Review of “The Mystery of Romans” by Mark Nanos


Timothy J. Christian. Review of Mark D. Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).


In this book review, I will critically evaluate Jewish New Testament scholar Mark D. Nanos’ important volume entitled The Mystery of Romans  written on Paul’s most commented upon Hauptbriefe, the epistle to the Romans. I will begin by summarizing Nanos’ aims, methodology, and central theses in the book. Next, I will analyze it by judging whether or not it lives up to its claims and by discussing both places for improvement and the work’s lasting contribution. Overall, while I disagree with much of what Nanos purports, I still judge it to be a valuable contribution to the field of New Testament studies.


The Aim and Methodology

To begin, Nanos’ main aim is to establish the Jewish background and flavor of Romans and of Paul in general, which he argues stands contrary to much Pauline scholarship today. He does this by attempting to establish the social setting of Romans, primarily through two methods. First, he uses Socio-Rhetorical Criticism, although he focuses mainly upon the social aspects trying to understand the social setting. Second, he uses the Historical-Critical Method attempting to reconstruct the world behind the text using historical evidence. These methods serve his overall purpose to see the Jewishness of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

The Central Theses

            Throughout Nanos’ work, I have traced about seven central theses. First, he argues that Paul is a good faithful Jew who abides by the Law and teaches Gentiles to be Law-respectful. This view of Paul runs contrary to what many scholars from the Old Perspective suggest about Paul today, as Nanos thoroughly points out. Second, he repeatedly moves his discussion toward his rendition of the social setting in Romans, namely, (1) the Gentile Christians’ ethnocentric exclusivism toward Jews and (2) the inseparableness of the Christian community(s) and the non-Christian Jewish synagogue in Rome. Thirdly, Nanos continually reiterates what he believes to be echoes of the Shema [Deut 6:4ff] in Romans, that is to say, the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ.[1] Fourthly, he argues that Paul’s mission as the apostle to the Gentiles is intricately linked to the eschatological expectation of the restoration of Israel. Furthermore, Nanos resists and counters the idea of “replacement theology,” that is, that Gentile Christians have replaced Israel as the people of God, a notion that has pervaded NT scholarship for many centuries. Sixthly, Nanos suggests that Romans is epideictic rhetoric because Paul boldly writes to them by way of reminder. Lastly, he argues that the Gentile Christians in Rome – though not limited there – are to abide by the apostolic decree from the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 which is what Paul deems as “the obedience of faith.” In other words, they are to follow the halakhah lifestyle set down by the Jewish synagogue authorities and emulate righteous behavior of god-fearing Gentiles. Overall, Nanos seeks to corroborate his theses by applying his paradigm to both Romans and other Pauline texts.[2] All of this leads to support his aim of showing the Jewish context of Romans.


In my opinion, Nanos certainly accomplishes his goal of establishing the Jewish context of Romans. However, he seems to overcompensate in doing so. Romans, as he has shown, is very Jewish in nature, but not in so far as – in my judgment – that Christians and non-Christians worship and have fellowship together.[3] Furthermore, his argument is quite persuasive, that is, until one returns to the pages of Romans itself to find that his argument and implications seem quite forced upon the text. Thus, I deem it as overcompensation. With regard to secondary literature, he indeed interacts with a wide range of scholarship and uses others works to support his theses.

Room for Improvements

Nevertheless, there are several places in his work where there is room for improvement and below are my suggestions for how Nanos could have made his argument stronger. First and foremost, his entire study hinges upon the assumption that the Christians in Rome (mostly Gentile, but also Jews) were not a separate entity from the non-Christian Jewish synagogues. While he strongly defends this assumption, it seems rather lacking from an exegetical standpoint. Furthermore, Nanos does not consider the full implications of this assumption. For one, it implies that the other Christian communities in the Gentile Roman Empire are also under the authority of the non-Christian Jewish synagogues. Why should we assume that the other Christian communities in the Roman world would be any different? If there is a reason, he does not state it. This would obviously require a major paradigm shift for all of NT scholarship, particularly in how we understand the makeup of the Christian communities. However, I think Nanos’ assumption needs to be revised, rather than the present paradigm that there is a separation.

Furthermore, Nanos’ assumption implies that this epistle would have publicly been read aloud in the non-Christian Jewish synagogue to both Christians (Jew and Gentile) and non-Christians (Jews and Gentile god-fearers). If that’s the case, then why does Paul speak of his fellow Jewish kinsman in Rom 9-11 as not being in Christ? There, Paul assumes that there are many Jews that live apart from Christ. This is why he is so grieved. Why would Paul write such things if he knows that it will be read aloud to both the Roman Christians and the non-Christian Jews in the Jewish synagogue? Would this not have been extremely offensive to the non-Christian Jewish authorities who would probably be the ones reading it? Further, would not the epistle itself have been shunned by those Jewish synagogue authorities and possibly been done away with? Wouldn’t the Jewish synagogue leaders have been appalled by Paul’s definition of salvation and arguments about faith in Jesus Christ in Rom 1-8, and offended at Paul’s claims that many of the present Jews are blind and not following the one God in Rom 9-11, and been confused at the exhortations and missionary plans to Spain, and offended at being called “weak in faith,” in Rom 12-16? Additionally, would it not imply that Paul expects the non-Christian Jews to obey his exhortations in Rom 12-15? My guess is that the epistle would not have been received well by the Jewish synagogue authorities in Rome. All this seems to suggest, that Nanos has not thought out the full implications of his conclusions, implications which he would most likely not agree with.

