Introduction to Romans


The magisterial character of Romans is apparent to any careful reader, and its importance is magnified when one reflects on the history of exegesis. Even though Augustine never wrote a full-length commentary on Romans, his theology—which has probably exerted more influence on the church worldwide than any theologian in the history of the church—was significantly indebted to Romans. The impact of Romans on Martin Luther’s theology is well known. He formulated his understanding of sin, law and gospel, faith, salvation, and the righteousness of God by conducting an intensive exegesis of this letter. In his preface to the epistle he says, “This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul” (Luther 1972: 365). Luther’s understanding of Romans and Pauline theology constituted the most significant shift in exegesis and theology since Augustine. Indeed, Luther’s pastoral and theological wrestling with the letter continue to influence us to this very day.

One should not reflect on the significance of the letter without mentioning John Calvin. Calvin’s exegesis of the letter is characterized by the “lucid brevity” (1960: 1) that he considers the chief virtue of the interpreter. Thereby the meaning of the author is not muffled by the verbosity of the commentator. The seriousness with which he applied himself is evident. “It is, therefore, presumptuous and almost blasphemous to turn the meaning of Scripture around without due care, as though it were some game that we were playing” (1960: 4). He identifies the theme of Romans as follows: “Man’s only righteousness is the mercy of God in Christ, when it is offered by the Gospel and received by faith” (1960: 5). He also remarks (1960: 5) that “if we have gained a true understanding of this Epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of Scripture.” Calvin admirably succeeded in his desire to write a commentary marked by clarity and brevity, and scholars still read his commentary today as a model of theological and historical exegesis.

The impact of Romans lives on in our century. Karl Barth’s 1919 commentary on Romans is not consulted for its exegetical mastery, but he jolted his contemporaries awake by listening to the theology of the apostle Paul. Our first goal as interpreters is to do the same. Exegesis begins with a patient and humble listening to the text, with the willingness to hear an alien word. We are all prone to read our own conceptions into the text. Thus our first task is simply to see what the text actually says. Those who interpreted the text before us are an immense help in this endeavor, although we must also strive to hear the text afresh so that the Word of God will speak to our generation as it did to those who journeyed before us.

Authorship and Date

No serious scholar today doubts that Paul wrote Romans. A few scholars in the history of interpretation, especially at the end of the nineteenth century, have doubted its authenticity. Cranfield (1979: 2) remarks rightly that this opinion can be estimated as “among the curiosities of NT scholarship.” Pauline authorship is one of the assured results of NT scholarship, and thus further discussion on this issue is unnecessary.

What is more interesting is the role that Tertius played as Paul’s amanuensis (Rom. 16:22). How much freedom was he given in the composition of the letter? Three different possibilities have been suggested (see Cranfield 1975: 2-5): (1) Paul communicated the general themes of the letter to Tertius, who wrote the letter according to Paul’s instructions but was responsible for its composition. In this scenario the specific features of the letter should be attributed to Tertius, while the general themes derive from Paul. (2) Tertius took down Paul’s dictation in shorthand and later wrote it out in longhand. (3) Paul dictated the letter word for word, and Tertius wrote it out in longhand. If one of the last two options is judged most probable, it is impossible to know for certain which course was taken. A decision between them is not crucial because in the final analysis they amount to the same thing: the letter represents word for word what Paul dictated. The first option is the least likely of the three. There is evidence that secretaries wrote both in longhand and shorthand in Paul’s time (see Cranfield 1979: 3-4). It is intrinsically unlikely that Paul would surrender the specific contents of Romans to Tertius. The letter was of great import to Paul, and its careful structure suggests that he fussed over the details. Indeed, the ever present γάρ (gar, for) suggests a dictated text (Fitzmyer 1993c: 42). The style of Romans fits with Paul’s other letters that are accepted as authentic, and there is no evidence that Tertius composed those. In conclusion, Romans should be accepted as the product of Paul’s dictation to Tertius, and the question whether it was first composed in shorthand or longhand should be left open.

