Staff Review

Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire

Scot McKnight (Baylor University Press, 2019)
McKnight offers a lively, contextual reading of the book, painting a picture throughout of the letter’s esteemed bearer, Phoebe, as she reads and interprets the letter aloud to the various house churches in Rome.

When I first heard of the title of Scot McKnight’s (then) forthcoming book, Reading Romans Backwards, I immediately thought of the terrific little book by Richard Hays, Reading Backwards (also published by Baylor, 2016). I mistakenly assumed that Scot would take Richard’s ‘figural reading’ approach and apply it to Paul’s letter to the Romans. What he has done is something quite different instead offering his own unique take on reading Paul’s most famous letter.

In Reading Romans Backwards, McKnight encourages us to begin with the end of Romans in mind in order to offer a fresh exegesis of the highly trodden roads of the rest of the letter, particularly chapter 1–8. Reading Romans Backwards is a “hermeneutical tool that keeps the pastoral and ecclesial concerns close at hand” (59). McKnight offers a lively, contextual reading of the book, painting picture throughout of the letter’s esteemed bearer, Phoebe, as she reads and interprets the letter aloud to the various house churches in Rome.

The book works its way backwards through Romans, first moving through chapters 12–16, 9–11, 1–4 and finally, 5–8. Central to the letter, according to McKnight, are Paul’s concerns for the “Strong” and the “Weak”, two groups defined by their relation to Torah. “From beginning to end of this letter, or from End to Beginning, the letter deconstructs Privilege and Power and replaces with peace” (xiv) The emphasis throughout the book is in on the “lived theology” of chapters 12–16, what McKnight calls “Christoformity.”

Like everything Scot writes, his central concern is for the church. He keeps endnotes to a minimum, and the book is just 181 pages (excluding the notes and index). His unique hermeneutical approach is fruitful, and one is left wondering what insights we might gain if we approached some of Paul’s other letters with this reading strategy in mind? Reading Romans Backwards will help to dislodge the current conversation about the book of Romans, and to facilitate discussion on the communal implications and demands of such a letter.