Romans: The People's Bible Commentary

Dunn, James D.G.
Bible Reading Fellowship (2001)
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James Dunn's account of Romans is as lucid as any account of this tortuous Epistle can be. He works methodically through thickets of what I would call 'half meaning' and maddeningly elusive nuance to produce a reading that is both convincing in itself and which effectively counters many of the interpretations which hold sway particularly amongst Protestants and Evangelicals.

This does not mean that Dunn is a partisan Roman Catholic. He is careful, except for one key instance, to avoid citing the supposed misinterpretations of those with whom he disagrees, that instance being his observation that the notion of being "saved" would be rejected by Paul who saw salvation as a continuous process. IN many ways this is a strength in an ecumenical Commentary but it leaves one slightly deflated, not because of a wish for controversy but because any attempt to teach Romans will involve some difficult discussion of the doctrine of "justification by grace through faith" and the consequent controversy about good works.

Dunn says that this Epistle is the most important New Testament theological document which is a large claim which, I think, he fails to justify. The central contention that salvation is for Gentiles as well as Jews was a revolutionary statement but its expression was not confined to Romans and the detailed arguments are much more concerned with the salvation of the Chosen People than with Gentiles.

Nonetheless, the major themes are set out methodically and clearly in 86 bite-sized sections, each with a concluding prayer, which makes this book an accessible means for study and prayer. Yet another fine book in this estimable series.

Study Notes

Introduction (p11)

Romans core round which Pauline corpus grouped; most comprehensive theological statement in NT. Written by Tritius from Corinth c55 to set out his mature theology and seek support for his further mission to Spain. Paul hesitant (Romans 1:11-15) because reluctant to go where other missionaries preceded him, perhaps Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). Hints in Suetonius of Jewish ferment, possibly concerned with Christianity, resulting in Claudius expulsion of Jews in 49.

Purpose: missionary (seeking financial and HR support for Spain(; apologetic (importance of Jewish heritage in NT; problem of Jewish reluctance; rehearsing arguments for his return to Jerusalem); pastoral.



