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The Possible Reason Why The Book Of Romans Was Written

The epistle to Romans has attracted so much scholarly attention over the years. Such scholarship has revolved around the issues of the significance of the book in being the core and systematic exposition of Pauline theology, among others. While the significance and the authorship of the book is without much contestation, there is notable lack of consensus regarding the purpose of its authorship. New Testament scholars including the likes of Guthrie (1990) concur that it is not an easy enterprise trying to decipher the purpose of authorship of this Pauline letter. 

Some of the reasons for authorship proffered by scholars can be broadly classified into what can be generally referred to as: apologetic, missionary and pastoral purposes. This paper, as will be systematically demonstrated below, will argue that while all these other issues (pastoral and apologetic) are raised and addressed in this epistle, the main purpose of the epistle is missionary in nature coming from one of the New Testament’s outstanding missionary.

In an attempt to ascertain the purpose of this letter, it is worthwhile to comment on the origins, the composition of the Christian community at Rome who are the recipients of the same epistle and the uniqueness/significance of this epistle in the Pauline corpus. This paper will therefore explore these arguments before delving into purpose of authorship arguments proper.

Firstly, it is important from the outset to categorically state that this letter is a very unique letter in what is called the Pauline Corpus for two reasons. Firstly, it occupies an important place in that it is referred to as “Great Letters” together with “1 &2 Corinthians, and Galatians, especially by scholars who regard Paul’s teaching on freedom and justification by faith as the heart of his theology“(Johnson 1986:250). 

The Possible Reason Why The Book Of Romans Was Written 

Further, Marshal, Travis and Paul (2002:105) weigh in to support this argument of the significance of this book by suggesting that:
“…no book in the New Testament has been so influential in the history of the Christian church as the Letter to the Romans… it was decisive in initial conversion of, or the renewal of living faith in, such significant figures as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Karl Barth, and through them in the lives of many more”.
Such is the unmatched Pauline literary brilliance exuding through the pages of this letter. The solid significance of this letter constitute a worthy scholarly cause to investigate the purpose of its authorship, as this paper seeks to do.

On the origins of the community, it is without contestation that the origins of the Roman Christian community was not Pauline by nature and let alone apostolic (Guthrie, 1990:403). This assertion negates the early church tradition that generally connected both Peter and Paul with this Christian community. It is possible that this community could have been founded and nurtured to this level where it is admired by Paul “without apostolic intervention” (:404). 

There is a huge probability, as argued by various Pauline scholars (an argument shared by this paper), that the Christian community was founded by the by visiting “Jews and proselytes” who came to Pentecost (Acts 2v10). Another view is that this community might have sprung up as a result of trade; with Christians doing commerce in Rome and hence resulted in the foundation of the community (Johnson, 1986). On the sheer weight of the above evidence, this paper would like to align with the argument that this community’s foundation did not have direct apostolic activity and therefore rule out any possibility of direct involvement of Peter and Paul in its foundation.

The question of composition of this church is an equally intriguing one just as that of its origins. The point of contestation among scholars is on whether the church was “Jewish”, “Gentile” or a mixture of the two. According to Guthrie (1990:405), the answer to this question does affect our “understanding of the historical situation to which the apostle addressed himself” hence unearthing his purpose of authorship. Scholars like Guthrie, postulate that those who assume that chapters 9-11 are the main idea of the letter would like to argue that the church was mainly Jewish.

 On the other hand, those who argue for a majority gentile populace cite evidence from portions of the epistle like 1v5, 1v12-14, 11 v 13, to mention but a few, as substantial evidence pointing in their scholarly direction. This paper is inclined to believe that the congregation was a mixed congregation most probably with Gentiles providing “its color” as argued by Sanday and Headlam [quoted by Guthrie (1990:406)].

Having weighed the evidence above, this paper now turns to the specific suggestions by various scholars as to the purpose of authorship of this letter. Scholars like F.C. Baur have long maintained a polemic disposition of this letter. They argue that it is a polemic aimed specifically at Jewish Christianity. This would not be the first time Paul would have had issues with Jewish Christianity and Judaizers who often times were a huge stumbling block to his ministry as seen among the churches of Galatia and elsewhere. To exalt the portions 9-11 of Romans to such significance as to occasion Paul’s writing of the letter is to miss the essence of the letter.

