When the Apostle Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans in A.D. 56 Christianity was a tiny struggling religious sect within the vast Roman Empire. There is no way to know how many Christians lived in the Roman Empire then, but 25,000 might be a reasonable guess. Were this the case, then less than one in two-thousand people were Christian (the population of the Roman Empire at that time has been conservatively estimated to be around fifty-million).
Depending on dating of Christ’s resurrection, the Christian Church may have only been in existence for 23 years in A.D. 56. Gentiles would have only been generally accepted as Christian converts for 6-8 years. Thus, by the standards of civilizations who had centuries, even millennia of historic consciousness the Christian Church was nothing more (in the world’s eyes) than a newborn infant.
Although, by God’s providence, the Church had experienced massive growth, it had occurred within an environment of violent, sustained persecution. Of course, Saul (now renamed Paul) had been a recent leader of that persecution. Thus the primitive Church was experiencing direct and purposeful hostility from the ancient Jewish community from which it was emerging.
But the world’s hostility was by no means limited to the local Jewish community. For the Roman Empire had established pagan religions that viewed the Christian Gospel as at best idiocy, and at worst a dangerous heresy. The following excerpt summarizes the religious environment that dominated the Roman Empire.
From the beginning Roman religion was polytheistic. From an initial array of gods and spirits, Rome added to this collection to include both Greek gods as well as a number of foreign cults. As the empire expanded, the Romans refrained from imposing their own religious beliefs upon those they conquered; however, this inclusion must not be misinterpreted as tolerance – this can be seen with their early reaction to the Jewish and Christian population.
The Roman Empire stood near to its apex in A.D. 56. It ruled most of the known “civilized” world, having conquered virtually every civilization surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Its military prowess was universally feared and its administrative efficiency allowed it to rule over a diverse population. Its rulers played the power game with consciences unaffected by humane considerations. They would brook no challenge to their power, be it a barbarian horde or a tiny new religious sect.
Only eight years after Romans was written the first official state persecution of Christianity began (under the Emperor Nero). One year later both Apostles Peter and Paul had been martyred in or near Rome by the Roman State.
The fact that a Christian community already existed in the capital city should be of no surprise given that some estimate 10% of the empire’s population lived in or near to Rome. It’s clear from Paul’s description that this community was both vibrant and visible. That is, they were not hunkered-down in a defensive crouch just hoping to survive. No, they just like so many other Christian converts were living lives utterly transformed by their encounter with the risen Christ.
It is within this context that I propose to reconnect with the Book of Romans. I hope to explore how this Epistle could have been written within these contexts of time, place and culture. Along the way many other ideas will also be explored.
The Book of Romans has become for too many Christians a source of “old chestnut” verses that have lost their power and purpose. However, in our increasingly hostile culture it shines as a beacon calling us back to that which animates all of Christian life — Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.