Romans 13 in our Time

By Bernard Brandon Scott | 6/25/18

Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration’s policy of separating mothers from their children upon illegally crossing the USA border by quoting the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:

"Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful" (June 14, 2018, in a speech to law enforcement officials in Fort Wayne, IN).

AG Sessions probably does not care what Romans 13 might really say nor is he interested in what I might think is going on with the passage. But his use of Romans 13 is a good example of how those who claim to take the Bible literally and to follow its principles often misuse and abuse it.

Romans 13:1-7 is also an intriguing example of how difficult, complex and at times irresolvable interpretation is. In what follows I will explore some of the important options in the interpretation of this text.

The crucial verses are Romans 13:1-5.

Every person should voluntarily submit to those who have the authority to govern.  For there is no legitimate authority except that authorized by God, and those authorities that exist have been established by God. It follows that the person who resists such authority resists what God has arranged and those who resist will bring condemnation upon themselves. Rulers are not an intimidation to good behavior, but to bad.  Do you want to avoid living in fear of the person in authority? Then do what is good and he will praise you for it, because he is the servant of God to uphold what is good on your behalf.  But anyone who is bent on criminal behavior should be afraid, because the person in authority does not carry the sword for no reason.  He is the servant of God who carries out just condemnation against the person who commits criminal acts. For this reason it is necessary to submit [to those who have the authority to govern] not only for fear of punishment, but also as a matter of conscience (The Authentic Letters of Paul.)

Divine Right of Kings

Romans 13:1-7 has had a troubling history. Traditionally it has been used in support of the divine right of kings. Kings have frequently been associated with divinity. Octavian’s title conferred by the Roman Senate was Augustus, “the august one,” which implies his favor by the gods. Likewise, David and the Hebrew kings were “son of God,” also denoting their divine favor. In the medieval period these verses were used to justify the rule of the Carolingian monarchs and the Holy Roman emperors as from God. According to this logic, God has given political power to the rulers and spiritual power to the Popes. Not obeying the divinely authorized rulers was tantamount to revolting against God. Luther appealed to these verses in his call for the suppression of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1525.

The formula known as Divine Right of Kings arose during the Protestant reformation and took definitive form during the reign of James I (1603-25), Queen Elizabeth’s successor. In this formulation he became the absolute ruler in the both the political and spiritual areas, uniting what had been separated in the medieval period. The King James translation of Romans 13:1-5, authorized by James I, bears the strong imprint of the Divine Right of Kings.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (KJV, 1611).

The French kings and other rulers on the continent followed suit. According to this interpretation of the Romans passage, a king’s subjects could not revolt. This interpretation made Christianity a very reactionary religion and put Christianity on the wrong side of many subsequent debates or at least furnished strong ammunition to those resisting reform.

To make a long story short this way of understanding Romans 13 came under attack when absolute power became so abusive as to demand revolt. One can see this in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and especially in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. He begins with the outrages committed by the monarch against his subjects, thereby justifying revolt. Jefferson goes further arguing that “all men are created equal,” thus completely undercutting the king’s claim to a divine right to rule but also implanting an important mythical belief at the core of American self-understanding that constantly poses the potential to undercut any hierarchical claim. The United States Constitution went even further and began “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more prefect union . . . .” In this preamble the Constitution claims that all power does not come from God, but from the people. (In a longer version of this argument one should pay due attention to John Locke’s Essay concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil-Government. But this is the short version.)

AG Sessions in quoting Romans 13 puts himself on the side of the royalists and King George III and in opposition to the US Constitution.

Interestingly, Romans 13 does not enter the debate about the American Revolution. One tends to proof text what one already believes. This is an important hermeneutic principle. People who proof text are not arguing from the Bible, are not learning from the Bible, but are using the Bible to justify their already pre-established positions and ideas.

Slavery

Romans 13 came back to the fore during the debate over slavery. Slave owners pointed to Romans 13 to justify their enforcement of slavery. Slavery was legal, they argued; the law came from God, laws should be followed. This reasoning ignores any question of the morality of slavery, exactly the question that the abolitionists raised. Jeff Sessions clearly appears to be channeling the slavery supporters of his native Alabama (born in Selma, AL, 1946).

John Wesley’s Thoughts upon Slavery (1774) is extremely intriguing in this regard. The founder of Methodism did not base his argument on the Bible, which he completely ignored because he knew the case would be hard to make, but on reason and experience.

Ultimately the abolitionists won the slavery debate by drawing on other aspects of the Biblical message and reason.

