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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Purpose.

1.

Paul offers few clues as to his purpose in writing to the church at Rome. He states in 1:10–11 that he prays for the Roman Christians and longs to see them, ‘that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith … [and] that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.’ In 15:15 , he states that ‘on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.’ In 15:23–9 , Paul informs his readers of his travel plans: he soon will deliver the collection to ‘the saints at Jerusalem’ and then visit Rome on his way to Spain, where he will engage in further missionary work (v. 20 ). He hopes not only to see the Roman Christians but also ‘to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while’ (v. 24 ). Similarly, in vv. 28–9 , Paul states that ‘I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.’ In 15:30–1 , Paul urges his readers to pray for the success of his impending trip to Jerusalem, ‘so that by God's will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.’ Taken together, these statements probably indicate that Paul hoped to win the support of the Roman church for his missionary venture in Spain, and that as ‘minister to the Gentiles’ (Gal 2:7 ), he assumed a measure of pastoral responsibility for the Gentile Christians in what was, after all, the greatest city of the known world. The letter thus would have both strategic and didactic functions, to introduce and recommend Paul, and to teach and exhort his readers in the Christian faith, as Paul understood it.

2.

Could not Paul have met these objectives in fewer than the 7,000 words of Romans? Was there some larger task, demanding a more extensive response? The traditional explanation is to regard Romans as Paul's theological ‘last will and testament’, a summary of his theology composed near the end of his career. But Paul expected both an ongoing apostolic occupation and an approaching eschatological consummation ( 13:11–12 ). Moreover, Romans is not a good compendium of Pauline teaching; much that is contained in Paul's other letters is absent. Why did Paul write at such length about these particular issues, most notably, the law and Judaism? Scholars have looked both to Paul's own circumstances and to the circumstances of the Roman church for answers.

3.1.

What do we know about Paul's situation that might be relevant to the composition of Romans? Surely the most important datum is the recent, bitter controversy at Galatia; the letter to the Galatians includes most of the primary topics and much of the key language of Romans. Many scholars date Philippians even closer to Romans (55 CE, according to Jewett 1979 ). Phil 3 (probably a warning based on Paul's Galatian experience; see Hill 1992: 155–8) is reminiscent of both Galatians and Romans (‘flesh… circumcision… zeal… righteousness under the Law’, etc.). Thus the theology of Romans does not appear ex nihilo. Paul had ample cause to weigh these matters and to regard them as both important and urgent.

3.2.

A second key factor is Paul's awareness of the relative failure of the church's ‘Jewish mission’ (Gal 2:7–8 ). Paul speaks of his ‘sorrow and unceasing anguish’ for his ‘kindred according to the flesh’ ( 9:2 ). It is clear that Jewish unbelief is a theological and not just a personal problem for Paul. God acted in Christ to fulfil divine promises to Israel, but the concrete result is a Gentile church. Can God be righteous, faithful to God's own nature and commitments, and not save Israel? (Indeed, God's righteousness is the unifying theme of the entire letter. See ROM 1:16–17 .) In the face of his impending trip to Jerusalem, the problem must have appeared acute. Has God failed? And is not Paul, who calls Gentiles ‘children of Abraham’ ( 4:16 ) and who says that ‘Christ is the end of the law’ ( 10:4 ), the enemy of Israel? Is Paul's a righteous gospel? Hays (1989: 35) has noted with insight that Romans is ‘an intertextual conversation between Paul and the voice of Scripture’ in which the apostle ‘labors to win the blessing of Moses and the prophets’. Gentile biblical scholarship has tended to de-Judaize Paul, there by trivializing these struggles and rendering the central place of Rom 9–11 (on the fate of Israel) nonsensical.

3.3.

