Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reboot's Study of Romans, I: Introduction (Historical Context and Romans 1:1-17)

Before any study can begin, a basic understanding of the culture in which it was written must be understood. Now I am by no means going to try to cover, even at a brief level, the complexities of the socio-cultural-economic landscape of ancient Rome and Jerusalem during this introduction. As we go through the text I may make a few references here and there, but as a general rule I only want you to understand the very high level concepts of historical context. If you would like more detail, my favorite books on the subject are DeSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity; Jeffers’ The Greco-Roman Society of the New Testament Era, and Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity.

That said, I would like to make a few brief comments so that we are all on the same page.

Author and Audience
The author of the Letter to the Romans is, of course, the apostle Paul. Paul’s message to the Romans would have been uniquely interesting, for he was both an orthodox Jew of the highest quality and a Roman citizen. As a Jewish student, he had been one of the very few to be chosen to apprentice under Gamaliel, the High Priest of the Jewish faith. Yet his father appears to have been a full Roman citizen, giving Paul a unique position as both Roman and Jew.

The letter to the Romans was likely written in 58 AD, at the conclusion of Paul’s third missionary journey. The audience of the letter were the members of the church of Rome, which appears likely to have been founded by Aquila and Priscilla. This pair of tentmakers were driven from Rome by Jewish persecution in 49 or 50 AD, and served beside Paul, beginning in Corinth, for some five years before returning to Rome. Christianity in Rome certainly predated the return of Aquila and Priscilla, but they seem to be listed by Paul as its primary preachers and leaders.

The church of Rome (like many churches of this area) was probably significantly Jewish in membership, but it appears also to have been filled with Gentiles. No letter written by Paul, though, is as clearly “introductory” to the foundations of Christianity as this one, indicating both his hesitancy at not having ever personally preached there, and the youth of the church in terms of maturity. It was written while Paul was staying in Corinth, just before returning to Palestine to complete his third missionary journey.

The letter was delivered by Phoebe, a deaconess from the church of Cenchrae—a port town six miles from Corinth, from which Paul departed to complete his third missionary journey.

Rome and Her Culture
In modern America, New York City is sometimes referred to simply as, “The City”. It is seen as the center of Western civilization – at least by those who live in it. New York has nothing on Rome, though. It was truly The City of the ancient world. Indeed, we have all heard the phrase: “all roads lead to Rome”, an indication of the pervasiveness of the city in the ancient world. Indeed, some historians have argued that Christianity—as the first global monotheism—could not have arisen at any point historically earlier than Rome, because the stability and road system developed by the Romans was crucial to the spread of the religion.

Rome was the center of population, culture, economics, and politics of the ancient world. The Empire of Rome spread over most of the known world at the time—encompassing all of Europe, some of North Africa, and most of the Near East. The city had over a million residents; after the fall of the Roman Empire, no European city would become so large again for until 19th-century London.

Rome was far more crowded than most people realize. The main wall of Rome enclosed a mere 4.26 km2—one sixteenth the size of modern Paris. Although all one million residents did not live within those walls, it is estimated that about 450,000 did so…giving ancient Rome a higher population density than any modern city. Only 18% of ancient Romans lived in houses; the other 82% lived in high-rise apartment buildings, most 5-6 stories in height. Rome was a modern metropolis nearly 2,000 years ahead of its time. (For more information, see Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization.)

The Roman society was highly class-structured, with a very few having wealth and political influence. Over 50% of the residents of the city of Rome were slaves to others, freedmen were ranked above them, and then freeborn citizens were ranked at the top. The freeborn citizens were then divided further among classes. But even if he was at the lowest class of free citizens, Paul had a very high position in the eyes of the Roman church: in their society, he was a rare member of the upper classes.

The Roman Christians had an odd position to hold within their culture. Rome allowed all deities to be worshipped…and indeed, required the worship of others. Specifically, the Imperial Cult required that the emperor was worshipped and prayed to as a sort of demigod. The Jews had been given an exemption from this requirement upon joining the Empire (something which caused other provinces to hate the Jews, as it turns out). So the Christians found themselves in an odd position: the Romans (during this period) saw them as a Jewish sect and thus extended the protection for freedom from worshipping the Imperial cult; yet the Jews called them a new superstition, and denied any relation with the Christians. By the time Nero came into power, Christianity had grown sufficiently in the Empire to be seen as an independent religion—and Nero (and his descendents) did not offer Christianity protection at all. But during the time of this letter, the Roman Christians were not required to be particularly secretive.

Much, much more interesting information exists on the Roman culture and society of the New Testament era; please read the books above. But this should give you a good mindset of the setting within which the letter to Rome was written.


INTRODUCTION TO PAUL’S LETTER (ROM 1:1-15)

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
To open his letter, Paul identifies himself as an apostle set apart by God to share the Gospel of Christ. He briefly introduces at a high level that Jesus is the Christ prophesied by Scripture (Old Testament), the Son of God, descended from David, resurrected from the dead, and the bearer of grace to all mankind. This brief explanation is a great overview of the basic definitions and concepts of Christianity.
He then wishes grace to the people from God and Christ. He identifies the Roman church members as those called to be saints – recall that in the New Testament, the term ‘saint’ is used in a general way to describe any Christian who has received the Gospel of Christ.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."

Paul finishes the opening to his letter by telling the Romans that he has not been neglecting them and in fact often prays that he can come and share the Gospel in Rome. He reassures them that he feels obligating to share the Gospel with the Gentiles, but simply has been prevented from coming to them up to this point.

In the next post we will get more into the ‘meat’ of Paul’s first point in his letter.

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