Paul’s Use of Scripture in Romans 3 (1)

May 24, 2014

It has always been important to pay attention to the Old Testament quotations we find in the New Testament, but in recent years, it has become even more clear that one must take into account the extended context of the passage cited, not simply the words directly quoted. This is understandable: unlike our situation, the ancient world largely communicated texts as an oral culture, and nobody footnoted.

But it is understandable on an even more important level: the New Testament writers are not manufacturing a de novo religion; they are drawing upon an inspired and authoritative text that has come to new light with the advent of Christ and the Spirit. (Indeed, this is what Paul says almost directly in 2 Corinthians 3.) And if this is the case, we can be sure that – no matter what our untrained eyes may lead us to believe at first glance – the writers of the New Testament were contextual and faithful to the Scriptures from which they drew. Our failure to recognize this stems, not from our superior training in hermeneutics, but from the poverty and weakness of our biblical understanding.

In the case of Romans 3, we have one of the heaviest concentrations of biblical citations to be found within the Pauline corpus. This means that proceeding to define terms and phrases must not be done in a vacuum; we must investigate the passages Paul cites.

“The Righteousness of God”

One of the most thematic phrases that we find in Romans 3 is “the righteousness of God” (or, with the pronoun, “His righteousness”). Indeed, this chapter has the highest concentration of that phrase in all of Scripture; it appears no less than five times in a span of barely more than twenty verses ( 3.5, 21, 22, 25, 26). It appears elsewhere in Romans at the programmatic point of 1.17, as well as 10.3 (twice). Elsewhere in Paul it appears only in 2 Corinthians 5.21, although apparently similar phraseology (“righteousness from God”) can also be found in 1 Corinthians 1.30 and Philippians 3.9. It is very clear that the phrase, therefore, is clustered at this particular point.

Why is this so important? As it happens, the overwhelming majority of passages Paul quotes or cites in Romans 3 mention divine righteousness somewhere in the context. This can scarcely be accidental. Although we cannot engage all of these texts in depth in this particular post (perhaps we can come back to the other texts as we continue), I wish to focus for the moment upon Psalm 51, which is the first text Paul directly quotes in Romans 3 (verse 4 is a quotation of Ps 51.4b).

Following immediately upon the heels of his quotation of the penitential psalm (David’s confession following his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah), Paul provides his first use of our phrase (Rom 3.5a) since his summary introduction in 1.17: “But if our unrighteousness serves to commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say?”

Divine righteousness appears in the context of Paul’s quotation in Ps 51.14: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of Your righteousness” (LXX dikaiosunen sou). The divine righteousness in this first biblical quotation of Romans 3, therefore, is revealed in God’s saving mercy; indeed, it is virtually synonymous with salvation.

“Against You, You Only, Have I Sinned….”

Instead of commenting further on “the righteousness of God” (which will return to us in ensuing studies) at this point, I want to draw attention to one further feature of the connection between Romans 3 and Psalm 51.

It is frequently assumed that Romans 3.1-8 is an aside, a parenthetical remark within Paul’s argument. On this view, in terms of the language of 3.9, Paul charges that all the Greeks are “under sin” in Romans 1, and all the Jews in Romans 2. Thus between chapter 2 and 3.9 is a sort of respite in his argument where he imposes a parenthesis.

I don’t think so.

While it is true that Romans 2 does turn particular attention to the Jew, Paul only raises questions there (2.21-22), unless we take the very general statement in 2.23-4 to comprise his charge. But the specific charges of 2.21-22 are surely extreme examples that every Jew would be forced to agree with: yes, such heinous crimes would indeed be serious covenant-breaking. But Paul’s contemporaries, for the most part, would feel secure that they were beyond the reach of such charges.

I suggest that Paul insinuates a further and more far-reaching charge in 3.1-8, and this is opened up in no small degree by his employment of Psalm 51.

Paul begins by saying that the Jew has advantage, that circumcision has value, precisely because they were entrusted (episteuthesan, from the pist– root common with the familiar faith) “the oracles of God” (ta logia tou Theou). What is Paul referring to with this phrase? Most assume he is alluding to the law, but that does not seem likely; he invariably prefers to identify that as nomos.

