Introduction to Romans
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 16 July 2016; Revised 28 June 2020
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of this article. Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
The letter is written to followers of Yeshua in the city of Rome, Italy, the capital of the Roman Empire. The congregation may have began as a result of pilgrims at Pentecost (Acts 2:10) returning home with the good news of Yeshua. At the time of the letter the congregation consisted of Judean Jews, Hellenistic Jews, proselytes and God-fearing Gentiles (cf. 1:13; 2:17; 3:1, 9, 29-30; 4:1; 7:1; 15:8-9). It appears from 16:3-5 that Priscilla and Aquila hosted a group of the disciples in the city at their home. It's important to remember than any Gentiles in the congregation because of their prior association with the synagogue had an understanding of Scripture, Jewish theology and Jewish customs. This fact is evident by Paul including many allusions to the Tanakh and contemporary Jewish culture without explanation. He writes about subjects of which they already have knowledge (cf. Rom 4:3; 7:2; 11:2).
Paul wrote the letter probably in the Spring of 57 during his third Diaspora journey while in Corinth (cf. Rom 16:1, 23; 1Cor 1:14). Prior to the letter Peter had arrived in Rome at least a decade earlier and given leadership to the fledgling congregation for a time (42─46 A.D.) The date for this trip is supported by Eusebius who said that Peter went to Rome during the reign of Claudius accompanied by Mark (Church History, II, 14:6; 15:1-2). Jerome (347–420 AD) said Peter paid his first visit to Rome in the second year of Claudius (Lives of Illustrious Men, Chap. I). Likewise, Paulus Orosius (5th cent.) said that Peter went to Rome early in the reign of Claudius (History Against the Pagans, Book VII, 6.1). (See the history of Peter's ministry in my article Simon Peter: Fisherman-Apostle.)
Modern scholars generally reject the patristic report of Peter arriving in Rome before Paul because (1) Paul makes no mention of Peter having labored in Rome and said that he would not build on another's work (Rom 15:20; 2Cor 10:15-16), and (2) the report of the church fathers is just "tradition" and Scripture is silent on when Peter went to Rome. By the same token "silence" does not support a much later date in going to Rome, either. The fact remains that no historical evidence has been produced to rebut the patristic report and the church fathers were competent historians. In my view there is no contradiction with Peter having preceded Paul to Rome. Paul's Roman letter was written well over a decade after Peter ministered there and as Charles Edmundson argues (44, 50, 56), Paul's comment in his Roman letter very much implies that Peter had laid a foundation in Rome.
But, much had happened in the interim. Establishing the Messianic congregation with its proclamation of Yeshua the Messiah eventually produced considerable conflict among the unbelieving Jewish community as happened in other cities. In A.D. 49/50, a few years after Peter departed, Caesar Claudius, who had previously extended favorable treatment toward Jews, expelled Jews from Rome, including Messianic Jews such as Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2). That there would be a strong negative reaction to the good news of the Messiah among Jews in Rome is not surprising. Paul had to contend with the hostility of unbelieving Jews in Paphos (Acts 13:6-8), in Antioch (Acts 13:45), in Iconium (Acts 14:2,5), in Lystra (Acts 14:19), in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5), in Berea (Acts 17:13), in Corinth (Acts 18:5-6), in Macedonia (Acts 20:3, 19), and in Caesarea (Acts 24:9; 25:2, 7). In 2Corinthians 11:24 Paul says he received 39 lashes five times from unbelieving Jews.
The banishment of Jews from Rome was reported by he Roman historian Suetonius (c. 75-160 AD) in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Book V, 25:4). The Roman historian Cassius Dio (164-235) later depicted the decree of Claudius as restricting the assembling of Jews (Roman History, LX, 6:6-7). Luke's report in Acts 18:2 could support Cassius Dio's interpretation of events:
[Paul] found a traditional Jew [Grk. Ioudaios] named Aquila, a native of
Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had
commanded all the Jews [Grk. Ioudaioi] to separate (Grk.
chorizō) from Rome." (Acts 18:2 BR)
The adverse action of Claudius did not end until 54 at the accession of Nero, so when Paul wrote this letter, the Judean disciples who had returned had not been back more than three years. In Romans 16:3-5 Paul refers to Priscilla and Aquila being back in Rome with a congregation meeting at their house. As a reconstituted and restored congregation Paul desired to add something to their spiritual character (Rom 1:11-13). Paul mainly wanted to go where Messiah had not been proclaimed, which certainly did not apply to Rome. Thus, his intention was merely to stop over in Rome on his way to Spain (Rom 15:24).
