Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Rome is one of the most important theological documents ever written. Its influence on the church has been enormous: Romans has decisively shaped the teaching of Augustine, Calvin, Luther and Wesley, to mention only a few. Yet Romans is not a systematic theology but a letter written in specific historical circumstances. We will understand it better if we understand those circumstances (see also the general article, Reading the letters).
Paul provides us in 15:14–29 with some details about his own circumstances. He is on his way to Jerusalem, where he plans to hand over to the Jewish church the money that he has collected from the Gentile mission churches. From Jerusalem, Paul intends to travel to Spain in order to begin a new evangelistic work there. On his way to Spain, Paul plans to stop in Rome. Comparing these plans with Luke’s narrative in Acts, we can conclude that Paul wrote Romans at the end of the third missionary journey, probably during his three-month stay in Greece (Acts 20:3–6). Paul undoubtedly spent most of this time in Corinth (see 2 Cor. 13:1, 10), and indirect confirmation of this as the place where Romans was written comes from Paul’s commendation of Phoebe, who was from Cenchrea, the seaport adjacent to Corinth (16:1–2). This stay in Corinth probably occurred in ad 57, although it could have been a year earlier or later.
A factor of some importance in our understanding of Romans is Paul’s indication in these verses that he had reached a crucial turning point in his missionary career. Paul had decided to preach in Spain because ‘there is no more place for me to work in these regions,’ that is, in the eastern Mediterranean (15:23). With the establishment of vigorous churches ‘from Jerusalem all the way around to Ilyricum’ (15:19), Paul believed that the work God had given him to do—to plant strategic churches through which the gospel could be proclaimed—was finished in that area. Just as early American pioneers felt crowded and moved on whenever they could see the smoke from someone else’s cabin, so Paul felt ‘crowded’ by the number of Christians where he was ministering and wanted to move on to what we might today call ‘unreached peoples’.
2. The church in Rome
Some early traditions make Peter the founder of the Roman church, but this is unlikely. Probably Jewish pilgrims from Rome, converted through the preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost, planted the gospel among the large Jewish population in the capital city (Luke notes in Acts 2:10 that Jews from Rome were present on that day). As in so many other cities, the Jews of Rome did not all embrace this new Messianic teaching. The historian Suetonius noted that the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome ‘because they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus’ (Life of Claudius, 25.2). He was almost certainly referring to violent debates within the Jewish community over the claims of Christians that Jesus was the ‘Christ’ (Gk. Christos), corrupted here into ‘Chrestus’. This expulsion of Jews, then, would have included Jewish Christians, as Luke himself implies when he mentions that it was because of this edict of Claudius that Priscilla and Aquila had come to Corinth (Acts 18:2). The expulsion (which is probably to be dated in ad 49) would have had a significant effect on the make-up of the Christian community in Rome: Gentiles, who had up to this point comprised a minority of the believers, were now left as the only Christians in the city. Therefore, although Jews had been allowed to move back to Rome by the time Paul wrote to the Romans—Priscilla and Aquila, for instance, had returned (Rom. 16:3–4)—Gentiles were in the majority in the church, and had come to dominate both its leadership and theological tone.
Textual variants in chs. 14–16 raise questions about the original form and literary history of Romans. The doxology (16:25–27) at the end of the letter is placed at the end of ch.14 in some manuscripts, at both the end of chs. 14 and 16 in other, and at the end of ch. 15 in one early text. Some Latin manuscripts not only have the doxology at the end of ch. 14 but also omit all of ch. 15 and the rest of ch. 16. These data raise the possibility that the sixteen-chapter form of the letter we now have many have been preceded by a fourteen or fifteen-chapter form. Perhaps the most popular of the reconstructions holds that Paul had first written chs. 1–15, with the doxology, to the church at Rome and had subsequently sent this letter, with the addition of 16:1–23, to the church at Ephesus. Not only would this explain why the doxology appears at the end of both chs. 15 and 16, but it would also account for the number of people whom Paul greets in 16:3–16. Acquaintance with so many believers in Rome, a church that Paul had never visited, seems unlikely, but makes perfectly good sense if these verses were written to the church at Ephesus, with which Paul had a long and close relationship. (The best-known advocate of this theory is T.W. Manson, ‘St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans—and Others’, The Romans Debate, ed. K. Donfried [Augsburg, 1977], pp. 1–16.)
