Continuity — Paul's Audiences — The Romans

The Roman Christians

Here for the first time in this series of essays we have a community that Paul didn't have some hand in founding himself. The church at Rome presumably existed before Paul ever preached his peculiar brand of 'Christism' cum Judaism to them.[1]

The Epistle to the Romans is a general statement of faith, a tractate in epistolary form. Like 1st Corinthians and Galatians, it mainly focuses on the concept of division among Christians. This time, however, the ethnic divisions seem to have been reversed. While in Galatia it was the Jewish outsiders who took a patronizing stance toward the gentile Christians, it appears that in Rome it was the Hellenists who felt that they were somehow self-evidently superior to the Jews. A curious feature of this "letter" is that the opponents it at times purports to assail seem more ideal (i.e. theoretical) than mundane (i.e real). More than in any other epistle, 'Paul' is deep inside his mind on this one, trying to formulate a systematic theology of Christ as redeemer and as "fulfillment." Like Jacob, one gets the feeling that Paul is wrestling with his own inner angel here.

Who were they?

There is plenty of textual and archaeological evidence of Jews having had a presence in Rome in the first centuries of the common era. Inscriptions allows us to locate where they lived and gathered, where they were buried, and also some of the ways that they interacted with the Greeks and Romans in this, the biggest city in the empire. While the presence of Jews at Rome allows for the possibility of converts from this population, we have no reason to assume so, particularly in light of Paul's reports of the hostility he encountered when he preached at synagogues. If Roman Jews represented a significant segment of the Jesus cult, little in this document can tell us about them.

Romans does mention at least one pair of Jews in the Roman Christian community. Paul is apparently intimate with Aquila and Priscilla, a married couple that had converted before he had met them. Acts (Ch 18) explicitly calls them Jews (Romans does not) and adds that they had migrated first to Pontus, and then eventually to Rome. Claudius had ordered all Judeans to leave Rome, though—at least according to Acts—and so Paul met them in Corinth, where Acts says that they worked as tent makers like Paul. This would certainly provide an opportunity for their acquaintance. However, the Claudian exodus mentioned in Acts is a bit problematic because, though we aware of a handful of similar episodes in Roman history, none of them appear to refer to this specific 'expulsion'[2]:

In 139 BCE the Jews were reportedly expulsed (along with the other “Chaldeans”).[3]

In 19 CE, there’s another exodus written of, but this one doesn't just pick on the Judeans: all immigrant troublemakers are to be expelled.[4]

The closest we come to an expulsion of the Jews as described in Acts is in Suetonius, writing in the early second century CE:

Since the Judeans constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, Claudius expelled them from Rome.”[5]

This of course is a citation familiar to both historicists (who sometimes uphold it as extra-biblical evidence of Jesus) and mythicists (who rightly point out that this could not possibly be a reference to Jesus, ergo much less to his historicity).  Could this be the same event that Acts is referring to?  Forget what Suetonius says about Chrestus for a moment. This citation is useful to us in another way. Obviously not a reference to a historical Jesus, it still attests to some civic disturbances involving some Judeans which resulted in at least some Jews being expelled from Rome. Dio Cassius, however, explains that expulsions would have been unpragmatic. He says that Claudius imposed restrictions on Jewish gatherings, but he explicitly says the Jews were not expelled at this time.[6]  So … Were Aquila and Prisca expelled from Rome by Claudius (as Acts plainly states)?

Two possibilities exist:

  1. Dio Cassius is right, in which case I wonder where the author of Acts got his information on this episode. Could he have gotten it from his knowledge of Suetonius? If Dio Cassius is right ... could the author of Acts, in his diligent quest for confirmation of his story, have irresistibly gravitated toward the “Chrestus” reference and made use of one of its details? The problem with this, of course, is that Suetonius wrote in the early second century, and everybody knows that Acts was written well before that. (wink, wink)

  2. Suetonius is right, in which case I wonder why Dio Cassius is so adamant that there was no expulsion. Was he reacting to this Suetonian tradition (possibly through Christian use)?

Both possibilities are intriguing, though admittedly speculative —heavy food for thought.

