Jewett’s Commentary on Romans

Robert Jewett wrote the commentary on Romans for the Hermeneia series which was published in 2007. This commentary has become a classic exposition of Romans. The commentary is almost 1200 pages long and it took Jewett a quarter-century to write the commentary.

In the review of Jewett’s commentary published in RBL in 2007, James D. G. Dunn, professor at the University of Durham, praised the commentary as a landmark exposition of Romans. Dunn wrote:

Robert Jewett’s commentary on Romans is one of the finest to have appeared in modern times. Most commentators follow a similar pattern and, if truth be told, often simply take over source references and cross-references from their predecessors. Indeed, when writing a commentary on a text such as Romans, it can be a wearisome business having to trail through predecessor after predecessor all saying much the same thing, shifting the chairs round the table, and moving the bowl of flowers, but not much else! With Jewett’s commentary, however, one can be sure that nothing is secondhand. In the twenty or so years of working toward this great commentary he has approached the whole and the individual parts with a freshness that has often produced genuinely new material to help illuminate particular texts and that has brought a fine maturity of judgment to controverted points of exegesis. Even in surveys of earlier views and summaries of particular debates his writing has a sharpness of observation and critique that is never less than a stimulus and pleasure to engage.

In order to make the commentary available to a wider audience, Fortress Press has published a condensed version of Jewett’s commentary so that this groundbreaking work on Romans might become available to pastors, seminary students, and people who want to have a better understanding of this great epistle.

Below is an excerpt taken from the introduction to the commentary:

The most troubling of these challenges was the slowly emerging awareness that the dominant paradigm for interpreting justification by faith as individual forgiveness of sins was not supported by the actual wording of Romans. Although every commentary on my shelf followed the Augustinian scheme of justification as individual forgiveness, Halvor Moxnes broke this tradtion by showing that the word fields of “honor, dishonor, shameless, be ashamed, put to shame, glory, glorify, praise, boast and boasting” were actually more central in Romans. This focus on honor and shame related to the central purpose of the letter as Moxnes understood it, “to bring together believing Jews and non-Jews in one community.” This meant that Paul was seeking to overcome shameful exclusion, which could not be accomplished by forgiveness, which was in any event a secondary issue that appears only in 3:25 and 4:7. As I worked more seriously with the Greek text of Romans, I found more and more categories that did not match the standard interpretive scheme: the socially discriminatory categories of “Greeks and barbarians, educated and uneducated” in 1:14; the twenty-eight appearances of the potentially shameful epithet “Gentiles;” the categories “weak” and strong” employed in 14:1-15:7; the twenty-five references to social gestures of honor in the form of “welcome” and “greeting” that dominate the last three chapters; and the 70 references to “righteousness,” “make righteous,” etc. that are often mistranslated as “justification,” and were usually interpreted in terms of individual forgiveneness despite the lack of direct evidence. It was excruciating to discover that my own interpretive tradition from Luther, Wesley, Barth and Käsemann was not supported by the vocabulary of this letter. I was facing the absolutizing of a Reformation doctrine, but for a long time didn’t know what to do about it.

In place of the traditional theology of Romans that concentrated on individual guilt and forgiveness for failing to live up to the law, I gradually recognized that the central issue was setting the world right by overcoming its perverse systems of honor and shame. Conversations with colleagues led me to begin thinking about the honor culture of ancient Rome, Greece, and Israel as the arena for this reinterpretation, but my theological tradition provided scant resources in this direction. A study of modern films dealing with issues of honor and shame3 began to open the door to a theological and emotional understanding that my Wesleyan tradition gave me no basis to grasp. Grappling with the element of shame implicit in crucifixion was crucial in this slow process of rethinking the heart of Paul’s baffling letter.

The text critical issues were also baffling because after abandoning my early adherence to the theory of Romans 16 as a series of greetings to Ephesian friends attached to a copy of the letter to Rome, the relevance of these greetings remained unclear. None of the commentaries on my shelf related these details to the argumentative thrust of the letter as a whole. The details about the congregational situation in chapters 14–15 also seemed contradictory, and no reconstruction of that situation actually threw any light on the theology of forgiveness that was supposed to animate the whole. None of this seemed to relate to the Spanish mission that the letter appeared to support, and no commentary threw light on this because the Spanish context was nowhere even discussed. After reading the article by W. P. Bowers4 that demonstrated the lack of Jewish presence in Spain, it gradually became clear that Paul’s missionary strategy had to be reconceived, but how this related to the argument in the letter was at first totally unclear. I began reading about the cultural situation in the Roman colonies on the Spanish peninsula to clarify what Paul might have had in mind.

Fortress Press has made the Introduction and Chapter 1 available in PDF format. Read these two sections of the book and be exposed to what Jewett has to say about Paul’s most complex letter. This is a book that should be in the library of every student of Romans.

You can order Jewett’s commentary on Romans by visiting Fortress Press online.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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