Roman Christianity Prior to Paul

The traditional view is that the Roman church was founded by both Peter and Paul. Few accept this tradition today. The story of Peter’s arrival in the second year of Claudius (A.D. 42) is found in Eusebius (H.E. 2.14.6). Peter followed Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8) and answers his false teaching. According to Eusebius, the Gospel Peter preached at this time was so well received the Roan people demanded a written copy, which became the Gospel of Mark. That the church was founded by Peter and Paul refers to the fact they both eventually ministered in the city and were both buried there (Irenaeus, Haer. 3.1 – “while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church…”

paul-in-romeThe consensus view is that the church was founded by believers who returned to Rome after Pentecost. Jews had contact with Rome as early as 160 B.C. According to 1 Macc 8:17-22, the Judas Maccabees sent an embassy to Rome in order to secure “establish friendship and alliance.” Pompey brought Jews captured at Jerusalem to Rome in 63 B.C. (Anitq. 14.4.5) and by the time Romans was written the Jewish population in Rome may have been as high as 50,000. Fitzmyer, Romans, 27. Kruse estimates the population of Rome in the mid to late 50s Rome at “about 400,000 made up of slaves (30%) and freed men and women (30%), and freeborn (40%).”

It is also estimated that about 10 percent of the population were Jews.” Kruse, Romans, 1. Keener comments that estimates vary “from perhaps a quarter of a million (extrapolated from water supplies) to over a million for its metropolitan area (extrapolated, in my opinion more reliably, from concrete census figures from ancient historians” (Keener, Romans [Cascade Commentary], 9).  Fitzmyer also argues for at least thirteen synagogues based on inscriptional evidence (Fitzmyer, Romans, 28). In addition to these inscriptions there are thousands of funerary inscriptions in the catacombs.

Jewish Christianity would have come to Rome soon after Pentecost as Jews visiting Jerusalem in 30/33 returned home. Acts 2:10 lists Jews from the city of Rome as present in the crowd at Pentecost and Acts 6:9 mentions the Synagogue of the Freedmen. Although visitors to that synagogue could have come from anywhere, Fitzmyer suggests the members may have been descended from the Jews taken captive by Pompey (Fitzmyer, Romans, 29).

Raymond Brown points out that Christian missionaries coming from Jerusalem were more conservative with respect the Law and the connection of Christianity and Judaism in contrast to Christian missionaries from Antioch, such as Paul (Acts and Galatians support his point; see his Introduction, 562). He observes Paul is far more diplomatic with respect to the Law in Romans, as compared to Galatians. This may indicate the majority of his readers were Jews and more conservative with respect to the role of the Law for the Christian.

There is evidence of Christians in Rome as early as A.D. 49, when Claudius expelled Jews for rioting over “Chrestus,” likely a Latinized form of Christos, the Greek translation of Messiah. Luke refers to this decree in Acts 18:2-4. Soon after arriving in Corinth, Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla, Jewish tentmakers forced to leave Rome by Claudius. It is possible this expulsion of believers in A.D. 49 only effected the Jewish members of the congregation. If this is the case, then the congregation might have been founded by Jews, but is now primarily Gentile God-Fearers. If the church continued to grow, the percentage of Gentiles would have grown in this period.

After the death of Claudius the edit was canceled and Jewish believers could return to Rome, perhaps to discover the Christian congregations were far more Gentile than when they left. The Roman churches to which Paul wrote were therefore a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers. The churches were not founded by Paul

This consensus view has been challenged because parts of the book seem addressed only to Jews, other sections to Gentiles. There are details in the book that seem to be addressed to Jewish readers, especially in Romans 1-4. On the other hand, there are indications that Gentiles are being addressed in the church. In 11:13, Paul addresses “you Gentiles.”

It is best, therefore, to understand the church as both Jew and Gentile. Paul deals with the shift in God’s program from the Jew to all the world in Romans 9-11, and with some of the difficulties that Jewish-Christian congregations face in chapter 14.

