Comparative exegesis – Romans 1:14 – 2:3

When doing exegesis, I do not rely on one translation exclusively, because each have taken certain liberties in syntax or word choice, and even added the occasional word where it did not exist in the original language. Experience has taught me that no version can made a claim to be “the right” translation or interpretation of the scriptures, and to rely solely on one version is to elevate or even idolize a work of human endeavor. Translating and interpreting are human exercises to bring ancient texts to more modern readers who speak different languages, after all. The question, then, is not one of inerrancy of the texts in the original languages, but the inaccuracies of translated and interpreted versions.

I will also be making an argument that, to separate that chapter 1 of this epistle from the beginning of chapter 2, abuses the scripture and robs Paul’s argument of its greatest import. It must be remembered that chapter and verse were added well after the fact.

While the scriptures were divided into paragraphs by time of the Council of Nicea (325 AD), these are not the same as those in our modern translations. The New Testament was divided into chapters by Archbishop Steven Langdon around 1230 AD, and verses were introduced in 1551 by Robert Estienne. The first English Bible to make use of both chapter and verse was the translation of the Geneva Bible in 1560.

The decision to separate 1:14 through 2:16 remains a quandary but has substantially altered what may be one of Paul’s most remarkable arguments.

1:14 I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. (KJV)

1:14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. (NIV)

1:14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish (NRSV)

While the order of phrasing in all versions is considerably different than that actually written in Greek, this does not substantially affect the meaning of the sentence. The English understandings of the translated words, which vary little, lacked the nuance present in the Greek, however. A more literal translation would be, “Both to Greeks and foreigners, both to the learned (skilled) and the foolish, I am a debtor.”

The word barbarios (from barboros), while being easily translated to barbarian as in the KJV and NRSV, is more correctly translated in the NIV. The word has to do with language as opposed to behavior, unlike the English. The Friberg Lexicon gives the most comprehensive translation that reads, “of strange speech or foreign language.” Unlike many commentaries that suggest the Romans are being called barbarians, the reference is to their language (Latin) as opposed to an insult about behavior.

The word translated as “wise” in virtually all the major versions is also a little misleading when read through modern eyes. There are various Greek words for wise and this one, sophois (from sophos), has more of a sense of worldly wisdom – wisdom gleaned from learning or more literally “able to use knowledge”. It does not refer to a Godly knowledge or divinely inspired wisdom, which is generally written as sophia.

1:15 So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. (KJV)

1:15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. (NIV)

1:15 — hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (NRSV)

For all the apparent difference in translation, there is virtually no difference between the meaning of any of these verses in English and in Greek, despite the KJV’s rather turgid verbage. The cumbersome Greek word, evangelisasthai, is best understood as “bringing the good news” as opposed to preaching or proclaiming. In this sense, the English may fall a little short of meaning, but not substantially so.

1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (KJV)

1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. (NIV)

1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (NRSV)

This verse is unfortunately the starting point for many sermons, not 1:14. This is true even in the Revised Common Lectionary. The problem with this is the word correctly translated as “for” at the beginning of the sentence in the KJV and NRSV, but lacking in the NIV. The KJV is the only version to include both instances of the word.

Gar is a very simple but important word in Greek texts. While it can be translated variously as “for”, “therefore”, “since” and “so”, its significance exceeds simple translation. The main value of gar is that it indicates a continuing argument. The preceding verses are integrally related to the present verse and should not be separated. This comes into play, more importantly, later in this exegesis.

There is also the insertion “of Christ” in the KJV’s rendition following “the gospel”, a common fault of that version, but in this case unimportant.

There is an interesting (to me at least) translation in the NRSV when it refers to “faith” as opposed to “believes”. This seems to take a leap (of faith) that is non-existent in the Greek. The word used in the Greek, pisteow (from pistow), is a verbal participle meaning “one who believes”. The Greek word for faith that follows in verse 17, pisteus (from pistis), means faith, is distinctly different from the verb pistow. The latter has a sense of intellectual understanding or believing because of knowledge.

Verse 16 does set up an argument that continues through 2:16 that it is God’s power that offers salvation and is not related to human righteousness or purity. Interestingly, this salvation is not to the gentiles generally (NRSV), but limited by Paul to the Greeks after the Jews.

1:17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. (KJV)

1:17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (NIV)

1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (NRSV)

The word gar continues to connect the verses.

The NIV adds the word “gospel” where it does not exist, although it emphasizes that the “it” referred to is the gospel. While, in this case, the addition is innocuous, there are many places in which adding words for clarity when no such word exists shows a bias. There are many passages where the sentence is vague, at best, and this practice makes the sentence more specific, but in the way the interpreter thinks it should be.

