As we continue our dialogue with the epistles of Paul, we come to his longest and most important letter: the Epistle to the Romans. This letter is unique, for Paul had not established the church in Rome, nor had he visited it. He knew very few of the people involved there, unlike his other letters, which were written to centres he had set up and to people he knew as brothers and sisters in Christ. Most of his letters were written to help solve problems that had arisen in the mission field. Rome was different. It was the centre of the empire and the heart of Roman authority. It is obvious that Paul longed to visit there, so his letter was to prepare for a future.
We don’t know how Christianity came to Rome. Perhaps followers of Peter made it there early in the life of the church. We date Paul’s letter to about 57 CE. We know from the writings of Suetonius, a second-century pagan historian who wrote Life of the Caesars, that the emperor Claudius expelled all of the Jews, including the Christian-Jews, from Rome in 49 CE. Paul had met two of these exiles – Aquila and Prisca, short for Priscilla – in Corinth about 50 CE, during his second missionary journey, and he greeted them in this letter.
The emperor Claudius was murdered in 54 CE, and many of the Jews and Christian-Jews made their way back to Rome following this death. Was there difficulty for these Christian-Jews integrating back into a primarily Gentile church? This would explain Paul’s emphasis on God’s plan for the redemption of Israel (Romans 9-11).
This letter is undoubtedly Paul’s most important work. His mission in the area of the Aegean was coming to a close, as he neared the end of the third missionary journey. He planned to visit Rome on his way to Spain. He was actually hoping to establish a mission base in Rome for the conversion of the western end of the empire. His plan did not quite work out. He was arrested in Jerusalem and arrived in Rome a couple of years later as a prisoner in chains.
It is possible that Paul made it to Spain. It is one of those mysteries of the early church that may never be resolved. If we accept the possibility of a second imprisonment for Paul, he may well have made his way to Spain, writing the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus on his way there. We will discuss this concept further when we look at his pastoral epistles. Paul was executed in Rome during the Neronian persecutions about 67 CE.
In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul takes great pains to explain his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Roman Christians. This letter becomes his treatise on the faith. Remember, Paul is not sitting down at his laptop, trying to polish every word. He is dictating to a scribe, pouring out his thoughts and trying to keep them in an orderly fashion. The scribe for his letter is mentioned in Romans 16:22. His name is Tertius. He manages to insert a small personal greeting into the letter.
The theme of this great epistle is found in Romans 1:16-17. It is God’s plan for salvation for the Jew first and then for the whole world, and God’s righteousness for all people. Paul outlines his doctrines on “justification by faith,” unity, the Holy Spirit, baptism, sin, salvation, grace, death, and resurrection. We will look at some of these theological topics from Paul in the months ahead.
Throughout history, this epistle has been used by scholars such as Martin Luther, especially chapters one to eight, which contain Paul’s explicit teaching on justification by faith. Calvin focussed on chapters nine to eleven, which are about Paul’s teaching on divine predestination. A more modern recovery of classical rhetoric has helped scholars to see the entire epistle as a single rhetorical argument, with each section of the letter serving a different function. We will attempt to discuss some of these issues in future articles.
Please take time to read through this epistle and contemplate the meaning of Paul’s words for you in this 21st century. It will be quite a dialogue!