Review: St. Paul and the Roman Law

St. Paul and the Roman Law and Other Studies on the Origin of the Form of Doctrine
W.E. Ball

Amazon | Logos

While we should all, as Christians, acknowledge that the ultimate author of the Word of God is, in fact, God himself, we should also acknowledge that God used human material to write his Word. This doesn’t mean there are error or contradictions in the Scriptures (as the liberal wing of the Christian world would claim), but only that God used the prevailing ideas, words, concepts, and forms of expression from within the culture of the prophetic writers to express his intent and meaning to a human audience. How much did the culture and ideas of Rome, for instance, influence the language Paul used when formulating the crucial book of Romans? The aim of this short book is to provide an answer to just this question.

While originally published in 1901 (I side with Lewis on the concept of chronological snobbery), this book should be on the reading list of every modern Christian scholar who works with the writings of Paul. The general lines of thinking might be found in many other places, but the author does an excellent job of laying out the specific points where Paul interacts with Roman law in formulating the foundations of Christian doctrine. Dr. Ball emphasizes that we must differentiate between the form and the doctrine itself, but also that we will understand the doctrine better if we understand the form into which the doctrine was poured more thoroughly.
The author begins with the concept of adoption, focusing on the Roman form of adoption, and how it interacts with Paul’s ideas around the relationship between the believer and God. He does give short shrift to Hebrew and Greek adoption, ideas which could have rounded out his discussion at this point, but he covers the Roman adoption well. He then moves into a related topic, the idea of inheritance, discussing the Roman concept of heirs, which included the idea of inheriting while the parent was living, and the idea of a mediator. In the third chapter on Paul and the Roman Law, he considers the supersession of Quirtarian Law by Praetorian Law, and how this might interact with the relationship between the Mosaic Law and Paul’s Law of Christ.

The second major section of the book deals with interactions between the Roman Law and the forms of the Church, beginning with Baptism. From here, he goes on to describe the Roman university system, and from thence to describe the life and background of another great formulator of Christian doctrine, Tertullian. He argues that many of the innovations of this great jurist were grounded in the text of the Tanach, but expressed in rather Roman legal terms.

The third major section of the book deals with the connection between John’s writings and Philo Judaeus. The primary topic here is the concept of the Logos, and how it was taken from its pagan (really Gnostic) foundation and rebuilt on a Christian foundation. This section is very informative when considered in alliance with the idea that Hebrews is, at its base, an argument about how the Logos of Christianity is superior to the Gnostic Logos –a fulfillment of the bare concepts laid out in Gnosticism brought into the real world. The final section deals with NT quotations from various sources. The author is on less stable ground here; this is the weakest (and probably least useful) part of the book.

Overall, this is well worth reading if you have any interest in the Roman impact on the expression of Christian thought in Paul and the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

Comments are closed.