Romans: pt 2 – The Context and the Conflict.

This is part two of this series, to start from the beginning, click here for part 1.

The Origins of the Letter to the Romans 

Temple ruins in Corinth.

The letter to the Roman church from Paul was likely written in the winter of 57-58 CE in the city of Corinth from the home of a man named Gaius, in whose house the church in Corinth appears to have been meeting for worship services.

Verse 22 also tells us who specifically held the pen and wrote the letter… and here’s a hint: it wasn’t Paul…  “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” (Ro 16:22). This verse sometimes freaks people out, but it is just a cultural difference regarding ancient letter writing. In the first century, a person was considered illiterate if they couldn’t write, but many that were considered “illiterate” could still read. Only about 2-3% of the population could write; they were called scribes, and their role was to write letters dictated to them.

So Tertius is apparently a scribe who is also a member of the church; his job is to write down the subject matter that those gathered in Gaius’s house come up with. So we can picture them sitting around the reflection pool in the courtyard  of a traditional Roman Villa, putting together a letter – crafting arguments, recalling scriptures, saying:

“I think if we first talk about THIS and THEN move to THAT, it will make sense for the Jews… and then for the Gentiles, we can say THIS and THAT to bridge the gap between the two groups.”

Roman Villa in Pompeii, much like the type of room Romans would have been written in.

The problems that the Roman church struggled with are hard to gather by simply looking at Paul’s letter to Romans all by itself. We need to see the historical, geographical, and political situation that they are living in so that we can better decipher the reasoning behind the letter. Perhaps you have experienced this when, upon reading a letter between two other people, you can tell that there are other things in the periphery that, if you knew them, would make it easier to read the letter you hold in your hand. That is what we must sometimes do with the scriptures as well.

Disunity in the Church in Rome.

Two major shifts happened in the church while the Jewish Christians were in exile, and these two movements caused great divisions to arise within the church, resulting in a letter from Paul and the others. The first was a religious demographic shift, and the other was socio-economic. 

The Religious Demographic Shift in the Church:

At the time of the writing of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome almost 10 years later, the Jewish exiles were just beginning to return back to the city in one’s and two’s to rebuild their lives there. The reality that they found upon returning to the Christian church in Rome was vastly different than what they experienced before the Diaspora. For one, the Gentile believers were now in Dominance in the Roman churches, and these Gentiles held convictions which were gravely different from those held by the Jewish Christians. They did not adhere to the Jewish dietary restrictions, they ate strange foods: meat from the temple, shrimp, pork, and all sorts of foods that were considered unclean and forbidden for the people of God to be consuming.  

These Gentile Christians also did not keep the sabbath, nor did they bother with the regular annual festivals of Gods people that had been passed down from the time of Abraham and the prophets. In general, they celebrated their freedom in Christ, and they did not consider the Old Testament law binding upon themselves in any way. 

Socio-Economic Imbalance in the Church:

Not only was there disparity between their beliefs, but there was also an imbalance of power and a socio-economic disparity that was present in the 1st century church of Rome. The list that Paul gives us in chapter 16 is very revealing of the two groups that were a part of the gatherings in the church in Rome. Chapter 16 lists a diverse array of people both sending and receiving greetings:

There are 10 Jewish Men:
Androniucus (relative of Paul), Aquila, Herodian, Apelles (likely Jewish), Lucius, Jason, Sosipator. Gaius. Timothy (mother Jewish, father Greek), Quartus.
There are 2 Jewish Women:
Junia (relative of Paul), Mary (likely Jewish).
There are 16 Gentile Men:
Ampliatus (likely a slave), Urbanus, Stachys, Aristobulous, Narcissus, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Philologus, Nereus, Olympus, Tertius, Gaius, Erastus.
There are 6 Gentile Women:
Prisca (likely a wealthy gentile), Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia (Nereus’s sister) Phoebe.

What we can learn from these names will give us what we know to understand the diverse audience Paul is writing to, and we can summarize it, as Paul does, by gently narrowing them down to two conflicting groups:

Wealthy Gentile Christians:

There are several households mentioned and at least one, if not more, is well connected in Rome. Specifically the household of Narcissus who likely is the same freedman who served under Emperor Claudius himself who, a decade earlier, had issued the decree to vanquish the Jews from Rome (1). This means that there were at least some in the church who were of high status in Roman society and were likely connected to wealth. 

These, Paul will call the dynatoi (in Greek), or The Strong (Rom 15:1).

Poor Jewish Christians

Whereas the Jewish Christians making their way back to Rome at this time would have found themselves with little else than the clothes on their back and the food in their bellies. They were poor and they were starting over.

On top of all of that, they found themselves to be foreigners in their own Christian community that they were trying to return to. They found themselves to be a weak and minority religious view, gathering amongst a strong, powerful, and connected group of Christians. 

These, Paul will refer to as adunatoi (Greek), or The Weak (15:1).

The church in Corinth – who is writing this letter to the Church in Rome – has had severe problems with inequality and tribalism in the church that has resulted in some people being marginalized or even pushed out because of status, race, and ethnocultural misunderstandings (1 Cor 1:10). And so when you see Gentiles and Jews writing a letter together, with one voice, to the church in Rome, you can see that they care; they want to offer some advice from their own experience; they want the roman church to know what what lived theology Christ has laid before them that has helped them to conquer their own communal problems and strengthen their ministry in their city.

Many of the things that play out in society when these two worlds collide – the strong and the weak – were happening in the Roman Christian church; exclusion to prejudice, coercion, and arrogance draw hard lines and pull people apart. But if Paul had his way, they were going to find a new way forward, which is precisely what the church in Corinth was writing to help them do.

(1)  Dunn, James D. G. Romans 9-16. Word Books, 1988.

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