This theory and others similar to it must, however, be rejected. For one thing, the textual evidence on which it is based is very slim. To be sure, one manuscript does put the doxology at the end of ch. 15; but the same manuscript includes 16:1–23. We possess no manuscript that contains the fifteen-chapter form of text posited by Manson. There is evidence for a fourteen-chapter form of the text, but it is most improbable that Paul wrote such a text, since it cuts him off in the middle of his argument about the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ (14:1–15:13). Early Christians must have been responsible for omitting the last two chapters of the letter, perhaps to give it a more universal appeal (Harry Gamble, Jr, The Textual History of the Letter to the Romans [Eerdmans, 1977]). More likely, however, as Origen suggests, it was Marcion (a second-century theologian who disliked the OT and Jewish elements within Christianity) who removed these chapters.
We have good reason, then, for thinking that the letter printed in our Bibles is substantially identical to the letter that Paul wrote to the Roman church. How do we explain, then, the number of greetings? First, Paul could have met a number of these people—like Priscilla and Aquila—during their exile from Rome in the course of his ministry in the east. The famous Roman roads, well-built and well-maintained, afforded excellent opportunities for travel in the first-century Mediterranean world. Secondly, Paul may have taken the opportunity afforded him by his unfamiliarity with the Roman church to greet every Christian he knew in the city.
Paul seems to send mixed signals on the issue of the particular audience that he had in view as he wrote to the Roman church. On the one hand, several elements of the letter point to a mainly, if not exclusively, Jewish audience: he greets Jewish Christians in 16:3, 7, 11; he addresses ‘the Jew’ in 2:17 and implies that his readers are closely related to the Mosaic law (cf. 6:14; 7:1, 4); he calls Abraham ‘our forefather’ (4:1); and he devotes considerable attention to ‘Jewish’ issues e.g. the sin and failure of Jews (2:17–3:8), the place of the law in salvation-history (ch. 7) and the past and future of Israel (chs. 9–11). Indications of a Gentile readership are, however, equally clear: the address of the letter associates the Romans with the Gentiles among whom Paul had specially been called to minister (1:5–6; cf. 1:13 and 15:14–21); Paul directly addresses Gentiles (11:11–24) and his plea for unity and tolerance seems to be directed especially to Gentiles (15:7–9). W. G. Kümmel succinctly summarizes the ambiguity of this evidence: ‘Romans manifests a double character: it is essentially a debate between the Pauline gospel and Judaism, so that the conclusion seems obvious that the readers were Jewish Christians. Yet the letter contains statements which indicate specifically that the community was Gentile-Christian’ (Introduction to the New Testament [SCM, 1975], p.309).
Faced with this conflicting evidence, some scholars have concluded that Paul had a distinctly Jewish audience in mind, others that he was writing to a wholly Gentile audience and still others that he was addressing Jews at some points and Gentiles at others. The evidence is, however, better explained by the supposition that the audience Paul addressed was one made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Nevertheless, the way in which Paul associates the church with his ministry to Gentiles in 1:5–6 suggests that Gentiles were in such a majority that the church had taken on a Gentile flavour and identity.
Class of literature
Ancient letters ranged from brief, intimate notes to family members to elaborate treatises designed for a wide audience. Among the letters of Paul, Romans is clearly the one that is closest to the latter type. Thus, while Romans has the typical opening (1:1–15) and closing (15:14–16:27) of a letter, its most striking feature is its sustained theological/pastoral argument in 1:16–11:36. At no point in this lengthy section does Paul directly address the Roman Christians per se or suggest that the issues he is talking about have been raised by them. And this is true even in the more ‘practically’ oriented 12:1–15:13 (although it is likely that the appeals to the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ in 14:1–15:13 reflect an actual problem in Rome). The movement of the letter is dictated by the internal logic of the gospel rather than by local issues. This does not mean that Paul wrote the letter in a vacuum: Romans is not a timeless theological treatise, but a letter, written to a specific church in a specific situation. Romans, like all Paul’s letters, is an occasional document. We must not forget the audience he had in view as he wrote. The character of the letter makes clear, at the same time, that the occasion for its writing must have resided in the need to address certain theological issues of relevance to early Christians generally—and to every Christian since.
Scholars have occasionally attempted a more precise identification of the nature of Romans, comparing it to specific kinds of letters of other literary works in the ancient world. While these attempts have often shed light on certain specific features of Romans, none of them can be judged to be an acceptable identification of the letter as a whole. As James Dunn concludes, ‘the distinctiveness of the letter far outweights the significance of its conformity with current literary or rhetorical custom’ (Romans 1–8 [Word Books, 1988]).
