Historical background

Chiesa dei Santi Aquila e Priscilla, a Roma, n...
Chiesa dei Santi Aquila e Priscilla, a Roma, nel quartiere Portuense. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paul wrote his letter to the Romans at the end of his Third Missionary Journey; but before we get into that background, we want to know, why he wrote the letter.

He wrote to the church in Corinth, for example, to address specific concerns raised by the church. They sent him a letter, asking for clarifications on some issues; for example 1 Cor.7:1 “Now for the matters you wrote about…” or 1 Cor.12:1, “Now about spiritual gifts…”These references tell us that such a letter was prompted by specific concerns that called for his response.

There were other reasons too. In Galatia, for example, some – Paul called them “Judaizers”- came after him and taught what was contrary to his teaching. The Galatians consequently abandoned Paul’s teaching; so Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians to urge them back to the right teaching.

There are no suggestions that Paul was the founder of the church in Rome even though chapter 16 shows that he knew quite a number of people there. There are no indications of any special problems there either. Actually he did have praises for the church. He wrote in 1:8, “Your faith is being reported all over the world”.Then in 15:14 he wrote, “I myself am convinced, my brothers (and sisters) that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instrus\ct one another”.

So, why did he write the letter?

In 1:13 he wrote: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers (and sisters) that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now)”…So he had had the desire to visit the church of Rome.

One may still ask: Why did he want to visit them? He wrote in 1:11-12  “so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong – that is that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith”. Then he added in verse 13, “that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles”.

This is a very  important  point  for those on a spiritual journey as well as those on a journey of recovery. It is never a lonely  journey, nor was it intended to be walked alone. That is why anyone in recovery is encouraged to join a recovery group and to attend meetings regularly for mutual encouragement. Similarly, every Christian is encouraged to have a home church and be active in it.

Today, if one longs to see a friend who is far away, an e-mail, text or telephone message will usually be sent to convey the desire. In Paul’s days, those means were not available.

There was yet, a second reason for Paul’s letter to the Romans and that is found  towards the end of the letter in 15:23-24. “But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain”. He felt that he had accomplished what he intended to accomplish in Asia Minor and the surrounding area, so finally he could now visit the church in Rome.

Indeed, his intended  visit  would have been a stop-over during a larger plan for a missionary journey to Spain. Verse 24 continues: “I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there”. Thus, in the letter he was informing the church of Rome, of his intention to enlist their support for his planned missionary trip to Spain.

We will now trace Paul’s final steps in his Third Missionary Journey, from Antioch in Syrian to Cenchrea, the port city of Corinth, where he stayed for three months, during which time he wrote the letter to the Romans. This journey is recorded by Luke in Acts 18:23- 20:3.

Acts 18:23 reads: “After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and travelled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples”.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Antioch was the centre of the Seleucid kingdom until 64 bce, when it was annexed by Rome and was made the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It became the third largest city of the Roman Empire in size and importance (after Rome and Alexandria) and possessed magnificent temples, theatres, aqueducts, and baths. The city was the headquarters of the Roman garrison in Syria, one of whose principal duties was the defense of the empire’s eastern border from Persian attacks. Antioch was also one of the earliest centres of Christianity; it was there that the followers of Christ were first called Christians, and the city was the headquarters of the missionary St. Paul   about 47–55 ce.”

Today, it is in Turkey, about 12 miles or 19 kilometers, northwest of the Syrian border, and known as Antakya. Because it is near the mouth of the OrontesRiver, it was also called Antioch Orontes.

If we go back to Acts 18:1-3 Paul met Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth, a Jewish couple who had recently come from Rome when Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from that city. Claudius was emperor from 41-54 A.D. In Romans 16 Paul sent greetings to various people in Rome, including Aquila and Priscilla. The two must have returned to Rome after Claudius’ reign, which means Paul wrote the letter after 54 A.D.

In Acts 20:2-3 Paul finally arrived in Greece, “where he stayed three months”. Romans 16 mentions Corinth as the city in Greece and the names Phoebe, Gaius and Erastus point out its port of Cenchrea as the exact place of origin of the letter.

According to Acts 20:6 Paul and his companions departed from Philippi “after the Feast of Unleavened Bread” and in verse 16 “he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost”. The Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Passover, is on the Fifteenth of Nisan which is in the Spring, and Pentecost or Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) is fifty days later.(Leviticus 23).

It is generally believed that the letter was written in the Spring of 56 A.D.

One final point in this introduction: There are 13 letters in the New Testament generally ascribed to Paul. Of the 13, seven are accepted without reservation as being genuinely Pauline – Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians. The epistle to the Romans is the most authentic of Paul’s letters, by all standards; it is the test for all of his correspondence.

Here then, is the summary of this introduction: The Epistle to the Romans was undoubtedly written by Paul, from Cenchrea, in Corinth, around the Spring of 56 A.D.