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Paul’s “Exceptional” Letter to the Romans

I wanted to follow up on  a comment that I made in my last post about all of Paul’s letters being “occasional” (i.e., written to deal with certain situations that had arisen in his churches), with one partial exception: his letter to the Romans.  Now would be a good time to explain why Romans is the exception.   Here is what I say about the occasion and purpose of Romans in my  discussion of the book in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.

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In one important respect the letter to the Romans is unlike all of Paul’s other letters: it is written to a congregation that Paul did not establish, in a city that he had never visited (see 1:10-15).  Given what we have already seen about Paul’s sense of his apostolic mission, this should immediately give us pause.  Paul’s other letters were written to deal with problems that had arisen among those whom he had converted to faith in Christ.  That clearly is not the case here.  Why, though, would he be writing to someone else’s congregation (See Box 1)?

At least on the surface, Paul does not appear to be writing to resolve problems that he has heard about within the Roman church.  The issues that he discusses appear to relate instead to his own understanding of the Christian gospel.  This is clearly the case in chaps. 1-11; but even his exhortations in chaps. 12-15 are general in nature, not explicitly directed to problems specific to the Christians in Rome.  Nowhere, for example, does he indicate that he has learned of their struggles and that he is writing to convey his apostolic advice (contrast all of his other letters).  Is it possible then that he simply wants to expound some of his views and explain why he holds them?  This is possible, of course; but why would he want to do so for a church that he has never seen?

There may be some clues…

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Lost Letters of Paul’s Opponents
Why I Wish We Had More of Paul’s Letters

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Comments

  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  March 13, 2015

    I bought your text book as a Xmas gift to myself. I’ve read the sections on 1 + 2 Corinthians (among others that I cherry picked) and now reading this part on Romans it makes me wonder just how heavily edited Paul’s letters might be. You wrote that 2 Corinthians might be as many as 5 or 6 letters combined into one. Obviously if this is exactly true then there are probably large parts of some of those letters missing because I can’t see Paul writing a letter that only comes down to us as a few verses. In 2 Cor we get a letter that is basically “you and the itinerant preachers say X about me, but I say Y and I taught you Z”, but in Romans we only get one side of a discussion. Are we to assume that, if you are correct in that Paul is defending himself against their suspicions, that he writes a one-sided defense of that? By that I mean he doesn’t write something like “you may have heard X, but what I believe is Y”. In my reading Romans has always sounded like one long sermon that covers just about everything imaginable. Seems like if he was defending his views he might have said what the accusations were somewhere.

    Would Paul have relied on subtlety to assume the Romans could read between the lines that he was justifying himself or do you think part of his original rhetoric was redacted?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 14, 2015

      Yes, Paul is using an ancient form of rhetoric known as the “diatribe,” where he posits objections to his views and then responds. There is nothing in the book that makes it look like someone else has edited it.

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    Scott  March 13, 2015

    Correct me if I am wrong but in some of your writings you point to the advantages of the Roman congregation – wealth, bureaucratic skill and proximity to Imperial apparatus – as factors that led to Roman religious doctrine coming to dominate the church. Do we see here an indication that the Roman church was already exerting its influence? Or should Paul’s frequent dealings with the “Pillars” in Jerusalem tell us that Rome may have only regional influence at this point?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 14, 2015

      I don’t think we see evidence of Roman christianity asserting its influence until a few decades later, in the letter of 1 Clement.

  3. Avatar
    MikeyS  March 13, 2015

    Hi Bart.

    We can take it then the Roman Church was essentially Jewish ie a Synagogue and as in other places, Paul was eager to bring in new Christian Converts, rather than convert the Jews to Christianity. The Roman Authorities allowed the Jews to worship and wonder how long it was before the ‘Christians’ began to be persecuted in Rome itself and whether they made any distinction between the existing Jews and the new converts? Indeed was there ever a stand alone Gentile Church at that time? Sounds pretty unlikely? So when Christians use Paul’s letters to the Romans as they did and do, I wonder how many realize he was actually writing to Jews mainly? All goes to prove that there is no ‘new’ Christian faith only the old Judaism that Jesus, his disciples and other Jews followed. I guess it broke apart with Paul’s teaching about circumcision and other Mosaic Laws. Jesus wouldn’t be best pleased in any NEW faith or indeed, the Trinity.

    I wonder why Paul wanted to go back to Rome, knowing the danger by then, when he could easily have gone on to Spain and died in his bed? Oh wait a minute! He said, “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. So he really wanted to die a martyers death. I guess he really did get fed up with waiting for Jesus who failed to turn up?

    As usual, thanks for that Bart which always leaves me with so many questions…I would have loved to be one of your students at UNC Chapel Hill.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 14, 2015

      The Roman church appears to be predominantly gentile. What is making you think it was Jewish?

