Bible: The New Testament
The Letter of Paul to the Romans (Romans)
Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, fourteen have traditionally been attributed to the great missionary Paul of Tarsus. These fourteen books all take the form of letters addressed to a given individual or community. In the traditional canonical ordering of the New Testament, these fourteen books are arranged in a block following Acts, and separated into three groups: the nine letters addressed to communities, the four letters addressed to individuals, and Hebrews. Within each grouping, the traditional canonical system orders the books according to length. Thus, a traditional New Testament arrangement will list the books as follows: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. This SparkNote addresses only a few of the most important letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Ephesians. Modern scholars agree with the traditional second-century Christian belief that seven of these New Testament letters were almost certainly written by Paul himself: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. These letters were most likely written during the height of Paul’s missionary activity, between 50 and 58 a.d., making them the earliest surviving Christian documents—they predate the earliest of the Gospels, Mark, by at least ten years.
During the winter of 57–58 a.d., Paul was in the Greek city of Corinth. From Corinth, he wrote the longest single letter in the New Testament, which he addressed to “God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7). Like most New Testament letters, this letter is known by the name of the recipients, the Romans. Paul’s letters tended to be written in response to specific crises. For instance, 1 Corinthians was written to reprove the Christian community in Corinth for its internal divisions and for its immoral sexual practices. But Romans is remarkably devoid of this kind of specificity, addressing broad questions of theology rather than specific questions of contemporary practice. Whereas other Pauline letters—2 Corinthians, for instance—are full of impassioned rhetoric and personal pleas, Romans is written in a solemn and restrained tone. Perhaps this solemnity can be explained by timing: Romans was the last written of the seven New Testament letters that modern scholars attribute to Paul, and has been seen as a summary of Paul’s thought, composed as his career moved toward its conclusion. But it is also true that, as opposed to the Corinthian church, the Roman church was not founded by Paul himself. At the time when he wrote Romans, Paul had never visited Rome, although Chapter 16 of Romans does indicate that he had acquaintances there. Writing to a community largely composed of strangers, then, Paul may have felt compelled to use the restrained and magisterial declarations of Roman style, rather than the impassioned pleas and parental sternness that permeate his letters to the churches at Corinth.
Because he is not personally familiar with the Roman church, Paul begins his letter by introducing himself. He has been “called to be an apostle,” and his mission is “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (1:1–5). Paul follows his introduction with a flattering greeting to the Roman church, and expresses his desire to preach in Rome someday. Paul gives a summary of the theme of his letter: “The Gospel . . . is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (1:16–17).
Paul begins with a discussion of the state of humanity before the possibility of salvation through faith in Jesus. He tells how Gentiles worshipped idols, disdaining devotion to God, and how Jews failed to follow the law properly, acting hypocritically by proclaiming allegiance to Jewish law while surreptitiously sinning. Paul says that God’s ancestral promise to the Jews, symbolized by circumcision, does not bring automatic salvation: “A person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual” (2:29). Paul concludes, “We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9).
Paul teaches that salvation from sin is only possible through faith. Paul cites the example of the biblical patriarch Abraham, who received God’s blessing and passed it on to his descendents through “the righteousness of faith” (4:13). The free gift of grace, Paul continues, unearned and undeserved, is a product of God’s love manifested toward the unworthy. Whereas Adam’s fall brought sin and death into the world, Jesus’s sacrifice brought grace and life. The importance of baptism, Paul explains, is that baptism initiates a new life of grace and purity: the sinner symbolically dies, baptized into the death of Jesus, and the person who emerges is “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11). Christians, then, must be governed by holiness, not by sin: holiness alone will lead to eternal life. Jewish law ceases to be binding: the law arouses sinful passions, and as beings dead to sin, Christians become dead to the law. Paul urges the Romans to live not “according to the flesh” but rather by the Spirit (8:4). Through the Spirit, all believers become spiritual children of God, called by God to glory. This potential is a source of strength for the Christian: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31).
