The Letter of Paul to the Roman Christian Community (Romans)
We now move from narrative books – gospels and Acts – to letters, and this will carry us through most of the remainder of the New Testament. Of the letters, most are attributed to Paul though most scholars argue that not all the letters attributed to Paul were genuinely written by Paul. Recall that pseudonymous authorship was a common practice in the ancient world. It may be helpful, then, as we begin to read the New Testament letters (epistles) we look a little at the life of Paul and then provide some introductory information to Romans itself.
Paul is a towering figure in the early history of Christianity. His writings are the oldest accounts we have of Christian faith, predating all of the New Testament gospels. If one counts the letters attributed to him and the chapters about him in Acts we discover that Paul takes up half the New Testament. As already mentioned, not all thirteen letters attributed to Paul were written by Paul. In addition, we should note that in places, Paul’s own account of his life in his letters differs in some ways from the portrait provided by Luke. John Dominic Crossan does a nice job of summarizing some of these issues in his recent book, God and Empire. Luke and the letters agree that Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee, and a persecutor of the early Christian community. Luke portrays Paul as a citizen of Rome who was born in Tarsus and raised in Jerusalem and studied under Gamaliel. Paul never mentions his citizenship or being raised in Jerusalem. Crossan says he would not argue very strongly about any of these points, but simply notes the differences. Paul asserts unequivocally that he is an apostle on par with the other apostles. Luke does not use that same language of Paul. Painting a picture of Paul has its complications, then.
“We know very little about the life of Paul before his call/conversion to become a Christian. Even for Paul’s Christian period, we do not have the materials to write anything like a biography.” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Here are some basic points about Paul’s life, which helps provide a context for his letters. Paul was born of Jewish parents in Tarsus. He may have been a Roman citizen. He may have been about the same age as Jesus, thus born sometime between 5 BCE and 5 CE. Paul had both a Hebrew name, Saul and a Roman name – Paul. He was educated in Greek and this was his native language. He probably also spoke Aramaic and knew Hebrew. He was educated as a Pharisee – the Pharisees being a renewal movement within first century Judaism. He may have spent time in Jerusalem, this is disputed. He was trained as a tentmaker or leather worker. In his dedication to his faith, Paul persecuted those who were a part of another “renewal movement” within Judaism – followers of the Way of Jesus. Paul’s change – his call or conversion – occurred in about 33 CE, while he was on his way to deal with followers of Jesus in Damascus. Paul went from being a person who persecuted the Jesus movement to one of its most important figures – quite a dramatic change.
Following his call/conversion/change, Paul studied this new Way in Damascus, and became a traveling teacher with Damascus as his base. After three years, he made his first visit to Jerusalem following his change. For a period of about 14 years, a period on which both Acts and his own letters are silent, Paul apparently continued to learn about, teach and share his faith. He matured as a person, a Christian and a leader. In about 50, Paul and Barnabas engage in their first “missionary journey” sponsored by the church in Antioch of Syria. In that same year, Paul’s work among Gentiles was creating a controversy and he returned to Jerusalem to be a part of a conference of apostolic leaders. “Upon his return to Antioch, Paul had a confrontation with Peter, resulting in a break with the Antioch church” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul went off on his own missionary endeavor. It is from the period of his final two “missionary journeys” that we have letters that are a part of our New Testament. There is a strong consensus that the authentic letters of Paul are: I Thessalonians (usually considered the earliest of Paul’s writings in the New Testament), I and II Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Galatians and Romans. There is significant debate about the authorship of II Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians. There is a strong scholarly consensus that the letters to Timothy and Titus are not from the hand of Paul.
During his final missionary journey, part of Paul’s work involved collecting an offering for the Jerusalem church. Luke does not mention this in Acts, but it seems a primary reason for Paul’s return there in 57 CE. When in Jerusalem this time, Paul is arrested. He offers defenses of his work in Jerusalem and Caesarea, and is imprisoned for two years in Caesarea, before being sent on to Rome. In Rome, his imprisonment continued for two more years. One tradition, perhaps the strongest, is that Paul “was probably condemned and executed ca. 64” (People’s New Testament Commentary). In another tradition, linked to the pastoral epistles (the Timothy books and Titus), Paul was released from prison in Rome and continued his missionary work, only to be arrested and executed at a later date. In this tradition, I Timothy and Titus were written during this period of freedom, and II Timothy written during a second imprisonment.
As for Paul’s theology and his understanding and interpretation of the life of Jesus and the Christian faith, we will discover this as we explore his letters one by one. Volumes have been written about Paul, his life and his theology. Some accuse Paul of warping the simple traditions of Jesus. Some consider his thinking particularly unhelpful. Crossan, in God and Empire poses the question as to whether Paul should be considered an appealing or an appalling apostle, before arguing that he should be considered an appealing one.
Romans is the first of Paul’s letters we will read. Beginning with Romans is not beginning with Paul’s earliest writings, nor with one of his easiest. In fact, Romans is one of Paul’s more dense and sophisticated works, and perhaps the latest of the letters we have. He is writing to a Jesus community (Christian church) he did not found and had never visited, so he is not responding directly to controversies among people he knows. The letters in the New Testament attributed to Paul are arranged in order of decreasing length.
In a real sense… Romans is indeed the premiere Pauline letter, for in the history of the church it has had the most influence, contains the longest sustained argument of any Pauline letter, and comes closest to being a summary of Paul’s faith (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Throughout two millennia of history, Romans has repeatedly proved to be a catalyst for reform and renewal of Christian faith and life (New Interpreters Study Bible). In what context did Paul write this letter?
Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans from Corinth in 56 or 57 CE. Paul had been actively sharing his preaching and teaching, and had been giving counsel to congregations in person and by letter. He would return to Jerusalem to deliver the offering he had been collecting for the church there, though there was doubt about whether they would accept an offering taken up primarily by Gentiles. After his trip to Jerusalem, Paul was planning to visit Rome and from there launch a mission into Spain. Paul is writing this letter to introduce himself and his teaching to Christians he is planning to visit. Part of the context for the letter is the history of the community itself. In 49 CE, Jews and Jewish Christians were forced out of Rome. It is probable that the Emperor Claudius' expulsion of the Jews had something to do with debate in the synagogue over the Jesus movement. Though the church had been primarily Jewish, this left it entirely Gentile. The Jewish Christians have returned and the relationship between these two groups was of concern to Paul. Paul is on his way to visit. On to the letter.