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Friday, September 29, 2017

Romans, the Background


Over the centuries, many theologians have written much about the book of Romans. No doubt has arisen over the originator of the letter. Exact determination of the time of the letter’s writing is not available, though we can make close estimations. The audience for the letter is evident from the beginning. Equally, the purpose of the letter appears obvious. Though theologians have determined each of these almost without a doubt, we should study them more and understand the historical and cultural setting of this letter before studying the letter itself. This will allow us to understand the lives of the people to whom Paul wrote, the political and religious climate in which they lived, and then grasp what Paul wrote and his intentions so we can apply it to our circumstances today.

The Author of Romans

The authorship of the letter to the Romans is unarguable. Paul identified himself immediately in Romans 1:1 as the author. The style of the letter shows the reader Paul authored it. Paul had a particular style of correspondence as readers notice in his other letters. He began with identifying himself and his calling, then gave a greeting, a prayer, thanksgiving, and finally a quick statement of purpose for the letter. Besides these things identifying Paul as the author, he often ended his letters with personal greetings to people in the area to whom he wrote the letter and from people who traveled with him. Notice in Romans 16:22, someone other than Paul wrote the letter. Paul dictated to Tertius his letter to the Romans. Tertius was a scribe made available to Paul while Gaius hosted him in his home.

As to which Gaius this letter mentioned, he could be the one who lived in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:14) in whose house Paul later stayed during his third missionary journey. Other than the Corinthian Gaius, a Gaius who lived in Ephesus (Asia) interacted with Paul, too. He traveled with Paul during his third missionary journey. Authorities seized Gaius in Ephesus (Acts 19:29, 35-41). Theologians wonder if this Gaius mentioned in Romans was from Corinth or Ephesus. Both men had homes in places where Paul ministered and could have hosted him.

Another statement in the letter to the Romans lends credence to the theory Paul wrote from Corinth. Paul mentioned Phoebe of Cenchrea in Romans 16:1-2. Because Cenchrea was a close neighbor to Corinth, some theologians believe Paul wrote from there. Yet, when reading Acts 19, no clarity exists about from which city Paul wrote this letter. No matter from where Paul dictated this letter, Tertius wrote it for Paul while he was on his third missionary journey (Acts 19).

The Date of the Writing of Romans

What would have been the time period Paul wrote the letter to the Romans? If we look in Acts 19:21-22, we note Paul stated he intended to go to Rome after visiting Jerusalem. This occurred during his third missionary journey when he journeyed around Asia and Greece. The churches in Macedonia and Achaia had given him money and other things to take to the believers in Jerusalem who suffered during a severe famine. Most theologians believe the timing of the writing of the letter to the Romans occurred about the time Paul stated he desired to go to Rome after going to Jerusalem in Acts 19:21-22. Determining an approximate year that would have been takes a thorough reading of Acts and the letters Paul wrote.

When we understand Paul wrote to the Romans after he stated his desire to visit them in Acts 19, we realize the timing of the Paul’s composing the letter is between 52 and 59 A.D. We read in Acts 18:12 Gallio was the proconsul of Achaia. Based on historical records, Gallio was proconsul from the spring of 51 A.D. to the spring of 52 A.D. We know from historical records and Acts 22:1-21, Paul was in Jerusalem in 58 A.D. when Roman soldiers took him before the Governor in Caesarea. This means Paul dictated Romans between 52 A.D. and 58 A.D.

If we look closer at Paul’s travels between Achaia (southern Greece) and Jerusalem, we get a better idea of the time period he could have written the letter. In Acts 18, Luke wrote that Paul left Athens then traveled to Corinth (18:1). In Acts 18:11, he stated Paul stayed there eighteen months. During his time in Corinth of Achaia (southern Greece), the proconsul of Achaia, Gallio, presided over Paul’s case in which the Jews accused him of proselytizing. After this, Paul traveled toward Syria (18:18).

