Good read to get us started on Romans.
John A. Witmer
This letter is the premier example of the epistolary form of writing, not only in the Pauline body of material and in the New Testament but also in all of ancient literature. It stands first in every list of the Apostle Paul’s writings though it was not first in time of composition. This bears witness to the importance of the work both in its theme and in its content. It may also reflect the significance of the location of the letter’s first readers, the imperial capital of Rome. In addition a possible tie grows out of the fact that the Book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome so that his letter to the Romans follows naturally in the order of Bible books.
That Paul is the author of this letter is denied by almost no one. Even the ancient heretics admitted Romans was written by Paul. So do the modern (19th century and later) radical German critics, who deny many other facts in the Scriptures. Paul identified himself as the author by name, of course (1:1); but that is no guarantee of the acceptance of his authorship, since he did that in all his letters, including those for which his authorship is questioned or denied. In Romans Paul referred to himself by name only once, in contrast with several of his other letters; but a number of other internal details support Paul’s authorship. He claimed to be of the tribe of Benjamin (11:1; cf. Phil. 3:5). He sent greetings to Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3), whom Paul had met in Corinth (Acts 18:2-3) and left in Ephesus (Acts 18:18-19) on his second missionary journey. Paul referred to his journey to Jerusalem with the love gift from the churches in Macedonia and Achaia (Rom. 15:25-27), facts confirmed in the Book of Acts (19:21; 20:1-5; 21:15, 17-19) and the epistles to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 16:1-5; 2 Cor. 8:1-12; 9:1-5). And Paul mentioned several times his intention to visit Rome (Rom. 1:10-13, 15; 15:22-32), a fact also confirmed in the Book of Acts (19:21). These confirming coincidences between Romans and Acts in particular support Paul as the author of this letter.
Acceptance of the unity and integrity of Romans is another matter, however. A number of critics from Marcion to the present have questioned chapters 15 and 16 or parts of both as belonging to the letter. Chapter 16 is a special target, in part because of Paul’s greetings to Priscilla and Aquila (v. 3), who were last seen settled in Ephesus (Acts 18:19, 26). But the couple had previously lived in Italy (Acts 18:2) and had left only because of an imperial decree. Their return to Rome when circumstances permitted is reasonable. The major Greek manuscripts support the unity of the letter, a position endorsed by the overwhelming consensus of scholarship.
A valid question does exist concerning the identity of the recipients of this letter. Paul simply addressed it “to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7); he did not address it to “the church in Rome.” That a church did exist in Rome is obvious, because Paul sent greetings to the church that met in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (16:5). Probably several churches were in Rome; perhaps this multiplicity of churches is why Paul addressed the letter to “the saints” instead of to “the church.”
Were these believers in Rome Jews or Gentiles in ethnic background? The answer is both. Aquila, for example, was a Jew (Acts 18:2), as were Andronicus, Junias, and Herodion, all three identified as Paul’s relatives (Rom. 16:7, 11). According to Josephus and others a large Jewish colony lived in Rome (cf. Acts 28:17-28). But Rome was a Gentile city, the capital of a Gentile empire in which all Jews, believing and unbelieving, formed a small minority. In addition, though Paul never failed to witness and to minister to Jews, his calling from God was to be “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13; cf. 15:16). So it is reasonable to conclude that his readers were mostly Gentile in background.
This conclusion is supported by evidence in the letter. Paul addressed Jews directly (2:17), and he included Jewish Christians with himself when he spoke of “Abraham, our forefather” (4:1, 12). On the other hand Paul directly said, “I am talking to you Gentiles” (11:13). Several additional passages indicate that Gentile Christians made up a segment of his readers (11:17-31; 15:14-16). In fact the implication from 1:5, 13 is that Paul considered the Christian community in Rome predominantly Gentile.
Since the Apostle Paul had not yet visited Rome, how had the Christian faith been introduced to the city? Apparently no other apostle had yet reached Rome, in the light of Paul’s stated purpose to be a pioneer missionary and to open virgin territory to the gospel (15:20). In particular, it is evident that Peter was not in Rome at that time because Paul expressed no greetings to him, a grievous error if Peter indeed were there.
Perhaps a partial answer to the founding of the church at Rome is the fact that “visitors from Rome” (Acts 2:10) were in the crowd that witnessed the miracle of Pentecost and heard Peter’s sermon. Some of them probably were among the 3,000 converts that day and returned to Rome as believers in Jesus Christ to propagate their faith. Other believers migrated to Rome through the years since Pentecost, for Rome was a magnet that drew people from all over the empire for business and other reasons. Aquila and Priscilla are good examples. They had lived in Italy before (Acts 18:2), and undoubtedly returned as soon as circumstances permitted. Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), apparently the courier of this letter, is another example. She did not go to Rome primarily to deliver Paul’s letter; she delivered Paul’s letter because she was making a trip to Rome. In fact, Phoebe’s planned trip to Rome was undoubtedly the specific occasion for Paul’s writing this letter. Humanly speaking, Paul seized this opportunity to communicate with a group of Christians he was deeply interested in and planned to visit as soon as possible.
