St. Paul’s Masterpiece: The History of Romans

In the final episode of Father Mike Schmitz’s Bible-in-a Year Podcast, he recommended my Great Adventure Bible study on the epistles to the Romans and the Hebrews. To answer the new interest in these studies, I want to revisit my thoughts on Romans for a few weeks.

St. Paul’s letter to the Romans has been at the center of controversy, conversion, and reflection since the days it was written. The accolade of greatest theologian of the early Church is usually a toss-up between St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul. His letter to the Romans is no doubt St. Paul’s crown jewel. As we’ll see, by the time he writes this letter, he would have been preaching the gospel for at least a decade or more.

When and Where Did Paul Write Romans?

After encountering the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9:1-9), St. Paul famously traveled the known world on three missionary journeys, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with Jews and Gentiles alike. His first missionary journey (circa AD 46-49) takes him through central Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey); in his second journey (circa AD 50-52), he returns to this area and pushes into Greece; and his third missionary trip (circa AD 53-58) revisits all of these same areas.

At the end of this third missionary journey, he spends three months in Greece (see Acts 20:2-3). At this point, he is preparing to return to Jerusalem with aid from the Gentile churches for the Christians in the Holy Land (see Romans 15:25-26). Paul expresses his intent to get back to Jerusalem by Pentecost (see Acts 20:16), which is a pilgrimage feast in late spring. He wrote to the church in Rome during this three-month stay in Greece (likely from Corinth) toward the end of his third missionary journey, in late 57 or early 58 AD. Paul had previously spent a year and a half in Corinth during his second missionary tour with the fledgling Christians there (see Acts 18:1, 11). This three-month stay at the end of his third missionary journey would have afforded him time to compose this monumental letter.

Why Did Paul Write Romans?

By the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, he is returning to Jerusalem with aid for the church there (Romans 15:25-26)—aid which comes mostly from the Gentile churches of Asia Minor and Greece. For Paul, this aid is not just about alleviating material suffering. Rather, it is deeply symbolic of the newfound unity that Jews and Gentiles now have in Christ. For Paul, then, it’s fitting that since the Gentiles have come to share in the spiritual blessings of Israel, the Gentiles should assist their Jewish Christian brethren with material aid (see Romans 15:27). Since Paul had never been to Rome (and did not found the church there, see Romans 1:10), he may be hoping that the Roman Christians would likewise participate in helping out the church in Jerusalem.

Secondly, Paul expresses his hope to take his missionary work west, all the way to Spain (see Romans 15:28). He may have hoped to utilize Rome as a basis from which to launch his western mission.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Paul seeks to navigate Jewish and Gentile relations in the New Covenant. From our end, it is virtually impossible to underestimate how revolutionary it would be for Jewish Christians to come to grips with the fact that the ceremonial/ritual aspects of the law of Moses are no longer necessary for salvation. When the Temple was finally destroyed in AD 70, it was literally the end of a world—the end of the Old Covenant world; henceforth, there would be no more Levitical priesthood, no more sacrifices, no more mandatory pilgrimages to the Jerusalem temple.

Of Jews and Gentiles

This situation was exacerbated when Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in AD 49. This would have expelled Jewish Christians as well, in which case the composition of the Church would have become more predominantly Gentile. When this decree expired with Claudius’ death in AD 54, some Jewish Christians would have returned. Consequently, the demographics of the church in Rome may have moved significantly in the intervening years from a church with a significant Jewish background to one of a more primarily Gentile background.

If Jewish Christians returned after Claudius’ death, this return to a more mixed Jewish and Gentile church may have caused difficulties and tensions. Priscilla and Aquila, whom Paul met in Corinth seem to be an example—since they were of a Jewish background and expelled from Rome by Claudius (Acts 18:1-4), and yet they had returned to Rome by the time of Paul’s writing since he greets them explicitly (see Romans 16:3, “Prisca” is short for “Priscilla”).

While the issues of Jewish and Gentile unity in Christ show up throughout the letter, they are pronounced in a practical way in Romans 14:1-15:13, where Paul explicitly addresses issues of Jewish calendar and Jewish sensitivity regarding food laws, as well as food sacrificed to idols. As prominent Pauline scholar, Michael Gorman, put it:

“The combination of food and calendar observance, together with the naming of the ‘circumcised’ and Gentiles (15:9-12), strongly suggests that the groups here are divided along Jewish and Gentile leanings” (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 465).

Presumably, a combination of all three reasons are at play in Paul’s motivation for writing to the Roman Christians. He seems to have known lots of people there, as is manifest by the numerous contacts he references in Romans 16. In other words, while he had never visited the church in Rome, he seems to have been very well acquainted with the pressing issues of the day for the Roman church.

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Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.