The ‘treatise’ style of Romans raises a critical question about the letter: why did Paul write this particular letter to this particular church? He says little about his purpose in writing, so our answer to this question must be based on our analysis of the contents of the letter against the general circumstances in which it was written (see above). The most likely answers can be grouped into two major categories: those that focus on Paul’s own situation and those that focus on the situation of the Roman Christians.
1. A focus on Paul’s circumstances
Three possibilities should be mentioned. First, Paul may have been writing to introduce himself to the Romans and explain what it is he believes with the purpose of gaining support from them for his mission to Spain. Secondly, Paul, knowing that he would be visiting Rome soon, may have taken this opportunity to put down in writing his own doctrinal conclusions. After all, the apostle had just emerged from a difficult theological and pastoral struggle with the Corinthian church, and had reached a critical turning point in his own ministry. What better time to reflect on, and solidify in writing, his own theological convictions? A third possibility is that Paul took the opportunity in this letter to the Romans to rehearse the speech he was going to give when he arrived in Jerusalem with the collection. Certainly this visit to Jerusalem was very much in Paul’s mind (see 15:25–33), and the tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians that he hoped to heal by means of that collection could well ex plain why Romans focuses so much on issues relating to Israel and the law.
Probably each of these factors played some role in Paul’s purposes in writing. But only the first explains why the letter was sent specifically to Rome, and it should therefore be given special attention. But before drawing further conclusions, we must note another approach to the question of purpose.
2. A focus on problems in the Roman church
The nineteenth-century biblical critic F. C. Baur pioneered a new approach to Romans by emphasizing that it, like Paul’s other letters, was written to deal with specific problems within the community addressed. Many contemporary scholars agree, finding particularly in Paul’s admonitions to the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ (14:1–15:13) the overarching purpose of the letter. On this view of the matter, Paul wrote in order to heal a division within the church at Rome. The division was specifically one between Gentile Christians (the ‘strong’) and Jewish Christians (the ‘weak’), and this explains why Paul spends so much time in the letter carefully setting forth his theology as it relates to these two groups.
A desire to heal this division within the Roman church was probably one of Paul’s purposes in writing, but not the primary purpose. Would Paul have delayed mentioning anything about his main purpose in writing until the letter was almost finished? Would we not expect him to be drawing applications to this problem from his theological discussion throughout the letter if it loomed so large in his thinking?
So it appears that Paul wrote Romans with a number of purposes in mind. Probably the over-riding purpose was his desire to introduce himself to the church at Rome by setting forth the gospel he preached. This was especially important because false rumours about what Paul preached had reached the Romans (see 3:8). He had apparently earned the reputation in the early church of being anti-law and anti-Jewish. Paul sought to show that this was not the case (see particularly 1:16; 7:7–12; chs. 9–11) at the same time as he spelt out in detail in what sense he was critical of the Jews and the Mosaic law (see particularly 2:17–3:20; ch. 7). These same themes would have been debated in Jerusalem and were central to some of the debates within the Roman church. In other words, we have in Romans a series of purposes, all converging on the issue that predominates throughout the letter: what is the nature of the continuity between God’s old covenant arrangement and his new covenant arrangement? What is the relationship between the law and the gospel, Jewish believer and Gentile believer, Israel and the church? It is Paul’s desire to address this central and enduring theological issue that gives to Romans its special universal character.
In the light of what we have said in the last paragraph, it is no wonder that many scholars think that the continuity of salvation-history is the central theme of the letter. They often single out chs. 9–11 as the heart of the letter. Many of the Protestant reformers, on the other hand, focused their attention on chs. 1–5 and concluded that the theme of justification by faith is the main theme of the letter. Somewhat similar to their approach is that of Ernst Käsemann, who sees ‘the righteousness of God’ (which he takes to mean God’s intervention to reclaim his rebellious creation) as the theme of Romans. However, neither of these concepts is broad enough to encompass the contents of the letter as a whole. While justification by faith is a critical doctrine in Romans, and it becomes the theme of 3:21–4:25, it does not figure prominently in other parts of the letter. If, then, we are to identify a single theme for the letter, it must be ‘the gospel’. The word is prominent in the introduction (1:1–2, 9, 15) and conclusion (15:16, 19) of the letter, and has pride of place in what is usually identified as the statement of the letter’s theme: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’ (1:16).
J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans, BST (IVP, forthcoming).
F. F. Bruce, Romans, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, rev. edn. 1985).
L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1988).
C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (T and T. Clark/Eerdmans, 1985).
J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. NICNT (Eerdmans, 1959, 1965).
J. D. G. Dunn, Romans, 2 vols., WBC (Word, 1988).
OT Old Testament
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Ro 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.