Introduction to Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Key Passages: Romans 1: 1-17

By Bruce L. Gerig

Introduction to this letter.  Paul’s letter to the Romans is widely regarded as Paul’s most significant letter. Some passages in other epistles may reach higher emotional heights or reveal deeper intuitive insights about the Gospel, but Romans stands above in the massiveness of its thought and the power it has released in history through its testimony to the Gospel as “the power of God for the salvation to everyone who has faith [NIV: ‘who believes’] (Rom 1:16, NRSV).    The early church recognized the importance of this letter by placing it first in the NT collection of Paul’s letters.   This is also the longest and most formal of Paul’s letters.    Paul does not give a summary of his whole teaching, but instead seeks to carry forward a certain train of thought, namely, that God’s righteousness is realized in the believer’s life “by faith from first to last” (Rom 1:17, NIV).1

Historical situation and the date and place of writing.    Paul notes that he has preached the Gospel “from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum [now Bosnia and Croatia]” (Rom 15:19), including three great missionary journeys which are recorded in the book of Acts.    He has filled these regions, including Asia Minor (now Turkey) and Greece, with the proclamation of the euangelion (“gospel, good news”) of Jesus Christ, and has planted vibrant churches in many quarters.    Now looking for new territory, his gaze moves to Spain.    Also, he wants to come to Rome, and hopes that the Christians there will “assist” him on his journey westward.    However, first Paul must take the offerings he has collected in various churches to Jerusalem to aid the poor among the saints there, which he hopes also will help unite the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians (Rom 15:23-26).    Paul wrote his letter to the Romans during his three-month stay in Corinth (Acts 20:2-3), which Miller dates ca. 54-55 AD and Moo ca. 57 AD.    Gaius, with whom he is staying (Rom 16:23), is surely the same man he baptized at Corinth (1 Cor 1:14); and Phoebe, whom Paul asks everyone to support in her ministry (Rom 16:1-2), was “deaconess” or leader of the church at Cenchrea, a port city of Corinth.2       

The Roman Christians.    The Jewish community in Rome, out of which the Christian movement emerged, was of considerable size in the first century AD.    However, Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in 49 AD because of their rioting over Chrestus (Christ = the Messiah); and so about 8 years before Paul’s letter (Moo) a significant number of Jews had fled from Rome.    However, the fact that Priscilla and Aquila are back in the Roman capital (Rom 16:3-4) shows that the expulsion order had been allowed to lapse, perhaps after the death of Claudius (54 AD).    However, when the Jewish Christians began to return to Rome, they resented the fact that the Gentile Christians had taken over running the house churches and many of the emphases had changed, since the Gentile Christians apparently felt that it was time for the Christian movement to move beyond its Jewish roots—at least this scenario fits the picture we find in Paul’s letter to the Romans.3 Paul will send “mixed signals” in his letter, as he addresses on the one hand those “who know the law” (Rom 7:1) and lived “under the law” (6:14,15), and on the other hand he desires to reap “a harvest among you, just as I have among the other Gentiles” (Rom 1:13) and he refers to “you Gentiles” (11:13).    Still, at the same time, he addresses his letter “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom 1:7).4

Literary genre and purpose.    As important as “justification by faith” is (and the fact that it is futile for anyone to think they can make themselves righteous by their own efforts), it is really the Gospel (the good news of God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ, which the Father offers as a gift) that is the grand theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom 1:16).5    The opening salutation (Rom 1:1-7) and closing personal greetings (Rom 16) show that this is a personal letter, although the sustained argument that makes up the body of the letter places this in the category of a “treatise” or “tractate,” which develops a self-contained argument of wide-ranging importance.    Paul is not composing a detached “systematic theology” here, but rather his theological discussion is genuinely contextualized and rooted in the situation he faces in the Christian community in Rome.6    But why write such a long, theologically dense letter to a Christian community he had never visited before?    The answer has a twofold basis: Paul’s own circumstances and the Roman Christians’ circumstances.    Since Paul had never personally visited Rome, this letter presents a doctrinal introduction to his teaching, presented in a careful, nuanced and balanced way.    And as noted, he hopes to gain their support for his future work in Spain.    Relating to the Roman Christian community, Paul wishes to try to heal the breach that has developed there between the Jewish and Gentile factions, asking them to “receive” (accept) each other (Rom 15:7).    He needs to change the convictions of both groups.7            

