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Reading Romans in Rome: An Introduction

This quarter’s studies, “Redemption in Romans,” assert that it is “extremely important” to understand the letter’s historical context, and, imaginatively, to “go back in time, transport ourselves to Rome, become members of the congregation there, and then, as first century church members, listen to Paul”. [1]

While the quarterly’s author maintains that the historical context creates the setting for textual interpretation, the quarterly immediately turns to Paul’s situation and his reasons for writing. The audience reception reading is simply discarded.

To return to a contextual premise, let’s consider this question: “To what extent could Romans have been heard and understood by a readership in Rome within its religio-economic, socio-political, and ethnic context, especially by non-Judeans?”[2]

Let’s briefly examine three interpretive factors that impacted Christ-followers who heard Romans read in their first-century cosmopolis.

Rome as setting for the Roman Epistle

Rome’s Christ-following population, whether Judean, Greek, or Roman, was intended to understand Paul’s rhetoric and terminology, as residents in a city known for its multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic environment. [3] What we interpret as debate over Judean law in relation to Christian identity is as much part of the ongoing debates among numerous ethnic and religious groups resident in Rome. The processes of ethnic adaptation, assimilation, adoption and resistance, which included religion, were normal in Rome’s first centuries – both BCE and CE. Rome was not anti-Semitic, as often argued, but engaged in ongoing dynamic relations with the empire’s Judean inhabitants. [4] Hybrid multi-ethnic practice in religion or ethnic identity was not uncommon among Judeans, Greeks, or Romans. [5]

Additionally, Rome was not amoral, nor bereft of interest in sin, salvation, or right relations with its own, or other deities. A read of Valerius Maximus, Livy, Cicero, Varro, Philodemus, or careful attention to Augustan, Tiberian, or Claudian religious, socio-cultural and economic reform, reveals a Roman social elite and populace deeply interested in religious and moral issues, some of which parallel concerns elaborated in the Pauline epistles. The same holds for later works – Seneca’s moral epistles, Epictetus’ treatises and Silius Italicus’ highlighting of core Roman virtues in Punica which resonate with the ideal social customs of Rome.

So, could Paul successfully relate to a Christ-following audience steeped in Rome’s cultural mores and religious expression?

Paul, the Roman

Paul was a Roman – which was more than a convenient formality. He was circumcised a Jew the eighth day after birth. However, on the ninth, his parents and as many as seven Roman witnesses mandatorily performed his dies nominalia, and received a dyptch – a diplomata civitatis, which documented his being Roman. [6] In puberty, he would have donned the toga virilis before Roman officials in ceremonial registration as a Roman citizen entering manhood, perhaps in Jerusalem while studying under Gamaliel.

Additionally, Paul and other Judean Romans would have witnessed the Temple’s daily burnt sacrifice of two lambs and a bull offered with prayers to God on behalf of the emperors. He would have re-enrolled at each Roman census, which invoked the name of the emperor in the requisite oath-swearing. [7]

Paul and synagogue attendees in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Roman world may have utilized the Latin formulaic pro salute Augusti, or even Deo Aeterno pro salute Augusti – a demonstration of loyalty inscribed on the synagogue walls in Judea, Rome’s port of Ostia, and attested by Philo in Alexandrian synagogues. [8]

Finally, Paul’s missionary efforts included presenting the gospel of Jesus in Roman coloniae: Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, Troas, Philippi, and Corinth. Each was a center of Roman citizenship, culture, law and Rome’s ethnic practice. [9] As Aulius Gellius would later explain, to be a colonia “carries with it very great prestige, owing to the grandeur and majesty of the Roman People: the colonies convey the impression of being miniatures and reproductions of Rome herself.” [10]

To be effective in presenting the gospel, Paul’s speeches in Acts, as well as his epistles, utilized the social language of Roman culture and mos maiorum (way of life), to articulate the gospel of Jesus and the Father. Paul Romanized his message to draw new Christ-followers from the synagogue and the Greco-Roman populace. But what Pauline concepts and social language constructs would have had the greatest impact on Romanized audiences?

The Sociolect of Rome and Romans

Important segments of the sociolect, or social language and conventions, of the Roman epistle are drawn from the vernacular of daily life in Rome and empire. Piety, Honor, Faith, and Righteousness were divinized personifications so central to Roman interaction that they were honored as gods. The terms were integrated into Roman ethnicity – and used to formulate key relations with divinity and humanity in Rome’s experience. These terms and concepts are a small sampling of the conventions and social language that Paul adroitly borrowed to compellingly communicate Christ in the Roman context.