The conflict in Rome over Yeshua would have adversely affected the congregation, specifically relationships between the Gentile or Hellenistic Jews and Judean Jews in the congregation and their relations with the Jewish community at large. Consider, too, that when the Judean disciples returned they found that any leadership they might have had in the congregation had now been replaced. In addition, some disciples developed a negative attitude toward the unbelieving Jews. Paul seems to address an early form of antisemitism that would eventually dominate Christianity.
Paul does not name a companion or coauthor. While he is the recognized author, he does name a secretary who actually penned the letter (16:22). In Israelite culture the secretary or scribe was an important vocation. A secretary might serve a king or government official (2Sam 8:17; Ezra 4:8-9), or the military to keep the muster rolls (Jer 37:15). Secretaries also served priests (1Chr 18:16) and prophets (Jer 36:4, 18, 26, 32). An ancient scribe's appearance with a writing case on his lap is mentioned in Ezekiel 9:2. In later times the sopher was one skilled in the Torah and so qualified to be teachers, lawyers and judges.
Just as Gamaliel had a scribe who penned his letters so it was Paul's habit to dictate his letters except for the conclusion. Indirect evidence of a secretary is Paul's statement about writing a sentence "in his own hand (1Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; Col 4:18; 2Th 3:17; Phm 1:19). The name of Paul's secretary for this letter is Tertius, who included a statement about his service in writing the letter. We may be sure Paul was careful to use a believer for this important letter, rather than a public secretary who worked without any spiritual concern. We also may be sure that while a loyal scribe would be willing undertake the task as work for the Lord, papyrus leaves were expensive so Paul would no doubt pay him for his work. When the letter was finished Paul would review the work, because he was responsible for the content, not the secretary.
Paul's letters are genuine Jewish correspondence to Jewish people. As David Bivin says, "The New Testament was written by Jews for Jewish readers" (44), and Paul's letters are no exception. Romans is not a private letter, but more like a theological tract. The letter is written in Jewish Greek, argues in a rhetorical fashion, and is overall positive in tone. The purpose of the letter seems to be to resolve theological controversies over his teaching, to address initial signs of antisemitism and to urge faithfulness to God in Yeshua.
The letter to the Roman congregation illustrates the Jewish nature of apostolic writings. Interpretation of the letter in its Jewish setting, can help in understanding the huge historical mistake committed by early Christianity of cutting itself off from its own roots. Romans is not a Christian work representing a different faith but a Jewish text embodying an authentic Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh and God's covenant with his people Israel.
Many scholars regard Paul's literary approach as an example of Greco-Roman rhetoric, and while elements of this type of argument may be noted in the letter, there are also places where Paul engages in a thoroughly rabbinic midrash. Paul sifts evidence, sets forth tight arguments, asks rhetorical questions, offers strong refutations and arrives at the truth. He writes to people who know the Scriptures (7:1), and thus, his arguments are everywhere based on Scripture, not the cleverness of Hellenistic philosophy. (The Greeks weren't the only ones who knew how to debate.) He sometimes resorts to inference, "then…if" (Rom 8:31), and kal v’chomer (a fortiori) arguments, "how much more," (Rom 5:9-10; 11:2). He also alludes to contemporary rabbinic rulings (Rom 7:2; 12:9-11; 14:1-23).
Paul structured his letters in a commonly used form with an introduction, body and conclusion (Polhill 122). In the introduction Paul identified himself as the sender, usually with his title "apostle [shaliach] of Messiah Yeshua" and often referred to his divine appointment (1:1). Paul then declared to whom he was writing (1:7), addressing his letter to the "holy ones." And he offers the customary greeting of "grace and peace" (perhaps meaning chesed and shalom in Hebrew).
