In 1965, James Kallas published a rambunctious and controversial article in New Testament Studies entitled “Romans 13:1-7: An Interpolation.” In so doing, he did a great service to future commentators on Romans, who, upon reaching chapter 13, found themselves tossing about for something intelligent to say–now they could fill up several pages rehearsing the arguments for and against the interpolation thesis, which, along with the obligatory discussion of the Cullmann hypothesis, almost relieved them entirely of the necessity for any original thought. However, few of the myriad succeeding discussions of the interpolation thesis has adequately addressed the foundation of Kallas’s wild theory. The article itself can only be described as a shrill rant, as Kallas works himself into a frothy passion in a frantic attempt to convince himself (more than anyone else) that something he fears and detests could not possibly be true. It would be easy (and not too unfair) to dismiss the central argument of his article as little more than “I love Paul, and I hate what this passage says, so Paul can’t possibly have written it.” To which Robert Jewett acidly retorts,“Distaste for a passage has no bearing on its authenticity.”
And yet, despite the fundamental vapidity of Kallas’s argument, he is able to gain a great deal of traction and give it the illusion of cogency because the abysmal performance of commentators up to his time enabled him to make two startling claims almost uncontested. First, “this little section of seven verses has always been recognized by theologians as a self-contained envelope completely independent of its context.” Second, that in Romans 13 Paul urges “ardent and active support” of the civil order instead of mere humble submission because he “assumes that the state is in essence good.”
Let us take these in reverse. As Kallas tries to sketch the contradictions between what Paul says in Romans 13 and what he says elsewhere, he is generally fairly clear and compelling in sketching the latter, but when it comes to describing the former, he contents himself with a few cursory remarks and no exegesis, providing a completely distorted straw man of the chapter’s argument. Nowhere is this more clear than with the “ardent and active support” claim. Here is the paragraph:
“In the light of this [eschatological] world view one could well imagine Paul urging his followers to submit to the abuses of this passing corrupted order, but it is impossible to conceive of Paul urging ardent and active support of that order. The viewpoint of Paul is to be found in Rom. 12:14f., where he urges the Christian to submit to undeserved abuse….Even conceding that Paul could not and would not encourage rebellion, why go to the other extreme and insist that he demanded ardent active support of the state? Is there no middle ground between active support and hostile rebellion? Surely there is, in the fact of humble submission. This is the pattern which Paul follows….Paul did not demand the active support of the state which is enjoined upon the Christian by the unknown author of Rom. 13:1-7. Paul did not write that, for it assumes that the state is in essence good. Paul instead pleaded for passive submission to evil which comes from any source, the state herein included, and that is what he calls for in Rom. 12:14f.”
But of course it seems quite clear to me that the stance described in Rom. 12:14f.–”humble submission”–is identical with the stance described in Rom. 13:1-7. Nonetheless, Kallas is able to be so careless with his exegesis because the vast majority of commentators up till his time did represent the stance of Romans 13 as a one of “ardent and active support” of the state. Since the 1960s, many commentators have moved (though haltingly and with lingering inconsistencies) to a more nuanced view of what Paul is in fact asking for in Romans 13, thus bringing it considerably more into line with the rest of his teaching that Kallas rehearses (though on most readings, it still sits somewhat uncomfortably).
What about the other point? Is it true that “this little section of seven verses has always been recognized by theologians as a self-contained envelope completely independent of its context”? That would seem bizarre indeed–who writes a letter and inserts a 175-word paragraph with no relation to what comes before and after? Well, I know a few ADD people who might, but it’s hard to imagine why Paul would. And yet, Kallas is more or less correct in asserting that commentators before his time unanimously treated this as a completely independent section, a point he makes much of at the outset of his article. Remarkably, since Kallas’s article, despite the obligatory rebuttals in every commentary, this basic stance has changed little. The standard approach has continued to assume a basic independence of the passage, and only qualified this independence to the extent necessary to deny the interpolation argument. Sometimes scholars will seem to glimpse the light–“wait…maybe this passage actually ought to be read in context” and then, frightened by the possible insights this might generate, they retreat to the safety of the “self-contained envelope.” Robert Stein provides a great example of this in a 1989 article: “Numerous attempts have been made to show that it is not simply an intrusion into the context, but that it has significant ties to what precedes and follows….[A survey of these follows. Then, without rebutting any of them, he says:] Even if there are ties with the immediately surrounding materials, it must nevertheless be admitted that the ties are at best loose.” He then quotes Kasemann to make himself feel comfortable with this blithe assertion, and moves on. In fact, nearly everyone likes to quote Kasemann, particularly his little “alien body” remark: “Our section is an independent block. In view of its singular scope it can be pointedly called an alien body in Paul’s exhortation.” Yet this assertion does not sit well with Kasemann’s own insistence, at the outset of commenting on chapter 12, that Paul’s “train of thought is by no means as unsystematic as many suppose today. Viewed a a whole, the Epistle to the Romans reveals a closely knit argumentation which is hidden only to those who do not exert enough effort over it.” Exactly–those who do not exert enough effort over it. Such as for instance S. Hutchinson, who in 1971 wrote that 13:1-7’s independence from its context posed no problem in view of the loose connections of 12:9-21, a “grab-bag of disconnected unsorted teachings which do not reflect any effort at continuous argument”–thus “a close logical connection between chapters 12 and 13 is hardly to be expected.” Pace Hutchinson, commentators have in fact discerned a number of literary and thematic ties that knit this section firmly together.
