I. The Shaping of the Letter

A. The Historical Situation

1. The Roman Churches

That Romans was written to correct a specific problem in Rome was an idea brought to the attention of modern scholarship by Willi Marxsen in his Einleitung in das Neue Testament. While Marxsen rejected Rom. 16 as going to Rome, Donfried argued that Marxsen's thesis was better served by regarding Rom. 16 as a part of the letter.

The scenario outlined by Marxsen, with which the present writer is in agreement, follows.

Clement and Tacitus noted that the early Christian presence in Rome was a large one, and C. K. Barret and others have said that its early presence was mostly distributed among synagogues. Noting from ancient inscriptions that there was a large number of synagogues in Rome, Wolfgang Wiefel reasoned that the relative independence of these synagogues would have made them ripe for the selective penetration of Christianity. Donfried notes that Ambrosiaster's mention of early Roman Christians who worshipped "according to a Jewish rite" fits well into this hypothesis.

It seems that this Christian penetration of the synagogues was not, however, without its problems. According to Suetonius' vita Claudii, the presence of the many followers of "Chrestos" resulted in occasional "disturbances" (tumultuantis), most likely the result of discord between Jews and Jewish Christians over the question of Christ, the Messiah. This caused Claudius to close all the synagogues and to expel the Jews from Rome. That "Chrestos" was a corruption of "Christos" by Suetonius was an insight of Marxsen, who also linked Claudius' expulsion edict with Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:1-2, making the case that this couple were already Christians when they met Paul in Corinth. The Gentile Christians, somehow distancing themselves enough from their Jewish brothers and sisters to remain in Rome but unable to access the closed synagogues, moved their worship into their homes.

After Claudius died in AD 49, Jewish Christians were free to return to Rome. Many, including Priscilla and Aquila, did just that--but found the Christianity greatly changed now that it had moved into its new, house church setting. The Gentile Christians evidently looked upon the returning Jewish Christians as "poor relations," to use the words of F. F. Bruce. This may have been a result of the fact that the house churches had drifted away from "synagogal form," or it may have had a more sinister base in the anti-Jewish feeling that was common in first century Rome. Additional friction may have resulted from Gentiles who had abandoned some of the Jewish practices made optional in Acts 15.

Even as Marxsen suggested the above scenario, he demurred on the question of the repatriation of Roman Jews because of the lack of Jewish names in Romans 16. Donfried, however, cites a study by Harry Leon that demonstrated through the inscriptions in Roman catacombs, that "gradually, as such a [Jewish immigrant] group adapts itself to its surroundings, it accepts, among the customs of the adopted country, the names current in that country." It is on this point that Marxsen's disposition of Romans 16 is wrong. Since then Peter Lampe, using a computerized concordance, has completed a more extensive analysis of the names in Romans 16. Arguing that all but four of the names are definitely Roman, he regards the majority of the names to be useless in terms of determining Jewish ancestry for the reason mentioned above. On the question of how many of these names belonged to Jews, he suggests that the "kins(wo)man" designations (Rom. 16:7, Rom. 11) provide a much better guide. Paul did not use suggena mon in any of his other letters and seems therefore to be making a special point of the Jewishness of these three people for a good reason:

Paul prays for the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 10:1). "I ask, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite" (Rom. 11:1), and he thus offers a proof that God did not reject the Jews. The "kins(wo)men" in Romans 16 are living proofs of the same grace towards Israel. They and Paul himself are the "remnant at the present time, chosen by grace" (Rom. 11:5). "Israel failed to obtain what it sought. But the elect (i.e., Paul and his Christian kins(wo)men) obtained it" (11:7). They are signs of hope that Israel is not yet lost. On the contrary, Israel will be fully included in the salvation one time in the future (Rom. 11:12, 23, 24, 26, 29, 31, 32). .

Regardless of Paul's motives, the fact remains that the use of "kins(wo)man" does give an indication of the relative population of people of Jewish ancestry in the Roman Churches at the time the letter was written. Clearly, at least three out of the total population of 26 individuals mentioned in Romans 16 were Jews, so there was a certain degree of repatriation after the death of Claudius.