One distinctive of this commentary should be mentioned at this juncture. One’s judgment on the authenticity of the other Pauline letters plays a role in how one interprets Romans. We must beware of the danger of reading other Pauline letters into Romans, a practice that can have the effect of muting the unique characteristics of Romans. The letter to the Romans itself should always be the primary evidence in adjudicating interpretive options. Nonetheless, it is naive to think that our understanding of other Pauline letters has no effect on our interpretation of Romans. Thus even though Betz (1979: xv-xvi) attempts to interpret Galatians on its own terms in theory, in practice he often resorts to Romans to explain Galatians. This is only inappropriate if Romans is being imposed on Galatians. When we have two or more writings by the same individual, our knowledge of the overall worldview of that person increases as we read more of his or her writings. Our interpretive hunches in difficult texts are more plausible if they are based on the larger panorama of the Pauline corpus as a whole. We must steer between the Scylla of imposing other Pauline writings upon Romans and the Charybdis of refusing any insight from his other letters in interpreting this letter. In this commentary I work from the assumption that all thirteen of the Pauline letters are authentic. Thus I draw on parallels from the other twelve letters when appropriate. The first letters that many scholars dismiss as inauthentic are the Pastorals. This is not the place to defend their authenticity in detail. In my judgment, however, convincing arguments have been marshaled to support their authenticity (see Kelly 1981: 3-34; Fee 1988: 1-26; L. Johnson 1986: 381-92; Guthrie 1990: 607-49; Carson, Moo, and Morris 1992: 359-71; Ellis 1992). Of course, the primary evidence for interpreting a text is the document itself, and the skilled interpreter should demonstrate why his or her interpretation is the most plausible in the existing context.

Dating ancient letters is notoriously difficult, but in the case of Romans we can safely locate the letter between a.d. 55 and 58. Paul informs the Romans that he is finished with his missionary endeavors in the east (Rom. 15:19-23) and that he plans to visit Rome after completing his proposed visit to Jerusalem (15:24-32). When we compare Romans with Acts, the time period when Romans was composed can be narrowed down more specifically. Paul’s intention to go to Rome crystallized after his two plus years in Ephesus (Acts 19:10, 21-22). Before traveling to Rome, however, he was intent upon going to Jerusalem (19:21), and he also planned to visit Macedonia and Achaia before traveling to Jerusalem (19:21). From 20:1-6 it is clear that Paul reached both Macedonia and Achaia, spending three months in Achaia (20:2-3). An interesting correspondence emerges between Acts and Romans here, for in Rom. 15:26 Paul only mentions Macedonia and Achaia as having contributed to the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. It is unlikely that no collection was taken from the churches in Galatia and Asia, for some of the persons mentioned in Acts 20:4 came from Galatia and Asia. Thus Paul likely mentions the contribution from Macedonia and Achaia because they were the most recent contributors. Indeed, he likely wrote Romans during the three-month interval in which he was in Greece (Acts 20:2-3). We can be even more specific: he probably wrote the letter from Corinth. This provenance is supported by two early subscriptions to the letter in the manuscripts B1 and D1. Internal evidence from Rom. 16 also favors this conclusion. (1) Paul commends Phoebe, who was probably the bearer of the letter and was from Cenchreae (16:1-2). Cenchreae was one of the port cities for Corinth, and thus lends plausibility to a Corinthian origin. (2) Gaius is said to be Paul’s host (Rom. 16:23), and it is likely that this is the same Gaius who resided in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14). (3) The city manager Erastus (see exegesis and exposition of Rom. 16:21-23) may be the same person who served as an aedile in Corinth (cf. 2 Tim. 4:20: “Erastus remained in Corinth”). The most plausible place of origin, therefore, is Corinth in the period specified in Acts 20:2-3.

All of this information does not provide the exact date of Romans. The Archimedean point for Pauline chronology is the accession of Gallio as proconsul of Corinth. Fitzmyer (1993c: 87) locates it in a.d. 52, whereas Cranfield (1979: 13) opts for a.d. 51. Paul was brought before Gallio, therefore, in the fall of either 51 or 52 (Acts 18:12-17). When we add the two plus years in Ephesus (Acts 19:10), then the earliest possible date appears to be a.d. 54. Barrett (1957: 5) and Morris (1988: 6-7) suggest the first three months of 55. Others prefer the winter or spring of 55-56 or 56-57 (Kümmel 1975: 311; J. Robinson 1976: 55; Bruce 1977: 324; Cranfield 1979: 12-16; Hemer 1980: 9-12; Drane 1980: 209; Dunn 1988b: xlii; Bornkamm 1991: 16; Moo 1991: 3; Stuhlmacher 1994: 8; Mounce 1995: 26 suggests a.d. 56). Still others believe that 57-58 is the most likely (Sanday and Headlam 1902: xiii; M. Black 1973: 20; Fitzmyer 1993c: 87; Byrne 1996: 9). Certainty on this issue is impossible, but we should confine the date to the period between 55 and 58 (although C. Dodd [1932: xxvi] opts for a.d. 59).