But what difference does it make in reading Romans if the churches are “more Jewish” or “more Gentile”? Does this change the way we might understand certain sections of Romans?

15 thoughts on “Roman Christianity Prior to Paul

  1. A larger question being debated (although a minority concern for this blog and Phil’s readers, I admit) is whether or not Paul is addressing his readers as “Christians” — a name the Romans used to distinguish these “silly,” “stupid,” “irrational,” “simple,” “wicked,” “hateful,” “obstinate,” “anti-social,” “extravagant,” “perverse.”, followers of Christos (cited by L. Hurtado), and not a name Paul used himself– or as Jews, which included both gentile and Pagan “god-fearers”. It is currently being debated in academic circles whether or not the epithet “Christian” is an anachronistic translation (along with “church” and our understanding of “conversion” in 1CE). Certainly, it should be well established by people like John Gager, that Paul’s audience was a mixed bag, and that Gentiles were important patrons of the synagogues in the 1st century CE. When in Rome, do as the Jews do. Given scholarship of the last 40 years (no Biblical pun intended), I think it’s safe to assume that Paul’s readers were primarily Jewish, as was Paul, and that must be taken very seriously into account when reading Romans. It’s easy to read backwards in time, but difficult to read in the past (Paul’s present) without the benefit of either omnipotence or a time machine. Caution: bumpy road ahead.

    • Thanks Rob, I have something more to say about this tomorrow and the next day (the post is already queued). There is a problem sorting out Paul’s relationship with Rome and Jerusalem, but also the relationship between Roman synagogues and Jerusalem. Assuming the story of Acts is accurate (sorry Howard), Paul has been dogged by some Jews who oppose his law-free gospel for the Gentiles and they attack him in Jerusalem, almost getting Paul lynched by an anger mob at the Temple.

      Paul knows this is a possibility when he wrote to the Romans asking for their prayers to be “kept safe from the unbelievers” Rom 15:30. Who are these people? I do not think it is the Romans, but rather unbelieving Jews, and possibly even people who are within James’s circle of influence. By asking for prayer prior to returning to Jerusalem, is Paul tacitly hoping the Roman Christians will influence people in Jerusalem?

      Again, more on this later, but it is possible Paul did not think the Roman churches were properly evangelized since he had not preached the gospel there. Nor had any apostle as far as we know. That alone is a motivation for Paul to write, preparing the way for what he hopes will be a smooth visit.

  2. Kudos for covering this kind of question! Exploring the “hidden” early history of Jesus-following (before “Christians” or a largely Gentile church, and just after) is important. It is usually ignored. In my view both Luke (Acts) and Eusebius aid the obscurity. Both had agendas in terms of stories of origin and of authority that all the facts did not fit well with.

    I appreciate that you note one element of it in the opening and show how Eusebius, though early in the history-writing process, did not always have either reliable sources or integrity/accuracy in what he recorded.

    I also love you giving the kind of population and migration details and such that you do here. It may gloss over some eyes, but it is the kind of data I find helpful in constructing a fuller picture of earliest Christianity (which is much different than the traditional “received” picture most of us now have, Christian or non-Christian).

    • Like everyone else, Eusebius was writing according to his own agenda. He selected sources and used them to further his view of orthodox Christianity, about 300 years after the resurrection. In most cases we cannot check his sources to see how he used them, but I am not overly suspicious or conspiratorial.

  3. I think it could impact the verses that are debated like Romans 2:12-15 and 3:5 (who are “under the law” and who is he talking about when he says “our” unrighteousness?) and you do not know whether he is talking to or about the Jews or the Gentiles. Some verses are addressed mainly to Jews, while others are addressed to Gentiles, and in 2:28-29 Paul changes the meaning of the word “Jew” when he uses it to refer to a member of God’s true people, Gentiles included. However ultimately, I do not think it changes his point too much. It may change the significance of some of his ideas like his statements that all are equal under the power of sin, but I do not think it changes the theme or main idea of Romans in general. The ideas Paul expressed remain the same, grounded in what Jesus taught, which included all people.

