The Epistle to the Romans is Art! It is many things: a letter, pastoral care, deep theological truths, Apostolic witness, God’s revealing love…; yet, this content is all weaved together into a masterful piece of literature. God has given His beautiful Word to the Church, through the medium of beautiful whispers.
Paul,a master rhetorician, uses many tools when composing Romans; one of these is Diatribe. Diatribe is a rhetorical technique where one creates a dialog with with a fictitious opponent. In this dialog, there is a back and forth questioning between the two people. This rhetorical technique is advantageous because it highlights the strengths of one person’s views and the weakness of the others.
This is significant because Paul begins using this technique in Romans 2.1-4 when he states,
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things. Do you suppose, O man–you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself–that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
As we can see, Paul goes on the offensive as he attacks his opponent(s); but, who is his opposition? Are they legalistic Christians or Pagans? I think Paul gives us some clues. Firstly, he attacks his opponent by vocatively addressing him as “O man” (ἄνθρωπε). In my opinion, he ties his opponent to the greater HUMANity that has been fallen since the beginning. This fallen humanity is specifically mentioned in Romans 1.18-32.
Although Paul’s opponent is certainly part of the greater humanity, I do think he has something more specific in mind. In 2.17 he states, “What about you? You call yourself a Jew; you depend on the Law and boast about God…” His “adversary” is a Jew. This point is pertinent to one trying to understand Paul’s presentation of the Gospel in Romans. The Gospel that he is giving to the Gentile Roman church (1.13) is not a situationless truth; rather, it is a polemic against a contemporary Judaic world view. The question being answered in Romans is not, “what is the gospel?” Instead, the question is “how does Paul’s gospel trump the Judaic belief system?”
With this in mind, I hope to show how Paul uses Diatribe to demonstate the importance of justification.