  1. Romans 1:1-7 (p18) Slave both low and dedicated (Isaiah 49:1-7); His apostleship contested. Written by Jew on Judaism for Gentile house groups, not "church".
  2. Romans 1:3-4 (p20) Formula confirming his own credentials; Messiah and son of God; centrality of Resurrection.
  3. Romans 1:8-15 (p22) Confirms NT praying through Jesus to God, rarely to Jesus. Paul's pastoral, sensitive side.
  4. Romans 1:16-17 (p24) Thematic summary of letter. "Convinced in mind, convicted in heart, and committed in will". cf 4.4-5: "righteousness" initially understood by Luther to mean judicial righteousness but realised it means saving righteousness, can be translated as deliverance or vindication (Psalm 51:14; Isaiah 51:5-8; 62:2); in Hebrew: the fulfillment of obligation arising out of relationship, God to fulfil creation and Covenant promises, now to be extended to Gentiles. Faith in Habakkuk 2:4.
  5. Romans 1:18-25 (p26)  Human failure mended by turning to God; "Wrath" is "the moral structure of creation and society"; in exercising the will over action we have no say in the consequences; impiety, unrighteousness and non recognition of Creator, thinking ourselves wise &c (v21). Idolatry, substituting religion for God;
  6. Romans 1:26-32 (p28) From God to religion to social decay to sexual lust; Paul disapproved of homosexuality but within a wider disapproval of replacing God with sexual satisfaction. vv29-31 list major vices but also corrosive behaviours; the solidarity of sin.
  7. Romans 2:1-6 (p30) 2.3-8 "diatribe" or debate with imaginary opponent. Paul imagines himself a diaspora Jew against the Greeks but includes Jews in condemnation who are worse off because of their presumption; the peculiar blindness of the religious (contemporary RC child abuse - KC).
  8. Romans 2:5-11 (p32) Central to Judaism and Christianity that God's fair judgment will be based on what we do; patience in doing what is good and not selfishness; glory and honour v affliction and distress.
  9. Romans 2:12-16 (p34) Refutes that possession of the law is enough for Israel: all will be judged; Gentiles often abide by God's law. "Justify" a legal term for declaring an obligation met, or one acquitted. In Hebrew and Greek "justify" and "righteous" come from the same root.
  10. Romans 2:17-24 (p36) Jews did not describe themselves as such because the geographical term relates to Judea; they preferred "Israelites", ie chosen people. Jewish superiority and obligation; Jews not exempt but tend to 'turn a blind eye'; privilege easily becomes superiority.
  11. Romans 2:25-29 (p38) Circumcision as personal commitment and mark of communal membership (Genesis 17:9-14); circumcision and baptism; "of benefit" as long as properly understood; Jewish formalism and Gentile dedication.
  12. Romans 3:1-8 (p40) Contradiction between universal salvation (and imperfection) and Judaism as a bridgehead. How can God be faithful to those he has chosen (in view of their turning away) and how can he be impartial? Our unfaithfulness highlights God's faithfulness. We start with the chosen people not Christ.
  13. Romans 3:9-20 (p42) Introduction of "sin", being under an evil power, distinct from individual acts. Paul completes indictment of Jews.
  14. Romans 3:21-23 (p44) "Now" indicating a shift in history, the sense of newness. God's faithfulness extended beyond Israel must be extended beyond the law; Jesus the climax of God's purpose for humankind and his gracious outreach (righteousness) universally available; law replaced by faith.
  15. Romans 3:24-26 (i) (p46)   The universality of God justifying Grace; there is only one grace; we cannot reciprocate;
  16. Romans 3:24-26 (ii) (p48) Jesus as the means of atonement echoing Leviticus 16; "idle" to investigate the mechanics of Hilasterion; thematic return to God's justice.
  17. Romans 3:27-31 (p50) "Boasting" refers to earlier discussion of Jewish self-confidence, not individual merit; v29 pivotal; the "law of works" affirms Jewish monopoly; the shema and universalism. faith does not make the law invalid but establishes it.
  18. Romans 4:1-8 (p52) Abraham "father of converts" for deserting Ur; Abraham obeys God's voice (Genesis 26:5); Abraham's righteousness (Genesis 15:6); God's "revoking" is pure grace.
  19. Romans 4:9-12 (p54) Abraham and circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14); but Abraham righteous before circumcision (Genesis 15:6); appears disingenuous; seed, land and blessing; Abraham's relationship based on faith. Circumcision confirms not confers, an act demonstrating obedience;
  20. Romans 4:13-17 (p56) "Promise" a new word in Septuagint; faith the response to promise; inheritance and seed extended beyond Jews.
