Gaston on Romans 2 and II Corinthians 3

For my write-up today of Lloyd Gaston’s Paul and the Torah, I’ll talk some about Gaston’s treatment of Romans 2 and II Corinthians 3:

1.  Romans 2:14-16 states the following (in the King James Version): “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.”

Gaston refers to a debate about the meaning of “Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts”, when he asks on page 105: “Are they good pagan Gentiles or specifically Christians?  Do they know God’s commandments because their conscience makes known to them the natural law or because Jeremiah’s promise of a law written on hearts has been fulfilled?”

I have long believed that Romans 2:14-16 is saying that Gentiles are subject to God’s standards because they have a conscience that tells them what’s right and what’s wrong, and that the purpose of Romans 2:14-16 within Paul’s argument is to show that both Jews and also Gentiles are sinners and thus deserve God’s condemnation, which is what Paul says in Romans 3.  Some say that Paul contradicts himself, for Paul appears to acknowledge the existence of righteous Gentiles in Romans 2:14-16, then denies in Romans 3 that there even is a righteous person among the Jews and the Gentiles.  But I do not think that this is a glaring contradiction.  Paul does not say that the Gentiles of Romans 2:14-16 obey the law perfectly or adequately, but rather that there are times when they follow their consciences and thereby demonstrate that they have a conception of morality.

Regarding the idea that Romans 2:14-16 is about Gentile Christians who now have the law written in their hearts, I have encountered this view in some places, but I do not know a great deal about it.  As I look at Romans 2, I can somewhat understand how one would arrive at this sort of interpretation.  Perhaps Paul in Romans 2:14-16 is countering Jewish exclusivism or snobbery towards the Gentiles (not that all of Judaism had this) by saying that obeying the law (not just having it) is what’s important, and that there are Gentiles who do obey it because they, as Christians, have God’s law written on their hearts.  Romans 2:14-16 is not necessary for Paul to demonstrate that both Jews and Gentiles as sinners are under God’s condemnation, for Romans 1 already demonstrates that this is the case for Gentiles.  Romans 2:14-16, therefore, could have another role in Paul’s argument.

Gaston, however, has a third interpretation of Romans 2:14-16.  He views the passage as a statement about Gentile immorality, not morality.  Gaston translates Romans 2:14-16 as follows: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the Torah, do by nature that which belongs to the law, those who do not have the Torah are a law unto themselves.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, their consciousness and their thoughts which accuse or else defend one another witnessing to it…”  For Gaston, Gentiles doing “by nature that which belongs to the law” refers to them sinning by nature.  Paul believes that the law produces sin, and Gentiles demonstrate that this is the case for them because they are sinning, thereby becoming a law for themselves (in contrast to obeying God’s law).  The “work of the law”, for Gaston, refers to what the law works or produces, namely, sinfulness. 

On page 105, Gaston dismisses the idea that “alongside Torah there was another law, an unwritten law, only a similar law, a law not identical to the Torah of the one God!”  Gaston says on page 120 that Paul believes Jews and Gentiles are both under the same standard.  I wish that Gaston clarified more what he meant by that, however.  Did Paul believe that Gentiles had to observe the Sabbath, the Jewish dietary laws, and the annual holy days?  Gaston’s argument has been that Paul thought the Gentiles were under the law as it was administered by angels, and, as far as I know, they didn’t require the Gentiles to observe the Sabbath, etc.  Moreover, Gaston says that Paul equated the angels with the gods of the Gentiles.  But these gods required Gentiles to worship them, which goes against the Torah’s ban on worshiping gods other than YHWH, plus Paul in Romans 1 lambastes Gentile idolatry.  What, for Gaston, was specifically involved in Gentiles being “under the law”?

I’ll turn now to something that Gaston says on pages 138-139 about Romans 2.  In Romans 2:21-22, Paul says to those who are called Jews (see v 17): “Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?  Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?”  Gaston argues that Paul is speaking to Jewish missionaries to the Gentiles, for Paul says in Romans 2 that his audience presumes to be a light to the Gentiles.  But these missionaries are causing God’s name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles, Paul says, and one reason is that the missionaries are robbing temples.  Gaston reads that in light of a specific incident:

“The scandal of swindling the proselyte Fulvia of gifts she was sending to the Jerusalem temple in C.E. 19 was great enough to have four thousand Jews expelled from Rome, something serious enough to be long remembered.  It was a great setback to the missionary enterprise.”  This story is in Josephus’ Antiquities 18:81-84.  According to Josephus, a Jew who had been expelled for his own country for transgressing the laws went to Rome and posed as one instructing people in the wisdom of the Mosaic law.  With three other men, he persuaded a proselyte named Fulvia to send purple and gold to the Jerusalem temple, and they got a hold of her donations and used them for themselves.  As a result, Tiberias expelled four thousand Jews from Rome.  For Gaston, Paul had that in mind.  But I wonder what that would have to do with abhorring idols, since Paul says, “thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?”

2.  II Corinthians 3 is often interpreted to concern Paul’s contrast between the old and the new covenants: the Old Covenant has the law, which leads to condemnation, and the New Covenant supplants the Old Covenant and is more glorious.  Above, I noted that Gaston argues that “works of the law” means the consequences of the law, sinfulness, not obedience towards the law, or the law’s requirements.  Gaston does appear to believe that Paul thought the law was weak, in some manner.  But Gaston also argues continually against Christian supersessionism and attempts to interpret Paul as attacking the Jewish law.  Gaston’s interpretation of II Corinthians 3 is consistent with his latter stance.

For Gaston, the issue in II Corinthians 3 is not the two covenants, but rather the controversy between Paul and the super-apostles.  According to Gaston, the super-apostles were likening themselves to one conception of Moses—-the one speaking after his vision with glory on his face—-whereas they accused Paul of being like the Moses with a veil on his face.  Paul counters, however, that he has been open about his Gospel.  He considers the super-apostles to be agents of condemnation and death, since they are ministers of Satan (II Corinthians 11:15).  Paul maintains that, due to Christ, “there is no need for ecstasy and shining faces and glory—-all that is done away with” (page 164).  And, for Gaston, Paul is saying that the super-apostles do not make proper use of Moses or understand the Torah, for the lesson of the Torah is that turning to the Lord causes the veil to be lifted, which appears to refer to illumination.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.