Posts Tagged ‘Paul’

I.C.’s Guide to… Why Paul Wrote Romans

August 20, 2010

In honour of JohnDave, who recently suffered the excruciating agonies of being compelled to choose a course on either Christology or Romans, I thought I’d carve out a mini-guide as to why Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans. (This “I.C. Guide to…” assumes that someone has read the letter).

Romans has been interpreted in many different ways, among others: as a theological treatise primarily concerned with justification by faith, or; as Paul’s ‘last will and testament’, or; as a road map for gaining salvation. Nonetheless, the clue is in the title – it’s a letter written by Paul with specific recipients in mind – the Christians in the city of Rome. Consequently, the most likely reasons that Romans was written will lie in a combination of these factors. The spectrum of scholarly answers is due to which one is stressed. This mini-guide will attempt to unravel the enigma.

Romans was written because of the nature of Paul’s own circumstances

It seems that Paul wrote Romans in approximately AD57 during his three-month stay in Corinth at the end of some 20-25 years of missionary work in the east (cp. Acts 20 with Rom 15:25; 16:1-2). In fact, having preached ‘from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum’ (Rom 15:19), Paul is now setting out on a new phase of his ministry and intends to turn his attention to fresh mission fields ripe for harvest in the west, namely Spain (15:24). Paul remains a Jew, but his understanding of God is now refracted through the Christ-event. He hasn’t left his old religion behind and found a new one. Rather, he has found the final expression of the faith into which he was born. Many scholars argue that Paul wrote Romans primarily in the light of his own situation and these interpretations may be helpfully categorised according to a location-focused agenda.

  • Spain – perhaps Paul wrote Romans because of his intended mission there. Rome would be a perfect base for such an operation – a place in which he could receive both spiritual and material blessings (15:24, 29). So Paul wrote to the Roman Christians to enlist their help and support. Thus, writing to a group of Roman house-churches which he didn’t found, he sets out his credentials and introduces both himself and his gospel. Maybe he is even demonstrating his ‘orthodoxy’, to show he is worthy of their support. Nonetheless, if this is why he wrote, why does he not further elaborate on his proposed mission? Should we not have expected this to have greater emphasis in the letter? Moreover, it does little to explain why Paul appears so concerned with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) in the purposes of God. On its own, this interpretation doesn’t seem fully satisfactory
  • Galatia – perhaps Paul wrote Romans due to his experiences of the calumny at Corinth and Galatia (e.g., read Gal 2). When the dust had settled and the heat of the moment no longer forced him into polemical corners, Romans sets out his calmer reflections. While there is certainly truth in this, why send these reflections to the Roman Christians? This alone does not seem a sufficient reason for why Paul wrote Romans.
  • Jerusalem – perhaps Paul wrote Romans because of his impending visit to the home of the Christian movement. It is obvious that he writes with some apprehension about this visit (15:30-32), for his mission up to this point had been greatly marred by an increasingly tense relationship with the Jerusalem church. On this visit he intended to deliver a collection gathered from his Gentile converts, which he desperately hoped would be ‘acceptable to the saints’. Paul knew it would not just provide material support but that it resonated with powerful symbolism, for to accept the money would be to endorse the Gentile mission and the unity of the church. Crucially, this would involve acknowledging Paul’s work and its basis: the Law-free gospel. Thus, the primary content of Romans (1:18-11:36) is his “collection speech”, or more precisely, the defence which Paul planned to give before the church leaders in Jerusalem. Therefore, Paul writes to the Romans not only as a kind of dress rehearsal, but because he wants their support in Jerusalem. However, Paul writes as if he is just about to leave for Jerusalem, which makes it unlikely that any supporters from Rome could have arrived in time. Further, there is much in the letter that would not play well in Jerusalem, such as the olive tree metaphor or Paul’s definition of, and identification with ‘the strong’. Jerusalem clearly loomed large in Paul’s mind as he wrote, but there’s nothing to suggest its primacy. Moreover, one might think that Paul’s desire to visit Rome has something to do with his reason for writing.

