Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Paul's Letter to the Romans
by Raymond F. Collins
In the world in which we live letters of introduction
are delivered by the U. S. mails or via the computer. In the first
century, formal mail service was nonexistent, with the exception
of Roman military and political officials who could use official
couriers not available to ordinary folk. As a result Greco-Roman
letters of introduction were generally written to introduce the
person who was delivering the letter. The letter of introduction
normally asked its recipient to provide hospitality and other
assistance for the letter carrier.
Among first-century letters of introduction, Paul—s
Letter to the Romans is truly unique. It is a long letter—far
longer than typical letters of introduction in that era. Paul
wrote the letter to introduce himself to Christians in Rome whom
he had not yet visited, despite his yearning to do so. This did
not mean that Paul did not know anyone in Rome. Many people travelled
between the capital and the outposts of the empire. Military,
commercial, and religious reasons—at least in the case of faithful
Jews who were determined to make some of the Temple pilgrimages—prompted
various sorts of people to travel along the same trade routes
used by Paul in his apostolate to the Gentiles.
Such circumstances made it possible for Paul to
be familiar with a large number of Christians living in Rome.
As was his custom, Paul greeted the people whom he knew at the
end of the letter (16:1-16). The list of those to whom Paul sent
greetings is the longest list of such greetings in any of his
letters. Among those whom Paul greeted was Phoebe, a woman deacon
and sometime benefactor of Paul. He also said hello to Prisca
and Aquila, a married couple who had provided lodging and a place
of employment to him while he was in Corinth and Ephesus.
Before writing to the Christians of Rome, Paul
assessed his personal situation and concluded that his work in
the Roman provinces of Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia was over (15:23).
He would be able to fulfill his dream of long ago (1:11-15; 15:22-24).
He would make a stop in Rome while on his way to Spain, a region
that had not yet been evangelized. Before Paul could go to Rome
and then continue on his way to Spain—it may be that Phoebe—s
task was to get things organized for that trip—Paul had an important
task to fulfill. He was to deliver the collection that he had
had taken up in Greece to its beneficiaries, the poor among the
—holy ones— in Jerusalem.
The way in which Paul describes his situation while
he was writing to the Romans makes it likely that he wrote his
letter while spending time in Corinth during the winter of 57-58.
Winter was no time for travel, so Paul continued his work of evangelization
in Corinth before setting out for Jerusalem in the spring. In
the meantime he dictated the letter to a scribe named Tertius
Paul describes the recipients of his letter as
—the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.— Romans is the
only one of Paul—s authentic letters that was not specifically
written to a church, literally, an assembly or gathering. This
may be due to the fact that Paul had not yet experienced an assembly
of Christians in Rome as he had experienced the gatherings of
believers in the cities that he had evangelized. Alternatively,
it might be because the number of Christians in Rome was so large
that they did not have the practice of occasionally coming together
in a single gathering as did Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 11:18,
The final chapter of Paul—s Letter to the Romans
suggests that the Christians of Rome belonged to at least five,
and probably more, house churches. Paul—s letter addresses both
Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The different ethnic
backgrounds of believers was a problem for first-century Christians
much as it is today.
This issue was one that Paul addressed in many of
his letters. In Rome the problematic aspects of the relationship
between Jews and Gentiles were aggravated by one particular set
of recent circumstances. Sometime in the late forties, perhaps
49 A.D., the emperor Claudius had expelled from the city the leading
Jews of Rome. It was said that they were —constantly rioting at
the instigation of Chrestus.— These disturbances may have been
prompted by inter-Jewish disputes on various messianic claims,
perhaps about Jesus Christ himself. When Claudius died in 54 A.D.
the Jews began to drift back to Rome, but their social position
was not as strong as it once was. This situation is the background
of Paul—s exhortation in 14:13-23. The —strong— are Gentile Christians,
the —weak— are Jewish Christians constrained to follow kosher
Salvation Through Christ
The body of Paul—s Letter to the Romans (1:1815:13)
is easily divided into two main parts, a long —doctrinal— section
(1:1811:36) and a shorter hortatory section (12:115:13).
The overarching theme of the doctrinal section is God—s gift of
salvation in Jesus Christ. Paul begins his reflection with a demonstration
that all people are sinners.
With a rhetorical tour de force directed primarily
to the Jewish members of the community, Paul appeals to a Jewish
bias (1:18-32). Typically, Jews thought that Gentiles who did
not know God were sinners almost by nature. Paul exploits this
bias when he writes that because of their idolatry Gentile men
and women replaced the fulfillment of their natural sexual inclinations
with same-sex relationships. Unfortunately, later generations
of Christians have taken what Paul wrote about homosexuality out
of context and misconstrued the Apostle—s intention. Paul wanted
to show that Gentiles were sinners and began by mentioning something
that would certainly get a rise from Jews who were inclined to
look down on the sexual practices of Gentiles.
Having whetted the interest of Jewish Christians,
Paul continued his description of the sinfulness of Gentiles with
a long series of vices—more than twenty in all—of which pagans
are thought to be guilty. Then came his punch line. —By the standard
by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the
judge, do the very same things— (2:1). Jewish Christians were
readily convinced that Gentiles were sinners but Paul tells them
that with regard to sin their conduct is no better than that of
Gentiles. He then goes on to describe how Jews, despite having
the Law, have sinned.
