The Church in Rome: Jews and Greeks
Paul’s letter to the Romans is full of the use of ethnic terms. In fact, no letter in the New Testament uses as many ethnic terms, or duplicates the frequency with which Paul uses such terms as Romans. A tabulation of the following words illustrates my point. The word “gentiles/nations” occurs 29 times in Romans; “circumsion/uncircumcision” occurs 15 times; “Jew” is found 11 times as is “Israel”; “Greek” is used 6 times; while “Israelites” occurs 2 times and “barbarians” once. This comes to a total of 75 ethnic references in Romans. Although Paul uses various ethnic designations, all of the words can be boiled down into two distinct groups of people: Jews and Greeks (or gentiles). This would be similar to an author today using ethnic designations such as “Afro-American,” “black,” “Caucasian,” and “white.” Although 4 different words are being used, only two groups of people are being described. Paul’s frequent usage of these ethnic terms suggests something about the population that made up the church in Rome in the first century, as well as potential reasons why he was writing to them. The following article seeks to fulfil a promise made last year in a post entitled, “Jews and Greeks in the New Testament.” I recommend reading that article first (or rereading it if it has been awhile) as it provides some necessary background for what I will be discussing here.
The Beginnings of the Church in Rome
All scholars agree that the beginnings of the Church in Rome are shrouded in obscurity. However, it is noted that “visitors from Rome” were among those who heard Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost Sunday that the church began (Acts 2:10). It is usually thought that the gospel may have first reached Jewish synagogues in Rome through some of these witnesses. Even if this was not the case, Jews in Rome were closely in touch with what was happening in Jerusalem, and there were frequent goings and comings between these two important cities in the Roman empire. So it is reasonable to assume that the gospel message reached Jewish ears in Rome not long after that first Pentecost in one way or another, and that some responded by becoming believers in Jesus. This reconstruction suggests that the original makeup of the Church in Rome would have been mostly Jewish in the beginning, with perhaps some proselytes or God-fearers (Gentile attenders of the synagogue) also coming to faith.
We know from Roman records that in 41 A.D. the emperor Claudius restricted the public meeting of the Jews in Rome. The reason seems to relate to trouble within the synagogues in Rome. While the cause of this trouble is not specified, an educated guess would be that it involved disputes over Jesus as the Messiah. We know from the Book of Acts (e.g., Acts 17:1-9; 18:4-8, 12-17) that this was a major cause of, not only disruption in the synagogues, but civil disruption as well. Further evidence may be provided by Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 A.D. The Roman writer Suetonius states that Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome because they kept rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” Although the correct form for Christ in Greek would be “Christos,” many scholars think that Suetonius simply got the name wrong. This statement, as well as the evidence from Acts, suggests that the synagogues in Rome were experiencing the same kind of conflict going on in synagogues throughout the empire regarding the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ. Indeed, we might ask, what else could cause such violent conflict in Jewish synagogues of this era?
The Church in Rome and the Gentile Majority
With the expulsion of the Jews from the city of Rome in 49 A.D., the Church in Rome would have mostly consisted of gentiles (Many scholars believe only Jewish leaders were actually expelled from Rome. If this was the case, some Jewish believers would have remained in the Church.). After the death of Claudius in 54 A.D., many Jews returned to Rome. Aquila and Priscilla are examples of this. Although they left Rome when Claudius expelled the Jews (Acts 18:1-2), they had returned to Rome by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5). However, by the time some of these Jewish believers returned, circumstances would have changed. The Church in Rome would now have consisted of gentile leadership and a gentile majority. That the Church in Rome consisted of a majority of gentiles when Paul wrote his epistle, seems clear from a number of references in the letter (e.g., Rom. 1:5-6, 13). As Thomas Schreiner states, “When he [Paul] reflects on the composition of the Roman church, he apparently conceives of it mainly as Gentile. This is confirmed by Rom. 11:13, which specifically addresses the Gentiles, and by 15:15–16, where Paul justifies his boldness in the letter since he has a particular calling as a ‘minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’” (Schreiner, T. R. (1998). Romans (Vol. 6, p. 14). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books). This historical shift from a church which consisted mainly of Jewish believers and leadership to one that consisted mainly of Gentile believers and leadership, was bound to create some problems when Jewish believers began returning to Rome. Ben Witherington III sizes up the problem this way: “They [the Jews] have been marginalized by the expulsion, and Paul is addressing a largely Christian Gentile audience in Rome which has drawn some erroneous conclusions about Jews and Jewish Christians” (Witherington III, Ben. (2004). Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (p. 12). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Historical and Cultural Context and Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome
Being aware of the historical context described above, as well as the cultural context (i.e., problems between Jews and Greeks, see my previous article cited above), opens a new window of understanding into Paul’s Letter to the Romans. First, the 75 ethnic references in the letter (Jew and Greek, etc.) suggest that ethnic relationships in the Church in Rome are a major concern of Paul’s. Second, a number of the doctrines that Paul writes about in the letter begin to make sense against this background of ethnic tension. For example, Jews and Greeks are all sinners (Rom. 3:9), both Jews and Gentiles are saved in the same way–by faith (Rom. 3:28-30), and Abraham is the father of those who are uncircumcised as well as those who are circumcised (Rom. 4:9-12). Furthermore, as one understands the historical switch from Jewish majority to Gentile majority in the Church in Rome, Paul’s exhortations in Romans 9-11, as well as Romans 14-15 make a lot of sense. For example, Paul argues that God is not finished with Israel (Rom. 11:11-12, 15, 25-26), and that the Gentiles need to recognize their debt to Israel and not be arrogant (Rom. 11:17-23). Paul’s discussion about not being divisive over food and the observation of certain days also highlights some of the struggles between Gentile and Jewish believers (Rom. 14:1-15:6). This understanding of the historical/cultural situation in the Roman Church helps us to better appreciate how significant Paul’s statement in Romans 10:12 is when he says, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (ESV).
