II. The Recipe for Romans: People
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | July 2, 2020Last week I used a restaurant/food metaphor to talk about ways we engage with scripture. We said that bible study is learning the historical and cultural ‘recipe’ by which a particular biblical text came to be. The two main ingredients for the ‘Romans recipe’ are people and words. Today, I want to focus on people: who wrote this letter, and who received it? The first question is easier to answer than the second. Fair warning: I’m going to give us a lot of background today. I’ll finish with suggesting some questions that we should keep in mind as we read.
First, the Apostle Paul wrote Romans. Paul is a Jewish Christian missionary with a rhetorical education and deep Israelite street cred. (See Philippians 3:4-6.) Once a persecutor of the Church, Paul had an intense spiritual experience in which he was confronted by the Lord Jesus. Soon after this ‘conversion’ Paul became an energetic traveling missionary bringing the Gospel of Christ to the Mediterranean Gentile world. This transformation from persecutor to apostle is so total that Paul’s name actually changes from Saul-the-persecutor to Paul-the-Apostle. (See Acts 9.)
Paul’s specific mission to the non-Jewish Gentiles sometimes leads to conflict between Paul and other early Church leaders who feel that Paul is being reckless or unfaithful to the Church’s Jewish heritage. In the New Testament, this conflict is most pronounced in the background of Galatians 2:10-15, which recounts a conflict between Paul and Peter, but it pops up in several places, including Romans. By the time Paul writes the letter to the Romans in the mid-to-late 50s CE, he is well-known amongst Christians. The Roman church communities would know him by reputation, but they have not met Paul in person yet (Prisca, Aquila, and possibly one or two others excepted).
Second, now that we know a little about the author of Romans, who are the recipients of this letter? We don’t have letters or other texts written by them, so most of what we know we have to piece together from other sources, including Paul’s letter itself, pagan Roman texts, and some archaeological evidence.
In his opening salutation, Paul says of the Romans that their “faith is proclaimed throughout the world” (1:8). This suggests a church community that has been around for a while and is known to other churches. We don’t know exactly when the Gospel first reached Rome, nor do we know who first preached it in the imperial capital, but given Rome’s importance as a cultural and economic hub, travelers of all kinds would’ve come and gone regularly. Thus, it’s easy to imagine that word of Jesus’ death and resurrection spread from Jerusalem, or the surrounding area, to Rome fairly early.
Around the year 49 CE, however, the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome. A Roman historian tells us that Claudius does this because the Jews were “constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” The similarity between Chrestus and Christos (Greek for “Christ”) is hard to miss.
A reminder is important here: Jesus was Jewish, as were virtually all of his very first followers. Thus, in the 1st century CE, a likely place to find followers of Jesus is as a subgroup of a Jewish synagogue. Over time, however, the competing claims of ‘Jewish Jews’ and ‘Jewish Christians’ became harder and harder to reconcile within synagogues, especially in regard to the inclusion of Gentiles.
To folks within the synagogue, this is a major conflict about identity: has the God of Israel acted definitively in the person of Jesus Christ for everyone, including Gentiles, or not? Is this Christ the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, or not? Do Gentile believers in Christ have to become Jewish first, or not? This tension escalates as more and more Gentiles begin hearing the Gospel and seek to belong to communities of early Christians. This is one reason Paul’s ministry, and his letter to the Romans in particular, is so important: he speaks directly to a community composed of differing backgrounds, and he does so with an eye towards making one community of them.
To an outsider like our Roman historian, however, all this is simply Jews getting riled up by some guy named Chrestus. Our Roman historian hears a name like Christ connected with riots and simply assumes there’s a physical, historical Chrestus somewhere starting fires and encouraging violence in Jewish neighborhoods.
That the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome around 49 CE is attested in scripture, as well. In Acts 18:2, Paul is in Corinth and meets two Jewish Christians named Prisca and Aquila who were recently expelled from Rome by Claudius. The three form a ministry team, traveling to Syria, and eventually parting ways in Ephesus (Acts 18:19). Eventually, the Emperor Claudius dies and the expelled Jews begin to return, including Prisca and Aquila. Thus, in the final chapter of Romans, Paul will greet them as folks “who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house.” (16:3-5a).
In a string of greetings to various folks in chapter 16, it is significant that Paul greets both Prisca and Aquila and the church that meets in their house. This matters for three reasons: it means that there are multiple church communities in Rome; it reminds us that this letter is addressed to all of them; and finally, by splitting this greeting into a.) Prisca and Aquila and b.) the folks who meet in their house, we get a historical clue that says, “the owners of the house and the folks who live in it are different categories of people.” In other words, it’s possible that included in the recipients of Paul’s letter are folks who are followers of Jesus but who live in a household where that is not okay.
For example: “greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus” (16:11). In this greeting, it’s significant that Narcissus is not greeted. It could be that Narcissus is a Gentile head of household who does not follow Jesus, but who has slaves or even relatives who are Christians and have snuck away to hear Paul’s letter read. Narcissus’ slaves and relatives would be considered the “family of Narcissus;” Paul greets them but not Narcissus himself, who is absent from the church assembly as a non-believer. This is a contrast to the household of Prisca and Aquila where the heads of household and the folks who meet in it are both greeted and therefore presumably believers.