      • Avatar
        MikeyS  March 15, 2015

        I thought I read that most of the seven chuches were basically Jewish and Paul went to preach in them and at the same time encouraging gentiles to come and listen to his preaching etc. Indeed wasn’t Paul’s intention to save the Jews first and gentiles second? We also know the Romans allowed the Jews to continue to practice their faith and so why wouldn’t they have a pretty large Synagogue at the centre of the known civilized world of Rome?

        Bart, are you saying there was TWO churches in these places? A jewish one and a founding Christian one? So who actually started the Christian Church in Rome being that most appeared not to embrace Paul’s teachings?

        When the Christians started to be persecuted in Rome by Nero, did he make any distinction between the Jews and Christians because as we know, most Jews didn’t believe in Jesus’s doctrine or that he was God or the Messiah? Some people even think the Christians being fed to the Lions was a myth?

        Hitchens told the story about a little Christian boy that saw a film about this and he started to cry his eyes out and his Mother comforted him asking him if he was OK and he said all the lions got a Christian to eat, except one!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 16, 2015

          There were probably multiple churches in Rome, since they all met in private homes. But the vast majority of those in Rome would have been gentile, as with the other churches Paul wrote (see 1:13 “the *rest* of the gentiles!)

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    dragonfly  March 14, 2015

    Do we know what order Paul’s letters were written?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 14, 2015

      Well, most people think 1 Thessalonians was first and Romans was last, and that 1 Corinthians preceded 2 Corinthians. But apart from that there is less certainty.

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    gavm  March 14, 2015

    This letter really must have had an effect on the Romans if they kept it and made copies. wouldn’t t be grt if we had more letters from Paul, and from other “Paul’s” going around founding churches. There is so much we will never know till that time machine boots up

  6. Avatar
    bobnaumann  March 14, 2015

    Chapter 7 has always struck me as the writings of a deeply troubled man. Do you believe Paul was sexually repressed, possibly gay? And why on earth would he include this deeply personal confession in a letter of introduction?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2015

      It’s a highly convoluted chapter. Many interpreters do not think it’s actually about Paul’s personal guilt and anxiety at all (though it at first reads the way), but about what life is like for the person who is still “under sin.”

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  March 17, 2015

        I think they just don’t want to admit that Paul had some personal problems.

  7. Avatar
    David  March 15, 2015

    Do the authentic Pauline letters have a certain writing style that would be recognized by a seasoned New Testament scholar? How does it compare to the styles of some of the pseudepigraphal letters?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2015

      Yes indeed — that is part of what’s involved in deciding which ones were not written by Paul. See my book Forged — or even better, the longer version, Forgery and Counterforgery.

  8. Avatar
    dhiggs  March 15, 2015

    Bart: do you really think that the “greetings” Paul sends in Chapter 16 are to Christians in Rome as alluded to in “The Bible?” Have Prisca and Aquila emigrated from Ephesus and formed a church back in Rome from which they earlier had fled? And Epaenetus, the first convert in Asia has now moved to Rome? Mary who has worked very hard among you? And I really have to add vs 13, “Greet Rufus…and his mother, a mother to me also. With all of these compatriots (27 by name and others by reference) now moved from Asia (maybe) Ephesus (probably) to Rome surely the Roman church should know quite a lot about the Apostle Paul. I believe 16:1-16 is “Paul’s Letter to Ephesus.” Perhaps it got attached to the copy of Romans which the collector(s) of Paul’s letters had when they made their compilation. PS: I really have enjoyed both “How Jesus Became God” and “The Bible” since my return from the Seminar at Sea in January.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2015

      Yes, Harry Gamble wrote a book that pretty convincingly showed that Romans 16 was original to the letter, not part of a letter to Ephesus.

  9. talitakum
    talitakum  March 16, 2015

    Besides all your books on Jesus, I always had the impression that you have an high opinion of Paul. Actually, the last section of this post is one of the best (short) exegesis of Rom. that I ever read. In my opinion it could even be well used for sermons. Educated and informed sermons would lead to a more mature and solid faith, I really don’t know why apparently Christian churches can’t understand it: they just complain and keep losing believers.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 20, 2015

    Thanks for the explanation of “diatribe”?

  11. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  March 23, 2015

    Is it known who established the church in Rome?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2015

      No, I”m afraid it’s not — other than that it was not Paul and almost certainly was not Peter! My guess is that since so many people traveled from and to Rome, some converts arrived there and started converting others, etc.

