Acts 28 – Paul Arrives in Rome

Christianity came to Rome before Paul, but we have very little idea of how it got there or how closely it was aligned with Jerusalem.  As Luke tells the story, Christianity did more out from Jerusalem, to Samaria and Judea, then to major Diaspora Jewish communities – Antioch, then Asia Minor, Greece (Corinth) and finally Ephesus.  Paul’s mission to the gentile world began at Antioch in the Synagogue and his normal strategy was to find the synagogue in a community in order to reach the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles first, then he moved into the marketplace in order to reach Gentiles.  

It is possible that the Roman church was not Pauline in theology, having been founded by Jews after Pentecost.  We know that the letter to the Romans was sent five years before this time to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, but we have no idea how that letter was received by the community in Rome.

Ben Witherington suggests that Paul was the first to bring the gospel of grace through faith and gentile salvation apart from the Law to Rome (Witherington, Acts, 785 ).  This is entirely possible, since the only reference we have to pre-Pauline Roman Christianity is Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18) and the reference in Tacitus to Jewish rioting over Chrestus.  It there appears as though pre-Acts 28 Christianity in Rome was quite Jewish.

The similar questions arise when thinking about the Jewish community.  To what extent were the Jews in Rome in contact with Jerusalem?  What authority did the Sanhedrin have over synagogues in Rome?  (Or anywhere, for that matter.  In Acts 9 the High Priest requests that Christians be turned over to Paul, he does not order the synagogue to do anything!)   There is therefore a tension in Paul’s arrival – how will he be received?  Have Jews from Jerusalem managed to arrive before him?  If they had left about the same time as he did from Jerusalem they could hardly have traveled faster given the time of the year.  Paul has no idea if he will meet Jewish Christians who are predisposed to attack him, or whether they will be like the Bereans, more open to his teaching.

This uncertainty does not seem to bother Paul.  Once he finds lodgings in Rome he begins to meet with individuals in order to explain his presence in Rome and, likely as not, to explain his “side of the story.”  He is still the apostle to the Gentiles and his imprisonment will permit him to reach the household of Caesar.

8 thoughts on “Acts 28 – Paul Arrives in Rome

  1. Phil: For me this is a thrilling thing to imagine, in the great city of Rome itself a community of Torah observant Jews who worship Jesus. Wow. It is so tragic that the RC church (my church) later ruled what we now call ‘Messianics’ heretics, at the Council of Nicea. That was the final blow, resulting in the parting of the ways. Do we have any idea who first brought the message of ‘Jesus the Messiah’ to Rome? When did Peter arrive on the scene? Any leads on resources for laypeople on this subject would be appreciated.

    • I think that I will offer some more details after I finish Acts, but I am not sure there are any solid details on when Peter arrived. My guess (like most) is that people who heard Peter at Pentecost returned to Rome at some point about began to argue that Jesus was the Messiah in their home synagogues. This accounts for the Chrestus-riots in 48, which resulted in the leadership of the Jewish Christian community. Aquila and Priscilla would have been a part of this group. Bear in mind this happens more or less during Paul’s first missionary Journey, so Peter is still around Galilee or Jerusalem (or near enough to be there in Acts 15).

      I have read that there were a handful of Jewish Christian bishops *not* invited to Nicea. That is amazing to me, that there was a Jewish form of Christianity in Judea into the fourth century!

  2. Phillip, I am puzzled by Witherington’s suggestion that Paul was the first to bring the gospel of universal salvation to Rome. Witherington does not provide evidence for this. It is problematic because:
    1. Paul’s letter suggests that there were many Gentiles in the church of Rome.
    2. The Judean church leaders believed that Gentiles should be included without circumcision and they had ratified that decision and communicated it to diaspora churches (Acts 10:1-16:4).
    3. In Gal 5:11 Paul writes, “why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision?” and in 6:12 we read that the agitators preached circumcision “only that they no be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” From these verses we can infer that Paul and the Galatians knew that Christians would be persecuted only if they preached against circumcision. Christians who preached circumcision could live without persecution. Now, I agree with you that the “Chrestus” disturbance in Rome was between Christian and non-Christian Jews. Given the evidence from Galatians, this conflict in Rome was probably about whether Gentiles could be included without circumcision. If the church of Rome did not include Gentiles on equal terms without circumcision, what was the disturbance about?
    4. Luke endorses the teaching of Prisca and Aquila and gives no hint that they were reluctant to include Gentiles on equal terms.
    5. Prisca and Aquila risked their lives for Paul (Rom 16:3), so they could hardly have considered him a dangerous heretic. Paul was on good terms with them and with other Jews who had gone to Rome (Rom 16:3-15).

