The Longest OT Quotation in Paul, Pt. 2: Poetic Structure

As promised, here is my form analysis of Paul’s catena in Romans 3:10-18. Most of the material here is drawn from a paper I did for Dr. Benjamin Simpson in his Romans Exegesis course at Dallas Theological Seminary in the Summer of 2019.

The Greek is layed out in lines, with repeated words or related terms in bold, notable assonance is underlined, and proposed rhymes are matched by color.

καθὼς γέγραπται ὅτι:

Οὐκ ἔστιν δίκαιος οὐδὲ εἷς,
οὐκ ἔστιν ὁ συνίων,
οὐκ ἔστινἐκζητῶν τὸν θεόν.
πάντες ἐξέκλιναν
ἅμα ἠχρεώθησαν·
οὐκ ἔστιν ὁ ποιῶν χρηστότητα,
[οὐκ ἔστιν] ἕως ἑνός.

τάφος ἀνεῳγμένος ὁ λάρυγξ αὐτῶν,
ταῖς γλώσσαις αὐτῶν ἐδολιοῦσαν,
ἰὸς ἀσπίδων ὑπὸ τὰ χείλη αὐτῶν·
ὧν τὸ στόμα ἀρᾶς καὶ πικρίας γέμει,

ὀξεῖς οἱ πόδες αὐτῶν ἐκχέαι αἷμα,
σύντριμμα καὶ ταλαιπωρία (ἐστίν) ἐν ταῖς ὁδοῖς αὐτῶν,
καὶ ὁδὸν εἰρήνης οὐκ ἔγνωσαν.
οὐκ ἔστιν φόβος θεοῦ ἀπέναντι τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν αὐτῶν.

My English translation is an attempt to draw out some of the poetic elements of the Greek while also rendering the passage in poetic English.

For it is written:

No one is righteous.
No one understands.
No one seeks God.
Everyone turns away,
Each one made worthless.
No one does kindness.
No one.

Tapped tombs are their throats.
Their tongues deceive.
Viper venom is on their lips.
Their mouths are full
of curses and bitterness.

Their feet are swift to shed blood.
In their path is ruin and misery;
The path of peace they know not.
Before their eyes there is no fear of God.

Here, Paul strings together a sophisticated, structured chain of quotations from the Hebrew scriptures. Several scholars argue that this chain of citations is a pre-Pauline structure, perhaps a Jewish or Jewish Christian testimonia or florilegium (Fitzmyer 333-34; Longenecker 334-36, 354-58). Scholars cite Psalm of Solomon 17:15, 19 (Jewett 259), the Damascus Document 5:13-17, and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho 27 as parallels (Thielman 181).  However, if Paul did not compose this ad hoc, then there is no reason to doubt Pauline composition of these verses for the present context (Thielman 181; cf Kruse 165-66), while also recognizing the significance of the poetic composition in these verses (see especially Seifrid[1] 616-17).

The basic structure of the passage follows the pattern of the ten commandments (cf. Exod 20) and the Great Commandment of Jesus (cf. Matt 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31) by moving from a relationship before God (Rom 9:10b-12) to relationships with people (vv 13-17) and then concluding with a restatement of people’s relationship to God (v 18). The first section gains structure from the repetition of οὐκ ἔστιν which occurs at the beginning of five of the seven lines in verses 10b through 12. The second section is characterized by body parts (throat, tongue, mouth, lips, feet, eyes), and has parallel structure, chiastic structure, and a rhyme scheme (cf. Seifrid 616-17). The first, third, sixth, and eighth lines end in αὐτῶν (vv 13a, c, 16, 18), the central lines (vv 14-15) each end with a suffix with μ, and the second and seventh lines end in -σαν (vv 13b, 17). These differing structures for each section of the catena demonstrate that Paul is not only arguing that people have turned away from God theoretically, but also emphasizing their demonstration of this in their relationships to other people.

