Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans

I thought I’d put little introductions to Saint Paul’s letters onto the website every other week. We should begin with the letter to the Romans, by far the longest, which we are currently running through in the daily readings at Mass. It may be the longest, but it is not really that long, and provides beautiful pictures of the early vision of the Church, including her relationship to the ancient people of God – the nation of Israel. Apart from our blessed Lord, Paul was the greatest heart in the writings of the New Testament, for we have quite a few of his letters, which allow us to know a great deal about him. Paul was able to create several local churches with or without the existence of a local Jewish synagogue, to a great extent by his own personal influence – in a typical priest-people relationship – coupled with an ability to foster deep friendships with his converts and to carry these on across vast distances, through the use of letter-writing. Letters became a primary means of uniting the churches in various parts of the Roman empire, which seems to have had an excellent and reliable postal system for the times. 

Saint Paul, according to the later part of the letter, doesn’t seem to have visited Rome before, for he says that he had made it a point to not visit areas that had already received Christian missionaries. And, of course, by the time of this letter, the Apostle Saint Peter had already set up his chair as bishop somewhere in the city of Rome. I remember once reading that a possible origin story for this letter to the Romans was an invitation from Peter to Paul to write it. Why? Because, whilst Peter had exerted himself with the mission to the Jewish communities, Paul had specialised in missions to the non-Jewish, or Gentile, believers. And Peter was in a particular quandry: at some point we are not certain of, the Emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome. We know this from the Acts of the Apostles:

“Here he met a Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who, with his wife Priscilla, had lately come from Italy, when Claudius decreed that all Jews should leave Rome.”

Acts of the Apostles, 18: 2

Before this point, the Roman church had been mostly Jewish. With the expulsion of the Jews, it naturally became almost entirely non-Jewish, but continued to grow. When the expulsion ended, the Jewish Christians of Rome who returned found themselves in a new situation: a majority Gentile church. And poor, dear Saint Peter had to handle the consequent tensions between the Jewish Christians, who still felt bound to the Law of Moses (especially the dietary rules), and the Gentile Christians, who revelled in the freedom granted them by Christ. We see a little of this towards the end of the letter, when Paul tells the feuding Christians to exercise charity towards each other: 

“And if thy brother’s peace of mind is disturbed over food, it is because thou art neglecting to follow the rule of charity. Here is a soul for which Christ died; it is not for thee to bring it to perdition with the food thou eatest. We must not allow that which is a good thing for us to be brought into disrepute. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking this or that; it means rightness of heart, finding our peace and our joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Romans, 14: 15-17

Therefore, if your Jewish Christian wants to observe the dietary rules, don’t give him or her any grief over it. Just co-exist, for the sake of the kingdom of God… The whole letter is a prolonged defence of the Jewish people who have largely rejected the Catholic gospel, leaving only a remnant (the Jewish Christians): 

“So it is in our time; a remnant has remained true; grace has chosen it. And if it is due to grace, then it is not due to observance of the law; if it were, grace would be no grace at all. What does it mean, then? Why, that Israel has missed its mark; only this chosen remnant has attained it, while the rest were blinded; so we read in scripture, God has numbed their senses, given them unseeing eyes and deaf ears, to this day.”

Romans, 11: 5-8

Paul is himself a Jew, one of this remnant, and he feels deeply for the others. In those days, there was no very sharp distinction between the Jews who didn’t believe in Christ and those who did – Jewish Christians still lived according to the Law of Moses. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continued with the Temple observances, and that would mean the synagogue observances also. This would naturally have set them apart from the non-Jewish Christians. Paul demands that the Jewish Christians (those who are circumcised) remember that Christ came to ‘relieve their needs’ as Jews, and the Gentiles Christians remember that they are indebted to the mercy of God for their own being Christians.

“You must befriend one another, as Christ has befriended you, for God’s honour. I would remind those who are circumcised, that Christ came to relieve their needs; God’s fidelity demanded it; He must make good His promises to our fathers. And I would remind the Gentiles to praise God for His mercy. So we read in scripture, ‘I will give thanks to Thee for this, and sing of Thy praise, in the midst of the Gentiles;’ and again it says, ‘You too, Gentiles, rejoice with His own people;’ and again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the nations of the world do Him honour…'”

Romans, 15: 7-11

Get along, please, you’re all Christians, he seems to say. It’s impossible to walk through all the contents of this letter in a short blog-post, but it’s worth noting once more, Paul’s solicitude for his own people, who he expects to eventually be reconciled with the Christian message, although at the moment they have denied it, and so have forfeited their right to Christian believers, Jews and Gentiles:

“Tell me, then, have [God’s people, the Jews] stumbled so as to fall altogether? God forbid; the result of their false step has been to bring the Gentiles salvation, and the result of that must be to rouse the Jews to emulate them. Why then, if their false step has enriched the world, if the Gentiles have been enriched by their default, what must we expect, when it is made good? (I am speaking now to you Gentiles.) As long as my apostolate is to the Gentiles, I mean to make much of my office, in the hope of stirring up my own flesh and blood to emulation, and saving some of them. If the losing of them has meant a world reconciled to God, what can the winning of them mean, but life risen from the dead?”

Romans, 11: 11-15

And there is the kind heart I meant earlier, and the personal influence surely follows from that. Throughout the letter, he not only counsels Christians to bear with each other in their differences, but he refuses to exclude the Jewish people from the final reward of ‘life risen from the dead.’ Anyway, I shall end here, by mentioning the absolute crowd of Christians in Rome Paul seems to know already, probably because he had met them on his travels through Asia, Macedonia and Greece. It must have been a small world, the Roman world, that could sustain this type of pan-European-and-Asian network of churches and Christians. Paul tells the Romans of his desire to both visit them finally (in spite of the presence of an Apostle in Rome) and continue on to Spain. Some people think he may have made it to Spain, although the New Testament only informs us of one imprisonment of Paul in Rome. Whether there was only one, or two, it is striking that, by the end of the first century, Peter and Paul were seen as joint founders of the Roman church.