  4. As made clear by the article, the church of Rome had at least two distinct people groups: Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians. This presents two groups of believers who have had completely different childhoods and upbringings. The Jews, on one hand, would have understood the importance of keeping the Mosaic law and the Gentiles may have not realized the law’s significance. In light of the Jewish Christians’ knowledge of these rules and having lived by them, it would have come as a complete shock to them that, while the law is important, it is not the one who saves you. One chapter that clearly shows the effect of reading in light of the “Jew-Gentile” distinction is Romans 7. The distinction allows the reader to understand who exactly Paul is speaking to, why he places such a strong emphasis on certain words and phrases, and why he decides to use such illustrations as marriage and adultery in Romans 7:2-3 to explain how long the law binds someone. As Moo remarked about the Gentile Christians seeing the Mosaic Laws as “passé”(Encountering Romans, 31), then, by reading Romans in the Gentile perspective, one can see why Paul would speak so highly of Law in passages such as Romans 7:7-12. He wanted the Jews to know that the law could not save them, but he desired the Gentiles to know that even though the law does not determine their eternity, it is still “holy and righteous and good.” (V. 12, ESV)

  5. When you say, “it is possible this expulsion of believers in A.D.49 only effected the Jewish members of the congregation,” what kind of possibility is it? Is it more speculation or probability? What is the evidence there for either possibility?
    If the expulsion applied to everyone who was arguing about “Chrestus,” I think that the growth of the church would vary depending on where they temporarily settled. If a believer went to Jerusalem, their understanding of the faith would grow somewhat differently than if they stopped in Corinth. Perhaps, not only was there conflict merely between Jew and Gentile ways but also between the different ways they had been exposed to doing church in the various places they had stayed (e.g. The Gentiles may want to use guitars but even within the Jews there could be division between supporters of piano only versus organ only).

    • The guitar vs. piano analogy is OK, but there were likely more “socially disruptive” behaviors advocated by Gentiles, especially if they were fellowshiping with with Jewish believers!

  6. As you ask whether it makes a difference if reading Romans in the context of the church body is important, I am highly certain that the only answer to this question is a “yes” with a lot of major points and turns from people’s perspectives. The best way to break apart the letter of Romans and to understand its initial purpose (why Paul wrote it) is to refer to the original context in due of historical and cultural perspectives. Paul is writing this specific letter to a group composed of Gentile believers and Jewish believers and we must note that he will be writing in times specifically for each major group and then collectively as a church unit. Paul understands that these two groups of people have different perspectives to “religion” and he uses his knowledge to speak to all of their hearts in a way they will understand. For the Jews Paul wrote about Jewish customs and practices (e.g. circumcision in Romans 2) to get across his message of “righteousness by God”. He then switched the role over to the Gentiles and used their knowledge (or lack their of) about the Jewish customs to convict them of their own call as new heirs of God’s kingdom not under the law. Paul, in a way, uses both of these two perspectives to bring them to a main point: no one, not Jew or Gentile, is righteous before God because they are sinners- yet God bestows His righteousness on us and through us by faith.
    Paul in Romans 3 goes on a tangent about the struggle of upholding the law and gaining righteousness. Paul dives into their (roman church) deepest questions about this new commission to salvation and whether one keeps the law or if grace abounds over it all. Paul, in my opinion, makes it fairly clear to them that they (both Jews and Gentles) will be justified either by faith or through faith (Romans 3:29-30). The overall consensus the multicultural audience is picking up is that it is evident on faith with obedience to what they have been called to do in that faith.

    In summary, it is best to understand the two major groups that this Roman church consists of and to be able to detect when Paul is using their language and cultural experiences to bring them the conclusion he wants them to get. Paul, as we read, has many conclusions he wants the body to know and understand. Paul is the perfect author for this specific group because he is not only Jewish (devout Jew/Pharisee) but also commissioned to reach the Gentiles through his own personal interactions (road of Damascus)of grace and faith.

  7. But what difference does it make in reading Romans if the churches are “more Jewish” or “more Gentile”? Does this change the way we might understand certain sections of Romans?

