Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator


Book Overview - Romans

by Joseph Exell



I. Its genuineness and authenticity. The author declares himself to be Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles (Romans 1:1-7; Rom_15:15-20), who writes in order to fulfil his commission “to bring all the Gentiles to the obedience of the faith” (Romans 1:5).

1. The witnesses. The unanimous tradition of the Church is in harmony with the declaration of the author.

2. Objections answered. Throughout the whole course of the past centuries only two theologians have contested this unanimous testimony--Evanson and Bruno Bauer. They ask--

3. The force of the argument. Could this absolute unanimity have been obtained for a forgery? Suppose a case. The laws of causation have been set aside, and a bramble has produced the fruit of Paradise: a deceiver has written this Epistle. Or a great man has written it, and left his offspring to the tender mercies of an ungrateful world. The foundling has escaped the notice of everyone else, and come into the hands of a deceiver, and by him has been wrapped up in the garments of Paul and brought to Rome. When was it brought? Not during the apostle’s life, for he died at Rome; and his presence was a safeguard against such imposture. It must then have been brought after his death. It is shown to the members of the Church. No one has heard of it before. Yet it professes to have been sent to them years ago, when Paul was in active work, and before he came to Rome. They ask at once, Where has the letter been all this time? Why have we not seen it before? The details given in chaps, 1, 15, expose the fraud. That this important work is in the form of a letter to a prominent church, is in some sense a voucher for its genuineness. In short, we have a result for which we seek causes: the unanimous acceptance of the Epistle in the 2nd century. In Paul we have an author worthy of the Epistle; in the Epistle we have a work worthy of Paul. If it came from him its universal reception is accounted for. If it did not, its reception is a fact for which no sufficient cause is assigned. (Prof. J. A. Beet.)

II. Date and locality of composition. These can be fixed to a nicety by a comparison of the Pauline letters with the Pauline history in the Acts.

1. It was written before the apostle had been at Rome (Romans 1:11; Rom_1:13; Rom_1:15), but during the time when he was purposing to go there after his visit to Jerusalem (Romans 15:23-28). Such was the apostle’s wish when at Ephesus (Acts 19:21), just before his visit to Greece (Acts 20:2).

2. It was written when he was about to take a collection of alms from Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem (Romans 15:26; Rom_15:31); and this he did carry from Greece to Jerusalem at the close of his three months’ stay (Acts 20:2; Act_02:3; Act_24:17).

3. When Paul wrote it, Timotheus, Sosipater, Gaius, and Erastus were with him (Romans 16:21; Rom_16:23). Now in the Acts the three first of these are actually mentioned as being with him during his three months’ stay in Greece (Acts 20:2-3); and Erastus (2 Timothy 4:20), who was probably himself a Corinthian, had been sent shortly before from Ephesus (Acts 19:22) to Macedonia with himself.

4. From 1 Corinthians 16:10-11 we learn that Timotheus was sent to Corinth; and as Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2), the probable bearer of the Epistle, came from Cenchrea, the port of Corinth, it seems almost certain that during Paul’s three months’ stay in Greece he wrote the Epistle to the Romans. “It was written,” too, Lewin remarks, “from Corinth, and not from Cenchrea, for Gaius, a Corinthian (1 Corinthians 1:14), was the host of the apostle at the time of writing the Epistle (Romans 16:23); and while Paul mentions Cenchrea by name, he refers to Corinth as ‘the city,’ viz., in which he was sojourning” (Romans 16:1; Rom_16:23).

5. As Paul was imprisoned two years before Felix’s recall and Festus’s appointment in A.D. 60 (Acts 24:27), we arrive at the early spring of A.D. 58 as the date of the Epistle. (C. Nell, M. A.)

III. Literary characteristics.

1. Its style.

(a) It is Paul’s constant habit to insulate the one matter he is considering and to regard it irrespective of qualifications or objections up to a certain point. Much of the difficulty in chaps, 5, 6, 7 has arisen from not bearing this in mind.

