Paul's letter “to all God's beloved in Rome” (1:7) is the longest of the apostle's letters and therefore has appeared first among those letters in New Testament manuscripts since the fourth century. Because it also contains the most complex sustained argumentation in any of Paul's letters, it has exerted great influence in Christian theology. Divergent readings in recent scholarship show that the meaning and purpose of that argumentation are hardly settled, however. Clearly Romans was written to be read aloud to the gathered communities in Rome (16:3–16), not preserved for later generations as sacred literature. But whether Paul meant by this letter to address specific concerns in the Roman congregations, or rather to use the occasion to provide a theological “testament” summing up his considered views, remains a matter of lively controversy (Donfried 1991; Hay and Johnson 1995).

Authorship and Integrity of the Letter.

That Paul wrote the letter has only rarely been questioned. Occasional proposals to explain tensions within Romans as the result of the combination of two or more previously composed sermons or letters by Paul, addressed to Jewish and non-Jewish congregations of believers in Jesus, have been unsuccessful. (“Non-Jewish” is used here in preference to “gentile,” which falsely suggests a coherent ethnic identity; Paul uses the plural term ethnē, literally “nations,” for example at 1:5, 13.)

Textual fluctuations among ancient manuscripts of Romans are some of the most complicated in the New Testament. This is due in no small part to the second-century antinomian Marcion, who produced a version of the text ending at 14:23, which thus omitted the scriptural vision of Israel and the nations worshipping together (15:1–13) and greetings to Romans including Paul's fellow Jews (16:3–16, 21–23). The doxology at 16:25–27 may have been added in a later attempt to restore the letter; the admonition in 16:17–20, which interrupts the sequence of greetings rather jarringly, may also be an interpolation. The textual history—which also includes the omission in a few manuscripts of the greeting “to Rome” (1:7, 15)—demonstrates a lively interest in early Christianity in reading the letter as of general applicability, particularly in the emerging non-Jewish church (Jewett 2007, 4–18, 985–996).

There are few clues to the letter's date, but Paul's reference to having gathered a collection for Jerusalem in Achaia and Macedonia (15:25–27) puts Romans later than his letters to communities in those regions. Scholars generally date the letter between 55 and 57 C.E., that is, in the first years of the emperor Nero's rule. The book of Acts reports (21:27—28:31) that the visit to Jerusalem anticipated in this letter (Rom 15:25–32) ended in disaster. Paul was taken into Roman custody and arraigned before Antonius Felix (Acts 23:23—24:27), procurator of Judea from 52 to 56 C.E. On this evidence, Romans would have been written no later than 55.

Historical Context.

It is easier to catalog events and aspects of the letter's historical context than to describe any consensus among interpreters regarding their importance for explaining why Paul wrote this letter.

In 49 C.E. (or perhaps earlier), the emperor Claudius expelled at least some Jews from Rome; the historian Suetonius attributes the action to Jewish behavior that disturbed civic peace (Claudius 25.4). Interpretation of this terse reference (and of its relationship to Acts 18:1–2, which seems to refer to the same event) is controversial. How many Jews were expelled? What were the nature and motives of the disturbances of which Suetonius accuses them? How did Claudius's action relate to broader Roman imperial policy toward Jews, including his own suppression of the civil strife that so injured the Jewish community in Alexandria in 41? All of these remain matters of substantial debate. Unfortunately, some explanations of Jewish conduct in 49 rely more on assumption and prejudice regarding Jewish restiveness than on what can be known historically (Slingerland 1997, 27–31).

