Romans 3.10-18: A Midrash

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What did Paul mean when he made the statements that there is “none who seeks after God,” or that man’s “throat is an open tomb”? (Rom. 3.10-18) The majority of Calvinists are convinced that Paul was speaking about the spiritual condition of each and every human being ever to be born. One is left with the impression that humans are, at the least, repugnant in the nostrils of God, and at worst, as bad as demons. Is this an accurate portrayal of God’s attitude towards His creatures? Was Paul trying to convey how disgusted God is with people at Romans 3.10-18?

At Romans 3.1, Paul asked, “What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision?” His letter to the Romans included both Jews and Gentiles. He summed up chapter two by exposing hypocrisy: no one, Jew or Gentile, is going to be excused for his or her sins. And circumcision does not guarantee a right standing with God.

That last statement begs the question: Then what is the advantage of circumcision, or of being a Jew? Paul answers, “Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3.2, NKJV, and henceforth). Paul would confess later on that to the Jew belongs “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen” (Rom. 9.4-5).

There is every advantage of being born a Jew, one of God’s chosen people. However, being Jewish does not guarantee a right standing with God. The Jew is, at this point, no better off than the Gentile. “For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin” (Rom. 3.9).

God had bestowed His blessings on the Jewish people, but that in no wise guarantees them entrance into heaven. Why? Because of sin. It is here, at Romans 3.10-18, where Paul takes some Old Testament passages of Scripture seemingly out of their natural contexts and applies them to all people in general. He does this to emphasize the fact that all have sinned, both Jew and Gentile, and all are deserving of God’s wrath. And we know that “God has committed them all [both Jew and Gentile] to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (Rom. 11.32).

This taking of Old Testament passages of Scripture out of their natural contexts is what is known in Rabbinic tradition as Midrash. Gary Porton notes, “Because the rabbis believed that they alone possessed both parts of revelation ~ the Written and the Oral Torah ~ they claimed that they were the only people who could follow the word of God completely and exactly: They alone knew all that God expected of human beings, they alone could follow the commandments correctly, they alone could practice the rituals in their minutest details, they alone knew the correct ways in which people should interact, and so on.”1

Knowing, however, that a person cannot be justified by proxy, what would the individual do who wanted to please God? If the rabbinic priest alone knew how to follow God, then the only way for people to learn the ways of God was through the Rabbi. Thus the Rabbi alone knew how to interpret God’s word. This is where the midrash comes into focus.

Jacob Neusner wrote, “Midrash defines the way that Judaism interprets Scripture. Its initial statement is contained in the Rabbinic Midrash, which is set forth by the canonical documents of the Rabbinic sages of the first six centuries of the common era . . . The root of the word Midrash is darash, which is used at Gen. 25.22. There Rebecca goes ‘to seek counsel of’ (liderosh) the Lord. In line with that generic usage, Midrash represents the effort to seek truth in Scripture: to address this morning’s question to ancient, enduring revelation.

“In more general terms: Midrash is the Hebrew word for interpretation, amplification, exegesis of a holy, revealed text: the written Torah. But the word, Midrash, bears several meanings. In current usage the word Midrash has three levels of meaning, as follows:

“(1) the process, that is, a particular way of reading and interpreting a verse of the Hebrew Scriptures;

“(2) the result of that process, thus a given verse and its interpretation;

“(3) the collection of the results of such a process, that is, the compilation of such interpretations, e.g., concerning a particular book of the Hebrew Scriptures or a particular theological theme . . .”2

At Romans 3.10-18, the apostle (Rabbi) Paul, had a theme: the universality sin. He then went in search of the Hebrew Scriptures to prove his point, and he found some of the harshest statements concerning sin found in the Bible. However, if one read each of those verses of Scripture in their natural contexts, he would find that it was confined and particular, not general, which is how Paul used those texts.

For example, his use of Ecclesiastes 7.20 at Romans 3.10 is not the entire verse, for it reads, “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin.” Paul left off the phrase “and does not sin” at Rom. 3.10. The point Solomon was making in Ecclesiastes was that there is no one on earth among mortals who is sinless, so be careful to live a balanced, godly life, not in self-rightesousness, but not in sin either. Paul’s purpose, however, was to emphasize that humans lack, and are in need of, God’s righteousness.

Paul also wrote that there is none “who seeks after God” (Rom. 3.11), quoting Psalm 14.1-3. Yet many have sought the Lord (Deut. 4.29; 12.5; 1Chron. 16.10, 11; 22.19; Ezra 4.2; 6.21; Job 5.8; Ps. 24.6; 27.8; 69.32; Zech. 8.21; Matt. 6.33; Acts 15.17; 17.27; Heb. 11.6), and the author of Hebrews wrote that God rewards those who diligently seek Him (Heb. 11.6).

There is no contradiction here. The Midrash allows for this interpretation of Romans 3.10-18; it is not meant to be taken literally of each and every human being. Even Calvinist Donald Grey Barnhouse noted the same when he wrote, “But we add that total depravity does not mean that there is no good in man, but that there is no good in man which can satisfy God . . . Now we must not think that this passage [Rom. 3.10-18] is accusing every member of the human race of having committed all of these individual sins. What it is teaching is that the roots of all sin are in all men.”3

Now that is a well-reasoned, balanced view of Paul’s midrash of Romans 3.10-18. Some Calvinists tend to portray mankind as demons and completely neglect the fact that though man’s nature has been tainted from the fall, humans are still created in the image of God.

1 Gary G. Porton, Understanding Rabbinic Midrash (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1985), 2-3.

2 Jacob Neusner, “Preface,” Judaism and the Interpretation of Scripture (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, LLC, 2004), vii-viii.

3 Donald Grey Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vol. I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952), 216-217.