During Paul’s travels toward Syria, he stopped in Cenchrea (18:18) then headed to Ephesus (18:19). He traveled to Caesarea then Antioch of Pisidia (Asia) (18:22). After he left Antioch, Paul traveled through the Galatian region and Phrygia (18:23) and met Apollos in Ephesus (18:24). He stayed in Ephesus for about two years (19:10). During Paul’s time in Ephesus this time, idol-making and selling merchants dragged Gaius and Aristarchus into the theater (19:29). After Paul’s two-year stay in Ephesus, he returned to Macedonia (northern Greece) for about three months (20:3). Paul and his traveling companions left Macedonia and returned to Corinth for a third time about 57-58 A.D. (1 Corinthians 16:5-8). They traveled back to Macedonia and sailed from Philippi and to Troas where they stayed seven days (20:6). After these stops, Paul made haste to get to Jerusalem. He desired to be there before Pentecost (20:16). On his way to Jerusalem, he went through Assos, Mitylene, Chios, Samos, Trogylium, Miletus, Cos, Rhodes, Patara, Tyre, Prolemais, and Caesarea of Israel (Acts 20-21).

Looking at this timeline of the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, we recognize Paul wrote to the Romans after Gallio’s time ended in 52 A.D. since Luke recorded Gallio’s political position in Acts 18:12 and before Acts 19:21-22. We realize he wrote the letter before he arrived back in Jerusalem in Spring 58 or 59 A.D. (Acts 21). The time of his extended stay in Ephesus was before his stay in Corinth during the winter of 57-58 A.D. (1 Corinthians 16:5-8 and Acts 19:22). Acts 19:22 says Paul sent Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia from Ephesus and then he stayed in Asia for a while. Since Corinth was in southern Greece and Ephesus was in western Asia, it appears Paul wrote the letter to the Romans during his two-year stay in Ephesus. That would put the timing for its writing around 57 A.D. Paul visited Ephesus and Corinth multiple times during this journey and often one immediately after the other.  His third missionary journey was about strengthening the Christian churches of the east so that’s why he visited them several times.
Because Paul roamed between Ephesus and Corinth several times during this missionary journey, readers cannot ascertain the letter’s definitive place of writing. Some dates went unrecorded for Paul’s visits to the towns, cities, and villages of his third missionary journey, so no definitive date for the writing of the letters to the Romans can occur. The general idea Paul wrote the letter in 57 A.D. fits with the historical events surrounding the Roman Christians and the intent of Paul’s message. Paul wanted to ensure the believers in the west understood the complete gospel message of God’s righteousness and love.

The Content of Romans

The big question is: why did Paul write this letter to Rome? He wanted to prepare them for his visit, explain the reason for his visit, and give them a full statement of the gospel he understood and preached. As with most Pauline letters, he stated the overarching theme of this letter at the end of his greeting and offering of thanks in chapter one. His thematic statement is in Romans 1:16-17. In these verses, Paul said,

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and, also, to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’ [NASB]

From this thematic statement, Paul taught about man’s knowledge of God. He spoke of God’s righteousness and wrath, and His love and mercy. With this understanding, Paul informed the readers and hearers about God’s plan of reconciling humanity with Himself. He taught about justification, salvation, and sanctification in Romans, some of the hallmarks of this letter. 

Because the believers in Rome at the time of Paul’s writing were largely Gentile-background and not Jewish-background, Paul ensured through this letter and his later visit to the country that the believers understood completely about God, the Christ and His life, crucifixion, and resurrection, and the sinfulness and need of each person to be saved from their sins and be reconciled to God. Paul spent his first three missionary journeys preaching to, establishing, and teaching churches in the east. He yearned to go to unbelievers in the west so every person would know the Savior. His timing for the letter to the Roman Christians was appropriate. The political and religious leaders of their country had persecuted them there. Jews bickered and fought with the Christians. The emperors allowed people to persecute them. Later, Nero targeted the Christians for persecution. Paul understood persecution well since he had endured and realized he would continue to live through persecution as most believers do.

