Book Review: Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous Letter by Richard Longenecker

At 490 pages of fairly dense text, Introducing Romans by Richard Longenecker is more than just an introduction, since it is longer than many commentaries. In this form, it serves a similar purpose to the large introductions now common in the more expansive technical commentaries on biblical books. Indeed, one wonders whether much of this material will be reproduced in Longenecker’s forthcoming Greek commentary on Romans in the New International Greek Testament series.

Besides the usual introductory aspects such as author, integrity, occasion, purpose, addressees, and date, Longenecker presents several other items of importance. The first is what he calls “Conventions, Procedures, and Themes” in which he discusses Greco-Roman social norms in oral, rhetorical and epistolary communications. This is one of the highlights of the book: this 66 page section provides a very thorough grounding in contemporary research (the supplemental bibliography is especially helpful). While rhetorical analyses of New Testament books are widely available, Longenecker does the student a great service by giving special attention to Jewish-Christian oral conventions.

In brief, his perspective is that Greco-Roman conventions were widely known and practised by Paul and his hearers (Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome) but these conventions were complementary to Jewish Christian communicative procedures. The treatment is detailed but not overly dense. As introductory material it is pitched at the right level and it is probably the correct approach that, “studies of Greco-Roman oral, rhetorical, and epistolary conventions, together with studies of Jewish and Jewish Christian themes and procedures, cannot be undertaken in isolation from one another – certainly not, as has all too often occurred, in opposition to one another – but must always be understood as complementary endeavours” (p. 170).

A brief section on “Textual and Interpretive Concerns” gives a condensed history and introduction to textual traditions and is helpful in giving information on the establishing of the text of Romans. Elsewhere, incidentally, Longenecker follows most other scholars today in accepting a 16 chapter original form of Romans; interestingly, he considers the final doxology 16:25-27 to be Pauline (a position I agree with). Of more interest in this chapter is the subsection discussing “Major Interpretive Approaches Prominent Today”. Below are the more or less self-explanatory matters discussed but I’ll leave readers to discover the author’s viewpoints for themselves. Suffice to say that the treatment is variable: the section on the New Perspective is a little too light in detail whereas the survey of ‘The Righteousness of God’ will likely be highly valuable for students of that subject.

“The Righteousness of God” and “Righteousness”
“Justification” and “Faith”
“In Christ” and “Christ by His Spirit in Us”
The πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ Theme
“The New Perspective” on Palestinian Judaism and Paul
“Honor” and “Shame”
“Reconciliation” and “Peace”

The final chapter is divided into two sections. The first, “Focus or Central Thrust of the Letter”, deals mainly with structures and arguments of the first eight chapters. The author notes that space limitations preclude discussion of the second half of Romans, which is a little surprising, and even disappointing. But then again, the main theological centre of Romans is to be found in chapters 1-8 and Longenecker duly discusses the logic and structure of Paul’s discussions in linking Romans 1:18-3:20 with 3:21-4:25, and then again with Romans 5-8. This part of the book deserves careful study. As students of Romans will know, it is not easy to find a firm foothold among the range of opinions relating to the logic of these sections. And writing a 23 page summary of how best to follow the various themes and theses can’t have been easy either. But Longenecker does an admirable job of leading his readers along and I expect they will benefit from his division of each section into “Some important issues”, followed by “Some Preliminary Observations”, and finally “Some Proposals”. This helps break apart what is important, what others have said, and what the author himself thinks.

The second half of the final chapter concerns the structure and argument of Romans which presents in a more cohesive setting an overall picture of the whole epistle. To that end it is a useful summary of the main conclusions discussed previously. Readers who have made their way through the book might find some repetition both in this section and elsewhere, but then again, this kind of text is not usually read cover to cover.

In all, the work is readable and, most importantly, accurate and up-to-date. University level students should find it helpful in providing a sound basis for further study. The main problem with this type of book is the danger of leading a reader into believing that it provides a full-scale treatment of a particular topic. In this respect, Longenecker’s frequent warnings about the limited scope of this text should be heeded. There are multiple mentions of a forthcoming commentary and that will most likely be a ‘must read’; this book on the other hand is rather more ‘nice to have’ and students embarking upon degree-level work in Romans may still be better served by the older Encountering the Book of Romans by Douglas Moo (2002, Baker Academic).

Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous Letter
Richard N. Longenecker
Paperback: 490 pages
Publisher: Eerdmans (2011)

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