NTiR: Letters, we get letters… (Romans 1-4)

Bible and magnifying glassOkay, I need to do a little bit of griping here. We are through the Acts of the Apostles, which means we are also at the end of the narrative section of the New Testament. At least, as far as I can tell, there’s no more actual flowing storylines. Until the mind trip that is Revelations. Between now and then, we have a series of letters that were written from various leaders of the church (mainly Paul) to churches in the newly converted cities around the area. A lot of Christian dogma is based directly from these letters. That’s all well and good for those who believe. But for those of us who are trying to recap exactly what is happening in each book?

My premise, and the way I’ve been writing the series up to this point, is that something happens in each chapter, I read each chapter to get a good feel for what happened, then I write about the chapter, reading it again as I go. This works well, assuming that something happens in each chapter. I am not quite sure how it’ll work when there isn’t anything happening in a chapter.

Have you ever read another person’s email? You know how boring that can be? That’s pretty much the territory we are heading into here folks. This is going to be an interesting ride.

The Epistle of Paul to the Romans

Chapter 1
I admired the Paul that Luke painted in Acts of the Apostles. Paul had to overcome intrigue and betrayal and royal drama and courtroom theatrics, along with years of hardship and one terrifying shipwreck to finally come to peace. He found the end of his trials and tribulations in Rome, and settled there for a well-earned rest. That Paul was a hero.

Unfortunately, Luke’s portrayal of Paul is dashed to pieces once Paul begins to speak for himself here in Romans. Paul turns into the judgmental, homophobic, closed-minded man that I remember from hell and brimstone sermons.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Paul starts his letter off by repeating what has to be an inaccuracy: that Jesus was a flesh descendant of the house of David. Joseph was from the house of David, not Mary. So either Jesus isn’t a flesh descendant of the House of David, or Joseph is Jesus’s biological father. I actually just stopped and did some research on Jesus’s lineage via wikipedia. I am no clearer on this topic than I was before I read the wikipedia article. All in all, it still seems to me that these two ideas are contrary: one has to be true, and one false.

Moving on, Paul declares that he and the church have been called to Jesus. He then proceeds to give Unitarians a problem, as he refers to Jesus and God as two separate entities (e.g. “For God, whom I serve in my spirit by preaching the gospel of his Son” and “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be yours.”) Paul mentions that he’s been trying to come to Rome for a while, because he is sure he can reap followers, both Jew and Gentile.

That’s all of Paul’s niceties for this chapter, however. He then proceeds to rant about the wickedness of man for the rest of the chapter. Man saw the wondrous works that God did, but chose to ignore that and instead chose to worship idols. One of the types of idols that man chose to worship were human-shaped idols, which I find a little odd: if God created man in God’s image, then wouldn’t the idols be God-shaped? So then worshiping those idols would really be worshiping God? Anyway, since man dared to do this, God decided to punish man with sexual immorality.

And thus we come upon the New Testament’s decree against homosexuality. All of those vehemently homophobic people that we see decrying the “homosexual agenda” or shouting that gay marriage would destroy the fabric of America all point to Romans 1:26-27. Paul is very straight-forward about his beliefs: homsexuality is unnatural and indecent. There’s no wiggle room in Paul’s epistle. If you believe that Romans is God’s word transcribed through Paul, then homosexuality is a perversion. If.

I think I’ve mentioned it before, and even if so, it bears repeating: I think that Paul commandeered the Christian church, instilling his own personal beliefs into the religion. This becomes a little complicated, however, because Paul is a Pharisee. Paul continued to profess to be a Pharisee throughout his imprisonment, and presented his case both to the Roman government and his Jewish accusers. We haven’t gotten to his death yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Paul continues to refer to himself as a Pharisee who truly believes that Jesus was the Son of God.

Given that Paul was a Pharisee – or that is beliefs were influenced from his years of being a Pharisee, it is easy to see where Paul’s view of homosexuality comes from: Leviticus 18:22. That is a very straight-forward about homosexuality, too: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” You can see the direct lineage there: Leviticus declares homosexuality an abomination, and Paul, who spent his life studying scripture, imports that directly into Christianity.

Where does that leave those of us who don’t actually believe that homosexuality is an abomination or a perversion? David Plotz had to answer this same question in his Blogging the Bible series. Plotz’s response:

So, how should Bible-loving gay-rights supporters rebut Leviticus 18:22? A stronger argument, perhaps, is to point out all the other things the Bible is equally clear about: The death penalty for gay sex, yes—but also the death penalty for cursing your parents, the death penalty for violating Sabbath, exile for sex with a menstruating woman, etc. … Turn the Bible-quoting back on the social conservatives: Why do they fixate on the abhorrent gay sex and not the abhorrent menstrual sex, or parent cursing, or Sabbath-violating?

Which is a lot more elegant than any response I could come up with. From my point of view, Paul’s view on all sexual matters came directly from Leviticus, and he felt no reason to question whether or not the Old Testament’s view of homosexuality was correct. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, so a religion based just on Christ’s teachings would have nothing to say about the topic. But once Paul added his own beliefs to Christianity, we end up here.
Have I mentioned that I don’t really like Paul’s teachings?
Chapter 2

Okay, Paul just made me think that I was being too harsh earlier. He hasn’t backed away from what he said in the first chapter, mind you, but he starts out the second chapter by rebuking anyone who would dare to judge another person. “Therefore, you have no excuse—every one of you who judges. For when you pass judgment on another person, you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, practice the very same things.” Paul spends the rest of the chapter basically saying that it is the person who lives a righteous life that live in glory, honor and peace. As opposed to those who read the law (scriptures) and teach others about it, but don’t actually follow it themselves. It doesn’t matter whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, as long as they live their life as the Holy Spirit directs.

Chapter 3

Hmmm… This is my third read through this chapter, and I still don’t quite understand what Paul is trying to say. Well, the basic message of the chapter is that God sees both Jews and Gentiles as equal, but that Jews should stick to their laws and practices anyway.  He says this in a very wordy, redundant, circuitous way. This chapter is also written specifically for the Jewish members of the church. I’ll just leave it at that.

Chapter 4

I just remembered a bit from Acts of the Apostles: the debate over circumcision. This epistle had to have been written during that whole debate, or at least the last couple of chapters. Paul continues to try to lay a case for uncircumcised men to also be worthy of God’s grace. And yeah, it is as boring as one would think.

Up next: Paul really, really doesn’t like Adam

New installments of The New Testament In Review will be posted each Monday and Thursday. The new posts will always be on my blog, http://biffster.org. The entire series is accessible via http://biffster.org/ntir. If you are one of my Facebook friends, you can get an advance preview on my Facebook page. You can also follow me (@biffster) on Twitter to be alerted to new posts.

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