Five years ago I witnessed one of the most significant shifts in Pauline studies coming to roost at the heart of evangelical theological engagement, the Evangelical Theological Society’s 2010 annual meeting on “The New Perspective on Paul.”

At the time I was finishing my MDiv. Though I appreciated the conference, I got a bit lost in the technical jargon surrounding Paul and Second Temple Judaism. I remember wishing for a nontechnical resource to assist in connecting Paul to his Jewish contemporaries. The new Reading Romans in Context is the book I was waiting for.

Ministry practitioners, students, and armchair theologians alike will find this illuminating, approachable guide useful in exploring Pauline theology’s relationship to Second Temple Judaism. Essays pair a Romans passage with its thematically related Jewish text; explore the theological comparisons; and show how the comparator text deepens ones reading of Romans.

Here’s a primer on Second Temple Judaism and its literature from editors Ben Blackwell, John Goodrich, and Jason Maston, along with an example from Jonathan Linebaugh illustrating the guide’s contextual illumination.

Introduction to Second Temple Judaism

The Second Temple period is marked by the rebuilding of the temple in 516 BC until its destruction in 70 AD. Of course the first temple was conceived by King David and constructed by his son King Solomon. It was later destroyed in 586 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians after they invaded Israel and destroyed Jerusalem. Under the direction of Zerubbabel the temple was rebuilt, yet paled in comparison. And while the people had returned from captivity, “the peace and prosperity God swore to his people had yet to be realized in the period immediately following Babylonian exile.” (23)

The editors note that Israel’s continued subjugation and suffering under Medo-Persia, Greece, and Roman rulers “significantly colored the text these Jews produced.” (23) These documents preserve the Jewish peoples’ “thoughts and hopes about God and life in the covenant” during this crucial era, making them important contextual resources for studying the New Testament—particularly the Pauline corpus.

Overview of Second Temple Jewish Literature

As the editors explain, “The Second Temple Jewish writings were composed by numerous authors in multiple languages over several hundred years.” (24) Three main literary bodies encompass this literature:

  1. The Septuagint: A collection of Jewish texts in Greek that include the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as other Jewish writings.
  2. The OT Apocrypha: A subset of texts within the Septuagint accepted as authoritative by patristic Christians. The collection includes such books as Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.
  3. The OT Pseudepigrapha: Pseudepigrapha are writings falsely attributed to famous persons. For example, neither Wisdom of Solomon nor Psalms of Solomon were actually written by the OT Jewish king.

These three bodied are further divided into six Jewish literary genres: History, Tales, Rewritten Scripture, Apocalypse, Poetry, and Wisdom Literature. Three additional collections provide further contextualization to the NT: the works of a Platonic Jewish philosopher, named Philo; Josephus’ works, a Jewish historian; and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Reading Romans in Context: The Epistle of Enoch & 3:21–31

Linebaugh’s essay comparing and contrasting passages from the Epistle of Enoch and Romans 3:21–31 illustrates how this guide to Paul and Second Temple Judaism will help you better contextualize Romans, while sharpening your teaching ministry.

Though Paul announces something new in 3:21, Linebaugh notes this doesn’t suggest “he was alone in thinking that the disclosure of divine righteousness would be enacted in a history-altering (or in most cases, history-ending) moment of divine judgment.” (59) The Epistle envisioned much of what Paul did, yet differently:

The Enoch apocalypse is future oriented. Now is the scene of the crime, the time of trouble when the righteous suffer and the wicked experience the covenant blessings…This now is confronted with the eschatological but then—a promised future judgment that enacts and restores justice. Now the righteousness of God is hidden, but then the righteousness will be revealed. (61)

The Epistle promised an end-time judgment, yet Paul proclaimed the apocalypse now: “God’s act of ‘presenting Christ as a sacrifice of atonement’ (3:25) is the revelation of God’s ‘righteous judgment’ (2:5)—the judgment of God against sin.” (62)

Where the Epistle locates God’s judgment and justification in the future, Paul marries them in the present: “This judgment is justifying, it declares the unrighteous righteous…From the perspective of the Epistle, a righteousness that calls the unrighteous righteous is a theological oxymoron.” (63)

Given this backdrop, Paul’s announcement would have been as scandalous then as it is now.

 

“Students of Paul must not ignore Second Temple Jewish literature but must engage it with frequency, precision, and a willingness to acknowledge theological continuity and discontinuity.” (21)

Reading Romans in Context grounds Paul’s important letter and theology in its appropriate Second Temple Jewish context. Reading and engaging it will help you bring contextual observations to bear on determining the meaning of Paul’s clearest, fullest exposition of the gospel.