Hellenistic Paul: Letter to The Romans Chapter Three
What the Greeks and Romans heard. A translation with editing based on The Letter to the Romans from Paul while comparing ideas from Greek thought and philosophy in order to highlight the Hellenistic ideas in the writings of Paul. Below is chapter three of Romans. This is a fictional text. The references in the “Notes” section are theological and philosophical ideas that would apply to the context.
So what difference does it make who’s a Greek and who isn’t, who has been trained in Virtue’s ways and who hasn’t? As it turns out, it makes a lot of difference–but not the difference so many have assumed. First, there’s the matter of being put in charge of writing down and caring for Virtue’s revelation, these teachings. So, what if, in the course of doing that, some of those Greeks abandoned their post? Virtue didn’t abandon them. Do you think their faithlessness cancels out his faithfulness? Not on your life! Depend on it: Virtue keeps her word even when the whole world is lying through its teeth. Hesiod says the same: “The eye of Zeus seeing all things and regarding all also sees these things if he wants, nor does it escape from him what sort of justice a city works within.” But if our wrongdoing only underlines and confirms Virtue’s rightdoing, shouldn’t we be commended for helping out? Since our bad words don’t even make a dent in her good words, isn’t it wrong of Virtue to back us to the wall and hold us to our word? These questions come up. The answer to such questions is no, a most emphatic No! How else would things ever get straightened out if Virtue didn’t do the straightening? It’s simply perverse to say, “If my lies serve to show off Virtue’s truth all the more gloriously, why blame me? I’m doing Virtue a favor.” Critics are actually trying to put such words in our mouths, claiming that we go around saying, “The more evil we do, the more good Virtue does, so let’s just do it!” That’s pure slander, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
So where does that put us? Do we Greeks get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as doers of Vice. Hesiod leaves no doubt about it: “One man will sack another’s city. No appreciation will exist for the man who keeps his oath or for the just man or the good man, but they will honor the doer of wrong and the embodiment of violence. Justice and shame will lie in violence, and the evil man will harm the better by speaking with crooked words, and he will swear an oath to it. Envy that incites commotion and rejoices in others’ misfortunes will accompany men, every wretched one of them, Envy hateful to look at. Then to Olympus away from wide-wayed earth, veiled in robes of white over their beautiful skin, will go Shame and Nemesis, abandoning men for the throng of immortals. Grievous pains will be left for mortal men, and there will be no defense against evil.” They never give Virtue the time of day. This makes it clear, doesn’t it, that whatever is written in these teachings is not what Virtue says about others but to us to whom these teachings were addressed in the first place! And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re doers of Vice, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else? Our involvement with Virtue’s revelation doesn’t put us right with Virtue. What it does is force us to face our complicity in everyone else’s Vice. But in our time something new has been added.
What Socrates and the philosophers witnessed to all those years has happened. The Zeus-setting-things-right that we read about has become Virtue-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in Virtue. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as doers of vice (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives Zeus wills for us, Virtue did it for us. Out of sheer generosity she put us in right standing with herself. A pure gift. she got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And she did it by means of the philosopher. Zeus sacrificed Virtue on the altar of the world to clear that world of Vice. Having faith in her sets us in the clear. The heavens decided on this course of action in full view of the public–to set the world in the clear with themselves through the sacrifice of Virtue, finally taking care of the Vice he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it’s now–this is current history! Zeus sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness. So where does that leave our proud Greek insider claims and counterclaims? Canceled? Yes, canceled. What we’ve learned is this: Zeus does not respond to what we do; we respond to what Zeus does. We’ve finally figured it out. Our lives get in step with Virtue and all others by letting her set the pace, not by proudly or anxiously trying to run the parade. And where does that leave our proud Greek claim of having a corner on Virtue? Also canceled. Zeus is the God of outsider non-Greek as well as insider Greek. How could it be otherwise since there is only one Zeus? Virtue sets right all who welcome her action and enter into it, both those who follow our philosophy and those who have never heard of our philosophy. But by shifting our focus from what we do to what Zeus does, don’t we cancel out all our careful keeping of the rules and ways Virtue commands? Not at all. What happens, in fact, is that by putting that entire way of life in its proper place, we confirm it. – Romans 3 (ESV. translation where not edited.)
“Listen, then, Socrates, to us who have brought you up. Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below. For neither will you nor any that belong to you be happier or holier or juster in this life, or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids. Now you depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will receive you as an enemy; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us. Listen, then, to us and not to Crito.” Crito, By Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett
You princes, mark well this punishment you also; for the deathless gods are near among men and mark all those who oppress their fellows with crooked judgments, and reck not the anger of the gods. For upon the bounteous earth Zeus has thrice ten thousand spirits, watchers of mortal men, and these keep watch on judgments and deeds of wrong as they roam, clothed in mist, all over the earth. And there is virgin Justice, the daughter of Zeus, who is honored and reverenced among the gods who dwell on Olympus, and whenever anyone hurts her with lying slander, she sits beside her father, Zeus the son of Cronos, and tells him of men’s wicked heart, until the people pay for the mad folly of their princes who, evilly minded, pervert judgement and give sentence crookedly. Keep watch against this, you princes, and make straight your judgments, you who devour bribes; put crooked judgements altogether from your thoughts. He does mischief to himself who does mischief to another, and evil planned harms the plotter most. The eye of Zeus, seeing all and understanding all, beholds these things too, if so he will, and fails not to mark what sort of justice is this that the city keeps within it. Now, therefore, may neither I myself be righteous among men, nor my son — for then it is a bad thing to be righteous — if indeed the unrighteous shall have the greater right. But I think that all-wise Zeus will not yet bring that to pass. – Hesiod Works and Days. Lines 248-273, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White
“Wherefore, Simmias, seeing all these things, what ought not we to do in order to obtain virtue and wisdom in this life? Fair is the prize, and the hope great. I do not mean to affirm that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true-a man of sense ought hardly to say that. But I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true. The venture is a glorious one, and he ought to comfort himself with words like these, which is the reason why lengthen out the tale. Wherefore, I say, let a man be of good cheer about his soul, who has cast away the pleasures and ornaments of the body as alien to him, and rather hurtful in their effects, and has followed after the pleasures of knowledge in this life; who has adorned the soul in her own proper jewels, which are temperance, and justice, and courage, and nobility, and truth-in these arrayed she is ready to go on her journey to the world below, when her time comes. You, Simmias and Cebes, and all other men, will depart at some time or other. Me already, as the tragic poet would say, the voice of fate calls. Soon I must drink the poison; and I think that I had better repair to the bath first, in order that the women may not have the trouble of washing my body after I am dead.” – Socrates, Phaedo. by Plato.