The Letter to the Romans is a dense, difficult, breathtaking work. It is unique among Paul’s authentic letters in that it is the only one written to a community with which he has no direct connection. He didn’t found it; he’s never visited it. He writes in advance of a trip he hopes to make. In 15:23-24, Paul says:
I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.
He does have personal relationships with a number of the Christians in Rome and sends greetings to many of them. It’s somewhat misleading to use “church” or even “Christian” when referring to the communities to whom Paul was writing. Chapter 16 makes clear that he knows of a number of communities that gather in individual homes and may not have close connections with each other.
Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, Romans is not written in response to conflict he is aware of, or in response to questions or issues that have developed. Instead, Paul is addressing the issues that he thinks are most important; above all, the relationship between these Gentiles who believe Jesus is the Messiah and Jews, some of whom also believe Jesus to be the Messiah, and many others who have rejected that idea. It’s likely that there are some Jews among the Christians in Rome, but it’s also likely that part of the issue for Paul is making a case for the continued inclusion of Jewish believers in these communities.
Dale Allison (Yale University) on the social context of the letter to the Romans. Allison suggests that Paul writes about law and justification in such a way because he’s worried about his upcoming visit to Jerusalem and he’s hoping to get the Roman Christians on his side. Allison: “There’s no Christians or Christianity in Paul’s letters.”
It’s also important to note that the traditional Protestant interpretation of Romans that focused on matters of individual justification and salvation and viewed Paul’s argument as a rejection of Jewish law, however compelling that may be, is probably not what Paul originally intended.
Who was the first person to “teach” Paul’s letter to the Romans? According to Michael Byrd, Phoebe.