Sunday, September 11, 2005

Romans 7:7-12 --- Pauline "I" for the Exegetical Guy

Here's my informal translation of Romans 7:7-12, where Paul is attempting to prevent the possible mis-inference from Romans 7:5 that the law is, somehow, in and of itself, sinful, bad, evil, etc. All NT translations are my own.

[7] What then shall we say? Is the law sin? But I would not have known sin except [or without] the law; for I did not know coveting apart from the law stating "Thou shalt not covet."

[8] But sin, having taken the opportunity through the commandment, was working covetousness in all of my members, for apart from law sin is dead.

[9] I was formerly living apart from [or without] the law, but when the commandment came, sin came to [or sprang to] life,

[10] and I died. And the commandment which was to issue unto life for me, this issued unto death!

[11] For sin, having taken the opportunity, deceived me through the commandment and through the commandment it killed me.

[12] Therefore, the law in and of itself is holy and the the commandment is hold and righteous and good.


The big question: who or what is the "I" mentioned here?

Here are four major interpretations of "I" :

(1) "I" = Adam, and the passage speaks of Adam's dealings and doings in the Garden of Eden.

(2) "I" = Israel while she receives the Law at Sinai.

(3) "I" = Paul, so that "I" is an autobiographical reference here.

(4) "I" = a generic stand-in for humanity, of which Paul is a member.

There may be others out there of which I'm unaware, but these are the ones I've seen.

Interpretation (1): "I" = Adam in the Garden of Eden

In favor of (1):

(i) v9a "I was formerly living apart from the law" seems to naturally apply to Adam, for he existed before God gave any commandments.

(ii) We may take "living" in a full theological sense, referring to being spiritually alive before God, in v. 9, in this view, since Adam was, in the beginning, sinless. And nobody but Adam can make this claim.

(iii) v9b-10 "but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life, and I died, and the commandment which was to issue unto life for me, this commandment issued unto death!" seems to cause one to readily think of Adam's dealings with the forbidden fruit, the serpent, and God's commandment given to Adam. After Yahweh told Adam not to eat of the forbidden tree, a commandment which was [somehow] to keep Adam in his state of innocence had he obeyed, the serpent used and twisted the commandment to deceive both Adam and Eve, and the transgression of God's commandment resulted in death in the fullest sense --- spiritual death.

(iv) Related to (iii), this interpretation lets us take verse 8b in a "literal" fashion: sin really was dead or nonexistent before God gave the prohibition to Adam.

Against interpretation (1):

(i) Paul is mentioning a commandment from the Decalogue when he mentions "Thou shalt not covet." And the Decalogue came after Adam. Given that Paul has demarcated in Romans 5:13-14 ["For before/until from (the) law sin was in the world, but sin is not reckoned where there is no law, but death reigned from Adam until Moses..."] the time period before Moses, it is not straightforward to imagine Paul envisaging Adam when writing about the tenth commandment.

*************Counterobjection to objection (i)

Schreiner [p 361] quotes Lyonnet and Stuhlmacher who in turn mention that this objection to interpretation (1) may not be very potent, for a part of Jewish tradition maintained that Adam did in fact [though it is not recorded in Genesis] have the Law and was under the onus of obeying it. They cite Targum Neofiti 1 as an example of such a Jewish tradition. [I cannot find a free online text of this targum, and hence I cannot see exactly what is said by it.] That is, according to this counterobjection [to objection (i) against interpretation (1)] Paul may very well have been thinking of Adam if he was influenced by Jewish tradition along the lines of Targum Neofiti 1. Schreiner states to this counterobjection to objection (i) against interpretation (1) that

This particular argument is unconvincing, for a central part of Pauline theology is that the Mosaic law came into existence at a certain point in redemptive history. (Rom 5:13-14). This is the basis on which he refutes the theology of the Judaizers in Gal 3:15-4:7. If he [Paul -- PP] granted that Adam himself possessed the Torah, then his argument in Gal 3-4 is shipwrecked. Paul's own writings demonstrate that he did not follow Jewish tradition in the theory that Adam knew the Torah. For Paul the Torah given to Moses had clear temporal markers on each side. On the one hand it originated at Mount Sinai (Rom 5:20) when the Mosaic covenant was inaugurated, and on the other hand it came to an end when the promises made to Abraham were fulfilled through the coming of Jesus Christ (Gal 3:15-4:7).

I happen to agree with Schreiner here. Regardless of whether Jewish tradition allowed for Adam's having the Torah in the Garden, Paul in both Romans and Galatians, if we let him speak for himself, seems to be unmistakably clear in viewing Adam's time as a pre-Law time, and hence Paul, even were he aware of such Jewish tradition, has himself indicated that he is not bound or following such a tradition. I also agree with Schreiner that Gal 3-4 would be shipwrecked if Paul did adopt the tradition of Neofiti 1. As a result, I agree with Schreiner that the counterobjection to objection (i) is unconvincing.