Secondly, a pastoral (and conciliatory) purpose has been postulated by some scholars. These scholars suggest that Paul wrote to heal the “Schisms” that existed between the Jewish and Gentile members of the church. Marshall (2002) quotes Minear (1971) “who insisted that the key to the letter lies in the practical application towards its end in which we can see reflected a situation of some disharmony between different groups in the church over the question of ritual observances with regard to food and festivals…” This position suggest that Paul is writing in an attempt to reconcile Jewish and Gentile elements in the Roman Christian Community. In his other book, Marshall (2004:305-6) supports this argument by suggesting that “the crucial problem is the place of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation and their relationship to one another”.

If Paul is writing this pastoral letter to the Romans, how much familiar is he with the issues and personalities involved, as he was in the churches he founded? One pauses to investigate. Marshall (2004:304) argues that “Romans 16 indicates that he had a rather good knowledge of the congregation and its problems”, hence appropriate that he could write addressing the problems that existed within the community. McNeile, as quoted by Guthrie (1990) calls this letter “a comprehensive apologia for the principle of a universal religion as set over against Jewish nationalism…Paul deals with fundamental Christian principles of ‘righteousness’ as contrasted with the Jewish approach..” (:411).  Further, Hawthorne, GF, Martin, RP and Reid, DG (eds). (1993:840) suggests the centrality of Romans 14v1-15v6 as the centre of this pastoral debate.

The above pastoral argument is fraught with challenges. If we assume this church was largely gentile as the internal evidence of the letter will suggest, this position is not tenable. Further, scholars like Guthrie (1990) further weigh in to argue that while this could have been one of the things Paul had in mind in writing, it cannot in all probability be the only major reason why Paul wrote the letter. 

The mere fact also that there is little proportional amount of space devoted to this issue as compared to other things discusses and that these issues as Howard (2004) himself concurs, come at the end of the letter pose problems with this position; they can’t surely be the main reason. Further, various scholars contest the validity of Romans 16 as part of the letter. People listed in Romans 16 would presumably have given Paul the information he has in writing pastorally. Thus, Paul’s reason of writing this letter was far much bigger to be confined to this narrow supposition. As we will show below, his reason was missionary in nature; he is concerned with the next phase of his mission to the west.

Still under the pastoral argument is the proposition that the letter was originally destined to be a circular to all Christians not just those at Rome. Paul felt that he had come to the end of his missionary activities so he wanted to write a summary of his gospel to Christians in the world. To achieve this, he uses Rome as the centre of distribution of his letter not as its sole destination. As many people would meet at the capital city of the Empire, Rome. This is supported by T.W. Manson who purports that Paul wrote Romans as a circular letter to be sent to Christians in the whole world. Bankan describes Paul’s letter to the Romans as his last will and testament. There is no evidence of this in the letter. To the contrary Paul anticipates to visit Rome not to be extinguished in Jerusalem. Hawthorne, Martin & Reid (1993:839), in support of this, argue that “Paul the as ‘apostle to the Gentiles,’ eager to bring in ‘full number of Gentiles,’ (Rom 11:13-15, 25-26), writes to the capital of the Gentile empire”. So the purpose is clearly missionary and not pastoral.

Another proposal of purpose could be rightly labelled the traditional explanation of the purpose of this letter, that it has a doctrinal purpose as necessitating its origins. This position postulates that this letter is more of “a treatise than a letter…” (Guthrie 1990:409). Others call it a “scholastic diatribe” (Johnson, 1986:317). Marshall (2004), while partly agreeing that to Romans elucidates Pauline theology and gives structure to it, he however spells out its limitation. The latter raises theological issues to extent that is “appropriate to those circumstances and shaped by them” (:305). So this letter cannot be taken to be Paul’s theological treatise in the strict sense of the word.

Further, while it is true that there are weightier doctrinal issues that Paul addresses in this letter, there are far weightier issues he does not address or “expand on”. Such issues include, and are not limited to, “cosmic reconciliation, eschatology” among others. Further, there is a lot of personal information and contacts that Paul addresses to this church which defies the whole argument of a “theological/ doctrinal treatise”; there must be a reason bigger and broader than that. Thus this paper argues that while there are theological issues he raises in this letter such issues and arguments are preparatory to his next phase of mission. If Romans understand his theology, it will be easy for them to support his next phase of missions. This is his main gaol, thus the theology presented is not an end in itself but a means to that end- missionary goal.

