The "new perspective" on Romans 9:5
By Jeff Riddle
What is the issue?
The issue here is not so much on the text but on how the text should be punctuated and translated.
We can pick up on the differences by examining how Romans 9:5 is punctuated/translated in the KJV and the RSV:
Romans 9:5 (KJV): Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
Romans 9:5 (RSV): to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever.[a] Amen.
Footnote [a]: Or Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever
Here is the text without punctuation:
Romans 9:5 ων οι πατερες και εξ ων ο χριστος το κατα σαρκα ο ων επι παντων θεος ευλογητος εις τους αιωνας αμην
This is the same in W & H and in NA 28.
Here is the punctation in the TR and NA 28:
Romans 9:5 (TR): ων οι πατερες και εξ ων ο χριστος το κατα σαρκα, ο ων επι παντων, θεος ευλογητος εις τους αιωνας. Αμην.
Romans 9:5 (NA 28): ων οι πατερες και εξ ων ο χριστος το κατα σαρκα, ο ων επι παντων, θεος ευλογητος εις τους αιωνας, αμην.
There was, however, controversy from the late 19th through the mid-20th century over how the passage should be punctated/translated as a “new perspective” on the verse was introduced and promoted.
Metzger’s Textual Commentary (Corrected Ed., 1975) entry on Romans 9:5:
It begins with this partial segment:
σαρκα· ο ων επι παντων θεος ευλογητος εις τους αιωνας
The raised point (semi-colon) after sarka apparently appeared in the UBS third edition (1975). It was replaced by a comma in the UBS third corrected edition (1983).
In Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece (19th edition, 1949), there is also a raised point along with a punctuation note suggesting three possibilities: comma, raised point, and a period.
Metzger begins by noting that “the syntax and meaning” of Romans 9:5 has been the cause of “much discussion.” A footnote cites a difference in interpretation between Ezra Abbot (1881, 1883) and Sanday & Headlam Romans commentary (1896) [the latter defending the traditional view].
He then offers three “chief interpretations”:
(a) Comma after sarka. This would be the traditional view. It takes what follows as relating to ho christos.
(b) Placing a point (either a colon or a full stop) after sarka, and taking what follows as an clause independent of ho christos.
(c) Placing a comma after sarka and a point (either a colon or full stop) after pantōn.
He proceeds to note that the Church Fathers are unanimous in the traditional reading (a).
But he says this is of “minor significance,” because four uncials (A B C L) and at least 26 minuscules have a point after sarka, either by the first hand or by correctors.
Metzger does concede in a footnote that the presence of punctuation marks in early NT mss. Are “so sporadic and haphazard that one cannot infer with confidence the construction given by the punctuator of the passage” (521, n. 1).
Both the “patristic” and the “paleographical” evidence came after Paul’s original composition, so they are of “questionable authority” (521).
Metzger’s five reasons that a “minority” of the committee favored the traditional reading (a):
First: It fits “the structure of the sentence, whereas the interpretation that takes the words as an asyndetic [without a conjunction or coordination] doxology to God the Father is awkward and unnatural” (521).
Second: if the clause is an asyndetic doxology there would be no need for the participle ων.
Third: Pauline doxologies are never asyndetic.
Fourth: Asyndetic doxologies in the Bible and other semitic literature are constructed differently. They always have a verb or verbal adjective preceding the name of God.
Fifth: In light of context, he says, there is no “psychological explanation” for the appearance of a doxology here (522).
Metzger’s defense of the majority of the committee in favor of (b) or (c):
He says the five reasons noted above are not “decisive” “particularly since nowhere else in his genuine epistles does Paul ever designate ho christos as theos” (522).
Note: To reach this conclusion, Metzger must argue that Titus 2:13 (Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ”) “is generally regarded as deutero-Pauline” (522, n. 6).
He also has to disregard Philippians 2:5-6’s statement that “Christ Jesus” (v. 5) did not consider it robbery to be “equal with God.”
He does not even bother to address 1 Timothy 3:16 “God was manifest in the flesh.”
Nor does he bother to address the significance of the “Jesus is Lord” confession in Paul (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:11).
Instead, Metzger makes this striking statement: “In fact, on the basis of the general tenor of his theology it was considered tantamount to impossible that Paul would have expressed Christ’s greatness by calling him God blessed forever” (522).
So, the primary reason that Metzger provides for the majority finding is that they did not think it plausible that Paul would have referred to Jesus Christ as God.
Comparing other translations:
The RSV reading was also picked up on in several translations from the 1960s:
TEV (Good News Bible, 1966): they are descended from the famous Hebrew ancestors; and Christ, as a human being, belongs to their race. May God, who rules over all, be praised forever! Amen.
NLV (New Life Version, by Gleason and Kathryn Ledyard, NT, 1969): The early preachers came from this family. Christ Himself was born of flesh from this family and He is over all things. May God be honored and thanked forever. Let it be so.
It seems that the popularity of the “new perspective” on Romans 9:5 began to wane by the late 20th century.
The NA Greek NT, at least from the 26th edition (1979), changed the semi-colon after sarka to a comma.
The UBS third corrected edition (1983) followed suit.
The NRSV (1989; Updated edition, 2021) changed the main text: to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever.[a] Amen.
With the marginal reading: Or Messiah, who is God over all, blessed forever; or Messiah. May he who is God over all be blessed forever
And yet it also persists in several contemporary versions, even evangelical ones:
NIV (1984) main text: Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised![a] Amen.
But margin: Or Christ, who is over all. God be forever praised! Or Christ. God who is over all be forever praised!
(Note: This is also the reading in the 2011 revision, the only change being that “Christ” is translated as “Messiah”).
CEV (NT, 1991): They have those famous ancestors, who were also the ancestors of the Christ. I pray that God, who rules over all, will be praised forever! Amen.
The NWT of the JWs embraces the “new perspective” on Romans 9:5!:
NWT: To them the forefathers belong, and from them the Christ descended according to the flesh. God, who is over all, be praised forever. Amen.
The patristic and early translation tradition never had any confusion about Romans 9:5 affirming that Christ is God.
Only in the nineteenth century under the influence of unitarian impulses in modern criticism was the traditional rendering challenged. Metzger’s statement in his commentary is striking:
“In fact, on the basis of the general tenor of his theology it was considered tantamount to impossible that Paul would have expressed Christ’s greatness by calling him God blessed forever” (522).
One might look at the effort to alter the reading at Romans 9:5 as a failure given its decline in popularity, and yet it persists in some translations and their marginal readings.
A recent comment to my youtube channel began, “Why is it that some, if not most, of these textual variants deal with lowering or tampering with the majestic Person and Work of Christ?”
The answer it that textual criticism is not a-theological. It is not doctrinally neutral. Romans 9:5 is a great example of this.
If the text of the Bible is subject to the whims of the academy it will continue to be vulnerable to “new perspectives” such as that foisted upon Romans 9:5.