The Shaping of the Letter

The Form of the Letter

One literary form that appears frequently in New Testament gospels and epistles is that of chiasmus, a literary form in which the sequence of the material presented in the second portion of a literary block is presented as a mirror image of its presentation in the first portion of that block (e.g., A B C C' B' A'). Examples of this form in history are well documented in Homeric and classical Hellenistic education and are frequently found in the Old Testament, especially in Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). Paul was probably aware of the many passages in the Old Testament that featured the device. Examples are as diverse as Gen. 33:10-11 and Ps. 2:9. Modern interpreters have found chiasmus very helpful in unpacking such difficult passages as Mt. 7:6.

When the innermost element of a chiasmus is unpaired, it is said to have "climactic centrality," the whole structure tending to give emphasis to the element at its focal point. Examples of this phenomenon include Eccl. 11:1-12:8 ("but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment"), Heb. 12:1-2 ("keeping our eyes on Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of the faith"), Lk. 1:6-25 (the annunciation), and even Jn. 1:1-18 (by the incarnate Word we become children of God).

1. Paul and Chiasmus

Of significance here is that Paul used chiasmus throughout Romans. In demonstrating that Chapters 9-11 were a part of the original autograph, for example, Corley compared the frequency of chiasmus (along with other literary devices) in Chapters 9-11 with that in the balance of the letter. Lloyd Gaston cites a particularly good example of a Pauline chiasmus in Rom. 11:30-31, and another example appears in Table 5.

Rembertus Ruijs used chiasmus as a tool to relate relatively short units in Romans 1-8 in order to derive the locus of ideas in the book and to compare them with other sections in Romans and in certain other parts of the Pauline corpus. The present writer, however, suggests that the whole body of the letter is best understood as a single chiastic structure, and offers Figure 1 for consideration. Certainly, this suggestion is a departure from the usual occurrence of chiasm which tends to be limited to within one verse or a small span of verses. But Norbert Lohfink has demonstrated chiasmus in the whole of Qohelet, and Joel Rosenberg sees the whole of Jeremiah as being under a chiastic umbrella. Therefore, it should not be too quickly ruled out that Paul could have selected this form for Romans.

2. Romans Examined in the Light of Chiasmic Form

In suggesting a chiastic structure for Romans, the author is not trying to show that Paul was attempting to compose a work of artistic beauty. It has already been mentioned that climactic centrality is effective for emphasis, and the chiasmus proposed for Romans fits into that category--to emphasize the main message of the letter, designated element F in Figure 1. Augustine Stock brings up another point about the value of the chiastic structure that Paul could have found useful in his discourse:

Chiasmus afforded a seriously needed element of internal organization in ancient writings, which did not make use of paragraphs, punctuation, capitalization, and other such synthetic devices to communicate the conclusion of one idea and the commencement of the next.

Corley had the interesting insight that Paul may not have even been intentional in its use of the chiastic form:

The presence of chiasm need not imply that Paul intentionally used it as a literary device: more likely, it was latent to his mentality. The form does help decipher patterns of thought, especially when longer sections follow a chiastic order.
Figure 1. A Working Overview of Romans
Rom. 1:1-7AEpistolary Frame
Rom. 1:8-15BPrayer of Thanksgiving
Rom. 1:16CTheme Statement
Rom. 1:17-8:11DOne family of God--Theology
Rom. 8:12-39EThe need for obedience to God
Rom. 9:1-11:36FThe one family of God
Rom. 12:1-2E'A plea to be obedient to God
Rom. 12:3-15:6D'One family of God--Ethics
Rom. 15:7-12C'Theme Recapitulation
Rom. 15:13B'Prayer of Blessing
Rom. 15:14-16:27A'Epistolary Frame

In the particular case of the Roman correspondence, the writer is suggesting that the Apostle found that the chiastic form was the optimum way of encapsulating the important but confrontational message of Chapters 9-11 so that it might be received in the face of a situation quite different from that of the other churches with which he corresponded. In those churches he had a founder's role and could therefore claim some authority. Furthermore, he knew a great many of the people and had experienced the culture and setting first hand. In this situation, however, his letter needed to present a biblical and theological rationale, to avoid taking sides in the dispute, to be convincing and inspirational, and to do all these things in a manner that could be easily comprehended and retained when read aloud. Short of a personal visit, chiasmus would be an ideal form for meeting that challenge. Given that he was already committed to embark on a trip in the exact opposite direction, as noted above, Paul had little choice.

