Psalms of Solomon and Romans 1:1-17: The “Son of God” and the identity of Jesus

Generative AI summary:

Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism (2015), edited by Blackwell, Goodrich, and Maston, aims to provide a foundational exploration of the literary contexts for Paul’s letter to the Romans. Written for cautious evangelicals, it may not fully realize its potential to illuminate Paul’s thought. Each chapter pairs a section of Romans with a related Jewish text, explaining theological nuances and their relevance to Romans. Wesley Hill’s chapter compares Romans 1:1-17 with Psalms of Solomon 17, emphasizing Jesus as the “Son of God in power” and David’s descendant. Hill’s interpretation suggests a pre-existent Son, though Paul’s syntax challenges this view.

Read time: 5 minutes

I really shouldn’t be going on about this, but I keep running into the same issue, and it is irksome. Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism (2015), edited by Blackwell, Goodrich, and Maston, ought to be a useful, if elementary, resource for exploring the abundant literary contexts for the letter. It is written from a cautious evangelical perspective, for Christians—the sort of people who listen to John Piper—who “remain suspicious of extracanonical literature and its value for biblical interpretation” (19). So it seems unlikely that the real potential for illuminating Paul’s thought will be realised, and the first chapter does nothing to dispel that suspicion.

The approach is straightforward and methodical:

each chapter in the volume (1) pairs a major unit of the letter with one or more sections of a thematically related Jewish text, (2) introduces and explores the theological nuances of the comparator text, and (3) shows how the ideas in the comparator text illuminate those expressed in Romans. (21)

In the opening chapter, Wesley Hill reads Romans 1:1-17 alongside Psalms of Solomon 17, which makes good sense. According to the psalmist, who has in view the sacking of Jerusalem in 63 BC by the Roman general Pompey, “the kingdom of our God is forever over the nations in judgment,” and God chose David and his descendants (spermatos) to be king over Israel forever (Ps. Sol. 17:3-4). Paul aims to bring about the obedience of the nations to the “seed (spermatos) of David” who has become “Son of God in power” (Rom. 1:4-5).

Hill’s summary of the psalm would work rather well as a statement of Paul’s outlook at the beginning of Romans, allowing for some shift in perspective from Judea to the diaspora:

There is a present order of things that is out of step with the psalmist’s hopes for the future. Externally, God’s people face political and military opposition from powerful pagan forces, and internally, they have to confront the compromised, unfaithful members within their own ranks. The solution to these problems is the appearance of the long-awaited descendant of David, the king of Israel’s golden age, who will bring the Gentiles into subservience and purge Israel of her own disobedient ones. This messianic figure will be the embodiment of what God himself had pledged in times past to accomplish, and so the psalmist can remain confident in the face of a bleak set of present circumstances. (33)

Hill is right, I think, to say that by calling Jesus “Son of God in power” Paul means, in the first place, that he is “the anointed eschatological agent of God’s final redemption of his people Israel” (34).

That needs to be pushed a step further because the nations are also in view, and towards the end of the letter Paul will stress that Jesus is the “root of Jesse”—the descendant of David—who will arise to rule the nations, in whom non-Jews are already beginning to hope (Rom. 15:12).

Hill will get to this, at least in a de-politicised form, but first he wants to say something about the messiah’s eternal sonship in support of Athanasius’ inference from this text, and others, that there is never a time when the Son is not “Son.” So now we are reading Romans against both a Hellenistic-Jewish and a patristic background! Sneaky.

First, although he recognizes God’s raising of his Son through the Spirit to be the decisive public announcement of Jesus’ messianic identity, Paul makes it equally clear that this moment of messianic installment and acclamation happens to one who is already God’s Son, prior to his resurrection. (34)

The argument is that Paul has in mind “multiple, succeeding chapters in the one Son’s biography”: 1) the “pre-existent” Son, known to the prophets “prior to the appearing of Jesus; 2) a descendant of David according to the flesh; and 3) “Son of God in power according to the Holy Spirit.”

Why Hill thinks that the Son must have pre-existed for the prophets to have spoken of him is a mystery. But in any case, Paul’s syntax leaves no room for an eternally pre-existent Son.

The “gospel of God” concerns “his Son having been (tou huiou autou tou genomenou) from seed of David according to flesh, appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness from resurrection of the dead (Rom. 1:3-4*).

The Son does not “become” from the seed of David. The aorist participle in statements such as this denotes merely the past existence of a person. The Son was at some point in the flesh as seed of David Even if we did translate genomenou “became” or “came into existence,” it would mean only that he came or was born from that line of descent.

There are only two stages in the biography of the Son, as far as this passage goes: the Son-who-was-from-the-seed-of-David, who is perhaps also the servant-Son who was baptised and sent to Israel, though that is not part of Paul’s argument here; and the Son who was appointed Son of God in power, etc.

Of course, from the point of view of the apostolic mission across the Greek-Roman world, it was important to say something about the pre-existence of the exalted and invisible Lord, who was being proclaimed to both Jews and Gentiles. The controversial Jewish backstory in Palestine would be of little interest to Athanasius, but for the first century Jew Paul it was critical to ground the proclamation of Christ as heavenly Lord to the nations in the story about Israel.

That’s the whole point of the string of quotations in Romans 15:8-12. Christ has become (gegenēsthai) a servant to the circumcision in order to confirm the promises to the fathers. The Gentiles then praise God for his mercy towards his people, according to a well-established Old Testament pattern and begin to hope that they too will be ruled by this powerful descendant of David.