Romans 13:1-7 an Interpolation?

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.

NYT on the Republican Deficit Plan

This afternoon on Yahoo Finance I found an NYT article by David Leonhardt offering pretty much the same criticism of the “Pledge to America” that I offered below in “Delusions of a Prodigal Nation”–only they have good quotes and good statistics and good journalism to liven it up.  It’s well-worth a read.  “Congressional Republicans have used the old trick of promising specific tax cuts and vague spending cuts,” Leonhardt laments.  It pretends that cutting out a little fat from a few wasteful programs will do the trick, but

The bulk of the deficit problem instead comes from three popular programs, Medicare, Social Security and the military, and they happen to be the ones the Republican pledge exempts from cuts. But it’s impossible to fix the deficit without making cuts to these programs or raising taxes. To suggest otherwise is to claim that 10 minus 1 equals 5.

“In short,” Leonhardt summarizes, “the pledge imagines a world without tough choices, where we can have low taxes, big government and a balanced budget.”


Chrysostom on “The Lazy Poor”

We are accustomed to hearing among conservatives 2 Thess. 3:10 cited as essentially the only Biblical passage relevant to economics: “If a man does not work, let him not eat.”  This is the problem with welfare or even with too much voluntary charity, we are told.  Most people are poor because they are lazy, and we mustn’t reinforce this laziness.  There is nothing new under the sun, and so it turns out that this claim is not the result of the great discoveries of capitalism, but is an age-old excuse, which the Church Fathers had to deal with 1600 years ago.  In a paper on property rights, John Medaille of the Distributist Review quotes this passage from Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews:

“For why does he not work (you say)? And why is he to be maintained in idleness? But (tell me) is it by working that thou hast what thou hast, didst thou not receive it as an inheritance from thy fathers? And even if thou dost work, is this a reason why thou shouldest reproach another? Hearest thou not what Paul saith? For after saying, “He that worketh not, neither let him eat” (2 Thess. iii. 10), he says, “But ye be not weary in well doing.” (2 Thess. Iii. 13.)…Are all poor through idleness? Is no one so from shipwreck? None from lawsuits? None from being robbed? None from dangers? None from illness? None from any other difficulties?”

Delusions of a Prodigal Nation

We’ve all heard the news about the GOP’s new “Pledge to America,” which states, more or less, “We pledge allegiance to the Tea Party, and to the millions of voters for which it stands, and promise to do whatever it says.”  No, it doesn’t really say that, but of course, it’s no secret that the Republicans are tripping over themselves to try to align themselves with, rather than against, the foaming unstoppable wave of right-wing fury the Tea Party represents.  The basic message of this movement is to say, “No to taxes” categorically, “No to government spending” loudly but vaguely, and “No to deficits” as an afterthought.  Taxes, we are told, are at unacceptable levels–never mind that they are lower than they have been in decades (whereas the highest marginal tax rate under the conservative Eisenhower was 91%, now it’s only 36%!).  And never mind that income inequality has shot to unprecedented levels, with the richest Americans increasing their incomes even in the midst of recession, and with the top 20% now accounting for 49.4% of all income, making it hard to see on what basis one would oppose higher marginal tax rates.  

So, we must balance the budget without increasing taxes, we are told.  This will be easy, the Pledge to America assures us, with a vague wave of its hand promising $100 billion in spending cuts by getting rid of “wasteful government spending.”  But that won’t be enough–assuming that Congress does defy the Tea Party and let the Bush tax cuts expire for the top two income brackets, then, if we don’t want to raise any more taxes, we will need $255 billion per year in spending cuts to achieve a balanced budget by 2015, which is pretty much a fiscal necessity.  How hard is it to cut $255 billion per year?  A new study by the Center for American Progress reveals the bleak answer.  

As my friend Byron Smith summarizes (thanks to his blog for the link):

“Cuts include: three quarters of agricultural subsidies; ninety-five billion from defence (including significant reductions for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and reductions in standing nuclear capacity; in all almost a 15% reduction); reductions to social security payments; no new highways; subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear research reduced by 90%; significant reductions to international aid, correctional services, customs and border enforcement, health research, NASA, National Parks, FEMA, agricultural research, EPA and much, much more.”

Of course, even this may not dissuade right-wingers who want the government out of all these things.  But thinking that, in principle, it’d be better if the government didn’t spend money on these things does not mean that it’s at all sane to try to get the government out of all these things at once.  If you have a caffeine addict who’s in a depressed slump, then while you’re trying to get him back on his feet, it’s best not to try to make him go cold turkey on caffeine at the same time.  

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 4)

I’m sorry it has taken so long to post this fourth installment, especially as it was already basically written up and all I had to do was tweak a couple things.  At the end of this segment, I would like to invite feedback from anyone who has been reading, so that any questions or objections can be taken into account before I proceed to the final segment–a Christian answer to coercion.