Few, however, have given much effort to discerning such ties with 13:1-7, for reasons that continue to mystify me. In my post last week, I mentioned the very weak recognition given to the opheil- connection in 13:7 and 13:8, and this is of course only one of many semantic threads tying together the section. I have recently learned that a Dutch scholar named de Kruijf presented a paper back in the ‘80s arguing for “a network of inclusions” from 12:16 and 13:8, which I am desperate to get ahold of, since that is the first reference I have encountered in the scholarly literature recognizing the 12:16-13:8 chiasm. In “Romans 13:1-7: A Test Case for New Testament Interpretation,” J.I.H. McDonald acknowledges efforts such as de Kruijf’s, calling them “impressive attempts…to demonstrate how completely Rom. 13:1-7 relates to its context in Romans.” This is more recognition than most scholars give. However, McDonald goes on to say, “Such efforts tend to ignore one important feature (and here I am more in sympathy wth the critics): the inner logic of the passage is completely self-contained. Though linked with its context in Romans the passage is in some respects an isolated unity. The primary base of authentic interpretation is to be located in the inner logic of the passage rather than in its literary context. Although the latter is not without significance, since it may well contain indications as to why this passage was introduced by the author at this point, the rhetorical unit is Rom 13.1-7 itself.”
Now, there is perhaps something to this. McDonald would appear to be right that 13:1-7 is bound together by a coherent inner logic, obviating the need to explain it in terms of outside context. (Even this, I would suggest, ought perhaps to be contested at one or two points, such as the opheil– link, but I’ll grant it for the sake of argument.) But is it true, as a general principle of interpretation, that “the primary base of authentic interpretation is to be located in the inner logic of the passage rather than in its literary context”? Kasemann says something similar: “In the first instance it has to be expounded in terms of itself, and only subsequently, in the light of 12:1f.” This is very good and scientific of them–science loves to try and deal with isolated phenomena on their own terms, and only later (if at all) try to integrate them with the bigger picture. But this not very good literary criticism (in fact, it is not even very good science, as my friend Brad Belschner argues in the upcoming issue of Fermentations). If we were studying a novel, and we found that several of the chapters could function as meaningful units on their own, like a bunch of independent short stories (which for many chapters in many novels would be the case), does this mean that we ought first to try to expound the meaning of the chapter as an individual unit, and only then evaluate what additional light might be shed by its context? If we did so, we would almost certainly be led astray, for the argument of each chapter taken on its own would often contradict the argument of the work as a whole. The rejoinder might be made that Paul is writing a letter, not a work of literature–and don’t we often write random asides in letters that have little relation to the rest of the letter? Perhaps some of us do, but did Paul? And in particular, did Paul in Romans? Most of these commentators who happily grant the independence of Romans 13 elsewhere see it as their task to uncover the detailed logical and linguistic links tying together Paul’s exposition in a seamless argument. As Kasemann says, “Viewed a a whole, the Epistle to the Romans reveals a closely knit argumentation which is hidden only to those who do not exert enough effort over it.”
McDonald betrays his assumptions when he says that the passage’s inner logic “obviates the need” to explain it in terms of the context, as if the goal is to explain it on its own terms, and we resort to the surrounding context only if necessary. But this is like saying that the structural integrity of the human heart obviates the need to explain its function in terms of its relation to the whole human body. We may of course choose to temporarily bracket out certain contextual considerations in order to focus rigorously on certain details, just as we might temporarily focus in on a couple words in a verse to analyze their meaning in isolation, without respect to the context. But when we do this, any insights drawn from this narrow inquiry are provisional, and must be conditioned by the larger context, rather than vice versa. To do otherwise is to willfully blinker ourselves, to prematurely close down the exegetical task, and this will inevitably lead, as it has in the case of Romans 13, to an impoverished interpretation.