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More on the supposed incarnational christology of Romans 1:3

This is a rushed and rather technical addendum to the previous piece on the question of whether there is a reference to the incarnation in Romans 1:3:

concerning his Son | who came into being / was / was born | from the seed of David | according to the flesh…

peri tou huiou | tou genomenou | ek spermatos Dauid | kata sarka

It has been pointed out to me by Matthew himself that the argument about pre-existence in Romans 1:3 in Gospel Allegiance is drawn from his 2015 Catholic Biblical Quarterly article “A Christology of Incarnation and Enthronment: Romans 1:3-4 as Unified, Nonadoptionist, and Nonconciliatory.” The article is available on the Academia site.

The claim that there is an allusion to the incarnation in this opening summary of Paul’s gospel hangs, first, on the fact that Paul uses ginomai rather than gennaō (to “procreate”, “give birth”), and that the aorist participle (genomenou) would normally convey the idea of “change in status or mode of existence” (115, italics removed).

This is backed up by the claim that “from the seed of David” is a reference to “Mary’s contribution to Jesus’ human production and family lineage” (117).

Finally, Bates thinks that “according to the flesh” highlights “the Son’s transition to the weak, frail, decaying state of fully embodied human existence within the messianic line of David” (122).

In sum: Paul is saying that the pre-existent Christ came into being “as it pertains to the flesh” through the instrumentality of the virgin birth.

I still find this unconvincing.

1. Bates, I think, misreads the distinction between ginomai and gennaō. When Paul uses gennaō, the concrete event of the birth is clear in the context: Rebecca had conceived children by Isaac, “though they were not yet born (gennēthentōn)” (Rom. 9:11); the son of the slave woman Hagar was “born (gegennētai) according to the flesh” (Gal. 4:23; cf. 24, 29). The explicit interest in the actual circumstances of the birth is missing in Romans 1:3. This is why I think we should look elsewhere for an explanation of tou genomenou.

2. There are plenty of good examples in Hellenistic Jewish writings of the exact phrase tou genomenou (to narrow the field) used with reference to the birth or coming into being of a person, without any connotation of pre-existence or change of status.

The language of Genesis 21:3 LXX is very close to Romans 1:3:

Abraham called the name of his son who was born (tou huiou autou tou genomenou) to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.

…concerning his Son who became / was / was born (tou huiou autou tou genomenou) from the seed of David.

Joshua “circumcised the sons of Israel born (tous genomenous) on the way in the wilderness” (Josh. 21:42).

In a genealogy of Moses, the 3rd century BC writer Demetrius the Chronographer writes: “those born (tōn genomenōn) from Keturah of the stock of Abraham, a descendant of Jokshan, who was the son (tou genomenou) of Abraham by (ek) Keturah” (Demetr. 3:1).

Philo uses tou genomenou for “offspring”, the one who has “become” to the parent (Ebr. 13), and for the thing or person “created” (Conf. 171; cf. Migr. 193; Her. 166; Congr. 48; Mut. 45; Abr. 121; Spec. 3 189).

Bates notes this but is more impressed by the sheer preponderance of instances in the New Testament where ginomai signifies not a person’s birth but his becoming something else. Point 1 above makes the wider Jewish usage much more relevant.

3. I don’t think that “from the seed of David” can be read as a reference to Mary and the virgin birth of Jesus. Paul is himself “from the seed of Abraham” (Rom. 11:1); Jesus is “from the seed of David” (2 Tim. 2:8). These are not “instrumental” expressions; they do not point to the “means” by which the person was born, which is what Bates argues for Romans 1:3. In 1 Maccabees 7:14 we have reference to a “man, a priest from the seed (ek spermatos) of Aaron.” The Hasideans are not interested in who the man’s mother was. Levi is “from the seed of Abraham our father” (T. Levi 8:15). It is, therefore, improbable that Paul meant “from the seed of David” to be understood as a reference to Jesus’ birth by Mary. The expression only locates Jesus in a particular lineage.

4. Syntactically, the participle is qualified by “from the seed of David”, not by “according to the flesh.” Paul does not say that the “becoming” of Jesus was a matter of becoming flesh. Rather “according to the flesh” comes at the end of the clause, first as a recapitulation of the whole first line (Jesus was from the line of David and therefore human), then as an anticipation of the contrasting “according to the Spirit” in the second line. It does not signal an incarnational christology; it denotes the original royal Jewish humanity of the one who would rule over the nations (cf. Rom. 15:12).

5. The aorist expression tou genomenou can also simply mean that a person existed, perhaps with the connotation “before something else.” I mentioned the reference to Ahab, who “did more evil than all who were (tous genomenous) before him” (1 Kgs 16:33 LXX). Josephus says of Enoch that he “was (tou genomenou) before the Deluge” (Ant. 9:28). At least we may say that in such genealogical statements there is little difference between the person having been born and the person simply having been.

This seems to me to suggest strongly that peri tou huiou tou genomenou ek spermatos Dauid is a reference only to Jesus’ existence (perhaps his coming into existence) as a descendant of David before he existed as the exalted Lord by virtue of his resurrection from the dead. There is no reason to introduce the specific thought of the actual birth of Jesus (for which gennaō would certainly be appropriate) into the protocreed, as Bates calls it.

But enough of this quibbling. Next to a more constructive review of the book…

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This got me to realise we have to try thinking outside our theological boxes….and think jewishly!

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