(b) After thus treating the subject till the main result is gained, he then takes into account qualifications and objections, but in a manner peculiar to himself; introducing them by putting the overstrained use, or the abuse of the proposition, in an interrogative form, and answering the question just asked.

(c) One of the most wonderful phenomena is the manner in which all such parenthetical inquiries are interwoven with the great subject; in which, while he pursues and annihilates the off-branching fallacy, at the same time he has been advancing in the main path--whereas in most human arguments each digression must have its definite termination. The thesis must be resumed where it has been left. A notable instance is seen in chap. 6, in which, while the mischievous fallacy of Romans 6:1 is discussed and annihilated, the great subject of the introduction of life by Christ is carried on through another step--viz. the establishment of that life as one of sanctification. Among other characteristics note--

(d) Frequent and complicated antitheses, requiring great discrimination. For often the different members of the antitheses are not to be taken in the same extent of meaning; sometimes the literal and metaphorical significations are inter changed in a curious and intricate manner, so that perhaps in the first member of two antithetical clauses the subject may be literal and the predicate metaphorical, and in the second vice versa. Sometimes, again, the terms of one member are to be amplified to their fullest possible meaning, whereas those of the second are to be reduced down to their least possible meaning.

(e) Frequent plays upon words, or rather, perhaps, choice of words, from their similarity of sound, which of course cannot be translated, and thus much of the terseness and force of the apostle’s expressions are lost.

(f) Accumulation of prepositions often with the same or very slightly different meanings, which tempts the expositor to give precise meaning and separate force to each, thus exceeding the intention of the sentence.

(g) Frequency and peculiarity of parentheses which are hard to disentangle. The danger is lest we too hastily assume an irregular construction not perceiving the parenthetical interruption, and lest we err on the other side and assume a parenthesis where none exists. The parentheses, however, are generally well marked to the careful observer, and their peculiarity consists in this, that owing to his fervour and rapidity Paul frequently deserts in a clause intended to be parenthetical, the construction of the main sentence, and instead of resuming it again, proceeds with the parenthesis as though it were the main sentence. Instances of all these difficulties will be found in chap. 5, where they reach their culminating point. (Dean Alford.)

2. The language in which it was written. This Epistle to the Romans was written not in their own language, the Latin, but in Greek. Of this the explanation is that the Greek had become the literary language of the empire. It was the tongue which, no doubt, Paul himself best understood; and the great majority of his hearers would understand it also. The Jews learnt it by intercourse with Greeks, and many of the Romans preferred it to the Latin. The oldest Jewish tombs of Rome have Greek inscriptions, and that Gentile Christians understood it we infer from various witnesses: from Martial, Tacitus, Juvenal and Ovid, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, and Irenaeus wrote in Greek to the Church at Rome. Justin Martyr, who resided in Rome for a time, wrote his apologies to the emperors in the same tongue. Clement and Hermas wrote in Greek. Of the names of the first twelve bishops of Rome, ten are Greek, and only two Latin. Of the twenty-four names found in Romans 16:5-15, one is Hebrew, seven are Latin, and sixteen Greek, and they belong for the most part to the middle and lower grades of society. Many of them are found in the columbaria of the freedmen and slaves of the early Roman emperors (Philippians 4:22). (S. G. Green, D. D.)

