveries, and the flesh are essential to the persuasive force of much of the letter. For example, in order to demonstrate the depravity of the idolatrous gentiles, a primary task of 1:18-3:20, Paul describes the "unnatural" and "dishonorable" lusts of those who have rejected God. In his discussion of the transformed lives of the faithful (4:1-8:38), Paul compares the pre-Christ life of Jesus' followers with their postbaptismal transformation in Christ. To do so, he suggests that there are two types of slavery, slavery to sin or slavery to God. Slavery to sin is portrayed as the condition of every gentile who does not follow Christ. Slavery to God refers to the new, purified state of believers. Both are represented as bodily conditions, exhibited in the "members" (|me1h, i.e, bodily parts). Paul goes on to contrast "flesh" and "those who live according to the flesh" with "spirit" and those who obey the spirit's directives. His description of the "works of the flesh" implies that living "according to the flesh" means living in a state of uncontrolled desire. Living "in the spirit" means controlling one's body and one's desire. In his concluding ethical exhortations, Paul suggests that believers ought to conduct themselves "becomingly" (euschemonos), not in licentiousness (aselgeias), while they remain subject (hypotasso) and wait for the day (i.e., the final judgment of God). Thus, whether or not Romans was about sex, Paul often puts forth his arguments in terms of sex, flesh, body, and slavery. When Paul was interested in drawing boundaries between insiders and outsiders, when Paul discusses the nature of sin or overcoming it, when Paul offers a diagnosis of the condition of gentiles prior to their incorporation into the "body of Christ," he does so by talking about sexual depravity.66
Was this article helpful?