Unity, Text, and Integrity

Most scholars assume the unity of Romans without argumentation. Schmithals (1975 and 1988) argues that the current letter stitches together two letters: letter A (1:1-4:25; 5:12-11:36; 15:8-13) written from Ephesus, and letter B (12:1-21; 13:8-10; 14:1-15:4a, 7, 5-6; 15:14-32; 16:21-23; 15:33), which was written subsequently. Kinoshita (1965) maintains that a later editor combined three of Paul’s writings together in Romans: (1) Rom. 16; (2) the writings to the Jews (2:1-5; 2:17-3:20; 3:27-4:5; 5:12-7:25; 9:1-11:36; 14:1-15:3; 15:4-13); and (3) a sermon on the Gentile mission (1:1-32; 2:6-16; 3:21-26; 5:1-11; 8:1-39; 12:1-13:14; 15:14-33). O’Neill (1975) charts his own course by postulating numerous glosses in the letter. These theories are quite arbitrary and have persuaded scarcely anyone. Hays (1995: 76) remarks incisively, “Such theories belong in a museum of exegetical curiosities rather than in a serious discussion of the theological coherence of Romans. These hypotheses demonstrate nothing more than the inability of their authors to tolerate dialectical complexity.” No textual evidence exists for these hypotheses, and it is hard to imagine any later redactor weaving the letter together in the ways proposed.

Three textual issues come to the forefront in Romans: (1) Is the Roman destination (ἐν Ῥώμῃ, en Rhōmē, in Rome, 1:7; τοῖς ἐν Ῥώμῃ, tois en Rhōmē, to those in Rome, 1:15) original or was it added later by scribes? (2) Was Rom. 16 originally part of the letter to the Romans, or is there a more plausible explanation for its placement? These first two issues will be addressed below in discussing the integrity of Romans and the place of chapter 16. (3) Is the doxology (16:25-27) authentically Pauline and rightly located at the conclusion of the letter, or was it added at some point by a later redactor? In the additional notes to 16:25-27 I argue that the verses are authentically Pauline and are rightly located at the conclusion of the letter.

Issues of the original text and the integrity of Romans coalesce with respect to chapter 16. T. Manson’s theory (1991; cf. Munck 1959: 197-200) that Paul composed two versions of Romans, one in which chapters 1-15 were sent to Rome and another in which chapter 16 was added to chapters 1-15 for the church in Ephesus, has provoked the most interest. Scholars have often questioned whether chapter 16 was originally sent to Rome, since Paul greets twenty-six people and it seems doubtful that Paul would know so many people in distant Rome (cf. J. McDonald 1969-70). Some argue that Rom. 16 was added by a later redactor. Others raise questions about the function of chapters 15-16. Lightfoot (1893: 311-20) believes that all sixteen chapters were sent to Rome, but that chapters 15-16 were deleted later to make the letter a circular, and that the doxology (16:25-27) was added to the shorter recension. Others (e.g., Lake 1914: 362-65) argue that Paul originally composed fourteen chapters. Later he added 1:7, 15 and chapter 15 to specify a Roman destination, and chapter 16 was also appended.

