Thursday, July 16, 2009

Introduction to Romans

Last night, we began a study of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans.

For some time, I've had a Bible study each Wednesday at 7 pm, and we've worked our way unhurriedly through Genesis, Exodus and Numbers and a bit of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; then we began Matthew, then Acts, which we just finished; and now the Letter to the Romans.

You may laugh, but this is still part of our "year of St. Paul" observance; it took almost a year to get through Acts, and folks wanted to do one of St. Paul's epistles, so Romans seemed as good a choice as any.

I'm looking forward to it, because it's a bit of a challenge; this is different sort of Biblical literature from narrative, which is what I find most enjoyable to read together with folks.

My approach is as follows: take your time reading the text--what's the hurry? I would love to be able to get into the Hebrew or Greek text, but I don't know Hebrew and I have only a little acquaintance with Greek; and in any case, there simply isn't time each week to do that much preparation. I do what I can to look at commentaries, but I say again: simply read the text, line by line. Yes, there is much more you could learn, but you'll still learn a great deal. This works especially well, as I said, with narrative portions--where the author is telling a story. It isn't so simple with other Biblical literature, and this will be more of a challenge.

What follows is the text of the handout I prepared for folks as some background on Romans--we covered this last night.

Letter to the Romans

When did Paul write it? Probably around AD 57-58, while he was on his way to Jerusalem, to bring a collection he had taken up through many churches in “Asia”—i.e., present-day Turkey.

Paul intended to visit Rome after his trip to Jerusalem; the Acts of the Apostles tells us that, as Paul neared Jerusalem, he began to realize he would face trials in Jerusalem.

Why doesn’t Paul mention Peter? Paul doesn’t mention St. Peter, yet no one seriously disputes Peter came to Rome. Yet Peter may not have planted the church; it might have been visitors to Jerusalem, mentioned in Acts 2, who heard Peter preach on Pentecost.

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says Peter probably arrived later in the 50s, as he was still in Jerusalem in AD 49 for the council described in Acts 15. On the other hand, Eusebius and St. Jerome tell us Peter arrived in Rome around the beginning of the reign of Claudius, thus AD 42, which would be well after Paul and Peter met in Jerusalem the first time as described in Galatians. In AD 49, Claudius ordered “the Jews” out of Rome because of riots caused by “Chrestus.” This is often taken to mean disputes among the Jews over Christ; and the Romans might easily have lumped them together. So perhaps Peter left Rome at that time, and thus was in Jerusalem for the council.

If so, when did Peter return? Claudius died in AD 54, perhaps Peter didn’t come back until then, when Jews were permitted back. Perhaps Peter didn’t come back until after Paul wrote his letter. Insofar as Paul had spent several years away from Jerusalem, in Asia Minor, when he wrote his letter, he may have supposed Peter wasn’t there.

Certainly many will make hay of this, and say the Church’s claims about Peter are unfounded. However, we have abundant evidence of Peter’s connection to Rome, beginning with the first letter of Peter, where he writes, “she who is in Babylon greets you”—Babylon being a frequent code for Rome, as in Revelation. Many, many writings from the early Church all speak of Peter’s connection to Rome; why would they make it up? There would be no motive for doing so until many centuries later. Archeological evidence also supports it. Tradition told us about the tomb of Peter, and the tomb discovered beneath the basilica—erected by Emperor Constantine over the site Christians continually venerated as Peter’s grave—was precisely where tradition said it was, and it matched the description handed down. Why would anyone at that time falsely claim Peter’s grave was in Rome? To what end?

The literary form of the epistle. Scholars sometimes make a distinction between a “letter” and an “epistle,” the former being private, personal and non-literary, written freely the way we write a lot of personal correspondence, and an “epistle” being a more conscious literary form, carefully composed and intended as a for publication. Of course, that’s a distinction scholars, centuries later, discerned; we don’t know if such careful distinctions were always made at the time, including by Paul.

Either way, both a formal “epistle” and the informal “letter” used the same basic format: an opening sentence in which the sender greets the recipient in a stylized way: e.g., Romans 1:1-7. Then the body of the letter, which is the message conveyed. Then a “goodbye”: see the end of Romans 16. Many ancient letters also included a “thanksgiving” which came at the beginning. Jewish letters of the time, even in Aramaic or Hebrew, followed a similar form, with a blessing instead of a thanksgiving. Paul’s letters have the features of both Greco-Roman and Jewish letters.

Paul is known for wishing his hearers “grace and peace”: charis kai eirene. Charis also conveys the Old Testament idea of covenant favor, and eirene is the Greek word used in the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26. Of course, charis is a key theme in Paul’s preaching, especially in Romans 5.

The same scholar, G.A. Deissmann, who argued the distinction between “letter” and “epistle,” classed Paul’s writings as letters, the position of Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, writing in the NJBC—they were written for specific occasions, often in haste, and often written independent of each other. Yet Paul rarely wrote his letters as a private individual, but as an apostle.

Paul also often brought into his letters other texts or hymns which scholars believe he knew about from the spiritual practice of the early Church, and OT texts as well.

Who actually penned the letter? As is true now, people often have help to put a letter onto paper; it was the same in Paul’s time. In antiquity, if one didn’t pen the letter oneself, one would dictate, either word-for-word, or the sense was dictated, leaving the formulation to the secretary. Finally, sometimes one had someone else write a letter in ones name, but not directing the content. Note: all these things still happen today. Most often, in antiquity, the letter writer either penned it himself, or dictated the general content, not word-for-word. (This is common sense, as method two would be very tiring.) Many things in Paul’s letter suggest he dictated, sometimes adding a greeting in his own hand. This might also explain differences in style among the letters of Paul, that lead many scholars to question whether he authored a number of them.

Why is Romans first among Paul’s letters? Some point out the letters are in order of length; that’s true until you get to 1 Timothy. We do know that the Church in Rome exerted great influence over the development of the early church, and it may have been natural for Roman Christians to put their letter first! And it does seem a natural connection to the conclusion of Acts. But they are not listed in the order they were composed.

Drawn from the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, 1990.

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