Paul’s Use of Prosopopoeia in his Epistle to the Romans

Painting by Rembrandt of Paul, one of the most...
Painting by Rembrandt of Paul, one of the most notable of early Christian missionaries, who called himself the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul, a Hellenistic Jew, was very influential on the shift of Christianity to Gentile dominated movement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Previously, I posted Quintilian’s boundaries for the use of prosopopoeia, a literary device that allows a speaker to create a fictional dialogue partner. It has been long recognized that Paul employs such a method in Romans 2-4 in dealing with Jewish resentment to Gentile salvation. We will examine Romans 2-3 (chapter 4 is continued from chapter 3 directly and only in Paul’s speech) in light of prosopopoeia as well as move into forgotten episode of Paul’s use of this which I hope to cast in a different light. (While I am sure that this is old work to many, it is new to me.)

I note that Paul was writing to the Church in Rome, which would have had accesses to the numerous philosophical, rhetorical, and oratory schools which abounded in the city. As Christians left these places for the Church, they would have brought their knowledge of these highly refined skills for use in the local congregation. With Paul being a supremely educated Roman citizen, he too would have known of these skills, at least in part. Paul could have used prosopopoeia as a rhetorical device to communicate a lot of information to his audience and use a relatively short space in doing so.

I will use two translations, the New Living Translation and the New American Standard Version. I will separate the NLT according to how I perceive the conversation, and allow the NASB to remain in tact. I have named the Apostle’s dialogue partner Saul:

New Living TranslationNew American Standard Version
Chapter 2Paul: “You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things.2 And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things.3 Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things?

4 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

5 But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

6 He will judge everyone according to what they have done.

7 He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers.

8 But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness.

9 There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil– for the Jew first and also for the Gentile.

10 But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good– for the Jew first and also for the Gentile.

11 For God does not show favoritism.

12 When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it.

13 For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight.

14 Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it.

15 They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.

16 And this is the message I proclaim– that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life.

17 You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him.

18 You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law.

19 You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness.

20 You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.

21 Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal?

22 You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples?

23 You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it.

24 No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.”

25 The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile.

26 And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people?

27 In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.

28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision.

29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.

Chapter 3

Saul: Then what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Is there any value in the ceremony of circumcision?

Paul: Yes, there are great benefits! First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the whole revelation of God.

Saul: True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful?

Paul: Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him, “You will be proved right in what you say, and you will win your case in court.”

Saul: “But,” some might say, “our sinfulness serves a good purpose, for it helps people see how righteous God is. Isn’t it unfair, then, for him to punish us?” (This is merely a human point of view.)

Paul: Of course not! If God were not entirely fair, how would he be qualified to judge the world?


Saul: “But,” someone might still argue, “how can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?”


And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, “The more we sin, the better it is!” Those who say such things deserve to be condemned. Well then, should we conclude that we Jews are better than others?

Paul: No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin.


As the Scriptures say, “No one is righteous– not even one.


No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God.


All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.”


“Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave. Their tongues are filled with lies.” “Snake venom drips from their lips.”


“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

“They rush to commit murder. Destruction and misery always follow them. They don’t know where to find peace.”


“They have no fear of God at all.”


Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time.

God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.


Saul: Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God?

Paul: No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. There is only one God, and he makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.


Saul: Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law?

Paul: Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law (continued throughout chapter 4)

Chapter 2Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.2 And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things.3 But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?

4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?

5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,


7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life;

8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.

9 There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek,

10 but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

11 For there is no partiality with God.

12 For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law;

13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.

14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,

15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,

16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

17 But if you bear the name “Jew ” and rely upon the Law and boast in God,

18 and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law,

19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,

20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth,

21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal?

22 You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?

23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?


25 For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.

26 So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?

27 And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?

28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.

29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

Chapter 3

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?

2 Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.

3 What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?

4 May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “THAT YOU MAY BE JUSTIFIED IN YOUR WORDS, AND PREVAIL WHEN YOU ARE JUDGED.”

5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.)

6 May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?

7 But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?

8 And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come “? Their condemnation is just.

9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;

10 as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;









19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God;

20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;

25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;

26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.

28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,

30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

If we examine Saul’s notion of God, the Law, Grace and the Gentile Mission we find that Paul corrected each and every point. Like Job’s friends, Saul is not speaking biblical, divine, or inspired truth and serves here as a method to relate Paul’s doctrine and establish (Romans 1.11-12) certain doctrines for the Roman Church.