IV. Concluding reflections. Coleridge pronounced the Epistle to be “the profoundest book in existence.” Chrysostom had it read to him twice a week. Luther says in his preface: “This Epistle is the chief work of the New Testament, the purest gospel. It deserves not only to be known word for word by every Christian, but to be the subject of his meditation day by day, the daily bread of his soul. The more time one spends upon it, the more precious it becomes and the better it appears.” Melanchthon, in order to make it thoroughly his own, copied it twice with his own hand. It is the book he most frequently expounded in his lectures. The Reformation was undoubtedly the work of Romans as well as Galatians; and the probability is that every great spiritual revival in the Church will be connected as cause and effect with a deeper understanding of this book. This observation unquestionably applies to the various religious awakenings which have successively marked the course of our century. In studying the Epistle we feel ourselves at every word face to face with the unfathomable. Our experience is somewhat analogous to what we feel when contemplating the great masterpieces of mediaeval architecture, such, e.g., as the cathedral of Milan. We do not know which to admire most, the majesty of the whole or the finish of the details, and every look makes the discovery of some new perfection. M. De Pressense has called the great dogmatic works of the Middle Ages “the cathedrals of thought.” The Epistle to the Romans is the cathedral of the Christian faith. (S. G. Green, D. D.)

The Church of Rome

I. Its origin.

1. It was not founded by Peter. According to Papal teaching this apostle came to Rome to preach the gospel and combat the heresies of Simon Magus at the beginning of the reign of Claudius (41-54). But it is probable that this tradition rests on a gross mistake of Justin Martyr’s, who took a statue raised to a Sabine god (Semo Sanctus) for one erected to the sorcerer. But if the tradition were true Paul evidently could not write a long letter to this Church without mentioning its founder, nor indeed could he write it at all in consistency with his own principles had Peter been its founder (Romans 15:20; 2 Corinthians 10:16). It is supported, however, by two facts.

2. It was probably founded by the Pentecostal disciples of Peter. We may readily believe that the first nucleus of the Christian order and discipline which was about to develop itself would be the declaration of Peter, “that God hath made this same Jesus, whom ye”--(the Jews at Jerusalem)--“have crucified, both Lord and Christ”; that confession upon which Christ had said that He would build His Church as upon a rock. This, they would say one to another, is the faith we have learnt from Peter, who seemed to be the mightiest among the disciples we met on the day of Pentecost; whose preaching was confirmed to us by the gift of tongues. The name of Peter would still stand first and foremost in their minds, and occupy the chief place in their accounts of what they had discovered. To him they would refer as the author of their faith. As their internal organisation began to assume a form, they would recognise in him the founder of their Church. Such, we may presume, would be the natural progress of ideas among them. Even if Peter never came to Rome at all, never assumed any authority of the Church, nevertheless, it was natural that to him such a foundation should be attributed, that an ecclesiastical legend should grow up around it, and that it should become, in the course of ages, an established article of popular belief that Peter was the founder of the Roman Church, and the first bishop of Rome. Such, indeed, we know to have been the case; but the historical testimony on which this development is founded is absolutely worthless. We assume that the message of the gospel was first announced at Rome by the Jews or proselytes who had been converted to Christ by the preaching of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost, A.D. 33. These men doubtless talked over what they had seen; they discussed its bearings; they contracted a natural sympathy, and communicated their own hope and faith to those nearest to them. As heirs of one hope and of the same calling they rejoiced over every new adherent whom they attracted to their side and induced to listen to their spiritual exhortations. One or another of them would come to be soon acknowledged as a leader, for his spiritual gifts, for his gift of praying, of preaching or expounding, for the sanctity of his life, or generally for the superior force of his character. These disciples would occupy themselves in searching the Scriptures for their witness to Christ’s appearance, and for the assurance they might give of a new covenant with the God of Israel. But they would not all at once develop any form of spiritual government among themselves. They would be satisfied at first with administering the simple rite of baptism as an assurance of the remission of sins upon a declaration of repentance; they would live constantly together in the practice of mutual kindness, breaking bread from house to house, and consecrating their meal with prayer, in remembrance of their blessed Lord and Saviour. Such would be “the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship,” in which they had been instructed at Jerusalem; such the common forms of obedience by which they would become mutually known to one another. But they had received no instructions there as to the position which the law must now assume, the conditions of the covenant of grace, the services or ministry of the gospel. Such matters as these, fundamental as they were, must be left for their own discovery, or for the arrival of more advanced teachers to disclose to them. (Dean Merivale.)