Post WWII

In the aftermath of Nazism, Ernst Käsemann, one of the most important German post-war New Testament scholars, wrestled with this important New Testament passage. Käsemann’s personal situation is important to understand. He was a student of Rudolf Bultmann, completing his dissertation in 1931. He was a member of the confessing church, a group that protested the Nazi effort to take over the German churches. At one point he was arrested by the Gestapo for supporting the miners in his congregation who were on strike. Later he was drafted into the army and became a prisoner of war. After the war he took up a position as professor of New Testament at the University of Tübingen.

Nazism and the experience of World War II were clearly a major influence on how Käsemann understood and interpreted Romans 13. As a result, he clearly sees and experiences the problematic nature of the passage and how it had been traditionally interpreted. Furthermore he sees that much in Romans 13 does not fit the rest of the letter. He notes that the section lacks the eschatological, or as I would say, apocalyptic character typical of Paul’s letters. This is in fact a major point. Käsemann advances the interpretation by attempting to understand the verses within the context of Paul’s theology and the Letter to the Romans, instead of ripping it out of its context as the tradition had done. He notices that it fits uncomfortably. What becomes of Christian freedom, so prominent elsewhere in Paul’s letters?

Käsemann points out that the underlying assumption of Romans 13 is a basic stereotype of Roman political theology with no real critique. Paul in this chapter is simply assuming or parroting the dominant political ideology of the ancient world. Käsemann’s way out of this problem is verse 5:

For this reason it is necessary to submit [to those who have the authority to govern] not only for fear of punishment, but also as a matter of conscience.

Conscience is the clue for Käsemann that unties the passage’s knot. Conscience cannot not be violated.

Is there anything which might rightly be called a limit to the obedience here being demanded of the Christian and, if so, where is it to be drawn? In a nutshell my answer would be: ‘Christian obedience comes to an end at the point where further service becomes impossible—and only there.’ That happens incontrovertibly when the suggestion is made to the Christian that he should deny his existence as a Christian and abandon his particular Christian task (214).

Käsemann’s wrestling with Romans 13 is important and his emphasis on conscience is likewise critical, but he misses the bigger question. Since Paul is simply assuming the stereotypical Greco-Roman political theology and ideology, why even take the guidance of the text seriously? Why not say that Locke, Jefferson and the US Constitution got it right—political power does come from the people?

Synagogue Authorities

Mark Nanos has offered an intriguing interpretation of Romans 13. The title of his chapter dealing with this section is telling: “Romans 13:1-7: Christian Obedience to Synagogue Authority” (Chapter 6). According to Nanos, “authorities” for Paul does not mean Roman authorities but the Jewish synagogue authorities where these followers of the Anointed worshipped. The taxes referred to in verse 6 are the two-drachma Temple tax. Nanos’s interpretation points out how utterly Christian and anachronistic our readings and assumptions of this passage have been. We assume these Romans are Christians attending a Christian church, a completely anachronistic assumption. These are members of the nations (not gentiles) who have become believers in Jesus the Anointed. Throughout the letter Paul has been concerned about the relation between Jews, Jewish believers in the Anointed and members of the nations who are believers in the Anointed.

Nanos’s interpretation has lot to recommend it. It stays within Paul’s Jewish context unlike the traditional interpretation which ignores the Jewish context and presupposes a much later Christian situation. Under Nanos’s interpretation Romans 13 has nothing to do with obedience to the civil authorities, but rather refers to the synagogue authorities, a situation that makes much more sense in Rome in the 50’s ce.

Interpolation

Numerous commentators have noted that 13:1 appears to be a very abrupt transition from 12:21. Where does this topic come from? Why are we now talking about Roman authorities? Nanos’s interpretation alleviates, but does not overcome, some of this disjunction, a point to which we to which we now turn.

Romans 12:1 begins the parenesis or ethical exhortation of the letter, a typical feature of a Pauline letter. The initial two verses set up the theme:

So, I appeal to you, friends, as recipients of the wondrous mercy of God, to dedicate every fiber of your being to a life that is consecrated and pleasing to God, which is what enlightened worship ought to be.  Don't accept the life of this age as your model, but let yourselves be remodeled by the recovery of your true mind, so that you can discern what is consistent with God's purposes--what is good, worthwhile, and completely genuine (Rom 12:1-2, Authentic Letters of Paul.)

It is hard to understand how “Don't accept the life of this age as your model” fits in with “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” Käsemann struggled hard with this issue. But this problem points to a further interpretative issue, the problem of pericope reading. We are so accustomed to reading the New Testament in small bite-sized portions (pericopes) that we often ignore the context. If Romans 13:1-7 is ripped out of its context within the letter and simply employed as a proof text to support the status quo, it cannot really be heard. Both Käsemann and Nanos have tried to interpret the passage within the context of the letter.

