John Barclay, Paul and the Gift, and those bothersome righteous Gentiles

Generative AI summary:

The article discusses the question of whether the Gentiles who do not have the Law but do what the law requires in Romans 2:14 are ordinary Gentiles or Gentiles who have converted to belief in Jesus. The author explores the eschatological horizon of Paul’s argument in Romans and the dialogue with the Jews. The article also examines the concept of judgment according to works and the interpretation of the phrase “Gentiles by nature doing what the Law requires.”

Read time: 11 minutes

I have finally got round to reading John Barclay’s highly esteemed Paul and the Gift, and he almost persuaded me to change my mind about the identity of the Gentiles who do not have the Law but do what the law requires (Rom. 2:14).

I have been going backwards and forwards over the last few days, and not for the first time, regarding the question of whether these are ordinary well-behaved Gentiles or Gentiles who have converted to belief in Jesus. These rough and ready comments on the relevant passages include my reasons for going forwards in the end rather than backwards.

The day of God’s wrath

Romans 1:18-32 is an outright indictment of the Greek world. This gives us the eschatological horizon of Paul’s argument in the letter, which I think is the critical interpretive presumption for understanding the letter. Everything is explained by the fact that a day of God’s wrath against classical paganism and the inauguration of a new age of right living is now foreseen and proclaimed by the apostles.

But what is driving Paul, writing from Corinth, in more immediate terms in this opening section is his heated “dialogue with the Jews” of the diaspora. So he turns to the Jew who passes judgment on his Greek neighbours but in effect practises the same things. Such a person is storing up wrath for himself or herself “on the day when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5).

On this day, God will judge impartially—the Jew first, then the Greek (2:6-11). To those who do good he will give glory, honour, peace, immortality, eternal life. To those who do evil he will give wrath, fury, tribulation, and distress. Paul has in mind a far-reaching and justice-based restructuring of the world as he knows it.

Paul knows that Jews in the synagogues will take exception to their inclusion in this narrative of divine judgment, so he gives his reasons for cautioning them that they are not the gift to humanity that they think they are.

On the one hand, despite being in possession of the Law, they have brought the name of YHWH into disrepute among the nations by their shameful behaviour (2:23-24). A good illustration of this is the Fulvia scam, which led to the expulsion of Jews from Rome in the reign of Tiberius.

On the other, Gentiles who do not have the Law of Moses will be found on the day of God’s wrath to have acted righteously and will be justified. Are these ordinary Gentiles, as would appear on the face of it? Or is Barclay right to say that everything Paul says in Romans 2-3 “presupposes the good news that he has already outlined” (466)?

A judgment according to works

Among Jews and Greeks, some will seek glory, honour, peace, and immortality and will be rewarded with the life of the age to come. This is a judgment and justification according to works (2:7, 13). The thought could be, implicitly, that only those whose hearts have been renewed by the Spirit of God are capable of fulfilling the just requirements of the Law. But then we need to differentiate between an initial salvation by faith and an eventual justification of believers according to works on the day of God’s wrath. Is that coherent?

Gentiles | by nature | doing what the Law requires

Paul twice makes reference to “nature” in statements about the Gentiles doing what the Law requires. The question that arises is whether “by nature” qualifies the Gentiles who do not have the Law or the actions by which they fulfil the Law. Does Paul mean in Romans 2:14 that the Gentiles do not have the Law “by nature” (physei) or that “by nature” they do the things of the Law? The sentence can be read either way:

“the Gentiles not having the Law | by nature | do the things of the Law…” (2:14*)

If they are Gentiles without the Law by nature, the possibility is left open that they do the things of the Law by the Spirit. If by nature they do what the Law requires, then their righteousness is attributed to an innate moral capacity, not to the Spirit.

The second reference comes in the phrase “the uncircumcision by nature fulfilling the Law…” (2:27), but in this case “by nature” clearly goes with “uncircumcision”: “the from nature uncircumcision” (hē ek physeōs akrobystia). Conversely, Paul says in Galatians 2:15 that “We are by nature (physei) Jews and not sinners from the Gentiles.” The distinction between Jew and Gentile is in some sense a “natural” one.

These two texts could be taken as evidence that “by nature” more likely qualifies the preceding reference to the Gentiles in Romans 2:14, as John Barclay argues:

There is good reason to take φύσει (2:14) with the clause that precedes (“Gentiles who do not have the Law by birth”) rather than with the clause that follows (“they do the things of the Law”): this is a natural word order, and the sense accords with Paul’s statements elsewhere that draw attention to Jewish difference φύσει (Gal 2:15) or to Gentile difference ἐκ φύσεως (Rom 2:27). (Barclay, Paul and the Gift, 467)

On the other hand, we may wonder why the physis expression is not integrated into the subject clause in Romans 2:14 as it is in 2:27 and Galatians 2:15. So Richard Longenecker: “if Paul had meant φύσει to be understood adjectivally, he could better have placed it within the participial phrase τὰ μὴ νόμον ἔχοντα (probably best between νόμον and ἔχοντα)” (The Epistle to the Romans, 274).

Six of one and half a dozen of the other, I guess.

The work of the law written on their hearts

Paul says that these righteous Gentiles “show the work of the Law written in (en) their hearts” (2:15*). This is often taken to be an allusion to the new covenant theme: “I will give my laws in their mind, and I will write them on (epi) their hearts ” (Jer. 38:33 LXX). This is Barclay’s contention:

Considering what Paul said earlier about the futility of human thinking (1:21, 28), the darkening of senseless hearts (1:21), and the sinful passions of human hearts (1:24), this inscription of the Law on Gentile hearts is no natural phenomenon, an exception that somehow evaded Paul’s analysis of sin. In fact, the echo of Jeremiah 31 (LXX 38):33—a text deeply influential on Paul—is loud and clear. The inscription of a moral consciousness on obtuse hearts can only be the transformative work of God…. (Barclay, Paul and the Gift, 467)

This seems unlikely to me: it is ruled out if we take the view that “by nature” attaches to “do the things of the Law”; the phrase “written in their hearts” corresponds to the preceding “are a law to themselves,” which has a “natural” ring to it; and the subsequent reference to conscience and thoughts that accuse or defend these right-acting Gentiles strongly suggests to me that Paul has in mind an innate moral capacity all the way through here.