***********************End counterobjection to objection (i)

(ii) From a plain reading of the text, Paul has given no contextual indicators that he is using the first person singular pronoun "I" in any sort of rhetorical or special function beyond the usual way we take "I." Given that Paul is trying to clarify so that he is not misunderstood as stating that the law is sin, it seems rather forced to think of Paul as using a subtle rhetorical device whereby "I" means something different from what a natural reading would indicate, especially since there are no contextual indicators of which I'm aware that would indicate such a difference.

PP Commentary on Interpretation (1)

It is undeniable that the text here fits Adam-in-Eden quite well. However, Paul does not seem to have Adam in view due to the fact that Paul is discussing the tenth commandment, which, according to Paul, came long after Adam, at Sinai, not in Eden. Objection (i), so it seems to me, if not fatal, is rather insuperable. The contextual objection, objection (ii), is also strong. As a result, Interpretation (1) of "I," whereby "I" = Adam-in-Eden, while certainly understandable and appreciable, seems to have a serious problem.

Interpretation (2): "I" = Israel-at-Sinai

In favor of Interpretation (2):

Such an explanation would account for the historical narrative and progression found in verses 8-10, which can fit into Paul's life only with difficulty but conform agreeably to the experience of Israel. In order to comprehend this interpretatoin we must distinguish between "transgression" and "sin" in Pauline theology. Sin exists in the world apart from the law (Rom 2:21, 5:13), but it is not specifically identified as "transgression" [Gk: parabasis], a deliberate and rebellious violation of God's will, apart from law. Thus Rom 4:15 says "Where there is no law, neither is there transgression." The entrance of the law into salvation history provoked transgression (Rom 5:20), so that sin manifested itself as a flagrant flouting of the divine will. It is the increase of sin after the giving of the law at Sinai that 7:7-12 describes. Thus Paul is not suggesting that Israel had not sinned prior to the reception of the law. Rather, his argument is that Israel's sin after Sinai can be characterized as transgression since specific commandments of God have been violated. Such an analysis of Israel's history comports with the OT narrative in which Israel, after receiving the Mosaic covenant, expereiences judgement due to sin. It also fits nicely with Pauline theology since he argues elsewhere that the entrance of the law did not restrain sin but promulgated it (Rom 5:20, 1 Cor 15:56, Gal 3:19-22).

--- Schreiner, pp 361-2, summarizing those who propose Interpretation (2), that "I" denotes Israel at Sinai.

Objections to Interpretation (2):

(i) Personally speaking here, I find this interpretation overly subtle. While Rom 7:8-10 may, after it has been pointed out, be reasonably said to apply to Israel, I personally would have never imagined that Israel is being spoken of here. Again, Paul had plenty of opportunity to point out that he's talking about Israel, but he makes no such contextual indicator as far as this student can tell.

(ii) It is rather difficult, it seems to understand how Israel "was living" apart from the law, but when the law came, Israel "died." One might counterobject to this objection and state that perhaps "living" and "dying" are being used in some non-fully-theological sense here, but what is such a sense? See Schreiner, pp 362-3.

Apparently, among other Evangelicals, Moo holds to this view and discusses it in his NICNT Romans volume from the mid- or late-1990's, but I have the old Murray NICNT volume on Romans, and I have yet to get my hands on a copy of Moo, so I'm admittedly not-completely-confident that I understand the position accurately; neither can I verify that Schreiner is summarizing Interpretation (2) in its strongest form.

PP Commentary on Interpretation (2)

This interpretation strikes me as overly subtle. While it is, based on how I understand it, consistent with the text, the problems that arise in understanding what it means for Israel to "live" and "die" in Paul's usage of the terms are fairly difficult. I tentatively reject this interpretation based on what I know.

Interpretation (3): "I" = Paul speaking on Paul

In favor of Interpretation (3):

This seems to be the natural reading of the text, a reading that has "commanded support in both ancient and modern times" [Cranfield pp 342-3].

[Note: In Schreiner's eyes, the "I" Romans 7:14-25 refers to Paul and others. If Schreiner is correct, it is rather confusing for "I" in Romans 7:7-12 to denote "Adam" or "Israel" and then to suddenly switch to "Paul" or "Paul, among others in humanity." But this of course begs the question in 7:14-25, and we haven't talked about 7:14-25 yet, so this piece of evidence really isn't any evidence at all in my book.]

Against Interpretation (3):

(i) Commentators as early as Origen pointed out that Paul, a Jew could not have lived formerly without the law in v9, for Judaism was, at least in theory, defined by the Law. It was [in theory] the center of Jewish life.

Cranfield, p 343, views this objection as fatal to Interpretation (3). Cranfield views "living" [p 351] in a relative sense: the "I" may be said to have been alive in the sense that his condition then was life, in comparison with his conditions after the law had been received.