Righteousness, whether of God or people, should always be understood in the sense it appears in both the Greek and Hebrew. The word dikayosuney, related to the word dikayos, means right relations, integrity or uprightness. When used of God, righteousness can be understood, but it dangerous to translate this way when speaking of humans as it seem to grant Godly characteristics to them.

The NIV, in the rest of the sentence, is guilty of interpreting to clear ambiguity – and does so with a bias. The words “righteousness that is by faith from first to last” do not exist in the Greek texts. What is actually written is ambiguous in its meaning –the KJV’s “from faith to faith” is the most accurate but can be understood in different ways. Rather than add my own bias, which I am tempted to do, this phrase must be left unclear to be true to the text.

1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. (KJV)

1:18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (NIV)

1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (NRSV)

The word for, gar, again connects the verses. The NIV leaves out the connector unfortunately, which makes it possible to infer verse 18 as the start of a new train of thought. This is yet a continuation of all the verses since 1:14.

Interestingly, the NIV and NRSV took their cues from the KJV for the first half of verse 18 but not the second. Nothing is remarkable until we reach “ungodliness” (godlessness – NIV) and “wickedness” (unrighteousness – KJV). These words need unpacked from the Greek.

Asebeian, which is translated as “ungodliness”, actually means “disregard for religious belief or practice.” Being derived from a-, meaning opposite, and sebo, meaning to worship or adore [a deity], a more correct translation might be irreverence or impiety towards a god. There is a possibility, one I feel unsure of, that this irreverence incurring God’s wrath occurs because no deity at all is worshipped.

Adikian, is derived from a- and dikayos, the word previously defined as right relations, integrity and uprightness. Basically, this has more of a connotation of being unethical and disregarding what is right and just. This word is repeated in the more accurate translation of the rest of the verse that occurs in the NIV and NRSV. The truth is suppressed because of the lack of ethical conduct of those who do not worship God.

What is this unethical conduct? Despite knowing what can be known about God, because God has revealed it to them (v.19), these people suppress the truth anyway. In the case of v. 19, the NIV is the most correct, since it continued from v. 18 in the same sentence. “Since” is, in this case, a better fir for gar.

1:20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (KJV)

1:20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities– his eternal power and divine nature– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (NIV)

1:20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. (NRSV)

The NRSV does the best at translating the flow of verses 20 and 21 by breaking the sentence at, “So they are without excuse …” It does, however, omit the now familiar gar by beginning v. 20 as a new thought. Gar is at the beginning of this verse and ties what follows to the people discussed in vs. 18 & 19 – those who suppress the truth. This passage explains how God made the truth clear to them, and what they did with that knowledge.

The rest of v. 20 is clear in both the NIV and NRSV, and only difficult to understand in the KJV because of stilted syntax. Syntax is unique to languages (e.g Spanish uses different word orders than English), and translating by not revising syntax for the new language gives results that sound like modern day instructions for putting a Chinese-made grill together. There are no issues with different word choices in these verses, since they simply represent different but still accurate meanings of the Greek.

How is it that the people who suppress the truth know about God? Because the richness of God is evident in creation – in the things God has made. Can they claim they did not know? Not according to the end of v. 20 and all of v.21.

1:22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. (KJV)

1:22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (NIV)

1:22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. (NRSV)

Continuing in the same vein as verse 21, and with the use of the pronoun “they”, it is clear that those who suppress the truth are still the people being described. These passages, however, flesh out who they are.

They are idolators, having replaced God by worshipping images of humans, animals, birds and reptiles. These are common elements of “pagan” temple worship with difference temples in Rome being dedicated to various gods represented by statuary and images. These people are worshipping elements of creation, rather than the Creator of all that is. It is known that these pagan temples were a thorn in the side of the Christians in Rome, and represented roadblocks to the dissemination of the gospel.

Again, there are no language issues to be discussed.

1:24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: 25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. (KJV)

1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator– who is forever praised. Amen. (NIV)

1:24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (NRSV)

Paul uses a different conjunction this time, but it is still a word that ties these verses to those that have come before. The word dio is rightly translated as “therefore”, “for this reason” or “wherefore”. While gar is Paul’s conjunction of choice, it is by no means the only word used to express continuing thought.

Friberg’s Lexicon defines the word, paradoken, translated in every case as “gave up”, as “God’s judicial act of handing over someone to suffer the consequences of wrongdoing.” Rather than God causing the offending behavior, as has been offered up by many a sermon, it seems God is resigned to people having to pay the consequences for their sins and simply allows them to happen.

