Romans the book

In Acts we read...

"Take courage, Paul. For as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome"

(Acts 23:11).

Romans is Paul's letter to the Roman church, laying the foundation for his upcoming visit. Unknown to Paul he would visit and testify in Rome but not in the way he anticipated; he would go to Rome as a prisoner chained to a Roman guard.

Romans is often seen as an intimidating book, its long, its detailed and complex. However we should remember that it was not written as an academic treatise but was written as a letter to ordinary people: shop keepers, slaves and tradesmen. They could understand it and so can we. However the original recipients had an advantage over us; they lived and worked in the same time and culture as Paul and would quickly understand his allusions and references which may be lost on us. To fully understand Romans we need to understand the context it was written in, only then will we fully understand the nature of what Paul was writing.

Romans as a letter exists in ancient texts in a long form, which is what we have in our bibles and a shorter version which corresponds to the first fourteen chapters. The last two chapters are specific to the Roman Church and what appears to have happened is that the long version was the original but the letter was so important that a shortened version was sent to other Churches. Romans is one of the seven letters of Paul of which there is no serious argument about who wrote it.

Paul wrote Romans around AD 56-57 when he was in Corinth living in the house of Gaius. Paul had taken a collection in Macedonia and Acaia for the poorer members of the Church in Jerusalem and intended to take the collection to Jerusalem before visiting Rome (Rom 15:25-26). Paul was planning a new missionary journey and he saw Rome as the natural starting point for his next missionary journey to Spain because, at this time, Rome was the western most Church in the world and Paul was hoping for support from the Roman Church. However Paul could expect little support if they were preoccupied bickering over minor issues such as dietary observances. Even worse was the fact that if these issues were being raised then it suggested they had not grasped the full impact of the gospel at all, Paul hoped to correct these distractions with this letter, refocus the Church onto the transforming resurrection of Christ and look forward to spreading the gospel to Spain, which was the end of the known world in Roman times.

Most of Paul's letters were written for specific churches that Paul had been personally involved with and they usually addresses specific problems in the church. Romans is unusual in that when it was written Paul had never visited Rome and had little influence on the young church. Because Paul had little contact with the Roman Church his letter to Romans appears less personal than his other letters but it is the most detailed explanation of his believes.

What was Rome the City like in AD 57

What was the city of Rome like in AD 57?

Rome in AD 57 probably had a population of about one million people. About half of the population were slaves and most of the rest were poor workers. There was a small number of wealthy residents and not a lot in between. About 40\% of the The cities land was taken up with imperial palaces, temples and government buildings. Everyone else lived in the squalid, cramped and dirty tenement blocks that made up the remaining 60% of the city. The population density of the poor areas of Rome in AD 57 is thought to have been about double that of Manhattan today - and Americans live in Skyscrapers!

What was the Church in Rome like?

Paul had never been to Rome, he did not found the Church and we do not know who founded the church in Rome, some claim it was Peter but there is no evidence for this, we simply don't know.

In Rome there was a growing gulf between the Jews and the Christians. the Christians were originally seen as a sect within Judaism. Many Christians saw the fact that the bulk of Judaism had rejected Christ as a sign that God had rejected the Jews. Paul wants to correct that view as he sees Jesus has fulfilling and completing Judaism rather than abolishing it.

Although the Church in Rome contained a mix of Jews and gentiles it is quite likely that even the gentiles had quite a good understanding of the scriptures. During this period a high portion of the people who attended the synagogues were actually not Jews or even Jewish converts but people who were curious about the Jewish god. Historical studies suggest that in some cities 40\% of attendees were non Jewish. This is hinted at in Paul's comment in Acts 13 where he refers to these people as "God fearers".

Acts 13

13 Then Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem;

14 but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down.

15 After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, "Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it".

16 So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak: “You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen".

This also explains the apparent contradiction that Paul always stated that his mission was to the gentiles but he talks of going to the synagogues first when he arrived in a new City; Paul was probably going to the synagogue and talking to gentile "God fearers" in the Jewish synagogues. This would make sense as the ``God fearers'' who already attended the synagogue would know that a Messiah was prophesied in the old testament, they were clearly interested and would be a fertile segment of society for Paul's message. Jewish belief was that the coming of the Messiah would usher in a new age, a God given alternative to the current age. Hence there was no need to explain to Jews or the "God fearers" about the Messiah, the issue for Paul was to convince these people that the resurrected Jesus was the Messiah they expected and explain that we were in a transitional age, not yet the age to come. The "God fearers" already knew the theory, Paul's job was to explain how Christ fulfilled their Jewish beliefs.