The weakened status of the Jewish community in Rome, which had included a relatively large proportion of immigrants and lacked the stable civic presence documented in other cities in the empire, was inevitably worsened by Claudius's expulsion, whatever its scope. The situation of that community after the presumed reversal of Claudius's edict by his successor, Nero, which would have allowed Jews back into the city but under straitened circumstances, is a matter of intense scholarly speculation, given the sparseness of our data. Some of this speculation focuses on what we can know of elite Roman attitudes toward Jews in the middle of the first century (Wiefel 1970/1991). More often, Christian theological commentary has assumed that Paul shared with non-Jewish believers in Rome the perception that a failure on Israel's part to believe the gospel constituted a “theological fact” to which Paul felt obliged to respond (see 3:3; 9:31–10:4; 11:1–11). This assumption stands in some tension with Paul's insistence that “it is not as though the word of God had failed” (9:6); that God has “by no means” rejected his people (11:1), who have “by no means” stumbled so as to fall (11:11); and that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). The discrepancy has led some scholars to speak of Paul's inconsistency or of his unreflective ethnic loyalty. More plausibly, in light of the warning to non-Jews in 11:13–25, other scholars hold that Paul writes to prevent or oppose just such prejudicial characterizations of the beleaguered Jewish community held by non-Jews in the Roman congregations of believers in Jesus.

Nero's accession in 54 would have been a very recent event when Paul wrote. Beyond possible implications for the Jewish community in Rome, the consequences of that accession may bear consideration for the letter's interpretation as well. Claudius, Nero's stepfather, died under mysterious circumstances: rumors accused Agrippina, his wife, of murdering him to elevate her son Nero as emperor. Claudius was nevertheless deified by a decree of the Senate, at Nero's request. These events may have provided background for Paul's discussion of justice (NRSV “righteousness,” Gk. dikaiosynē), the power of God revealed in the raising of Jesus from the dead (1:1–4), and faithfulness (NRSV “faith,” Gk. pistis) in the letter. Furthermore, Nero's tax policies, and the riots they provoked in Italy, have been proposed as background for Paul's comments on the governing authorities in 13:1–7, which end with a reference to paying taxes (Friedrich et al. 1976). (Modern attitudes toward these comments are discussed in the following section.)

Occasion and Purpose.

The letter's occasion and purpose remain subjects of considerable debate. Clearly Paul has not founded the Roman congregations (though he knows a number of their members by name: 16:3–16), but has heard of their faith and is eager to come to them for the first time (1:8–10). He has long desired to see them and wishes now to “share some spiritual gift to strengthen” them, or rather that they may “be mutually encouraged” (1:9–12). At the end of the letter body he expresses confidence that they are capable of instructing one another (15:14). This courteous language may show Paul's respect for a community that he has not founded, but wishes nevertheless to exhort—to “reap some harvest” among them (1:13), to “remind” them by writing to them “rather boldly” though he is confident they are able to “instruct” (or admonish: nouthetein) one another (15:14–16). The sterner tone of the warning in 11:13–32, regarded by many contemporary scholars as the climax of the letter (though this view has come to prevail only in the last half of the twentieth century), suggests that boastful attitudes shown by non-Jewish believers toward Jews are the letter's primary target. The arrogance of these non-Jews is variously ascribed today to the general failure of Paul's gospel among Jews (but was this already an established fact?); to in-group ethnic tendencies among non-Jewish and Jewish believers alike in the congregations (Esler 2003); or to perceptions, current among the Roman upper class and exacerbated by imperial propaganda, of the Jews as an inferior people destined to be ruled by others.

Other interpreters have taken Paul's courteous language at face value, however, as evidence that the letter bears no agenda toward the Romans other than eliciting their support. Paul's desire to gain their goodwill is evident at discrete points in the letter. He writes to commend the deacon Phoebe to their support (16:1–2); he hopes to rely on the Romans later to send him on his way to Spain (15:22–29); and he asks directly for their prayers as he prepares, with some anxiety, to face “the unbelievers in Judea,” whither he goes with the collection (15:30–32). These explicit concerns suggest to some readers that Paul is less concerned with admonition than with soliciting the Romans' approval of his theological views. On this assumption, the letter should be read as a theological position paper or as a sample of Paul's preaching or teaching, submitted to the Roman congregations as prospective funders of his future mission work. Because in this view of Romans Paul's theological ideas are more important than the circumstances occasioning the letter, this view often finds support, or is criticized, in line with broader estimations of the importance of those ideas for contemporary theology.