The addition of the word sexual in the NIV, a word that does not appear elsewhere, appears to be prompted by the lines that follow. The word, epithumias, is derived from epi, meaning from or out of, and thumias. The latter word is burning but with a particular connotation. It is only used in connection with ritual burning of incense for a worship service. It makes sense, since the idolatry of the temple was discussed in the previous verses, that what happens in the temple is the subject at hand.

In Roman pagan worship, it was very common to resort to sexual activities – orgies, if you will. It began with the priests and priestesses, was followed up with temple prostitutes, and eventually could lead to most of the adherents joining in the debacle. Because of the verses within which this verse is included, it must be assumed that Paul is writing about ritualized sexual activities in the context of worshipping idols. To generalize this as a proscription against sex generally, or perversions more specifically is to take the periscope out of context. The wrongdoing is prostituting worship with sex.

Then, of course, the comments about worshipping the creature repeat the theme from the preceding verses. They exchanged or suppress the truth, they serve a creature as opposed to the Creator.

The only other word worthy of comment is amen. We use this word to end a prayer, but the word means “truly”. When Jesus says, “Amen! Amen! I tell you …”, Jesus is not praying. It is to be understood as “Truly! Truly! I tell you…”.  In this sense, then, Paul’s use of amen is an affirmation that what he has said is truth.

1:26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. (KJV)

1:26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (NIV)

1:26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (NRSV)

Again a different, but still connecting, conjunction is used. Dia touto means “therefore” or “for this reason.” And, again, paradoken – God’s judicial act of handing over someone to suffer the consequences of wrongdoing – appears. God leaves the participants in the ritual debauchery to the consequences of their actions. It would be ludicrous to believe that God caused “shameful lusts” or “degrading passions”, both of which are accurate translations.

It is also ludicrous, especially considering the use of a conjunctive, to extract these verses as free-standing admonishments against gay and lesbian people. It remains part of the discussion about ritualized, sexual temple worship, all of which is a perversion. There is no distinction between straight-sex and same-sex activities. Nonetheless, the most common usage of these verses is to pull them out of context and use them to vilify homosexuals. What is the reason for this perversion of scripture? I honestly don’t know, unless it is to “prove” that a particular worldview is accurate. There are other passages of scripture that are more useful in the discussion that resorting to bastardizing this one is unethical and a suppression of the truth. If this passage speaks against same-sex relations, it also speaks against sex of any kind.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,  30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents,  31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die– yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. (NRSV)

Textually, there is so little to discuss that to post all three versions of these verses would simply serve to waste space.

The conjunction joining these verses to the preceding ones is kai, which means “and”. The argument continues through the end of the chapter that these people were guilty of every unethical behavior imaginable, with God handing them over to suffer the consequences of their actions as indicated by the use of the same word as before – paradoken.

Thus ends Paul’s diatribe against idolatry and pagan worship, or so most commentators, interpreters and preachers would have you believe. Paul has another trick up his sleeve, however – a trick taken right out of the playbook of the prophet Amos. Let us read on into chapter 2.

2:1 Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things. 2 But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things. 3 And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? (KJV)

2:1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? (NIV)

2:1 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2 You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3 Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?  (NRSV)

The conjunction, dio, meaning “therefore”, “for that reason” or “wherefore”, rears its head and prevents us – or should prevent us – from separating the end of chapter 1 from the beginning of chapter 2. The only rational conclusion when we read “therefore” is that it continues an argument already in progress.

Other than that, there is little real difference in translation. Mirroring language used in 1:20 Paul tells the listener – the Roman Christians – that they have no excuse. No excuse for what? For doing the same things as those previously criticized.

This rhetorical devise is a classic trap – one seen in scripture before. List the sins of your enemies, get the “faithful” riled up, and then drop the bomb. You do the same things – you are just as culpable and will be left to your own consequences. Since the preceding passages were ultimately about idolatry, can we assume that is also the sin of the Roman Christians?

The same train of thought continues through Roman 2:16, but I will rest my case at this point. To continue would make this exegesis unwieldy. I invite – no, I implore you – to continue to read Romans 2 from the version of your choice or from multiple versions. Think about what it says about idolatry and judgment – sin and salvation. Think about what it says in light of what you have historically been taught. Don’t take my word for it. Talk about it. Ask questions. Pray for guidance. But read it and listen for yourself to the words of scripture and what it says in this time and place. Think about what you idolize and who you judge. Please.

2 Responses to “Comparative exegesis – Romans 1:14 – 2:3”

  1. July 31, 2009 at 2:42 PM

    I appreciate this very much. This is a pint I make in a session I call something like “Paul was right, it is no good to worship wooden poles.”

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... or, preaching from both ends


That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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