Romans Essay 1: What was the purpose of the Letter to the Romans?

1. The first question to be settled is, What Letter to the Romans? The textual problem is considerable. The full letter Rm 1-16 is given in the main MSS, Alexandrinus, Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, but there are variations:

(i) The short version, Rm 1-14, attested by Origen. This omission of the last two chapters excises vital factors, such as mention of Paul's plan to go to Jerusalem with the collection, his statement that he preaches the gospel only where the name of Christ has not already been heard (15.20), his list of greetings, and the sharp warning (16.17-20). This curtailed version is attributed by Origen to Marcion (In Rm, 7.453, 10.43). The mention of Rome is also omitted at 1.7, 15 by G. This too could be part of Marcion's attempt to get his own back for his humiliation at Rome (as TW Manson suggests, The Romans Debate, p. 6-7).

(ii) P46 has the final doxology (16.25-27) immediately after the end of chapter 15. This encouraged some scholars in the opinion that the list of names of Roman Christians is far too long a list of acquaintances of Paul in a city where he has never been. It may have been, they say, a list of names at Ephesus. The list of names and the consequent clues to the composition of Christianity at Rome are, however, highly significant in reaching an understanding of the letter. It has been plausibly suggested, for example, that Paul gives such a long list to stress that he knows about or is known to, a large number of people at Rome, and should therefore be easily accepted. The solitary witness, even of such an important papyrus as P46, cannot stand against the mass of witnesses. Perhaps the scribe of P46 was in a hurry; perhaps he thought the list unimportant.

We therefore opt for the full text of the letter.

2. The second question is, What Romans? Here Rm 16 is vital.

Josephus claims (but he is notorious for exaggeration [he doubles the figures for the measurements of the ramp at Massada, no doubt to increase the heroism of the defenders. He would also wish to persuade his captors/patrons at Rome of the long-standing link between Jews and Rome]) that at the death of Herod the Great there were 8,000 Jews in Rome (Ant. 17.61). Other figures given for the late first century AD vary between 20,000 and 50,000. Perhaps it is best to say merely that there were a lot of Jews in Rome! They and their habits were well known and thoroughly mocked in Rome as early at Horace: credat Judaeus Apelles, he says (Sermo 1.5.100), as though Jews would believe anything. The sententious Seneca criticises them for wasting one-seventh of life by their observance of the Sabbath (apud Augustine, De Civitate Dei 6.11). A host of synagogues is known from inscriptions, with an organisation of gerousia and gerousiarch, archisynagogos, etc, the sort of organisation common in the synagogues of the diaspora, but no central organisation such as at Alexandria with its Jewish ethnarch (evidence: Wiefel in The Romans Debate, chapter 7). It is significant that Paul does not use the word ekklesia of the Christian community at Rome: they were not a single community. He uses it of an individual grouping round Aquila and Prisca (16.5). It is possible that the groups mentioned in Rm 16 may represent different congregations: v. 10, tous ek ton Aristoboulou; v. 11, tous ek ton Narkissou; v. 14, Asynkritos, 4 other names, and tous sun autois adelphous; v. 15, Philologus, 4 other individuals kai tous syn autois pantas agious. Paul's appeal in the imperative aspasasthe suggests that they are to go round greeting each other, and so express their ties, which may have got somewhat frayed.

The other significant factor is the expulsion of Jews from Rome under Claudius, dated by Orosius to 49 AD. It is assumed that this edict lapsed at his death; it must have been of temporary duration, for there were so many Jews back in Rome by the time this letter was written, including Prisca and Aquila whom Paul had met in the east during their absence from Rome. It is impossible that the whole population of tens of thousands of Jews was expelled and returned, but we do not need to suppose this. However many left and returned, it is not unreasonable to suppose that this return of the Jews after the gentile Christians had lived, believed and worshipped on their own for some years ws an unsettling factor; a fair amount of tension would not be surprising, and could well have been significant for the composition of the letter. Nero's attempt in 64 AD to fasten responsibility for the great fire of Rome on the Christians (Tacitus, Annals 15.44) shows that by then the Christians were a distinguishable group.

Murphy O'Connor, however, gives a wholly different picture. He dates Claudius' measure to 41 AD, and reconciles the sources by suggesting that in fact Claudius expelled only missionaries who had no right of residence, and at the same time temporarily withdrew the right of assembly from the particular synagogue where the disturbances had occurred (Paul, A Critical Life, p. 9-15, especially p. 12). The latter is possible, but by no means necessary.

