For our discussion this week we were instructed to look at Romans 3:31 and discuss what Paul meant by “we uphold the law.” It seems that throughout Romans Paul is anticipating pushback from his Jewish audience about their “chosen-ness.” Romans 3 begins with a question of what the “advantage” of a Jew even is in light of their newfound faith in Christ, which goes to show Paul knew what he was writing would threaten the privileged status of the Jewish community. Sanders and Thielman were our guides in this week’s discussion.

In his discussion of the preceding verses to 3:31, Sanders notes “that the term ‘boasting’ in Rom. 3:27 picks up the same term in 2:17, 23.”[1] In those verses, “boasting” is an “assumption of special status on the part of the Jews.” Discussing the same verses, Thielman says, “Paul criticizes the Jew who relies on and boasts in the law, but the reliance and boast of which he speaks are in the possession of the law, not in its observance.”[2] So, then, Paul seems to have been addressing Jews who felt their privileged status (not by anything they’ve done, but by what they possess) being lessened by “this faith,” as he says in Rom. 3:31.

If Romans 2 is likening the Gentile “law” to the Jewish law – in the sense of practice, rather than knowledge of – and Romans 3 shifts to the “advantage” of a Jew, then it seems Paul is, overall, readjusting the Jewish role in this newfound Christian faith: It isn’t to convert all the Gentiles to Judaism (as is indicated by being so adamantly against circumcision and separation at the dinner table in Galatians), but rather to teach the Gentiles of what it means to “love one’s neighbor.”

Of course, I’m borrowing from Thielman’s discussion:

“If possession of the law gives the Jew no advantage over the Gentile on the day of judgment, as Paul has argued in chapter 2, then what is the value of the Jews’ supposed election? Paul replies that the benefit of being a Jew is great, despite what he has said previously. The reason for this is that the Jews have been entrusted with the ‘oracles of God.’ They possess, in other words, ‘form of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ (2:20) and therefore, as 2:17-20 says, have an advantage over Gentiles in knowing God’s will. Gentiles may possess some intuition of God’s requirements and so have an elementary understanding of the law in themselves, but the Jews’ possession of the law is so great an advantage that they can instruct the Gentiles in the knowledge of God.”[3]

With Paul’s likening of the Gentile to the Jew in 3:29 and his dismissal of “boasting” in 3:27, it then seems that 3:31 is a capstone to his argument for equality between Jew and Gentile; “[upholding] the law” is only possible after equality is established.[4] If Jew and Gentile are equal, then the “advantage” Paul refers to in 3:1, as Thielman explains, then becomes about what they are to do: teach the Gentiles “in the knowledge of God.” It seems to me that Paul redefines the Jewish possession of the law not as a point for a privileged status, but rather for a role of responsibility – to teach the law to the Gentiles who do not have it.

What do you think Paul means in Romans 3:31 in light of what’s discussed here? Is there another part of Romans 3 that you think is crucial for understanding Paul in 3:31?

[1] E.P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Fortress Press, 1983), 33.

[2] Frank Thielman, Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach, (InterVarsity Press, 1994), 179.

[3] Thielman, 175

[4] I mean “capstone” in the sense of establishing equality; not an end-all to the discussion. Paul continually emphasizes this equality throughout Romans.