    By reading any part of the Bible in the correct context, it provides a wider scope of the way that the writer intended the letter to have. The letter is obviously meant to have sections calling out each section of the church being both Jews and Gentiles. I do not feel that if the letter, if sided more to one side or the other would make a difference to the other side. If Paul is instructing one part of the church on the way that they are acting, the other side neither benefits or loses anything from that action. We as readers in this day and age are not meant to read the text as if it were wrote to us in todays time, but to see that each of these people groups in the church had things to work on, and Paul talked to them both about it, without saying that one side was better or worse than the others. Moo states that, Paul does not address this letter to the church as he does with his other letters, and that, “what this probably means is that there was more than one “local church”in the city of Rome” (pg. 36). Given the dictation in the address of Romans 1:7 of “to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be Saints,” we can see that the message is meant for both groups, and it shouldn’t change the way we think about the book.

  8. whenever we always talk about studying biblical passages for whatever reason, or if we are reading James or Romans, we try to put the blinders on to what the other is saying. Yes the theology is all true because it found its way into the Bible, but there are some differences among them that need sorting out. And most of the time, this ‘focus on what your specific passage is saying in light of itself’ is a great starting place. But the next step is to see what the rest of the Bible is saying about that specific topic or principle. In this case, it seems to me that we should look at what Paul says about Jews/Gentiles in other places where they both come up. Ephesians 2 is a PRIME example. You might as well just go read it because the whole chapter is useful for this topic. God has graciously opened the way up for the Gentiles so that they are allowed in and no longer strangers and foreigners to the promise. “through him (Jesus) we have access to the Father by one Spirit” (v.18). Various blurbs in Galatians talk about relationships between Jews and Gentiles too. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). if our timelines are right (and i would think that we are mostly right) Galatians came a few years before Romans and Ephesians came that many (or a little more) years after Romans. So whether the idea is present or was later developed, it is still true. back to what i said at the beginning, we should look for the principle in our present passage to understand what or who Paul was exactly talking to/about, but it is important to know that the Jews and Gentiles are all one in Christ. i wrote all this and i don’t have the point to wrap it up and together. anybody have insights?

  9. The make-up of the Roman churches would have influenced a lot how Paul wrote to their churches. There were likely many smaller, house churches, as well as synagogues where the early-day Roman Christians were meeting. Paul’s letter would not have been to a single lone church, rather it was surely meant to end up reaching all of the believers in Rome. Going off of the idea that many Christians would hear or read his letter, one could assume that Paul would therefore write some parts of Romans speaking more to Jewish Christians (in a way that shows understanding for where they are coming from with regards to their conservative ways), while at other points he would certainly then address the gentiles in a way that makes sense and is understanding of them as well. Paul was trying to impress on his fellow believers that they are to live among one another without squabbling over the petty details, but rather that they need to be unified under Christ. He says in Romans 12:3-5, “3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. “That verse along with the following verses, Romans 10:11-12, ” As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.’ 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” These two passages show that Paul’s real goal was for both Jews and Gentiles to fully understand their place within the Body. He addressed section of his letter at times to the Jews, at times to the Gentiles, and at times to both, and I think that it is important to understand the make-up of the Christian Church within Rome at that time, to really understand why Paul wrote the way he did to Romans, and what his letter was really about.

  10. A much needed lecture by Mark Nanos outlining Paul’s teaching in Romans in relationship to the Shema (Hear O Israel). Nanos first wrote about this in his book The Mystery of Romans (Fortress Press) and again in his commentary on Romans in the Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford) which lead to Eerdmans commissioning a full commentary on Romans from Nanos which is scheduled for publication in 2018.

    Nanos’ reading is extremely healing for Jewish/Christian relations and better contextualizes Paul’s thought than does, say, Luther, who pretty much got it entirely wrong (but that’s just me talking). I hope some of you might give this lecture a listen, which goes a long way in explaining the mystery of Romans, who Paul is addressing, and how both groups can be both right and both wrong in their attitudes towards each other.

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