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Introduction to Romans

A.            Authorship

Romans claims to have been written by the apostle Paul (1:1), a claim to which there has never been a serious challenge. Paul, however, did employ an amanuensis, named Tertius (Rom. 16:22), the ancient equivalent of a modern-day secretary, who actually put pen to parchment. There are three possible roles for an amanuensis:

1)             Straight dictation syllabatim, i.e., "syllable by syllable," a well-known Roman practice.

2)             Dictation which Tertius wrote in shorthand and later reproduced in a longhand copy.

3)             Others suggest Paul only communicated his ideas to Tertius who later formulated them in his own words. But as Schreiner notes, it is intrinsically unlikely that Paul would surrender the specific contents of Romans to Tertius. The letter was of great import to Paul, and its careful structure suggests that he fussed over the details? (2).

View 3 would seriously undermine any legitimate claim for Pauline authorship. If View 2 is correct, one might attribute the general themes of the letter to Paul and its specific features to Tertius. View 1 is most likely.

B.            Occasion and Date

Paul tells us in Rom. 15:22-29 that his immediate plans involved going to Jerusalem, then to Rome on his way to Spain. He has completed the collection of money and is now prepared to go to Jerusalem to deliver this much-needed resource to the impoverished saints there (cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9). Moo concludes:

"When we compare these indications with Luke's narrative in Acts, it is clear that Romans must have been written toward the end of the third missionary journey, when Paul, accompanied by representatives from the churches he had founded, prepared to return to Jerusalem (Acts 20:3-6). And, since, Luke tells us that Paul spent three months in Greece before beginning his homeward journey, we can surmise that it was while staying here, with the next stage of his missionary career about to unfold, that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans" (p. 3).

Paul would probably have stayed in Corinth while in Greece (cf. 2 Cor. 13:1,10). Confirmation that he wrote Romans while there comes from his commendation of Phoebe, who lived in Cenchrea, a seaport adjacent to Corinth (Rom. 16:1-2). It has also been noted that the man named Gaius who sends his greetins in 16:23 is probably the same Gaius who was baptized by Paul at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 1:14). Finally, Erastus, Timothy, and Sopater are said to be with Paul when Romans was written (Rom. 16:21,23). They were also with him when he was in Greece (see Acts 19:22; 20:2-4).

Cranfield makes a strong argument that, given what we know of Paul's movements, the letter was written during the late winter or early spring in one of the years between a.d. 54 and a.d. 59. He favors the winter of 55-56. Leon Morris and C. K. Barrett opt for a.d. 55; Douglas Moo prefers a.d. 57; Fitzmyer points to the winter of 57-58.

What this means is that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans while Nero was emperor (a.d. 54-68). However, it is important to remember that during the first five years of his reign Nero was a decent ruler. It was not until around a.d. 60 that he became the sadistic and barbaric tyrant for which he is noted.

C.            Recipients

The church in Rome most likely began with the return to that city of certain Jews who were converted on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (see Acts 2:10)

There is no support for the tradition that Peter founded the church in Rome. Paul says clearly in Rom. 15:20 that he will "not build on another man's foundation." As Moo notes, "this makes it impossible to think that he would have written this letter, or planned a visit in the terms of 1:8-15, to a church that was founded by Peter" (p. 4).

The Roman Catholic tradition that Peter founded the church in Rome is based on much later speculation. Eusebius (early 4th century) alleges that Peter went to Rome to preach the gospel in the second year of the reign of Claudius, i.e., a.d. 42. The Catalogus Liberianus (a.d., 354), also speaks of Peter as having started the Roman church and serving it for some 25 years. Both of these assertions have been shown by scholars to lack support, especially when compared with what we know of Peter's movements from Acts and certain references in Paul's writings (cf. Gal. 2:7-9).

Interestingly, the following conclusion is drawn by Joseph Fitzmyer, one of the most prominent and widely respected Roman Catholic NT scholars of our day:

"Hence there is no reason to think that Peter spent any major portion of time in Rome before Paul wrote his letter, or that he was the founder of the Roman church or the missionary who first brought Christianity to Rome. For it seems highly unlikely that Luke, if he knew that Peter had gone to Rome and evangelized that city, would have omitted all mention of it in Acts" (p. 30).

As far as the composition of the Roman church is concerned, most agree that Gentile Christians were in the majority. However, there is evidence that the first converts were Jewish.