Fourth, summarisation of Paul’s present circumstances is viewed by others as the main purpose of authorship of this letter. This position articulate that Paul has just finished his missionary journey and is heading to Jerusalem. The great apostle to the Gentiles is anxious about what would befall him in Jerusalem because of the offense he has caused to the Jewish people in “his gospel”, a position vouched for by Ernest Funch. Marshall (2004) concurs with this argument that Paul being at the end of his missionary journey and about to leave for Jerusalem “for what (so far as we know) was the last time, the letter may reflect some of the concerns in his mind at this decisive juncture of his career” (:305) Further, as Paul contemplates what is to become of him, Guthrie postulates that most probably Paul “casts his mind back and gathers almost unconsciously the fruits of his past work. His mind has been dwelling on many great these and he now proceeds to write down his conclusions” (1990:410).

While it could be true that Paul summarises his circumstances as he is Jerusalem-bound with the possibility of his mission coming to an end, Paul does not however seem to think as if Jerusalem visit is the end of his mission. He seems excited at the possibility of taking this gospel to the West, hence the argument in this paper that this letter is particularly preparing for Paul’s next missionary onslaught on the West using Rome as the launching pad. Thus Paul’s broader purpose is missionary in nature.

A more plausible proposition which seems to encompass all the forgoing arguments is the one that postulates that Paul is writing to prepare for his visit to Rome in anticipation of his missionary onslaught on the West using Rome as a launching pad. Travis (2002:107) calls this the “prima facie impression given by the letter. This seems plausible in many ways than one. In this vein Paul is explaining the kind of his Gospel he preaches, he is aware that “the gospel he has is not universally held by all Christians” (:109). Because he is planning to visit Rome, he wants them to understand his gospel. So he does not explain the gospel for the sake of explaining it, he wants his potential partners to understand the gospel as well.

Further, as we noted above in terms of the composition of the community in Rome, he wants both the Jews and Gentiles to support his mission. Thus is it imperative that these two camps have a universal understanding of the gospel that goes beyond tribal heritage, that is, being Jewish or Gentile and the privileges or lack of privileges that is attached to such heritage or lack of it. These two camps need to have the same understanding of the Gospel message and its implication. Rome being a major city which is about to support a missionary onslaught into the West, needs to be a model of a unified church living out the gospel message and its full implications (Romans 12).

Paul’s establishing of solid personal contacts as exemplified in Romans 16 betrays his purpose. He wants to use these contacts as his advocates (15v23ff) among the Romans for his new missionary endeavour. These contacts were familiar with his gospel or the content of his Gospel and would therefore help advocate for it among the romans for they seemed to be people of repute among these Christians at Rome.

In addition, various scholars see Paul wanting to establish a partnership with Romans that is akin to the kind of partnership he had with Philippians for the financial support of Gospel enterprise in the West. If the gospel work is to be successful in the West, Rome would be a significant partner in this work. Hawthorne et al (1993:839-40) agree with this reasoning and further state that “More plausible is the thesis that Paul wrote to Rome with a view to the churches there providing support for his projected mission to Spain. This is indeed what Paul explicitly says (Rom 15:24, 28), and there is no cause to doubt in it; the church in Philippi in particular had already served in such a role.” Such is the undeniable and emphatic missionary purpose of the letter.

In conclusion, while there are various reasons put across by scholars to explain the purpose of authorship of the epistle of Romans, one stands consistently strong with a thread running throughout the pages of the letter. This is the missionary reason. Paul wrote this letter in preparation for his missionary visit to the West, with Rome about to be his launching pad for the missionary escapade or chapter. For Rome to effectively partner with him, he shares his theology and missionary report of what has happened in the east and his understanding of racial relationships between Jews and Gentiles in the light of the Gospel that he preaches and is likely to continue preaching in the West. He is preparing Rome to partner with him.

Reference List
Drane, J 1999. Introducing the New Testament. Oxford: Lion Publishing plc.
Guthrie, D 1990. New Testament Introduction. Revised Edition. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Hawthorne, GF, Martin, RP & Reid, DG (eds) 1993. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters- A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Johnson, LT 1986. The Writings of the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Marshall, IH 2004. New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Marshall, IW; Travis, S & Paul, I 2002. Exploring the New Testament- A Guide to the Letters and Revelation. Volume 2. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Patzia, AG 1995. The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text and Canon. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.