Just as Paul’s absence of greeting to Peter in chapter 16 is evidence that Peter was not in Rome at the time, so his numerous greetings to individuals (28 persons are named or referred to, plus several groups) reveal the impact of Paul’s ministry on the establishment and the development of the church in Rome. Many of the believers there were Paul’s converts or associates in other parts of the empire. As a result Paul had a proprietary interest in the Christian community of Rome. He considered the church there one of his, as this letter bears witness.
Place and Date.
Though Paul never named the city, it is obvious that he wrote this letter from Corinth, Cenchrea (16:1) being its eastern harbor. The letter was written at the close of Paul’s third missionary journey during the “three months” he was in Greece (Acts 20:3) just before his return to Jerusalem with the offering from the churches of Macedonia and Achaia for the poor believers there (Rom. 15:26). After leaving Corinth, Paul was in Philippi during the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Acts 20:6) and desired to reach Jerusalem by Pentecost (Acts 20:16). The letter was written, therefore, in the late winter or early spring of a.d. 57 or 58.
While Phoebe’s projected trip to Rome (Rom. 16:2) was undoubtedly the specific occasion for Paul’s writing this letter, he had several objectives in writing. The most obvious was to announce his plans to visit Rome after his return to Jerusalem (15:24, 28-29; cf. Acts 19:21) and to prepare the Christian community there for his coming. The believers in Rome had been on Paul’s heart and prayer list for a long time (Rom. 1:9-10) and his desire to visit them and to minister to them, unfulfilled to this point, was finally about to be satisfied (1:11-15; 15:22-23, 29, 32). Therefore Paul wanted to inform them of his plans and to have them anticipate and pray for their fulfillment (15:30-32).
A second purpose Paul had for writing this letter was to present a complete and detailed statement of the gospel message he proclaimed. Paul was eager “to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome” (1:15) and he wanted them to know what it was. As a result in this letter Paul accomplished what Jude desired to do, “to write to you about the salvation we share” (Jude 3). Perhaps Jude was kept from doing this because Paul already had, for Romans certainly is a very full and logical presentation of the Triune Godhead’s plan of salvation for human beings, from its beginning in man’s condemnation in sin to its consummation in their sharing eternity in God’s presence, conformed to the image of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
A third purpose for writing this letter is not as obvious as the first two. It is related to the tension between the Jewish and the Gentile segments in the Christian community at Rome and a possible conflict between them. Paul was hounded in his ministry by the Judaizers, who followed him from city to city and sought to lead his converts away from liberty in the gospel (Gal. 5:1). The letter to the Galatians is Paul’s classic though not his only response to the Judaizers. Their attacks on Paul incorporated physical violence about the time this letter to the Romans was written (Acts 20:3). Whether the Judaizers had reached Rome before Paul or not, the Jew-versus-Gentile issue looms large in this letter. Paul did not take sides, but he carefully set forth both sides of the question. On the one hand he emphasized the historical and chronological priority of the Jews—“first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16; cf. 2:9-10). He also stressed the “advantage . . . in being a Jew” (3:1-2; 9:4-5). On the other hand he pointed out that “since there is only one God” (3:30), He is the God of the Gentiles as well as the God of the Jews (3:29). As a result “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (3:9) and alike are saved by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His redemptive and propitiatory sacrifice. Furthermore, in order to bring believing Gentiles into His program of salvation, extending His grace to all human beings, God temporarily halted His specific program for Israel as a chosen nation, since that nation through its official leaders and as a whole had rejected in unbelief God’s Son as the Messiah. During this period God continues to have a believing “remnant chosen by grace” (11:5) “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25) and God takes up again and fulfills His promises to Israel as a nation.
Related to the Jewish-Gentile tension that runs throughout this letter is a muted but definite undertone that questions God’s goodness and wisdom and justice as seen in His plan of salvation. No complaints against God are voiced, but they are implied. As a result this letter to the Romans is more than an exposition of Paul’s “gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24), a declaration of God’s plan of salvation for all human beings by grace through faith. It is a theodicy, an apologetic for God, a defense and vindication of God’s nature and His plan for saving people. It sets God forth “to be just and the One who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). It exults in “the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (11:33) and challenges the readers, “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (3:4).
Growing out of Paul’s three purposes for writing this letter (especially the latter two purposes), is the theme of the work. In the simplest and most general terms it is “the gospel” (1:16). More specifically it is “a righteousness from God” which “is revealed” in that gospel and is understood and appropriated “by faith from first to last” (1:17). This “righteousness from God” is first the righteousness God Himself possesses and manifests in all His actions; and second, it is the righteousness that God gives to human beings by grace through faith. This involves an imputed righteous standing before God (justification) and an imparted righteous practice and a progressively transformed lifestyle, the latter due to the regenerating and indwelling Holy Spirit of God (regeneration and sanctification). Practice is consummated and conformed to standing (glorification) when a believer in Jesus Christ through death and resurrection or through translation—“our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23)—stands in the presence of God “conformed to the likeness of His Son” (8:29). God’s program of salvation for people will not fail because it is His work, and “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).