Letter organization and themes.    Paul’s introduction (Rom 1:1-17) in his letter to the Romans leads to its major theme, the “Gospel” which he preaches (Rom 1:16-17), which is based on justification (being made right before God judicially) by faith alone in Christ’s atoning death (1:18–4:25, esp. 3:21-22); and then he describes the hope that believers enjoy in this remarkable salvation (5:1–8:39).    However, Paul must also defend God’s faithfulness in the Gospel, as it relates to the Jews (9:1–11:36), and he wants to make clear the transforming power of the Gospel to change believers’ lives (12:1–15:13).    Finally, he closes with personal matters and greetings (15:14–16:27).    He will cover such topics as the sinful state of all human beings, God’s great plan for salvation history, what righteousness before God entails, the place of the Law of Moses, the plight of Israel now that God turns to focus on the non-Jewish world, and living life as a practice of worship to God.8  

Rome and the church there.    As Peter Lampe explains, Rome (the destination of this letter) was the capital and largest city in the Roman Empire; and it may have contained a million inhabitants during the first century AD and included many languages, customs, and religions.9   During the second and first centuries BC, foreign cults had entered the city, such as that of Hercules and of the Anatolian Mother Goddess Cybele (Magna Mater); and Augustus during his reign (27 BC–AD 14) restored 82 deteriorating temples in Rome along with founding new ones.10  Richer people lived in luxurious apartments or villas with floor heat, running water, and sewer pipes, while the majority of the population lived in crowded brick and wood tenement buildings, 4–5 floors high; and the higher one climbed, the smaller and darker the dwelling rooms became.    Acts 2:11 notes that there were Jews (perhaps as well as Gentile proselytes [or converts] to Judaism) from Rome who were visiting Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost (ca. 30 AD).    However, when a growing presence of Jewish Christians in the synagogues in Rome in the 40s stirred up unrest, Roman officials under Emperor Claudius expelled (at least) key figures of the inner-Jewish quarrel from Rome (49 AD), including Aquila and Prisca (or Priscilla, cf. Acts 18:2).    Thereafter, Roman Christians gathered in private homes where most members were from the lower social strata of society and of non-Jewish descent, although they included sympathizers of the Jewish faith.    These individual congregations each had its own leader (presbyter) and was fairly independent, although they no doubt shared written materials and eucharistic supplies.11   

Recipients acknowledged.    Although Paul had never visited Rome nor met with the Christian house churches there (Rom 15:23-24), he knew quite a number of members there, probably having met them in other cities and congregations, since the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) had made travel around the Mediterranean comparatively safe.    More than one interpreter has advised looking at the last chapter (16) of Paul’s letter to the Romans before reading the rest of the text.    Peter Oakes notes that these house churches were necessarily small in size because typical apartments in Rome were small and badly lit.    The prevalence of Greek names in this chapter points to most members being either immigrants or slaves (or freed slaves, or their descendents).    In fact, references to the “family of Aristobulus” (16:10, NRSV) and to the “family of Narcissus” (16:12), which in the Greek simply reads “those of Aristobulus” and “those of Narcissus,” suggest a slave group in each case, which met as a kind of house church probably on the premises where they served and lived.12    Perhaps this Aristobulus was the grandson of Herod the Great (and the brother of Herod Agrippa I), who moved to Rome in the 40s (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.273–276, Jewish Wars 2.221), bringing with him his household slaves.    And Narcissus might well be the famous freedman who came into prominence as a close aide to Emperor Claudius and who had a household in Rome in the 50s (Juvenal, Satires 14.329–331).13    Peter Lampe believed that there were at least 5 house churches in Rome, based on Rom 16.    One of the reasons that there was no central organization was probably because there had been no apostolic founding here.    Witherington further believes that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the Christians here were either SLAVES, or freedpersons who formerly had been slaves.14   Thomas Hanks notes that of the 28 Christians in Rome mentioned in chapter 16, at least 12 and perhaps as many 26 bear names commonly held by slaves; some might have been liberated, although their masters could still call upon them for sexual and other favors.    So Paul is writing here primarily to poorer, marginalized people.    One should also remember that under Roman law slaves were not allowed to legally marry, although they sometimes formed informal relationships (and so lived in ‘fornication’) and bore children.    Only three married couples seem mentioned in Rom 16: Prisca and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia, and Philologus and Julia (the first two Jewish couples)—in contrast to the rest, who appear to be mostly single men and women.15   Therefore, in reading Rom 1, we must not forget the oppression, injustice, and rape which slaves often had to endure at the time—and how Paul’s off-handed reference to homosexual behavior might relate to them, in this regards, and be received by them.16    

