The book of Romans is one of the most read and reread books of the Bible. With its clear and concise explanation of the Gospel, Romans is often the book new believers start with when they begin studying the Bible.
No matter whether you’re on your 1st or 101st read-through of the letter to the Romans, there is something new to learn and to carry into one’s life of faith. But have you ever found yourself wondering about the context of this inspirational book? Why was the book of Romans written? What was happening in the Christian community at the time? Let’s explore the historical context surrounding Romans together so that we might grow in our appreciation and understanding of this important Biblical book. (For further information, take a look at our article discussing what the book of Romans is all about.)
Who Wrote the Book of Romans?
The book of Romans was written by the apostle Paul in approximately 57-58 C.E. as a letter, or epistle, to the church in Rome. The is letter instructional in nature--intended to provide direction, encouragement, and guidance to that community of believers. Paul and the other apostles wrote many of these letters to various churches and faith communities; together, these letters make up the section of the New Testament known as the Epistles.
At the time Paul wrote this letter, he had never visited the church in Rome. Indeed, Romans was actually written while he was in Corinth (a church addressed in two other letters and books of the Bible, 1 and 2 Corinthians) during his third missionary journey. In other words, Paul was writing to a group of people he did not personally know but whom he considered to be his brothers and sisters in Christ. We can see this balance of familiarity in care the Paul takes at the start of the letter to introduce himself --“This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News.” Paul also assures his readers that while they may not have officially met yet, he is constantly praying for them and that he hopes to be able to visit them soon (Romans 1:8-15).
In Paul’s understanding of the Church and the community of believers, the idea of reaching out and offering guidance to people he had not yet met was not strange. It was intended as a gesture of love and encouragement and an acknowledgment of the difficulties that all believers face.
Why is Paul Writing to Rome?
In many of the other New Testament Epistles, there is often a clear issue or situation that the writing apostle is responding to by their letter. Sometimes it is the report of wrongdoing or wrong teaching; sometimes it is in answer to a question. This does not appear to be the case in Romans.
At the time Paul's letter to the Roman church was written, believers in Rome were experiencing a time of relative peace. This was prior to the period of Christian persecution spearheaded by Nero and beginning after the fire in Rome which took place in 64 C.E. Nevertheless, Paul recognized the need for basic Gospel doctrine within the Roman church.
Based on Romans 15:23, it seems clear that the church in Rome was had already been active for a number of years. We do not know for certain how the church in Rome originally began. The most commonly posited explanation is that those Romans who were present for the events of Pentecost eventually made their way back to Rome and started a church in one of the synagogues.
Some scholars also suggest that people who may have heard the gospel in Asia, Greece, or elsewhere could have traveled to Rome bringing news of Jesus with them. In Romans 16 Paul greets several people, notably including Priscilla and Aquila. Both Aquila and Priscilla were in Rome until about 49 C.E. when Claudius expelled all the Jews from the city. The couple met Paul when he came to Corinth and went on to further ministry around the region, eventually ending up in Rome.
Romans 1:8 also clues us in that this community of believers was well-established throughout the world--due, in part to Rome’s significance as a city, and in part because of their faithful worship and witness. The book of Romans is an example of one of the key figures of the early church reaching out to one of the most famous communities of believers in a spirit of encouragement and guidance.
A Response to Corinth
Paul’s personal context at the time of writing may also have influenced his writing. Corinth was a prominent and bustling city, full of much diversity of people and religious beliefs. Paul likely had come across many people living the kind of lives he warns against in Romans 1 and 2. When he speaks of the idolatry and harmful practices of pagan religions, he has specific examples in mind, if not specifically from Corinth, then from some point over the course of his first, second, and third missionary journey.
Likewise, from his own personal history, Paul knew the resistance and persecution that some within the Jewish community were enacting against Christians. He knew the lines of separation that were often being wrongly drawn between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Within Jewish-Christian circles, Gentile believers were frequently kept at an arms-length, while in the predominantly Gentile city of Rome, Jewish believers experienced a certain level of discrimination. Writing to an established church made up of both Jews and Gentiles, Paul speaks out against such division, promotes right living and worship, and reminds his readers that God’s grace in Jesus is available for all.
Paul’s letter to the Romans provides a concise summary of the Gospel to the community of believers worshipping in Rome. Writing to a church he had not yet visited, Paul aimed to uplift and guide his fellow Christians. Much of the letter functions as a succinct and straightforward explanation of the faith. It is a reminder from Paul, based in part on his time in Corinth, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. As Paul wrote, we can be assured that God's love for us is ultimate and unshakable.
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