Three Myths about Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Myth #2

Myth #2 – Romans is a theological treatise.

For centuries commentators have interpreted Romans as if it were a theological treatise, a sort of systematic theology of the Apostle Paul. The idea is that Paul wrote to the church to give them his theology in advance of his upcoming visit. As a result, there is no specific situation in Rome that Paul addresses in his letter. There is no pointed purpose in writing what he does, except to let the Roman church know his beliefs.

With this interpretation of Romans, chapters 9-11 seem a little out of place. The first eight chapters tell about justification by faith, but chapters 9-11 are about Israel. Therefore, many scholars who have seen Romans as a theological treatise also see chapters 9-11 as an aside, a sort of rabbit trail that Paul follows before shifting to the practical section in chapters 12-15. Three chapters is an awfully long rabbit trail, but when previous assumptions make it difficult to fit the teachings of this section into Paul’s flow of thought, the net result is to assume it is not central to his thought, but something he just threw in for some reason.

It is true that Paul uses Romans to present his gospel to the church at Rome. And it is true that he does this in preparation for an upcoming visit. But that does not mean that Paul does not address a local issue in the church in his letter to the Romans. It so happens that Paul’s gospel serves two purposes in Romans. First, it prepares the church not just for Paul’s visit, but also for helping them to decide to support him in his intended mission to Spain. Second, it helps to solve a local issue in the church that may not be serious at the time Paul writes, but if left unchecked, can become a real challenge to unity in the church. A little background information will help unpack Paul’s purpose in writing Romans.

Exile and return

When Paul wrote to the Romans in A.D. 57 he wrote to a church that was mostly Gentile (1:5-6, 13). But just a few years earlier this same church was almost completely Jewish. What happened? First of all, the Gentile mission did not begin until the 40s. The church was entirely Jewish for at least a decade, until Peter preached to Cornelius’s household (Acts 10), resulting in the Jerusalem church accepting Gentiles into the church. In A.D. 49 the Jerusalem Council took place, where it was decided that Gentiles who get saved need not be circumcised. This controversy was bound to occur as soon as large numbers of Gentiles were added to the church, so it took until the end of the decade, at least in Judea, for large numbers of Gentiles to be added. In Rome Gentiles may have been reached earlier than in Judah, but probably not much before and not in large numbers. But for the first decade or more of the church’s history, almost all believers in Jesus were Jews, not just in Rome but all over the world.

In A.D. 49, the year of the Jerusalem Council, something terrible happened in Rome. Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from the city. The edict came in response to a tumult caused by “constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”[1] Scholarly consensus agrees that the reference to Chrestus is a Roman misreading of “Christ,” meaning the expulsion came because of Jewish unbelief over the preaching of Jesus. When the Jews were forced out of Rome, the Roman church lost many of its members and perhaps most of its leaders.[2] This means the church at Rome underwent a radical change at the end of the 40s. It went from being predominantly Jewish with Jewish leadership to being mostly gentile with gentile leadership.

What affect did this have on those (mostly gentile) believers who remained in Rome? Apparently, it caused some of them to develop a superiority complex. They seemed to think that they were regarded by God as superior to the Jews because they had replaced them in the people of God. That is why Paul, when he articulates the theme of his letter to the Romans, makes a point to say the gospel is, “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (1:16). Paul intends to prove the primacy of the Jews over the Gentiles in Romans, a point that is underappreciated by most commentators. But this purpose comes out again in chapter 3. After devaluing the significance of circumcision in 2:25-29, Paul then asks: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew?” (3:1). The anticipated answer is, “None!” But Paul turns the tables on his listeners by answering, “Much in every way” (v. 2a). Then he says, “first of all, they were entrusted with the very words of God” (v. 2b).

He does not list a second of all, at least not here. That must wait until chapter 9, when he issues his theology of Israel in the plan of God. We are left to read chapters 3-8 against the backdrop of the primacy of Israel as a privileged people. They have no advantage when it comes to being righteous or receiving salvation – all are equal in that regard. But they do have an advantage, and in chapters 9-11 Paul will articulate what that is and what it means.

