Tending the Olive Tree

Historical Context as a Method for Ascertaining the Purpose of Romans

“I’ve written to you in a sort of daring way,” Paul says to his Roman audience, “partly to remind you of what you already know.”

Paul’s letter to Rome is indeed frank, honest, filled with encouragement and exhortation – but it has also been the source of constant debate and disagreement. However daring Paul felt he was being, he apparently wasn’t daring enough for the context of his thoughts to have survived entirely intact over the subsequent two millennia. Indeed, the proposed reasons for Paul’s authorship of Romans are numerous.

For all the parsing of the Romans text to ascertain why Paul wrote this epistle to a church he did not found, few have delved into the historical context of Roman Christianity itself. Likewise, few have explored the historical background of Paul’s rhetoric in Romans. And fewer still have attempted to marry the results of these seemingly disparate studies – looking at the context and the rhetoric together. We find that such a study strengthens some arguments advanced for the purpose of Romans while undercutting others. Mostly, however, we find that Romans, far from being anything so simple as a theological treatise, carries a history of violence, anti-Semitism and imperial tyranny that forever shaped Christianity. Daring, indeed.

Mirror reading Paul’s choice of theological emphasis through the bulk of Romans produces many theories of purpose, and numerous scholars have engaged in such reading.[1] But this gets the order backward. Rather than divining the context of Romans based on its text, where scholars tend to pick and choose the emphases that fit their preferences, the context should drive our understanding of Paul’s motivation in writing Romans.

This paper will show that to properly understand the purpose of Romans, readers must not only understand the historical context of the Roman church and its background of anti-Semitic slander, stigmatization and expulsion, but also the historical backdrop behind some of the rhetoric Paul uses. In so doing, readers will find a fuller sense of Romans – in which Paul writes not only to urge unity but to do so on the basis of human equality and divine impartiality.

Evidence From the Text

A focus on historical context does not mean the text itself should be disregarded. Romans lends itself to overarching theories of purpose and occasion thanks to Paul’s liberal repackaging of doctrines previously stated in his other letters,[2] but if there are explicitly stated reasons for writing the letters, we should begin with those. Three specific occasions are in the forefront of Paul’s mind as he considers the Christians of Rome.

First, Paul says his plans to visit Rome have been thwarted many times, and that he hopes to visit Rome soon. “I’m ready to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome” (Rom 1:16).[3] Later Paul reveals that Rome is more of a stopover on his way to Spain, and that he has perhaps an ulterior motive. “I hope to see you when I’m passing through, and I hope you will send me on my way there” (Rom 15:24). Paul thus seeks financial support for his trip to Spain.

Second, Paul also seeks support for a cause dear to his heart – a collection for the poor of Jerusalem. He praises Macedonia and Achaia for their generosity, perhaps a subtle form of positive peer pressure, then says he plans to visit after delivering the collection to Jerusalem (Rom 15:27-28). Paul is worried about the collection – whether he will have the opportunity to deliver it and whether the Jerusalem church will accept it. He asks for prayer to “be rescued from the people in Judea who don’t believe,” and that his “service for Jerusalem” will be “acceptable” to the church leaders there (Rom 15:31).

A final glimpse can be found among the personal greetings of chapter 16. Amid seemingly unrelated information is a brief pericope warning against those who “create divisions” (Rom 16:17). Paul commends his audience for their obedience, word of which has “reached everybody,” but he urges them to be “wise about what’s good and innocent about what’s evil” (Rom 16:19). He concludes with an apocalyptic nod to “the God of peace crush[ing] the Adversary under your feet” (Rom 16:20).

With the possible exception of Rom 16:17-20, these glimpses into Paul’s motivation appear to be minor considerations – not worthy of a 16-chapter letter with broad theological overtones. Traditional scholarship for more than a millennium, therefore, held Romans to be a general work, i.e., a theological treatise.[4] Even as the scholarly research shifted to acknowledge the epistle as a letter rooted in a specific historical context, that context was assumed to lend itself to broad theological exposition. Such theories included Romans as a “last will and testament” or otherwise as a summary of Paul’s previous theological teaching. Some argued Romans originally was a circular letter; still others considered it a first draft of the self-defense he expected to deliver in Jerusalem.[5]

The problem with all of these theories can be summed up in the advocacy of one of their proponents. Ulrich Luz, arguing for Romans as a summary of Paul’s earlier teaching, wrote, “The subject matter discussed in [Romans] is the key to understanding its structure, not the specific circumstances which occasioned it.”[6] This refusal to even consider the historical context of a letter is a weakness of the argument, not the strength Luz imagined it to be.

