What Is Romans 7 About? – Part 2

Posted: January 11, 2011 in bible, exegesis, theology

See Part 1.

What “Law” is Paul referring to?

Before deciding which interpretation of the “I” in Romans 7 is correct, it is important to determine what Paul means when he uses the word “law” (nomos).  Some scholars argue that Paul is not referring specifically to the Mosaic Law, the Torah, but is rather using the term more generally to refer to natural law or maybe even Roman law.[1] Mounce writes, “In this context Paul spoke of ‘law’ in terms of its fundamental character rather than as a reference to the Mosaic legislation.”[2] However, it seems clear that Paul is referring to the Torah in 6:14-15 and 7:7-8.[3] Thus, a shift in meaning at the beginning of chapter 7 seems unlikely.[4] To the objection that most of Paul’s readers in Rome would have been Gentiles, and therefore would not have needed this instruction in regard to the Mosaic Law, it does not seem implausible to assume that a large portion of those Gentiles were in fact, “God-fearers,” (Gentiles who had voluntarily chosen to obey the Torah); Paul’s words would have had an impact, even if his audience was not primarily Jewish.[5]

With this understanding of Paul’s use of nomos, one can conclude that the Existential and Adamic interpretations of Romans 7 are unlikely.  Since Paul is referring specifically to the Mosaic Law, which was given specifically to Israel, it is not likely that he would say that all people are under it, as proponents of the Existential reading assume.  In regard to the Adamic understanding, Paul’s words in another epistle may shed some light on the issue.  In Galatians 3:17, he argues that Abraham wasn’t under the Law, “which came four hundred and thirty years” after him.  Therefore, if Abraham wasn’t under the Law, then Adam certainly wasn’t.  Although some scholars point to certain rabbinic traditions that held that Adam was indeed under the Law of Moses, it is unlikely that Paul shared this view, especially in light of Galatians 3:15-26, where Paul emphasizes the priority of grace over law based on the fact that law (Moses) came after grace (Abraham).[6] Although it seems that there are some linguistic allusions to the Genesis account in this passage (i.e. verse 11 says “sin, seizing and opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”), the other problems with this view negate the possibility that it is Paul’s main reference.[7]

In Part 3, I will examine the literary context of this passage, which will shed even more light on this challenging chapter.

[1] Many argue that because nomos is anarthrous (lacking a definite article), it is better to take it in a general sense.  However, in reference to 7:1-6, Bruce argues “it is immaterial at this stage of the argument whether they knew it in the form of Jewish law or Roman law, for in either case it was true that ‘a person is subject to the law so long as he is alive, and no longer’ (NEB),” (Romans, 138).  While, strictly speaking, this may be true, the identification of Paul’s use of “law” in this passage does have ramifications for how one interprets Paul’s words later in the chapter.
[2] Mounce, Romans, 160.
[3] Moo, Romans, 411; Napier, “Sin and Torah,” 19; Klyne Snodgrass, “Spheres of Influence: A Possible Solution to the Problem of Paul and the Law,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament no 32 F (1988) 94.
[4] Further support of the conclusion that Paul is referring to the Mosaic Law is the similarity between his statement in 7:1 and that of a well-known Rabbinic maxim: “If a person is dead, he is free from the Torah and the fulfilling of the commandments,” (as quoted in Moo, Romans, 412).  Napier writes “A solid exegesis of 7:7-25 must begin with the recognition that the Torah is the primary focus,” (“Sin and Torah,” 19).
[5] Moo cites Galatians 4:21 and 1 Corinthians 10:1 as evidence that Paul’s Gentile audience would likely have been familiar with the Mosaic Law even though they weren’t Jewish.  See Romans, 412, note 12.
[6] Moo cites a Jewish Old Testament paraphrase of Genesis 2:15-16, which reads, “And the Lord God took man and caused him to dwell in the Garden of Eden, in order to keep the Law and to follow his commandments,” (Romans, 429, note 14).
[7] See Genesis 3:13.  However, Wright makes an interesting point when he writes, “We should not attempt to decide between these two (Sinai and Eden): Paul’s point is precisely that what happened on Sinai recapitulated what had happened in Eden,” (“Romans,” 563).


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