One key to resolving the debate over the letter's purpose may be what Paul does not say. Although he holds up the example of the generosity of assemblies in Macedonia and Achaia (15:22–29) and hints strongly that he will expect the Romans later to send him on his way to Spain, he does not ask the Romans now for money. The letter is nevertheless framed by references to his obligation “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (1:5; compare 15:18, NRSV), including the Romans (1:6; 13–15), and he states explicitly that he has written them in an instructive or admonitory tone “so that the offering of the gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (15:14–16). Apparently Paul seeks a particular response from the Romans now that will, in his view, constitute their participation in the “offering of the gentiles” and thus guarantee its holiness.


The question of the letter's audience is no less controversial than the matters described above. The letter opening and closing and the warning in chapter 11 explicitly address members of the nations (ta ethnē, translated by the NRSV as “gentiles” except at Rom 4:17–18 and 10:19, where the more appropriate “nations” is used). Yet other parts of the letter are addressed to “a Jew” (2:17–29) and to “those who know the law” (7:1–25); the present and future status of Israel is the topic of chapters 9–11. These observations, sometimes described as features of the letter's “double character,” have often been taken to indicate that Paul's purpose was, at least in part, to challenge Jewish believers' attitudes of superiority over non-Jewish believers as well as arrogance on the part of non-Jewish believers. The letter is seen then as addressed to a mixed audience; its purpose, as ameliorating ethnic tensions within the Roman congregations. But some more recent studies have argued, to the contrary, that Paul's discussions of Jewish topics are rhetorical devices intended for the benefit of non-Jewish listeners, who are the letter's primary implied audience (Stowers 1994; Elliott 1990).

Structure of the Letter.

Given the debates described above, it is not surprising that different interpreters provide varying outlines of the letter. The epistolary frame is clear enough and resembles that of other letters: the opening includes a greeting (1:1–7) and a thanksgiving (beginning at 1:8); the closing includes a peroration (beginning at 15:14), future plans (15:22–32), a doxology (15:33), the commendation of Phoebe (unique to this letter, 16:1–2), and greetings (16:3–23, interrupted by a peculiar warning in vv. 17–20), followed by another concluding doxology (16:25–27).

The structure of the letter body is not as obvious, however, in part because identifying the beginning of the letter body depends in part on what the letter is understood to accomplish. When, especially in the Protestant tradition following Luther, the letter's “theme” or “thesis” has been identified in the announcement of justification by faith in 1:16–17, the relation of these lines to their context at the beginning of the letter body has been obscured. Subsequent chapters have been read as “proofs” of that theme. One proof demonstrates that because of universal human wickedness (1:18–3:20) only the justification offered in Christ to those who have faith can avail (3:21–31); another shows that Abraham was an example of this faith (4:1–25). Chapters 5–8 describe the life in Christ that is the consequence of justification as freedom from death (ch. 5), sin (ch. 6), and law (ch. 7) to stand as children of God in the power of the Spirit (ch. 8). Chapters 9–11 are understood on this view as constituting a defense of God's honor against the implication of Paul's own gospel, namely, that the failure of Israel to secure their own righteousness through the law constituted a challenge to God's faithfulness to the covenant. On this reading, the warning to non-Jews in 11:13–32 appears as something of an afterthought, a rearguard defense against possible misunderstanding of the preceding argument but of relatively marginal importance to the whole. The exhortation in 12:1–15:13 is read as a “proof” as well, aimed not at reproving the Roman congregations but at showing that Paul's gospel as presented in the previous chapters has commendable ethical consequences. The letter, then, is read as a showpiece of Paul's rhetoric, displaying his skill at recommending the Christian way of life. Its nearest analogues might then be found in Hellenistic protreptic (exhortative) writings that expounded the benefits of a particular way of life (Guerra 1995).

