Paul’s Impersonation of Adam: Ben Witherington on Romans 7:7-25 image

Paul’s Impersonation of Adam: Ben Witherington on Romans 7:7-25

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Ben Witherington, in a recent conference paper, makes a compelling argument for reading Romans 7:7-25 in the light of rhetorical conventions. He concludes that the “I” is Adam in 7:7-13, and those-who-are-in-Adam in 7:14-25 – which substantially affects the way we see the struggle with sin in the Christian life. Unlike James Dunn and John Piper, and like Douglas Moo and Robert Jewett, Witherington does not believe Paul intends to represent Christian experience in 7:14-25. At one level, there is nothing earth-shattering about that; scholars are continually weighing in with their opinions. But his argument, based on rhetorical analysis, engages very persuasively with some of the key objections to that view, and if you’re in the Dunn-Piper camp, you may find yourself challenged by some of his reasons. Here’s an excerpt:

“‘Impersonation’, or prosopopoiia, is a rhetorical technique which falls under the heading of figures of speech and is often used to illustrate or make vivid a piece of deliberative rhetoric. This rhetorical technique involves the assumption of a role, and sometimes the role would be marked off from its surrounding discourse by a change in tone or inflection or accent or form of delivery, or an introductory formula signaling a change in voice. Sometimes the speech would simply be inserted “without mentioning the speaker at all”. Unfortunately for us, we did not get to hear Paul’s discourse delivered in its original oral setting, as was Paul’s intent. It is not surprising then that many have not picked up the signals that impersonation is happening in Rom. 7.7-13 and also for that matter in 7.14-25.

“Quintilian says impersonation “is sometimes introduced even with controversial themes, which are drawn from history and involve the appearance of definite historical characters as pleaders” (3.8.52). In this case Adam is the historical figure being impersonated in Rom. 7.7-13, and the theme is most certainly controversial and drawn from history. Indeed, Paul has introduced this theme already in Rom. 5.12-21, and one must bear in mind that this discourse would have been heard seriatim, which means they would have heard about Adam only a few minutes before hearing the material in Rom. 7.
 
“The most important requirement for a speech in character in the form of impersonation is that the speech be fitting, suiting the situation and character of the one speaking. “For a speech that is out of keeping with the man who delivers it is just as faulty as a speech which fails to suit the subject to which it should conform.” (3.8.51). The ability to pull off a convincing impersonation is considered by Quintilian to reflect the highest skill in rhetoric, for it is often the most difficult thing to do (3.8.49). That Paul attempts it, tells us something about Paul as a rhetorician. This rhetorical technique also involves personification, sometimes of abstract qualities (like fame or virtue, or in Paul’s case sin or grace– 9.2.36). Quintilian also informs us that impersonation may take the form of a dialogue or speech, but it can also take the form of a first person narrative (9.2.37) …
 
“What are the markers or indicators in the text of Rom. 7.7-13 that the most probable way to read this text, the way Paul desired for it to be heard, is in the light of the story of Adam, with Adam speaking of his own experience? Firstly, from the beginning of the passage in vs. 7 there is reference to one specific commandment– ‘thou shalt not covet/desire’. This is the tenth commandment in an abbreviated form (cf. Ex. 20.17; Deut. 5.21). Some early Jewish exegesis of Gen. 3 suggested that the sin committed by Adam and Eve was a violation of the tenth commandment. They coveted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
 
“Secondly, one must ask oneself, who in Biblical history was only under one commandment, and one about coveting? The answer is Adam. Vs. 8 refers to a commandment (singular). This can hardly be a reference to the Mosaic Law in general, which Paul regularly speaks of as a collective entity. Thirdly, vs. 9 says ‘I was living once without/apart from the Law’. The only person said in the Bible to be living before or without any law was Adam.
 
“Fourthly, as numerous commentators have regularly noticed, Sin is personified in this text, especially in vs. 11, as if it were like the snake in the garden. Paul says ‘Sin took opportunity through the commandment to deceive me’. This matches up well with the story about the snake using the commandment to deceive Eve and Adam in the garden. Notice too how the very same verb is used to speak of this deception in 2 Cor. 11.3 and also 1 Tim. 2.14. We know of course that physical death was said to be part of the punishment for this sin, but there was also the matter of spiritual death, due to alienation from God, and it is perhaps the latter that Paul has in view in this text.
 
“Fifthly, notice how in vs. 7 Paul says “I did not know sin except through the commandment.” This condition would only properly be the case with Adam, especially if ‘know’ in this text means having personal experience of sin (cf. vs. 5). As we know from various earlier texts in Romans, Paul believes that all after Adam have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The discussion in Rom. 5.12-21 seems to be presupposed here. It is however possible to take egnon to mean ‘recognize’— I did not recognize sin for what it was except through the existence of the commandment. If this is the point, then it comports with what Paul has already said about the Law turning sin into trespass, sin being revealed as a violation of God’s will for humankind. But on the whole it seems more likely that Paul is describing Adam’s awakening consciousness of the possibility of sin when the first commandment was given. All in all, the most satisfactory explanation of these verses is if we see Paul the Christian re-reading the story of Adam here, in the light of his Christian views about law and the Law…
 
“Paul then is providing a narrative in Rom. 7.7-25 of the story of Adam from the past in vss. 7-13, and the story of all those in Adam in the present in vss. 14-25. In a sense what is happening here is an expansion on what Paul has already argued in Rom. 5.12-21. There is continuity in the “I” in Romans 7 by virtue of the close link between Adam and all those in Adam. The story of Adam is also the prototype of the story of Christ, and it is only when the person is delivered from the body of death, it is only when a person transfers from the story of Adam into the story of Christ, that one can leave Adam and his story behind, no longer being in bondage to sin, and being empowered to resist temptation, walk in newness of life, as will be described in Rom. 8. Christ starts the race of humanity over again, setting it right and in a new direction, delivering it from the bondage of sin, death, and the Law. It is not a surprise that Christ only enters the picture at the very end of the argument in Rom. 7, in preparation for Rom. 8, using the rhetorical technique of overlapping the end of one argument with the beginning of another…
 
“At the end of Romans 7, Paul is following a well known rhetorical technique called chain-link, or interlocking construction, which has now been described in detail, with full illustration of its use in the NT by Bruce Longenecker. The basic way this technique works is that one briefly introduces the theme of the next argument or part of one’s rhetorical argument, just before one concludes the argument one is presently laying out. Thus in this case Rom. 7.25a is the introduction to Rom. 8.1 and following where Paul will once more speak in his own voice in the first person. Quintilian is quite specific about the need to use such a technique in a complex argument of many parts. He says that this sort of close-knit ABAB structure is effective when one must speak with pathos, force, energy, pugnacity (Inst. Or. 9.4.129-30). He adds, “We may compare its motion to that of men, who link hands to stead their steps, and lend each other their mutual support” (9.4.129). Failure to recognize this rhetorical device where one introduces the next argument before concluding the previous one, has led to all sorts of misreadings of Rom. 7.14-25.”

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