Secondly, his study rests upon the assumption that Romans is primarily epideictic rhetoric. A brief survey of ancient rhetoric would demonstrate that this is quite preposterous. He identifies Romans as epideictic mainly from Rom 15:15 where Paul says he has written “boldly” to them as a “reminder.” However, this is ill-informed. First, he does not use any primary sources about ancient rhetoric to support this thesis, only a few modern works that argues for Romans to be epideictic. Second, epideictic rhetoric focuses upon the present and tends to encourage the audience to keep doing what they are currently doing. However, Nanos elsewhere asserts that Paul is trying to convince the Gentile Romans Christians to live differently than they currently are. Thus, immediately, Nanos contradicts himself, because this describes deliberative rhetoric which focuses upon changing current behavior in the near future. Ben Witherington III says that epideictic rhetoric “did not seek to change beliefs, behaviors, opinions, or attitudes, but rather it sought to reinforce existing ones.”[4] Thus, it is clear that Nanos is not familiar with ancient rhetoric and simply goes off what other scholars say to bolster his pet theory. Thirdly, if epideictic, then why so much paranesis, and why are there little to no exhortations to remember? Lastly, epideictic rhetoric is more than a reminder. It praises or blames for current actions, not simply reminds.[5] Paul could in no way praise his implied audience for their current behavior of ethnocentric exclusivism, rather he writes to correct that very behavior, something that Nanos himself points out. Overall, Nanos is incorrect in purporting that the rhetoric of Romans is epideictic.

Thirdly, the language and phraseology of this work tends to be repetitive, redundant, and tautological. Nanos says the same things over and over again, sometimes in slightly different words, but often times not, which makes for a deja vu read.

Fourth, Nanos deals very little with the content of Rom 1-8, although he occasionally does so. However, given his aim of establishing the social setting, his point is made; Rom 9-16 reveals the most insight into the social setting of Romans. Nevertheless, he could have done better had he worked out more of the implications of the social setting with regard to Rom 1-8.

Lastly, he should have added a section about resurrection language in Romans, since resurrection is primarily a Jewish idea of the afterlife. In addition, when he discusses the restoration of Israel in depth in chapter 5, he fails to mention that this also entails resurrection. Doing this would certainly have furthered his evidence of the Jewish context of Romans.

The Lasting Contributions of “The Mystery of Romans”

Even though Nanos’ work needs many improvements, it nonetheless has several lasting contributions for the study of Romans, Paul, and the NT. First, it gets scholars thinking outside of the box about Paul as a good, practicing Jew, rather than the usual perception of Paul as a former Jew who now disregards most things Jewish for his new found Christian faith. This book thoroughly shows that Paul is a good Jew seeking the restoration of all of Israel.

This leads to the next point, that The Mystery of Romans unravels the widely held view today of “replacement theology” which asserts that God has rejected Israel because they have rejected the Gospel and that the church now replaces Israel as God’s people. Nanos’ work definitively demonstrates that Paul would turn over in his grave had he come to find that people today interpreted his theology in such a way. Nanos shows that Paul believes that all of Israel will be saved in the future when the full number of the Gentiles comes in. In other words, he validates the centrality that both Jews and Gentiles unite in Christ to glorify the one God together; that God is both the God of the Jews and the Gentiles, not either-or and not one replacing the other but both united in Christ.

In conclusion, this work is an excellent starting point for grappling with the social setting of Romans. Understanding the social setting is key to understanding Romans and this work demonstrates Nanos’ grand attempt at establishing it. In the end, I disagree with him, namely, concerning the close connection with the synagogue, but nevertheless, this book has a lasting effect in showing that the social problem in Rome is the ethnocentric Gentiles arrogantly disregarding the Jews, both Christian and not. Therefore, Nanos is a jumping off point that frees readers to consider the social setting which is lacking in much of Romans studies today.


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

Witherington, Ben. New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2009.


[1] He succinctly puts it this way: “The distinction remains; however, discrimination does not” (Nanos 356).

[2] Note that he applies this first in chapter 3 and argues that “the weak” in Rom 14-15 are the non-Christian Jews of the synagogue while the Roman Christians (both Gentile and Jew) are “the strong.” He also applies this paradigm to Rom 13:1-7 in chapter 6 to demonstrate the implications his study and how it bears upon the interpretation of Romans. Here, he suggests that the “governing authorities” are really the Jewish synagogue leaders who bear the authoritative sword of Scripture and that the Christians are to pay the temple tax as is rightfully expected of “righteous gentiles.” Lastly, he applies this more broadly to Pauline studies in Appendix 1 using the example of Peter’s hypocrisy in Gal 2, of which he views is not a matter of Peter’s kosher diet, but of Peter’s denial of the truth of the gospel, namely, that both Jews and Gentiles are equals in Christ. Overall, these chapters serve to corroborate his central theses and purported paradigm through which interpreters should read Romans. Moreover, this all serves to show the Jewish context of Romans.

[3] See below.

[4] Witherington 14.

[5] See Witherington 14.

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