Let’s assume for the sake of the Boyd objections (he doesn't like it when Acts is not taken seriously as history) that the second choice is the correct one, that the Jews had been expelled. This potentially would have left behind only the gentile variety of Christian converts at Rome, who would have proceeded to entrench their brand of Law-less Christianity as the preferable paradigm to catechize neophytes into. When Claudius later died (54 CE), and the expulsion was presumably rescinded, what the formerly influential Jewish-Christians came back to was a muscular gentile variety that was resistant to Judaizing (if this Romans "letter" is any indication).. The re-integration of the Jews into church structures would then become unattainable due to the haughtiness that the Greeks adopted with their newly gained positions of power and authority (so Weifel - see footnote 2).This would be an obstacle they would have found hard to surmount, especially after Paulinism had taken over in Rome.

But then, Acts is the only place that pinpoints Prisca and Aquila as Jews. David Trobisch has proposed a compelling theory[7] wherein Acts’s whole compositional modus operandus is to be a kind of cleanup crew that ties-it-all-together in a 'final authoritative edition' to finally determine orthodox authority contra Marcion (he thinks Polycarp is the best candidate for this task). According to this view Acts was written to corroborate apostolic succession and to synthesize the Pauline material with the gospels so that a homogenous orthodoxy could be arrived at between these two contrasting “styles“ of Christianity. A kind of merger. Might the mention of this couple be a linking editorial device to this end? It's just a speculation, but it is a compelling one to me.

In the closing “say-hi-to-…” section of Romans, we have a list of twenty six people that the author sends personal greetings to. He mentions "my kinsmen."[8] If one were to presume at face value that Paul was indeed a “Pharisee of Pharisees” (in Acts), as many are wont to do, it would be plausible that a familial greeting could be a reference to more "Jews" in Rome. But this does not necessitate them having been baptized into the new faith yet (one could imagine relatives of Paul following his lead, but this would require harmonizing this epistle with Acts, which is the central problem in the analysis of the Pauline corpus). Moreover, I can't but wonder (again) if Hyam Maccoby might be right in his conclusion that Paul was only feigning to be a Pharisee. But, for the sake of argument, let's acknowledge it as exhibit B— i.e.  evidence of "Jewish-Christians" in Rome.

What we are left with, then, as far as the Jewishness of Paul's audience goes, as we survey this epistle, are a reference to a couple of known (from 1st Cor) companions of Paul (corroborated in Acts), and a possible “say hello to my cousins” reference in the closing of the letter. Given these, and adding the fact that the epistle reflects a community that eschews Judaizing in general, the emphasis sometimes given by apologists to the influence of Jewish Christians at Rome therefore seems like an ambitious stretch in light of the meager evidence supporting this appeal. So why the undue certainty on the part of Boyd and his colleagues? Even if there were Jews there in the community of Christians in Rome (an allowable speculation, to be sure), we cannot escape the fact that this letter is intended for a gentile audience. Paul is castigating them for feeling superior, for “judging” over those who might still choose to observe the Jewish Law. In the parlance of today's undergrad scene, for hatin' on 'em. The audience of this epistle definitely ain't Jewish.

Still, a big point of contention and animosity in this epistle is the Jewish system of food laws. Paul comes up with terms for those who keep kosher and for those who don’t. He calls those who keep the kosher laws “the weak” (contrasted with the “strong”, i.e. those who don’t observe any such restrictions). Paul is urging the strong not to judge the weak. To my mind, however, the terminology he uses seems contradictory, the logic is reversed. One would think that those who can refrain from forbidden foods would be the strong ones and those who indulge to be the weak, but Paul’s estimation is nevertheless turned inside-out like this.  It’s a fascinating twist. One possible explanation for why the kosher are considered weak is because they may be abstaining from meat in general just so they won’t chance encountering idol meat.   In other words, Paul implies that the "weak" ones adhere to Torah merely out of a sense of superstitious loyalty and habit. I find the irony interesting. At any rate, Paul assures the Romans that all Israel will see salvation, so that judging Jews for such things as their keeping kosher is therefore just a silly distraction.

Stylistically, the letter to the Romans once again shows that Paul’s rhetoric has deliberative elements to it. It introduces a diatribe technique which is prevalent in Romans in a way that it isn’t in the other Pauline works. Like I intimated earlier, rather than revealing a real opponent, Paul here seems to set up imaginary, theoretical objections to his dialectic, telling us more about himself than about any supposed real detractors he may have encountered. In Romans, he seems to be trying to clarify the distinction between Jew and gentile in his own thinking. Consequently, his main arguments center around the concept of equality for gentiles and Judeans.

