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Study Resources :: Intros to the Bible :: The Epistle to the Romans

The Epistle to the Romans

Background and Setting

The Epistle to the Romans was written to Christians residing in the city of Rome (1:7, 15). Rome was the center of the Empire and was ethnically diverse. In the first century AD it had a population of around one million people [1] in an area less than ten square miles. [2] Of this large population, it is estimated that there was between 40,000 and 50,000 Jews in the city. [3] The Jewish population dates back to the second century BC as part of the Diaspora. In AD 64 there was a large fire in Rome that led Nero to expulse the Jews. [4] This also resulted in the first major persecution of the Church.

It is unclear how the church in Rome originally began. The best explanation is that the Romans who were present at Pentecost (Acts 2:10-11) eventually made their way back to Rome and started a church in one of the synagogues. However, there are also other explanations. "All roads lead to Rome" was the popular saying that demonstrated the city's importance and accessibility. It should not be surprising that there was already an established church before Paul's arrival. People who may have heard the gospel in Asia, Greece, or elsewhere could have traveled to Rome. In Romans 16 Paul greets several people, with the most notable of these being Priscilla and Aquila. Both Aquila and Priscilla were in Rome until about AD 49 when Claudius expelled all the Jews from the city (Acts 18:2). Paul met the couple when he came to Corinth (ca. AD 51). They did further ministry in Ephesus (Acts 18:19) around ca. AD 53. From there they went to Rome. It is likely that they were not the first ones to bring the gospel to Rome. A church was probably already established as it is noted that Paul greets the church that met in the their house (16:5).

Of course the city of Rome was predominately populated by Gentiles and so it is expected that the church was comprised of both Jewish and Gentile believers (cf. 1:6, 7:1). Paul addresses both groups in this epistle.


The letter itself claims Pauline authorship (1:1) and there has not been much controversy over this. Early church tradition affirms Pauline authorship. According to Geisler and Nix, it was either cited or alluded to by Clement of Rome (ca. AD 95-97), Polycarp (ca. 110-150), the Didache (ca. 120-150), Justin Martyr (ca. 150-155), Tertullian (ca. 150-220), and Origen (ca. 185-254). [5] It has been named as authentic by Irenaeus (ca. 130-202), Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 315-386), Eusebius (ca. 325-340), Jerome (ca. 340-420), and Augustine (ca. 400). And it was included in the canons of Marcion (ca. 140), Muratorian (ca. 170), Barococcio (ca. 206), Apostolic (ca. 300), Cheltenham (ca. 360), and Athanasius (367). [6]

Paul, the author of thirteen New Testament Epistles, was born as an Israelite in Tarsus of Cilicia (Acts 22:3; Phil 3:5). The name that he went by was Saul. He studied under Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3) and became a Pharisee (Phil 3:5). He was present at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58; 8:1) and became a persecuter of the church (Acts 8:1-3; Phil 3:6). While seeking to have Christians bound, he was converted on the road to Damascus as Christ appeared to him (Acts 9:1-9). He went into Damascus (Acts 9:10-19) then went to Arabia for some time (Gal 1:17) before returning to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-29; Gal 1:18). He met up with Barnabas and ministered with him in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). Then he began to go on various missionary journeys to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. He was imprisoned in Rome on two occasions and was martyred under Caesar Nero.

In 2 Cor 12:7 Paul refers to a "thorn in the flesh" which seems to be a reference to a physical ailment of some kind. The direct or indirect result of this ailment appears to have affected Paul's eyesight. Gal 4:15 states that the Galatian Christians would have given their own eyes to Paul if it were possible. Paul even experienced difficulty recognizing the high priest in Acts 23. As a result of these vision problems, Paul needed assistance in composing his letters, which necessitated the need for an amanuensis (i.e., a scribe). Paul had multiple amanuenses who wrote for him-the one he utilized for this letter was Tertius (16:22).

Date and Location of Composition

Paul wrote the letter to the Romans from the city of Corinth, while he was on his third missionary journey. At the time he was gathering an offering from the Gentile Christians for the church in Jerusalem (15:25; Acts 24:17). This would place the letter's composition date at ca. AD 56.

Paul mentions three people that help to identify the letter's composition with Corinth: Phoebe (16:1), Gaius (16:23), and Erastus (16:23). He sent Phoebe of Cenchrea to the church in Rome as the bearer of the epistle. With her being from Cenchrea, she would have had ties to Corinth because Cenchrea is the port city for Corinth. There was a Gaius referenced in 1 Cor 1:14 as one who lived in Corinth and many have identified him as the Titius Justus in Acts 18:7. Erastus was the city's treasurer (or director of public works) and in Corinth an inscription was discovered that refers to an Erastus as the city aedile (i.e., an official in charge of public works, etc.), which some have corresponded to Paul's reference to him. [7]


The apostle identifies his recipients in 1:7 by saying: To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints. His intent was for the Christians in all of Rome to read the epistle. It also seems that there were multiple churches in the Empire's capital because there is made mention of an additional church in the home of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom 16:5).


