I have been puzzling over Romans 9:5—a notorious interpretive crux, as scholars like to say. Is this a rare place in the New Testament where it is stated that Jesus is God? This is how the ESV takes it:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
Or should the final clause be read as a separate doxology, as in the RSV: “God who is over all be blessed for ever”? It all comes down to where we put the periods and commas. Be warned. This is not a post for the fainthearted.
There are three ways in which the contentious second half of the verse may reasonably be punctuated, the first of which would offer excellent support for a high christology:
A) …from whom the Christ according to the flesh, the one being over all, God, blessed for the ages, amen.
B) …from whom the Christ according to the flesh. The one being over all, God, blessed for the ages, amen.
C) …from whom the Christ according to the flesh, the one being over all. God, blessed for the ages, amen.
There seems to be general agreement among commentators, including those who reject the christological interpretation of the doxology, that reading A makes best sense of Paul’s syntax. While Dunn thinks that B is the “more natural reading in terms of the flow of Paul’s thought”, he admits that A is “stylistically the most natural reading”.1
It is also generally agreed that if the verse was meant to end in an independent doxology, we would expect the form “Blessed be God…”, not “God be blessed” (cf. 2 Cor. 1:3). Only in one or two instances in the LXX does the subject precede “blessed” (cf. Ps. 67:19; 71:17 LXX).
The stylistic arguments for A, however, are not always convincing. Wright makes much of the fact that Paul does not write “asyndetic” doxologies—statements of praise that are not expressly linked to what goes before.2 The point is illustrated by Romans 1:25, where “blessed forever” is attached by “who” to “the Creator” in the preceding clause (cf. Rom. 11:36; Gal. 1:5; 2 Cor. 11:31; Eph. 3:21; 2 Tim. 4:18; 1 Pet. 4:11; Heb. 13:21):
…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
This argument, however, does not take account of the fact that readings B and C would entail a change of subject, which would make the lack of connection entirely appropriate.
But alongside the stylistic considerations we have to ask whether reading A is theologically plausible.
In the first place, it seems to me unlikely that Paul would conclude a list of Jewish privileges with the casual affirmation that the Messiah is God over all, blessed for ever. Such a “jump” would be “unexpected, to say the least”, in Dunn’s words. But the main problem with reading A is that it is virtually impossible to reconcile it with the general form of the relationship in Paul between God as Father and Jesus as Lord.
In Romans 1:1-4 the one descended from David “according to the flesh” was determined or appointed “Son of God in power” as a consequence of his resurrection from the dead. Paul closes this introductory paragraph with a “grace” which distinguishes between “God our Father” and the “Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7). I disagree with Wright here that this constitutes a “close parallel” to reading A.3 Romans 1:3-4 emphasises Jesus’ “universal rule”, which may equate to the phrase “the one being over all”, but the thought is that of Psalm 2:7-9: Jesus is YHWH’s king who has been “begotten” and given the right to rule over the nations. By the resurrection God makes Jesus “Lord”. He does not make Jesus “God”.
A similar distinction is found in the passage which immediately precedes Romans 9. Christ died, was raised by God, is at the right hand of God, and intercedes for the suffering churches. Nothing can separate them from the “love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:34-39). This whole narrative presupposes the fundamental separation of God and Jesus.
Elsewhere the blessing formula is consistently “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 1:3; 11:13; Eph. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3; cf. Lk. 1:68; Rom. 1:25). At his trial the high priest asks Jesus if he is “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed” (Mk. 14:61). That is, nowhere else is Jesus spoken of as “blessed”, and God is always “blessed” as Father distinct from Jesus as “Lord”. Reading A would be a significant departure from this pattern.
Wright argues that reading A would anticipate Romans 10:4-13, where a divine kyrios text (Joel 3:5 LXX) is applied to Jesus: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But while God is kyrios in the Old Testament, the argument in the New Testament is that this title and the authority that goes with it have been transferred by God to Jesus. This is especially clear from Philippians 2:6-11. Jesus was obedient even to death, therefore God “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name”—that is, the name kyrios. The allegiance, obedience, trust, honour, etc., that would have been directed towards YHWH as “Lord” is now to be directed to Jesus as “Lord”.
Dunn makes the point that a direct identification of Jesus with God would be out of keeping with the overall shape of Paul’s thought:
Where Paul elsewhere ascribes universal lordship to Christ there is a clear note of theological reserve: the exalted Christ as fulfilling Adam’s intended role…; Christ as “Lord” as a way of distinguishing him from the one God…. To render the text as [A] would imply that Paul had abandoned all his inhibitions and theological circumspection so carefully maintained elsewhere….4
Dunn makes note of Titus 2:13 but argues that Jesus is here identified as “the glory of God”, rather than simply as God: we await the “appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, [which is] Jesus Christ”. Note that a few verses earlier Paul mentions the “doctrine of God our Saviour” (Tit. 2:10).5 It is perhaps questionable whether 2 Peter 1:1 can be understood in the same way: “the righteousness of our God and Saviour, [which is] Jesus Christ”.
Käsemann and Dunn also draw attention to 1 Corinthians 15:24-28.6 Christ reigns as Lord until the last enemy is destroyed, at which point “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all”. It is very difficult to see how Paul could affirm so emphatically both that the Christ is God and that Jesus will in the end be subordinated to God. It is fully coherent to argue, however, that Jesus has been given authority to rule until it is no longer necessary because the last enemy has been defeated.
So where does all this leave us? Those who reject reading A in favour of an independent doxology have to account for a stylistic anomaly. Those who accept reading A have to account for a considerable theological anomaly. I think I’ll stay on the fence for now.
- 1J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (Word Books, Publisher, 1988), 528-29.
- 2N.T. Wright, Romans (NIB vol. 10, 2002), 630; cf. D. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT, 1996), 567.
- 3N.T. Wright, Romans, 630.
- 4J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, 529.
- 5Mounce discusses this view, attributed originally to Hort, but dismisses it on rather flimsy grounds (W.D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (Thomas Nelson, 2000), 431).
- 6J.E. Käsemann, Romans (SCM, 1980), 259; D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, 535-36.