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Romans to PhilemonVolume Three
ZondervanCopyright © 2002 Zondervan
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All kinds of issues would need to be tackled in a full-scale introduction to Paul's letter to the Romans: not least the questions about the letter's purpose and theme. But the introductory remarks that follow will concentrate on the background issues that are the focus of this commentary. Other issues will be ignored or touched on only briefly.
Events Leading up to Paul's Writing of Romans
Understanding Paul's own situation as he writes Romans helps us appreciate the purpose and theme of the letter. In 15:14-22, he looks back at a period of ministry just concluded. "From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum," Paul tells us, "I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ" (15:19). This verse indicates that Paul's ministry has reached a significant geographical turning point. As Luke tells us in Acts, Paul first preached Christ in Damascus (and perhaps Arabia) after his conversion (Acts 9:19-22; cf. Gal. 1:17). Only after three years did he go to Jerusalem to preach, and then only briefly (Gal. 1:18; cf. Acts 9:28-29). Why, then, mention Jerusalem as the starting point for his ministry? For two reasons. First, the city represents the center of Judaism, and Paul is concerned to show how the gospel spread from the Jews to the Gentiles. Second, the city stands at one geographic extremity in his missionary travels. At the other extremity is Illyricum, the Roman province occupying what is today Albania and parts of Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Only here does Paul refer to missionary work in this province, although such a ministry can be fit easily into the movements of Paul on his third missionary journey (see comments on Rom. 15:19). An "arc" drawn from Jersualem to Illyricum, therefore, passes over, or nearby, the important churches that Paul has planted in south Galatia (Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Iconium, Derbe), Asia (Ephesus), Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea), and Achaia (Corinth).
But what does Paul mean when he claims that he has "fully proclaimed" the gospel in these areas? The Greek has simply the equivalent of our verb "fulfill" (peplerokenai). To "fulfill" the gospel, therefore, probably means to preach it sufficiently such that viable churches are established. These churches can then carry on the task of evangelism in their own territories while Paul moves on to plant new churches in virgin gospel territory (cf. 15:20-21).
In pursuit of this calling, Paul is moving on to Spain (15:24). On the way, he hopes to stop off in Rome, evidently to enlist the Roman Christians' support for his new gospel outreach (see comments on 15:24). But before he can begin his trip to the western Mediterranean, he must first return to Jerusalem (15:25). Throughout the third missionary journey, Paul has collected money from the Gentile churches he planted to bring back to the impoverished Jerusalem believers. Now he is ready to embark on this trip, and he earnestly asks the Roman Christians to pray for it (15:30-33). The collection represents for Paul a key step in what he hopes will be the reconciliation of Jewish and Gentile Christians in the early church.
The Life-Situation of Paul and Why He Wrote
Four pieces of information from 15:23-33 are especially helpful in understanding the situation of Paul as he writes Romans. First, he is almost certainly writing the letter during his winter stay in Corinth at the end of the third missionary journey (Acts 20:2-3; cf. 2 Cor. 13:1). Not only does this place and time best fit the movements Paul describes in chapter 15; it also explains why he commends to the Romans' attention a prominent woman from the church in Cenchrea, the seaport of Corinth (16:1-2).
Second, Paul is conscious of having reached a significant turning point in his missionary career. He has "fulfilled" the gospel task in the eastern Mediterranean and is now ready for new, fresh fields, "white for the harvest." Such a turning point is a natural time for Paul to reflect on the gospel he has preached and the controversies he has come through.
Third, Paul is deeply concerned about the results of his impending trip to Jerusalem with all its implications for what is to him, and to many others, a central theological issue in the early church: the integration of Gentiles into the people of God. We should not be surprised, then, that this issue plays such a large role in Romans.
Finally, Paul is seeking the support of the Roman Christians for his new ministry in Spain. Perhaps one of the reasons Paul writes this letter to the church in Rome is to introduce himself and explain his theology so that the church will feel comfortable in supporting him.
Rome and Its Church
Some scholars surmise that Paul's own circumstances suffice to explain why he writes Romans. At a key transition point in his ministry, the apostle sets forth the gospel he preaches to the Roman Christians so that they can pray intelligently for his visit to Jerusalem and so that they will be willing to support his new evangelistic effort in Spain. But left out in all this is the Roman church itself. And what we know about that church provides further critical information about the nature and purpose of Romans.
We have no direct evidence about the origins of Christianity in Rome. The tradition that Peter (or Peter and Paul together) founded the church is almost certainly erroneous. Not only is it difficult to place Peter in Rome at such an early date, but it is difficult to imagine Paul writing to a church founded by Peter in the way he does, considering his expressed principle not to build "on someone else's foundation" (15:20). No other tradition from the ancient church associates any other apostle with the founding of the church.