Paul was writing to a church that he had never visited and a casual reading of the epistle does not convey the idea that he was dealing with situational issues (cf. the epistles to the Corinthians). Here Paul wrote with regards to the big picture-laying down the doctrine of soteriology. He wrote that they would know the gospel of Christ. He also wanted to inform the church regarding his future plans because those plans would involve them. At the time of writing the epistle, Paul was about to take the offering that he had collected from various churches to the poverty stricken church in Jerusalem. After that, he intended on going to visit the Roman church for a time to preach the Gospel to them. His subsequent plans were then to go westward to preach the gospel in Spain.

Gunter Klein argued that the letter was written in order to address the need of an apostolic foundation. Paul declares that he would not build on another man's foundation, yet at the same time he informs the Romans that he is going to preach the gospel to them. In trying to reconcile these two verses, Klein states that the lack of an apostolic foundation opens the door for Paul to preach the gospel to the Romans while still being true to his own convictions. [8]

It was thought that Romans was a "carefully planned, doctrinal presentation of the Christian faith," yet Kümmel notes that such a view is untenable because the epistle is lacking in such key elements of Pauline doctrine like eschatology, Christology, the Lord's Supper and, church order. [9] Walt Russell contented that Romans was a letter of exhortation that treated the issue of Jewish/Gentile relationships and that Paul was urging them to "participate fully in God's present harvest of all peoples." [10] Still others have theorized that Romans was an encyclical or general epistle.

Themes and Theology

The greatest and most evident theme in the epistle is the subject of the gospel. Paul begins his letter by stating that he was called to be an apostle for the gospel's sake (1:1). Paul's dedication belonged to Christ and his gospel as he preached it with his whole heart (1:9). The gospel is also portrayed as the power of God unto salvation-that is able to save those who believe (1:16). This same gospel was not accepted by all the Israelites (10:16), yet graciously (and fortunately) includes the gentiles as well (15:16).

God's righteousness is being revealed in this gospel from faith to faith (1:17). The only way this righteousness may be accessed is through faith. Sola Fide-it is by faith alone. Man can never make himself righteous, nor will a single ounce of merit do anything in regards to salvation (Eph 2:8, 9). Paul adds to this and says that the one who is righteous by faith shall live (1:17). And this is his gospel which he develops throughout Romans. In this letter Paul shows why it is necessary to be justified by faith. Because of man's sin, man needs to be justified, and therefore, as a result, (eternal) life will come. Matthew Black rendered it as follows: "'The just-by-faith (in Christ) shall live (now and for ever)'-and the words, of course, mean enjoy fullness of life, now and fore ever." [11] It has an eternal consequence-everlasting life: For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (6:23).

Anders Nygren took note of Paul's systematic approach to the gospel in Romans and wrote the following in his commentary: "Step by step, persistently and consistently, he hews his way through the flood of thoughts which present themselves to him as he undertakes to explain the meaning of God's work in Christ." [12]

Ultimately, the Epistle to the Romans is undoubtedly Pauline in its very essence. It is the theologically richest of all his letters and has played an instrumental role in many great movements of the Christian church.


[1] R. B. Edwards et al. "Rome: Overview" in Dictionary of New Testament Background. Ed by Craig A. Evans & Stanley E Porter. IVP, 2000. page 1013.
[2] Charles Ludwig. Ludwig's Handbook of New Testament Rulers and Cities. Denver: Accent Books, 1983. p. 112.
[3] J. D. G. Dunn. "Romans, Letter to the" in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Ed by Gerald F. Hawthorne. IVP, 1992. page 838.
[4] According to Suetonius (Claudius 25.4) the blame has been fixed on "Chrestus" whom many have taken to be Christ: Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit.
[5] Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986). p. 294.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Douglas J. Moo. The Epistle to the Romans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996). pp. 935 f.
[8] Günter Klein. "Paul's Purpose in Writing the Epistle to the Romans." In Karl Donfried. The Romans Debate, Revised. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1991). pp. 29-43.
[9] Werner Georg Kümmel. Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, English Translation of the 17th Edition, 1975) p. 312.
[10] Walter B. Russell III. "An Alternative Suggestion for the Purpose of Romans." Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (1980) 180.
[11] Matthew Black. Romans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973). p. 47.
[12] Anders Nygren. Commentary on Romans. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1952). p. 27

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