Reading Romans 5:12-21 in Light of Roman Imperial Domination
Romans 5:12-21 has attracted a variety of complex interpretations. It has been read (1) as a theological treatise of original sin (Augustine); (2) as a textual support for the doctrine of justification by faith alone (Luther and the Reformers); and (3) as Paul’s discourse of cosmic powers of sin and death that hold people in bondage and God’s salvific intervention to liberate human beings from cosmic powers of sin and death (contemporary “apocalyptic” school). Three major problems have arisen from reading the passage through these lenses. First, the passage is studied with lack of proper attention to the Roman imperial context in which the text was produced. Second, sin and salvation are over-spiritualized and personalized such that these concepts are rarely applied to concrete contemporary socio-political issues that affect the lives of people today. The result is not only a disjuncture between theology and ethics, but also the disconnection between the Christian kerygma and sociopolitical realities. Third, the rhetorical function of the text for its immediate audience is often underexplored. The implication is that theologians speculate on the themes of sin and salvation in Rom 5:12-21 without paying adequate attention to the concrete ideologies and behaviors that Paul was challenging nor the practices he was calling his audience to embody as a way of counteracting the systemic sins and evils. This study offers an alternative reading of Adam-Christ antithesis in Rom 5:12-21 in light of Roman imperial domination and Paul’s apocalyptic anti-imperial discourse using two contemporary frameworks—empire and postcolonial criticism. Using these frameworks, I read the Adam-Christ antithetical discourse in Rom 5:12-21 as Paul’s critique of the realities of sin and death as embodied by the Roman imperial power. Paul engages in this critique by means of typological reflection on Adam and Christ—the two historical figures whose actions reveal two contrasting ways of being in the world that result either in death or life. Read against the background of Roman imperial domination in the first century CE, I argue that Paul’s personification of sin and death as forces of domination, enslavement, and death-dealing in Rom 5:12-21 can be understood as the way that colonized subjects, such as Paul, give coded expression to the multifaceted experiences of colonial domination, as well as the culture of death that were prevalent within the Roman Empire. In Rom 5:12-21, Paul invites his audience to embody Jesus’ obedience and justice as a way of countering the sinful praxes that he traced their root to Adam. In this way, Christ’s believers can participate in the new age that God inaugurates through the events of Christ and the divine Spirit.