The Roman historian Seutonius, writing about a.d. 120, reports that the emperor Claudius "expelled from Rome Jews who were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus."

Chrestus was a common name among Greek slaves which, it would appear, Seutonius confused with the name Christos or anointed one. Fitzmyer draws this conclusion:

"Suetonius, then, would have been referring to a conflict between Jews and Jewish Christians of Rome in the late 40s; the constant disturbances would apparently have been caused by Jews who opposed those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah or Lord, and who consequently differed in their interpretation of the law and threatened thereby ethnic unity and identity. These disturbances were happening so frequently that they became the reason for the imperial banishment of Jews and Jewish Christians from Rome. Among the latter would have been Prisca and Aquila who left Italy for Corinth (Acts 18:2)" (p. 31).

Most date this decree of Claudius in a.d. 49.

D.            Purpose

Unlike other of Paul's writings, such as Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and the Pastoral epistles, there is little in Romans to alert us to any peculiar or urgent circumstances in Rome that evoked Paul's words. Whereas Paul undoubtedly addresses issues that were pertinent to the believers in Rome, the structure or flow of his argument is dictated more by the "inner logic" (Moo, p. 14) of his theology than by any special needs in the church itself.

Certainly Paul was concerned with the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the redemptive purpose of God, as well as matters such as the role of the law, the nature of justification by faith, the struggle of the Christian life, the believer's responsibility to the state, the nature and limits of personal freedom, etc., but it would be unwise to single out any one of these themes as the overall purpose for which he wrote.

Those who find in Romans a summary of Paul's theology cannot explain the glaring omission of any reference to the Lord's Supper, only brief allusions to the doctrine of the church, and virtually nothing of eschatology.

Leon Morris lists 12 theories on the purpose of the letter, none of which is without problems. Yet Morris does point out that we may discern at least three things Paul specifically says he wanted to accomplish by his letter:

"First, he wanted to prepare the way for a visit to Rome (1:13; 15:22-24). Second, he wanted to secure the support of the Roman Christians for his Spanish mission (15:24). Third, he sought the prayers of the Romans, specifically prayers that he might be delivered from unbelievers, that the Jerusalem church would welcome the gift he was bringing, and that he might come to Rome 'in joy' (15:30-32)" (pp. 17-18).

E.             Textual Integrity

There is little dispute about the integrity of the original text aside from an on-going debate over the place of the doxology in Rom. 16:25-27.

Some Greek manuscripts of Romans omit these three verses altogether, while others place the doxology either at the close of chapter fourteen or chapter fifteen. After careful consideration, most scholars concur that all sixteen chapters of Romans as found in our English versions is an accurate preservation of the inspired original. See the discussion in Schreiner, pp. 5-10.

F.             Genre

[The best treatment of genre as it relates to the Pauline literature is Tom Schreiner's book, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles (Baker, 1990).]

An essential part of exegesis is determining the genre of the literature you are studying. Genre refers to the kind or type of literature. For example, if an author has written a fairy tale, you don't interpret it as if it were historical narrative. Similarly, one must not assume that the principles or rules that govern the interpretation of the gospels will apply equally to the book of Revelation.

The NT contains 4 basic genres of literature:

1.             The Epistles, for the most part, are comprised of paragraphs of argument or exhortation. Here the exegete must learn, above all else, to trace the flow of the writer's argument in order to understand any single sentence or paragraph.

2.             The Gospelsare comprised of pericopes, individual units of narrative or teaching, which are of different kinds, with different formal characteristics, and which have been set in their present contexts by the Evangelists. [Many would argue that parable is a separate genre of literature within the gospels, with its own set of special characteristics and rules of interpretation.]

3.             Acts is basically a series of connected shorter narratives that form one entire narrative interspersed with speeches.

4.             The book of Revelation is basically a series of carefully constructed visions, woven together to form a complete apocalyptic narrative.

[Another example of one genre appearing within another is the presence in 2 Thess. 2 and 2 Pet. 3 of apocalyptic elements.]

Although they have many things in common, each of these genres also has its own peculiar exegetical problems and 'rules' (Gordon Fee, NT Exegesis , pp. 28-29).

Our focus here is on the epistles. We will address 3 questions:

First, are Paul's writings Letters or Epistles?

