Historical Background Analysis

Hellenistic-Roman Empire

The Greek and Roman world of Paul’s day was indeed a hopeless world. It was a realm filled with despair, believing that at death there is no hope for the body, or even for the soul. The time was ripe for the Gospel. There were also external factors that favored Paul and his message:

1. World government—world peace (Pax Roma)
2. World language of Greek with Latin, Aramaic & Hebrew as secondary languages
3. Roman roads linking the world
4. World skepticism with respect to pagan deities
5. Dispersion of the Jews and their monotheistic religion into the world
6. Translation of the OT into Greek—Septuagint (LXX)

Rome, the capital of the world, was experiencing the better and earlier days of Nero’s reign (A.D. 54-68). The city’s population was in excess of four million of which slightly over one half were free.

Because of continued disturbances among the Jews in the city, they were expelled from Rome by the edict of Claudius in A.D. 49. Under Nero great numbers of Jews returned.

The polytheistic heathen religion of Rome had fallen into contempt among both the cultured and uncultured classes of the city opening the way for monotheism, resulting in a great number embracing Judaism. These “God-fearers” furnished fertile ground for the spread of Christianity in the capital.

An overreaction to Judaizers exposed Christians to heresy. The Law was being set aside since salvation is not dependent upon works, but rests entirely on grace. The saints believed the performance of good deeds unnecessary and one could do whatever they pleased. Paul’s denunciation of this error is scorching. He mentions “Law” seventy-five times and “Spirit” thirty-four times as he explains the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.

There are estimated to be about one million people in Rome, the capital of the empire, at this point and somewhere between twenty to fifty thousand Jews. Jewish synagogues abounded in the city and the Christians followed synagogue pattern as they met for worship in several homes.

Since all roads led to Rome, the church probably owed its origin to the western migration of Christians. Paul, like so many others, desired to visit Rome. Hence, he wrote this letter in anticipation of his visit.

The Church in Rome

WHAT DO WE know about these Christians in Rome? The book of Acts tells us nothing about the founding of the church. But Luke does tell us that Jews from Rome were among those who saw the pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (2:10). We may surmise that some of them were among the three thousand converted on that day (2:41) and that they brought their new belief in Jesus as Messiah back with them to Rome. So the church in Rome, as the church rather Ambrosiaster later claimed, probably had its origins in the synagogue.

There were many synagogues in Rome by the first century A.D. Jews had emigrated to Rome to make up a significant portion of the population. But if the church was Jewish in origin, it probably added a significant Gentile element at an early time. Many of the initial Gentile converts who have come from the ranks of the “God-fearers,” those Gentiles who were not full-fledged Jews because they were not circumcised, but who attended the synagogue and followed the teachings of Judaism.

The Jewish character of Christianity in Rome suddenly and drastically changed. In A.D. 49, Emperor Claudius, out of exasperation with squabbles among the Jews about Chrestus (probably a reference to Jesus’ claims to be “Christ”), issued an edict that required all Jews to leave Rome. Jewish-Christians (like Priscilla and Aquila; cf. Acts 18:2) would have been included. Overnight, therefore, the church in Rome became virtually 100 percent Gentile.

By the time Paul writes, Jews were allowed back into Rome (see, Priscilla and Aquila, Rom. 16:3). But they came back to a church dominated by Gentiles. One can imagine the kind of social tension that this situation would create. Jews, who stand in the heritage from which Christianity has sprung and who were at one time the leaders of the majority, now find themselves in a minority. Several key emphases of letter make good sense against this background: the preoccupation with the Jewish law and its place in the life of Christians (e.g., Romans 7), Paul’s scolding of the Gentile Christians for their arrogance (11:1823, 25; 13-14). (Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary, Romans, 17-18).

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