Studying Romans – Historical Background and Occassion

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It is important to remember that Paul’s letters are occassional documents. That means they were written to address a particular set of circumstances among a particular group of people at a specific time in history. If you ignore this it is easy to miss much of what is being talked about within the letter. Anders Nygren’scommentary on Romans was one that pushed the idea that the letter to the Romans was not occassional at all and that an understanding of the historical happenings surrounding its writing are insignificant to the interpretation of the letter. That is exactly what we are trying to avoid. Here is what he had to say,

“If one seeks the key to the epistle in certain special conditions within the congregation at Rome, one thereby shows that the attention is directed away from that which is central. The characteristic and peculiar thing about Romans, differentiating it from the rest of Paul’s epistles, is just the fact that it was not, or was only in slight degree, aimed at circumstances within a certain congregation. Its purpose is not to correct maladjustments.” (Nygren, 4)

In this view, Romans becomes unique in all of Paul’s writing because all of Paul’s other letters were written to address specific issues and problems in congregations. Romans, in this theory, becomes more of a general outline of Paul’s theology (Jimmy Allen also takes this approach being influenced by Nygren). If all one had in front of them was the letter itself it would be easy to draw these conclusions. If you read Romans through this lens the first 8 chapters tend to make a lot of sense but as you get further into the letter things tend to break down a little around chapter 9 (HT: Allen Black for point that out in his Advanced NT Intro class).

There is a piece of history that ties the entire book together and gives continuity to the entire letter. One of the first people to bring this up was Wolfgang Weifel in a chapter entitle “The Jewish Community in Ancient Rome and the Origins of Roman Christianity,” (Karl Donfried, ed. The Romans Debate – Continued. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977. pp.100-19.). Weifel began to pull some pieces of history together to make a coherent case for the background of Romans. In AD 49 Claudius issued a number of edicts. One of which was a prescription of Yew juice for snake bites but more importantly was the explusion of Jews from the city of Rome. Claudius was distrubed by some uprising due to a fellow named Chrestus as Suetonius records, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” (Suetoinus 25.4). Acts 18:1-2 also makes mention of this edict as to why Priscilla and Aquilla left Rome. To make a long story short, when Claudius died the edict was void and the Jews were able to return to Rome.

Think about the implications of this. When Christianity spread into a new community as best we can tell it was typically targeted toward the Jews in the region. This was probably due to the common background and respect for the scriptures. After that god-fearing Gentiles and Gentiles in general were reached out to. It could very easily have been the case that the church in Rome had a mostly Jewish-Christian leadership until AD 49 when they were expelled from Rome. So who steps in? The Gentile Christians. They become the elders, deacons, etc. Five years later when Claudius dies the Jews return and who do they find in their leadership roles? Gentile Christians. See the problem?

When you read Romans through this lens things start falling into place. For instance. Romans 1-3 can no longer be a general treatise on sin and the wrath of God. Romans 1-3 becomes a diatribe from Paul against quarreling groups of Jews and Gentiles in Rome. He goes against the Gentiles and calls them out for their sins. You can bet the Jewish Christians were really happy about that until 2:17 when Paul starts to call them out as well. Paul basically says “You Gentiles are unrighteous on your own and you Jews are no better.” It brings new light to Romans 3:23 – “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” Why say that? Because he is showing them that they are all a lot more alike than they think. They are all in need of God’s redemptive power. Paul is attempting to reconcile a very real situation with very real circumstances and problems among the Christians in Rome. It comes through loud and clear when you understand the backstory.

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