Romans was written to address a specific situation in the Roman church

Condensed and Basic Historical Background Information:

– The followers of Jesus naturally tended to begin spreading the good news among their fellow Jews in the synagogues (Acts 13:42-44; 14:1-6).
– Christianity arose out of a very loosely structured Judaism. It’s more than likely that the existence of newly converted Christians alongside the traditional members of the synagogue led to tensions and disputes.
– As is generally accepted, the reference by the Roman writer Suetonius to disturbances within the Jewish community in Rome because of ‘Chrestus’ (Latin), was likely a misconstrual of ‘Christos’ (Greek for ‘Christ’; the vowel sounds similar). For this to have been serious enough to warrant the attention of the authorities, we might need to envisage a sizeable number of Christians. Moreover, to outsiders this disturbance looked like a very Jewish affair.
– Consequently, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome around AD49, which must have led to a very different Christian community (all the Christian-Jews were gone). Those left were presumably the former ‘God-fearers.’ These were Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism and attached themselves to synagogue congregations with varying degrees of adherence. It’s quite possible that a form of Judaism with less emphasis on the particularly ‘ethnic’ aspects would likely have been attractive to these God-fearers (circumcision was seen as disfigurement to the Greek).
– Thus, given the social pressures within pagan Rome (anti-semitic), the Gentile-Christian community that was left would likely have distanced itself from the Jewish law and used the period of Jewish expulsion to articulate their identity in non-Jewish terms.
– Presumably, anyone else converted to Christianity during the expulsion was also Gentile.
– Even with the gradual moderation of the eviction edict which began permitting Jews to return to Rome (according to Wiefel’s understanding of Dio Cassius, Romana 60.6.6), synagogues were still prohibited for some time. As such, even Christians would have needed to develop new organisational forms. These resulted in the semi-legal house-churches. Importantly, this indicates that Christians could only assemble in Rome, if they as a group had broken ties with the synagogue. With the lapse of the full expulsion edict on Claudius’ death, the returning Christian-Jews who had been members of the synagogues found themselves faced with a Christian congregation that was totally new, both structurally and spiritually. Thus, it is into this situation that Paul wrote: a group which was predominantly Gentile with a minority of Christian-Jews; a minority that would have felt distinctly uncomfortable, for their ties with the Jewish community must have become virtually impossible to maintain in the light of their Gentile counterparts’ Law-free attitude.

If this historical reconstruction is plausible, the primary reason that Paul wrote Romans would be to provide counsel on the particular and difficult scenario created by Jewish- and Gentile-Christian relationships in Rome. The details of the letter seem to bear this out.

Paul appears to be addressing a congregation that he considers to be generally Gentile in complexion (1:5-6, 13-15; 11:13-22; 15:7-22). In addition, particularly in Chapters 12-15, there appears to be evidence of discord among the community very roughly reflecting a Jew-Gentile split. Given the historical situation we’ve sketched out, it wouldn’t be surprising if there had been friction over questions such as status, leadership and Torah observance. If Paul knew of this split, he may well have felt the need to explain the basis of membership within the people of God.

God’s righteousness demanded that the covenant be kept regardless of the faithlessness of Israel, and that through Christ, Israel’s representative, God had upheld his side of the bargain. Consequently, all those who have faith in Christ are declared righteous (chaps. 1-4). Yet, although membership within the people of God is on the basis of faith in Christ, not on carrying out the ethnic aspects of Torah, ‘law-free’ does not mean ‘all is lawful’. Thus, Paul feels the need to write about leading a virtuous ‘life in the Spirit’ (chaps. 5-8). Paul’s great emphasis on glorifying the virtues of Israel in chaps. 9-11, might well suggest that there was actually Gentile prejudice towards the Jews among the Roman Christians. Anti-Semitism was already rife at that time, and Paul wishes to make sure that the Gentile Christians do not display such an attitude (11:17-18; the olive tree metaphor seems designed to warn against any notion of Gentile superiority). Indeed, there is a sense in which Chapters 1-11 set up the general frame of reference within which specific problems may be addressed (chaps. 12-15).

