A letter, not a compendium of theology: Paul writes to the Romans

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The first of two posts on Romans.

Rome’s chariot race track was already an established feature in Paul’s day.

Romans is Paul’s longest letter (just beating 1 Corinthians to the punch). It’s worth noting that this is why it comes first in the New Testament: Paul’s letters are organised in order of decreasing length. The Sunday lectionary contains readings from all its chapters except 2 and 3, so we need to spend a bit of time on it.

The number of readings reflects both its length, and the way it has been thought of, especially since the Reformation, as the most important of Paul’s letters, and a kind of compendium of his thought. Despite that long tradition, most people nowadays go at least part way to accepting that it is a response to specific circumstances, just like Paul’s other letters. It is written for a particular situation, not as a timeless treatise of theology. Different scholars give more or less weight to a whole range of different reasons, so I am going simply to outline my own speculation, which I think helps make sense of the letter’s content.

Towards the end of Romans, there is a very long list of greetings.1 It includes a greeting to Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3), whose role as co-workers I mentioned in this introductory post. It shows something of the international networking of the church, that Paul, who had never visited Rome, knows, or knows of, so many people in the church there. He is, in part, appealing to a network of relationships that he hopes will recommend his reliability to those who do not know him.

Nonetheless, he works harder than usual at developing a careful argument for his hearers. He knows it is a church in which he has no particular claim to authority. He wants a secure base in Rome, from which to launch his mission to Spain (Rom 15:24-25). The problem he faces is that the church in Rome is caught up in the controversies around the relationships of Jew and Gentile that are so much of a problem for Paul’s mission, and which give Paul a bad reputation in some Jewish Christian circles.

According to Acts, Priscilla and Aquila had been among those Jews who were expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2). Clearly the edict has lapsed, and they have been able to return home. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Claudius expelled the Jews because they were causing civil unrest “at the instigation of Chrestus”.2 Many scholars see this as a mishearing of Christus – Christ, and conjecture that the kind of disturbances that Acts narrates between followers of Jesus (Jew and Gentile) and other Jews, were also happening very early on at Rome, right under Caesar’s nose.

If this conflict was so bad to lead to an expulsion of the key Jewish players, it’s unlikely all is sweetness and light less than a couple of decades later. It is therefore unsurprising that a great deal of Romans is concerned with the relationships between Jew and Gentile. In fact, Paul seems to have situations of civic unrest, even violence, very much on his mind.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.

Rom 12:17-19 NRSV

And a little bit later:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval;  for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Rom 13:3-4 NRSV

Far from this being general ethics, I suggest it is very specific advice that the Roman Christians should not take the law into their own hands. Imagine a reconstruction that goes something like this.

The Roman Christians are generally (like most of the Roman Jews) relatively poor. The only house church mentioned at Rome is the one meeting in the house of the higher status home-owning businesspeople Prisca and Aquila. Others might have to hire some kind of venue, or possibly be dependent on the generosity of a wealthy patron. What if one or two of those wealthy patrons were so-called god-fearers, like the centurion mentioned in Luke 7, who built the local synagogue? Or like Cornelius, who “gave alms generously to the people” (Acts 10:2)? Such Gentiles are portrayed as particularly open to the Jesus movement.

Now imagine that quarrels had broken out between, on the one hand Gentile and Jewish believers in Jesus, and on the other, traditional Jewish Torah-keepers. They argued bitterly over the use of a building supplied, or meeting-place paid for, so generously by a Gentile patron. Those quarrels lead to the Jewish contingent being expelled from the city, and therefore from the building they used as a synagogue or meeting place.

What would they find when they return? A largely Gentile church using it, perhaps with the patron also having converted. It’s unlikely they would have accepted this meekly. The possibility of fresh riots and outbreaks of violence must have been very real, and on both sides of the argument, Christian and Jew. No wonder Paul has to sternly rebuke them, and urge them not to seek vengeance. No wonder he has to remind them that that sort of bad behaviour will call down the wrath of the state.

This is the setting in which he addresses the church: a city in which there is bitter division between Jews and Greeks – as Paul often calls all non-Jews. This is the situation in which he sets out his understanding of how his mixed Jewish-Greek Christian mission is a fulfilment of God’s calling of the Jewish people. Unlike his other letters, he writes this one to a church he has not founded, and therefore offers a much more carefully constructed argument seeking to persuade people who might not readily accept his authority. More than many readings in the lectionary, those from Romans need to be seen very much as part of the larger whole.

In the next post I will explore the arguments he uses.


  1. In the interests of transparency, I should note that there is some evidence that there may have been some early editions of Romans that lacked chapter 16 (and possibly 15 as well). The general view, however, is that these chapters are part of Paul’s original letter. Any shortened version may have been about producing a more general edition of the letter for second century churches which didn’t need all these personal greetings.
  2. Life of Claudius, 25.4 (An old translation is available online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Claudius*.html

One thought on “A letter, not a compendium of theology: Paul writes to the Romans

  1. Pingback: Tracing Paul's argument in Romans: from Abraham to Jesus and beyond – Liturgica

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