The Book of Romans is widely considered the greatest work of the apostle Paul. It’s simple, yet profound, explanation of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind is vital for all who seek His saving grace. However, Romans also differs greatly from the letters Paul wrote to other churches. It is important for us to know the historical context of the book so that we might better interpret and apply God’s Word in our own lives.
The authorship of the letter in question is no longer questioned by the majority of scholars. Biblical and historical accounts show that Paul most likely wrote to the Christians in Rome from Corinth, during his third missionary work, around 56-57 AD. This is supported by Paul considering his work finished in Greece (Romans 15:19, 23) and beginning his travel to Jerusalem. He planned to bring financial support and minister there before heading to Rome (Acts 19:21).
Rome in 57 AD was the centre of the civilized world. People from all corners of the Roman Empire and beyond congregated there. There were a million people in a ten mile square area. Thus it is unsurprising that not only had Christianity spread there, but the believers in Rome were comprised of both Gentiles and Jews. The majority of these Christians were Gentiles, especially after the expulsion of Jews from Rome by Emperor Claudius somewhere between 41 and 54 AD. However, at the time of writing there were Jews remaining in the city.
The year 57 AD was a time of relative peace for the believers in Rome. Christianity was still a small, odd, minority religion amongst an array of pagan religions. However, their lack of respect for other pagan worship set them apart. Also, their preaching of a new king coming sounded rebellious; adding to their unpopularity. This growing tension would last until 64 AD when Emperor Nero would begin persecuting Christians as a scapegoat for the burning of Rome. When Paul wrote his letter the main problem facing them was intolerance between Gentiles and Jewish believers of Christianity.
From what Paul wrote in Romans 16:3-15, scholars believe that there was more than one Christian church in Rome at that time. The number of different groups and names mentioned indicate around five potentially. These churches, unlike the others Paul guided, did not require strong admonishment from the apostle. It appears that the greatest problem they faced at the time was tension between Jewish and Gentile believers. The Jews felt compelled to continue observing the dietary laws and sacred days of Judaism, while the Gentiles rejected all such constraints (Romans 14:2-6).
So why did Paul write one of his longest letters, containing the most comprehensive layout of God’s redemptive plan in the Bible, to the Romans? There are a variety of reasons. The most practical reason was in preparation for his coming visit. Paul planned to use Rome as a base from which to evangelize in Spain. He would need the financial support of the Romans to accomplish that mission (Romans 15:22-29).
The second reason was to provide the Romans with a systematic outline of salvation, something they may not have had. This is because the churches in Rome were not founded by an apostle. There is speculation that some students of Paul could have been involved, but this would be the first time the Christian churches in Rome would have received teaching directly from an apostle. The final reason Paul wrote to the Romans was to clarify the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan for mankind’s redemption (Romans chapters 9-11). This was to help alleviate the previously mentioned aversion the Gentile Christians had towards the Jewish, furthering their understanding of God’s disposition and intentions for Israel.
Having a better understanding of the context of the book of Romans will allow us to better interpret God’s Word and apply it in our lives. However, it is important to never forget that historical and cultural understanding is but a support for the most important message in Scripture, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.