Encountering difficulties in the Bible can be troubling for the young believer and the seasoned saint alike. Yet, when we are confronted with hard passages or apparent discrepancies in the biblical text, we don’t want to ignore the difficulty or pretend it doesn’t exist. Out of an unwillingness to do a little hard work, lack of acquaintance with the available resources, or the mistaken assumption that faith shouldn’t require any mental effort, we may indulge the temptation to shuffle quickly past difficult passages in order to avoid intellectual and emotional discomfort.
It’s true, if we are well-grounded in the character of God and the nature of Scripture, we won’t feel compelled to resolve every Bible difficulty with absolute certainty. Christians have warrant to believe in the supernatural origin of Scripture and accept it as an inerrant word from God. It is entirely reasonable, therefore, for a Christian without adequate recourse to the biblical tools required to solve certain difficulties to set these problems aside for a later time and trust are reasonable solutions for these problems, despite the fact that no solution is presently forthcoming.
But it is unwise for any Christian–whether we have a bent toward scholarship or not–to develop a kind of intellectual indifference toward Bible difficulties. We approach these difficulties on assumptions that are in accord with the trustworthiness of God and the reliability of Scripture, but approach them we must for the sake of our witness and for the sake of our souls.
The Problem in Romans 5:1
The infamous textual problem in Romans 5:1 is especially disconcerting because how one resolves the problem will have significant theological and practical implications in the area of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Not only this, but the problem itself depends on a mere letter. Let’s look at the verse in question.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (ESV).
Both the ESV and the NASB include a marginal note indicating that two different readings exist in the available manuscripts. The Greek word translated by the phrase “we have” is ἔχομεν, a first-person present (tense) active form of the word ἔχω (“I have”). This word is in the indicative mood and denotes a statement of fact. In several manuscript copies, however, we find the word ἔχωμεν. This small change of a letter from an ο to a ω places the root word ἔχω in the subjunctive mood and should be translated “let us have.” You can see the problem. With the former, we have a statement of objective status (we currently have peace with God); with the latter, we have a statement of subjective possibility (let us aspire to have peace with God).
Why Does God Allow Difficulties?
I remember during a mission trip to New Zealand the husband of one of our host families asked us why God would leave the integrity of such a vital doctrinal text up for question. He was referring specifically to Romans 5:1. At the time I wondered along with him. “Why would God allow a lack of clarity on a text of such theological import?” That was seventeen years ago. Since then, I’ve become convinced we need to ask this question a little differently.
When we ask this or similar questions, we are assuming that God has indeed left vital theological texts up for interpretational grab. I am persuaded that he hasn’t, particularly in the case of Romans 5:1, but in other cases as well (like Mark 16:9-20, for example). Yes, we are confronted with a textual difficulty in Romans 5:1, but we must be wary of a tendency to approach problems in the biblical text with a posture of suspicion rather than an posture of trust. Isn’t it interesting that Satan’s strategy in the Garden of Eden was to undermine God’s goodness while simultaneously questioning the integrity of God’s Word (see Gen 3:1-3)? If we come to nettlesome passages while doubting God’s goodness and wisdom, we’ve already lost.
Like temptation, biblical difficulties are wielded by God and Satan for entirely different purposes. With God, he uses temptation to drive us to Christ, prove our character, and deepen our assurance. Satan uses temptation to turn us away from God, indict our character, and undermine our assurance. Similarly, God has ordained biblical difficulties to drive us to Christ and his wisdom, hone our interpretational skill, and deepen our trust in the integrity of his Word as we discover (through some hard work) reasonable answers to our questions. Satan uses these difficulties to turn us to our own wisdom, promote exegetical indifference and sloth, and nurture doubt about the trustworthiness of Scripture.
Solving the Problem of Romans 5:1
So what about Romans 5:1? Although the text poses some trouble for biblical interpreters, I believe we can have certainty about the original text of Paul’s letter. Let’s examine the reasons why the ESV and NASB are justified in taking the reading “we have” over “let us have.”
In order to determine the original text of a biblical book or letter, scholars have long engaged in the practice of textual criticism. This is the work of comparing existing Greek manuscripts (in the case of the New Testament; the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic) in order to determine the original wording of, in our case, Paul’s letter to the Romans. There are a multitude of ancient Greek manuscripts of New Testament books available, so we are able, by comparing manuscript with manuscript, to establish the original text with a significant degree of certainty.
There are places in the New Testament where reconstructing the original text is fairly simple because agreement exists among a large number of the manuscripts. Where there are questions about words in given reading–what we tag as “textual variants”–scholars have established a few helpful principles in order to determine the original text.
For example, when manuscripts disagree about a particular word or phrase, we should consider possible unintentional mistakes or intentional corrections a scribe (copyist) might make. He might write the same word twice, misspell a word, or skip an entire line of text. Or he might deliberately make grammatical improvements, eliminate apparent difficulties, or harmonize what appear to be conflicting accounts. If a scribe is recording an oral recitation of a New Testament letter, he may mishear a word. These considerations of why a scribe could potentially introduce changes into his copy helps us in the process of determining the original reading. We should also consider the number of manuscripts that contain a particular reading, for more textual witnesses could signal (though not necessarily, as we will see) that a particular reading is the original.