Historical Context of Roman Christianity

The notion of a specific situation animating Paul’s motives in writing to Rome is a relatively new phenomenon, less than 200 years old;[7] nevertheless, support for the “theological treatise” argument tenaciously held sway in scholarship until recent decades.[8] A significant advance in ascertaining a specific reason for the writing was the 1970 essay by Wolfgang Wiefel,[9] in which he brought archaeological and historical evidence to the question of Judaism and early Christianity in ancient Rome.  In the decades since Wiefel, Karl P. Donfried argues, “Without question a consensus has been reached that Romans is addressed to the Christian community in Rome, which finds itself in a particular historical situation.”[10] That still leaves the question of what the situation might be and how it informs the understanding of Paul’s motivations.

In reviewing the history of Roman Judaism and early Christianity, one conclusion is inescapable: This was a deeply divided culture in which Jews were stigmatized and ostracized – and Paul’s response to this culture in Romans clearly emphasizes the equality of all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles.

Judaism was a significant factor in the life of Pauline-era Rome. Settling in the city more than 100 years before the birth of Christ, their numbers swelled when Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E. and sent thousands of Jews to Rome as slaves. Jeffers estimates about 50,000 Jews lived in Rome by the time of Christ.[11] Judaism in Rome was uniquely democratic. With no central authority regulating the doctrine of the synagogues, congregants had ample space to adapt and personalize the Jewish faith. Within 15 years of Christ’s death, this Jewish democracy allowed the propagation of a new strain of Judaism, one proclaiming Jesus as the risen Messiah. This new belief advanced rapidly.[12]

Although Jews were a large group in Rome and given significant latitude to practice their religion, literature of the day indicates anti-Semitism ran high – so high that a newly converted Christian was unlikely to avoid it. For example, Juvenal frequently pilloried Jews, satirizing them as lazy hucksters – “at bargain prices a Jew sells you the answer to any dream you’d like to come true.”[13] In his Satires, Juvenal mocks Jews for their piety and the exceptions they had won from various Roman requirements:

Some men, who chance to be born of a father who’s orthodox in keeping the Sabbath, worship nothing but clouds and a kind of unseen God in the heavens. … But accustomed to scorn Roman laws, they begin to study and practice and revere Jewish law and also what Moses handed down in his recent book … . But blame falls on the father to whom each seventh day was a day of sloth and had no concern with life in any way.[14]

Likewise, Cicero filled his defense of Lucius Valerius Flaccus in Roman court with anti-Semitic appeals. “Even when Jerusalem was still standing and the Jews were at peace with us,” he argued, “the demands of their religion were incompatible with the majesty of our Empire, the dignity of our name and the institutions of our ancestors.”[15] Anti-Semitism was a long-standing, pervasive sentiment in Rome.[16]

The combination of a rapidly growing new strain of Judaism and Roman antipathy to the Jews led to predictable volatility and an edict that irrevocably changed the relationship of Jews to the Christ-followers in their midst. The Roman historian Suetonius writes, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”[17] Given Tertullian’s Apology, in which he alleges the Romans mispronounced as “Chrestians” the people they persecuted,[18] it seems likely that Suetonius betrayed his ignorance of the movement by misspelling “Christus.” Meanwhile, Harry J. Leon sees more than the simple “disturbances” described by Suetonius. Leon describes “serious riots” in Rome and Alexandria caused by the “missionary activity” of the earliest Christ-followers.[19] The early Christian historian Orosius places Claudius’ edict in 49 C.E. and cites Suetonius and Josephus as his sources[20] – although no other trace remains of Josephus recording an expulsion of the Jews from Rome.[21] Finally, Acts 18:2 briefly mentions Claudius’ expulsion.

Dio Cassius, however, never mentions such an edict – in fact, he seems to take pains to reject Suetonius’ account: “As for the Jews, who had again increased so greatly that by reason of their multitude it would have been hard without raising a tumult to bar them from the city, he did not drive them out, but ordered them, while continuing their traditional mode of life, not to hold meetings.” Dio also places this edict in 41 C.E.[22] Scholars now dispute not only whether Claudius expelled the Jews as Suetonius claimed, but when such an expulsion would have occurred and whether Dio’s account fits best before, after or in place of those told by Suetonius, Orosius and Acts.[23] A. Andrew Das, taking his cue from Leon, is convincing on this point, arguing not only from the silence of Josephus and Dio on a full expulsion, but also that Rome would have been unable to expel tens of thousands of Jews. Das argues the full-expulsion theory is “fraught with insurmountable problems.” Rather, he argues for a more limited expulsion, one in which the leading Jews accused of fomenting the unrest were expelled[24] – no doubt helpfully identified by the more traditional synagogue leaders eager to remove this new doctrine from their assemblies.[25]

The expulsion of Jewish Christ-followers from Rome is the single most important event leading to the writing of Romans. The edict immediately reshaped Roman Christianity. No longer could the synagogue serve as a basis for Christ-centered worship; those Christians remaining in Rome – either pagan converts or lower-level Jews – began meeting in their homes.[26] For at least five years, Roman assemblies, no longer dependent on the synagogue for support, developed their own character and practices, influenced heavily by the culture and experiences of the converted pagans now in charge of the congregations.[27]

Claudius died in 54 C.E., and Nero succeeded him. Leon shows that Nero was friendly to the Jews throughout his reign,[28] and there appears to be broad agreement that Nero would have rescinded any Jewish-expulsion edict of Claudius. With the edict revoked, Jewish Christians began returning to Rome. But to whom do they return? The synagogues where they worshipped don’t want them – indeed, as noted above, they may have helped expel them from the city. The Gentile-formed house-assembly culture of their fellow Christ-followers is foreign to them. The mix is uneasy. As Wiefel describes, “Now they are only a minority in a congregation which previously they had shaped.”[29] The situation is ripe for the intrachurch conflict that I will show animates the writing of Romans.

