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.