Sexual mores in and around Rome.    A glimpse of sexual life and popular attitudes in central and southern Italy can be glimpsed in the Latin novel Satyricon, probably written about 65 AD by Petronius, a courtier of Emperor Nero (ruled 54–68).    This is one of the few surviving works that describe daily and social life in intimate detail in ancient Roman times.17    Sarah Ruden notes that most of this narrative with its “raw humor” takes place around the Bay of Naples (about 100 miles south of Rome) and that the stories fit the time of Nero very well.18    The main characters are Encolpius (the narrator), Asclytos, and Giton, the first two being vagabond youths in their twenties and the last a curly-haired, good-looking but effeminate boy around the age of sixteen, with whom the other two are infatuated.19  As the story opens, the two older youths have both lost their way trying to get back to their temporary lodging.    While searching for it, an old woman tries to steer Encolpius into her brothel20, while a “fatherly type” takes out some cash and tries to ‘buy’ Asycltos, who only escapes being kidnapped because he was the stronger than his suitor.21     When the two finally find their lodging, Encolpius learns from Giton, his boyfriend, that Asclytos has made a sexual advance on him, which causes Encolpius to lose his temper—although Asclytos reminds him that he (Encolpius) was once his “bum-buddy in the pleasure garden.”22    Later, as the three sit down to share a meal which Giton has prepared, a loud banging is heard at the door.    In comes Quartilla, a devotee of Priapus, (the god of fertility who always displays a huge, erect phallus) along with her entourage, begging Encolpius not to make public the rituals which he observed earlier at her Priapus shrine.23   Further, she tells the boys that she has ordered that no one be admitted into their lodging while she is there, since she is feeling a “fever.”    Then she pulls out two straps and binds Encolpius’s hands and feet24 and a “fag” comes in and seizes Encolpius’s ‘flanks and pounds away,’ smearing him with kisses.    Afterward, they all get dressed and return to the adjacent room for dinner, and begin dozing off.25.    However, Quartilla awakens them and summons them “back to their drinking duties,” while another effeminate man comes in, chanting: “Come, hither, come hither, you faggots so frisky, / Come running, come prancing, come skipping here briskly; / Come bring your soft thighs, agile bottoms, lewd hands, / You flaccid [queeny] old eunuchs from Delian!”26Delos being an island associated with castration.27  When the worn-out Encolpius begins moaning, Quartilla orders the “pansy” to change partners, so he begins wearing Asclytos out with his “kissing and humping.”    Then Quartilla calls Giton to come over; and after ‘stroking his little sprout,’ she instructs him to go over and deflower her seven-year-old servant girl.    Then, enflamed with lust herself, Quartilla drags Giron off into a side chamber to have her way with him.    Only then is everyone finally allowed to go to sleep.28