But the problems run still deeper. For at least five years, Christ-centered assemblies have operated with little or no Jewish influence. Not only have customs and theology changed, but Wiefel argues the pervasive effects of culturally normative anti-Semitism, which included monstrous distortions of the Law and Jewish traditions, likely would have infiltrated the congregations. As Wiefel puts it, “The Christian congregation in Rome is surrounded by a society marked in its aversion and rejection of everything Jewish.”[30]

Perhaps more troubling to Paul was not only the theological direction of the mostly Jewishless Roman congregations, but also the practical implications for that theology when confronted anew with Christians who kept many of the Jewish traditions. N.T. Wright points out that for Gentile Christians, it would not have been much of a stretch for them to develop a distinctly anti-Jewish theology in which “God had in fact written the hated Jews out of the covenant altogether.”[31]

Romans 16 makes clear that Paul had plenty of connections to the Roman churches, so he could have become aware of the alarming trends of their beliefs through any number of sources. Nevertheless, he does not know the vast majority of those he is addressing, so he treads carefully, as is evident from Rom 15:14, when he seems almost to apologize for his “daring” words.

A division in the Roman church on ethnic and theological lines would be alarming by itself, but Paul has other reasons for concern. As previously discussed, he hopes to receive Roman support for his trip to Spain, but a divided church is in no position to fund a mission to spread the gospel. Likewise, a split in which Roman Jews are ostracized could imperil his collection of funds from principally Gentile churches for the principally Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.[32] Paul feels strongly enough about the developing Roman situation to insert himself into a situation even he seems to acknowledge should be none of his business.


Examples of Rhetorical Parallels

Much study has been done on Paul’s rhetoric in Romans, so this paper focuses on just three broad categories appearing at various places in the letter. The three categories chosen for this paper are Greco-Roman self-mastery, Jewish apologetic and the academic diatribe. A study of these styles in light of the Roman historical context shows that Paul is not simply inveighing against division, as he did frequently in his other letters, but that he is attacking a particularly destructive notion of inequality: The converted Gentiles now leading the congregations consider themselves the true heirs of God’s promises and have begun to presume judgment over the Jews and Jewish Christians in their midst. Paul must level the field, make the Gentiles aware of their own sinfulness, and reiterate strongly the principle of God’s universally available grace.

Greco-Roman Self-Mastery

In Romans 1, Paul opens the meat of his argument with a discourse on the wrath of God “being revealed from heaven against all ungodly behavior” (Rom 1:18). God’s power, he argues, is obvious in nature; humanity is without excuse.

Although they knew God, they didn’t honor God as God or thank him. Instead, their reasoning became pointless, and their foolish hearts were darkened. While they were claiming to be wise, they made fools of themselves. They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images that look like mortal humans: birds, animals and reptiles. So God abandoned them to their hearts’ desires, which led to the moral corruption of degrading their own bodies with each other. They traded God’s truth for a lie, and they worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (Rom 1:21-25)

Paul then describes the disastrous consequences of this idolatry. The women trade “natural relations” for unnatural, and the men do so “in the same way” (Rom 1:26-27). Chapter 1 concludes with one of Paul’s strongest-worded vice lists:

They were filled with all injustice, wicked behavior, greed and evil behavior. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deception and malice. They are gossips, they slander people, and they hate God. They are rude and proud, and they brag. They invent ways to be evil, and they are disobedient to their parents. They are without understanding, disloyal, without affection and without mercy. (Rom 1:29-31)

As the opening salvo in Paul’s argument, this passage frames much of what follows. Paul’s polemic has often been argued as a condemnation of general humanity, given its inclusive language.[33] Stanley K. Stowers rejects this, however, drawing instead on the deep reservoir of Greco-Roman parallels to question the traditional reading of Paul’s intention for Romans 1, and therefore for the entire letter.[34]

The last half of Rom 1 owes a great debt to the Greco-Roman concept of self-mastery – the notion of controlling one’s passions – which Stowers argues “is the most palatable issue of chapters 1-8.”[35] Historical parallels for this self-mastery language are easy to find. For example, Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and a contemporary of Paul, was prolific in his condemnation of those who could not contain their appetite for pleasure, using language similar to what Paul uses in Romans:

