Mar 29, 2010


In my New Testament class, we've been surveying the synoptic Gospels for the last couple months. We're sure to cover a few basics of each book before diving into the deeper theological themes and content of each. The basics for each book would be who wrote it, when, where, to whom was it written?

As a homework assignment, I'm going to outline these basics for the book of Romans and then delve into the "what" and "why" questions in another post.

  • Who?

    Authenticity within the 'Pauline corpus' is determined by a number of criteria - style, theological consistency of content, ethics, and the work's fit within Paul's ministry. Our New Testament textbook makes a good point that "Of the above criteria, only the last is really verifiable by the evidence." On the basis of stylistic analysis, liberal scholars can dispute the authenticity of pretty much every epistle. But Johnson offers a more conservative critique: "discussion of authenticity has been distorted by doubtful premises." When it comes to Romans, both conservative and liberal scholars almost unanimously attribute the epistle to St. Paul of Tarsus.

    However, even "Pauline authorship" isn't the end of the story. All of his letters were composed under his authority and direction, but there are a few complexities. Writing, especially lengthy writing, was often given to trained secretaries. Cicero did so with Atticus, and Tertius names himself as secretary in Rom. 16:22. In addition, the Pauline epistles exhibit a diatribe style - the primary use of which suggests a classroom setting, meaning Paul's authorship could very likely have been a communal activity. Paul's style of midrash also connotes a communal activity. This all suggests a "Pauline school" - "a form of intentional and prolonged contact between master and students. ... it is highly probable that many hands and minds contributed to [the epistles'] composition."

    I like the thought of this - a more collective and communal development of theology as opposed to single-minded dictates.

  • When?

    To find this, I had to grab another New Testament survey from our excellent library at PSI Tulsa Diocese. (Much thanks to Joey for maintaining the great library!) It simply states, "[Romans] was written in Corinth toward the close of the third missionary journey, during the winter of 57/58 A.D. That Corinth was the place of origin is indicated by Paul's recommendation of Phoebe, deaconess of Cenchreae, the eastern port of Corinth (Rm. 16:1), and by the fact that he is the guest of Gaius who is, very likely, the same man named in 1 Cor. 1:14 (Rm. 16:23). We may add that, according to Acts 20:2 f., Paul left from Corinth on his last journey to Jerusalem (cf. Rm. 15:25)" (There seems to be little doubt about the date - my other resources simply state the date of of 57-58 without explanation. Though I did find some alternative opinions on the wikipedia article for Romans)

    Another New Testament introductory text I checked out from the PSI library makes the following comments about the date: "In 57-58, the date of the Epistle to the Romans, we are in that happy period of the reign of Nero when he was still accepting the counsel of Seneca and was giving the Empire a sound administration. ... [The Christians] were recruited from the lower strata of foreigners and they flocked to Rome from all provinces. The Jews in the city formed an especially homogeneous and influential group. Excavations have brought to light several synagogues and several cemeteries dating from the first century A.D."

  • Where?

    As mentioned in the texts, the epistle was written from Corinth. One reason I like this NAB is that it has lots of good footnotes and introductory notes. It has this to say about Corinth: "Paul established a Christian community in Corinth about the year 51. The city, a commercial crossroads, was a melting pot full of devotees of various pagan cults and marked by a measure of moral depravity not unusual in a great seaport. [Filthy sailors!]" The church at Corinth, quite understandably, very much needed the instruction and stern admonitions Paul gave in the Corinthian epistles. His visit in 57/58 was a "follow-up" to the community, and during this visit he wrote his letter to the Romans.

  • To Whom?

    The Roman church was not founded by Paul, nor by any known organized mission to the capital, but probably resulted from Christian converts who moved to capital. The Roman church was apparently composed of both Judaeo-Christian and Gentile-Christian members, probably with a Gentile majority since Paul writes "... we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all Gentiles, among whom are you also ..." (Rm. 1:5)

    It's interesting to consider that Paul had never been to the Roman church at the time he wrote this letter. (Rm. 15:22-24) He's not writing so much as a pastor correcting faulty teachings or behavior as he does in other epistles. He is writing the general lines of his theology to prepare the Romans for his pending visit. (Though he's careful to say that he isn't trying to replace existing Roman 'foundations' [Rm. 15:20]). As one of my books says, "The writing of Galations had given an opportunity of stating his thesis, but in a polemical atmosphere; now he can take it up again in a calmer fashion and more leisurely. It is not, however, a synthesis of his theology ..."

    The importance for Paul to establish a connection with the Roman church is obvious. As the imperial capital, the Roman church could (and did, and does!) extend the Christian message across the known world. And for me, the Roman community is exciting because the Roman empire seems similar to our own. The metro- and cosmopolitan society that built the foundation of the Western world. And yet at the time of this letter, the Christian church in Rome was still a small, tightly-knit community trying to understand what had happened and was happening in the life of Christ.

Next post will cover more 'what' and 'why' in Romans. If any of you actually read this far, did any of this basic material surprise/enlighten/upset/challenge you?


caedmon said...

None of it is challenging to me - but only because it's been a few years since I was first confronted by historical criticism and I've had some time in prayer and study to work through my reactions. I'm at a place now where I can accept much of what the scholars have found without it threatening the inspiration or authority of the writings. I admit, this is much easier as a Catholic than it would be for an Evangelical, though, as we find authority for the Scriptures in the authority of the Church, where Evangelicals tend to see it the other way around.

I might challenge the concept that all the letters currently attributed to Paul were overseen by Paul. While scholars are fairly sure Romans was authored by Paul (though possibly written through a 'secretary'), some of his other letters may have been written decades after his death. That used to scare me, until I realized that it was the Church's process of putting together a canon that gave authority to Scripture, not the person holding the pen. You might take a look at what critical scholarship says about the Pastoral Epistles if you want some fun. :D

luke said...

Ah, yeah that's a good point. I didn't mention the list of letters that are most unanimously agreed to be authored by Paul: Romans, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians. Then a few that are pseudepigraphic (possibly written by the Pauline "school" thought not Paul himself): 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians. No clear consensus on Colossians or 2 Thessalonians. And then finally everyone pretty much agrees Hebrews was NOT written by Paul.

Matt said...

I definitely appreciate the amount of research you invested into this and then forwarding it on to us free of charge. I guess I would use the word enlightened for my response. I wouldn't consider anything you discovered challenging to me. The debate on authorship makes sense. It seems pretty much nobody actually wrote their own accounts, unless of course they were scribes to begin with, which few were. I'm not really sure what is so challenging about that.

I think of it like the accounts of Socrates. From what I have read, we actually have 0 - yes 0 - actual written thoughts from Socrates; only those recorded by his pupils, namely Plato. However, most people don't really have any problem attributing certain thoughts/ theories / methods to Socrates himself. That's par for the course in ancient history, I feel, and doesn't present any personal dilemmas in authority.

Thanks again. I always love your blogs!