The parenesis initiated in 21:1 continues until 15:22. Romans 13:1-7 sticks out like a sore thumb. It does not easily follow from 12:21. Rather 13:8 follows much more naturally.

So don't let yourselves be defeated by what is evil, but defeat what is evil with what is good (Rom 12:21).

You have no obligation to each other, except to love one another, because the person who loves the other has fulfilled the [Mosaic] law (Rom 13:8).

There are three good reasons to doubt that Romans 13:1-7 was part of the original letter.

  1. The abruptness with which it interrupts the pareneses.
  2. The lack of an eschatological or apocalyptic sense, something essential to Paul.
  3. It does not really fit with Paul’s understanding of freedom.

There is no textual evidence to support Romans 13:1-7 as an interpolation. All manuscripts contain the passage. But we should not assume that the Pauline letters have reached us whole. They clearly have been edited and reconstructed in the process of compilation. A great virtue of The Authentic Letters of Paul is that they make this editing process evident, whereas traditional translations mask this fact. Lack of textual evidence supporting an argument for interpolation is not a valid argument.

A growing number of scholars have accepted these arguments and treated the passage as an interpolation, including Westar’s translation, The Authentic Letters of Paul. Robert Jewett in his Hermeneia commentary toils to make this passage fit into the rest of the letter, but he admits that

in the end it remains noteworthy that at this point, Paul reverts to the cultural stereotypes, and abandons the revolutionary approach to honor visible in the preceding chapters, where in the light of Christ, the dishonored receive honor and the socially inferior are granted precedence (803).

Clearly Jewett is admitting, however grudgingly, that the passage does not fit with Paul.

For my part I agree with the decision of the translators of the The Authentic Letters of Paul to treat Romans 13:1-7 as an interpolation. It comes from a later time and does not represent Paul.

Some might object that it is still a part of Scripture, but in that case one needs to really take the arguments seriously that since the passage is simply repeating the political stereotype of the ancient world, is that what we are really about?

We have followed a complex and convoluted path in understanding the interpretation of Romans 13:1-7. The interpretative options are:

  1. The divine right of kings. This interpretation clearly ignores that this passage is incompatible with Paul’s understanding of freedom in the Anointed. Also it runs completely counter to Locke, Jefferson and US Constitution.
  2. Käsemann’s hermeneutic of conscience offers yet another way of understanding the text as a Pauline text, but in the process it completely rejects the divine right of kings interpretation.
  3. Nanos’s reconstruction of a historical context wherein the passage refers to the Synagogue authorities makes the best case for understanding the passage within the context of the Letter to the Romans.
  4. I think the best argument is that passage is an interpolation from a much later period, not part of the original letter.

Of the four possible interpretations, number one, the divine right of kings interpretation, is certainly no longer viable. The other three are all possible interpretations, depending upon how you weight the evidence. I have decided in favor of number four, but I recognize that the evidence is not unambiguously compelling.

I have left aside the morality of the separating children from their parents at the US border. The Bible would have much to say on this issue that would not be kind to the administration’s policy. I would only point out that the final image of the Matthean birth narrative is Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing an evil ruler into Egypt. In the terms of the Trump administration, they were illegal immigrants. Imagine the gospel story if the ruler of Egypt had a policy of separating children from their mothers!

Jeff Sessions’ quoting of Romans 13 is an appeal to the divine right of kings and implies that the current administration rules by divine right. For a person who took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States this is very strange indeed.

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

Works Mentioned:

Dewey, Arthur J., Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt. The Authentic Letters of Paul. A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2010.

Jewett, Robert. Romans: A Commentary. Edited by Roy David Kotansky and Eldon Jay Epp. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Käsemann, Ernst. “Principles of the Interpretation of Romans 13,” New Testament Questions of Today. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969. The essay was originally published in German in 1961 as a reflection on an earlier essay Käsemann had written in 1959 entitled “Römer 13.1-7 in unserer Generation.”

Nanos, Mark D. The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Photo of Bernard Brandon Scott

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

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2 replies
  1. Pat Schroeder says:

    If Romans 13:1-7 is a later interpolation, what might its purpose for that time have been?

    • Bernard Brandon Scott says:

      A very good question. I would argue that it was added to the letter at a later period with the intention of domesticating Paul, of making him safe. This same attitude is at work in the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). I is part of a contest over the heritage of Paul.

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