November 25: Romans 1:3

Romans 1:3-4


In the recent notes, we have been examining several of the most significant “Christ-hymn” passages in the New Testament—Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; and 1 Tim 3:16. These are hymnic statements regarding the person and work of Christ, and, according to the view of many scholars, they represent pre-existing works which the New Testament author (i.e., Paul) adapted and included within the flow of the letter. Much the same can be said of Romans 1:3-4, though the short statement in these verses is perhaps better designated as a confessional formula, rather than a hymn per se.

Several details of vocabulary and style, atypical of Paul’s letters, provide a relatively strong argument in favor of a pre-Pauline source for the formula in vv. 3-4. These details will be discussed at the appropriate point in the notes.

The lines of this ‘Christ hymn’ (if we are to call it such) comprise part of the epistolary prescript—that is, the opening address and greeting of the letter (vv. 1-7), which reads as a single sentence in Greek. The key term in the opening verse is eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. Gospel):

“Paulus, slave of (the) Anointed Yeshua, called (as one) sent forth [a)po/stolo$], having been marked out from (others) [i.e., separated, set-apart], unto (the) good message of God…”

In typical manner, Paul identifies himself as a specially appointed missionary (apostle) and servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The preposition ei)$ (“into, unto”) in the concluding phrase indicates a goal or purpose—i.e., “for the purpose of (proclaiming) the good message”. The second verse builds syntactically upon the noun eu)agge/lion:

“…which He gave a message about before(hand), through His Foretellers [i.e. Prophets], in (the) holy Writings…”

The neuter relative pronoun (o%) refers back to the neuter noun eu)agge/lion, i.e., “the good message…which…”. It qualifies the Gospel as something about which God spoke through the Prophets of Israel in earlier generations. Early Christians found many passages in the Old Testament which were seen as foretelling (or prefiguring) the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—that is, the Gospel message—along with the mission work of believers in proclaiming the Gospel. Paul himself mentions a number of these in his letters, either as allusions or by direct quotation. For a survey of some of the key Old Testament Scriptures utilized in this way by early believers, cf. the article “He opened to us the Scriptures”, along with the various articles in the series “Yeshua the Messiah”.

Romans 1:3

“…about His Son,
the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of (the) seed of David according to (the) flesh”

The Gospel message, foretold by the Prophets (v. 2), is specifically about (peri/) Jesus Christ (v. 1), identified according to early Christian belief as the Son of God (“His Son”). As noted above, many commentators feel that here Paul is introducing a confessional formula, one which may have been in use by believers prior to his writing Romans, and which he himself may not have composed. There is a clear poetic parallelism to the lines, which can be seen when we include verse 4:

“…about His Son,
the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of (the) seed of David
according to (the) flesh,
the (one hav)ing been marked out (as) Son of God in power
according to (the) Spirit of holiness…”

There are several key points of parallelism:

    • two substantive (passive/middle) aorist participles, from the verbs gi/nomai (“come to be [born]”) and o(ri/zw (“mark out”), signifying the beginning (birth) and end (death/resurrection) of Jesus’ earthly life, respectively
    • the expressions “seed [i.e. son] of David” and “Son of God”, each of which has Messianic significance and is uniquely applied to Jesus by early Christians
    • juxtaposition of “flesh” (sa/rc) and “Spirit” (pneu=ma)

The first line, or couplet, of the poetic formula (v. 3) emphasizes the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life. This refers to what we would call the incarnation, his existence as a flesh-and-blood human being, and it plays a central role in the hymns of Philippians (2:6-11) and 1 Timothy (3:16), no less than in the great hymnic Prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1-18, to be discussed in upcoming notes). The first half of the Philippians hymn (vv. 6-8) deals specifically with the lowering/emptying of the pre-existent Son of God (Christ), so that he should become a human being. The same aorist middle participle of the verb gi/nomai is used in v. 7: “(hav)ing come to be [geno/meno$] in (the) likeness of men”. The verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”) often connotes coming to be born, and Jesus’ human birth is certainly implied, though not stated directly, in the hymn. In 1 Timothy 3:16, the term sa/rc (“flesh”) is used specifically to indicate the idea of incarnation, just as it is in Jn 1:14.

Thus, it is fair to view Rom 1:3 as referring to Jesus’ birth, one of only two such references in all of the Pauline letters (the other being Gal 4:4). The incarnation of Jesus is defined, in conventional/traditional terminology, as “coming to be (born)…according to the flesh”, i.e., born as a (real/physical) human being.

Two other details in the verse require further examination, as they relate specifically to the Christology of the formula, and how the formula is used and understood by Paul; this may be framed in the form of two questions:

    1. Whether (or to what extent) the identification of Jesus as God’s Son implies the idea of divine/eternal pre-existence, and
    2. What is the precise significance of the expression “seed of David”?

Both of these questions will be discussed in the next daily note.

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