Further, 13:1-7 is a reference to the unrest over indirect-taxation. Under the circumstances, Paul cautions against drawing any unwise attention to the Christian community, simply ‘pay your taxes’ and submit to the governing authority. Also, in dealing with the ‘strong and the weak’ it would appear that Paul is trying to give advice to a Gentile majority, on how they should properly respect the sensitivities of their Jewish brethren in matters of table fellowship. As Kasemann observes, ‘it should not be overlooked that the discussion in 15:7ff leads on to the theme of the unity of Christians as composed of both Jews and Gentiles. These are the components of a reality which may with great caution be postulated as that of the Roman community.’ Finally, all of Rom 15 emphasises Christian unity in worship, ‘together’ in ‘one voice’.

There seems no reason why Paul could not have been well-informed of the circumstances in Rome given that it only took 7-8 days in good weather to send mail from Rome to Corinth. And if Rom 16 is original, it is impressive evidence that Paul’s lines of communication were functioning well.


Our historical sketch coheres well with what we find in the letter. As such, Paul appears to have been very well-informed about the situation in Rome and wrote accordingly. He provides not only practical advice on diet, but on relationships and how to live together in Christian unity – for the separated house-churches to ‘greet’ one another (Rom 16). [I don’t think I’ve fallen victim to the circular-reasoning of drawing inferences and then using them to understand the text.] During the absence of Christian-Jews in Rome, the Gentiles’ dominance seemed to have led them to a feeling of superiority both to them, and more generally, all things Jewish. Thus, Paul wishes to make sure that when Christians-Jews return from expulsion to Rome, the church will be a place for all believers. Summed up in 15:7, ‘Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you.’ It seems that Paul was faced in Rome with the mirror opposite problem of that in Antioch. He wrote to correct any Gentile-Christian notion of superiority, without providing any opportunity for a corresponding Jewish-Christian superiority to fill its place.

Nonetheless, a balanced perspective would suggest that the historical situation among the Roman Christians does not alone account for what Paul wrote. His own situation matters too. Paul feels pastorally responsible for the Roman Christians as their apostle – the apostle to the Gentiles (1:11-13). It is fitting that he should associate with them and that his letter would function as his introduction to a church he did not found but has wanted to visit for some years to which he has some spiritual gift to impart. But it’s clear that he has in mind his own mission to Spain too, which he obviously hopes will be aided by the Roman church. Paul’s ‘missionary strategy’ must not be endangered by any discord among the Christian house-churches, or general sidelining of Christian-Jews. Moreover, it shouldn’t surprise us if Paul wrote with his trip to Jerusalem in view as well, reflecting the stresses under which he currently strained. In fact, the presentation of the collection brought several issues to a head: how do Jews and Gentiles fit into the purposes of God? How do they relate to one another, and to Israel’s heritage? Thus, in asking for the Romans’ prayers, he forced them to address these issues, to which his letter was supposed to provide the answers.

Paul was desperately keen to promote Christian unity, and the views he gives on the ‘big’ issues (chaps. 1-11), arise out of his past experiences and his knowledge of the particular situation in Rome. There is no single reason for why Paul wrote Romans, whether missionary, pastoral, or based purely on his own circumstances – there are many reasons, which hang together and reinforce one another. To choose between either Paul’s situation or that of the Roman church is to create a false dichotomy that only serves to distort why Paul wrote. Doubtless he wrote to an actual situation in Rome, but as Moo puts it, ‘these issues are ultimately those of the church–and of the world–of all ages.’
Rict Text File for this I.C. Guide to…

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