Greek: οὐ γὰρ ἐπαισχύνομαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι.
My Translation: For I am not ashamed of the good news [some manuscripts "of Christ"], for it is the power of God toward deliverance to all those trusting, first to the Jew and to the Greek.
KJV: For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
Update May 2013 This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.
Paul! We've reached the letters of Paul! I'm so happy!
Paul was a 1st Century convert to the Jesus movement. He relates in his own letters, and it is later recorded in what might be two fictionalized retellings in Acts, how he began his association with the movement by persecuting them. Paul appears to be from the city of Tarsus, and was a unique convert to the movement who left as much of an imprint upon it, if not more, than the historical Jesus around whom the movement began. Paul was possibly a Roman citizen (which, if true, would be where his Latin name, Paulus, comes from), was well-educated, and was a Pharisee before something caused him to believe that Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead and was indeed the promised Messiah for Israel. Through Paul's theological explorations of the meaning of Jesus's death and resurrection, Christianity was transformed and universalized into a new system of belief and worship that quickly spread across the Roman world.
Of course, the transition from Paul's unique theology to the eventual development of orthodox Christianity was not direct or instantaneous. We've been looking at scriptures from the four gospels, all of which were written after the complicated letters of Paul were composed, and from the first Gospel, Mark, to Matthew and Luke, and ultimately to John, the writings and viewpoints of Paul are largely absent from the writers' perspectives, though some of Luke's account of Paul's life in Acts seems to line up slightly with Paul's theological focus (though Luke's history of Paul's life does not line up very much at all with Paul's own summarization of his conversion as given in Galatians and seems to have been fictionalized).
However, while Paul was obviously not influential among the various groups of Christians where and when the Gospels were being written, the influence of his writings continued to grow through the decades, influencing later writers to quote him and still other writers to imitate him and pretend to be him in later letter-writing endeavors (which we'll talk about when we get to the scripture mastery verses from 2 Thessalonians, which ironically warn Christians against letters that seem to come from Paul or other authorities and yet 2 Thessalonians itself seems to be one of these false-Paul letters).
Paul's Letter to the Romans
Moving on from Paul as an author, let's zero in a bit more onto the epistle in question: Romans. Of the letters we're confident that Paul actually wrote, Romans is the most organized, complicated, and well-thought out. The context of the letter is that Paul is preparing a trip to Rome, where he has never been before, and he is writing a letter outlining his theological view of Jesus to send to friends of his there in advance of his arrival (this letter was sent with one of those friends, Phoebe, an early female deacon from one of Paul's congregations). We have no historical indication of how the letter or Phoebe were received, though traditions preserved in Acts seem to indicate that Paul spent considerable time in Rome after arriving, possibly under house arrest by Roman authorities.
Why would Paul send a letter like this? It seems that Paul had considerable trouble with other Christians not agreeing with his particular viewpoint on the Jewish Law and the relationship of Jesus and other Christians to it. Paul also had to deal with issues of authority. While he called himself at times an Apostle he was a convert to the movement long after the death of the historical Jesus and there is no record anywhere in the New Testament of any official election or ordination for Paul as Apostle (such as was given to Matthias in Acts 1 when he was elected by lottery to replace Judas Iscariot in the Twelve; the author of Luke-Acts says that they sought out a person who had been a disciple from the beginning and who was a witness to the resurrected Jesus with the rest of the disciples at the end of Luke, both qualifications that Paul would fail against). In other letters, Paul makes reference to some of his theological opponents claiming more authority than himself, even going so far as to refer to his opponents mockingly as "super-Apostles". Much of Paul's personal history, given in Galatians, is given to express how Paul's ideas and teachings did not come from things he learned through other Christians (implying that Paul instead got them through revelation).
While Galatians is also a dense theological work detailing Paul's beliefs about the Law of Moses and God's covenant people of Israel and God establishing a new covenant through Jesus, that letter seems to have been written in the heat of a furious passion after Paul learned that a previous congregation of his had been partially turned against him and his teachings by later Christian missionaries. Romans, on the other hand, seems to be Paul testing the waters ahead of his arrival, in a way saying "Here's who I am, here's what I teach, and here's why I think it's right. And by the way, I'm planning on coming through, will that be okay?" So in Romans, Paul sets about illustrating his theology carefully.
I think that the biggest shame of all about this scripture mastery verse is that it's the only scripture mastery verse from the entirety of Romans. As you can tell by everything I've already said, I think that even if you don't believe in Christianity, you should read Romans slowly and carefully (along with Galatians and the other genuine Pauline epistles) because 1) Paul was a very complex and complicated writer, and 2) Paul's writings matter when it comes to understanding what Christianity eventually developed into. Far more than the Gospels. Christianity was a movement started by Jesus, but through Paul it became a religion about Jesus.
The Context for the Verse
So how does this verse measure up against this call to understand Paul's theology? While it's not a total miss, it's pretty weak sauce indeed.
This verse is part of Paul's introduction to the letter, where Paul is transitioning from saying "Hi" to the beginning of his argument about how the death of Jesus the Messiah brings about a new covenants with God that brings salvation.
