Obligation As Ethics: The Power of Roman óϕϵιλη As the Key to Conflict Resolution in Romans 14:1-15:13

Duncan, John D. (2013). Obligation As Ethics: The Power of Roman óϕϵιλη As the Key to Conflict Resolution in Romans 14:1-15:13. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000f12a


One weakness in some contemporary New Testament studies involves examining a word meaning without considering the depth of its meaning in light of historical, social, and customary first-century usage. The challenge comes in reading a word in contemporary twenty-first-century language, but understanding its full meaning from the first-century culture. New Testament studies of Paul in his Epistle to the Romans tend to focus on his theology as a theological treatise or to focus on certain social theories that limit the scope of cultural underpinnings in the Greek text. Obligation as ethics, the power of óϕϵιλη(obligation) as the key to conflict resolution, aims to examine Romans 14:1-15:13 in its historical-sociological context with an emphasis on Roman law.

Rome was a peculiar society where its inhabitants were required to fulfil obligations and duties as a vital part of daily living. Therefore, obligation in Roman society filters through Roman law, character, customs, and a path of duty in daily life. Obligation in the Christian community required rethinking the customary standards in obligation to Jesus Christ. Roman law influenced custom, determined a course of social interactions, and reinforced behaviour patterns. It was founded on Roman law and its legal basis set forth a map, a plan, a nexus of social ties in relationships, and clear expectations in daily social practice. Roman law itself was structured in a framework of Graeco-Roman virtues and vices which influenced the character and societal customs (mores) of its citizens and non-citizens.

The construct of virtue, as practiced in the first century, accentuated a long history of aristocratic rules and defined social roles that solidified a Roman social hierarchy that polarized two social classes: the strong and the weak. The strong were the aristocratic superiors based on rank, status, wealth, and prestige. The weak were social inferiors who, according to Roman law and the mores, were obligated to submit to the power of the strong. Roman obligation, a critical tool for Roman social practice, order, harmony, and conflict resolution, served in society as a lubricant to order society and to relieve social tensions.

The textual evidence of Romans 14:1-15:13, and the context underpinning it, indicate that the social distinctions of ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak’ were reflected in the early church in Rome. Their tendency, based upon Roman law and social custom, was to relate as the superior strong and the inferior weak with the weak obliged to submit. However, Paul plunders this concept and makes use of the conventional tool of Roman obligation in a new way. His countercultural solution aimed to resolve the tension that threatened to split the church.

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