A very different outline results from taking seriously the disclosure clauses in 1:13–15 as a statement of Paul's hortatory purpose regarding the Romans. Further, observing that the call to new life in chapter 12 is exactly opposite to the injustice described in 1:18–32 and is possible only because of baptism (ch. 6) allows us to recognize the structure of the entire letter as exhortation to non-Jews, who are thereby reminded, in a pattern common in early Christian preaching, of the morally catastrophic life they have left behind and encouraged to persevere in their new identity (Furnish, 103–6). Rhetorical questions and flights of diatribe (rhetorically stylized conversation) serve specific roles within the letter's larger hortatory purpose: showing, first, that all are accountable to God, Jews and non-Jews alike (1:18–3:20), and that faithfulness (pistis, meaning less “belief” than “obedience”) has always been the basis of justification. Those who are “in Christ” now participate in Christ's obedience (3:21–6:23). The rather vague questions about God's faithfulness in the face of human faithlessness in 3:5–8 thus appear of a piece with the questions directed to the baptized in 6:1, 15.

Paul uses rhetorical questions and speech-in-character (prosōpopoeia) in 7:1–8:4 to argue that freedom from law means not lawlessness but consent to the law's right requirements. Rhetorical questions throughout chapters 9–11 press home the theme of God's faithfulness to the covenant with Israel, despite the appearance of present circumstances. On this reading, then, a key to understanding Paul's argument in the letter is recognizing that his rhetorical questions are not posed as “objections” raised by fictitious interlocutors but represent Paul's own use of a common rhetorical technique to drive and direct his argument.

Judging chapters 9–11 to be the letter's climax depends in part on recognizing the concentration in 9:1–4 of epistolary features usually associated with the beginning of a letter body, including a heightened personal tone and oath and disclosure formulas (Dahl 1977). One consequence is that on this reading, chapters 1–8 are not a self-contained theological description of life in Christ, but an elaborate preparation for chapters 9–11, termed by some an insinuatio, the “indirect approach” recommended by ancient rhetoricians for presenting a difficult or unpopular argument (Witherington 2004 p. 17). The assurances that those in Christ cannot be separated from the love of God but are revealed as God's children (8:1–39) are not meant to stand independently, but function to heighten the emotional impact of Paul's outpouring of concern for his fellow Jews in 9:1–4—a concern his rhetoric moves his audience to share. Separation from God is precisely the danger about which Paul warns his non-Jewish audience in 11:17–21, without holding out for them the prospect of restoration that he is sure is available to Israel (11:23, 26).

The exhortations that follow in chapters 12–15 draw the consequences of the preceding argument, first by encouraging mutual regard and concern (12:1–21). Those more general admonitions are subsequently focused in a call to “the strong” to defer to “the weak” regarding foods (14:1–15:6). Apparently the observance of a kosher diet is at issue (14:14), but recent studies propose that Paul's talk of “strong” and “weak” refers at the same time to the socioeconomic status of powerful and “weak” persons in a socially stratified city and to corresponding ascription of honor and shame, rather than to the adequacy or inadequacy of an individual's faith (Reasoner 1999). The mutualism Paul encourages is at odds with the sensibility of upper-class Roman culture (Jewett).

In the broad sweep of this exhortation, Paul's appeal to “be subject to the governing authorities” (13:1–7) strikes a jarring note at least in modern ears. Attempts to disqualify these lines as an interpolation have not been successful. Neither, however, are proposals to read Paul's unqualified endorsement of governing powers here as his “theology of the state” or even as consistent with his overall theological position elsewhere. Indeed, a very different note is struck already in the very next lines, where Paul declares, “owe no one anything, except to love one another” (13:8) and makes cryptic but unmistakably eschatological references to the “time” and “the day” (13:11–14)—qualifications quite absent from 13:1–7. If the background of Nero's unpopular tax policies are indeed relevant here, so may be the claims of his propagandists that unlike his ancestor Augustus, who had come to power through warfare, Nero had no need to resort to the sword (Elliott 1997); but the perception of an implicit critique or of irony on Paul's part remains for now a matter of scholarly conjecture.


