Historical Context for Romans by Paul
The longest and last written of Paul’s authentic epistles (written around 57 or 58 CE), the letter to the Romans is an exceptional text. Unlike his other writings, Paul’s letter to the Roman community lacks a particular occasion or causative problem. Indeed, Paul had no relationship to the Roman community prior to the drafting of his epistle. He neither established the church at Rome, nor, in fact, had he ever visited the illustrious city. The letter concerns not specific issues within the Roman church per se, but rather Paul’s articulation of his own gospel. The letter is not, fundamentally, corrective. While in his introductory remarks Paul expresses a desire to visit the Roman congregation (1:10-15) to share his gospel, the (possibly) real motivation behind his writing emerges only at the very end. Having finished his missionary activity in (what is likely) Achaia, a territory of the northwestern part of the Peloponnese of Greece, Paul enumerates his desire to take his missionary activity westward: “But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while” (Rom. 15:23-24). Paul’s desire to meet with Romans, so it seems, is bound to his hope that they will support his Western missionary excursion, which may well aim to use Rome as a base of operations. Paul’s letter, then, emerges as an effort to introduce himself formally to a congregation, which seems either ignorant of his activity or skeptical of what little they have heard. The care with which he presents his gospel and his surprisingly defensive tone—given his lack of association with the community—lend credence to the supposition that Paul is writing to a community whose support he is eager to obtain. Paul, unsurprisingly, revisits territory covered in earlier letters, all in an effort to situate himself in the good graces of the Roman community as an apostle of the true gospel.
Bart Ehrman’s textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, remains the best source for basic information about the entire New Testament.
Of the innumerable commentaries and scholarly works dedicated to Paul and his letters, exceptionally interesting and thought-provoking reflections can be found in:
Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Gager, John G. Reinventing Paul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977.
Segal, Alan F. Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Todd Berzon, Department of Religion, Columbia University