Paul’s next topic is the problem of reconciling the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ with the Old Testament promise of the salvation of the Jewish people. This section begins with a lamentation, as Paul, who was himself born a Jew, expresses his wish to help the Israelites, the supposed firstborn children of God. But he goes on to explain that the Christian covenant of grace is by no means a betrayal of Abraham’s covenant with God. Those who have faith in Jesus, who believe “with the heart,” are “children of the promise,” the spiritual children of Israel (10:10, 9:8). The genetic children of Israel, the Jews, stumbled when they mistook Jewish law for the means to salvation. But the Jews have not been entirely cast aside. Paul teaches that eventually the Jews will come to express faith in Jesus, enabling God to keep his original promise to them.
Finished with his exposition of Christian doctrine, Paul embarks upon a lengthy exhortation to the Romans, advising them on the proper means of living a Christian life. Harmony, humility, and love are his main concerns. He urges charity, forbearance, and submission. Paul returns to the apocalyptic theme on which he dwells in his other letters. He says that it is doubly important to act righteously in an apocalyptic age. In a long segment, Paul mandates tolerance and freedom of religious conscience within the church. The strong in faith are not to judge and reject the weak in faith—that is, those who have given up Jewish law are to accept the observances of those who continue to practice Jewish law. Paul finishes this section with a set of Old Testament quotations about the worship of God spreading among all nations. Paul concludes his letter with a section in which he discusses his own ministry, proving his authority through a discussion of his credentials: “I have reason to boast of my work for God” (15:17). He informs the Romans that he is preparing to bring the contributions of the Greek and Macedonian churches to Jerusalem, where he speculates that he might run into difficulties. Chapter 16 contains a long list of greetings, which many scholars believe were added by a later editor. Paul sends the greetings to the Roman Christians, warning the Romans to be wary of “those who cause dissensions and offenses” (16:17).
The period during which Paul wrote his letters was traumatic for the new church. Christianity had not yet evolved into a distinct religion with a hierarchy of authority and a defined dogma. Christianity, in its earliest years, was an offshoot of Judaism. Believers in Jesus, including all of the Twelve Apostles, were generally born Jewish and identified themselves as Jews who believed that the Old Testament prophecies had reached their fulfillment in Jesus. Indeed, the term “Christians” did not appear until Paul’s ministry at Antioch, decades after Jesus’s crucifixion. The church was not a single, unified body governed by a central authority, but, rather, a conglomeration of individual communities, often separated by large distances, which depended for spiritual authority on local preachers or traveling missionaries, like Paul. Christians in the decades after Jesus lived in constant fear of persecution and constant expectation of the second coming, Jesus’s triumphant return to Earth during which he would save the faithful.
The letters that Paul wrote respond to these conditions of the early church. He addresses them to specific communities, most of which had been established by Paul himself. In an era when travel was slow and long-distance communication was difficult, Paul’s letters were a means of preserving his spirit in a community once he had left, or of instructing a community from a distance. The aim of the letters was to inspire unity among believers and to instruct the faithful on difficult points of doctrine. The letters are highly individualized, responding to the specific problems of the community to which they are addressed. By and large, with the possible exception of the letter to the Romans, Paul’s letters show little evidence that they were intended to endure as permanent documents. Paul, like other early Christians, expected an imminent Second Coming, and he wrote his letters to address immediate problems rather than to establish a lasting apparatus to perpetuate the church.
The four Gospels can be viewed as a history of the birth of faith. The Gospels all follow a similar pattern. They describe Jesus working miracles and preaching, but failing to convince many people of his divinity until his resurrection. The triumphant moment in the Gospels comes when the apostles witness the reborn Jesus and have their faith confirmed. The entire story of the Gospels is designed to stress the importance of faith for the Christian. Indeed, practically the only factor that separated these early Christians from the nonbelieving Jews was faith in Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospels, however, is the opposition between faith and law made so clear as in Romans. Paul elevates the role of faith, describing it as the sole means by which people can attain salvation. Through Jesus’s self-sacrifice, Paul teaches, God gave men the free gift of a covenant of salvation. It is only by faith in Jesus that one attains salvation.
by godsgirl13, September 11, 2012
This is a great place to start in the bible!
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