Peter Lampe's researches, catalogued briefly in chapter 14 of The Romans Debate, suggest that of the 26 persons named, 14, or 54%, were not of Roman origin. Of the names, 11 occur at least 28 times in Roman inscriptions, and so were common at Rome. Aquila occurs 28 times, and him we know to be an oriental; Andronicus, also an oriental, occurs 19 times, and the rest 18 times or less. It may be possible (as Lampe assumes without argument) to suppose that a higher proportion of the orientals addressed were Jews than of the Romans. Lampe claims that the only names which occur both in Rm 16 and on the Jewish inscriptions of Rome are Rufus, Julia and Maria [not necessarily 'Miriam'; it could also designate a freed slave of the Marius family]; a fourth, Apelles (v. 10), occurs in Horace. Paul calls sugge,neij, perhaps representing all Jews as cousins in his attempt to conciliate the Romans, Andronicus, Junia and Herodion (16. 6, 11). This makes 7 out of 26, but it is not possible to determine the proportion of Jews to Gentiles among Paul's addressees; it is, however, important that the recipients of the letter seemed to have been a mixed bunch. No doubt some of those who migrated to Rome were among the opponents of Paul's tendencies; this may be the meaning of the stern warning of 16.17-18. However, unless a large portion of the letter was going to be unintelligible to them, the recipients must have been familiar with things Jewish. There is a sharp distinction in Paul's use of Jewish methods of argumentation between letters written to communities where there must have been many Jews (Ga, Rm) and others (Thess, Phil); writing to the former he uses Jewish methods of argumentation which are absent from the latter. Most obviously, he uses sacrificial language, such as i`lasth,rion 3.25, and priesthood, 15.16. The summary of the gospel in 1.3-4 may well be a Jewish-Christian formulation ('Spirit of God' is a semitism for his more usual 'holy Spirit'). We may therefore assume that many of those without Jewish names were at least Jewish sympathisers, God-fearers or proselytes, even if they had not taken the major step of circumcision.

3. Such being the extent of the letter and its recipients, we may consider its purpose. The following possibilities are commonly put forward:

(1) Bornkamm put forward the theory that Rm should be regarded as Paul's Last Will and Testament (chapter 2 in The Romans Debate). He argues that there is no mention of information received from Rome, to which Paul might be responding. On the contrary. the letter forms a sort of summing up of previous controversies, interests and debates. He lists (pp. 23-25) sixteen themes, present in the letter, which have preoccupied Paul earlier. But whereas earlier they had occurred in polemical contexts, now they are 'carefully reconsidered, more profoundly substantiated and usually placed in a larger context' (p. 25). They are shorn of any particular circumstances, such as controversies or the stresses caused by the unbridled charismatic activity at Corinth. Paul is writing about the original questions which made him a Christian, puzzling and mulling over them again. Any impression of controversy is misleading and comes from the diatribe style of exposition. Nowhere does Bornkamm explain why Paul should have written like this to the Romans; it seems to be simply a letter out of the blue, simply a christianae religionis compendium, as Melanchthon put it.

(2) It has also been suggested that the letter is intended as a recommendation of its author before he comes to preach in Rome. In this connexion the aporia has frequently been raised of the clash between 1.15 and 15.20. In the latter Paul pronounces the 'non-interference clause', that it has always been his principle 'to preach the gospel only where the name of Christ has not yet been heard'. Does not the letter itself violate this? Is he really coming to Rome to evangelise? Is the letter an apologia for so doing? Does Paul consider that they still lack a foundation apostle, and does he offer himself in this form? The clash has often been made sharper by reference to 1.15: 'I have an obligation to Greeks as well as barbarians, to the educated as well as the ignorant, and hence the eagerness on my part to preach the gospel to you in Rome too'. However Stuhlmacher (Debate, p. 237) points out succinctly that this ancient crux should never have been introduced: 1.15 is perfectly well understood of Paul's long-standing desire in the past, rather than of any statement of intention for the present or the future.