A number of scholars have argued that it is Paul's impending trip to Jerusalem that most influenced his writing of Romans (e.g. Manson 1948, Jervell 1971 ). It is evident from 15:30–2 that Paul himself anticipated trouble in Jerusalem. Accordingly, Romans is often seen as a rehearsal of the arguments that Paul would make on his own behalf in Jerusalem. The shape of this theory varies from scholar to scholar, depending mostly upon prior conclusions about the relationship between Paul and other Jewish Christians. Does 15:31 indicate that Paul would have to defend himself to the Church as well as to the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem? If so, on what issues? F. C. Baur (1873–5: i. 109–51) asserted a century and a half ago that the leaders of the Jerusalem church (notably, Peter and James) actively opposed Paul for admitting uncircumcised Gentiles into the church. It is the heirs of Baur today who make the most of Paul's conflict with the Jerusalem church. By their reading, Paul's defence in Romans of the equality of Jew and Gentile is aimed squarely at the Jerusalem Christians. This presents a heroic, classically Protestant portrait of Paul as the lone champion of Christian freedom. Despite its popularity, this hypothesis is not corroborated by the New Testament. The only substantial evidence strongly supports the contrary view, that the Jerusalem church accepted Gentiles qua Gentiles as Christian believers (e.g. Gal. 2:1–10; Acts 15 ; see Hill 1992: 103–92). This does not mean that there was no disagreement between Paul and other Jewish–Christian leaders. Paul sanctioned disobedience by Jews of certain Jewish (particularly food) laws (see 1 Cor 9:20–1 ), an attitude that did not endear him to many in Israel, Christian or otherwise. It is instructive that it was over food laws that Paul confronted Peter at Antioch (Gal 2:11–14 ); it was not the circumcising of Gentiles that precipitated the crisis but the observing of dietary laws that, in Paul's mind, recreated the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Likewise, it is the issue of law observance on the part of Jewish Christians that is mentioned in association with Paul's final visit to Jerusalem in Acts ( 21:21, 28 ). Also, one should bear in mind that Paul was bidding for the practical support of the Roman church. Interjecting a dispute with the mother church (whose authority Paul himself acknowledged; e.g. Gal 2:2 ) hardly seems politic. Moreover, any such self-defence is subtle to the point of invisibility (cf., by contrast, the defence of 2 Cor 11–13 or the record of his public confrontation in Gal 2:11–14 ). Therefore, while Paul's impending Jerusalem visit may have been a factor in his composition of Romans (as in ROM D.3.1), it is highly doubtful that Romans originated as an apologia directed at the Jerusalem church.

4.

The other approach is to look to the circumstances of the letter's recipients for explanations. How much Paul knew about the situation in Rome is the subject of considerable debate. His most likely source of information was Priscilla and Aquila, who, according to Acts 18:2 , came to Corinth from Rome as a consequence of Claudius' expulsion of the Jews (49 CE). They are mentioned by Paul himself in 1 Cor 16:19 and (if authentic) Rom 16:3 . Also mentioned in ch. 16 are several other Roman Christians. Still, it is not obvious how Paul's acquaintance with such persons might have shaped this letter. Paul made a considerable effort to introduce himself and his gospel to the Roman church, a clear signal that he regarded his audience as strangers. Many scholars attempt to link the epistle's contents to a Roman context by suggesting that the Jewish believers who returned to Rome following Claudius' death were not accorded due respect by their Gentile co-religionists, who even went so far as to deny positions of authority to returning Jewish leaders (Marxsen 1968: 95–104; Beker 1980: 69–74). Hearing of the Gentile Christians' conduct, Paul composed this letter, at least in part as an attempt to unify the Roman church. Passages such as 11:17–21 (‘do not vaunt yourselves over the branches [the Jews]’) were written to teach the Gentile believers proper humility. (In tension with this purpose is the tendency of these same scholars to equate the ‘weak’ of ch. 14 with returning Jewish believers who continued to observe food laws: see Dunn 1988: ii. 798; cf. the counter-argument in Nanos 1996: 85–165.) This reconstruction, while not impossible, is open to question at every point (see e.g. the strong challenge of Stowers 1994 ). The most that can be said with certainty is that Paul wanted to demonstrate that the Gentile church had not supplanted Israel, and therefore that Gentiles had no reason to boast in their present status ( 11:17–36 ). The argument could have been formulated in response to a Jewish-Gentile conflict in the Roman church, but such a conflict is not required to explain it. Perhaps Gentile Christians in the capital city faced special temptations to triumphalism, but that tendency could hardly have been unique, as subsequent history thoroughly demonstrates.

5.

Knowing the context of a statement is of first importance in determining its meaning; unfortunately, such contextual data are substantially lacking with respect to Romans. Consequently, the inherently conjectural nature of one's interpretation should be acknowledged. Sufficient evidence exists to allow for the formation of fairly detailed hypotheses; sufficient gaps in that evidence ensure that even careful hypotheses will be substantially speculative. To a large degree, we do not know why this epistle was written, and any interpretation based upon the presumption of such knowledge will be inherently circular. Because the commentary below assumes no single ‘reason for Romans’, it will not attempt to advance one interpretation against all others. Instead, it will seek to delineate the plausible range of interpretation. This is an admittedly confined ambition, but one that corresponds to the real limitations within which any interpreter of Romans labours.

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