St Paul’s Letter to the Romans: The ‘real Jew’. 2:25-29 and 3:1-2
Posted on May 20th 2012 in St. Paul's Letters
St Paul continues his critique of those Jews who claimed that the Law with its physical manifestation of circumcision does not protect them from God’s wrath, nor does it stop them from acting contrary to the Law. Once again St Paul raises the question of those who follow the Law but are not themselves circumcised. Their virtuous conduct turns the immorality of the Jew into a scandal, since the knowledge of the Law should have been sufficient to direct their actions. It also turns on the head the common assumption of the time that the virtuous of Israel would judge the gentile nations at the final judgement. This form of religious hypocrisy is a real problem that exists today, when the virtuous lives of non-Christians draw attention to the misconduct of those who claim to know and preach about the love of God.
This inevitable gap between the precepts of the Law and the conduct of its adherents makes St Paul argue that the real Jew, as recipient of God’s word, is one who is circumcised on the heart, and not just physically. St Paul makes the distinction between the letter of the law and the spirit, and its consequences will be a constant theme that runs through this Letter. The emphasis on the spirit, and the interiority of the heart, will make God rather than man the true judge of action and motivation, since only God can see into the depths of the human soul. There is an allusion here to the new covenant prophesised by Jeremiah when God would write a new covenant on the heart. St Paul is gradually bringing his audience to reject the fallible man-made security of circumcision and to accept that salvation is a free gift through Jesus Christ.
This critique of circumcision might make his readers believe that being Jewish counts for nothing, but this would not be accurate. The Jewish people were given God’s message, and their historic insistence on monotheism made them different from the surrounding nations. They were made aware of the designs of God, which was something that could only be glimpsed very vaguely through the use of human reason alone. Such a critique would also involve giving God the all too human qualities of dissimulation. The promises of God cannot be revoked and therefore He is forever faithful.