He starts off by saying he's not "ashamed" of the good news of Jesus. What is there to be ashamed of? At this period of time, quite a bit. Remember that when Paul is writing there are no gospels or any other writings we're currently aware of. There were many oral traditions floating throughout the Greek-speaking world in a giant game of telephone, but apart from a hypothetical collection of the sayings of Jesus that may have been assembled at this time (called "Q"), nobody had yet attempted to sit down and write down a history of Jesus making use of all of the stories Christians were telling each other about Jesus through word of mouth. And aspects of the stories were influenced by the more difficult aspects of the historical Jesus: things Christians almost certainly wished they could avoid:
- Just like many other failed messiahs Jesus had been executed by the Roman authorities, probably for the crime of sedition and setting himself up as "King of the Jews".
- Jesus had begun his ministry by being baptized under the authority of John the Baptist, the leader of a different group of Jews that only partially decided to follow Jesus after their leader was killed.
- Jesus was obviously from Nazareth but most Jews expected the promised messiah to be born in Bethlehem.
- Christians were still confused and fractious amongst themselves as to how Jewish or non-Jewish they were supposed to be.
- Jesus preached an apocalyptic message of the coming Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom had failed to show up after his death.
- Some of Jesus's prophecies simply had not occurred. Some converts who had been promised that they would not "taste of death" before the Kingdom of God arrived had started to die. Jesus's prophecy that the Jewish Temple would be destroyed had not occurred (but it actually would happen a few years after Paul's probable death when the Temple was burned during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem in 70 CE).
- There were other figures of the ancient Mediterranean, both Jewish and Gentile, where parts of their life stories seemed to match up uncomfortably well with the various stories commonly shared among early Christians about the life and miracles of Jesus. One of these figures, the pagan philosopher Apollonius of Tyre, who admittedly lived after Paul died, had a life story that so closely matched up with that of Jesus that followers of Jesus and followers of Apollonius each accused the others of having ripped off their leader's true history. However, apart from Apollonius, during the time of Paul there were other stories of gods and heroes, though none of them match up quite as neatly in all their details, but it's possible that these similarities were similar enough to cause confusion and doubt as to their truth in Jesus's life.
In short, there was a lot for early Christians to be ashamed about. Christianity did not begin as a clearly-defined movement distinct from anything else, but as a messy conglomeration of Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah sent to Israel even though he'd been executed and had never achieved any greatness as the Jewish prophecies foretold of the Messiah.
Mormons can easily identify with this statement of "not being ashamed of the Gospel of Christ". They also have a similar list of embarrassments about their faith, a list which is actually longer than most average Mormons might consider. Just do a Google search for "Joseph Smith Polyandry", "Book of Abraham Facsimiles", "Council of Fifty", "Seer Stones and the Book of Mormon", "Horses in the Book of Mormon", or many other similar issues and you'll see much that LDS youth have which they might choose to "not be ashamed of". I'm not saying that they should be ashamed of those things, any more than early Christians should have been ashamed that their Lord had been executed as a criminal; I am simply saying that it should not be surprising if some of them are ashamed of these things. Paul's declaration that he is not ashamed is an apologetic declaration of strength, because he knows there are many things that he could be ashamed of, but he chooses not to be. Why? Let's read further.
"For it is the power of God unto the delivering of all who believe, first to the Jew and to the Greek." Paul's shamelessness comes because he believes that the good news of Christ is what God uses to deliver everyone who believes, both Jew and Gentile. Now, if most Seminary students are taught this verse the way I was taught it, the emphasis would be on the not ashamed part. I was told that I should be proud of my Mormon faith and heritage, and stand boldly in the face of ridicule and mockery. I was not told to do so because my religion brought about salvation, but rather to do so because my Church was the Only True and Living Church Upon the Whole Earth. I suppose from a certain point of view it could be argued that this is essentially the same thing: ie, if I belong to the One True Church, then I also belong to the only Church through which salvation is possible. But for Paul, the power of God to salvation is the good news of Christ to those who believe. Belief is a very important concept to Paul, no matter how much it gets trivialized by some LDS youth teachers (I know that the idea that Paul's central message was about the saving power of faith in Christ was trivialized for myself when growing up). This verse is a small example of that, but there are many more direct verses within Romans and other epistles to support this viewpoint. The entire letter, when read as a whole, is about how Jesus's death provides a real path to salvation for all people as opposed to the previous covenant God established with his chosen people of Israel through the Torah.
As for the specifics of Paul's teachings about how faith in Jesus is of primal important in his role as God's Messiah and in God's plan for his creation will be better explored when we look at James 2:17-18, so we'll wait until then.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
I think the main purpose of this scripture is to encourage LDS youth to not be ashamed of the mockery and ridicule they might experience for membership in the LDS Church. I think the rest of Paul's message about the efficacy of salvation to those who believe, first Jew and then Greek (basically saying all humans), tends to get lost when taught to most LDS youth. I would love to be proven wrong about this, of course. Frankly, though, I think it's a shame that from the entire Epistle to the Romans, this is the only verse that ends up in the Scripture Mastery list. Paul's writings are very influential throughout the rest of Christianity, and Romans is where he expresses his ideas about salvation by faith in Christ clearest. Because LDS soteriology (a fancy way of saying their ideas about salvation) is so focused on what an individual must do instead of what an individual must believe (though beliefs are important for Mormons as long as those beliefs impel certain actions) I shouldn't be so surprised that Romans gets such a short shrift in the Scripture Mastery list. In a possible future list I'd hope that Romans is better represented.