In light of the previous discussion, the question naturally arises: How have such different, at some points incompatible, interpretations arisen regarding the same text?

A partial answer may rest with the placement of the letter to the Ephesians in the body of Pauline letters. Although it is regarded by a majority of critical scholars as a later writing falsely purporting to come from Paul's own hand, Ephesians has enjoyed high regard, even among some of these same scholars, as embodying “the quintessence of Paulinism.” The author of Ephesians represents the church as the happy union of Jews and non-Jews, the troublesome impediment of “the law with its commandments and ordinances” having been “abolished” (katargoumenon) by Christ on the cross (Eph 2:11–16). This, and nothing more, is proclaimed as the “mystery” at the heart of Paul's gospel (Eph 3:1–6). (One is left to wonder how many Jews, freed from the encumbrance of the Torah, were actually numbered in the church that produced this letter.) In Romans, however, Paul himself speaks quite differently. He is not aware that the law has been abolished (“by no means!” does he “overthrow” the law, as the NRSV translates the same verb, katargeō, in 3:31). The “mystery” revealed in Romans is not simply the inclusion of the nations but the counterintuitive disclosure that Israel's apparent “stumbling” is only temporary, the result of a divine “hardening” that inexplicably benefits the nations but will be reversed when the “full number” of the nations has come in (11:11–12, 25–26).

Even before Marcion's fateful intervention, then, the theological template of a post-Pauline, non-Jewish church was put forward as describing the heart of Paul's own message. Read from within this template, Romans became a treatise on the availability in Christ of salvation apart from and in opposition to the Jewish law, and such it remained for most of the Christian theological tradition until the last half of the twentieth century.

As discussed above, however, the elements of a very different reading of Romans are available today. They include the rhetorical-critical discovery that “the Jew” as such is not the target of Paul's diatribe in Romans 2, as an earlier interpretation required (Stowers 1994), and the grammatical recognition that pistis Christou in 3:22, 26, meant the “faithfulness of Christ,” that is, his obedience, rather than “faith in Christ” (Hays 2002). Consequently, the central contrast in Romans is not between a futile striving for justification by works (attributed by the Christian theological tradition to Judaism—wrongly, as E. P. Sanders has demonstrated) and justification by faith “in” Christ. Rather the central contrast is between an arrogant presumption on God's mercy—on Paul's view, as real a danger for those “in Christ” as for anyone else—and true obedience, which is naturally expressed as the doing of good works (2:6–13). To judge from his rhetoric, Paul appears less concerned to argue for the forgiveness of sins in Christ than to warn against a facile presumption on such grace (chs. 5–6); less concerned to announce freedom from law than to avow his agreement with its holy requirement (ch. 7); less concerned to reassure the baptized that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God” (8:38–39) than to proclaim that Israel enjoys the same assurance, grounded in the covenantal faithfulness of God (9:1–5; 11:25–36). The complex argument from scripture in chapters 9–10 is meant not to establish a typological distinction between the doomed and the elect—a reading that requires artifices such as the NRSV's gratuitous insertion of “only” at 9:27, “Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved”—but to show that present circumstances do not exhaust the purposes of God.