Paul primarily uses passages from the Psalms[2], quoting the Septuagint translation of Psalm 13:1-3, 5:10, 139:4, 9:28 (10:7 MT), before quoting Isaiah 59:7-8, and finally ending with the second half of Psalm 35:2. While the initial passages originally referred to the Gentile nations, Isaiah and Psalm 35:2 (MT 36:1) refer directly to Israel and people under the law. So it seems that Paul draws a picture from the lesser to the greater: the Gentile nations turn away from and do not seek after God, but the Jewish people have proven just as guilty according to their own law. Therefore, “no one does what is right before God” (10-12).

While there is no clear meter to this passage, as would have been common in Greco-Roman poetry, there are significant poetic conventions in play. Since Paul is primarily quoting psalms and was himself a Jew, it would make sense that he uses a semitic, psalm-like structure less focused on strict and consistent meter. The interesting thing about the catena is that it does have clear Greco-Roman poetic features in addition to parallelism and repeated words and phrases. Recognizing that my analysis is tentative, it seems like there is an obvious rhyme scheme that follows the parallelism in the second section (ABACCABA; vv 13-18), especially in light of the fact that Paul altered one of the passages to fit this scheme. In a later post I will explore in more depth the specific ways in which Paul works each of these quotations into this catena.

Hopefully you find this useful and interesting! I am intrigued to know if anyone more skilled in scansion can find any significant meter in these lines. Greek scansion is a skill I have yet to pursue in depth and develop to proficiency, so I would appreciate any feedback on this analysis and insights into the meter of the passage.

[1] Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 607-93.

[2] Longenecker takes this as evidence that this is a pre-Pauline composition, since Paul most often quotes from the Pentateuch and the prophets (334-36).

The Longest Old Testament Quotation in Paul

In Romans 3:10-18, Paul brings out the longest string of quotations from the Hebrew scriptures of anywhere else in his letters. Here are the facts: this passage is nine verses long and quotes six passages without breaking (cf Rom 15:9-12). There are at least five psalms quoted (Pss 14:1-3, 5:10, 140:4, 10:7, and 36:1) and one passage from Isaiah (Is 59:7-8), and almost all are quoted directly from the Septuagint – with a few important exceptions. The whole string of passages deals with humankind’s turning away from God and harming of other people. It has been understood alternately as either supporting evidence for Paul’s argument that all humanity is unrighteous or an indictment of unrighteousness against all humanity.

However we look at this passage it can be described as a catena or “chain,” linking several passages of scripture together as part of an argument or liturgical work. Rabbi’s apparently called similar practices “pearl-stringing” (Moo, Romans, 210), and several Jewish and early Christian followed a similar practice. The more broad term was Florilegia – “a collection of excepts from prior writings; an anthology fr. Lat. ‘a gathering of flowers'” (DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek, 57).  This term has been applied to several of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QFlor, 4QTest), and can be applied to early church writings called catena commentaries which strung commentary from the church fathers allongside the biblical text (DeMoss, 28-29).

Some have gone further and asserted that Paul is here quoting a prior-composed early Christian hymn (Keck, Käsemann) or synagogue liturgy (Schmithals). These scholars have noted the highly structured language and the key junctures at which the quotations differ from their Septuagint reading in order to conjoin euphonously. Thus, they argue that this was previously composed material, similar to other New Testament hymnic or creedal material (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1-11; Phil 3:5-11; Col 1:15-20 among others).

Others, while recognizing the well-composed aspect of the passage, argue that Paul himself may have composed these quotations poetically, possibly for the very occasion of writing this passage to the Romans (Longenecker, Koch, Stanley). While many have expressed frustration with the varied and sometimes haphazard attempts at identifying “traditional” material in Paul, recognizing Paul himself as an option for the origin of some of these prior-composed materials may provide several fruitful avenues of exploration (see the discussion of this in other New Testament passages in Gordley, New Testament Hymns).

Either way, it is helpful to recognize the compositional choices made in these verses. Even if Paul used a prior tradition, he clearly chose the material carefully – or adjusted it himself – to clearly articulate his argument. In a couple of future posts I plan to share my analysis of these structural components.

To be continued…