While we don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle with respect to Paul and the Christian community in Rome, we can piece together a plausible picture from the the information we do have that provides us with a useful prism through which to view Paul’s letter to the Romans. I understand that what I’m presenting isn’t the only possible scenario, but I think it makes good sense of the data from not only the Biblical canon, but also what we’ve been given through archaeology, cultural anthropology, and various historical disciplines with respect to first century CE Rome, Pharisaical Judaism, and the church. Space and time will prevent me from addressing this matter in any thorough sense, however, for a more complete discussion of the matter there are a number of good materials available, including:
N.T. Wright – The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press (or any number of his books on Paul, specifically)
David deSilva – Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, IVP
Gordon Fee’s Semester Lectures on the Book of Romans available online at RegentAudio.com
For a more accessible treatment of the material, consider:
Gordon Fee – How to Read the Bible Book by Book
N.T. Wright’s For Everyone series on the New Testament – see Paul for Everyone – Romans Part 1 & 2
At the risk of painting with too broad a brush here’s the basic stuff to keep in view while reading Romans…
The 1st Century CE Mediterranean world, while ruled by Rome, is a Hellenistic world with local cultural undertones. The region’s common language is Greek (Latin is still only the language of the elites in Rome for another couple centuries) and everything from Greek gymnasiums, Greek temples, and a variety of other Greek structures stand side by side with local landmarks in every major city of the region. Meanwhile, Rome now stands as the political and military center of the region (the economic power was still the east). Rome itself survives on the basis of the tribute it receives from across the region.
For over a century, a growing number of Jews, largely from Alexandria, have emigrated to Rome due to financial opportunities connected with the trade routes. As a result of these opportunities, while far from elite status, the average Jew was in a better economic position than the average resident of Rome. Furthermore, Jews in Rome were exempt from a number of Roman laws due to their exempt religious status. These realities put them at odds with some of their neighbors in Rome. Before Paul comes on the scene, Jews have been expelled from Rome at least twice due to religious disputes (no crime was more feared in the empire than the threat of civil disturbance). Over time, the Christian gospel spreads to Rome and it seems a third Jewish expulsion from Rome (or at least partial expulsion and/or strong restrictions on Jews gathering) occurred at this time during the reign of Claudius – largely over civil unrest in the Jewish quarter over a person referred to as “Christo.” The church in Rome, originally comprised of Jews and Gentiles meeting together, becomes almost exclusively a Gentile gathering as Jewish Christians who were prevented from assembling (due to civil disturbance concerns in the Jewish quarter) left the city. However, at the death of Claudius, the restriction was lifted and Jews (including Jewish Christians) begin returning to the city (and the church). The now predominantly Gentile church was all too content to maintain the new status quo and keep their Jewish brethren in separate “Jewish” Christian churches. Meanwhile, returning Jewish Christians were all too eager to reassert themselves into leadership of the church gatherings in Rome – to include all its specific concerns regarding diet, ethnic markers (circumcision), Torah, and the like.
For Paul’s part, he’s a thoroughly Jewish man (with respect to his views of God, creation and purpose of mankind). He also fully understands the Greek world and holds the benefits of Roman citizenship. We’ll skip over his history – another topic for another time – except to say that his experience with the Spirit of God through his encounter with the risen Jesus (rather than through the Torah) literally knocked him off his high horse and convinced him that what God promised for the world and His people at the end of time, he was doing now through Jesus – creating one people of God through the outpouring of His Holy Spirit on all flesh. This reality convinced Paul that the new communities of faith (churches) that were forming were to be comprised of both (and together) Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus as the world’s one true Lord (a rather treasonous assertion at this time in the Mediterranean world). Paul, who had worked exclusively in the eastern regions of the empire (the churches from which he drew no small portion of his ministry’s financial support), believed God wanted him to take his message to the western reaches of the empire. In order to do this, he needed a new base of support that could assist him with his work in what is now southern France and Spain. While Paul knew a few of the Jewish Christian believers that had left Rome during Claudius’ restrictions (Priscilla & Aquila among them), he had no direct hand in the establishment or ongoing life of the church in Rome.
In the end, Paul is writing a missionary support letter to a group of church gatherings he had no direct hand in shaping. He is also writing, knowing full well that they know about him and the aftermath of the missionary activity he engaged in while in the eastern regions of the Mediterranean. Paul’s entire portfolio consists of building “Jew + Gentile together” churches as the one people of God. Paul also left a wake of civil unrest in nearly every city he worked in – largely because of his insistence in this kind of “Jew + Gentile” church building. Plus, the now largely Gentile church in Rome is frankly just fine with not having to deal with the various scruples of the Jewish quarter (not to mention the less than friendly comments they would receive from their nonJewish neighbors who were more than a little concerned about the bad influence of these outsiders). Paul needs the help of strangers and, in order to get it, must defend a ministry strategy that looks rather indefensible. History shows that ultimately, Paul fails – he doesn’t appear to have ever taken his missionary work to the west. Furthermore, Paul’s deeply held belief in ONE church community for all God’s people in a region (without respect to race, ethnicity, or socio-economic factors) also seems to have failed. It seems it was simply far easier at the moment to allow those who held different convictions (from different backgrounds) to simply go their own way, rather than work diligently to become ONE family that walks together in love. Certainly, separate but equal is far less stressful in the moment, but, I can’t help but wonder how western history might have unfolded had the churches in first century Rome (and elsewhere) had taken Paul’s conviction and understanding of how God was working more seriously. How might the history of Jews and the Church have unfolded? Might some of the theological underpinnings of the darker elements of the Inquisitions and Crusades been undone? Could elements of the church ever have turned a blind eye to the Pogroms in the east or the Nazi final solution in the west? Could these things even have been conceived? Could centuries of bloodshed amongst “christians” across Europe have been avoided had the church insisted on one table of fellowship – as brothers and sisters – for all followers of Christ, deal with the particulars through the law of love? Could the more tragic elements of my country’s civil rights struggles been avoided had these same considerations been brought to bear with respect to race? In the end how we think and reflect on our faith and history is more than just an intellectual exercise – it has real world consequences that are far from trivial. These are the kind of things we’ll dive into as we begin our conversation together in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.
Pastor Jim Kushner