The body of his letters does not flow from a template, but is organized according to the subject matter he needed to discuss. The body of the letter includes historical narrative and deep theological reflection, but primarily hortatory and instructional elements. Within his instructional passages are contained summaries of virtues to develop, vices to avoid and practical applications of Torah principles for family and community living. The letter contains some personal elements, including his travel desires or plans, his emotional state and requests for personal needs. The variety of literary elements demonstrates Paul's sharp intellect.
The conclusion of his letters is written in conventional style. The concluding section includes a lengthy list of individual greetings for the recipients of the letter. The letter concludes with a doxology (Rom 16:25-27).
Paul's letters manifest a strong dependence on the Tanakh. Indeed, the Scripture that Paul described as inspired and suitable for training in righteousness (2Tim 3:16) is the Tanakh. Paul's usage is in keeping with the rest of the Besekh. He uses the familiar formula "it is written" or "it says" often in Romans. He also uses other similar expressions many times, such as "Scripture says," "the Torah says," "Moses says," "David says," or "Isaiah says" to introduce quotations. Paul uses the term "Scriptures" to refer to some portion or all of the Tanakh (Rom 1:2), as well as the term "Torah and the Prophets" (Rom 3:21) or simply the "Prophets" to refer to that portion of the Tanakh (Rom 16:26).
Quotations from the Tanakh found in the Besekh are generally taken from the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Scriptures. The LXX was finalized and in general use by the middle of the 2nd century BC at the latest (Setterfield). By the first century A.D. the Greek Bible was widely used in the synagogues of the Diaspora and was well known in Israel. However, the reader may notice when checking a reference that occasionally Paul's quotation does not agree literally either with the LXX or the Hebrew text. In these instances Paul may have corrected an extant Greek text or provided his own translation of the Hebrew text. Paul thus employs what could be called "Jewish Greek."
As David Hill of The University of Sheffield affirms, "Not only word-meanings in the New Testament, but also the structure and syntax of New Testament language bear the impress of a special Hebraic influence channeled, for the most part, through the Septuagint" (14). The LXX was used because: (1) Almost all the apostolic writings were written in Jewish Greek, so a Jewish-Greek text of the Tanakh was helpful for quotations. (2) At the time of Yeshua, most Jews were living in the Greek world, and therefore the LXX was the text used by many Jews, if not by most. At that time there was no standardized Hebrew text. The Masoretic Text, as the Hebrew Bible came to be known, was developed over the following centuries (MW-Notes 322).
Sentence structure of Paul's letters is often lengthy and complex. Modern Bible versions attempt to break up Paul's wordy sentences into small portions for easier reading. In his hortatory sections he often follows grammatical rules common to Hebrew. Whereas in English the noun or subject usually comes before a verb in a clause, in Hebrew the verb comes first, giving more emphasis to the subject-noun. For example, in Romans 12:1 a Bible translation might read "Therefore brothers I exhort you," whereas his Greek sentence places the verb first "exhort therefore you brothers." Unlike English, Hebrew confronts the reader with needed action and calls for attention.
According to the listing of Barnes the letter contains 85 hapax legomena, or words that appear only once in the Besekh. Most of these words are found in other Jewish literature, such as the LXX, Josephus, and Philo. The presence of these words indicates a close familiarity with Greek vocabulary. Besides unique words the letter includes many significant words, all rich in theological meaning: e.g., grace, faith, love, peace, Messiah, Yeshua, Father, Holy Spirit, holy ones, salvation, good news, prayer, holiness, righteousness, commandments, law, sanctification, Israel, covenant, sin, inheritance, redemption, forgiveness and predestination. Not always considered by commentators is that all of these words have their origin in the Tanakh and Jewish usage. Christianity did not invent any of these words.