More likely, Paul is referring back to where he began his letter: the gospel of God was promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures – the gospel of God’s Son (1.1-3). If this is so, we could well take 3.3 to read, “For what if some did not believe,” rather than the usual “what if some were unfaithful?” (Either is equally possible from the Greek.) “Does their unbelief [/faithlessness] nullify the faithfulness [pistis] of God?”
If we are on the right track, Paul’s great charge against his contemporary kinsmen is not that they have broken this and that aspect of the Mosaic law, but that they have disbelieved the Messiah who has come in fulfillment of the prophetic words. (I’m well aware that this is going to chafe with common readings of 3.19, but I cannot deal with that for the moment. Lord willing, we’ll arrive there later.)

Now, how does this reading interface with Paul’s biblical quotation in 3.4?

Paul responds to his own rhetorical question by introducing his quotation thus: “By no means! Let God be true, but every man a liar, just as it is written, ‘So that You may be justified (dikaiwthes) in Your words (logoi), and overcome in Your judgment.'”

[Just an aside: in these early chapters of Romans, Paul repeatedly juxtaposes something from God’s side over against something from man’s. The righteousness of God is revealed from faith – to faith. Indeed, the righteousness of God is set into a context where God counts faith as righteousness. And here, in the quotation, Paul introduces the justification of God in preparation for a discussion of the justification of men; as is the case with the other juxtapositions, the justification of God and the justification of men must meet, and only God can effect the union.]

Now, back to Paul’s use of Psalm 51. It may be that Paul is connecting the divine logoi with the logia of promise he has mentioned in verse 2. But there is something even more intriguing here: the first part of the verse he has quoted reads thus: “Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment.” Psalm 51.4a is a confession of a very direct sin against Yahweh Himself.

Moreover, as we have seen, Psalm 51.14 introduces the divine righteousness with a confession of bloodguilt: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation.”

Given the total picture, it seems likely to me that Paul is providing a reminder that in failing to believe her Messiah, Israel had not only fallen short of the promises, but had sinned directly against God Himself (“against You, You only, have I sinned”), and that this sin had indeed extended to becoming guilty of the very blood of God’s Messiah.

While it is common to read Israel’s sin as having to do with a universal failure to perfectly keep the law, it is important to note that the reading I have provided here comports fully with Paul’s own depiction of Israel’s fall later in this epistle. In 9.32-33, Israel stumbles over the stumbling stone – which is Christ. Likewise, in chapter 11, this stumbling (11.9, 11) becomes the occasion of the “ungrafting” of the bulk of Israel (11.17ff).

All of this, I suggest, provides prima facie evidence that Paul is not busy charging Israel with unspecified offenses against the law of Moses. He has a much more serious charge: Israel has been faithless and unbelieving with the word of hope entrusted to her; indeed, she has stumbled over her Messiah and become guilty of His blood.

One more thing here, connecting back to our earlier discussion of “the righteousness of God”: it is only when we read Rom 3.1-8 something along these lines, rather than as a generic attack on failed lawkeepers, that this term can be understood here within the context of either the usage in Psalm 51 or the rest of Romans 3. Most commentators suppose that “the righteousness of God” in Rom 3.5 has no direct relation to all the other appearances in the chapter, taking it instead to refer to the righteousness of divine judgment. The fact that Psalm 51, quoted in the immediately preceding verse, uses divine righteousness in a salvific sense, would seem to make this reading unlikely, quite aside from the problem with the rest of Romans 3.

But on my reading, this problem dissipates beautifully: It is precisely because Israel rejected her Messiah that God’s righteousness was displayed in the cross. It is precisely this fact that raises the question of God’s justice in inflicting wrath (3.5b); it is precisely in this way that the falsity of man becomes the occasion for God’s truth to abound to His own glory (3.7); and it is precisely in this way that the righteousness of God in Christ is demonstrated (3.5a, 25, 26 etc).

“Under Sin”

Lest it be thought that my reading “de-universalizes” Paul’s indictment (it does not; it just takes the focus away from the law), I wish to point out one further commonality between Romans 3 and Psalm 51. Immediately after 51.4, which Paul quotes, David goes on to say, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (51.5). The specific bloodguiltiness to which David confesses is thus an outgrowth of a more basic native condition.

This matches what Paul does in Romans 3, as well. For immediately after the insinuations of 3.1-8, he concludes that the charge is that both Jews and Greeks “are under Sin” (3.9). Without yet engaging the nature of Paul’s universal language employed in 3.10-18, we can at least say that the native human condition, common to both Jew and Gentile, is one of bondage to an evil master.

Go to Part 2.

[Note: This article was previously published on the now-defunct Biblical Horizons blog.]