Blogging the Book of Romans: Background

Paul was in Corinth, getting ready to travel to Spain. However, he was going to Jerusalem first to deliver money donated from Greek churches for the Jerusalem poor (15:25-26). He was anticipating trouble there, but hoped that he could avoid this and see Rome for a little while before heading to Spain (15:30-32).

If he did run into trouble, he would be heading for Rome anyway. So Rome was on his mind, and the controversy that might overwhelm him. Already Claudius had thrown the Jews out of Rome because of arguments over Christ - two of Paul's closest allies were among the exiled (Acts 18:1-3). Paul had also been arrested in his time before, and such a background wouldn't reflect well on him if he were arrested in Jerusalem and taken to Rome for trial.

Should Paul be arrested, it would help his case to have Christians in Rome (after Claudius' death, many returned) on his side, especially if these Christians were Jews and Gentiles living and worshipping together in peace. In any case, a document that was clearly from him advocating such a message would be worthwhile. And it wouldn't hurt if this document could soothe Roman fears of Paul's motives. As an organizer of an illicit religion, he was running afoul of secret society laws, where insurrection could be in the works.

Therefore, the letter to the Christians in Rome had several audiences. The direct recipients were the Christians in Rome, both Jew and Gentile. The letter would serve as an introduction to this controversial figure, and be an opportunity to hear what he had to say firsthand. It even raises hopes of financial support in Paul's mission to Spain. But an intended, though indirect, audience would be the Roman officials in charge of Paul's trial. They needed to see a man dedicated to peace who in no way posed a threat to their government. If the Christians in Rome could point to this letter as something that united them and brought peace to Rome, all the better. A few nods to the power of the civil government would be in order as well.

Paul's letter to the Romans, then, is a principled defense of Paul's place in the early church and the Roman empire; an apology, if you will. He would not be in Rome to defend himself for some time, so those delivering the letter would use it in Paul's absence to defend his point of view. It had to be reasonable and appeal to people from a wide range of backgrounds. And it was written with the knowledge that it might be used against him in a court of law. It was a document meant for public scrutiny, for Paul had nothing to hide.

It did not save him from Nero, but the letter, basically intact, still speaks for him and the gospel he preached.