The next day Encolpius, Asclytus and Giton set off to attend a free dinner party held by the wealthy Trimalchio, whom they at first see tossing a ball with his long-haired slave boys, with a eunuch on either side..29    Later, at his banquet, Trimalchio explains how he started out himself as a long-haired little boy, “our master’s favorite slave boy.”30    Of course, Trimalchio now has his own “pet slave,” whom he allows to sit on his back and ride piggyback around in front of his guests.31    Yet later, when Trimalchio sees a new handsome waiter enter the room, he leaves his cushion and begins kissing him persistently, while his wife criticizes him loudly for having no control over his libido..32  After the banquet, Encolpius and Asclytos fight again over Gito, who decides he wants to go with Asclytos, to Encolpius’s dismay.33    Then when Encolpius visits an art gallery, he meets the self-proclaimed poet Eumolpus, who tells Encolpius how in Pergamum (a city in Asia Minor) he convinced the parents of a certain boy that he was most opposed to pederasty; but after they hired him to escort their son to and from the gymnasium, Eumolpus lost no time in seducing the boy again and again, until the boy only wanted more and more sex.34  Encolpius finally finds Giton again, who is serving unhappily as a slave at the Bath; so he rescues him and brings him home to his lodgings.    However, Eumolpus falls in love with Giton too, declaring: “I like you better than a whole bathhouse full of boys.”    Eumolpus recalls how he saw a nude young man at the baths calling out for “Giton,” while “a great throng surrounded him with shy wonder and applause,” because the man had “such an enormous load of genitalia.”    Finally, however, “a Roman knight with quite a reputation” wrapped Asclytos in his cloak and carried him home to have him all to himself.35   So the bawdy story unfolds.             

Margaret Skinner notes that this story, which probably takes place in the harbor town of Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli), centers around Encolpius, who already has had previous affairs with both women and men, and now follows his stormy, pederastic affair with Giton, showing the general “chaotic frustrations of his sexual life.”    In fact, the trio suffer “mortifying sexual abuse at the hands of Quartilla, priestess of Priapus,” and her entourage.    Sexual boundaries blur, as sometimes Encolpius sometimes is the active partner and sometimes the passive partner; and even Ascyltos, whose sexual equipment is prodigious, is not beyond obliging a rich old queen.    Even small children are pulled into the polymorphic (boundless) and hectic sexual activity of the characters, who never seem able to find real meaning in their lives.36     

Exposition of Romans 1:1-17.

Paul’s opening to his letter (Rom 1:1-7)This introduction displays some apprehension Paul felt in writing to Christians in a city which he has never visited, whom he had not converted to the Lord, and with whom he will want in the letter to mention some problems in their community.    Therefore, he begins his letter by speaking about his divine call and authority to bring the Gospel to Gentiles, as well as trying to establish a rapport with his readers.    

1:1About Paul, the sender – Saul shifted over from his Jewish name Saul (Hebrew Sa’al, Greek Saulos)  to using his Roman name Paul (Latin Paulos) after his contact with the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus on Crete (Acts 13:6-12).    He calls himself a “servant” (doulos) of Jesus Christ, which could also mean “slave,” although Paul would not want to suggest that this was an unwilling attachment.    Moreover, he is an “apostle,” called and appointed by Jesus himself to be his representative to preach the “Gospel” and to found, supervise, and yes even discipline churches when necessary.    This call came on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:12-18), where Jesus told him, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me [his vision of the Risen Lord here] and what I will show you [later revelations]” (vv. 16).    Paul has stories to tell here: of the coming of Jesus the Messiah, and of his own call to be the Jesus’ ambassador (Witherington).    OT prophets often called themselves “servants” of the Lord; and indeed it is a great honor to be the servant of a great king.    An “apostle” was someone sent under authority to carry out a specific task (Witherington).        

1:2 – This Gospel (God’s plan of salvation in Christ) was not something out of the blue or created by Paul, but was something that had long been central in the Divine plan, “promised beforehand through . . . the prophets.”    This is not just prophecy, but God ‘making good’ (fulfilling) what he had promised.    One will note later how often Paul quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures in this letter. 

