Reckoning what is right (Romans 4; Lent 2A) part two

In a previous post, I explored the first half of Romans 4, sections of which are offered by the lectionary as the Epistle reading for this coming Sunday, the Second Sunday in Lent (Rom 4:1–5, 13–17). See

There we noted that Paul quotes scripture texts, poses questions, and provides immediate answers to those questions, as he develops his argument. In this post, I will explore the origins of this style of developing an argument and continue on with an analysis of Paul’s argument in Romans 4.

What we see at work in the rhetorical style that Paul utilises in this letter is that he is not only functioning as a Pharisee, schooled in the methods of midrashic treatment of scriptural texts; but that, as a hellenised Jew (educated in Jerusalem, yes, but living in Tarsus in the diaspora, according to Acts 22:3), he utilises the rhetorical techniques of the diatribe. This was a way of speaking in public that had been created by Bion of Borysthenes in the 4th century BCE, and then developed and refined amongst Greek rhetoricians and utilised particularly by Cynic philosophers in the ensuing centuries.

We know that diatribes were well-known in Ancient Greece; the 4th century playwright Euripides commented that “the peculiarity of the diatribe as distinct from other forms of popular moralizing lies in the assumed presence of an opponent. He is not permitted to reply, but his position is indicated by statements or rhetorical questions put into his mouth by the speaker, and thus the introduction of an objection in the form of a question becomes one of the characteristic features of the diatribe.” It is clear that this is a development of the dialogue form, so its origin is usually traced to the dialogues of Plato.

The popularity of the long-used form of diatribe is well attested into the Common Era in the work entitled Diatribes (more commonly translated as Discourses), published in the early 2nd century CE by Arrian, reporting the diatribes of Epictetus, a first century slave who studied Stoic philosophy and, after he gained his freedom, taught in Rome until Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome in 93CE. (Epictetus moved to Nicopolis and established a school there where he continued to teach Stoic philosophy.)

This demonstrates the enduring character and the widespread know,edge of this particular form of rhetorical argumentation. That Paul was using it quite extensively and to good effect in his letter to Rome (and also at places in other letters he wrote, it must be said) cannot be gainsaid.

Biblical scholars have explored how Paul adapts and utilises the diatribe method. Stanley Stowers pioneered this analysis in his book A Rereading Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (Yale, 1997), and Douglas Campbell has developed this approach most extensively in The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009).

Campbell offers a clear explanation of the style: “Ancient diatribe is essentially a distinctive mode of discourse built largely with apostrophe [addressing a fictitious person as if they were present] and speech-in-character (a figure of speech in which an absent or imaginary person is represented as speaking; the technical name for this is prosopopoeia].”

Campbell explains that “A constructed character is generally addressed by the discourse’s central protagonist—who is a broadly Socratic figure—by means of the literary technique of apostrophe, so much of the discourse unfolds through the use of second person singular grammar. And that interlocutor then responds, whether in brief or at length, through the literary technique of speech-in-character, so here the author puts words in this character’s mouth.”

Campbell concludes, “The result is a dramatic discourse mimicking the to and fro of debate and conversation, although slipping were necessary into more extended speeches by one or the other party.” (Campbell, The Deliverance of God, p.535)

We can see the resemblance of Paul’s style of argumentation in Romans, to this rhetorical strategy.


In the second section of Romans 4, then, after having established the universal scope of God’s providential grace—for this is how God meets the universal spread of sinfulness amongst human beings—Paul focusses on the faith that Abraham showed, and it’s importance for believers in Rome( and elsewhere). The thesis for this part of the argument is immediately posed: the promise to Abraham (which he was given in Gen 12:1–3) was “not through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13).

First, Paul indicates that the promise cannot be fulfilled only through “the adherents of the law”, for “the law brings wrath” (4:14–15; he expands on this in chapter 7). Then, he asserts that the promise must rest on faith, both to those who adhere to the law but also “to those who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16). Abraham is here described as “the father of all of us”, drawing on yet another scripture citation (Gen 17:5; Paul uses the same argument at Gal 3:15–18, and the phrase is also at play in the debate reported in John 8:41–59).

Then follows further explication of this scripture (Gen 17:5), particularly explaining how Abraham, “hoping against hope”, became “the father of many nations” (4:17b—21). Despite the barrenness of Sarah’s womb (4:19), Abraham “was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:21). To conclude this exegetical foray, Paul quotes, for the third time, the foundational text: “his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (4:22, quoting Gen 15:6).

Paul then explains that these words describe not only the situation of Abraham, long in the last, but also the situation of those to whom he writes (4:23–24). This is a foundational aspect of Paul’s hermeneutic; he restates it at Rom 15:4, declaring that the scripture “written in former days was written for our instruction”. See

And so the argument draws to a close, moving back into the heart of Paul’s concern, to expound the Gospel concerning God “who raised Jesus Christ from the dead” (4:24–25). The final verse is most likely a traditional formulaic expression; we find a similar pattern at 1 Cor 15:3–4, a midrashic-style reflection on this pattern at 1 Cor 15:42–44, a variant form at 2 Cor 5:14–15, and extended discussion using the pattern of Christ, dead and raised, as the model for believers, “buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Paul provides a fuller discussion of this paradigm at 6:3–11, and there is a similar discussion, albeit varied for the different context, at Col 3:11–15.

The extended argument of this chapter (represented, unfortunately, by truncated excerpts in the lectionary offering) takes us from an initial question about Abraham, through an exploration of the story of Abraham, and Sarah, to a conclusion about the life of those who place their trust in what God has done through Jesus Christ; namely, that God “will justify [or, reckon as righteous] the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (3:30), and so, in like manner, “it will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:24). It is all about being reckoned as righteous on the basis of faith.

As Paul would say: Thanks be to God!