Context is important. Whether it’s a news story, a novel, or an exclamation like “the cheese in the teapot’s mine!” (Yes, that’s a real quote from a friend of mine in my student days.) No less when considering something much weightier, like Scripture. Every passage of Scripture has a context that needs to be considered when trying to understand what the passage means. Every chapter has a context within a book or letter. And every book or letter has a historical context that can often help us understand its significance, and even shed light on chapters and passages.
Sometimes a book’s context is apparent from what the author says. Often it isn’t. Especially in the case of letters. A letter is one side of a conversation, and while the New Testament (NT) epistles are Scripture, they were originally composed as real letters addressing real people in real situations. There is a side to the conversation we don’t hear when we read a letter like Romans, and we have to “listen” carefully to the side we have to discern the other. It can sometimes be helpful to look at what historians and archaeologists tell us about the period to get an idea of what’s going on. Though when we apply outside sources to help piece together a picture of the situation addressed by the letter, we are often conjecturing–giving our best guess based on the evidence.
With this in mind, I want to approach the background to Romans from two angles. First, what does the letter tell us about the author, the recipients, and the situation addressed (in other words, the reason for writing)? Then I want to see if the history of the period can shed more light on the situation the author is addressing.
From the Text
The very first verse of chapter one identifies the author as Paul. Scholars quibble over whether the NT letters were written by who they say wrote them. Many times, it’s the conservative scholars who tend to go with what the text says, while liberal scholars will point to (frankly rather subjective) evidence that suggests the claim is dubious. In the case of Romans, there is not much doubt that it was written by Paul, the Apostle. Does this matter? In the grand scheme of things, no. For the Christian, this epistle is Scripture, the Word of God, and its authority does not lie in the human instrument God used to bring these words to us. That’s why it really doesn’t matter who wrote Hebrews, for example. Ultimately, it’s God’s Word. However, since we know the author of Romans, and it is someone whose ministry is documented for us in The Acts of the Apostles, we can use Acts, and other letters we know Paul wrote, to help us place the letter in its historical context.
Before we get to the historical context, what does the letter tell us about the recipients? First, 1:7 tells us the letter is “to all the beloved of God being [or, perhaps, ‘living’ (the Greek is ousin, the dative plural present participle form of estin for those that want to look it up)] in Rome.” The fact that he calls the recipients “beloved of God” indicates that they are fellow believers. These fellow believers are “in Rome” (Greek: en Rômê). Note, this does not necessarily mean they are native Romans. These are Christians living in Rome, and, I think we can safely assume, part of the church that meets in Rome.
As the epistle goes on, I think it becomes clear that the Roman church was made up of different groups–but essentially, Jews and non-Jews. In chapter one, Paul says that his eagerness to preach the gospel to the Roman church is because of his calling to non-Jews (1:14-15). It can be argued that the rest of chapter one, while applying to all people, has a particular poigniency to the “Greeks and barbarians.” More of this to come when we discuss chapter one. In chapter two, however, we see Paul make reference to the Law, and slipping in quotations from the Old Testament (OT). Verse 17 makes explicit appeal to those who call themselves “Jew.” (See also references to OT passages and characters in chapters 3, 4, and 9, as well as the discussion of the Jewish people in chapter 10.) So, we can conclude that there are two audiences in mind, the Jews and the Greeks, or non-Jews. The Roman church was, therefore, a mixed church.
Finally, I think the text of Romans gives us hints of what’s been going on within the church, causing Paul to write this letter. In the first few chapters, we see a tension between the Jewish and Gentile elements of the church. As we go through the letter, we see the Gentiles being criticized for their lack of respect for the Law, and their condemnation of their Jewish brethren. We also see Paul chastising the Jewish believers for their attitude of superiority, lording their tradition and history as “God’s people” over their Gentile brethren. The way Paul attempts to bring them together is by way of a gospel presentation. The main concern of the epistle, as I see it, is to show that everyone, regardless of their background, is guilty before God and in need of a saviour. Jesus is that saviour, and the work of salvation wrought by Him was all of Him, and all of grace. As a result, there is no reason anyone has for considering themselves better than anyone else, and furthermore, there is every reason for God to get all the glory, praise, and service He is due. All Christians everywhere should, therefore, love God, love their brethren, and live their lives to glorify Him. All of these points I think we will see as we work through the letter.