1:3-4 – This Gospel had to do with the sending of the Messiah (the special anointed one), who was born “a descendent of David” (as prophesied), and who also lived a life of “holiness” (set apart for God) through the “Spirit of holiness” (a Hebrew expression meaning “the Holy Spirit”), which was demonstrated most forcefully through Jesus’ “resurrection,” showing him to the special “the Son of God.”    Many of the Church Fathers saw in these verses a reference to the two natures of Jesus Christ, human and divine.      

1:5-6 – From Christ Saul/Paul received both “grace” (undeserved favor) and his call (“apostleship”) to minister to “the Gentiles” (non-Jews), which includes those to whom he is now writing.    “Grace” is God’s love and the benefits that flow from that.    Yet, “obedience” should flow from real faith and commitment.    The Roman Christians, like Paul, have a divine call on their lives.    God’s love precedes his calling of people, and his love makes them lovely and lovable.        

1:7Paul’s greeting proper – This letter is addressed to all the Christians in Rome, to everyone in the household churches (in a sense, then, this is a circular letter), including both those who are committed strongly to keeping Jewish traditions and those who feel these are not so important now.    Yet, they are all called to be “saints” (consecrated ones), a common term designating believers, those set apart for the Lord and to serve him.    The usual Greek chaire (“joy”) became a greeting meaning “good-day”—but Paul’s charis (“grace,” God’s unmerited blessing be yours) is a much richer word; and shalom (“peace”) was the traditional Jewish greeting (“be well”).

1:8-15Paul’s thanksgiving and why he is writing.    1:8-10    Paul still feels like he needs to get better acquainted, so he unburdens his heart, expressing how much these Roman Christians mean to him.    To give thanks to God for believers was customary for Paul.    His expression that “your faith is being reported all over the world” is exceedingly generous, even a hyperbole.    Paul says their faith is “reported,” but not specifically what is said about it.    But if one praises believers, then if something critical needs to be said later on, it will have a better reception.    Moreover, he tells them that he remembers them “in my prayers at all times [i.e., repeatedly], and he notes how he has wanted to visit them in Rome, although his ministry in Greece and Asia Minor had kept him preoccupied.      

1:11-13“Some spiritual gift” does not refer to charismatic gifts (1 Cor 12), but rather to teaching and encouragement to help them grow and “become stronger” in the Lord.    But then, Paul pulls back, saying that he hopes both “you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”    He envisions a mutual blessing.    Yet, their faith does need strengthening and some redirecting.    But Paul does not want the Roman Christians to think that he is coming to ‘take over.’         

1:14-15 – Paul feels honored and privileged to preach the Gospel to everyone—to “the Greeks” (Greek-speaking persons) and “non-Greeks” (lit. “barbarians,” or non-Greek members of the human race).    Hellenistic writers, like Philo and Josephus, conceived of three groups of people: the Jews, the Greeks or Greek-speaking persons (including the Romans), and the barbarians (those living in territories beyond, e.g., to the west).    “Barbarians” here (NIV: “non-Greeks”) is an interesting term, which actually include the Jews!    Yet he reaches out to those who think themselves “wise,” in the eyes of the world, and to those who are “foolish,” who live without pretense and in simplicity.        

1:16-17 – Theme of Paul’s letter.    “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” recalls Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 1:23 about how many Greeks found the message of the Gospel as not rising to their worldly “wisdom” and philosophy, while the Jews viewed “Christ crucified” (the idea of a crucified Messiah) as “a stumbling block,” quite unthinkable.    Yet the Gospel (the Good News of Jesus having paid for our sins through his death) is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”    For in it, “a righteousness from God is revealed” . . .  “that is by faith from first to last” (NIV).    The last phrase has also be translated as “from faith to faith” (KJV), “through faith for faith” (NRSV), “beginning in faith and ending in faith” (REB), and “based on faith and addressed to faith” (NJB).      Overall, the Revised English Bible reads (1989):  The Gospel “is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith—the Jew first, but the Greek also—because in it the righteousness of God is seen to work, beginning in faith and ending in faith, as scripture says, ‘Whoever is justified through faith shall gain life [cf. Hab 2:4].”    Yet, Harrison notes that “justifying faith is only the beginning of Christian life.    The same attitude should guide the believer’s continuing experience as a child of God.”    Everett Harrison notes that SALVATION here should be thought of in the broadest terms, including: forgiveness (of one’s sins), justification (made right with God in a legal sense), reconciliation (restored to fellowship with God), sanctification (made holy before God), and redemption (bought back, freed as from slavery), and restoration (finally receiving back all that was marred or destroyed).37  