The distinction is this: epistles, so goes the argument, were carefully crafted literary works intended for a wider public, with a view to being preserved for posterity; letters, on the other hand, were hurriedly sent to address specific situations or problems and were not intended by their author to be refined, literary compositions.

This distinction can be taken too far. Whereas Paul's writings were indeed occasional (they were 'occasioned' by some special circumstance either in the life of the author or the addressees), they were "not merely private individual letters. Paul wrote them as an apostle, and he expected them to be read in and obeyed by the Christian community (1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Thess. 3:14). Indeed, even though Colossians addressed a specific situation, Paul thought its message would be helpful to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16). Apparently Paul believed that his specific and occasional instructions for the Colossians had a wider significance so that his words were relevant not only for the Colossians but also for the Laodiceans. Furthermore, at times Paul clearly said that his words were in fact the very word of God (1 Cor. 14:37-38; see Gal. 1:8). He did not conceive of his letters as mere human advice (see 1 Thess. 2:13). Thus, the letters had a normative and authoritative status from the beginning (which is perhaps why they were preserved), and letters written to particular communities could apply to other churches as well" (Schreiner, 25).

Second, what is the structure of Paul's epistles?

a.              the opening

1)             sender

2)             addressees

3)             salutation

4)             prayer

[One interesting example is 3 John 2, where John opens his epistle with these words: "Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers." Some who advocate a health and wealth gospel have tried to derive more from this verse than is proper. What we have in this verse is simply a standard form of greeting found in most letters of the ancient world. Gordon Fee reminds us that "just as there is a standard form to our letters (date, salutation, body, close, and signature), so there was for theirs. Thousands of ancient letters have been found, and most of them have a form exactly like those in the New Testament" (How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, 44). Furthermore, as I. H. Marshall has pointed out, "the phrase would be perfectly possible in a letter to somebody with robust health, that he may continue to enjoy it" (The Epistles of John, 83). In other words, one of the standard elements of this genre of literature is the health-wish, such as we find in 3 John 2. An understanding of this can protect us from building doctrines on a shaky exegetical foundation. See also Raymond E. Brown, "Appendix V: General Observations on Epistolary Format" in The Epistles of John. ]

b.             the body

c.              the closing

Paul closes his letters with such items as: travel plans, his personal situtation, brief prayer, prayer requests, praise of his fellow workers, greetings to friends, final instructions, brief exhortations, and a "grace" to you benediction.

Third, what are the characteristic features of Paul's epistles?

a.              introductory formulas

Paul's letters often begin with certain phrases, two of which are disclosure formulas ("I do not want you to be ignorant" [Rom. 1:13], "Now I want you to know brothers" [Phil. 1:12]; and request formulas ("Now I exhort you" [1 Cor. 1:10], "Now we ask you brethren" [2 Thess. 2:1]).

b.             diatribe

"The characteristic feature of the diatribe is its conversational nature. The teacher (or writer) anticipates a possible objection or response to his argument, and puts the question or objection in the student's words and responds to it" (Schreiner, 36).

For example, see Rom. 2:25-3:2; Rom. 5:20-6:1. On occasion Paul addresses his opponent with a direct statement, as in Rom.2:4; 9:20.

c.              parenesis

Parenesis, or exhortations, are pervasive in Paul's writings. E.g., virtually all of 1 Thess. is paranetic. In Romans, the parenetic section is found in 12:1-15:13. See also Gal. 5:13-6:10; Eph. 4:1-6:20; Col. 3:1-4:6.

d.             hymns and confessional statements

See Eph. 5:14; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20; 1 Tim. 3:16.

e.              the occasional nature of Paul's writings

Aside from Romans (and perhaps Ephesians), Paul's letters "are not systematic treatises that were intended to present a complete Christian theology. They are pastoral works in which Paul applied his theology to specific problems in the churches" (Schreiner, 41-42).

Examples: Galatians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians and the pastoral epistles.

Question: While recognizing the occasional nature of Paul's letters, how does one know if Paul is responding to a problem in the congregation or whether it is simply a part of the argument? Schreiner suggests two guidelines:

First, "the interpreter should ask, Did Paul say anything explicitly about the opponents in his letter?" (46)

Second, "if Paul frequently mentions a particular issue, and does so with urgency and clarity, then one may justly conclude that he is speaking against opponents" (46).

G.            Structure

See the Outline