Romans 7 and the "I"
Romans 7 is remarkable for being a passage on which biblical scholars had an almost unanimous change of view in a relatively short time.
Romans 7 contains a lengthy and passionate explanation about a person's struggles with Sin, Flesh, Spirit and Law. One of the more famous lines reads "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." This passage has often spoken powerfully to people as the see their own life struggles reflected in it.
From the time of the Reformation until 50 years ago, biblical scholarship was deeply divided over one question regarding Romans 7: Is Paul in this passage speaking of his pre-conversion life as a Pharisee or his post-conversion life as a Christian? In other words, should we expect such struggles with sin to exemplify the Christian life, or ought the Christian life be characterized by freedom from sin? The fact that the passage was about Paul was universally accepted - after all, it uses the word "I" constantly, and how could Paul write with such emotion if he was not writing about himself?
Yet now there is pretty much unanimity amongst scholars that the passage is not about Paul. Paul is definitely not the "I" speaking in the passage. Paul is using a standard ancient Greek rhetorical device of speech-in-character and it is that character who is talking. The previous question about whether the struggle with sin describes the Christian or pre-Christian life seems to have also been definitively answered: The character is speaking of their pre-Christian life and their struggles with sin, and looking for Christ to free them from the power of sin and save them from that struggle. It is notable that all the early Greek Christian commentaries on Romans held both these views.
The new question that has scholars engaged is the question of: Who is the character? The main candidates seem to be:
- Adam himself and his experiences with the command to not eat the fruit.
- A gentile who decided to start following the Jewish Law.
- Humanity/Israel personified. ie the passage is the story of salvation history from Adam to Christ like in Rom 5, with humanity/Israel itself as the speaker.
On few issues in scholarship is there much level of agreement, so it is quite surprising that there is so much agreement on the subject of Paul not being the "I" in Romans 7 and that there has been a universal change of tune within so short a time-frame. But it also raises a rather important question: If the one passage where we were sure was Paul speaking is in fact not Paul at all, then what about all the other passages where we thought Paul was speaking? More on that later...