The doctrinal depth of Romans can make it easy to overlook the question of why even Paul wrote it. Why this letter to this church at this time? We’re familiar with the problems in the Corinthian church inspiring 1 Corinthians and the Judaizing influence behind the letter to the Galatians, but is Romans simply an arbitrary theological treatise? Is it Paul’s systematic theology?
Scholars have hypothesized a variety of situations that may have provoked Paul to write this famous letter. In my mind, the most persuasive are a combination of two factors:
- Paul’s ambition to preach the Gospel to Spain and have Rome assist him as a sending church (Rom 15:20, 24, 28).
- Paul’s desire to reunite Jew and Gentile in Rome. Tensions between the groups were running high most likely due to Christians returning to an overwhelmingly Gentile church after the reversal of Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome (particularly Rom 14-15).
Both of these factors place Romans in a historical context that also largely accounts for the contents of the letter. Paul takes the opportunity to explain his message for the Romans to endorse, but his message is also incredibly applicable to their own situation. How is God fulfilling His promises to the Jews and the world? What place has the Jew in God’s plan? What role does the Torah play for the Christian Gentile and Jew? Is there any basis for Jewish or Gentile boasting? And so on.
Paul Writes to the Greek First and also to the Jew
This is all to introduce an excellent JETS article by Jackson Wu, Paul Writes to the Greek First and also to the Jew: The Missiological Significance of Understanding Paul’s Purpose in Romans (JETS 56:4, 2013). A PDF copy of his article can be accessed here. While many see Paul’s ambition to get to Spain as a key motive for Romans, Wu presses the question of how the letter body really relates to this goal. It’s a good point to make, and I think he’s on to something in his proposed answer.
I was planning to summarize Wu’s article, but he does a far better job than I could on his blog. The main points he addresses are pasted below:
Interpreters routinely assume that when [Paul] says “Greeks,” he simply means “Gentiles.” Again and again, I found few people actually defend that assumption. Don’t forget: a Greek is a Gentile, but a Gentile is not necessarily a Greek. The two words carry different connotations thus bring in different theological implications.
Scholars struggle with fit together the dense, middle theological section of Paul’s letter with the “bookends,” namely Rom 1:1–15; 15:18–32. Why is that? After all, the way one begins and ends a letter says a lot about the author’s intent. Not only that, but the beginning and end sections have common themes.
Furthermore, why does Paul typically talk about “Jews and Gentiles,” yet at certain spots, he decides to throw in again the phrase “Jews and Greeks” without explanation!
Wu’s conclusion is that “Gentile” includes both Greek and barbarian, so when Paul refers to “Greeks” he is putting his finger on the pulse of Roman pride that may hinder his mission to the “barbarian” Spaniards. I think Wu’s insights are valid and have taken them on board. An undermining of Gentile Roman pride makes good sense of the “Greek and barbarian” distinction. However, I think an intentional undermining of Jewish Christian pride can also be integrated with this reading. An undermining of Jewish pride would help Paul’s mission for unity in Rome and thereby his mission to Spain.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. (Rom 3:27)
I’d highly encourage you check out Wu’s article and read his blog too!