  21. Romans 4:17-22 (p58) We can only understand God's promise in the context of creation; the fact of life, ex nihilo, affirms that God is all; Abraham gave glory to God.
  22. Romans 4:22-25 (p60) Promise not confined to Abraham; our faith the same as Abraham's. Summation: faith in Jesus same as faith in God; Jesus' death and Resurrection go together, the latter associated with God's life-giving in creation.
  23. Romans 5:1-2 (p62) See Section 10. "justified" strong in the past passive which brings peace, access and rightful boasting.
  24. Romans 5:3-5 (p64) Beginning first exposition of hope as confidence not uncertainty. In addition to the experience of God, hope in suffering and God's love; not rational calculation.
  25. Romans 5:6-11 (p66) Life without God: weakness and fragility; sinners in contrast to the righteous but then the idea emerges that love is better than just doing the right thing; hostility. Salvation as completeness, the end of the process; wrong to use the phrase: "Are you saved?"
  26. Romans 5:12-14 (p68) History begins with sin and death is its consequence; sin is greater than individual transgressions; "original sin" but not "original guilt". Adam represents original sin, Christ the beginning of deliverance; so even Adam can be a figure of hope.
  27. Romans 5:15-21 (p70) Adam and Christ represent human types with their different destinies for different epochs. The law exposes sin (see Sections 33-35.)
  28. Romans 6:1-4 (p72) Chapter 6 on sin. As grace increases to match sin, is sin a good thing? No. Sin survives the death of sin because we are in transition to salvation; dying to sin in/with/through Christ; Baptism symbolises dying with Christ and pre-figures resurrection.
  29. Romans 6:5-11 (p74) The fusing of bone: engagement with Christ's death not an event but lifelong. Our "old self" crucified with Christ. With Christ Resurrection is complete, with us it has only begun.
  30. Romans 6:12-14 (p76) Christ's death and Resurrection and our identification with him in faith means that his conquest of sin and death have conquered them for us but we still have to get through life. The problem of "post-Baptismal sin" overweights Baptism. Sin transforms desire to lust; we must give God control of our lives.
  31. Romans 6:15-23 (p78) Live as alive from the dead; faith does not free us as slaves but gives us a new master in Christ, as we lack self-mastery; sin is abusive but slavery to God means a consecrated life; contrast between wages and free gift.
  32. Romans 7:1-6 (p80) Chapter 7 on law. Confusing analogy of the wife: the important point is freedom from the law. Sin finds the law, in its character as "the old letter" a useful tool which inflames lust. The cycle of sin, flesh and death replaced by spirit and life.
  33. Romans 7:7-13 (p82) argument so far leads to conclusion that the law is bad. Marcion drew on this argument and Protestant theologians still do; but Paul refutes it: law defines sin but sin abuses it; consciousness turns to enticement; but it is the law of God and separate from its abuse; Genesis 3 underlines humanity's moral dependence.
  34. Romans 7:14-20 (p84) Why does knowledge drive us to evil? Flesh denotes human weakness (Isaiah 31:3) which undermines the law. The willing "I" acknowledges that the law is good.
  35. Romans 7:21-25 (p86) The "law of experience" comments on the laws of God and sin. "Wretched man that I am" saved by Jesus.
  36. Romans 7:25 (p88) The misinterpreted pre conversion "I" of Augustine and Luther (both converts); "I" as pre conversion everyman and pre-Christ Israel.
  37. Romans 8:1-4 (p90) The "already" guarantees the "not yet"; the law of the "spirit of life"; Spirit counter to sin. End of defence of law.
  38. Romans 8:3-4 (p92) God alone can confront sin: through sending Christ as a sin offering and by sending the Spirit.
  39. Romans 8:5-8 (p94) Flesh and Spirit; living and dying.
  40. Romans 8:9-11 (p96) Christian definition: "Anyone who does not have the spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (v9). The Spirit is life; the end of life is Resurrection.
  41. Romans 8:12-17 (p98) Nothing guaranteed; living requires responsibility and endeavour: salvation incomplete. the "adoption" metaphor. Grace replaces fear.
  42. Romans 8:18-25 (p100) We suffer like Christ and with Christ and are "saved in hope".
  43. Romans 8:26-30 (p102) The spirit is most active when we are at our weakest, praying through our "groans". Predestination not as a dogma of the future but based on what we already know that God has done for us.
