Patristic Rhetorical Analyses of Romans 3:1–8/9

What would a dramatic reading of Romans 1-4 sound like? Who would speak which lines, and with what tone? Recent “revisionist” readings of Romans have highlighted the significance of these questions. If one reassigns the voices or reinterprets the tone, a radically different theology can emerge. This presentation will look at several patristic commentators on Romans to see how they went about answering these questions, focusing on a passage for which these questions are particularly acute, Romans 3:1-8/9. As readers intimately familiar with ancient Greek and the beneficiaries of an education that placed a heavy emphasis on rhetoric, one would expect that they would note rhetorical markers in the text and interpret it accordingly. However, comparative explications of Origen’s, Chrysostom’s, and Pelagius’s interpretations of this passage will show that they assign voices and tone in the passage in radically different ways based on their expectations of what the passage should say. Origen reads it as reassurances for believing Jews reeling from 2:17-29; Chrysostom as a clever ploy to set up Jewish privilege only to undercut it; and Pelagius as an argument between Paul and a combative Jew trying to evade the argument of 2:17-3:1. These interpreters do appeal to rhetorical arguments, but they do so to overcome elements of the passage that are problematic for their expectations. This diversity suggests that, although the text clearly demands rhetorical analysis, it lacked clear rhetorical markers even for ancient readers. The value of these patristic readings for modern interpreters is the variety of plausible readings they suggest, not the narrowing of interpretative options.