The cumulative effect of these insights is the recognition that the “obedience of the nations” (1:5, 15:18) is Paul's concern throughout the letter. The chief obstacle he faces is the boasting on the part of non-Jewish believers in Christ that he rebukes in chapter 11. That message quickly became obscured, however. The historical failure of Paul's vision—in its broad sweep, describing the imminent union of Israel and the nations in the worship of Israel's God, but also in Paul's own fateful miscalculation regarding the prospects of his “ministry to the saints” in Jerusalem—no doubt accelerated the realignment of his appeal in Romans to the emergent theology of the non-Jewish church. This theology was implicitly supersessionistic, that is, one that viewed God as having established a “new covenant” with Christians that replaced the “old” Torah covenant with Israel.


Romans has always enjoyed pride of place in the collection of Paul's letters and has exercised enormous influence in Christian theology (Reasoner 2005). Here Augustine found important bases of his theological view of sin and the human will; here Luther found the heart of his theology of justification by faith, and Calvin the basis of his reflections on divine election and predestination. Here Karl Barth found the proclamation of divine sovereignty that stands over against all cultural or national claims.

In the modern period Romans has been a battleground in the struggle to establish New Testament scholarship as a discipline independent of the Christian churches and their theology, even when the resulting scholarship was still dominated by the presuppositions of that theology. So, already in the nineteenth century, F. C. Baur understood early Christian history as the dialectical struggle between a nationalistic Jewish form of Christianity and Paul's law-free universal Christianity—a schematization that remains dominant in Paul scholarship today. Nevertheless, subsequent scholars as diverse as Rudolf Bultmann, Juan-Luis Segundo, and James D. G. Dunn could still organize their presentations of Paul's theology according to the order of Romans.

Much of the contemporary ferment in scholarship on Romans is possible because of the changed theological climate after World War II, when Christian churches examined and began to repudiate aspects of their own theology that had contributed to Nazi anti-Judaism. Jewish scholars had protested the prejudicial stereotypes of Judaism on which much Christian theological interpretation of Paul relied, but to little avail before the 1970s, when such protests began to be taken seriously within Christian academic circles (Stendahl 1976; Ruether 1974; Sanders 1977; on the resulting “new perspective,” Dunn 1983; 1999). Some measure of the “paradigm shift” still underway is the emergence of dramatically new readings of Paul as a Jew produced by Jewish scholars (Nanos 1996; Boyarin 1994; Eisenbaum 2010; Zetterholm 2009).

Another important factor of change has been the rise of rhetorical criticism and resulting perceptions of Paul's letters as argumentation rather than doctrine and of Paul himself as a participant in Hellenistic philosophical and moral traditions rather than as the architect of Christian theology. Romans has fruitfully been read in comparison with Stoic and Cynic traditions (Engberg-Pedersen 2000; Downing 1998) and the cultural aspirations of the Augustan age (Stowers). More recently, the rise of political interpretation, which returned to insights from an earlier generation of classical scholarship but has also been influenced by liberation theology and postcolonial criticism, has read Romans in the context of imperial propaganda, ancient and contemporary (Cobb and Lull 2005; Jewett; Elliott 2008). The political reading of Romans has taken new life from the attention shown by radical European philosophers who declare themselves uninterested in religion, but keenly interested in Paul (Taubes 1993; Badiou 2003; Agamben 2005; Žižek 2003). Some of this interest follows lines of older theological interpretation that pose Paul's “universalism” against the supposedly restrictive identity politics of Judaism; some of it posits a nontheistic equivalent of Paul's eschatology as a means to counteract the ideological pressures of the present order (see Harink 2009; Blanton 2009; Davis et al. 2009).

The book of Acts describes Paul receiving a mixed reception when he addressed a gathering of philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens (17:19–34). Many of his hearers scoffed at his mention of the resurrection of the dead and left, but a handful “joined him and became believers” (v. 34). The state of contemporary interpretation of Romans today presents a rather different picture. Significant insights have been gained—and interest drawn to the letter—as scholars have questioned habits and assumptions long dominant in the Christian theological tradition. It remains to be seen whether new readings will carry conviction and how (or whether) they will lead to new political and theological appreciations of the apostle.



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Neil Elliott