When and where was Paul writing from, and how did the situation in Rome arise? This is where we engage in a bit of conjecture, though I think from what the NT tells us, combined with the facts of secular history, we can get a fairly good idea. Paul says he is eager to preach the gospel to the Roman church (1:15), which suggests that Paul hasn’t been there before and is planning to go. In chapter 15, Paul discusses his itinerary, and his plan to go to Jerusalem (15:25), and then Rome on his way to Spain (15:28). He says the reason for his tour is primarily to collect contributions for the church in Jerusalem, and indicates that he has just been among the churches in Macedonia and Achaia for this purpose (15:25-27). This all seems to correspond quite nicely with events recorded in Acts 20-26, where Paul is in Macedonia, and then spends 3 months in Greece, then goes to Jerusalem, and ends up in Rome. So, it is likely that Romans was written while Paul was in Greece about to set sail for Jerusalem. It is possible that Paul used Corinth as his home base while in Greece. There is evidence for this in the fact that he speaks of visiting the Corinthian church for a third time in 2 Corinthians 13:1. Also in 16:1-2, Paul commends to the Romans a woman named Phoebe from the church in Cenchrea, which was a seaport near Corinth. In 16:23 Paul says that a man named Gaius is his host (and host to “the whole church”–perhaps the church met at his house). Paul mentions baptizing a “Gaius” in 1 Corinthians 1:14. It’s possible that this is the same Gaius.
While some of this may seem a little tenuous, when we add to this the facts of secular history, I think the picture becomes more certain. First, we know that Romans was written prior to Paul going to Rome, so it can’t be dated anywhere later than AD 60 (Paul was likely executed around 64/65, and prior to that he was imprisoned and ministered for a few years). The emperor Claudius issued an edict in AD 49 expelling the Jews from Rome. It’s unclear what precipitated this, but it was some kind of clash, and it might have had something to do with the Christians. Elsewhere in the Empire, Jews were accorded freedom of religion, so the Jews would have been able to go anywhere else, including places like Corinth. We should be aware that even if the clash that resulted in Jewish expulsion from Rome was due to a clash between Jews and Christians, the Roman authorities would have made no distinction between Jews and Jewish Christians. To them, a Jew was a Jew, and any further religious identity would have made no difference.
As a result, the church in Rome would have been gutted of Jews, and over the ensuing years, what had most probably been a largely Jewish congregation would have become solely Gentile. Claudius died in AD 54, and his edict died with him, allowing the Jews to return to Rome. It’s possible that people Paul mentions in chapter 16 are among those who used to live in Rome, went to Corinth during the exile where Paul got to know them, and then returned sometime after 54. Pricilla and Aquilla, for example, were Paul’s friends and hosts in Corinth during his stay there recorded in Acts 18. Paul asks the church in Rome to greet them on his behalf in Romans 16:3-4, indicating that they are now living in Rome.
What does all this tell us? First, that Romans was written sometime after 54, and before 60. A date of AD 57 is deemed most likely. Also, we get a feel for the tension there must have been between the Jewish and Gentile Christians at the church in Rome. If the Jews were the majority, and then were forced out by edict, how must they have felt to return to the church in Rome as a minority group? Certainly, they should have embraced the situation with grace, and their Gentile brothers should have welcomed them back with humility and love. But we are all aware of the presence and power of sin even in the lives of believers. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that the new situation in the church of Rome in the mid-to-late 50s led to some ruffled feathers, and hurt feelings. It is to this situation that Paul addresses his appeal to unity on the basis of the gospel.
This has been a bit long, and hopefully future installments won’t need to be so long. We will take Romans in nice bite-sized chunks, but it will help if you bear this background in mind as we proceed.
As you contemplate the situation Paul is addressing with the Roman church, consider: have you been in a similar situation? Perhaps you’ve gone away to college and returned to your home church to find it changed. Maybe there are people in leadership you don’t get along with. Consider how the gospel message should inform your reaction and attitude.
Feel free to ask questions or comment in the Comments. Anyone can contribute questions and answers.