Before examining the viability of the above theories, I will summarize the textual evidence supporting the idea that Romans circulated with only the first 14 chapters (for a detailed examination of the evidence see Gamble 1977: 16-33). (1) An early Vulgate manuscript (Codex Amiatinus), which contains short summaries (called breves) of the various sections of the letter, lists 14:13-23 as the fiftieth summary and 16:25-27 as the fifty-first. The omission of 15:1-16:23 suggests that the author of the summaries did not have those verses before him. (2) In a number of manuscripts the doxology (16:25-27) follows 14:23, intimating that the latter verse may have functioned as the conclusion of the letter (following only 14:23 in Ψ, 0209vid, 1881, Majority text, syh, Orlat mss; following both 14:23 and 16:25 in A, P, 33, 104, pc). (3) The Marcionite prologue says that Romans was written from Athens, whereas a more natural reading of Rom. 15-16 locates its origin in Corinth (see “Authorship and Date” above). (4) In discussing Rom. 14 Tertullian refers to it as “the conclusion of the letter” (clausula epistolae; for the text see Gamble 1977: 21). It appears, therefore, that he did not know of chapters 15-16. This idea is strengthened by the fact that he never cites chapters 15-16. Perhaps Irenaeus and Cyprian did not have a version with the last two chapters either, for they never cite it in their writings. (5) Origen says that Marcion removed the doxology (for the text see Gamble 1977: 22). He then proceeds to say that “he cut away” (dissecuit) everything that follows 14:23. The verb dissecuit could be interpreted to say that he altered the contents of chapters 15 and 16 substantially, but most scholars understand it as saying that Marcion deleted chapters 15 and 16. (6) A few manuscripts omit ἐν Ῥώμῃ in 1:7 (G, pc, Or, 1739mg) and τοῖς ἐν Ῥώμῃ in 1:15 (G). Such omissions are reasonable if those words were later insertions when chapters 15 and 16 were added, for chapter 15 suggests that the Roman community is being addressed.

An argument can also be made that Romans originally had fifteen chapters. In 46 the doxology follows chapter 15, evidence that could be interpreted to support the theory that the letter concluded with chapter 15 (see esp. T. Manson 1991: 7-12).

The evidence adduced above is impressive enough to support the thesis that a fourteen-chapter version of Romans circulated. But the external evidence falls far short of the conclusion that the fourteen-chapter version constituted the original text. The manuscript evidence overwhelmingly supports the theory that the sixteen-chapter version of Romans was the original text. The omission of “Rome” in a few Western manuscripts in 1:7 and 1:15 is almost certainly a deliberate deletion by those who circulated an abbreviated edition of the letter, for the best textual witnesses (and the majority) contain the references to Rome. It should also be noted that the theory that Paul originally wrote chapters 1-14 and then added chapter 15 later (see Lightfoot 1893: 311-20; Lake 1914: 362-65) is almost universally dismissed today. The discussion relative to the weak and the strong does not end in chapter 14 but continues to 15:6 or 15:13. It is difficult to believe that a later appendix would carry on the dialogue with the strong and the weak.

What must be explained is how a fourteen-chapter version of Romans came into circulation. Scholars have suggested that a shorter version was produced for liturgical reasons, at the behest of Marcion or his disciples (e.g., Sanday and Headlam 1902: xcvi-xcvii; Leenhardt 1961: 26; Zuntz 1953: 227), accidentally, or to make the contents of the letter accessible to a wider audience (Gamble 1977: 115-24). Certainty is impossible, but the Marcionite hypothesis seems the most probable.

It is remarkable that although some textual evidence supports a fourteen-chapter edition of Romans (but we have seen that it is certainly secondary), the only evidence for a fifteen-chapter version is 46, to which T. Manson appeals to support his theory that chapter 16 was sent to Ephesus. But even in 46 chapter 16 follows the doxology (16:25-27). There is no extant textual evidence, therefore, that Rom. 15 ever circulated apart from chapter 16. The chief reason for the hypothesis that Rom. 16 was sent to Ephesus is the content of the chapter. Scholars who favor the Ephesian hypothesis doubt that Paul would have known the twenty-six people in Rome who are greeted in chapter 16. Knowing twenty-six people in Ephesus, however, is easily understandable given Paul’s ministry there. An Ephesian destination is strengthened by the reference to Prisca and Aquila (16:3-5), for they traveled with Paul to Ephesus (Acts 18:18), established a church in the city (1 Cor. 16:19), and resided there when Paul wrote his last letter (2 Tim. 4:19). If Rom. 16 was sent to Rome, then we have to postulate that Prisca and Aquila left Rome, established a residence in Ephesus, proceeded back to Rome and established a church there, and then returned again to Ephesus. Similarly, Epaenetus is said (Rom. 16:5) to be from the province of Asia, which is fitting if the greetings are sent to Ephesus. The separability of Rom. 16 is also defended by the reference to Phoebe in 16:1-2, for the chapter could be classified as a letter of recommendation for Phoebe. The warning in 16:17-20 also seems jarring if sent to Rome, because the warning is distinctive and there is no evidence that false teachers had infiltrated the Roman churches.

The arguments for an Ephesian destination carry some plausibility, but they should ultimately be rejected. Decisive reasons exist for accepting the theory that Rom. 16 was an integral part of the letter and was originally sent to Rome.