Excerpt from Robert Hamerton-Kelly's Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992, pp. 106-109.

Romans 7:7-25

Paul applies the consequences of this reading of Adam's sin to the doctrine of the Mosaic Law in Romans 7:7-13, where he continues to think of the dikaioma tou theou (Rom 1:32; cf. 8:4) as the basic intention of the Mosaic Law. Consonant with Jewish tradition he identifies the fundamental thrust of the Law with the tenth commandment of the decalogue, the proscription against envy, (1) which in his mind corresponds by reason of its place as the last commandment, with the first commandment, the prohibition on idolatry. We have seen how the primal prohibition is a proscription on envy, and how it was misused by desire to turn the divine into a rival, that is, to idolize God. In Romans 1:18-3:20 Paul had both commandments -- the first, against idolatry, and the last, against envy -- in mind as he wrote, while here he focuses on the last, taking it as the dikaioma. He uses the terms nomos and entole interchangeably as he reads the decalogue as an expression of the primal prohibition. (2) Nomos is the Law as a whole and entole is the tenth summary commandment, which expresses the dikaioma. The nomos is the entole writ large and the entole is the nomos in a nutshell.

The Mosaic Law is not the same as sin because it expresses the dikaioma, the divine defense against mimetic rivalry. Speaking representatively, in the person of Adam, Paul gives us an allegorical summary of the temptation story in which he assigns specific theological identities to the characters in the narrative. Adam is Paul and everyman; the prohibition is the basic intention of the decalogue expressed in its first and last injunctions; and the serpent is sin that tricked everyman into transgressing the prohibition and thus caused mimetic desire to break out in him (kateirgasato en emoi pasan epithymian -- Rom 7:8).

According to our analysis of the Genesis story, the serpent symbolized the temptation of desire to deform itself that arises freely within desire. In the present passage Paul telescopes temptation and sin because the sinful yielding to temptation is already a fait accompli in his case. The prohibition is an essential instrument of this deformation because without it, desire could not have formed the idea that God was enviously keeping something from it. The temptation presented by the prohibition is, therefore, as I have argued, the temptation to mimetic rivalry with God. Thus Paul can write, "But sin taking its opportunity through the prohibition, worked all kinds of wrong desire in me" (Rom 7:8) -- that is, it provoked mimetic rivalry with God. Sin is, therefore, the free self-deformation of desire to idolatry, in the sense of turning God into a mimetic rival. It was not the prohibition but sinful desire that caused his spiritual death, and even in this circumstance the goodness of the prohibition was manifest in that it made sin appear more sinful and thus brought it to light (Rom 7:13).

The Law, therefore, remains "holy, just, and good" because it expresses the primal prohibition (Rom 7:12), especially in its first and last injunctions, and because it exposes sin. However, the fact that Paul recognizes this does not automatically mean that he approves the current religion based on obedience to the Mosaic Law. On the contrary, the realization of the goodness of the Law highlights the extent to which it is being misused in Judaism. Sin manipulated the commandment in order to create not only deformed desire but also the whole structure of the Sacred, or, less symbolically, desire deformed itself with reference to God and thus created a religion in which God is an idol and the prohibition is the instrument of that idolization.

In the following famous passage (Rom 7:14-25), still speaking representatively, but now as a representative specifically of the religious person, Paul gives an account of the plight of the sinner caught in the coils of the Sacred, and confronted by the holy command. He confesses that he did not know what he was doing when as a Jew he tried to obey the command. The sacred system created by sin blinded him to the real consequences of his actions. He thought he was doing the good, and according to the sacral interpretation of the Law within which he lived he was doing the good. Now, however, from the viewpoint of his conversion and the Cross he sees that he was deceived and self-deceived. Sin used the Law to deceive him, by constructing the sacred community of sin and death within which his desire for God was deformed continuously into the service of self. His will was not weak but warped by mimesis, the deviated desire that dwelt in his religious identity as a Jew. He thought he was serving the one God of Abraham but he was really serving the idol of sacred violence. "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?" (Rom 7:24). For Paul, from this point of view the body of death is the Jewish religious system.

Paul refers to his individual self in this passage, but that self is the representative Jewish self, given identity by his membership in the community of the Law. When he says that nothing good dwells in his flesh, we cannot ignore the strong allusion to his Jewish identity present in the term "flesh" (Rom 11:14; Phil 3:4). Just as the serpent used the good prohibition to deceive and enslave Adam in the coils of sacred violence, so deformed desire uses the good Law to do the same to the Jew. It achieves this by creating a system of sacred violence within which good intentions have bad outcomes.

This is a severe indictment of Judaism. In effect Paul accuses his ancestral religion of being a system of sacred violence in which sin misuses the Law as part of its strategy to dominate all humanity. Thus Paul preserves himself from the Marcionite heresy at the expense of Judaism; he saves the Torah at the expense of Judaism; he accuses Judaism of a sinful distortion of the primal divine prohibition, and of being, as a result, a structure of sacred violence.

Paul, therefore, reads the story of the fall as a study in the nature and origin of mimetic desire and of the system of sacred violence. This hermeneutical method is similar to Philo's who internalized the story and read it as a psychological allegory; Adam stands for the mind (nous), Eve the senses (aisthesis), and the serpent either pleasure (hedone) or desire (epithymia). (3) The main difference, apart from the obvious ones, is that Paul understands the ego mimetically while Philo understands it substantively. Paul's ego is not the stable and self-sufficient entity that a theory like Philo's demands, but is constituted by mimetic interaction. (4) The fact that I would not have known sin if the prohibition had not confronted me shows that for Paul the "other" is essential to the constitution of the ego. This does not mean that self-consciousness comes only through sin, but simply that this negative experience shows the mimetic structure of the self.


1. 4 Macc 2:6; G. Theissen, Psychological Aspects 204-5; R. Weber, "Die Geschichte des Gesetzes and des Ich in Römer 7, 7-8,4: Einige Oberlegungen zum Zuzammenhang von Heilsgeschichte and Anthropologie im Blick auf die theologische Grundstellung des paulinischen Denkens" (154-55).

2. R. Weber, ibid., 156-58, reads the relationship between nomos and entole in roughly the same way as I do. Specifically, he does not see them as synonyms as so many other commentators do.

3. Leg All 2.5, 24, 38, 72, 74; Opif 157; Quaes Gen 1.47-8. G. Theissen, Psychological Aspects, 206-7.

4. Cf. M. Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, Cf. "His the believer's continuity and identity also rest outside himself, in his participation in the heavenly world and in his communication with the Word of his creator, which is always challenging him anew to leave his own past behind and which drives him forward into the future of his Lord... it means being involved in the world-wide conflict between civitas dei and civitas terrena" (E. Kasemann, Perspectives on Paul, 27).