The Audience of Romans

Paul stated in Romans 1:7 to whom he addressed the letter. He addressed this letter to the “saints” of Rome. Who were these “saints” (holy ones), these people who accepted Christ as their Savior and through whom they received righteousness and one-ness with God? They were not idol-worshipers. As we study this letter, we must remember the people of Rome typically worshiped idols. As citizens of Rome, they had to worship their Emperor as a god. They worshiped other gods, too. They had a pantheon of gods, many whose names we recall today such as Janus, Venus, Aphrodite, Mars, Saturn, Fortuna, Terminus, Maia, and Quirinus. The Romans worshiped foreign gods from Babylon, Persia, and Egypt such as Mithras, Isis, Demeter, and Cybele. For many Romans, religion was a duty. Devotion to their gods and morality were not very important to them. They enjoyed the festivals, cults, rituals, and sacrifices. The debauchery of Rome remains well-known to this day.

Besides being polytheistic (worshiping more than one god), people recognize the Romans as being orderly, peaceful, and practical. They built a highly efficient road system throughout their empire. The peace of Rome (pax Romana) is well-known. The Roman government allowed each province to rule itself. If unrest occurred instead of peace, then Roman authorities would intervene to adjudicate the problem and establish and enforce a solution to bring about peace. The justice system worked well. If people broke the law, took away peace, and did not abide by the court ruling, stiff penalties and punishments occurred. It was to this Rome and the people of Rome that Paul wrote his letter.

The Historical Context of Romans

Into the Roman context, Judaism and Christianity inserted itself. Jews immigrated to Rome because of the commercial possibilities between Rome and other leading cities of the Mediterranean region like Alexandria. Praetor Hispanus ejected the Jews from Rome in 139 B.C. if they were not Roman citizens. After the Hasmonean war with Caesar, the Jewish community in Rome grew quickly because Rome took many as prisoners. Eventually the Roman masters set them free or ransomed them. The Jews settled by the Tiber River. 

The Jews experienced several expulsions from Rome by its Emperors. Tiberius was the first emperor to expel Jews from Rome. In 19 A.D., when Tiberius expelled the Isis cult from Rome, he expelled the Jews because Jewish customs were becoming too attractive to Roman citizens. The Gentile God-worshipers from Rome worshiped Yahweh in the synagogues with other believers and Jews. They followed most of the Jewish religious customs, but would not become circumcised because it was disfiguring. Greeks had great respect and admiration for the body and hesitated to disfigure it. Because of this, when the Jewish-like religion of Jesus-followers occurred later, the Gentiles of Rome more easily accepted the Gospel than Judaism. These differences in Jews and God-worshipers caused dissension in the synagogues and caused Tiberius to have the Jews expelled from Rome. In 31 A.D., emperor Tiberius allowed them to return.

After the Jews returned to Rome in 31 A.D., they found the small group of God-worshipers, who used to attach themselves to their worship, had grown and become independent of them. They were no longer too small to notice or care about. Emperor Claudius was not against the Jews, but sometime during his reign, probably in 41 A.D., dissensions arose among the Jews and God-worshipers. Because the dissension among them was big enough to catch Claudius’ attention, the number of God-worshipers in Rome must have been big. Claudius forbade the Jews and God-worshipers to have religious services. This dissension continued, so sometime in 49-50 A.D., Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. 

Before the time of Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews, most Messiah-followers were probably Jewish-background believers. [Historians and theologians believe Christianity made its way to Rome through traveling merchants. Some speculate Peter might have traveled there and preached.] After the Jews’ (both non-Christian and Christian) expulsion from Rome and their return after Claudius’ death, most of the Christians in Rome were probably Gentile-background believers. With the return of the Jews to Rome after Claudius’ death, friction ran high between Gentile and Jewish Christians in the house churches. The Jewish-background believers could not worship in the synagogues anymore because of the dispute with the Jews. They wanted to worship with the Gentile Christians when they returned. The Gentile Christians had well-established house churches by then. This may be the reason Paul felt the need to warn the Gentile Christians not to act superior to the Jewish Christians. The Jewish Christians might have felt vulnerable because of the feelings of superiority of the Gentile-background believers. We can find the writings of Paul speaking to the Gentile Christians in Romans 11:17-21 and 14:1-15:6. Paul wrote continually throughout this letter to Gentiles and Jews separately and to them together about their unifying relationship in Christ.

After Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, people in Rome complained to Emperor Nero that the Jews, and the Christians by association, evaded paying taxes. The Jews did not have to pay tax on temple tax and people thought it unfair. During this time, Rome had independent men collect taxes for them. These men knew the amount Rome would require them to hand over and so charged an additional amount besides the mandated tax. The tax collectors were corrupt. The Jews and Christians did not want the corrupt tax collectors to take more than Rome required, which was another reason they balked at paying taxes. Still, they feared if they made a fuss about that corruption, the Roman leaders would imprison or expel them from Rome again. Nero had connections with Jews and so looked favorably upon then. He is the one who divided the two religions-Jews and Christians-when before Romans considered Christianity an offshoot of Judaism. The Christians refused to bow to Nero and worship him as a god, so he persecuted them.  This is why when the great fire of Rome occurred in 18-23 July 64 A.D., Christians became the scapegoats for Nero.

Paul’s Arrival in Rome

Did Paul get to Rome? Yes, he did, but in a way none of us wants to visit a new city. He arrived as a prisoner under guard. He arrived there about three years after he wrote the letter to the Romans. While he was in Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to condemn and kill Paul (Acts 21:27). The tumult they produced in their attempt to stir up dissension caused the Roman guard to intervene. Before this persecution of Paul was over, Paul had spoken before two governors of the region and their council, King Agrippa, and eventually Caesar. The Jews who spoke before governors Felix and Festus said Paul was a pest and tried to desecrate the temple (Acts 24:5-6). Eventually, when King Agrippa heard from Paul of what charges he was being held, explained his calling from Jesus, and told him he was a Roman citizen who requested Caesar be his judge, the King conceded and sent him to Rome.

Paul’s journey to Rome was eventful. His boat left harbor during winter and came upon winter storms that shipwrecked them (Acts 27:41). A snake bit Paul and villagers saw it as a sign of his guilt, but he did not die (Acts 28:3-6). When spring arrived, the crew sailed on toward Italy. Paul arrived in Rome about 61 A.D. and rented a house while there (Acts 28:30). He wrote a letter to the Ephesians while in prison there (Ephesians 3:1, 4:1, & 6:20). In about 62 A. D., Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians (Philippians 1:7) and then wrote Colossians (Colossians 4:18). In 63 A.D., while in prison, he wrote Philemon (Philemon 1:1).

Paul’s imprisonment did not lead to his death, as the Jewish leaders hoped. Instead, Paul’s desire to go to Rome, preach and teach there, and witness to the Emperor occurred. What some people counted on to hold the gospel back, God used for His good and glory to spread the gospel. After Paul’s release from Roman imprisonment, he wrote Titus, and first and second Timothy. He continued to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to more unbelievers and helped strengthen churches.


From the first century, people recognized Paul as the most missionary-minded of Jesus’ apostles, though he never saw Jesus while he was alive as His other disciples did. Paul could not settle down to live life as an armchair Christian. He carried a burden in his heart to share the gospel with all people so no one would die without hearing the good news of Jesus Christ-God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. He lived life with a “thorn in the flesh” while expecting persecution at any time. His life was Christ’s. Paul surrendered everything to Him. Who better could preach to the Roman believers-Jew and Gentile-about suffering, unity, mercy, forgiveness, and eternal life? The Roman Christians began small, had growing pains, experienced persecution, and sought more-to know Christ and grow more like Him. Paul’s heart, attuned to God’s heart, compelled him to go to people he did not know, but whom he already loved. He thanked God for them before he ever met them. He was “under obligation” to Greeks and Jews, and wise and foolish people. Paul was eager to preach the gospel to everyone (Romans 1:14-15). In this letter, he was eager to preach to Romans.

May our heart’s cry be as Paul’s was when he wrote Romans and when he penned Philippians. PAul said in Philippians 1:21-26,

For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But, if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me, and I do not know which to choose. But, I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26 [NASB])

May we each want to know the Lord and to have a love for all people so our heart cries out to the lost and they not die before hearing of the gospel of Jesus Christ.