This sets the main theme of Romans, the basis for Paul’s later arguments.    Witherington understands “from faith to faith” to mean “from the Faithful One unto faith.”    One can say, “I have been saved,” “I am being saved,” and “I will be saved” based on this passage.    Paul preaches an inclusive and not an exclusive Gospel.    Pistis can mean “faith” or “faithfulness.”    Habakkuk 2:4 in the Septuagint translates, “the one who is just shall live by My belief” (see Witherington’s translation, above).    Yet, Paul also quotes Hab 2:4 in Gal 3:11: “Clearly no one is justified before God by the Law, because ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (NIV).    “The just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17) so captured the soul of Martin Luther that it led to the Protestant Reformation, and this became the watchword of the Reformation.


Roman Sexuality in Paul's World


FOOTNOTES:    1. Miller, p. 223.    2. Moo, pp. 842-843; Miller, p. 224.   3. Moo, pp. 843-844.    4. Moo, pp. 843-845.    5. Miller, p. 225.    6. Moo, p. 846.    7. Moo, pp. 846-848.    8. Moo, pp. 348-352.    9. Lampe, pp. 855, 858.    10. Ibid., p. 856.    11. Ibid., pp. 858–859.    12. Oakes, p. 854.    13. Witherington, pp. 393-394.    14. Witherington, p. 8-10.   15. Hanks, pp. 583–584, 604–605.   16. Hanks, p. 583.    17. Petronius, vii.   18. Ruden, p. 130.   19. Petronius, (4.97). (p. 76).   20. Ibid., (1.6-7).   21. Ibid., (1.6-8). (pp. 5-6).   22. Ibid., (1.9). (pp. 6-7).   23. Ibid., (2.17-18). (pp. 11-12).   24. Ibid., (2.19-20). (pp. 13-14).     25. Ibid., (2.21-22). (pp. 14-15).    26. Ibid., (2.23).     27. Ibid., (pp.15-16).   28. Ibid., (2.25). (pp. 16–17).    29. Ibid., (3.27). (pp. 18-19).     30. Ibid.,(3.63). (p. 47).    31.Ibid., (3.64-65). (pp. 48-49).    32.Ibid.,(3.74). (p. 57).     33.Ibid., (4.79-80). ( pp. 61-62).     34. Ibid., (4.83-87). (pp. 64-68, 71).    35. Ibid., (4.91-92). (pp. 72-73).    36. Skinner, p. 276.    37. Harrison, p. 19.



Hanks, Thomas, “Romans,” in Deryn Guest, ed., The Queer Bible Commentary, 2006, pp. 582-605.   

Harrison, Everett F., “Romans,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 10 1976, pp. 1-171. 

Lampe, Peter, “Rome, City of,” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 2009, pp. 858-859.   

Miller, D. G., “Romans, Epistle to,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 1988, pp. 222-228.

Moo, Douglas, “Romans, Letter to the,” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 2009, pp. 841-852.   

Oakes, Peter, “Rome, Church of,” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 2009, p. 854.

Petronius, Satyricon, translated and notes by Sarah Ruden, 2000.

Skinner, Marilyn B., Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, 2005.

Witherington, Ben III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 2004.


BIBLE TRANSLATIONS:   King James Version–American Bible Society, 1962.      New International Version, 1978.    New Jerusalem Bible, 1985.    New Revised Standard Version, 1989.   Revised English Bible, 1989


Photo: Roman marble relief of a youth, his horse and dog, 125 CE. Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli. British Museum, London, England.

© 2012 Bruce L. Gerig

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