It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them, and for this reason they are most wretched, because they have reached such a pass that what was once superfluous to them has become indispensable. And so they are the slaves of their pleasures instead of enjoying them; they even love their own ills [i.e., their pleasures or vices] – and that is the worst ill of all! Then it is that the height of unhappiness is reached, when men are not only attracted, but even pleased, by shameful things, and when there is no longer any room for a cure, now that those things which were once vices have become habits.[36]

Likewise, the anonymous letter from Anacharsis to Croesus states, “In return for these [transgressions], the gods bestowed upon men fitting gifts: strife, desire for pleasure and meanness of spirit. … From this evil, others follow. … But the disease, laying hold of you in your incontinence, plunged you into ruin, and made you a slave instead of a free man.”[37]

In Greco-Roman culture, self-mastery was irrevocably tied to gender roles and sexuality. Leaving the culture’s assigned gender roles was not only an unnatural notion, but a threat to the society. Dio Cassius, for example, used explicitly gender-themed language in describing the weakness of Claudius – citing “the freedmen and women with whom he associated; for he, more conspicuously than any of his peers, was ruled by slaves and by women.”[38] Seneca in another of his Moral Epistles argued “an uncontrolled, passionate and effeminate soul changes kingship into that most dread and detestable quality – tyranny.”[39]

This notion that gender-based self-mastery was a key to personal and national health was not limited to the pagan elites of Rome. Josephus and Philo, the first-century Jewish writers, liberally engaged in the type of sex-based slander characteristic of Rom 1. Philo, using words reminiscent of Paul, argued “the love-sickness of men for women, or women for men [are] passions recognized by the laws of nature,” contrasting them with the love “of men for other males” and arguing that such “common vulgar love” leads to “the disease of effeminacy[40] in their souls and turns into a hybrid of man and woman those who should have been disciplined in all the practices which make for valor.” Stowers points out that Philo later views this in a larger context, leading to the desolation of cities – or, as Philo himself puts it, such behavior leads to “another greater evil of national importance.”[41]

In his Special Laws, Philo goes even further in describing men who have sex with barren women, ascribing their actions to “an inordinate frenzy,” likening the act to sleeping with a pig or goat, and arguing “their names should be inscribed in the lists of the impious as adversaries of God” because they “stand confessed as the enemies of nature.” However, “much graver” is the sin of “pederasty,” which again produces “the disease of effemination” and makes its participants – particularly “the passive partners” – worthy of death because they have “debase[d] the sterling coin of nature.” Philo argues the active partner also is worthy of death because he “pursues an unnatural pleasure and does his best to render cities desolate and uninhabited by destroying the means of procreation.”[42]

In The Jewish Wars, Josephus slanders a political enemy, John, whose actions he believes led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In starkly gender-based language, Josephus links “perceived gender anomalies with an excessive and uncontrollable lust for power.”[43] John and his followers “indulged themselves in feminine wantonness … and imitated, not only the ointments, but also the lust of women, and were guilty of such intolerable uncleanness, and they invented unlawful pleasures of that sort.”[44] Jason Von Ehrenkrook argues such language “ultimately functions to mediate a particular view of the social, cultural and/or political landscape.”[45]

Philo and Josephus speak as Jews, but they share the assumptions of the Roman cultural elites, built on the self-mastery language of Greek philosophers.[46] Their focus on maintaining rigid gender roles and traditional norms of sexuality while appealing to the laws of nature is also seen in Rom 1. In other words, to the extent Josephus mediates the cultural landscape, so does Paul.

Self-mastery language is not confined to gender and sexuality. Rather, it includes taming a broader “desire for pleasure,” as Anacharsis put it. Paul harkens to this notion in Romans 7, where he famously says, “I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do” (Rom 7:19). Scholars generally agree Paul is not speaking autobiographically; his method instead is speech in character. The notion of Paul essentially playing a role in this passage is reinforced by the history of the phrase he uses – a variation of a well-known self-mastery theme his audience would have immediately recognized from Greek theater. [47]

In Euripides’ play Medea, written nearly 500 years before Paul, the title character contemplates her impending murder of her children with the words: “I know well what pain I am about to undergo, but my wrath overbears my calculation, wrath that brings mortal men their gravest hurt.”[48] In Hippolytus, the character Phaedra delivers a lengthy monologue that includes this reflection on the inability of humanity to master its passions: “What we know and understand to be noble we fail to carry out, some from laziness, others because they give precedence to some other pleasure than honor.”[49]

This literary technique – the use of the tragic figure bound helpless by passions and emotion despite the better judgment of his or her reason – continued through and after the time of Paul, as evidenced in the use of such language by his contemporary, Epictetus: “For since he who errs does not wish to err, but to be in the right, it is evident that he acts contrary to his wish.”[50] And further by Ovid’s words in Metamorphoses: “Ah, if I could, I should be more myself. But some strange power holds me down against my will. Desire persuades me one way, reason another. I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse.”[51]

In two places, Romans 1 and 7, Paul uses self-mastery language to drive home a point – in the first case he delivers a slanderous broadside against those who fail to maintain self-mastery; in the second, he plays a part to indicate that those who try to control their passions are helpless to do so. In both cases, glimpses can be seen of Paul’s response to the presumptuous Gentiles in charge of the Roman congregations. Further study of his language in these cases will flesh out his purposes.