    You mention that there are few references to Christianity in Rome before Paul, but this is no evidence that the Christianity there was exclusively Jewish. All it means is that Acts was not written for the believers in Rome. The history of the faith in Rome was of little interest to Luke’s audience (which I place in the Aegean, as you know).

    Phillip, from a few of your posts I feel that you are in Baur’s shadow still.

    • Perhaps we have a definition problem here. While I cannot speak for Witherington, my point here is that “Pauline Christianity” has not really arrived in Rome by Acts 28. While you are certainly correct that Gentile Christians are present in Rome based on the letter to the Romans, Gentile Christians does not necessarily mean “Pauline Christianity.” Romans is written to Roman Christians who do not know Paul yet and reads like an “Introduction to the Pauline Gospel.” He may have had followers in Rome by AD 60 or so, but nothing like what he has in Ephesus or Galatia.

      My suggestion, following Witherington, is that the form of Christianity in Rome was more or less like Antioch, Hellenistic Jews accepting Jesus as Messiah and remaining within Judaism when possible. This accounts for the Chrestus Riots, a similar response to Jesus as Messiah Paul encountered in Galatia, etc. Those Hellenistic Jewish Christians may have made some gentile converts, but if they did, those converts had the status of God-fearing Gentiles with respect to Judaism. This again is similar to Antioch. Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is that they do not even need to achieve the status of God-Fearer with respect to the Law, they are not under the Law at all. That form of theology, Witherington might say and I would agree, was not preached officially in Rome until Paul arrived.

      As for being in the shadow of Baur, perhaps. But then so too are many scholars who trace variations in theology within the early church. To talk about Paul’s theology as distinct from Peter, or James, or John, is not to create some artificial dialectic, but to see the early church for what it was. It was not a monolithic, pure and holy proto-Roman Catholic church. There were some deep differences between Paul and James, and (I think) between people to the right and left of Paul and James who either took Grace too far or took legalism too far. It is not an either/or, but a spectrum of beliefs from people honestly trying to figure out who Jesus was and what he claimed to have done with the cross and the resurrection.

      I think that saying someone in the shadow of Baur is the biblical studies version of Godwin’s Law. But just maybe Baur got a few things right?

      • Thanks for engaging with my comment, Phillip.

        You say that Romans “reads like an “Introduction to the Pauline Gospel.””. I don’t think so.

        1) He writes that he has “written to you rather boldly by way of reminder” (Rom 15:15). Hultgren comments “What he sets forth in this letter is the tradition known to both them and himself. He has not introduced anything new or novel.” 15:15 would be hard to explain if Paul were introducing a theology that his readers did not share.

        2) If the official doctrine of the church of Rome was that Gentiles had to be circumcised to have equal status then Gentles in the church would be tempted to be circumcised and Paul would have reacted much as he did to the Galatians. But, while Paul addresses Gentiles in Rom 11:13 and following, he nowhere feels the need to warn them not to be circumcised. There is none of the anti-circumcision rhetoric that we get in Galatians.

        3) Paul respects the faith of the believers in Rome (1:8-12). He expects that he and the believers in Rome will “be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith”. We know from Galatians that Paul would say no such thing to a church that discriminated against uncircumcised Gentiles.

        4) Paul uses the first person plural when discussing the faith. For example “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Rom 3:28) This implies that it is at least the official teaching of his audience.

