The Letter of Paul to the Romans - Introduction
Although, because of its length, it is the first in the letters of the New Testament, Romans was probably the latest of Paul's undisputed letters to be written (see “Letters/Epistles in the New Testament,” p. 240 NT). Romans also contains the longest and most complex sustained argument in any of Paul's letters even though it is addressed to Christians he has never met ( 1.13 ). For these reasons the letter, especially chs 1–8 , has often been read as Paul's theological “last will and testament,” a reflection on and a summary of the gospel of salvation in Christ. It was also intended to persuade the Christians of Rome to support Paul's intended mission to Spain ( 15.23–24 ).
Paul had more in view than creating a base for future missionary endeavors. He meant to proclaim to the Christians of Rome the gospel, “the power of God for salvation” ( 1.15–16; 15.18–19 ), and by so doing strengthen and encourage them ( 1.11–12 ). Romans is, like Paul's other letters, an instrument of moral instruction and exhortation (see 15.14–15 ).
The letter was occasioned in part by circumstances in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero (54–68 CE). Among those to whom Paul sends greetings in ch 16 are Prisca and Aquila, known from Acts 18.2 as among the Jews expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius around 49 CE. Their presence in Rome at the time Paul writes may reflect Nero's suspension of that edict (Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.3 ). The recent return of Jews to the imperial capital, including Jewish Christians like Prisca and Aquila, who had been driven out and probably lost property and community ties during their exile, may have aroused tensions within Christian house groups in which Gentile believers had become predominant.
Paul's appeal to Gentile Christians in Rome not to “boast” over Jews ( 11.13–36 ) comes at the end of chs 9–11 , the climax of the letter. Paul's argument responds to an incipient anti‐Judaism, which was already rife among Roman aristocrats and was beginning to emerge in non‐Jewish Christian circles as well. Given the horrors of an anti‐Jewish pogrom in Alexandria (38–41 CE), and even more recent tax riots that had turned deadly in Puteoli, a city south of Rome, Paul was concerned to prevent in Rome the sort of civic disturbance in which the city's minority Jewish population would be especially vulnerable. This is at least one explanation for the notorious exhortation to “be subject to the governing authorities” ( 13.1–7n. ). Similarly, Paul's admonitions regarding the “weak in faith,” concerned with the observance of diet and special days ( 14.1–15.13 ), address tensions between Jewish Christians, who retained their Jewish traditions, and Gentile Christians, who did not.
The theme of God's “righteousness” ( 1.17 ) or “justice” ( 3.5 ) resonates throughout the letter. At stake is God's faithfulness in the face of human faithlessness, as the rhetorical questions that punctuate the letter show ( 2.3–4,21–23; 3.3,5,7,9,27,29; 4.1; 6.1–3,15–16; 7.7,13; 9.14,19,30; 11.1,11 ). God's righteousness is manifest in the uncompromising judgment of all impiety and wickedness, and also in unwavering loyalty to the covenant with Israel. Paul wants the Christians of Rome to respect God's integrity in the salvation offered them through the faithful obedience of Jesus ( 5.6,18–19; see 3.22,26n. ).
Paul is Christ's apostle, obligated to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles,” among whom he includes his Roman audience ( 1.1–6 ). He declares the gospel of God's salvation to all who believe, Jews and Greeks alike, but “to the Jew first” ( 1.16 ). The priority of the Jews in God's plan of salvation is an important theme in the letter ( 3.1–2; 9.1–4 ). Paul's mission to Gentiles should provoke his fellow Jews to jealousy ( 11.13–14 ), perhaps by convincing them that the last days prophesied by Isaiah were at hand (see 15.12 ). At last, Paul declares, “all Israel will be saved” ( 11.26 ), and all the nations will join Israel in the worship of the one true God ( 15.7–13 ).
As he writes, the apostle is about to present to the church in Jerusalem both monetary aid from churches in his mission field ( 15.25–27 ) and an embassy of converts from paganism (1 Cor 16.3–4 ; on the eventual catastrophe of this mission, see Acts 21.27–30 ). Although the Roman Christians have not had the opportunity to contribute to this collection in tangible ways, Paul asks for their prayers ( 15.30–32 ). He also writes to safeguard the sanctity of the “offering of the Gentiles” ( 15.15–16 ) by exhorting the Christians of Rome to holy living ( 12.1–3; 15.7–9 ). Non‐Jewish Christians make sacrificial offering to God by the holiness of their lives.
The theological convictions expressed in the Letter to the Romans resemble those in letters to congregations Paul himself had founded. By virtue of their baptism into Christ, Christians must no longer let sin have dominion over them ( 6.1–14 ). They are no longer to live as the unbelieving world does ( 1.18–32 ), but to give “spiritual worship” to God through sobriety of thought and bodily purity ( 12.1–3 ). Just so Paul had reminded the Corinthians, Galatians, and Thessalonians that they must no longer live as “the Gentiles who do not know God,” having been sanctified by Christ (1 Cor 6.9–11; Gal 5.22–24; 1 Thess 4.1–5 ). Universal accountability before God, Paul's theme throughout the early chapters of the letter, is more specifically applied in chs 12–16 . Rather than being a treatise on Christian salvation, Romans is a sustained appeal for holy living, directed to Gentile Christians tempted to look down on their beleaguered Jewish neighbors, within the Christian congregations and without. The apostle's call to realize in common life the justice of God which the Christian congregation celebrates is the letter's enduring legacy.