Where does the prosopopoeia exercise begin? In chapter 3, Saul enters the conversation with the question to counter Paul’s statement in 2.29. Saul was obviously concerned that a ‘Jew’ was not merely a biological descendant of Abraham. So, the exercise does not begin in chapter 3.

We now examine 2.1 in greater detail:

New Living TranslationNew American Standard Version
“You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things.Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.

The NAB reads:

Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things.

Verse 1 of the second chapter picks up in the middle of something, namely the above mentioned prosopopoeia. Paul is countering a previous statement which condemns a variety of people, which we can gather from chapter 2 as Gentiles. Thus the prosopopoeia exercise doesn’t begin in chapter 3, nor chapter 2, but in chapter 1.

Chapter 1 begins with a very long sentence in the Greek which in the original lasts through verse 7. It is a standard introduction mixed with Christian theology, ending with a Jewish and Christian salutation – Grace and Peace. From verse 8 through verse 15, Paul is communicating his missionary’s goal to the congregation in which he first praises the local church and then admits that he wants to take the gospel to the world. It is the mention of this gospel which moves Paul to make a powerful statement of just what the Gospel is – and what it means to the Jew and the Greek, which is where the prosopopoeia picks up.

Before we move on, I want to examine the Greek γὰρ which is ‘a conjunction basically introducing an explanation‘ (Friberg Analytical Greek Lexicon). In Greek, we read:

(v17) δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται· ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται. (v18) Ἀποκαλύπτεται γὰρ ὀργὴ θεοῦ ἀπ᾽ οὐρανοῦ ἐπὶ πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἐν ἀδικίᾳ κατεχόντων,

There is a change of voice here. Paul starts with a statement about the Gospel –  that it is the power to save both Jews and Gentiles because the scripture says faith is what gives life. Then, there is a counter starting with γὰρ which would stand in contrast with the previous comments by Paul.

New Living TranslationNew American Standard Version
Paul:For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes– the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”Saul: But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,

Paul speaks about life, but Saul speaks about death; Paul speaks about God saving everyone, but Saul speaks about God having no mercy on the Gentiles. Then we move to chapter 2 and onward to chapter where a dialogue takes shape into an argument with the epilogue in chapter 4 proving that God saves both Jew and Gentile.

Paul expresses condemns the statement made in chapter 1.18-32 as one which is contrary to God’s Grace and the Gospel thereof. I am reminded that in Job, we find four statements in response to Job’s condition. Three of them are false and based on human reason. Only one of them is godly. In the first few chapters of Romans, we find two responses to God’s Grace. One is false and one is true. In both, Job and Romans, the godly view defeats and condemns the view(s) based on human wisdom and reasoning. In doing so, we find attitudes and viewpoints which were are passively commanded not to hold.

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14 Replies to “Paul’s Use of Prosopopoeia in his Epistle to the Romans”

  1. Joel,could Paul have used this same literary device in 1 Timothy 2:11-14?

    That ‘he’ was not writing that women should not teach in the church,but writes as one who would prevent women from teaching/preaching?

    Nor does ‘he’ write that Eve alone was in the transgression,but writes as one who blames Eve,and perhaps all women,instead of Adam?

  2. Morning Joel

    Timothy was certainly not a fictional dialogue partner (you are such a kind gentlemen) ” I will ponder 1 Timothy 🙂 Prosopopoeia, fits 1 Corinthians 14:36,then?

    Thanks also for the resources.Michael Whitenton’s paper-1 Timothy 2:9-15-The ‘New’ Roman woman.

    1. I do think that Paul is countering the argument about women made in .34-35 with his ‘slam’ of ‘What? Really? You think that you (men) are the only ones which God speaks too? Really?’

      I liked Michael’s paper, and I was thinking that while Paul might not be using prosopopoiea, in 1st Timothy, I think he is countering social and cultural concerns, especially in light that women were killed if they didn’t produced children, etc…

  3. Thanks Joel,excellent paraphrase of Paul’s ‘slam’ in 1 Corinthians 14:36!

    I liked Michael’s paper also…

    Paula Fether has an excellent Podcast. Give a listen to her ‘Christian Relationship’ series (4 episodes) And ” Legalism ” when you get the chance.You have got to hear how she paraphrases Paul’s words in 14:36-at the end of this episode!

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