It is also important to note that he speaks not of the Law actively and directly written upon (epi) their hearts as in Jeremiah, but of the “work of the law written in (en) their hearts.” The clause is as follows:

They exhibit the work of the law written in their hearts… (Rom. 2:15)

οἵτινες ἐνδείκνυνται τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου γραπτὸν ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν…

hoitines endeiknyntai to ergon tou nomou grapton en tais kardiais autōn

There are a few points of exegesis to highlight.

  • The word for “written” (grapton) is not a verb but an adjective, so there is no particular thought of any writing having been done, as in the new covenant motif; the work of the Law is innate.
  • Jeremiah has the Law written “upon” (epi) their hearts as though the heart were a surface to be written upon (cf. Hebrew ʿal); Paul has “written in (en) their hearts” perhaps suggesting a natural state of the heart prior to any transformative act of inscription by the Spirit.
  • Significantly, I think, it is not the Law but the “work of the Law” that is written on the hearts of these Gentiles: they do not know the Law, whether written in Torah or on the surface of their hearts, but they know in their hearts the sort of good works required by the Law.
  • In Jewish thought, the Law may be in a person’s heart without having been eschatologically written by the Spirit: “The law of his God is in his heart, and his steps shall not be tripped up” (Ps. 36:31); “Hear me, you who know judgment, my people, you in whose heart is my law” (Is. 51:7). So there is no problem with Paul using an analogous expression for Gentiles who have not received the Spirit.
  • There is no “is” in the second part of the clause: the assertion is not that they “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts” (ESV); rather it is that they “exhibit the work of the law written in their hearts”—the emphasis is on the concrete and observable reality of the work.
  • Arguably, the “law” whose work is written in their hearts is not Torah but the “law” which they are to themselves, though since the law which they are to themselves is equivalent to Torah, the difference for interpretation is slight. So to paraphrase (leaving the function of “by nature” unresolved):

For whenever Gentiles who do not have Torah by nature do the things of Torah, those not having Torah are a law to themselves, such as who (hoitines) demonstrate in practice the work of this innate law—in contrast to the Jews who have the written Law of Moses but do not put it into practice. (Rom. 2:14-15)

The Jew who judges Greeks will be judged by Greeks

Chapter 2 ends with a series of inversions: circumcision becomes uncircumcision, uncircumcision will be reckoned as circumcision; authentic Jewishness consists in an invisible rather than a visible circumcision. In that case, the statement that the uncircumcised Gentile who fulfils the Law “will judge” the circumcised Jew who has the “written code” (grammatos) but transgressors the Law may take us back to the beginning of the argument and the warning aimed at the hypocritical Jew who judges the the unrighteous Greek (2:1). The given and “natural” social polarisation of Greek and Jew constitutes the scope of the diatribe in the chapter.

Then what makes the Jew different?

Paul’s questions “Then makes the Jew different? Or what is the point of circumcision?” (3:1*) only make sense if the contrast is with the Gentile—or more precisely Greek—world that has been the back drop to the whole argument with the Jews that he has been rehearsing in this section. He cannot here be asking what makes the circumcised Jew different from or superior to the Greek believer in Jesus who has been filled with the Spirit.

What about Cornelius?

Barclay argues that Paul could not have concluded that some Gentiles would meet the requirements of Torah if he had not seen it with his own eyes in the churches:

It is impossible to imagine a Jew making this strong assertion of Gentile Law-observance, and thereby relativizing Jewish privilege, unless, like Paul, he regularly encountered the transformation of Gentile lives and interpreted this phenomenon as the miraculous work of the Spirit. (468)

Admittedly, there are not many examples of righteous Gentiles in the New Testament. The only one who comes to mind is Cornelius, but he is not presented as a freak of unredeemed nature. He is a pious and righteous (dikaios) man, who feared God, gave alms, whose prayers were answered (Acts 10:1-2, 4, 22). His problem—or Peter’s problem—was not that he was a sinner but that he was unclean. Paul also must have come across people like this hanging around the synagogues, putting the Jews to shame.

Why do we need justification by faith?

So in the end, I’m going to stick with the view that these righteous Gentiles are just that—non-Jews whose piety and righteousness would be acknowledged by an impartial God on the day of his wrath, who would therefore have a share in the age to come on account of their good works.

But if some Jews and Greeks would be justified according to their works, what need was there for Jesus? Why the whole argument about justification by faith?

Briefly, I think we have to understand the process.

God intended to judge a civilisation that had by and large rejected the creator, worshipped idols, and been consigned to sexual and social depravity. The Jews in the synagogues by and large had failed to be a light to the Gentiles and would be judged before the Greeks. There were, however, exceptions on both sides, and these Jews and Gentiles would be justified on the day of God’s wrath against this world.

Judgment would mean, however, that not only the pagan Greek world but also unrighteous Judaism would be swept away, so now the more fundamentally biblical problem of the future of the family of Abraham surfaces. How would YHWH show himself to be righteous, true to the promises made to the patriarchs? He would do so “apart from the Law” (Rom. 3:21)….

It was not the crisis facing the Greek world that elicited the argument about justification by faith but the secondary crisis facing Israel, though by this stage it had also become apparent that a number of Gentiles were being drawn into Israel’s story.