  44. Romans 8:31-39 (p104) Nothing can frustrate God's final, triumphant purpose, guaranteed by Christ and the Spirit.
  45. Romans 9-11 (p106) to consider 9-11 a break between the argument in 1-8 and its application in 11-15 is to limit Paul's Gospel to the individual; but the question of Israel is crucial to an understanding of the collective and God's faithfulness. 9.11 are about Israel and nothing else.
  46. Romans 9:1-5 (p108) Cry of anguish for Israel echoes Moses after the golden calf (Exodus 32:32). Christians inherit Israel's blessings through the greatest blessing of the Messiah.
  47. Romans 9:6-13 (p110) In spite of Israel's rejection of Messiah and Gospel, God's word has not failed. Israel defined as people of the the promise, of the election and call of God, not simply ethnic nor geographical.
  48. Romans 9:14-18 (p112) "Jacob I have loved; Esau I have hated" (Malachi 1:2-3), calls God's justice into question. God's mercy in Exodus 33:19 prefigures Exodus 34:6-7. God's self revelation in mercy precedes Jesus, contrasted with Pharaoh in Exodus 9:16 who hardened his heart at God's prompting. A theological puzzle in predestination, responsibility and free will.
  49. Romans 9:19-23 (p114) So, if God hardens Pharaoh, how can Pharaoh be blamed? Initial "cold" answer the potter (Isaiah 29:16). The creator and the creature (Jeremiah 18:1-11) refers to Israel not the individual.
  50. Romans 9:24-29 (p116) The Jews descended from Abraham, Isac and Jacob might feel safe at this point but "Israel" is those Jews and Gentiles God has called, transcending the Jew/Gentile, Jew/Greek divide. (problem of taking Hosea 1:10 literally - KC).
  51. Romans 9:30-33 (p118) Summary so far: God is righteous when he fulfills his Covenant promises; and Israel is righteous when it fulfills its obligations as God's people; believing Gentiles have obtained that righteousness; but Israel has fallen short because, instead of trusting God, it relied on works of which it could boast, feeling superior to Gentiles; but Jesus was their "stone of stumbling" which they rejected.
  52. Romans 10:1-4 (p120) Chapter break in wrong place; this paragraph part of previous Chapter: Israel has been zealous for God but in terms of maintaining racial purity, religiosity and national territory. Christ, the goal of the law, ended misunderstanding of it?
  53. Romans 10:5-8 (p122) Leviticus 18:5 misunderstood as an attack on "good works" but its sense, echoed here, is that the law was necessary in the life of Israel but the wider sense of the love of God was lost. The "righteousness of faith" (Deuteronomy 30:12-14) 'trumps' the "righteousness of law": God's will for human flourishing has a deeper, universal sense as opposed to Israel's law.
  54. Romans 10:9-13 (p124) "The law" points toward the "Word of faith" in the Gospel. v9 perhaps the earliest Baptismal confession; Confession and belief, "lip and heart" in Deuteronomy 30:14. Isaiah 28:16 calls for belief in Jesus as Christ surmounts the Jew/Gentile division. Joel 2:32 transferred from YHWH to Jesus.
  55. Romans 10:14-17 (p126) Faith, exemplified by Abraham, broader than "the law", fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is at the centre because of faith not theology. Importance of preaching ministry of the Gospel in Isaiah 52:7.
  56. Romans 10:18-21 (p128) Paul opens out his condemnation: Israel has refused to recognise the Gospel, shown in Isaiah 6:9-10; Israel rejected Isaiah and Jesus. The two senses of Israel as Chosen People and all believers is fused.
  57. Romans 11:1-6 (p130) Precedents of Israel's unfaithfulness and restoration. Paul himself has been saved but more important is 1 Kings 19:9-18. Israel must rely on God's mercy, election and grace; the Covenant never was between equals.
  58. Romans 11:7-10 (p132) Another de-tangling summary: election not "law' obtains righteousness; but he will not draw a hard definition of "elect". Paul could not believe in a totally good God so there is the mystery of God's darkness.
  59. Romans 11:11-16 (p134) Israel's stumbling must be accounted for: Israel has stumbled but is not out of the race and it gives the Gentiles an opportunity to catch up; again, not a shift to the Gentiles but a continuity; God will make Israel jealous of Gentiles; so salvation is for all.
  60. Romans 11:17-24 (p136) Citations of Israel being compared to a tree. Gentiles warned against replicating Israel's mistake: Gentiles brought in to share Israel's heritage; God will decide who is grafted and who cut off; faith sustains the graft. God will not uproot the tree of Israel; old branches lost, new ones added but the Church is not the tree and this has not been widely enough understood.