3. Or possibly by the Gentile converts of Paul. Without denying what may have been done in an isolated way for the spread of Christianity in Rome by Jews returning from Jerusalem, we must assign the founding of the Roman Church to a different origin. Rome was to the world what the heart is to the body--the centre of vital circulation. Tacitus asserts that “all things hateful or shameful were sure to flow to Rome from all parts of the empire.” This law must be applied to better things. Long before the composition of this Epistle, the gospel had already crossed the frontier of Palestine and spread among the Gentile populations of Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece. Endowed as it was with an inherent force of expansion, could not the new religious principle easily find its way from those countries to Rome? There are some facts which serve to confirm the essentially Gentile origin of the Roman Church. Five times in the salutations (chap. 16) the apostle addresses groups of Christians scattered over the great city. At least five times for once to the contrary the names are Greek and Latin, not Jewish. These bear witness to the manner in which the gospel gained a footing in the capital. This wide dissemination and those Gentile names find a natural explanation in the arrival of Christians from Greece and Asia, who had preached the Word each in the quarter of the city where he lived. A still more significant fact is that of Acts 28:15, which proves that the Roman brethren already loved and venerated Paul as their spiritual father, and that consequently their Christianity proceeded directly or indirectly from the Churches founded by Paul in Greece and Asia, rather than from the Judaeo-Christian Church of Jerusalem. The objection has been raised that the time between the composition of the Epistle (57 or 58) and the founding of the Churches of Greece (cir. 53 or 54) is too short for the gospel to have spread so far as Rome, and for the “whole world” to have heard of the fact (Romans 1:8). But the latter phrase is, of course, somewhat hyperbolical (cf., 1 Thessalonians 1:8; Colossians 1:6)
, and the time is surely enough to admit of reinforcements from the great commercial centres of Thessalonica and Corinth, of those who at any time from the year 40, when the Churches of Syria were founded, may have brought the gospel from thence or from Asia Minor. The question arises how it was that the standard of the new doctrine had not yet been raised in the synagogue? And the answer is, that for such a mission it was not enough to be a sincere believer; one required to have a scriptural knowledge and a power of speech and argument which could not be expected from simple men engaged in commerce and industry. When (
Acts 18:26) Apollos “made bold” to speak in the Ephesian synagogue even Aquila did not attempt to answer him in the open assembly. Only a very small number of men exceptionally qualified could essay an attack such as would tell on the fortress of Roman Judaism, and not one of these strong men had yet appeared in the capital. We have in the founding of the Church of Antioch a case analogous to that which we are supposing for the Church of Rome. Some Christian emigrants from Jerusalem reach the capital of Syria shortly after the martyrdom of Stephen; they turn to the Greeks, i.e., the Gentiles. A large number believe, and the distinction between this community of Gentile origin and the synagogue is so marked that the new name “Christian” is invented to designate believers (Acts 11:19-26). Let us transfer this scene to the capital of the empire and we have the history of the founding of the Church of Rome. We understand how Greek names are in the majority, the ignorance which prevailed among the rulers of the synagogue, and the eagerness of the Roman Christians to salute Paul on his arrival. We believe, therefore, that the Roman Church was mostly of Gentile origin and Pauline tendency, even before the apostle addressed our letter to it, and that the formation of the Church was indirectly traceable to him, because its authors proceeded for the most part from the Churches of the East, whose existence was due to his apostolic labours. (Prof. Godet.)

II. Its composite elements. As all the Christian Churches outside of Palestine were composed partly of Jews and partly of Gentiles, we would naturally expect that this would be the ease also in Rome. The Epistle, however, gives us some clear indications as to the real facts of the case.

1. That the congregation contained Jewish Christians is evident from Romans 2:17; Rom_4:1; Rom_7:1, and from the general argument of the fourteenth chapter.

2. That it contained Gentile Christians is evident from Romans 1:6; Rom_1:13; Rom_11:13; Rom_11:25; Rom_11:28; Rom_11:30; Rom_15:15-21.