(3) Stuhlmacher himself brings the letter into relation with Paul's impending visit to Jerusalem. The letter was written from Corinth when Paul was about to take the collection to Jerusalem. He does not know the Romans well enough to ask them to contribute, but he does ask for their prayers. In Jerusalem he knew that he would have to justify his gospel and his stance with regard to the gentiles. The differences between Jewish and gentile Christians at Rome, which one may presume he has heard about from his friends there (it is only a week's journey from Corinth and very frequently traversed), raise the same difficulties as he will have to face in Jerusalem, for in Jerusalem he would certainly have to justify his view of the relative importance of the Law and of faith in Jesus Christ. 'It is very likely that Paul intends to defend himself before the Christians in Jerusalem with arguments similar to those presented in Romans. But Jerusalem is not the letter's principal destination. The Apostle's main intention was to achieve a consensus with/between the Christians in the metropolis' (Stuhlmacher, p. 236). In other words, the letter is a sort of dress-rehearsal for his defence at Jerusalem.

(4) It is another matter to define what these communities were. And there is a constant undercurrent of suggestion that at least one purpose of Paul was to reconcile two groups, the Christians issued from Judaism and those issued from the gentiles. Paul Minear (The Obedience of Faith, 1971) found five different groups at Rome:

1. The weak in faith who condemned the strong in faith

2. The strong in faith who scorned and despised the weak in faith

3. The doubters

4. The weak in faith who did not condemn the strong

5. The strong in faith who did not despise the weak.

He equated the weak with Jewish Christians and the strong with Gentile Christians. It is certainly possible that it was Jews who were abstaining not merely from non-kosher meat but from all meat (14.21). Daniel is recounted as having done this in gentile regions (Dn 1.8-16), and according to Josephus (Vita 14) some priestly captives in Rome lived on figs and nuts. It is also possible that in 14.21 Paul is indulging in a reductio ad absurdum: anything is better than causing scandal. The observance of days as some holier than others in 14.5-6 could refer to sabbaths and Jewish feasts, or to pagan calendars.

It has, however, been questioned whether Paul envisages any communities at all in 14.1-15.7. It is argued that this passage must be understood as secondary to the burning discussion of 1 Cor 8-10, where certainly a living dilemma and virulent squabble are envisaged. RJ Karris (The Romans Debate p. 73-75) listed the parallels between the passages and maintained that the Romans passage is simply a blander version, generalised and taken out of any living context. It has none of the Corinthian catchwords, no circumstantial 'if'-clauses envisaging real situations, no personal references, no reference to the main problem at Corinth of idololyths. There may, indeed, be no separate communities envisaged, but there is still a certain clarity of reference to particular situations. It is striking that Paul does not tangle with any concrete situation in Rm, as he does in all the letters written to communities he knows well. It is possible that the diatribe-style, wich includes argument with a purely imaginary opponent, feature so strongly precisely because he did not know any clear tenedency at Rome. The evidence is far from one-sided. Without some concrete situation to which he is referring, it would have been gratuitously insulting for Paul to have written such phrases as 'Why does one of you make himself judge over his brother, why does another among you despise his brother? (14.10) Let us each stop passing judgement on one another (14.13). Do not wreck God's work for the sake of food (14.20).' This is too personal and concrete to be dismissed as diatribe-style. It might well be claimed that people with such differing attitudes could never join together in a common meal, and must have belonged to separate synagogues. But the constant suggestion of the passage is that they are trying to live together, despite a good deal of mutual tension, judgemental attitudes and condemnation. If 'the strong' are indeed gentile Christians with no hang-ups, and 'the weak' are Jewish Christians, then they are not separated in different communities, but are envisaged as intermingled within the various communities.

The weak in faith are those who cannot accept that God's choice can extend to non-Jews, and cannot trust God sufficiently to jettison dietary restrictions, i.e. those who keep to Jewish customs. He himself could not accept that God could justify the gentiles, which was why he was 'weak' (5.6) when Christ died for us. Now Paul wants them to accept non-Jewish Christians. Similarly the strong (Christians who do not observe the Law) are to avoid alienating the weak by outrageous behaviour (11.17-30). By contrast to his attitude in Galatians, now that the heat of controversy is past (and perhaps because he cannot lay down the law to the Roman congregations) he does not attempt to make Jewish Christians drop their observances, and tries to persuade each side to tolerate the other (15.1-2).

