Thematic Undercurrent: Conflict Between Jew and Gentiles
Absolutely central to the understanding of Paul’s letter to the Romans is the conflict between the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Roman. The problems were creating a toxic situation that not only was causing tension in the church but made it an unstable base for Paul’s forthcoming mission to Spain and points west. The best avenue for getting a handle on the issue is to examine the early history of Christianity in Rome.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans he had never even visited the city (Romans 1:13). Thus he was addressing a community in which he had no personal interaction. That was an exception to his usual practice of penning letters to individuals he knew and congregations he had organized. But, as we saw in last weeks post, he had good reasons for writing to them since he was hoping to use Rome as a support base for his work in Spain.
Founding and History of the Church in Rome
One of the interesting facts about this important church in the empires capital city is that we know next to nothing about the circumstances surrounding the founding and early history of this church. The best lead we have is in Luke’s account of the Pentecostal outpouring in Acts 2, in which he tells us that those in the congregation visiting from Rome included both Jews and proselytes to the Jewish faith (verse 10). It is probable that converts among those groups returned to Rome to become the nucleus of the church there.
We know from history that the Jewish population in Rome by the middle of the first Christian century was substantial. The Roman historian Suetonius (ca CE 75-140) records one important event in their history when he wrote that the emperor Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome because they “constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.” Most scholars agree that “Chrestus” is a corruption of the Greek Christos and that the reference probably had to do with disputes in the Jewish community over the claims of Jesus to be the Christos, the Messiah. That expulsion probably took place in CE 49 and is witnessed to in Acts 18:2, which tells us that Aquila and Priscilla had arrived in Greece “because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” Accordingly, in Romans 16:3 they were back in Rome when Paul sent his letter. The return of the Jews probably took place soon after the death of Claudius in CE 54.
Their arrival, however, set up the Roman Christian community for conflict. The probable sequence of events is that the earliest Christians had been Jewish. As a result, they dominated Roman Christianity up until the expulsion, even though Gentiles were also being baptized. But between CE49 and CE 54 the Gentile element ran the Roman congregations. During this time, it was only natural for the Christian community to move away from its Jewish origins in the direction of non-Jewish Christianity. With the return of the Jewish Christians, however, tension between the two groups inevitably arose. Those tensions provide the background against which Paul wrote.
The writing itself took place between the return of the Jews and Jewish Christians after the death of Claudius and CE64, when the emperor Nero accused the Christians of burning Rome and instigated a period of persecution against the Roman church. External evidence points to the composition of Romans between CE 55 to 59.