Paul & the Roman Empire

Romans 13.1–7

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

In previous articles I've talked about New Testament pseudepigrapha, texts falsely attributed to their namesake authors. Scholarship largely agrees on six letters being pseudepigraphical, with a few others still under debate. For example, it is essentially unanimous that the so-called ‘Pastoral Epistles’ — 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus — were not written by Paul: they do not match his writing style, they barely reflect his theology, their historical context far more fits the turn of the century (circa AD 90–110) than the period of Paul's career (c 40–65), and in several ways they actually contradict Paul's values as expressed in his authentic letters.

A similar problem to pseudepigraphical books are interpolations. These are shorter passages of text written by anonymous Christians, but now simply inserted into an authentic book. Because these are embedded into Paul's letters, interpolations can be difficult to spot; they're designed to blend in. While some interpolations have been discovered thanks to a critical examination of manuscript copies and a book's internal context, they are harder to find if they were added at such an early date that all existing copies of a book contain the fraudulent addition.

In the present case, I want to look at the evidence that Romans 13.1–7 may be an interpolation. While it is not a majority position of scholarship, there are several reasons given that cast doubt on this passage's authenticity.

Seventy Weeks

Daniel 9.24-27

‘Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.’

The Book of Daniel is a wildly confusing book to readers unfamiliar with Second Temple-era apocalypses. It fits all the hallmarks of the genre, but even having that underlying knowledge it doesn't make the Book of Daniel any easier to read. In this case, one of the common points of debate is the ‘seventy weeks’ in chapter nine, and all the details surrounding it.

In this chapter, set in the year 538 BC, Daniel has been studying the Book of Jeremiah. Babylon has been conquered, so Daniel is concerned with the end of the exile of the Judeans from their homeland, discussed in Jeremiah. Daniel is concerned that the Judeans will not be allowed to return home, so he prays for God's mercy.

In response, the messenger Gabriel is dispatched to provide Daniel with information about the exile: it has been extended in a spiritual sense, and when the extended exile concludes it will be accompanied by a terrible war. However, Gabriel's message is not so simple.

The Word Which Is with God and Is God

John 1.1–18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1.1

The opening to the Fourth Gospel (traditionally attributed to the apostle, John ben Zebadiah) is famous within Christianity for its ‘High Christology’, meaning its identification of Jesus as the incarnation of God himself. Where there is a lot of debate whether other parts of the New Testament identify Jesus as ‘God’, John 1 is often where doubts are put to rest.

Does the text deserve to be the unquestionable proof-text it is used as, though? What does the author actually mean when talking about the ‘word’ of God?

Parallels: Deutero-Pauline Letters

Colossians & Ephesians

The practice of writing under an assumed named is called pseudonymity. The works written under that pseudonym are called pseudepigrapha. These could be written for good or bad reasons. The book titled 4 Ezra, presented as having been written by Ezra, did this for stylistic reasons. The author had no intention of deceiving his readers into thinking he was the biblical Ezra. Rather, he chose the name because of a certain symbolic value it brought to his book. Some other authors wrote in the name of a beloved mentor, attributing what they learned to their teacher's name. On the other side, pseudepigraphical works could be made maliciously, with the intention of deceiving readers, whether to tarnish the attributed author's name, or to fool readers into accepting the ideas of the pseudonymous author.

Fortunately, people of the time could spot the worst offenders fairly easily; a false letter could be recognized because it wasn't delivered by a trusted messenger, because it had the wrong handwriting, because it presented ideas contrary to the attributed author, or because it was written in style and format so drastically unlike the attributed author's known works.

Unfortunately, early Christians had some difficulty sorting out pseudepigraphical works attributed to the apostles. The fact is, a handful of pseudepigrapha were wrongfully accepted as authentic, and were included in the New Testament canon.

Original Sin, or a Lack Thereof

Romans 5.12

In Christianity, the phrase 'original sin' refers to the concept that Adam's sin in Genesis 3 resulted in a 'fall' of all humanity. Adam's sin corrupted his nature, his very being, and he passed that corruption on. All humans are 'born sinners'; they are born under the condition of Adam's sinful nature, and so are condemned by default of existing.

This concept persists in nearly all forms of Western Christianity, but it has been challenged on multiple fronts.

Resurrection & Not Rapture

1 Thessalonians 4.13-18

For the Lord himself … will descend from heaven, and the dead in the Messiah will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.

In the past, I've quipped that the idea of 'the rapture' can only be considered 'biblical' if the new testament is thrown into a blender and the scraps are pieced into something new, something which the original texts could never have said. The above passage, lifted from its context in 1 Thessalonians 4, is one such text that suffers this abuse. Nevertheless, instead of sarcastically criticizing the hermeneutical method that results in 'the rapture' doctrine, it would be more beneficial to actually examine the text central to its claim.

'The rapture' is the teaching that, prior to the period of tribulation which would precede his true second coming, Jesus will return invisibly to remove all his followers from the earth into heaven, including the bodies of any Christians who have died. Usually, they rise into the air before disappearing from sight. Despite how heavily this view relies on 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, the rapture cannot be found there.

Job & the Spherical Earth

Job 26.7

He stretches out the north over the void
and hangs the earth on nothing.

Job 26.7 is a verse many Christians point to in order to substantiate the idea of a spherical earth orbiting around the sun. The ESV, above, uses phrases like 'the void' and 'hangs on nothing'. It certainly sounds like the book of Job predicted the discoveries of modern astronomy centuries before anyone else could. That would be an amazing bit of scientific prognostication for the ancient Israelites. However, between misleading translations and a handful of cultural ideas being alluded to in so few words, a modern astronomical model is not an accurate interpretation of the text. It's a fact that th earth is not flat, but the ancient biblical authors did think it was.