Rome’s piety was a core ethnic characteristic – obvious to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, “To understand the success of the Romans, you must understand their piety.” [11] Piety was the religious term that described proper Roman relations with deity as the essence of religio. As Cicero summed it, “We Romans are far superior in religio, by which I mean the worship of the gods (cultus deorum).” [12] Cultus may carry connotation of worship, but rooted in the verb colere, it semantically conceptualized to revere, or “to honor.” [13]

Livy further summarized piety as the basis of traditional Roman morals and life, “Because heavenly power seemed so involved in human affairs, the continual attention to pietas (piety) of the gods imbued the hearts of all with such reverence that loyalty (faith, fides) and oath-taking (ius iurandum, law of oaths), governed the state, instead of excessive fear of laws and punishments.” [14] For Livy, Roman-divine relations were based in interrelated piety and faith: “The gods show favor, or are well disposed (favere) to piety (pietas) and faith (fides), through which the Roman people arrived at so great a peak.” [15]

Religio and piety were also intertwined with iustitia (justice or “right relationship”) and faith as the basis of relationship with deity. In On Piety, the Epicurian philosopher Philodemus, Cicero’s contemporary, held that the wicked “did not consider that righteousness, and piety, are virtually the same thing.” [16] Cicero was more direct: “for pietas (piety) is iustitia, (righteousness or right relationship) towards the gods.” [17] Pietas (piety) was not solely a religious term, but descriptive of the Roman way of life. [18]

Similarly, faith (fides, or pistis in Greek) was a core element of “being Roman,” that expressed multi-level, simultaneous legal, religious, moral, and formal and informal social relationships, both human and divine. Oath-sworn faith was the foundation of righteousness, piety and holiness in relation to deity and humanity. [19] “For what we need to urgently understand is what the Romans had, if not faith.” [20] Fides (faith) “was, in a sense, the keystone of Roman morality.” [21] It was ingrained within the life and culture of Rome.

The highest attestation of faith was not only what one vowed, or did in normal circumstances, but how one kept faith in hardship. Ovid was clear, “Just as gold is tested in the flames, so faith, (fides) must be tried in duress.” [22] Seneca, in consideration of faithfulness unto death commented that one should “steel his courage to this end, that he may not surrender his pledged faith (fides) to torture.” [23] A Roman was to be faithful and pious in life, even when faced with death.

So, as briefly described here, Romans lived life by faith and were known throughout the world for faith-making and faith-keeping (faithfulness) as the basis of righteousness, holiness, piety in relation to the gods and humanity. That this language is reapplied for Judean use in relation to God is apparent in Philo’s treatment of faith as divine promise and oath in relation to Abraham, and also as the framework and conventions of Abraham’s relationship of faith with God. [24]

In summary, this brief foray into Roman life and the ethnic and social conventions of the recipient audience provides a glimpse of what might be learned in a careful reading of Romans within the first century Roman context. To rehear Romans 1:8, that Christ-follower’s “faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world,” demonstrates Paul’s adroit re-use of conventional Roman ethnic self-perceptions. Even more compelling is his use of faith and righteousness in Romans 1:17, which is not only backed by an off-use of Habakkuk 2:4, but by the core conventions and language of Roman right-relations with deity. The wrath of God revealed from heaven against human impiety and unrighteousness in Romans 1:18 corresponds well within the Roman context – because they did not glorify God or give thanks. [25] In Roman thought, and also Philo, unfaithfulness towards deity invoked in faith-making was unpardonable. [26] However, Romans 5:6-11 reveals a new reconciliation with God – unpardonable unfaithful enmity resolved through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

The Epistle to Romans comes to life when we appreciate Paul’s ability to use Judean conventions and texts while intentionally applying Roman concepts and arguments to express Christian faith, life, and right-relationship with God – to touch the hearts of Rome’s Christ-followers.

* * *


[1] Don F. Neufeld, “Redemption in Romans,” Adult Bible Study Guide, 3rd Quarter, 2010 (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2010), 6.