  61. Romans 11:25-27 (p138) Conclusion: Israel was suffering from God's "hardening", from the dark side of God's purpose of mercy, relieved "in part" by the mystery of Christ; but all Israel (including ethnic Israel, hardened in part) will be saved. Some take this to mean that there are two Covenants and that Jews can be saved without believing in Jesus. Dunn disagrees: there is only one Covenant and that is in jesus.
  62. Romans 11:28-36 (p140) Israel caught between two phases of dealing with God: its love of the Patriarchs and rejection of Messiah, between flesh and spirit, law and grace. Its "hardening in part" a temporary phase allowing in the Gentiles; but God will not give up his purposes. God's mercy and inscrutability; all creation has a common source and purpose. (Nonetheless, the puzzle of the need for God's "hardness" remains - KC).
  63. Romans 12:1 (p142) After the extended exposition of God's righteousness ("strangely" encompassing rejection and judgment  11.25-32) he turns to application: God's mercy; moral responsibility and the body in old and new creation. Sacrifice moves from the Temple to the marketplace. (Dunn overlooks the possible meaning of bodily sacrifice as martyrdom - KC).
  64. Romans 12:2 (p144) Sustained conformity to God, not the world; conformance must be more open and flexible than law.
  65. Romans 12:3-6 (p146) Lacking Temple focus, the new community's self identifiers in doing God's will are self-sacrifice and determining God's will in a new way. God's people as "The body of Christ". The Ministry of all the people of God, the Laos.
  66. Romans 12:6-8 (p148) Prophetic insight and teaching conservation; other gifts. All from God. The limits to charismatic autonomy.
  67. Romans 9-13 (p150) Charismatic ministerial benchmark is love. Love should be animated by the Spirit.
  68. Romans 12:14-21 (p152) Echoes of "Sermon on plain" in Luke 6; react to provocation with positive love.
  69. Romans 13:1-7 (p154) A divine warrant for government in the name of order but a warning to governors to act under God.
  70. Romans 13:8-10 (p156) Paul's love paralleled in Hillel: "That which you hate, do not do to your fellows." Akiba says Leviticus 19:18 most important saying in Torah.
  71. Romans 13:11-14 (p158) In darkness a warning of eschatological dawn. "Put on" means "play the part of".
  72. Romans 14:1-2 (p160) Tensions between "strong" and "weak" in faith. Possible tension after return of Claudian Jewish exiles to Rome with Gentile house groups; presenting issues unclean food and Sabbath observance.
  73. Romans 4:1-2 (p162) Paradoxically to Jews, "weak" means making love of Christ dependent on rules &c. The fundamental issue is faith (14.23), not transient disputes.
  74. Romans 14:3 (p164) Liberals "despise" traditionalists who in turn "condemn" them. The danger of a "pure" church.
  75. Romans 14:4-12 (p166) Address to the 'weak' conservative: God welcomes 'liberals'. Conscience exercised before God, not to brow-beat.
  76. Romans 14:13-18 (p168) The "strong" have more responsibility in exercising liberty, particularly in respecting the scruples of "the weak"; if you think scruples are disproportionate so is your worry about them, compared with faith in God.
  77. Romans 14:19-23 (p170) The strong must understand the weak cannot change (never eat pork); and they must restrain their liberty so as not to offend (Jean Robinson? - KC); paradoxical for the 'weak' to impose this self restraint on the strong. Faction brings disrepute, bad for evangelism.
  78. Romans 15:1-6 (p172) Alleged lack of Jesus reference; always in background. Appeal to Scripture. Prayer for unity.
  79. Romans 15:7-13 (p174) Welcome one another, imitating Christ's acceptance; Remaining awkwardness of aligning Jewish priority with Gentile equality.
  80. Romans 15:14-21 (p176) Paul's priestly ministry does not set him apart; mission strategy.
  81. Romans 15:22-29 (p178) Why Spain? (Because it was the mining and metalwork centre of the Empire, full of slaves - KC).
  82. Romans 15:30-33 (p180) The collection for "The Saints" at Jerusalem.
  83. Romans 16:1-17 (p182) There is not a "church" in Rome like there is in Corinth; many households, nothing central.
  84. Romans 16:1-16 (p184) The prominence of women; Phoebe a Deacon not Deaconess; a prostatis, often translated as helper, is a patron or benefactor. Priscilla widely known; and ranked over her husband by Paul. Did Junia found the Roman Church?
  85. Romans 16:17-23 (p186) Final warning: not just a call for unity but a balance of wisdom and simplicity.
  86. Romans 16:25-27 (p188) Verses added by a later hand.