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Romans: Intro and Historical Context

This summer we read through the entire book of Romans, which is no short book, so a review of some of the main lessons may be helpful. We will begin with the most important part of the study, perhaps, which is the historical background/context of the letter, and then move on to the book’s structure and some of the theological lessons Paul reveals in the letter.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND/CONTEXT OF ROMANS

First and foremost, an Edict of the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from the city of Rome sometime between AD 41 and AD 53, probably AD 49. This is not only documented in external sources (to the Bible), but this historical event appears in scripture itself, as well:

Acts 18:1-2  “After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.”

Why would the Jews be expelled? Given what you probably already know about the difficulty some of Paul’s missionary efforts at local synagogues (often being chased out of town and/or beaten in the process), you might not be too surprised at what external sources say about the expulsion of Jews from Rome. Suetonius, an ancient Roman historian, informs his readers:

“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” (Divus Claudius 25)

That is, they were causing a ruckus over the Christ (“Chrestus”).

An Illustration for Houstonians

What does this have to do with the book of Romans? Everything. To illustrate, let’s borrow an illustration probably commonly used:

Imagine that Mayor Sylvester Turner said, “you know what, all the men in Houston are causing way too much trouble, rioting and fussing about over something about which I don’t even care. They need to go. Let’s kick them all out of Houston (again) for a time, in order to teach them that such behavior will not be tolerated.”

Now, imagine how the local church would be transformed over, say a few years (we don’t know exactly how long the edict lasted), with no men at church. The women run everything from welcoming folks at the door to blessing them on the way out, and everyone in the pew is female. The leaders who plan the services and the education are all women—for years.

Then, one day, mayor Turner allows the men to return. The Christian men go back to the church, expecting the keys to be returned to their hands and for the church to submit to their leading again. Can you imagine the tension? The women have become pretty confident and comfortable in their roles and are not very ready to give up their leadership.

This, in short form, is what was happening in Rome at the time of Paul’s writing, yet it was about tension between Jew(ish Christians) and Gentile Christians in the church, not men and women. It was about ethnicity, not sex. It is a letter not just about generic unity (and certainly not a letter of “just” theology, as it often is said to be). Rather, it is also about God’s faithfulness to His promises to the world, to bless and redeem it through His Annointed One, Jesus, who was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and the people of Israel.

Next up, we will consider the structure and outline of the book of Romans.

 

Roman emperor Claudius

 

 

 

Roman Emperor Claudius.

 

 

 

 

 

(Louvre Museum. Image copyright Clint Boyd 2015).

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