On the other hand, Schreiner would state the following against the objection that Cranfield views as insuperable:

(a) Paul refers to the law's impinging on his consciousness. "One can receive moral instruction when young, and yet the meaning and import of such moral norms may not strike home. In this text, Paul reflects on the time when the prohibition against coveting impinged on his consciousness, and it is unlikely that this occurred in his childhood days." [pp 364-5]

(b) Paul may have been referring to his pre-bar-mitzvah days.

Note that Cranfield finds this sort of objection unconvincing: "The explanation, which is commonly given, that Paul is referring to the period before he became a bar-mitvah is unconvincing; for though it is true that the Jewish boy who had not yet become a bar-mitzvah was not under obligation to keep the whole law, it would not be at all accurate to describe him as apart from/without the law." [p 343]

Returning to the objections to Interpretation (3):

(ii) The references to life and death in v9 cannot be taken in their richest theological sense [being alive/dead to God in the sense of having a right standing with him].

In reply to this objection, this doesn't faze me too much, for who says that taking these references in their richest theological sense is intrinsically better than not taking them in their richest theological sense? The nuances of zao [I live] are still debated, so far as I know.

(iii) Schreiner [p 364] mentions that Kümmel's 1974 monograph on Romans 7 maintains that "I" refers to every-person-in-general, a specific reference to Paul, Adam, Israel, etc, not being intended. Kümmel lists instances of where the first-person singular and plural pronouns [I/me and us/we] are used rhetorically in Jewish, Greek, and Pauline literature, citing Rom 3:5, 3:7, 1 Cor 6:12, 6:15, 10:29, 11:31-2, 13:1-3, 13:11-12, 14:11, 14:15, Gal 2:18 as examples. From these examples, Kümmel claims that the "I" here in Rom 7:7-12 is not autobiographical.

PP Commentary on Interpretation (3), where "I"=Paul

This interpretation seems to have the decided advantage of fitting in with the natural reading of "I." But I agree that it is hard to see how Paul can be said to have formerly lived apart from/without the law. And given Paul's other instances of using the first person pronoun rhetorically, it is not wise to be dogmatic here. Paul could very well be strictly speaking for himself here, but this thesis is hardly proven based on the objections above.

Interpretation (4): "I" = generic stand-in for humanity, of which Paul is a member

In favor of (4):

(i) This allows for a pretty natural reading of "I" in that Paul is included in the scope of the "I," but the difficulties of living formerly without the law are reduced or even removed now, for Paul could very well be telescoping non-Jews [who can't be said to have the law] into his compressed statement in v9.

(ii) This takes into account Kümmel's objection to an autobiographical reading based on Pauline rhetoric with the first-person pronoun.

Against (4) again lies the objection that the natural reading: why didn't Paul say "we" or something clearer instead?

Along these lines, Cranfield [pp 343-4] writes:

The most probable explanation of Paul's use of the first person in 7:7-13 would seem to be a modified form of (the thesis that Paul is using the first person singular in a generalizing way withtout intending a specific reference to any particular individual or clearly defined group, in order to depict vividly the situation of man in the absence of the law and in its presence). We may recognize Paul's use of the first person singular here as an example of the generl use of the first person singular; but at the same time we shall probably be right to assume that his choice of this form of speech is, in the present case, due not merely to a desire for rhetorical vividness but also to his deep sense of personal involvement, his consciousness that in drawing out the general truth he is disclosing the truth about himself. We may also accept that in his description he draws upon the fundamental narrative of Genesis 2 and 3.

PP Commentary on Interpretation (4)

If I'm understanding the major arguments for and against the major interpretations properly, it seems that, even though (4) has its difficulties, it has the fewest or most superable difficulties. This is not to say that I consider (4) an open-or-shut interpretation, but it is to say that (4) seems to fit the text without opening too many exegetical cans of worms.

My position seems to be in accord with Cranfield, but different from that of a Moo or Schreiner, say. With Luther, Murray, Lenski, and Hendriksen boxed up in storage, I'm rather at the disadvantage for surveying the Romans commentary landscape for myself.

In closing, then, when Paul writes

[7] What then shall we say? Is the law sin? But I would not have known sin except [or without] the law; for I did not know coveting apart from the law stating "Thou shalt not covet."

[8] But sin, having taken the opportunity through the commandment, was working covetousness in all of my members, for apart from law sin is dead.

[9] I was formerly living apart from [or without] the law, but when the commandment came, sin came to [or sprang to] life,

[10] and I died. And the commandment which was to issue unto life for me, this issued unto death!

[11] For sin, having taken the opportunity, deceived me through the commandment and through the commandment it killed me.

[12] Therefore, the law in and of itself is holy and the the commandment is hold and righteous and good,


we take it to mean that Paul is speaking of humanity in the general. Whether Paul consciously intends to or not, Paul is therefore speaking of himself as well here, even if he had foremost on his mind humanity-at-large. The passage accordingly applies to you and me and the guy down the street.

This would seem to be a passable blog summary of the battle of the "I" interpretations. The real challenge is to figure out exactly who or what "I" is when discussing 7:13-25.

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