Jewish Apologetic

Stowers’ argument is convincing that Paul’s character at the end of Romans 7 is a Gentile trying to live up to the standards of the Law; he also argues that the history of Medea figures is the history of stigmatizing the foreigner. In this case, Paul, a Jew, is slandering Gentiles as enslaved to their passions. Stowers argues, “The view of Gentiles as morally degenerate must be considered a fundamental feature of Jewish self-definition in antiquity.”[52]

This feature also appears in chapter 1, the other significant use of self-mastery language in Romans. But in using the familiar self-mastery rhetoric, Paul adds a twist; while the Greco-Roman philosophers and historians of his day used self-mastery language as propaganda, Paul uses it as an apologetic. The “unnatural” behavior he describes is the result of a baser evil, not the cause of it.[53]

The method of Jewish apologetics is most vividly seen in the Wisdom of Solomon, which argues in Wis 14:12 that “the devising of idols was the beginning of fornication,” and that afterward, “it was not enough for them to go astray in the knowledge of God.” As in Romans, a failure to know God is the root cause of a failure to master the self. Similarly, 4 Maccabees warns against “moral debasement,” which it considers a pleasure and includes “ostentation and covetousness and vainglory and contentiousness and backbiting and in the body as eating of strange meat and gluttony and gormandizing[54] in secret” (4 Mac 17:25-27). The solution to the problem of self-mastery in 4 Maccabees is the Law: “Inspired Reason is lord over the passions.” (4 Mac 18:1-3)

Philo carries the apologetic to its natural extreme, arguing that by virtue of Judaism’s ability to master the passions through obedience to the Law, the religion acts as the high priest for the entire world. When other nations, worshipping other gods, “went wrong in what was the most vital matter of all, it is the literal truth that the error which the rest committed was corrected by the Jewish nation, which passed over all created objects because they were created and naturally liable to destruction.”[55] Paul in Romans makes full use of this Jewish belief that Gentiles are unable to control their passions without the Law. Never mind self-mastery, they no longer have self-control of any kind: “Though they know God’s decision that those who persist in such practices deserve death, they not only keep doing these things but also approve others who practice them” (Rom 1:32).

Romans certainly is not Paul’s only letter to use self-mastery language; his allusions to running races and training[56] and multiple vice lists[57] attest to his context as a first-century Hellenized Jew. But nowhere else in his letters is there such a heavy concentration of this language – combining Roman cultural assumptions of sexuality with Jewish apologetic language in a vivid, strongly worded way.[58] His reason for doing so could be explained simply by his own cultural background, but if that’s the case, we should see this language appear in Paul’s other letters, which frequently are more polemical than Romans and lend themselves more readily to this kind of hyperbolic rhetoric. Rather, Paul delves so deeply into this particular vein because he knows it will ring true to his audience. He is writing with an understanding of their specific context, not simply his own.


This conclusion can be seen still more clearly in a brief look at the third of Paul’s primary rhetorical methods, the diatribe. Abraham Malherbe notes Paul uses language unique only to him and Epictetus – who was a lecturer – drawing from this the conclusion that Paul’s diatribes in Romans are academic rather than polemical in nature.[59] The first example of the diatribe immediately follows the pericope of Romans 1. Starting in Rom 2:1, the addressee of Paul’s rhetoric shifts suddenly. No longer is he preaching to a general audience; now he’s condemning a person. As Stowers notes, “The authorial device of turning from the audience to an imaginary individual is important in the rhetoric of the diatribe.”[60]

In chapter 1 Paul describes a downward spiral his audience would recognize from its own rhetorical culture, then turns the tables by condemning those who would judge such behavior while assuming their own moral superiority. “So every single one of you who judge others is without any excuse. You condemn yourself when you judge another person because the one who is judging is doing the same things” (Rom 2:1). Paul therefore implicates everyone, making sure his audience understands he means it when he says in Rom 1:18, “God’s wrath is being revealed against all ungodly behavior.” Everyone is guilty, which he will make abundantly clear in Rom 3:23: “All have sinned.” Stowers, rejecting the traditional chapter division after Rom 1:32, considers Rom 1:18-2:12 a unified section in which “God judges Jews and Gentiles impartially according to their works.”[61]

Paul uses the Greco-Roman language of self-mastery within the wrappings of Jewish apologetic at two key points in Romans, in both cases reinforcing his arguments with the ancient rhetoric of the diatribe. In both places, he slanders all Gentiles as moral degenerates incapable of meeting God’s standards, using specifically Jewish language to do so. Taken together with the historical context of the Roman assemblies at the time – dominated by Gentiles, steeped in an anti-Semitic culture, struggling with the new arrival of Jewish Christians and their unfamiliar practices, customs and beliefs – Paul’s rhetoric is designed to cut the Gentiles down to size, warning them against arrogance, reminding them of God’s special purposes for the Jews and emphasizing the ongoing and future Jewish role in God’s kingdom.