        You say that the church of Antioch did not accept uncircumcised Gentiles as equals. I assume you are referring to Acts 11:19-20. The faith had reached Antioch through people who had left Judea before Peter and Paul had received their visions. The believers in Antioch at that time therefore did not know that Gentiles were to be included. But Judea soon sent Barnabas to Antioch. The church there did not remain isolated – through the influence of Barnabas, Paul, Peter, Barsabbas, and Silas it accepted and preserved its belief that Gentiles should be accepted as equals. Now, the church of Rome did not remain isolated either. In Rom 16 Paul lists many who had moved there since his conversion. Even if the church of Rome was founded before the Cornelius incident (which is doubtful), it would likely have come around to the (later) mainstream Christian view, just as Antioch did.

        I argued from Gal 5:11; 6:14 that the Chrestus riots are explicable only if the believers in Rome gave equal status to uncircumcised Gentile members. You say that similar disturbances occurred in Galatia after Paul merely preached Jesus as Messiah. I don’t agree. Paul says “by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:39). This encouraged “almost the whole city” to come to hear him on the next sabbath (13:44). The Jews then became jealous on seeing the large crowd (13:45) and they drove Paul and Barnabas out after many (uncircumcised) Gentiles became believers. It seems likely, therefore, that the persecution of the apostles in Galatia would not have happened if they had not preached Gentile liberty. I see no indication that Paul was persecuted merely for preaching Jesus as messiah.

        I agree that the early church was not monolithic. Acts records many tensions among the believers. However, the relationship between Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders is harmonious in Acts. It seems to me that scholars would not be hypothesizing theological differences between Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders if they did not hold the mirror to Galatians at the wrong angle. Of course, they try to bolster their reading of Galatians by searching for supporting evidence elsewhere, but they cherry-pick the data. For example they note (as you did) that Acts does not record that the Jerusalem apostles came to Paul’s aid when he was in prison, but they fail to note that Prisca and Aquila risked their necks for Paul, or that Andronicus and Junia (who were not his converts) were in prison with him. Let me know if I am missing something, but it does all come down to how we read Gal 1-2, doesn’t it?

  3. Shortly upon Paul’s arrival in Rome he gathered the leaders of the Jews. According to the way he began his speech, it sounds like he was sort of defending himself. This would confirm P. Long’s statement, “Paul has no idea if he will meet Jewish Christians who are predisposed to attack him, or whether they will be like the Bereans, more open to his teaching”. And their response is definitely more like the Bereans rather than the Jews in Jerusalem. Those gathered preferred to hear about his theology and what he has been teaching to Gentiles and Jews for that matter. This shows that there is at least an awareness of Christianity in Rome. They say, “for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect” (Acts 28:22). It’s evident that they know about Paul and that he is teaching something different than Judaism. Having said that, from the Jew’s response in Rome, it sounds like bits and pieces of Pauline theology has reached Rome, but they don’t understand it at all. Rome has been part of Paul’s plans. In Acts 19:21 he states, “I must visit Rome also”. God also speaks to Paul about this, “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage!” As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11). It was part of Paul’s plan and God’s will for Paul to visit Rome and present and defend the legitimacy of Pauline theology and more importantly the gospel.

  4. Paul’s confidence in the Lord is amazing. To be able to go into any situation not knowing if you will be accepted or rejected, beaten or welcomed, or even murdered is something that most people, including myself would not be ok with. Luckily, Paul is not rejected and his teachings about Jesus are welcomed. In my opinion, it sounds like what Paul is teaching has already reached some of the ears of the Romans. This gave Paul a huge advantage and let him proclaim the Gospel to the people in Rome.

  5. This is again just another great reminder for the Christians of this age to not become complacent and to get over their fears of the 21st century “persecution.” Paul has been through Hell and high water preaching the gospel and using his past as a springboard to launch his ministry to the next level. Paul was not afraid to stand up to anyone, no matter who that may be. Paul spoke about our God with out fail and if there is one thing this class is teaching me is that the Christians of this age suck at being bold. Where is our zeal? Where is our vigor? Paul had been arrested for preaching the good news and yet he still pressed on, even through his house arrest. If Paul can do it why cant we? Is the God of his age not the same as ours? I think so, God moves through those who are willing to be used! Be willing, be like Paul. Be a testament to God’s grace and power.

Leave a Reply