[2] Benjamin E. Holdsworth, “Reading Romans in Rome: A Reception of Romans in the Roman Context of Ethnicity and Faith” (PhD Dissertation, Durham University, 2009), 2. The ethnic term Judean is used here instead of Jews: see Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 43-44.

[3] As argued in “Reading Romans in Rome”, 28-70.

[4] As argued in “Reading Romans in Rome”, 70-167, 286-298; for a fuller treatment see Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (London: Allen Lane, 2007).

[5] For a fine exploration of Judean social interaction in the Greco-Roman world, see John M. G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1996).

[6] Circumcised the eighth day as an Israelite: Philippians 3:5; The dies nominalia: A. N. Sherwin-White, The Roman Citizenship, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973), 315-316; Documentation and ceremony mandatory: see Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus of 3 CE, Lex Aelia-Sentia of 4 CE and Lex Papia Poppea in 9 CE, also Fritz Schults, ‘Roman Registers of Births and Birth Certificates, Part I,’ Journal of Roman Studies, 31 (1942), 78-91 (at 80-81); Fritz Schults, ‘Roman Registers of Births and Birth Certificates, Part II,’ Journal of Roman Studies, 33 (1943), 55-64.

[7] Roman census details are well known from village lists in Egypt by household, updated annually. See Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 156-159.

[8] Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev, “Did the Jews Enjoy a Privileged Position in the Roman World?”, Revue Des Etudes Juives, 154 (1995), 23-42 (at 40); Synagogues as place of imperial devotion by formulas, prayers and shields, gilded crowns, slabs and inscriptions, On the Embassy to Gaius 133; Flaccus 48-49, in Philo Judeaus o. A., The works of Philo: Complete and unabridged, trans. C. D. Yonge (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996).

[9] See E. T. Salmon, Roman Colonization Under the Republic (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), 128-134; Sherwin-White, The Roman Citizenship, 316-318. For one detailed treatment of Asia Minor coloniae see Barbara Levick, Roman Colonies in Southern Asia Minor (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967).

[10] Aulius Gellius 16.13.9; Salmon, Roman Colonization, 153.

[11] As cited in R.M. Ogilivie, The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus (London: W. W. Norton, 1969), 8.

[12] Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2.8 in Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Natura Deorum, trans. H. Rackman (London: Heinemann, 1933); Valerie M. Warrior, Roman Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2006), 2.

[13] Warrior, Roman Religion, 6.

[14] Titus Livy, History of Rome, 1.21.1, quoted in Richard Gordon, ‘From Republic to Principate: Priesthood, Religion and Ideology’ in Clifford Ando, (ed.), Roman Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), 62-83 (at 67); also, Carl Koch, ‘Roman State Religion in the Mirror of Augustan and Late Republican Apologetics’ in ibid., 296-329 (at 303-304).

[15] Livy 44.1.11; Koch, ‘Roman State Religion’, 299.

[16] Philodemus, On Piety, vol. 1, 78.2261-2265 in Philodemus, De pietate, On Piety, ed. Dirk Obbink, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[17] Cicero, De Natura Deorum 1.41.116, translation by H. Wagenvoort, PIETAS: Selected Studies in Roman Religion (Leiden: Brill, 1980), 9-10.

[18] Clifford Ando, ‘Introduction: Religion, Law and Knowledge in Classical Rome’ in Ando, (ed.), Roman Religion, 1-15 (at 11, nn. 30, 34).

[19] Philodemus held “that those who are oath-keeping (εὐορκος) and just (δίκαιος, righteous) are moved by the most virtuous influences both from their own selves and from those (the gods.)” Philodemus, On Piety, 38.1082-1087, in ed. cit., vol. 1, 180-181, 477-478.

[20] Ando, ‘Introduction: Religion, Law and Knowledge) 10-11.

[21] J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979, repr. 1996), 175-176.

[22] Ovid, Tristia 1.5.25 in Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso), Tristia, Ex Ponto, ed. and trans. G. P. Goold and A. L. Wheeler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924).

[23] Seneca, Moral Epistles, 4.36.9 in Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Seneca: Moral Essays, vol. I, trans. John W. Brasore (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1970).

[24] As argued in Holdsworth, “Reading Romans in Rome”, 201-208.

[25] Rom. 1:21.

[26] Cicero, De Legibus 2.9.22 in Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Re Publica, De Legibus, trans. C.W. Keyes (London: Heinemann, 1928); Philo, Special Laws II, 26-27, 253-254.

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