The bottom line: Salvation goes to the Jews but also to the gentile. God shows no partiality. Greeks are as condemnable as the Jews are and they equally have access to God’s salvation. Greeks may be idolatrous and perverse (a common Jewish stereotype of their gentile neighbors) but Jews are no better off if they don’t submit to the “spiritual circumcision” he prescribes for these imaginary judaizers. There is no significant distinction for him. These themes are all in Romans.

As he previously had in Galatians, Paul here argues again that Abraham is the father of all, both of those who have faith in god and of those who are circumcised. He cites Genesis 15 once more. He really likes this verse, it seems. He seems fixated on this call to faith as the gentile way in to Yahveh’s salvation. It’s basically the same argument as in Galatians. The chronology of the story becomes the loophole.

Circumcision being thus obsolete, Baptism is now the new replacement initiation rite, the entrance requirement, for Christians. The ritual’s description in Chapter 6 once again calls to mind a Gnostic kind of symbolism which revolves around the idea of a kind of death and resurrection which the initiate willingly undergoes. But it also reveals the essential gentile character of his audience, as baptism was already  being practiced among virtuous Jews (there are plenty of baptismal pools in Jerusalem, Masada, and Qumran to attest to this). It would therefore be as unnecessary (and as stupid) to try to persuade Jews to be baptized as to be circumcised. They already are. Again, his readers are not Jews.

Chapters 9–11 show Paul desultorily citing biblical passages to argue for this essential equality of Jew and gentile. This raises the inevitable question: If we all have access to the Hebrew god in this way, why was Israel chosen Israel at all?  The true Israel for Paul transcends cultural and geographic boundaries. All Israel will be saved. If everyone gets to be saved, why insist on Israel at all?  Might this not be an anti-marcionite nod? I think it might.

If not, then how do we explain Paul's obsession with the Hebrew scriptures, an obsession which reportedly failed at every encounter with real Jews? Why did Paul "settle" for gathering gentiles who accepted his marginally Jewish-ish theology right before the coming of the end of days instead of actual Jews?. It bugs Paul that Jews aren't buying his 'gospel', but his main concern (as in Galatians) is that the gentiles buy it. From this perspective Israel is remiss,  is fumbling the obvious, is in a state of defiant denial. Ironically, it is this stumbling that has allowed salvation to finally come to the gentiles. What’s more, Paul seems to believe that all Israel will eventually come to believe in Jesus Christ some fine day. ('They'll see!')

Here's the thing, though: there's just something unjewishy about the author's "Jewish" affectations, something that makes my spidey-sense tingle:

"Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." (3:20)

"The Law brings wrath; where there is no Law, there is no trangression." (4:15)

"The Law came in so that trangression might abound." (5:20)

See what I mean?

A Pharisee putting down the Torah.


Relation to James? . . . .

Can we know what relationship, if any, there was between these “weak ones” and the James party? Once again, that the James Christians is inferred to share a similar predilection for Torah observance is not enough to project Paul’s cosmic christological constructs onto James. We've already seen from our look at Galatians that it is possible to be a Law-observing Christian independent of that particular group's influence.

Finally, chapter 15 recalls the collection for the Jerusalem poor once again. This act of charity is the thing he hopes will legitimize his mission. That his collection should not be rejected by the Jerusalem church is crucially important to Paul. Why would they reject it, though? If the traditional chronology of the letters is correct, we note that he seems to grow progressively more and more stressed about being rejected by the Jerusalem Jacobites with each epistle. It’s as if he knows it is going to be rejected. Why? What reason could they have to reject it? He then lists some of the Christian communities that have graciously contributed to the collection for Jerusalem’s poor. (Galatia’s contribution is not mentioned, however. What happened? This is a particularly interesting oversight considering how important this collection was in that letter [chapter 2]. )

At any rate, we can conclude that the epistle to the Romans, instead of revealing the early church in that city as "thorough Jews" like Boyd asserts, is … once again … overwhelmingly gentile.

What does this mean?
Stay tuned to the same bat-channel for the exciting answer . . .