When he does talk about Israel, the problem of at least some of the gentile believers in Rome comes out. These Gentiles believed God had rejected the Jews and replaced them with Gentiles, including themselves. Paul denies that God has rejected Israel, arguing that they only stumbled (11:1, 11). The presence of a remnant of Jewish believers proves God has not rejected them, and the fact that ultimately all Israel will be saved (11:26) proves they have only stumbled, not fallen beyond recovery.

Paul agrees that sinning Jews have been replaced by believing Gentiles (11:17), but he warns these grafted branches: “do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches, pointing out that “the root supports you” (11:18). In other words, the Gentiles who were grafted in owe their salvation to the Jews. Paul says these things to prevent the gentile believers from thinking too highly of themselves (see 12:3). The net result f thinking too highly of themselves is to see themselves as having replaced the Jews as the people of God, precisely the doctrine that developed among many in the early church and is still held by many Christians today. The irony is that Paul wrote Romans in part to prevent and incipient replacement theology among the Gentiles in the church, yet today, replacement theologians regard Romans as one of their favorite books.

Having refuted the false idea of God permanently replacing the Jews with Gentiles, Paul is now ready, in the practical section of the epistle, to encourage the gentile church to receive the recently returned Jewish exiles in a godly manner. It is likely that the reason Paul discusses gifts and faith in 12:3-8 is to facilitate the return of formerly exiled Jewish leaders into their previous roles in the church. Everyone’s function in the church is based not on whether they are Jewish or gentile, not on who has been there longer or if they were exiled for a time. It depends solely on the gift God has given them and the faith they possess to carry out that gift in the church.

Paul then tells them to walk out a life of love (12:9-21), to accept those whose faith does not allow them to abandon the kosher diet (ch. 14), and to bear with the failing of the weak (15:1). By the time Paul says, “accept one another” (15:7), there is little else they can do. Whatever lack of acceptance of one another has existed will fade away as Jews and Gentiles learn to worship God together (15:8-12). All this exhortation is possible only because Paul articulated his theology of Israel, showing the Gentiles to be on even ground with them as concerns sin, faith, and salvation, but also showing the Jews to have primacy of position as the people of God, to the extent that Gentiles can only be saved by being added to the olive tree that is Israel.


It is unlikely that division along Jewish and Gentile lines was strong enough for Paul to decide to write a letter to correct it, and even if it was, the letter Paul would have written would have looked different than the one we have in the Epistle to the Romans. Paul’s primary reason for giving his gospel had to do with his upcoming visit and pending missions trip to Spain. But that does not mean that was the only reason he wrote what he did. Seeing a potential problem of division in the church, Paul used his gospel message to encourage the church toward unity. We know Paul knew a lot of people in the Roman church; his list of greetings in Rom 16 is longer than it is in any other letter he wrote. He was also close associates with Priscilla and Aquila, who were among the Roman exiles (Acts 18:2). Paul would have had an intimate knowledge of the condition of the church at Rome, and to ignore that knowledge and fail to address any issues in the church he is writing to is contrary to Paul’s character.

Chapters 9-11 demonstrate that Paul’s purpose in writing Romans extended beyond merely stating his gospel, as if he were writing a systematic theology. Rather, these chapters mark the climax of Paul’s argument, enabling Paul to teach the church how to take his theology and give it feet, putting it into practice by rightly regarding the Jewish believers in their midst and the Jewish unbelievers in their city. This being done, Paul hopes to soon visit this church and find that they are living their lives in accordance with his gospel.

[1] Claudius, 25:4, quoted in James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, eds, vol 38a (Dallas: Word, 1988), xlviii.

[2] Of course, not all the Jews left the city. Previous expulsion edicts demonstrate that only a relatively small percentage of Jews actually followed the edict, but in this case the church would have been more greatly affected. Most Jewish church leaders, who would have been actively evangelizing the large Jewish community there, would have been forced to leave because of their involvement in the dispute.


2 comments on “Three Myths about Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Myth #2

  1. Helpful information. Lucky me I discovered your site by chance, and I’m surprised why this coincidence didn’t happened in advance! I bookmarked it.

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