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Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul?s Letter at Ground Level

Author: Peter Oakes
Published By: SPCK (London)
Pages: 194
Price: £14.99
ISBN: 978 0 281 05931 7

Reviewed by David Faulkner.

Romans has been a storm centre of scholarship in recent decades, with the rise of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ under Sanders, Dunn and others, and the recent debate between Wright and Piper on the meaning of justification. However, this book is different in its approach to interpreting the great epistle. Peter Oakes, a New Testament lecturer at Manchester, uses architectural evidence from Pompeii, followed by a mathematical model, to postulate what a typical house church hearing Romans might be like. Having established his theory in the first half of the book, he spends the second half largely looking at how they might hear the apostle’s message and what Paul might be saying specifically to their situation. He does this both in a broad analysis of the letter and in a detailed exposition of chapter 12.

As I read the book, I had two major questions about Oakes’ approach. First, why would architectural evidence from Pompeii be relevant to the situation in Rome? Second, was he justified in importing the description of modest Christian social status from 1 Corinthians into Romans? To the first question, he amends what he has gleaned from Pompeii to apply it to the circumstances in Rome. The second question is less directly addressed. I can imagine Oakes would argue that the same social circumstances would have prevailed in many cities under Roman rule, but I did not find the argument advanced in the book.

Whether New Testament scholarship will find his thesis convincing is something only time will tell, but the early signs are that scholars of divergent persuasions are impressed, from the conservative (Tom Wright) to the more liberal (David Horrell). If you have a particular interest in Romans or in the social world of the first Christians, this is well worth reading and putting on your shelf next to your commentaries on Romans.

David Faulkner

Methodist Minister, Chelmsford Circuit

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You are reading Issue 48 of Ministry Today, published in March 2010.

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