Now, having complexified our understanding of the economic realm, I’d like to turn to the political realm, which is often depicted as essentially coercive in all its operations, to see if a more complex account is necessary here as well.  The idea of the civil authority as the realm of “the sword” of course goes back at least to St. Paul, and has dominated much of the Western political tradition since.  Max Weber famously defined a nation-state as an entity which claims “a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a particular territory.”  Although I suggested above that the language of violence and the language of coercion are not exactly the same thing, it has been long been conventional (e.g., most notably in Marsilius of Padua and the whole tradition following from him) to describe the State’s role as essentially coercive.  While not wanting to deny the traditional identification of coercion as a modus operandi of the State, I do want to seriously question whether it is always, necesssarily, or even most often the modus operandi of the state.  Governments use coercion, yes, and the fact that they can legitimately resort to it in many different situations can often give a coercive flavoring to all their activities, and explains why this has often been viewed as their defining distinctive.  However, I want to suggest that it is not usually, and cannot long remain, their dominant tool, and that most of their activities most of the time depend on other motivations.

To see how ambiguous coercion is in reality, let’s look at an environment where coercive force seems to be clearly the norm–the military.  Now, soldiers in an army are required to obey, and discipline is rigorously enforced, often by severe punishment.  Soldiers are generally not permitted to simply choose whether or not to obey and fight, or to give up and go home–they are required to do their duty.  Desertion, particularly in wartime, is often punishable by death.  Now, this looks like coercion–fear of punishment and death is the motivation for obedience.  And that is an accurate account of how many armies have functioned at many times.  However, these are not generally the most effective armies (something the US, for instance, has recognized in their repudiation of the draft for all-volunteer armies). There are also armies whose chief motivation to fight is reward, whether the crude financial reward of the mercenary, or the desire for honor that has motivated countless soldiers throughout the ages, from Achilles to modern Marines.  Perhaps most powerful of all are armies that are motivated by love–love of country, love of commander (and the latter, being more personal and less abstract, is generally more effective than the former).  Hannibal is said to have accomplished the miracles he did becasue of the intense personal devotion which he inspired in his soldiers, which led them to follow him through any dangers.  Would we say that Hannibal’s soldiers were “coerced” to fight for him?  Well, in a technical sense perhaps, since he always could (and occasionally did) have deserters executed.  But this would not be an accurate psychological description of how most of his soldiers perceived it.  This example suggests, fascinatingly, that there is a subjective, not merely objective dimension to identifying coercion: Hannibal’s soldiers were not coerced until they thought they were. As long as they loved Hannibal and wanted to fight for him, coercion was not operative; but if they once stopped loving him and started fearing him, then all of a sudden, they were fighting only because they were coerced to do so, and if they tried to desert, that coercion became very real and active.  This may seem at first like a vapid truism–of course you’re not liable to punishment unless you disobey–but I think this actually has the potential to change our perceptions of coercion a great deal, as I shall explore in particular in the final segment.

The same principle operates of course at a national level.  Were the German people coerced to go to war in World War I and World War II?  By and large no.  Even though they were under very coercive regimes that would have acted swiftly and mercilessly against dissenters, this fact was not relevant for most of the German people, who went to war not out of fear of punishment, but out of eager love for the Fatherland.  Only later, as the war began to seem a burden, did fear take hold and coercion become prominent.  (Even if you disagree with this particular example, clearly there are many such examples that could be given.)  This sort of response is every smart nation-state’s dream.  There have of course always been the Pinochets of the world who felt that the creation of a constant climate of fear was the most effective way to ensure an obedient populace, but usually the cost of such a policy outweighs the benefits, and the loyalty thus coerced is short-lived and always looking for an out.  We lump Hitler and Stalin together in the same category, but forget a key difference: Stalin ruled almost entirely by fear, while Hitler, brutal as he was to minority dissidents,  recognized that ultimate success required that a solid majority of the German people served by love, either personal loyalty for him or for the Reich.  This is why Hitler’s armies were so much more effective than Stalin’s at the beginning.  In general, states recognize that they will not get very far if most of their people are motivated to go along with the policies only by fear–fear is not a very productive emotion, but is often downright paralyzing.  Most states thus seek to instill in their people a genuine love for the country and what it stands for, a sense that the proposed policies are objectively good and should be supported, and a conviction that they themselves will benefit therein.  When a small minority do not feel this way, they can be coerced to go along with everyone else, but as that small minority becomes bigger and coercion becomes the dominant element, it also becomes less and less feasible, and, once it reaches the point where a majority of people are obeying out of coercion, the situation is so unstable that it will generally not be able to last long.   