What was day to day life like in the Church?

The Church in Rome was small and would have consisted of people meeting in small groups in private houses. Most Jews, and it is believed most Christians, lived in the poor areas. Paul greets five specific households in chapter 16 which suggests that there might have been five distinct Christian groups meeting in Rome. A typical household meeting would hold about 20-30 people so the total Church in Rome could well have been about 100-150 people in a city of a million.

The Church would have had prophesy:

Acts 21

8 The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him.

9 He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

They broke bread together:

Acts 20

7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.

8 There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting.

9 A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer.

They were meeting in an upstairs room, maybe above a shop. We also learn from this that Paul gave very long talks and people fell asleep even in his sermons!

Christianity was the first religion to have no temples, no priesthood and no sacrifices. This had further implications. The tithe in Judaism was used to support the temples, festivals, Levites and the poor, with most of those abolished there was also no tithe, hence Paul made a special collection to take to the poor in Jerusalem. The tithe is scriptural - but its not Christian. However it has remained the favourite topic of many preachers.

What did most Romans believe in AD 57

The Jews were a small segment of society in Rome, probably 2-5% of the population.

What did the average Roman believe?

But first a question: Who do the following statements refer to?

  • Divine Lord.
  • Son of God.
  • Saviour of the world.
  • Whose birth is hailed as Good news.
  • Who has brought peace on earth.

They all refer to the emperor Nero. The major religion in the Roman empire at this time was the deification of the emperor himself. Nero was one emperor who encouraged this belief. It is important to remember this when reading Romans because some of what Paul discusses in Romans is not just new and radical but potentially treasonous. Paul claims these phrases for Christ, effectively saying that Nero's claim on these titles is false, a dangerous claim to make. Roman emperors claimed to bring peace on earth but it was a peace enforced through military conquest, violence and enforced slavery. Roman violence had extended so far as to kill Jesus on the cross. The resurrection showed that the God Paul was preaching was above Roman authority and above the power of the emperor. The resurrected Jesus was God and the emperor a liar. When Paul said "Jesus is lord" anyone living in Rome would immediately understand the implication that Nero is not the lord he claims to be.

What was happening in Rome at this time

What was happening in this period of history? Roman rulers of this period were some of the most bizarre in history, some were just bad, others were murderously insane. Nero was one of the worst. A short summary of some events going on in Rome at this time, these all happened within a few years of Paul writing his letter.

Time line

  • AD 49 - Claudius bans the Jews from Rome, the exact date in unsure, Priscilla and Aquila who are mentioned several times in the new testament leave Rome. Suetonius says the Jews were expelled because of disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus which is probably a garbled reference to claims over Jesus as the Messiah.
  • AD 54 - Claudius is murdered and Nero becomes emperor. Priscilla and Aquila probably return to Rome at this time.
  • AD 57 - Paul writes Romans when in Corinth while he is staying with Gaius.
  • AD 59 - Nero has his own mother murdered.
  • AD 60 - Paul arrives in Rome as a prisoner.
  • AD 62 - Nero divorces his first wife, Octavia, and then has her murdered, you can't be too careful!
  • AD 64 - Great fire in Rome, Nero blames the Christians and begins the persecution. Many believe Nero started the fire himself to clear space for his new palace. Paul was probably executed as part of this wave of persecution.
  • AD 67 - Nero has a young man - Sporus - castrated and then marries him because he looks like his dead wife.
  • AD 70 - Jewish revolt and Rome destroys the temple in Jerusalem.

Nero wasn't a God - he was insane! These were dangerous and volatile times and in this atmosphere Paul sits down in Corinth and dictates his letter to the Church in Rome.

From Acts, Romans and Suetonius we have good idea of how early Christianity developed in Rome, but we don't know who started it. The early believers were amongst the Jews and the gentiles who attended the synagogue, Jews and the "God fearers". The ensuing debates and as Suetonius says, disturbances, within the Jewish community prompted Claudius to expel the Jews. It appears that the debate had got rather heated! With the Jews expelled Christianity became a predominantly gentile religion in Rome. When the Jewish Christians returned under Nero they found themselves in the minority amongst the Christian population which had grown during their absence and conflicts arose over issues such as diet. These conflicts are one of the issues Paul wants to address.