It is not the purpose of the present paper to exegete Romans, but a brief presentation of each chiastic element is offered below. Sections D, E, and F will be dealt with in greater detail in Part II, so the following treatment is intended as a literary critical overview of Romans as a chiasmus.

F. The One Family of God

This is the main message, and is placed at the focal point of the chiasmus. It is a message that needs to be approached with care; if introduced too early, it could cause offense, especially among the Gentiles who are Paul's main target and who constitute the majority of his listeners. The message is therefore encapsulated in the center of a number of layers designed to prepare the reader/hearer, to provide a theological foundation for its proper understanding, and to provide emotional reinforcement and emphasis See the discussion of climactic centrality, above).
God's eternal plan, promised to Abraham, has always been to bring redemption to both the Jew and the Gentile (Gen. 12:3). Paul has explained the "mystery" of the present Jewish opposition and God's present openness to the Gentiles through the olive tree allegory. All members of the Roman Churches need to adjust their behavior to cooperate with, rather than to oppose, God's excellent plan. A short doxology follows the message proper--one that marvels over the unsearchability, wisdom, and freedom of God. Considering the marvelous "mystery" revealed in this section, the doxology is completely appropriate.

EE' A Call for Obedience

For the majority of his audience, Paul is an "outsider" who has no basis for claiming authority. He must therefore apply reason in order to convince and then inspire his listeners.
Having enumerated the things that God has done on their behalf, they have an "obligation" (Rom. 8:12) to behave appropriately. Paul begins section E (Rom. 8:12-39) quietly, but concludes to an emotional climax just prior to the all-important main message, F.
Falling immediately after the doxology that concludes the message of Chapters 9-11, the E' (Rom. 12:1-2) section is short but powerful. Paul tells his listeners that they must be prepared to make "a living sacrifice." They must be willing to do devote their lives as a proper worship of, and obedience to, God.

DD' The Theology and Ethics of the One Family of God

The doctrinal section is masterful in its construction, alternating between the Gentiles and the Jews in its treatment--carefully balanced to prevent upsetting either side past the point of recovery. Paul first demonstrates the sin of the Gentiles (Rom. 1:16-32), and then turns to the sin of the Jews (Rom. 2:1-3:20)--both are just as guilty. Also, both can find justification (Rom. 3:21-4:24) only one way--through faith. The work of Christ, the Second Adam, is developed in the next section (Rom. 5:1-6:23); that work is sufficient--it is freely given to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul then turns to the work of the Law (Rom. 7:1-8:11), and reveals the real reason for the law: so that men and women might be aware of their sin. The struggles with sin continue even for the believer, but God has given each member of his family sufficient power to withstand it by the Holy Spirit. In this way, the Christian is not condemned, but will receive a resurrection comparable to that of Christ.
The D' section, comprised of Rom. 12:3-15:6, is also theological but, since it follows the main message, is concerned with the embodiment of theology through the ethics of the one family of God. Of particular significance to this thesis, the ethics presented are almost entirely ecclesiological, beginning with a recapitulation of the "church is one body made of many parts" metaphor of 1 Corinthians 12. The huge block on love (Rom. 12:9-13:10) is to a large part devoted to love between Christians--that is, within the church. The remainder of Chapter 13 is laced with "our" and "us" material, again having to do with the church.

CC' The Theme Statement

The fullest theme statement appears in the theme position toward the end of the letter, "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you in order to bring praise to God..." (Rom. 15:7). This statement continues through three Old Testament references that illustrate the need for Gentiles to praise God.
The initial Theme Statement (See Excursus I), located in Rom. 1:16, has identical content except that it is designed to introduce, rather than summarize, the main message to the Roman churches. The emphasis is on "everyone who believes," it being clear that by "everyone" Paul has in mind the Jew/Gentile heterogeneity to which he that he is calling, as it contains the phrase "first for the Jew and then for the Gentile," repeated twice in Chapter 2.

BB' Prayers of Thanksgiving and Blessing

The letter begins and ends with traditional words of thanksgiving and blessing, somewhat adopted to the particular circumstances of Rome, and present in nearly all of Paul's other letters. The parallel structure of Rom. 1:14 is not to be understood to be equating Greeks with the learned and non-Greeks with non-learned, but simply as an expanded two-dimensional universe of diverse peoples, perfectly setting up the theme which follows.

AA' Epistolary Frame

The epistolary frame, likewise common in Paul's letters, comprises the outermost layer of the epistle. The concluding section is particularly lengthy, presumably because the letter is to a number of churches and the Apostle feels the need to compliment all those who are of importance whether he has ever met them or not.