Original sin 2 – Rereading Romans 5

Posted: September 17, 2014 by J in Bible

Does Romans 5 do the business? Does it establish clearly the Reformed view of original sin?

Let’s take a look. Before we get into details, we should establish which genre Paul is writing in. One concern I have with traditional readings of this passage, is they generally fail to do this. It matters because Paul is writing poetry here, from v.15 on.  To read Romans 5 ignoring that, is to misread it.

To help the non-greekers out there, I’ve tried to restore the poetry to the passage. Challenge: try reading this out loud. That is the way to read poetry. Here goes!

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 4.36.08 PM

This poem is a great celebration of Jesus achievement over against Adam’s. Why do we call it a poem? Because of the poetic devices used throughout. For example, the constant use of balanced, paired phrases – a typical Hebrew poetic technique (though here transferred to Greek!). There is a rhythm to this writing.

Perhaps you never thought of the apostle Paul as a poet. But here we can see him Paul choosing his words deliberately for their aural qualities: the passage is full of rhymes. He even occasionally chucks in a term that isn’t perhaps strictly the right one, because it rhymes.

You can see this in v.18, for example. Adam’s side is: “one sin (paraptoma) leads to judgement for all humans.” Jesus’ side is: “and one dikaioma leads to the justification of life for all.” Now there is no way dikaioma is a natural opposite to paraptoma (sin). It’s not the word you would normally choose for the job here. It’s not the word Paul reaches for any other time to express this contrast. Dikaioma means righteous statute or judgement. It never normally means righteous deed, which is what we’re expecting here. The translators are expecting ‘righteous deed’ so strongly, they put it in even though it’s not a good translation for dikaioma.

Why does Paul choose this word, dikaioma? Dikaiosune would have been much clearer. He does it because dikaioma rhymes with paraptoma in the parallel clause. The alternatives such as dikaiosune or hupakoe, don’t rhyme. Paul is writing a song here, he’s giving himself poetic licence. His priorities are poetic: whatever else it does, this sentence must flow and feel good to speak. It must be lyrical.

This is one of the most obvious instances of Paul adopting a poetic style is this passage. There are many others. If you read out the greek, you can hear them. That’s what I have tried to capture in my translation (above).

What does this mean for exegesis? As they taught us at college, in exegesis genre must rule. Genre clues us in to Paul’s aim. We are not dealing with Paul’s typical epistolary (letter-writing) style. He’s not in didactic mode here. He’s in celebration mode.

Genre considerations, then, suggest that we need to allow for poetic strategies, and poetic licence – for a certain looseness of word-choice, for example. We shouldn’t subject this passage to the same kind of precise and technical exegesis that we use elsewhere in Paul.

But that’s exactly the kind of exegesis that has been used to establish the Reformed doctrine of original sin from this passage. Genre has traditionally been ignored in the exegesis.

And that’s a worry.

  1. Seumas says:

    How do you establish that Paul is writing poetry? It seems from your above argument that rhyme is your key factor. But this is not a dominant or typical feature of Greek (or Hebrew) poetry. Poetic prose is not the same as poetry, I think this is a genre confusion you are committing.

    • J says:

      Hi Seumas, thanks for weighing in.

      I would say the extensive use of parallel phrase pairs is the clearest sign of poetic genre. That is the normal Hebrew version of ‘rhyme’. And of course it had come across into Greek in the LXX in which Paul was steeped.

      Actual rhyme is an interesting one. Our English-style rhymes don’t function in many other languages. However sound matching is used as a device in Greek and Hebrew poetry. Assonance is common enough. Also matching word-endings.This is apparently called ‘homeoteleuton‘. These are largely poetic, rather than prose devices. You can see them at work in Proverbs, 6:9, 10, for example.

      Paul in Romans 5 is using homeoteleuton.

      • Seumas says:

        Parallel phrases I would accept as a sign of Hebraic type poetry. But it is also a feature of Greek rhetorical prose. Assonance I would call a poetic type feature. homeoteleuton is just ‘same endings’ in Greek, which can be used for poetic effect, but my hunch on that is that it is less efficacious in Greek than in English, precisely because of inflexion, which makes excessive homeoteleuton sound repetitive rather than sonorous.

        The key question, in my mind, is whether all this qualifies something to be poetry, rather than poetic. Contemporary English understanding of poetry is a lot broader than Antique definitions of poetry, which in Greek are almost all formalised and metre-based. This is why I’m reluctant to concede that what we are reading here is ‘poetry’, because I don’t believe 1st century Greek-speaking inhabitants of Rome would call it poetry. Exalted, high-register prose, perhaps. Well-balanced parallel phrases or an oratorical style. But I would hold short of calling it ‘poetry’.

      • J says:

        Great comments, Seumas. This is getting somewhat technical! No matter.

        Raises some good questions! To what extent is Paul (or the NT generally) operating out of Greek cultural traditions, vs Hebrew ones? How would the greek speaking readers have heard him? Did they know the LXX well?

        Cards on the table. My feeling is that Hebrew tradition is the primary background for all the NT writings, and certainly for Paul. Greek culture is a lesser influence. I think the NT is a very semitic document.

        Re. parallelism: While a certain loose sort of parallelism is a feature of classical rhetoric such as that of Isocrates (400 BC), it doesn’t seem to be a feature of Paul’s normal prose style. When he or any of the NT writers break into parallelisms, translators usually start representing it in poetic form. It’s the standard marker (cf. 1 Cor. 15). In the case of Romans 5:15ff, there’s a tight parallelism much more reminiscent of Hebrew verse than of anything I’ve ever seen in greek prose.

        Having said all that, if you prefer to call it poetic prose rather than poetry, then we’re not a million miles apart!

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