  12. Avatar
    Steefen  June 22, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I’m curious if any of the issues raised at the url below are still standing.

    https://ehrmanblog.org/forum/paul-and-pauline-christianity/regarding-romans-as-not-being-an-authentic-letter-of-paul/#p1762

    Second, in Misquoting Jesus or Orthodox Corruption of Scripture or any of your books, do you speak of editing to universalize New Testament Scripture?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2015

      I don’t know of any Pauline scholar who doubts that Paul wrote Romans. And I’m afraid I’m not sure what you mean by “universalizing”

      • Avatar
        Steefen  June 25, 2015

        Universalizing: removing personalizing details (making it appear Paul is writing for posterity rather than specific places and times. This is not to say all details have been removed to make his letters generic.)

        Wikipedia implies you have seen this situation of removing details to generalize/universalize a Pauline letters.

        Maybe you have other reasons for why early manuscripts of Pauline letters sometimes have “in Rome,” “in Corinth,” etc. but not in others of the same letter.

        Wikipedia quoting you talking about this happening in Ephesians, in your New Testament text book 2004, ps. 381-384 (A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings):

        “Most English translations indicate that the addressees are ‘the saints who are in Ephesus’ (1:1), but the words ‘in Ephesus’ are not found in the earliest and best Greek manuscripts of this letter. Most textual experts think that the words were not in the letter originally but were added by a scribe after it had already been in circulation for a time.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Ephesians#cite_note-Ehrman_2004_381.E2.80.93384-4

        • Bart
          Bart  June 26, 2015

          Ah, got it. Yes, Ephesians is the only letter that this applies to, to my knowledge. BUT, the change went in the *opposite* direction. The letter originally did not have any particular church specified; later scribes added the words “in Ephesus.” So it was not universalized but personalized.

  13. Avatar
    jmaurocaf  July 3, 2015

    Hi, Dr. Ehrman,

    According to your explanation of the pre-Pauline creed found in Romans 1, the phrase “in power” (Romans 1:4) may have been added by Paul so the text could express his own point of view: that Jesus was already the “Son of God” before the resurrection (How Jesus Became God, p. 224). However, I was wondering if that isn’t just another example of semitism found in the earlier creed and preserved in Paul’s letter, as you mentioned to be the case with the phrase “spirit of holiness”, a semitism for “Holy Spirit”.

    So, could the phrase “Son of God in power” be just a semitism for, say, “powerful Son of God”, or “son of (the) powerful God”? And so verse 4 could be read as “appointed powerful Son of God according to the Holy Spirit”? If this were to be the case, the adjective “powerful” could just be naming an attribute of the “Son of God” status that, according to the early adoptionists, Jesus was exalted to after death. Thus, fitting to a pre-Pauline adoptionist Christology.

    There would also be a parallelism between those two constructions in the verse: “powerful Son of God” and “Holy Spirit” – or, of course, “Son of God in power” and “spirit of holiness”. Both having a simple “adjective plus noun” grammar structure. But I don’t know if any of these understandings here fit the greek text.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2015

      No, the grammar doesn’t work for it to be a semitism. (“In” is the wrong preposition; it would need to be “of”)

      • Avatar
        jmaurocaf  July 4, 2015

        Alright, thanks! I was suspicious of that “in” there.

  14. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  June 9, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, what’s your take on Romans 9, particularly the reference to Jacob and Esau and the claim that God “has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.” Is Paul talking about predestination, here? Or does chapter 9 have a different meaning when taken in the larger context of the entire epistle?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2017

      The passage was later *sed* to argue for predestination, but Paul I explaining here why God is just in allowing his message to reach out beyond the Jews to gentiles.

      • Avatar
        ksgm34  December 4, 2018

        If Paul is primarily addressing Gentiles rather than Jews in Romans, why is it he would need to justify God reaching out to Gentiles? This part (and all the OT references) makes it sound like he’s actually addressing Jews?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 5, 2018

          Because there were lots of gentiles who thought that becoming a follower of Jesus meant first becoming a Jew. (Paul’s Judaizing opponents in Galatia, e.g., were apparently of gentile stock)

  15. Alemin
    Alemin  August 28, 2018

    (wasn’t sure where else to ask this)
    When Paul talks about death through one man, Adam (Romans 5 etc), and death spreading to all men, is it possible that he believed that all men were literally IN Adam, a la preformationism (little homonculii in sperm)? The idea struck me not too long ago while reading about the ancient Greek ideas on biology, and I started wondering if that was the common understanding in Paul’s day.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2018

      Interesting idea. My sense is that Paul was not that sophisticated; but it would be an idea worth pursuing.

      • Alemin
        Alemin  August 29, 2018

        Can you think of any resources that could possibly shed light on this view during Paul’s time? It seems like a stretch to me, but maybe there are things out there that you’ve heard of.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 31, 2018

          On preformationalism as an intellectual option in Paul’s day? No, nothing comes to mind. I guess if I were to start looking at it, I would think about views of biology antiquity. Maybe some of the authors who talk about that would deal with it? I really don’t know. A wild guess, maybe start with the work of Thomas Laqueur or David Halperin on ancient conceptions of sex?

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