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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 64, 2016

SIU FUNG WU, Suffering in Romans (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015). Pp. xx + 288. Paperback. US$36.00.

So much has been written on Paul’s Letter to the Romans that one might think enough has been said. But this impressive monograph illustrates the point that a new question or a new perspective can often succeed in bringing new insights. Siu Fung Wu, a Melbourne based scholar, has approached Romans from the perspective of the underclass that likely made up most of the Christians in ancient Rome.

Wu begins by explaining his “audience-focused” approach to the relevant sections of Romans (Chapter 1). Then, after discussing the evidence about the audience of the letter and the hardships and injustices they would have suffered in the ancient Roman imperial order, he considers common views on suffering in the ancient world (Chapter 2). He next embarks on a detailed and thorough exegesis of Romans 5 and 8 (Chapters 3–7) before concluding with a brief theology of suffering and other reflections about the applicability of his findings today (Chapter 8). The monograph is completed with eight appendices in which the author provides extra material about areas addressed in the main body of his work. There is an extensive bibliography and three indices of ancient sources, subjects and modern authors.

The exegetical argument at the heart of the work turns especially on the similarities between Romans 5 and Romans 8, particularly their focus on the themes of suffering, hope and glory and their theology of present and future restoration. Wu argues that Paul sees the sufferings of his audience not as meaningless, but as a result of Adam’s disobedience, the invasion of hostile powers and (more significantly) as a part of God’s program of restoration of humanity and all creation. He frequently brings out the similarities between the two chapters in unexpected but convincing ways; obviously they are the main passages that refer to believers suffering (Rom 5:3; 8:17, 18, 23, 35–39), but also they are the main places in Romans that mention Jesus’ sonship of God (Rom 5:10; 8:3, 29, 32), God’s love for us (Rom 5:5,8; 8:35, 39) and our hope as believers (Rom 5:2, 4, 5; 8:24, 25) (see 53–54).

The argument is enhanced by extensive discussion of relevant Greek vocabulary and grammar. One such discussion that the author repeatedly returns to is the use of words with su- prefixes, which in this case ties Romans 8 with Romans 6 on identification with Christ, being co-heirs with him, suffering with him and the intercession of the Spirit. Another was the discussion of “groaning” (Rom 8:15–26) where Wu links the experience of the early believers to that of Jesus himself, as related in Mark 14:36. This illustrates how believers are joining in Christ’s suffering now as well as looking forward to future glory and resurrection.

Intertextual analysis is another key feature of Wu’s approach. He often draws from parallels between Paul in Romans and the Adamic narrative in Genesis (particularly in the LXX); for example, between Adam’s lineage from God in Gen 5:1 and the sonship language in Rom 8:14–17, 23 and 29. Wu includes an extended discussion of the central intertextual issues at key points: the Adam story (70–55, 126–29, 165–75), restoration promises in the prophets (92–96), Psalm 44 (198–207) and the Isaianic Servant Songs (207–21).

The irony of the lower class Christians being described by Paul as heirs and sons of God is drawn out in a number of places, such as the discussion of “glory.” The following passage appropriately summarises the work:
According to the prevailing worldview, glory was not assigned to those living with socioeconomic hardship and religio-political injustice. Glory, for example, was not an attribute of war-captives, slaves or the homeless. Nor was it particularly glorious to be poor or belong to the lower parts of the social hierarchy. But the audience heard that their present sufferings were actually an integral part of God’s purpose in transforming his image-bearers and renewing the whole creation (164).
There were some deficiencies in the set out of the book. I would have appreciated having the verses being discussed quoted in full before each section to make the discussion easier to follow. The extra material in the appendices was often too brief to warrant being separated out like this. And perhaps the most disappointing feature was the Conclusion (Chapter 8). Wu rightly points out that many people today live in similar adverse conditions to the ancient Roman underclasses but he barely hints at what the message of Romans and his own study might be for them. None of these flaws, however, significantly detract from the author’s achievement in helping twenty-first century readers hear Paul’s letter as the original Roman believers might have heard it and as many present day believers might also benefit from hearing it.

Review by
Harvest Bible College