In assessing a particular textual problem, we have two primary areas of consideration: the external evidence and the internal evidence. The external evidence refers to how we evaluate the manuscripts. The number, reliability, and age of the manuscripts that contains a specific reading will help us determine the likelihood of that reading. In most cases, for example, manuscript witnesses dated several centuries from the original that contain other obvious emendations are usually set aside in favor for more reliable manuscripts.
Then we turn to the internal evidence. This refers to the linguistic, theological, and discourse context in which the variant falls. In light of two choices among possible variants, we ask what variant appears to fit best with, say, Paul’s argument from Romans 1-4, and what variant would make sense within the flow of his argument from the verse in question (5:1) to the next passage and throughout the rest of the book. Stepping out a little further, we might consider what best fits with the whole of Paul’s theology expressed in his entire corpus.
What Factors Do We Consider?
In the case of Romans 5:1, ἔχωμεν actually has better external attestation than ἔχομεν. In other words, a number of early and reliable manuscripts contain the subjunctive form ἔχωμεν. But does this settle the issue? Not necessarily. Even so, we should be careful that we don’t easily cast aside solid eternal evidence in favor of internal evidence without good reason. But in the case of Romans 5:1, it turns out that we have good reason.
In his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Bruce Metzger explains why the United Bible Societies retained the ἔχομεν reading.
Although the subjunctive ἔχωμεν . . . has far better external support than the indicative ἔχομεν . . . a majority of the Committee judged that internal evidence must here take precedence. Since in this passage it appears that Paul is not exhorting but stating facts (“peace” is the possession of those who have been justified), only the indicative is consonant with the apostle’s argument.
Although ἔχωμεν has better external attestation, it makes more sense in the context of Romans that Paul would have referred to an objective status of peace produced by God rather than a subjective possibility of peace maintained by sinners. Paul has labored from Romans 3:19 to 4:25 to establish the truth that our legal standing with God is grounded entirely in a righteousness that is outside of us and apart from our works. When we believe in Christ, we are united to Christ and thus enjoy a full imputation of his righteousness. That is, with reference to God’s law, God counts us as righteous as Christ is, not because of anything righteous in us, but solely because of God’s imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. God remains just while he justifies the ungodly. Amazing.
The very essence of Paul’s exposition of the doctrine of justification is that justification is, by definition, an objective status that God provides by grace alone apart from any effort or character quality supplied by the sinner. This objective status of “justified” is set in direct contrast with the opposite objective status of “condemned” (for Old Testament background of this binary designation, see Prov 17:15).
The problem from Romans 1:18 onward is how sinful man can escape the just wrath of his Creator. Romans 3:21-26 solves this problem with the cross, and 4:1-25 provides Old Testament support for Paul’s assertion that justification is (and always has been) by faith alone. When we come to Romans 5:1, Paul’s declaration of our objective status of peace fits well with his discussion of justification and the looming question of God’s wrath: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1).
That Paul is referring to objective status rather than subjective possibility is suggested also by the following context. The remaining text from Romans 5:2 through 21 includes only descriptions of fact (i.e., our status as believers) without any hortatory material. The exhortations of how we should conduct our lives in light of the gospel come in 6:1 where Paul clearly signals a turn in his argument with the questions, “What shall we say, then? Shall we live in sin that grace may abound?” It seems out of place for Paul to introduce into the middle of an argument that consists solely of objective statements a brief exhortation (“let us have peace”), only to resume his theological exposition just before moving into a section of entreaties related to the subjective aspects of the Christian life.
How Do We Explain the Alternative Reading?
How, then, did the alternative reading make its way into the early manuscripts? The most plausible theory, in my judgment, is the suggestion that ἔχομεν was mistaken for ἔχωμεν because both sound very similar, almost the same. As Paul’s original letter or early versions of it were read to copyists, it is easy to imagine that these scribes may have simply misheard the word and wrote what they thought they heard. Whatever the cause, we know that it was not uncommon for copyists to mistake ω for ο, and we have evidence for this elsewhere in the New Testament manuscripts where the ω is clearly the wrong reading.
One solution we must reject, however, is offered by Bruce Metzger in the same passage from his Textual Commentary I mentioned above. “Since the difference in pronunciation between ο and ω in the Hellenistic age was almost non-existent,” Metzger suggests, “when Paul dictated ἔχομεν, Tertius, his amanuensis (16.22), may have written down ἔχωμεν.”
Although this would appear to solve the problem, Metzger’s suggestion founders on a basic principle. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul establishes that the locus of inspiration is the text itself, not the author. Yes, those who wrote (or dictated) Scripture were moved by the Holy Spirit to write what they wrote and say what they said (see 2 Peter 1:16-21), but it is the Scripture–the writings themselves–that are “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). When Tertius wrote Paul’s letter to the Romans, we know that he was guided by Holy Spirit and protected from error. To suggest that Tertius misheard Paul and wrote the wrong word into the original autograph is to misunderstand the doctrine of inspiration.
This textual problem, like others in the Scripture, can pose some difficulties for Christians. But in his kindness God has give us all the necessary resources to solve a number of these problems, and many of them with a high degree of certainty. With a little hard work, we can come to the solid conclusion that God has said: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God.” What a relief. Thank you, Jesus!