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…