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1 - Let me stress, lest someone think that I believe the books are reliable in any way, that I am allowing for the authenticity of at least the Hauptebriefe in the ongoing discussion of the Pauline corpus only for the sake of argument. I am just reading it at face value to show that Boyd's objections fail even if one attributes authenticity to these documents. In actual fact, I follow Van Manen and Loman and the other radicals in thinking the whole corpus spurious.

2 - Wolgang Weifel built a neat theory around this Claudius reference in a Chapter entitled : “The Jewish Community in Ancient Rome” in a collection of essays: The Romans Debate—Continued (pp 100–119) (Donfried — ed.)

3 - Valerius Maximus - Factorum et Dictorum, 1.3.3 (A contemporary of Tiberius Caesar, Valerius attributes the expulsion to a crackdown on Jewish proselytizing. Some scholars [Martin Goodman - Mission and Conversion], however, argues that Valerius has likely projected the activity of his own day onto the remote episode).

4 - Josephus, Antiquities, 81 — Tacitus, Annals, II.85 — Suetonius, Tiberius, XXXVI — Dio Cassius, Roman History, LVII.18.5a (Josephus says that it was as punishment for a handful of scoundrels, Tacitus implies that Rome needed to be protected from pernicious influences. If these 'outsiders' were prepared to acknowledge themselves as 'Roman', then they would have been allowed to stay. Suetonius agrees. Dio says that it was for excessive proselytizing, but, again, this is likely a projection of the conflicts in his own day onto his historical narrative [see Goodman in the preceding endnote] ).

5 - Suetonius, Claudius, 25.4

6 - Dio Cassius

7 - The First Edition of the New Testament

8 - It should be noted that many scholars doubt whether chapter 16 was part of the original, shorter Romans, whether this section was originally part of another letter meant for Ephesus. I won’t digress into that dispute as it has no real value to the discussion at hand except to note that the dispute is ongoing, which may make point of Paul's having mentioned "kinsmen" moot..


  1. I'm not sure why this essay is making such a momentous issue of how many Jews are in the audience, nor why you think that "a big point of contention and animosity in this epistle is the Jewish system of food laws." It seems likely to me that he is principally addressing his own converts from elsewhere who have by now landed in Rome, and any other people in Rome with whom he had had contact before; the people he mentions at the end of the letter are all people he knows, having himself apparently never been to Rome. He is implicitly chastening these people, who are putting on airs precisely because he has taught them (elsewhere) and moreover causing dissension and so on. He grants that his friends and their friends, and perhaps some other gentiles taught the way he likes, the title of 'the strong'. They have the superior wisdom in 1 Corinthians 8: it would seem they are 'strong' mostly because they are indifferent to whether chunks of meat have been offered to idols or not. 'The weak' are gentiles who are freaking out about this and eating vegetables to avoid the danger. This is not much of an issue for Roman Jews, whether 'Christian' or not, since they have their own food system. The weak/strong distinction is thus presumably a distinction within the class of gentiles. To judge from later texts it looks like this really was a bit of a problem: Acts and Revelation certainly do favor (gentile-believer) paranoia on the question whether meat had been offered to idols. (I don't know if those texts can be taken to have anything to do with reality as it was at the time of writing of Romans; you would think that 'Luke' would have had the sense to formulate the 'Apostolic Decree' so that it was consistent with Paul's teaching.)

    Paul thinks this is tiresome, since he holds the position later stated by the rabbis, that no food is in itself unclean, that this is not an occult property but only a legal matter. It is clear that Paul forbids his gentiles from engaging in idolatrous practices, but is making the quasi-halakhic determination that gentiles don't need to worry about whether this meat here is leftovers from a forbidden rite, since they don't have to keep kosher. The difficulty is natural, though, because gentiles are emphatically forbidden to have anything to do with idolatrous cult -- as the rabbis still teach -- so we shouldn't get too smug about the people who haven't seen through all the layers. He adopts an amusing quasi-'relativism' about the matter, and not so wrongly; if you think that by eating this stuff you are engaging in idol worship, it is indeed best to steer clear; if your friends will think you're engaging in idol worship by eating this meat, it is best to steer clear. I wonder if the nutty noachide courts in Jerusalem have addressed issues like this.


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