Applying the Historical and Rhetorical Clues to the Text

The strength of Paul’s argument against the presumptuous Gentiles of Rome has frequently been lost because scholars have read context from the text instead of reading the text in its context. Even Robert Jewett, who discusses at length the historical setting of Romans and takes a step away from the traditional “theological treatise” argument, ultimately argues Paul wrote Romans as a letter of introduction to win funding for his planned trip to Spain. This has the benefit of addressing the clues found in the letter itself, but it largely relegates the bulk of Romans to the same catch-all bin proposed by earlier scholars and dismisses the contextual clues Jewett himself helps illuminate.[62]

When we read Romans while keeping these contextual clues in mind, we see Paul’s message of unity – particularly his emphasis on defending Jewish Christians – permeates the text, though it does so subtly: Paul is all too aware that he has little place to address congregations who do not know him.

The thematic statement for Romans gains new strength as it emphasizes the gospel’s saving power “to all who have faith in God, the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). Paul spends the next 10 chapters laying the groundwork for this reminder to the Gentiles of Rome: That God’s wrath (Rom 1:18), faithfulness (Rom 3:2-3), righteousness (Rom 3:22), grace (Rom 5:21) and Holy Spirit (Rom 8:10) are universally available, and suffering (Rom 8:22) and ultimate victory (Rom 8:38-39) also are or will be part of the universal Christian experience. As he wrote explicitly in Galatians,[63] Paul demonstrates in Romans: There is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ. But simply stating it won’t be effective in such a culture; he must demonstrate it theologically and argue against the notion that God has abandoned the Jews in favor of the Gentiles.

Recognizing his limitations in writing to Rome – his ignorance of specific details and the lack of a personal connection to the assemblies there – Paul opens his argument not with his typical method of recalling lessons he would have taught them but with rhetoric easily recognized by the audience:[64] a heavy dose of self-mastery language used by the Roman elites to establish the depravity of others. But when Paul flips the tables in chapter 2, his message is quite clear: The Gentiles have no room to judge others, least of all their Jewish brothers and sisters. As William Campbell argues, “In 1:18-2:29, Paul has shown that … the former distinctions among men whether as Jews and Gentiles have now been rendered obsolete.”[65]

In chapter 3 Paul is more direct: “There is no distinction” (Rom 3:22), and, “What happens to our bragging? It’s thrown out” (Rom 3:27). On a deeper level, Paul is asking a fundamental question: Did God break faith with the Jews when he extended the gospel to Gentiles?[66] “Do we then cancel the Law through faith? Absolutely not! Instead, we confirm the Law” (Rom 3:31). When Paul moves immediately into a midrashic treatment of Abraham’s saving faith, Campbell argues, “Paul intends to use Abraham as a uniting figure in the church composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians.”[67]

Paul’s argument continues to build through chapter 7, where he speaks in character with self-mastery language to once again perpetuate a Jewish slander of the Gentiles as enslaved to their passions. Nevertheless, he argues in Rom 8:1, “there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Gentiles are freed from their selfishness through Jesus’ death – and the Gentiles of Rome are nothing if not selfish in their treatment of the returning Jews. “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children” (Rom 8:14).

The climax of Paul’s letter is chapters 9-11 in which he addresses Israel’s general unbelief, arguing first that God’s promises are still intact. “It’s not as though God’s word has failed” (9:6). “Has God rejected his people? Absolutely not!” (Rom 11:1). His strongest argument is reserved for Gentiles who seem to believe God has replaced Israel with them:

If some of the branches were broken off, and you were a wild olive branch, and you were grafted in among the other branches and shared the root that produces the rich oil of the olive tree, then don’t brag like you’re better than the other branches. If you do brag, be careful: it’s not you that sustains the root, but it’s the root that sustains you. (Rom 11:17-19)

Then the chapter concludes with Paul’s stern, yet hopeful, statement:

“God’s gifts and calling can’t be taken back. Once you were disobedient to God, but now you have mercy because they were disobedient. In the same way, they have also been disobedient because of the mercy that you received, so now they can receive mercy too. God has locked up all people in disobedience, in order to have mercy on all of them.” (Rom 11:29-32)

The Gentiles are fully aware of their former disobedience – and they should be, given Paul’s hyperbolic reminder in chapter 1 and poignant portrayal in chapter 7.