We may next turn to the house "churches." While Birkey only counts four direct references, Lampe reckons seven or eight, noting that we should not assume that the Christians in the list that are not mentioned as having a specific house connection are members of the four. One may also suppose that there were returning Jewish Christians setting up synagogues-style worship in their homes; that Priscilla and Aquila are the first group mentioned, and the only one actually called a "church," we may assume this was true in at least one case.

As to the degree of discord, there are a number of opinions. Using convincing internal evidence from Romans, rancis Watson regards Jewish and Gentile Christians as having already broken fellowship into "two Roman congregations." Yet there is some probability that Priscilla and Aquila's church was functioning properly because Priscilla was a Gentile and Aquila was a Jew (Acts 18:2) and the couple had had close ties with Paul. Therefore, the fact that Romans 16 lists at least four churches is in tension with Watson's thesis, which might better be understood as saying that Roman worship style was divided into two separate styles. In fact, it is quite probable that the degree of disharmony within the various house churches varied from church to church, just as it does in our own culture. Nevertheless, Paul felt that he had to do what he could to bring the same sort of unity to the Roman house churches that he desired for the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1-3).

2. Paul's Situation

T. W. Manson, in a 1948 lecture, demonstrated that Paul wrote Romans on his third missionary journey while in Greece, during the three months of Acts 20:3, which he designates as being winter months when travel was difficult. Fitzmyer agrees, adding that the most likely place of writing was Corinth because Paul had written the Corinthians of his pending arrival (2 Cor. 9:4). Fitzmyer dates the composition of the letter in the winter of AD 57-58. Johannes Munck sees these months as a "turning point"; Paul had completed his work in the East and, after a trip to Jerusalem, planned to go via Rome to Spain where he would begin to work in the West.

The exact date and place are not nearly as important than Paul's situation at that time. 1 Cor. 16:1, 2 Cor. 8, and 2 Cor. 9, all written prior to his arrival at Corinth, speak of a large collection from Corinthian and Galatian Christians. Paul also mentions this collection in Rom. 15:26, where he adds churches in Macedonia and Achaia and designates the proceeds as being for the "poor among the saints in Jerusalem." This fact, plus his desire to arrive in Jerusalem in time for Pentecost (Acts 20:16), serve as important constraints on Paul's options, as will be explored further, below.

3. Conclusion

It is not possible to know how Paul heard of the troubles in Rome. Lampe argues that Aquila and Priscilla probably returned to Rome around AD 55 or 56, suggesting that they may have done so as Paul's vanguard as they had done earlier at Ephesus (Acts 18:18-19:1). If he is correct in assuming that Aquila and Priscilla had such a close co-laoring relationship with Paul (see Rom. 16:3), it is possible that Paul was acting on a report from them.

Regardless of the precise distribution of Christian churches and/or synagogues in Rome at the time of Paul's letter, and no matter whether there were some churches in which Jews and Gentiles were worshipping together, the juxtaposition of the situations of Paul and that of the churches of Rome leads to only one conclusion: there was a serious problem with the behavior of many churches in the capitol city and Paul was absolutely not in any position to deal with that problem with the immediacy that it demanded. Were he to change his itinerary to Rome, he would be reneging on the promises he had made to the churches that had given him the gifts that were needed with some urgency in Jerusalem. The tension must have been tremendous, making its mark in the text in Rom. 1:11, "I long to see you...."

But Paul had no choice but to attempt to deal with the problem with a letter. It would have to be a virtual masterpiece of logic and persuasion, and because he was writing to a place that he had never visited, he would need to influence people who he had never met, and to exhort churches that he had not founded. It was a project that may have consumed much of the three-month winter layover, and was very possibly carried to Rome and read to each of the churches there by Phoebe, as suggested by Stuhlmacher. We are the ultimate beneficiaries of that letter, and it is to the form of that document that we must now turn.