In addition to key words Paul's letter is full of Hebrew idiomatic expressions, which are not always apparent in Christian translations. For example, "oldness of the letter" (Rom 7:6), "walking according to the flesh" (Rom 8:4), "hardening a heart" (Rom 9:18), "vessels of wrath" (Rom 9:22), and "sand of the sea" (Rom 9:27). In some passages Paul has composed poetry remarkably similar to the "antiphonal chant" of Jewish worship (Rom 11:33–36) and comparable to the Hebrew parallelism of the Psalms, which was the Jewish songbook.
In his hortatory instructions Paul makes a significant use of the participle in lieu of an imperative mood. Scholars have long been puzzled over this particular usage of the participle in hortatory instructions concerning rules of social and relational behavior within the community of faith and in families (in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians). Davies says that non-biblical Jewish writings used the participle in exactly the same manner, and thus Paul's use of the participle as imperative probably reflects Jewish sources (130f). Stern concurs in this information. Whatever Paul may owe to Jewish Sages or even his own Pharisee mentor in terms of his manner of expression, the content of his exhortations flow from his Messianic theology.
To accurately interpret Paul's writings it's very important to begin with understanding the Jewish culture of the first century. Besides being an observant Jew, Paul interacted with Jewish institutions, such as the synagogue and Temple, and Jewish groups, as the Sadducees and Pharisees. The summaries of his letters below identify his references to Israel's history and unique Jewish cultural elements in each letter. For a much more detailed analysis of the Jewish aspects of Paul's letters I recommend David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary.
The letter of Romans maintains a definite Jewish perspective. Paul mentions the names of important personalities from the history of Israel: David (1:6; 4:6; 11:9), Abraham (4:1-3, 9, 12-13, 16; 9:7; 11:1), Sarah (4:19; 9:9), Adam (5:14), Moses (5:14; 9:15; 10:5, 19), Isaac (9:7, 10), Jacob (9:13; 11:26), Esau (9:13) and Elijah (11:2). Paul mentions Judean Jews six times (2:17, 28-29; 3:1, 29; 9:24) and then contrasts them with Hellenistic Jews five times (1:16; 2:9-10; 3:9; 10:12). He mentions the practice of circumcision several times (2:25-29; 3:1, 30; 4:9-12; 15:8).
Several times Paul speaks of the act of being "justified" (2:13; 3:20, 24, 26, 28, 30; 4:2, 5; 5:1, 9; 6:7; 8:30, 33) to express the Hebrew concept of tsadeq, to be just or right, to vindicate the cause of, to do justice, to make righteous. In Jewish thought this act would not be a simple imputation but a substantive impartation. Being "justified" is a real change in character.
Paul identifies himself in 1:1 as a servant of Messiah Yeshua, a title used of many significant leaders in the Tanakh and all the Hebrew prophets (Jer 25:4). In 1:3 he identifies Yeshua as the "son of David." In 1:7 the use of "our Father" connects himself to his Jewish readers since God first revealed himself as "father" in relation to Israel. In 1:20 he mentions the creation of the world. The retrospective of man's fall into idolatry in 1:21 to the end of the chapter reflects the conditions in Genesis 11. In 1:25 (also in 9:5) Paul incorporates a Jewish b'rakhah (blessing) of God as "blessed forever." In 2:11 Paul asserts the principle from Deuteronomy 10:17 that there is no partiality with God. In 2:28-29 Paul asserts that being a "true Jew" is not just a matter of blood but also the heart.
In 3:30 the phrase "God is one" alludes to the Shema (Deut 6:4). In 4:19 he says that in spite of the "deadness" of Sarah's womb Abraham kept faith in the promise. His mention in the same verse that Abraham at age 100 was "as good as dead" (an idiom he also uses in Heb 11:12) does not reflect his virility as commonly thought, but rather a rabbinic saying "at a hundred, one is as one that is dead, having passed and ceased from the world" (Avot 5:21). The various ages described in Avot have to do with physical ability for manual labor or pursuing a vocation. Abraham's virility is demonstrated by his fathering Ishmael and later his six sons by Keturah.