4. Standing back from all these controversies, it would be well to consider the style of the letter as a whole. This does not encourage the views that Paul's main purpose is either to reconcile opposing groups or to engage in controversy. If he wished to reconcile opposing groups, this would be far more obvious, at any rate in the theological part of the letter (as it is in Rm 14-15). Ephesians may or may not be by Paul, but we may take it as an example of what a Pauline letter of unification might be. In Ephesians he harps constantly on the need for unity between 'us' and 'you' (Jews and Greeks), and how Christ has broken down the barrier between the two. The whole letter moves in three concentric circles focussed on this one theme. In Romans, on the other hand, the theme of unity is confined to 14-15, and focusses on the one matter of the strong and the weak. For the reasons outlined above, I do not think we can simply say that Paul assumes that difficulties such as he had experienced at Corinth, arising chiefly from idololyths, must occur in any community, that he writes simply ad cautelam, in case such difficulties may arise. The difference between Jew and Greek does indeed play a part in his thinking: the whole passage 1.16-2.11 is bracketed by the phrase 'Jews first but Greeks as well'. But there is no sign of bitterness or opposition.

The Pauline controversial style leaves no doubt about itself. It is not merely diatribe. Diatribe exists amply in Romans (e.g. 2.1-5, 17-25; 3.27-4.21; 9.19-21; 11.17-24), but there is some evidence that it was a technique used chiefly within schools rather than between one school and another (Dunn, The Romans Debate, p. 249-250). When he is fighting against opponents he makes this clear: the Galatians are not spared, but called avno,htoi (3.1) and denied the usual complimentary thanksgiving at the beginning of their letter. To the Thessalonians he is clear enough when he is answering a concrete point of difficulty: 'We want you to be quite certain, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, to make sure that you do not grieve for them' (1 Th 4.13). Writing to the Corinthians he is crisp and clear about the judgement of the sexual 'deviant' (1 Cor 5) as well as about those who cannot see that Christ is the true Wisdom. There is no pointed opposition in Romans, and it may well be a mistake to over-focus as the same time as mirror-reading. Had there been a need for this sort of writing, Paul would surely have been fully informed of the circumstances by some of his host of friends at Rome, and would have referred to them. In 1 Corinthians he makes full use not only of the explicit questions brought by 'Chloe's people' but also of the news they brought him.

On the other hand, the very existence of diatribe and its complements, the hypothetical opponent and the rhetorical question sets it apart from the other letters where he is replying to specific situations in the community. At least the first 11 chapters require almost no knowledge of the community except that there were strong Jewish elements in it. Chapters 12-16 do suggest more detailed knowledge, but do not rule out the possibility that Paul was merely building on the problems at Corinth.

It is tempting to return in the direction of the view that Paul combines many purposes in his letter. Uppermost in his practical plans is the journey to Jerusalem: the controversy to be expected there must have been influencing his thinking. He knows that many of his Judaeo-Christian friends had returned to be integrated into a series of communities which had managed well without them for half-a-dozen years: the same questions about the value of Judaism must have been raised among them. If he could help them to clarify their ideas, it would surely make his welcome on the way to Spain warmer. The respectful tone of the letter (1.8; contrast the anger of Ga and the sarcasm of 1 Cor) suggests also that he is anxious to create a good impression at Rome; they could well have been primed that Paul engaged in controversy with the Judaisers, and have considered him destructive of Jewish attitudes and sensibilities. How necessary it was for Paul to establish his own good name depends on the prior decision about how absolute the break had become between Paul and the Jerusalem school of apostles: had there really been a complete break from the Jerusalem apostles, Paul making his own team and his own way? But the amplitude of the letter does suggest that there is also an important element of his own positive thinking beyond any need of the moment. After all, it is Paul's ability to broaden a question to the basic principles, rather than sticking at the practical solution, which has given his letters the importance of foundation-documents for the Christian church.

Paul's basic vision, expressed in Luke's version of the vocation-story on the road to Damascus, is that he saw Christ at the right hand of God, enthroned where, in common Jewish thinking, the Law, God's eldest daughter should be. This comes to expression repeatedly, not only in his use of Ps 109, but also in the contrast (e.g. 2 Cor 3.8-10) between the glories of the two revelations. After the return of the Jewish Christians to Rome, there was bound to be questioning about the status of the Law for Christians, and it is to this that Paul's letter responds.


James DG Dunn, Romans [Word Biblical Commentary], 1988

John Ziesler, Paul's Letter to the Romans (SCM 1989)

Karl P. Donfried (ed), The Romans Debate, revised & expanded edition, 1991, especially essays by Manson, Bornkamm, Wiefel, Watson, Lampe, Stuhlmacher (both), Dunn (both)

Paul Nanos, The Mystery of Romans (1996).

Jerome Murphy O'Connor, Paul, a Critical Life (1996)