This divide is not unusual, but it’s important for us to keep in mind that Paul is writing to “all God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7). Some are financially secure, but most are not. Some are free, but many are slaves. Some understand themselves as Jewish, some as Gentile. Some were exiled by Claudius, some were not.
These last two are important because when we read Romans carefully, we can hear Paul modulating between audiences: sometimes he seems to be talking directly to Christians who understand themselves as Jews, and other times he seems to be talking directly to Christians who understand themselves as Gentiles. Remember, Paul is writing in the mid to late 50s CE, which means he is writing after many exiled Jews (including Jewish Christians) have returned to Rome.
This is a significant piece of this community’s history. As noted above, the Roman Church probably started early on when evangelists from Jerusalem began to preach there. This means that there’s a good possibility that the Roman Church started with a strong sense of its Jewishness and connection to the region of Judea. But when all the Jews are exiled from Rome in 49 CE, these Jewish Christians are kicked out, too, and suddenly the Roman Church is primarily led by and composed of more Gentile Christians.
A few years later, the power dynamics shift again: Claudius dies and all the exiled Jewish Christians like Prisca and Aquila return. Now, the Church in Rome reflects (at least) two groups of Christians, each of which is used to being leaders of the Roman Christian community. This is one of the main pastoral challenges Paul is addressing: how does a community coexist and thrive as a single community when they’ve had years of major leadership swings from one side of the Jewish-Gentile spectrum to the other?
What do I mean by “leadership swing?” We know the Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome, but in reality, given Rome’s size, it was probably Jews of a certain ‘visible’ social and financial standing who were driven out, folks like Prisca and Aquila. Chances are that a large number of poorer Jews living in slum neighborhoods remained and stayed out of the imperial eye. Many of these Jews would’ve come from slave ancestry, folks whose parents or grandparents had either been freed or somehow purchased their freedom. Jewish slaves would likely also have stayed if they had Gentile masters.
In Rome, these poorer Christians would have relied on folks like Prisca and Aquila not only for a degree of leadership and material support, but also for a physical place in which to gather. Most likely, artisans like Prisca and Aquila could have hosted up to thirty folks at a time. It is in a household like theirs where significant events would most likely occur (events like the arrival of a letter from Paul).
So, when Prisca and Aquila are exiled, not only does the Roman community lose that pair of leaders, but they also lose one of their principal meeting places. If there are no other Christians in that area of the city who have the resources to host a larger gathering, then everyone is forced to drift back into the smaller networks of relationships that geography and status afford them.
This is doubly true for the poor and for slaves whose daily schedules were almost entirely determined by patrons or masters. Thus, when Claudius exiles all the Jews, all of the Jewish-Christian households that were emotional and physical hubs for Roman believers are closed. Poorer and enslaved Christians in Rome in certain neighborhoods—perhaps especially certain Jewish neighborhoods—may have gone a few years gathering only in twos and threes. When Prisca and Aquila return, these folks may have felt that they were ‘getting their church back’—only now, the Christian scene in Rome has a more Gentile feel to it, particularly in regards to important things like food.
When Paul writes his letter, he is trying to be sensitive to all of these factors, and there’s some reason to believe that his primary pastoral objective in writing is to call to humility some of the Gentile believers who have most recently had the upper hand, so to speak. But we’ll get to that later.
If your head is spinning, don’t worry! I give us all this info up front because we’re just starting out. This context should can help us navigate Romans. Specifically, we should notice how Paul uses the language of slavery, freedom, and obedience. We should also pay attention to Paul’s language of family, ancestry, and household. Finally, we should ask ourselves, “how would a Gentile audience hear this? How about a Jewish audience?” I’ll tackle some of these language concerns next week when we focus on the other main ingredient of our Romans recipe: words.
 I’ve written about this elsewhere. There are thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, though it is probably that only seven were written by the historical figure himself. The remaining six were likely written by followers of Paul. You can read more on ancient notions of authorship here. For distinguishing characteristics of Pauline letters whose authorship is ‘disputed’ or ‘undisputed,’ visit here. Finally, the very act of composing and ‘mailing’ a letter in the ancient world was not a simple one.
 She is called “Priscilla” in Acts, but I’ll use the (likely more accurate) spelling from Romans.
 This last is particularly important for the size of households, the layout of Rome as a city, etc.
 There is an early tradition that has Peter evangelizing Rome, though many doubt this tradition rises to contemporary standards of historical evidence. Personally, I see no reason why this should not be considered a real possibility, though from a strictly historical perspective, it’s far from certain.
 Suetonius, who likely couldn’t have cared less about the specifics of what was going on in the Roman Jewish community.
 Quoted in Brendan Byrne, S.J.’s Romans commentary in the Sacra Pagina series, ed. by Daniel Harrington, S.J. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), pg. 11 of the introduction.
 It’s possible that these riots weren’t about Jesus at all but were instead about Roman oppression. But if you’re a Roman historian, you wouldn’t write that!