Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Paul and the End of the World: Reflections on Romans 15:19

Ever since hearing Robert Jewett give an illustrated presentation on "Paul's Mission in the Light of Ancient Maps," I have been intrigued by the idea that Paul's "missionary methods" were driven by his eschatology--by his conviction that spreading the Gospel would speed the parousia.

Jewett bases his interpretation on the Peutinger Map (pictured above), a medieval copy of a much earlier Roman map, that may have been based originally on a 1st century BCE original. According to Livius.org, "The eleven sheets of parchment have a total length of 680 cm and are just over 33 cm high." The twelth sheet is missing, but most likely included the Iberian peninsula. On the eastern end, the map extended as far as India; the city of Rome was at the center of the world. (See here and here for more details).

With a height of 33 cm, the map is not to scale: Jewett observes that "Palestine is depicted as a strip of land with sea at the top and bottom, with the Jordan River system flowing horizontally and Jerusalem located above the Dead Sea" (Romans [Hermeneia; Fortress, 2007], 913 n. 112). But Jewett appears to suppose that rather than being a schematic subway-like map (so Livius), the map conveys an ancient view of the world--one that Romans 15:19 indicates that Paul shared:
“With this geographic framework, it is not at all mysterious that Paul would have thought of Illyricum as lying on a circle from Jerusalem, and that Illyricum was the closest point he had reached on the route to Rome. His framework is not chronological but, given his worldview, geographic—and eschatological, for the early Christian mission aimed at completing the circle around the known world centered in the Mediterranean, before the parousia" (Jewett, Romans, 913, citing Knox and Barrett for the relatively common suggestion about mission and the parousia).
James M. Scott has apparently argued similarly that Paul (1) viewed Jerusalem as the center of the world much like other Jews (cf. Ezek 5:5; Acts 2:5-13) and (2) that Paul's Gentile mission strategy was informed by the list of nations in Genesis 10. "Scott . . . suggests that Paul particularly longed to go to Spain because it was the last of the sons of Japheth who needed to be included for the fullness of the Gentiles to come in (Rom. 11:25)" (Schreiner, Romans [Baker, 1998], 769 summarizing Scott).

Moo responds to an earlier version of Jewett's model (defended by scholars such as Barrett and Dunn) by arguing that Paul's reference to "fulfilling the Gospel" in Romans 15:19 is merely a statement of good mission strategy rather than the fulfilment of an eschatological hope: "That Paul saw himself as a significant figure in salvation history, with a central role in the Gentile mission, is clear; but that he thought his own efforts would bring that mission to its conclusion is not clear at all" (Moo, Romans [Eerdmans: 1996], 893-4]).  

I am wondering about a third mediating possibility:
  1. Despite other passages, such as Col 1:24-29 and 2 Peter 3:9-12, I am not (yet) convinced by the argument that early Christians believed their work in spreading the Gospel would hasten the Day of the Lord, and that this urgency and sense of imminence motivated Paul's mission activity. 
  2. But what if Paul thought the coming in of the Gentiles signaled that the end had already begun? According to Tom Schreiner, "it is likely that the language used here reflects prophecies from the OT where the 'word of the Lord' has its inception in Jerusalem (Isa. 2:1-4; Mic. 4:1-4), and the Gentiles stream there to hear God's torah. Paul probably saw this prophecy fulfilled in his ministry" (Romans, 769). With Scott, Paul may have combined passages such as Isa 2:1-4 with the table of nations in Genesis 10.
On this reading, Paul is not hastening the day, he is living in it...while still anticipating its final fulfilment.

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