Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)
I’m going to go right out and offer my inexpert opinion: I don’t think Paul wrote vv. 1-7. I think they are a later addition. Remember, the New Testament has has undergone almost 2,000 years of transcriptions and translations. It is very possible someone slipped a little something extra in there along the way thinking that Paul’s message needed to be clarified, or that it needed to be made more palatable, even.
It interrupts the flow of the letter
It’s placement it weird. Paul ends the previous section talking about overcoming evil with good, essentially expounding upon the “love thy enemies” idea, and then in the next section, continues the love theme by expounding upon “love thy neighbor.” So why this unrelated insert about respecting authority and paying taxes between those two sections?
One could argue it’s a continuation of the “love thy enemies” theme, but I think that’s rather weak because the word “love” isn’t used at all, where it is used often in the preceding and following sections. Also, Paul was never one to shy away from punishment. He had been whipped, imprisoned, put on trial, stoned, and was on a loose house arrest when writing this letter. Why would he be concerned about avoiding punishment, as he mentions in verse five, or stress that doing right by the authorities is doing right by God, when he has so clearly angered the authorities himself many times over?
Paul had removed himself from the Roman “Honor System”
I find it particularly suspect that Paul talks about paying “respect” or “honor” to someone or something. As N.T. Wright, Karen Armstrong, and probably many others have written, Paul removed himself from the honor system of ancient Rome in very deliberate way. In ancient Rome, there was a strict social hierarchy. Those lower down strove to pay “honor” to those higher up in an effort to gain recognition and status. Whole cities vied for Caesar’s honor erecting statues and temples to the empirical court. In short, this created a culture of boasting and bragging, with people crowing about their faithfulness to the empire, their achievements on Caesar’s behalf, and the achievements of those from which they were trying to gain favor.
Paul turns that tradition on its head, bragging not only of his own ignominies and weaknesses (most famously in 2 Corinthians), but also of Jesus’. Paul again and again stresses Jesus’ death on the cross. Death on the cross was not some mere tragedy, it was a fall from social grace, a punishment for the most reviled of society. In addition, it was also often hard to recover and prepare the body for proper burial. Scavenging animals often further ravaged those that were executed, soldiers may prohibit collecting the remains, and honestly, it may have been just too risky to even try. Burial rites were an important ritual in ancient times, not least of all for the Jews, so the fact that Jesus died, defiled on the cross, like a base criminal, would have been proof for many that he was not the Messiah. Where is his honor, his glory? How can we possibly respect someone with such a base demise? Paul argues that Jesus power comes from his weakness – by accepting such a fate as the cross Jesus brought about the fullness of God’s kingdom to those who need it most: the weak, the oppressed, those crying out for justice and love. So I ask again, why would Paul suddenly be urging readers to pay their honor and respect to the civil authorities?
I have seen the case that Paul is possibly referring to synagogue authority, and not Roman authority. Paul did take up a collection from diaspora churches and bring that back to Jerusalem before writing Romans, and perhaps he was hoping to do the same thing in Rome. This, I suppose, is possible, but I again have my doubts. I think that Paul would have alluded to the synagogue directly, and probably wouldn’t have referred to his collecting money as “taxes.” Returning to Paul talking about fearing authority, I doubt that Jesus-followers in Rome had much to fear from Jerusalem Jewish retaliation. There were Jews in the city of Rome, but they had only recently been allowed back to the city after being kicked out, and tensions were high. A Jew attacking a Gentile for any reason (such as being a Jesus-follower) would have only been detrimental to the Jewish individual. As for the Jewish Jesus-followers, perhaps there was a bit more to fear from local intra-Jewish retaliation, but again, being a large city with several enclaves of Jesus-followers, I think that they could have found a safe haven with like-minded believers. So we’re left to conclude that the synagogue is not the fearful authority to which this section refers.
The real author of this section
So who did write it? My guess is an early Gentile contributor, maybe about the time the Deutro-Pauline letters (letters attributed to Paul but probably not written by him: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, possibly 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians) a few decades after Paul’s death. Early church leaders, when they weren’t ignoring Paul’s dense rhetorical letters, often down-played his Jewishness, focusing on the creation of a new religion in a way Paul had not. An addition about paying “honor” and “respect” to the civil authorities can be seen as an attempt to assimilate Jesus-following practices into the wider Roman culture, distancing themselves from the Jews. Jews had special dispensation to not worship Caesar (aka not participate in the honor culture), and it often deepened Greco-Roman suspicion of the Jews. If these new Jesus-followers paid honor as the rest of society did, then they might have been viewed with less suspicion than the abstaining Jews. Of course, as Christianity gained first acceptance and then power in the centuries to come, early Christian rulers would look approvingly upon this passage condoning God’s support of earthly rulers, and thus it’s canonical status would not be often or seriously challenged.
How we should view this addition
Let’s say I’ve convinced you that Paul didn’t write this little blurb. What does that mean in the grand scheme of things? Honestly, nothing revolutionary. It’s just a little historical Easter egg that hints to the long and storied history of the Good Book. It’s a perfect example of just how the Bible isn’t separate and apart from history, but very much effected by history and affecting history.
Even with “inauthentic” additions, if you want to call it that, I still think reading the Bible is important. I still think we can gain deep insight to ourselves and God through it. I still think we can turn to the Bible for guidance. But it once again highlights the fact that we need to understand the Bible in context of when it was written and why it was written, and remember that even if it was divinely inspired, fallible people were the ones doing the writing (and later interpreting). The important thing is not to get too bogged down in the details, or limit your understanding of the Bible to just a few verses, because then you’ll miss the broader themes. And here, the broader theme is love. I’ll remind you once again: The previous section was Paul expounding upon “love they enemies.” The following section is Paul expounding upon “love thy neighbors.” This little hiccup in between doesn’t change that message. And it certainly doesn’t negate our responsibility to be caring of our neighbors, our community, and the world.
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Very good analysis from an “inexpert!” I’d add that since Paul believed that Jesus return was just around the corner, if he did write this, it was to keep the church out of harm’s way in the meantime. This also explains why he advocated against marriage and for slaves to honor their masters.
I appreciate you and your posts. Filled with much to think about.
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That is an excellent addition, and a point I don’t think I’ve yet touched upon: how earlier believers (including Paul) were anticipating Jesus’ return in their lifetime. I know there’s an admonishment to work hard somewhere in Paul’s letters (or maybe Acts?) that my NIV Bible says was written because people were literally waiting around for Jesus to come back, like in a waiting room!