Epistle to the Romans – Introduction

Pasi Hujanen
Reija Becks

The question of the basis of salvation is always topical. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans to a church he had not visited. That is why he presented the core of his teaching in it. Paul discusses both the foundation of salvation and what salvation means in a Christian's life.

This letter gives us information about our faith, and it challenges us to apply to our own lives what we have learnt. The Epistle to the Romans can be considered not only as the apostle Paul’s most important letter but also as the most concentrated presentation of the basics of Christian doctrine in the entire New Testament.

The author of the epistle

The author of letter to the Romans is the apostle Paul. Paul, or Saul, was born in Tarsus, Cilicia, which is in what is now Turkey. He was Jewish and belonged to the tribe of Benjamin.

Jesus died on the cross around the year 30. On the first Pentecost, the Christian church was born, and persecution against it soon began. Saul also participated in the first persecutions (Acts 7:58, 8:1-3, 9:1-2). On his way to persecute Christians in Damascus, Saul encountered the resurrected Christ (Acts 9:3-30), who called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (9:15-16). The Jewish Saul of Tarsus became the Christian Paul.

Around the year 35, Paul visited Jerusalem, where he met Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:18-19). But it wasn't until about 15 years later that he started his first missionary journey (cf. Gal. 2:1 and Acts 13:1-3). Hellenistic education and rabbinical Jewish education were combined in Paul, so he was an excellent choice ("a chosen instrument", Acts 9:15) to take the message of Christ to the Greek-speaking world. Paul's mission strategy was to preach the gospel where others had not yet preached it (cf. 1 Thess. 1).

The letter-writing situation

The Roman church was born quite early. However, its founder is unknown. Various religions spread quickly to Rome, which was the capital. This is also how it is in our time; new religions start to spread in big cities. Initially, most of the church members in Rome were Jewish Christians. It is esti-mated that at that time, there were about 50 000 Jews in Rome. Paul had intentions to go to Rome and then travel to Hispania, i.e. present-day Spain and Portugal (see Rom. 15:23-28).

Four epistles of Paul are considered more important than his other epistles: the Romans, the 1 and 2 Corinthians, and the Galatians. In his other three main letters, Paul fights against the false teaching that had spread to the churches in question. The Epistle to the Romans does not have such a background, because Paul had not been to Rome. In his letter, Paul explains the doctrine that he had preached to the Gentiles wherever God had sent him. Paul writes calmly and takes into consideration objections that might arise.

When determining the date of writing of the Epistle to the Romans, an important passage is Rom. 15:23-28. In it, Paul mentions that he is going to Jerusalem to bring aid given by Gentile Christians to the poor of the church in Jerusalem. The Letter to the Romans was therefore written shortly be-fore the year 55 or 56 when Paul made his last trip to Jerusalem.

At the time the letter was written, the majority of Christians in Rome were of Gentile background (cf. Rom. 1:13), as in the 40s and 50s, hardly any Jews were converting to Christianity, and so the growing majority of the church were former Gentiles. Concerning Rome, it is also worth remembering that the Jews were expelled from Rome in 49 (Acts 18:1-2). The historian Suetonius writes that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because "arguments about Chrestus caused disturbances." Apparently, the question was about Christ, because in Greek both e and i were pronounced i at that time.

Before his journey to Jerusalem, Paul stayed in Corinth, which has been thought to be the place where the letter to the Romans was written (Acts 20:2). This assumption is also supported by the fact that at the end of the letter, he commends Phoebe, deacon of Cenchreae in the port city of Cor-inth (Rom. 16:1).