(A brief note about hate: hate is an emotion that often gets tangled up with love as its flip-side; because we love one thing, we start to hate its opposite; because we hate its opposite, we start to love the first thing more.  In the political sphere, and particularly when it comes to war, hate can become a very powerful emotion and motivation, and if it becomes more powerful than its corresponding love, the consequences are devastating.  Thus, although hate can be in the short-term a very productive motivation, in the long-run, it is the worst of all, just as love is, in the long-run, the best of all.) 

Interestingly, since the frightful outpourings of nationalistic fervour that came to a head in World War II, many politicians have concluded that love of country (with its accompanying propensity to hate) is perhaps too volatile an emotion, and though they still summon it up on occasion when poll numbers are really low and they need a war to energize the people, they have generally resorted to the more stable motivation of reward.  Modern states have therefore become remarkably like large corporations, resorting above all to marketing their policies to their citizens, something increasingly necessary in an increasingly democratic system.  We carelessly talk about how the government can do whatever they want, and can just coerce people to pay for public healthcare.  But clearly, if it were that simple, Obama, Pelosi, et. al. would not have exerted such enormous efforts trying to persuade the American people that the healthcare reform was a good idea.  As it is, months and years were spent marketing the idea that healthcare reform was something for which citizens should willingly vote and willingly devote their tax dollars, in expectation that they would be getting more for their money than under existing healthcare arrangements.  Governments are now in the business of using the media to convince their citizens that they have a serious unfulfilled need or want, that existing suppliers of that need are insufficient–offering poor quality, a bad value for money, etc.–and that the government is best suited to supply that need.  They boast of their excellent track record of success, of the higher literacy rates and GDP growth that their schemes have produced, and use this as a basis to convince their citizens that these schemes are worth continued financial support and customer loyalty.  The goal is to produce taxpayers who are by and large willing to support the schemes with their tax dollars.  Of course, “willing to support” does not mean that they’re exceptionally eager to to part with a portion of their paycheck, anymore than voluntarily buying gas means that you don’t grumble at the pump over the astronomical sums you are forking over.  But it means that on balance you are convinced that you’re getting more for these tax dollars than you would if you spent them elsewhere.  If you aren’t convinced, then you try to oppose the legislation and get it overturned.   

Now, needless to say, most folks in America nowadays are not convinced that they’re getting a good value for money for their tax dollars.  They are not willing customers.  And so coercion enters the equation…more and more people feel like they are being coerced to pay their taxes.  I am far from denying that this is the case.  However, it is important to note that I speak of coercion entering the equation–it is not an inevitable part of it.  There have been and are plenty of times when most citizens willingly pay their taxes, or willingly pay a large part of them (approving of what they’re going to).  There have been and are times when citizens have felt that when their representatives act, they are genuinely acting as a community, tackling a problem together, and when this is the case, they are not being coerced to obey their government, even if coercion is always theoretically an option.  Coercion only becomes operative when they begin to think of their obedience in terms of coercion.  Now this tends to happen, indeed perhaps inevitably happens, in more centralized governments, where the decision-making processes become impersonal, bureaucratized, and completely out of touch with real citizens and communities.  In such environments, skepticism and mistrust flourish, both because there generally is greater corruption, and because, even when there isn’t, it is simply harder for citizens to understand clearly why certain decisions are being made.  Policies become inefficient, so it is hard to see the reward, and as they seem arbitrary it becomes impossible to feel love, unless a war is declared, artificially generating love by means of hate This is certainly the case in America today, and so I expect the sense of unwillingness and coercion to grow.  And, as governments cannot long function effectively when they have to rely increasingly on coercion, I’m afraid that the situation may become increasingly unstable in America in coming years.

In any case, I think we have seen enough to establish that coercion does not necessarily characterize the political sphere, any more that freedom from coercion necessarily characterizes the economic sphere.  The similarities, indeed, are remarkable in today’s world.  In both economics and politics, we have very large institutional actors with enormous resources that both dedicate to persuading individuals that they they are providing important and valuable goods and services that those individuals should support with their money and loyalty.  If more positive motivations fail, both are prepared to resort to more or less subtle forms of fear or manipulation to persuade people whose rational perceptions leave them skeptical of the value of the service, or else to use their weight to maneuver so that there are no other viable options in the marketplace, and people support their product because they can’t imagine alternatives.  The remaining differences, while significant, tend (in modern Western democracies at least) to be differences of degree, rather than absolute differences.  

In making this argument, we have seen that there is a striking subjective component to coercion–it isn’t at all merely a matter of what others outside of you do to your or intend to do to you, but how you view them and how you respond, and that coercion as such tends to become effective only in the absence of love.  This suggests that ethics–in particular Christian ethics–may have a great deal to say about how we should act in the face of potential coercion, economic or political.  I shall try to develop some of these ethical answers in the final segment.