The Church in Rome was Not a Church As We Think of Church
To further appreciate the situation Paul is addressing, one other historical/cultural insight is important. When we talk about the “Church in Rome,” we are not referring to a single congregation which meets in a large public building somewhere in the city. Nor are we speaking about a “megachurch” in the sense that some might think of today. Rather, we are speaking of a number of groups of people meeting throughout the City of Rome, either in houses or apartment (tenement) complexes. Paul’s greetings in Romans 16 are instructive regarding this point. Paul notes that some Christians meet with Priscilla and Aquila “in their house” (Rom. 16:5). Besides this group Paul mentions several other groups meeting in Rome (Rom. 16:10, 11, 14, 15). Along with these groups, Paul mentions a number of individuals but does not cite what group they may be meeting with. Rome was a city of one million people in the first century and Christianity was not a legal religion, therefore, Christians could not meet in a public building. The groups that Paul mentions suggests that the Church in Rome was scattered throughout the city and meeting in houses or apartments. This small-group setting would mean that any tension between believers would be very noticeable and potentially volatile. This makes Paul’s words in Romans 14:1 and 15:7 about “welcoming” one another very significant. People who feel unwelcome in a small-group setting will not stay around for long. Conversely, those who are making them feel unwelcome may not even invite them in! The result would be a horrible fractioning of the body of Christ in Rome, something that the fledgling church certainly did not need.
How History and Culture Help Us Understand the Letter to the Romans
Although Paul’s letter to the Romans probably had several purposes (one being his desire to receive their assistance on a trip to Spain–Rom. 15:24), the historical and cultural background we have traced in these two articles relating to “Jews and Greeks,” demonstrates that the unity of the Church in Rome was a significant concern of Paul’s. As Craig Keener points out, “Given this situation, what the Roman Christians needed was what we would call racial reconciliation and crosscultural sensitivity” (Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Ro). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press). This is a message that is easily overlooked without the proper background knowledge. Yet it is arguably one of the most important teachings in the Letter to the Romans. There are many good resources available today for understanding the background to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I have noted a few of them in this post. Hopefully, these posts (about Jews and Greeks) will help to encourage those interested in the study of the Bible about the significance of knowing the historical and cultural background in which the Bible was written.
13 thoughts on “The Church in Rome: Jews and Greeks”
Valuable post on Paul’s probable concern about race and the gospel.
Immensely helpful insight as I prepare for a message out of Romans 8 on Jan 20. Blessings, Randy! Vanessa
Thank you Vanessa. God bless you and your message on Romans 8!
Thank you Vanessa. God bless you as well!
Hi Pastor Randy,
I am Pastor Thomas Mathew from India. I am pursuing my M.Th. study in Mission. I found your blog The Church In Rome: Jews And Greeks very interesting. Can I request you if you can throw some light on the Social composition of Roman Church in Romans Chapter 16?
Thanks and regards.
Thank you for your comment and question. I can give you some general categories at the moment. If you need more specifics, I will do more research and send you further information. The names in Romans 16 are from 3 languages: Greek, Hebrew (Aramaic), and Latin. This suggests that the church in Rome was made up of people from these 3 backgrounds. Of course, a Jewish person could have a Greek name. Paul mentions Mary, Adronicus and Junia, in 16:6-7 and calls them “my kinsmen.” This means they are fellow Jews. He also says, “Greet my kinsman Herodian” (v. 11). Clearly Herodian was from the family of Herod. He was perhaps a servant of Aristobulus (v. 10), who was a brother of Herod Agrippa I, thus a descendant of Herod. Priscilla and Aquila (v. 3) are also, of course, fellow Jews. Another interesting name is the name Rufus (v. 13), who may be the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Jesus. We know there was a Rufus in Rome who was Simon of Cyrene’s son because he is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark 15:21.
Some of the names denote social status. For example, the name Urbanus (v.9) is a well-known slave name. Several of the names are either slave names or names that are common among freedmen and women. Phoebe (vv. 1-2) is a wealthy woman who is said to support other believers, including Paul.
So as we look at the names we see male and female, slave and free, a few wealthy, many poor, Jew, Greek, and Latin (Roman).
May God bless you in your ministry pastor and in your study for your M.Th.!
Dear Pastor Randy,
I am heartily grateful to you for spending your valuable time on my request and sending me some insights about the church in Romans 16. I am sure it will definitely help me in writing my assignment. If you have more information on the subject, can I have the liberty to request you?
Thanks and regards,
Thomas N Mathew
God bless you and your ministry.
You’re very welcome Thomas. The best resource on the makeup of the church in Romans 16 is a book by Peter Lampe entitled “From Paul to Valentinus.” If you can obtain a copy of this book or a Kindle version, this would be most helpful. I will also email you something.
Thank you for sharing your sources for your articles brother. It’s much more fun studying scripture when you have a background of the subject matter to compare demographics and personalities one can imagine.
You’re very welcome Angela. God bless!
Your article is very good. Much about the Bible is learned from historical documents. The details that you provide about the shift of the Jewish-Gentile population in Rome is very telling of some of the teachings of the book of Romans. I had read an article that pointed out that the majority of the Roman church was Jewish, but I can see how that could have been in its early years. Please keep up your good work.
Thank you. I’m glad you found the article helpful. God bless!