Thus, the assessment of the fourth-century Ambrosiaster is probably accurate: the Romans "embraced the faith of Christ, albeit according to the Jewish rite, without seeing any sign of mighty works or any of the apostles." Luke tells us that "visitors from Rome" were present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). Some of them were probably converted as a result of Peter's powerful speech. They would have returned to their home city and begun preaching Jesus as the Messiah. We know that enough Jews had emigrated to Rome by the first century B.C. to make up a significant portion of the population. The Jewish community was not apparently unified, with many synagogues independent of one another. This circumstance may help explain why the Christians in Rome are also divided.
The Letter and Ancient Genre Considerations
Romans is, of course, a letter-but what kind of letter? Ancient authors used letters for many different purposes. Scholars have been eager to identify the particular persuasive, or "rhetorical," model that Romans belongs in. It has been labeled an "epideictic" letter, an ambassadorial letter, a "protreptic" letter, and a "letter essay," to name just a few of the more prominent suggestions. A good case can be made for several of these identifications. But, in the last analysis, Romans does not fit neatly into any specific genre. As James Dunn concludes, "the distinctiveness of the letter far outweighs the significance of its conformity with current literary or rhetorical custom."
Other scholars have noted the similarities between sections of Romans and the diatribe. The diatribe was a style of argument popular with Cynic-Stoic philosophers (the best example being Epictetus's Discourses [1st-2d c. A.D.]). The diatribe features dialogues with fictional characters, rhetorical questions, and the use of the emphatic negation me genoito ("may it never be!") to advance a line of argument. These are just the features Paul uses in passages such as 2:1-3:9; 3:27-31; 6:1-7:25; 9:14-23. Earlier scholars thought the diatribe had a polemical purpose and therefore tended to read Romans as a debate with an opponent (perhaps Jewish). But scholars have recently come to realize that the diatribe was used more often as a means of clarifying truth for converts and disciples. The dialogical "arguments" of Romans therefore have the purpose of helping the Christians in Rome better understand the gospel and its implications.
Address and Greeting (1:1-7)
People in Paul's day usually began their letters by identifying themselves and their addressee(s) and then adding a greeting. Acts 23:26 is a good example: "Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings." Paul follows this conventional structure but elaborates each element. He spends six verses identifying himself, probably because he needs to establish his credentials in a church that he did not found and has not visited. Paul claims to be an apostle, dedicated to the "gospel," the good news about Jesus, God's Son. This Jesus, a descendant of David in his earthly life, has now been invested with new power through his resurrection. It is this Jesus whom Paul serves by calling on Gentiles everywhere to trust God and to obey him. And since the Roman Christians are mainly Gentile, Paul has a perfect right to proclaim God's good news to them.
Servant of Christ Jesus (1:1). Great leaders in the Old Testament were also called "servants" of the Lord (see, e.g., Josh. 14:7: "I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh Barnea to explore the land"). The phrase therefore hints at Paul's own status and authority. "Christ" comes from the Greek word for "anointed" and is equivalent to the Hebrew-derived "Messiah." Placing "Christ" first focuses attention on the word as a title.
* Romans IMPORTANT FACTS:
* AUTHOR: Paul the apostle.
* DATE: A.D. 57.
* OCCASION: Paul writes toward the end of the third missionary journey to a church that is divided between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
* PURPOSE: To help the Roman Christians understand the gospel, especially in its implications for the relationship of Jew and Gentile in the church.
* The Disturbance of "Chrestus" and the Roman Church
One circumstance in the life of the Jews in Rome probably played a significant role in explaining why Paul writes Romans the way he does. The ancient historian Suetonius tells us that Emperor Claudius "expelled all the Jews from Rome because they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus" (Life of Claudius 25.2).
Most scholars are convinced that "Chrestus" is a corruption of the term "Christ" and that Suetonius is thereby hinting at disputes within the Jewish community over Jesus' claim to be the Christ. Modern historians are less certain over the date of this expulsion. But a fifth-century Christian writer, Orosius, puts the event in A.D. 49; and this date fits nicely with Acts 18:2, which tells us that Priscilla and Aquila ended up in Corinth during Paul's second missionary journey, "because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome."
One can imagine the catastrophic effect this would have had on the fledging Christian community in Rome. Originating from the synagogue, the bulk of Christians would probably have been Jewish. Suddenly they are forced to leave (Claudius would not have distinguished Jews and Jewish-Christians). Left behind are Gentiles who had been converted over the years. Many, if not most, were probably from the class of "God-fearers," Gentiles who had an interest in Judaism and heard the message of Jesus in the synagogue. These Gentiles are the only Christians left in Rome, so the church naturally becomes less and less Jewish in orientation.
But by A.D. 54, the date of Claudius's death, Jews are beginning to return. As Jewish-Christians (like Priscilla and Aquila; cf. Rom. 16:3-5) filter back into the church, they find that they are now in a minority. The social tensions created by this history go a long way in explaining the tensions between Jews and Gentiles that the letter to the Romans abundantly attests (cf. 11:13, 25; 14:1-15:13).
Excerpted from Romans to Philemon Copyright © 2002 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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