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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 (16:22).

Roman Christians

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, 20).

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 dietary laws.

Salvation Through Christ

The body of Paul—s Letter to the Romans (1:18—15:13) is easily divided into two main parts, a long —doctrinal— section (1:18—11:36) and a shorter hortatory section (12:1—15:13). 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 (5:1—8:39) 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 (9:1—11:36). 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 26:30—28:31).

Raymond F. Collins teaches at the Catholic University of America. He has an S.T.L. and S.T.D. from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.

Next: Maccabees (by Elizabeth McNamer)

 

Living With Scriptures

Paul was concerned that the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome were judging each other too harshly. Reflect on the various groups in your parish community in light of Paul's advice to the Romans. What can you do to bring people together?

 

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