3. That the Church was composed of both elements is further evinced by such passages as Romans 15:7-13; Rom_16:17-19.

4. We may also infer that the Gentile portion of the Church was in the ascendency both in numbers and in doctrinal influence. Not only was this the ordinary condition of the Churches in Gentile lands, but the whole argument of chaps, 9-11, presupposes this; and so decisive was the majority that St. Paul could even directly address the Church at Rome as a Church of believers of the Gentile world (Romans 1:5-6; Rom_1:13-15; Rom_15:15-21). That this is the correct view of the composition of the Church at Rome is further confirmed by Acts 28:16-28. (Prof. R. F. Weidner.)

The Roman Church was at once Jewish and Gentile; Jewish in feeling, Gentile in origin--Jewish, because the apostle everywhere argues with them as Jews; Gentile, because he expressly addresses them by name as such. In this double fact there is nothing strange or anomalous: it typifies the general condition of Christian Churches, whether Jewish or Gentile. To those who were Gentiles by birth, but had received the gospel originally from Jewish teachers, the subject of the Epistle would have a peculiar interest. It expressed the truth on the verge of which they stood, which seemed to be peculiarly required by their own circumstances, which explained their position to themselves. It purged the film from their eyes, which prevented them seeing the way of God perfectly. Hitherto they had acquiesced in the position which public opinion among the heathen assigned to them, that they were a Jewish sect: and they had implicitly followed the lives as well as the lessons of their first instructors in Christ. But a nobler truth was now to break upon them. God was not the God of the Jews only, but of the Gentiles also. And this wider range of vision involved a new principle, not the law, but faith. If nations of every tongue were to be included in the gospel dispensation--barbarian, Scythian, bond and free--the principle that was to unite them must be superior to the differences that separated them, and that principle was faith. In confirmation note that there is no allusion in the Epistle to circumcision. This would hardly have been the case had the Church been divided between two parties of Jew and Gentile, or had it been a Jewish Church opening its door to the Gentiles. The absence of such an allusion is, however, perfectly consistent with the fact that it was addressed to a community, the majority of whose members had not undergone the rite. (Prof. Jowett.)

III. The social rank of its members. Those saluted by Paul in chap. 16 could assuredly boast no aristocratic descent, whether from the proud patrician or the equally proud plebeian families. They bear upstart names, mostly Greek, sometimes borrowed from natural objects, sometimes adopted from a pagan hero or divinity, sometimes descriptive of personal qualities or advantages, here and there the surnames of some noble family to which they were attached perhaps as slaves or freedmen, but hardly in any ease bearing the stamp of high Roman antiquity. From the middle and lower classes, therefore, the Church drew her largest reinforcements. Of Rome, not less than Corinth, it must have been true, that “not many wise after the flesh, not many powerful, not many high born” were called. Not many, and yet perhaps a few. The great Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca, the poet Lucan, the philosopher Epictetus, the powerful freedmen Narcissus and Epaphroditus, the emperor’s mistresses Acre and Poppoea--a strange medley of good and bad have been swept by tradition or conjecture, without a shadow of evidence, into that capacious dragnet which “gathers of every kind.” Yet one illustrious convert, at least, seems to have been added about this time. Pomponia Graecina, the wife of Plautius, the conqueror of Britain, was arraigned (57 or 58) of “foreign superstition.” Delivered over to a domestic tribunal, according to ancient usage; she was tried by her husband in presence of her relations, and was pronounced by him innocent. Her grave and sad demeanour (for she never appeared but in mourning garb) was observed by all. The untimely death of her friend Julia had drawn a cloud over her life, which was never dissipated. Coupled with the charge, this notice suggests that shunning society she sought consolation under her deep sorrow in the duties and hopes of the gospel. At all events a generation later Christianity had worked its way even into the imperial family in the persons of Flavius Clemens and his wife Flavia Domitilla both cousins of Domitian. (Bp. Lightfoot.)