Jews have been circumcised but circumcision did
not provide immunity to sin; nor does it necessarily make for
a right relationship with God. This right relationship with God
is generally called —righteousness— or —justification.— Addressing
himself to Jewish Christians, Paul shows that circumcision cannot
be the basis of a claim to righteousness. The Jewish scriptures,
specifically Gen 15:6, recount that Abraham was deemed to be righteous
before he was circumcised. Paul then cites Ps 31:1-2 which speaks
of the blessedness of sinners whose sins have been forgiven. Thus
Paul develops the idea that God credits righteousness to people
apart from their observance of works of the Law.
If a right relationship with God does not depend
on circumcision or on a person—s being without any moral failing,
to what is it due? Paul answers by going back to the example of
Abraham. Righteousness comes from God—s promise and a person—s
faith in God, he says in Romans 4. The Apostle mentions the patriarch
Abraham as an example. Abraham believed God—s word that God would
enliven Sarah—s dead womb. That Paul writes about Abraham—s faith
in this way suggests that Paul saw Abraham—s almost as a type
of Christian faith. Abraham believed that God would bring life
to Sarah—s womb; Christians believe that God gave life to the
dead body of Jesus when Jesus was raised from the dead.
The letter is not, however, an exercise in systematic
theology; rather Paul is offering his reflections on the situation
at hand. He wants to state his ideas on matters pertaining to
the relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians
living in a city that he hopes to visit soon. In this context
the Apostle affirms that what Gentile and Jewish Christians share
in common is their sin, their righteousness, and their faith.
Righteousness and Faith
The second unit of Paul—s letter (5:18:39)
develops the themes of righteousness and faith. Paul writes about
the love of God shared with us through the Holy Spirit and manifest
in the death of Jesus. God—s love is a gracious gift; it is —grace.—
Jesus— death is the means of our reconciliation with God. Speaking
about Jesus— death, Paul writes about baptism, one of whose consequences
is that we who are baptized into Christ are dead to sin. Sin has
no power over us (6:14). This does not mean that we never sin.
Far from it. Despite ourselves, we do sin, as Paul explains in
Romans 7. To make his point, Paul uses the first person plural.
He writes about —I,— not so much to speak about himself as a sinner,
as to allow us to talk about ourselves as sin. Paul—s —I— is the
—I— of every one of us.
Until a few decades ago, Christians did not often reflect on the
power of the Holy Spirit. But Paul had much to say about the Holy
Spirit in this letter. He reminds us that the Spirit who raised
Jesus from the dead dwells in us. He tells us that the indwelling
Spirit prompts us to pray the basic Christian prayer —Abba, Father—
(8:15, 26-27). He states that the Spirit, God—s power at work,
will effect the transformation of the created world. The way that
Paul writes about the Spirit—s power in creation is the basis
for Christian ecological responsibility. This responsibility,
too, has all too often been overlooked by believers.
The considerable number of Gentile Christians in
Rome prompted Paul to speak about the place of Israel in the history
of salvation. The Apostle devoted the third unit of his letter
to this issue (9:111:36). For Paul, there can be no disputing
the privileges given to Israel: adoption, glory, the covenants,
the law, their worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and the
Messiah himself (9:3-4). There is, nonetheless, no distinction
between Jew and Greek, for the Lord is Lord of all (10:12). It
may be that only a remnant of Israel has remained faithful but
the scriptures show that it was ever thus in Israel—s history.
How do Gentile believers relate to Israel? In God—s inscrutable
wisdom Gentile believers have been, as it were, grafted on to
the trunk that is Israel. In the end God—s mercy will triumph,
mercy that is upon all (11:32).
For the most part, the second section of Paul—s
letter (12:1—15:13) contains general moral exhortation. Paul begins
his exhortation on the moral life with a striking metaphor. He
writes about Christian behavior as a kind of liturgy. What Paul
says about the church as the body of Christ and of the importance
of love are the foundations of any Christian ethic.
Christians and Society
Two passages of Paul—s exhortation are specifically
directed to the concerns of Roman Christians. Paul—s words on
obedience to civil authority and the payment of taxes (13:1-7)
is to be seen in the context of Nero—s efforts (58 A.D.) to reform
the system of taxation and cut down on the abuses of unscrupulous
tax collectors. This part of Paul—s exhortation is a good source
for reflection on civic responsibility and the moral obligation
to pay taxes.
Paul—s exhortation on the strong and the weak (14:13-23)
relates to the fact that there were Gentiles and Jews among the
Christians of Rome. As a matter of principle, Paul affirms that
different foods and kinds of drink are indifferent as far as salvation
is concerned. But he also affirms that Gentile Christians must
be sensitive to Jewish Christian sensibilities with regard to
kosher laws. Tolerance is a must. The kind of tolerance that Paul
expected the Christians of Rome to have ought to be found in the
ethnically diverse American church of the third millennium.
Before greeting all those whom he knew at Rome and
saying goodbye, Paul had a few words to say about his own apostolate
(15:14-33). By God—s grace he was a minister of the gospel to
Gentiles. In the exercise of his apostolate, he had been careful
to preach Christ in places where Christ had not previously been
preached. Paul thought that he had pretty much fulfilled the first
phase of that ministry. So he looked forward to visiting Rome
and gathering support for his plan to preach the gospel in the
uncharted missionary territory of Spain. Most likely Paul never
got to Spain. When he later came to Rome, he arrived not as a
travelling missionary but as a prisoner destined for a long term
of house arrest (Acts 26:3028:31).
Next: Maccabees (by Elizabeth McNamer)