Paul statement in 6:7 "for he who has died is freed from sin" appears to draw on the Jewish tradition that says an individual’s own death atones for his sin (Berachot 60a; Sanh. 6:2; Yoma 86a; Isa 22:14). In 7:1 he writes to people who know the Scriptures, indicating the congregants are Jews and/or proselytes. Paul's comment in 7:3 about the nature of marriage reflects a specific legal issue of the time and a halakhic ruling of Gamaliel, Paul's mentor and teacher. The death of a person had to be established by two or three witnesses, but Gamaliel taught that a woman was free to remarry even if only one witness gives testimony of her husband's death (Yebamot 15:5). In 8:3-4 Yeshua died as a sin offering so that the requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in his disciples.
Paul uses a word meaning "first fruits" in 8:23 (also 11:16 and 16:5), an allusion to the first fruits offering in the Temple during Reishit Katzir that fell on the first day of the week following Passover (when Yeshua was resurrected) and on Shavuot (Pentecost). In 9:4 Paul repeats the benefits given by God to Israel, treating them as still in effect rather than being rescinded as many Christians believe. The mention of being a "living sacrifice" in 12:1 alludes to a situation in which an animal was mistakenly presented at the temple for sacrifice, but once the mistake was discovered it could not be un-offered. So, although they were sacrifices, the animals were kept alive as temple property.
The exhortation in 13:1 to be "in subjection to governing authorities" echoes the rabbinic dictum, "The law of the government [or country] is Law" (Nedarim 28a; Gittin 10b). In 13:9 Paul quotes from the second table of the Ten Commandments. The contrast in 14:5 reflects the debate between Hillel and Shammai over the significance of the days of the week (Beitza 16a). In 14:6 Paul mentions the Jewish practice of thanking or blessing God for food as prescribed in the Mishnah (Berachot 7:1). In 15:4 Paul asserts the value of Scripture, which at the time could only mean the Tanakh.
The expression "God of peace" in 15:33 and 16:20 alludes to the covenant of shalom that God makes with His people (Num 25:12; Isa 54:10; Ezek 34:25; 37:26), as well as the last verse of the Jewish prayer Kaddish, "May he who makes peace in his high places ('Oseh shalom bimromav,' from Job 33: 5) make peace for us and for all Israel; and say: Amen." In 16:25 Paul says that the mystery of the Messiah had been hidden for long ages.
As Harrison relates in the introduction to his commentary on Romans ancient authorities universally recognized Paul's authorship and regularly included Romans without question in lists of apostolic writings. Marcion had it in his list, as did the Canon of Muratori. Although its position in the various lists from the third century is not uniform, Romans stands at the head of the Pauline Epistles. Since it was not the first letter Paul wrote, its position following Acts may be taken as testimony to a growing awareness in the Body of Messiah of its cardinal importance.
Romans can be outlined according to the following topics:
• Prologue: Paul's Manifest Mission, 1:1-17
• Pathology: The Source of Man’s Problems, 1:18—3:20
• Soteriology: God’s Plan for Deliverance and Righteousness, 3:21—5:21
• Hamartiology: Sin and Sanctification, 6:1—7:6
• Pneumatology: Torah of the Spirit, 7:7—8:39
• Israelology: God’s Covenant Faithfulness, 9:1—11:36
• Deontology: God’s Ethical Expectations, 12:1—13:14
• Ecclesiology: Relationships and Mission, 14:1—15:33
• Conclusion: Greetings and Final Instructions, 16:1–27
Barnes: Mark Barnes, List of New Testament Hapax Legomena. Logos Bible Software Forum, 2013.
Bivin: David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
Davies: W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology. rev. ed. Harper Torchbooks, 1967.
Edmundson: Charles Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century. Longmans, Green and Co., 1913. Online.
Harrison: Everett F. Harrison, Romans. Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 10, Software version 2.6. Zondervan Corp, 1989-1999.
Hill: David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000.
Polhill: John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters. B & H Academic, 1999.
Santala: Risto Santala, Paul: The Man and the Teacher in the Light of Jewish Sources. Keren Ahvah Meshihit, 1995. Online.
Setterfield: Barry Setterfield, Alexandrian Septuagint History, 2010.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
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