Given the new life to which Paul’s audience has been called, how should they live? Again, he is almost singularly focused on unity: They should recognize they are parts of one body (Rom 12:4-5), show genuine love toward each other (Rom 12:10) and “be at peace with all people” (Rom 12:18). In other words, they should be unified. Chapter 13 is more general, focusing away from the internal problems of the Roman congregations and toward the problems congregants likely were having with the external forces around them. Both 12 and 13 lack specifics, and they certainly could have been written to any of Paul’s own churches,[68] but in chapters 14 and 15, Paul returns specifically to the subject of unity, opening this section, “Welcome the one who is weak in faith,” and repeating in Rom 15:7, “So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you” – a passage Wendy Dabourne argues is the climax of the entire letter.[69]

Finally, Paul reaches chapter 16 with its exhaustive list of greetings – names both Latin and Greek, Jewish and not[70] – and he tucks within it a final appeal to “watch out for people who create divisions” (Rom 16:17).[71] This final admonition ends with a note of encouragement. “The God of peace,” Paul writes, “will crush the Adversary under your feet.” Although the translation of “Adversary” as “Satan” remains largely unquestioned, this could be a subtle reference to Rome. Regardless, Paul’s inference seems clear: The true fight should not be with each other, but with the forces of evil at work in the world.

This becomes Paul’s final word to a divided church. Romans is a masterwork of persuasion – exhortation delivered with velvet rather than sandpaper. To the churches he founded, Paul could be rough, blunt, even coarse. To this body of believers, whom he did not know and from whom he needed support and money, Paul delivered a softer touch. That he could do so despite the enormous challenges the Roman assemblies faced – and the significant threats those challenges posed to Paul’s top priorities – is a testament to Paul’s brilliance as a theologian and leader. All of this, however, disappears when scholars sublimate the reasons Paul writes the letter beneath blanket explanations appealing to the letter’s overarching scope. Paul did not set out to write a theological treatise when he penned Romans; rather, he used a treatise to address perhaps the biggest challenge any of his audiences had ever faced. The far-reaching nature of the response testifies to the enormity of the challenge – a challenge not properly appreciated without studying the historical context underlying Romans’ audience and rhetoric.

Indeed, a mere decade after the writing of Romans, when Nero cruelly punished Christians as scapegoats for the great fire of Rome, Tacitus listed their crime as “hatred of the human race.” In this unusual phrase, Jackson sees echoes of the centuries-old Roman slander against the Jews as misanthropic, an allegation born from Jewish piety and the Jews’ refusal to associate with the pagan rituals and festivals of their day[72] – a self-segregation shared by the early Christians.

Even though Nero at the time recognized a distinction between the two faiths, Christians would not be allowed to so easily forget their recent association with the reviled Jews. The two Christian factions, so bitterly divided when Paul wrote his letter, would soon find reason enough to heed his urgent entreaty to unify.

[1] Richard N. Longenecker, Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous Letter (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011), 157-60, is a classic example of the ineffectuality of mirror reading Romans. Longenecker’s conclusions of purpose through mirror reading are so vague they could apply in some form to each of Paul’s letters.

[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York, N.Y.: Anchor Bible, 1993), 71-73, compiles an impressive list of Pauline themes in Romans with parallels in at least one other of Paul’s generally uncontested works.

[3] All scripture references are from the Common English Bible.

[4] Karl P. Donfried, “Introduction 1977: The Nature and Scope of the Romans Debate,” in The Romans Debate: Revised and Expanded Edition (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), xli.

[5] Longenecker, Introducing Romans, 94-105.

[6] I rely here on the translating skills of Longenecker, Introducing Romans, 98.

[7] F.C. Baur’s 1836 work on Romans is universally considered the first to propose such a theory.

[8] Donfried, “Introduction 1977,” xli.

[9] Wolfgang Wiefel, “The Jewish Community in Ancient Rome,” in The Romans Debate: Revised and Expanded Edition (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 85-101.

[10] Karl P. Donfried, “Introduction 1991: The Romans Debate Since 1977,” in The Romans Debate: Revised and Expanded Edition (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), lxix.

[11] James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1999), 213.

[12] Wiefel, “The Jewish Community,” 92.

[13] Hubert Creekmore, The Satires of Juvenal: A New Translation (New York: Mentor, 1963), 113.

[14] Ibid., 217.

[15] Cicero, Pro Flacco, trans. by C. MacDonald in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1997): 517.

[16] Wiefel, “The Jewish Community,” 100.

[17] Suetonius, The Deified Claudius, trans. J.C. Rolfe in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard, 1950), 53.

[18] Tertullian, Apology, trans. T.R. Glover in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1960): 21.

[19] Harry J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome, Updated ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 26.

[20] Paulus Orosius, Seven Books Against the Pagans, trans. Roy J. DeFerrari in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, D.C.: Catholic U. of America, 1964), 297.

[21] Fitzmyer, Romans, 31-32.

[22] Dio Cassius, Roman History, trans. Earnest Cary in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1955), 383.

