A Note on Nanos and Romans

Paul has long posed a problem for New Testament scholars. For nearly fifty years, they have produced a series of “new perspectives” on Paul designed to show that Paul didn’t contradict himself or say vile things about Judaism. Mark Nanos has produced one of the newest of these perspectives. Not only does he try to eliminate Paul’s contradictions, he tries to show that Paul was always a pious, observant Jew. The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s letter, published in 1996, was his central work. He keeps referring back to it as “proving” various matters, though without restating any of the “proofs.” It is his secret sauce. I want to air a few of its secrets.

Thou Shalt not Compare

The key to Mr. Nano’s method of dealing with Paul’s contradictions is to eliminate comparisons between Paul’s letters. If you can’t compare Paul’s statements, you can’t identify any contradictions. Actually, this isn’t entirely true, as Paul manages to contradict himself within the same letter surprisingly often. But this technique eliminates a boatload of contradictions, allowing you to use other techniques to mop up the remainder. Nanos and other New Testament scholars are particularly adept at pretending they aren’t there and simply ignoring them.

On page 27 Nanos declares, “Every effort will be made to read Romans and make interpretive judgments with as little reference to Paul’s other New Testament letters as possible, since we should assume they were unknown (or at least unavailable) to the audience in Rome based on our current information.”

On page 29 he provides an example: “the historical situation addressed in Romans should be approached in a vastly different light than it has been in the past. For example, the message derived from Paul’s letter to Galatia should not be allowed, as it has so often in the past, to dictate the probable interpretation of Paul’s intentions toward Rome.” Although it is natural to compare Romans to Galatians, as virtually all commentators have done, Nanos declares it a grave error.

Do Not Practice What You Preach

After repeatedly telling us it is invalid to introduce material from other Pauline letters when interpreting Romans, Mr. Nanos proceeded to violate his own commandment. His book contains an index of scriptural citations. This highlights his discrepancy between practice and preaching, and also makes it easy to quantify. Mr. Nanos doesn’t only make this “grave mistake” once or twice. Over 200 times, he cites another Pauline (or pseudo-Pauline) letter in his commentary on Romans. And while he specifically denounces comparisons with Galatians, he himself refers to this letter over 100 times.

In fairness, it should be noted that Mr. Nanos has a special section comparing Romans and Galatians. Some of his citations are from this chapter. While I didn’t attempt to count them, I am pretty sure they are a distinct minority. But Mr. Nanos did not have a special section on Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, yet he cited it over 60 times. Mr. Nanos grants himself a special dispensation to cite forbidden letters. Unlike some who might find problems, Mr. Nanos only finds (purported) cherries. His practice of cherry picking and cherry production has won him a considerable following among Pauline scholars.

Mr. Nanos runs roughshod over his own special commandments and principles. If he violates his own principles in such a fashion, you can imagine what he does to traditional rules of rational discourse.

Say What?

Recall the reasoning behind Nanos’ prohibition of external citations: “Every effort will be made to read Romans and make interpretive judgments with as little reference to Paul’s other New Testament letters as possible, since we should assume they were unknown (or at least unavailable) to the audience in Rome based on our current information.”

Nanos declares that in trying to interpret Romans, we must exclude other Pauline writings because the Romans might not have had them. But we are trying to determine what Paul had in mind. Mr. Nanos apparently believes we are trying to interpret how Paul’s Roman audience interpreted his letter, which is a very different matter. Not only would this involve their knowledge of Paul’s other letters, it would involve their knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, the Jesus-movement, their intelligence, and a host of other factors, including how quickly they stopped paying attention to the reading of the letter. Furthermore, it would require some way of aggregating over various members of that audience, a process which is poorly defined.


Mr. Nanos invented a totally bullshit excuse to prohibit references to other Pauline letters, thereby eliminating contradictions involving those letters. Nanos implicitly claimed that commentators on Romans were not trying to understand what Paul said, but rather how the Romans understood what he said. Try applying that principle to the works of James Joyce. Or to any of the books of the Bible. That is never the goal of interpretation, which strongly suggests that this inanity was not accidental.

Furthermore, after propounding and reiterating this principle. Mr. Nanos proceeded to violate it on roughly every other page. This central failure was accompanied by many peripheral failures as well. But his audience of Pauline scholars never noticed a thing. They were delighted with his conclusion that Paul was free of all blemishes, and praised his efforts. The main criterion used to evaluate scholarly books on Paul is their success in glorifying the sainted apostle. You get bonus points if you manage to sound sort of like a scholar in the process.


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