[23] Wiefel argues the assembly ban was an intermediate step in allowing the Jews to return. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, simply doesn’t address Cassius silence on the subject. Longenecker and Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, see two edicts – the assembly ban in 41 followed by expulsion in 49.

[24] A. Andrew Das, Solving the Roman Debate (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 163, 165-66.

[25] Ibid., 174, cf. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, 24-27.

[26] Longenecker, Introducing Romans, 75. Wiefel sees this as the result of the assembly ban imposed as a precondition for Jewish return; I don’t see a reason to distrust Dio’s dating of the assembly ban, however, and an a more organic shift from synagogue to house church is arguably more plausible. Das seems to agree.

[27] Wiefel, “The Jewish Community,” 94.

[28] Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, 27-28.

[29] Wiefel, “The Jewish Community,” 96.

[30] Wiefel, “The Jewish Community,” 97-100.

[31] N.T. Wright, “The Letter to Romans: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” New Interpreter’s Bible 10:407.

[32] William S. Campbell, Paul’s Gospel in an Intercultural Context: Jew and Gentile in the Letter to the Romans (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1991), 22.

[33] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1996), 96-97.

[34] Stanley Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale, 1994), 84-85.

[35] Ibid., 43.

[36] Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales Vol. I, trans. Richard M. Gummere in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1953), 261-63.

[37] Abraham J. Malherbe, trans., “Anacharsis to Croesus,” in The Cynic Epistles: A Study Edition, (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars, 1977), 47-51.

[38] Dio Cassius, Roman History, 369-71.

[39] Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales Vol. III, 317.

[40] Cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-10, in which Paul says the effeminate will not inherit God’s kingdom.

[41] Philo, The Contemplative Life, trans. F.H. Colson in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1950), 149 ff. Cf. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans, 51.

[42] Philo, Special Laws, trans. F.H. Colson in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1950), 497 ff.

[43] Jason Von Ehrenkrook. “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,” in The Jewish Quarterly Review 101 (spring 2011): 146.

[44] William Whiston, trans., The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1987), 691.

[45] Von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire,” 146.

[46] Stowers, A Rereading of Romans, 52-56.

[47] Ibid., 260, 264-269.

[48] Euripides, Medea, ed. and trans. David Kovacs in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1995), 363.

[49] Euripides, Hippolytus, ed. and trans. David Kovacs in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1995), 163-65.

[50] Epictetus, Discourses, trans. by Thomas W. Higginson (Roslyn, N.Y.: Walter J. Black, 1944), 169.

[51] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard, 1960), 343.

[52] Stowers, A Rereading of Romans, 273.

[53] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 173.

[54] Extra points to the translator who chose “gormandizing.”

[55] Philo, Special Laws, 409.

[56] Cf. 1 Cor 9:24, 2 Tim 4:7

[57] Cf. 1 Cor 6:9-10, 2 Cor 12:20-21, Gal 5:19-21, Eph 5:3-5, Col 3:5-8, 2 Tim 3:2-4

[58] For example, his vice lists frequently reference cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality, but none goes into an extended description of depravity as Rom 1 does. In fact, as Moo, 120-21, notes, four of the words in the Romans vice list appear nowhere else in the New Testament.

[59] Abraham J. Malherbe, Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 25-26, 32.

[60] Stowers, A Rereading of Romans, 11.

[61] Ibid., 12.

[62] Jewett, Romans, 80.

[63] Cf. Gal 3:28

[64] Neil Elliott, The Rhetoric of Romans: Argumentative Constraint and Strategy and Paul’s Dialogue with Judaism (Sheffield: JSOT, 1990), 117-18.

[65] Campbell, Paul’s Gospel, 26.

[66] Ibid., 27.

[67] Ibid., 32.

[68] Fitzmyer, Romans, 686.

[69] Wendy Dabourne, Purpose and Cause in Pauline Exegesis: Romans 1.16-4.25 and a New Approach to the Letters (New York: Cambridge, 1999), 72. I don’t agree with that assessment, as I think Paul considers the welcome exhortation to be more of a natural conclusion that comes naturally from the equality he details in his true climax, Rom 9-11.

[70] Wiefel, “The Jewish Community,” 95.

[71] Jewett, 986, argues 16:17-20 is a later, non-Pauline addition, citing its awkward placement and lack of literary similarity to the rest of the letter. Moo, 928, says there is “no textual basis for omitting the pericope, and Fitzmyer, 745, doesn’t question it, saying it is “integral to the letter,” and I’m inclined to agree. Longenecker, though spending quite a bit of time dissecting the potential interpolation of the rival benediction/doxology construct, never mentions any concern about this particular passage’s authenticity.

[72] Tacitus, Annals, trans. John Jackson in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1962), 283-85.


One thought on “Tending the Olive Tree”

  1. Gee…I’d love to quote this for an exegetical paper I’m writing on 11:17-24. Would that be alright with you? If so, what is your name? (Please forgive if I’m staring right at it!)

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