Rome and Romans, more thoughts

I started my study of Romans with a search for information about the people Paul was writing to. Christians, he says, but other than that, who? Several reference books and online sources indicate they were a mixture of economic, racial, educational, and religious backgrounds. Probably they had become believers after Roman Jews attended the feast of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out, became Christians, and then brought the Gospel back with them to Roman. (See previous post.)

Paul wrote other epistles to correct things, either mistaken beliefs or practices. So, I wondered if perhaps he had written this epistle with that idea in mind also. Of course, as he planned to visit them, he used the occasion to introduce himself and gave an impressive list of personal references toward the end. But with all of the teaching about the gospel that he included, why did he stress certain things?

I sort of started at the back of the book, to stir up a different train of thought in my mind. I’ve read this book numbers of times, and it always just seemed to me a theological discussion – Paul’s Gospel, so to speak. But obviously it is more than that.

As I flipped through this book, I came to chapter 12, about presenting your bodies as living sacrifices. Why did Paul even mention sacrifices? Why not just say live godly lives, think godly thoughts? Was there something about sacrifices themselves that he was addressing? Correcting? Back to the reference stuff, online searches, etc.

Yes, there was quite a lot about sacrifices in the daily Roman life, Jews and Gentiles and other ethnic groups alike. Rome was a hodge-podge of religious activity. It had no particular one religion that was clearly Roman itself, it had every imaginable kind and variation of religions. And many, many sacrifices! For every lifestyle choice, every problem, every decision, whether by the government or the individual – even when it came to construction of an addition to a public wall – there were sacrifices to some god or other. Asking for favor, asking to avoid displeasure, asking for good weather, good crops, good success, etc.

Okay, lots of sacrifices. What kind? Many kinds. Animals and vegetables, similar to Jewish sacrifices. Very, very rarely, human sacrifices had been made but only in extreme circumstances, according to one historian I read – that is, before the days of Nero.

One interesting kind of sacrifice was where a kind of doll was sacrificed or offered, representing the person making the sacrifice. That of course was supposed to satisfy the particular god. So now these verses in Romans 12 have a deeper meaning for me – offer you yourself to God, your own body, your own person, and not some kind of effigy substitute for yourself like Roman religions do.

When in Rome…

Praying and meditating before going to sleep last night, the Lord asked me a strange question – have you considered Rome and Romans? The apostle Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans, that much I knew. I had read and studied, even taught about the book of Romans, but had I ever considered – really considered who these people were, that the book was originally addressed to?

Well, no, I can’t say that I had. Weren’t they all Christians who lived in Rome? That’s about all I could remember. I guess to instigate more study on my part, the Lord told me a little bit about these people.

Some were immigrants to the city. Some were natives. Some were Jewish. Some were not. Some were born there. Some were not. Rome was a “melting pot” (like America) of many ethnicities, cultures, traditions, religions, societal level, education, morals and ethics.

Some had parents who had immigrated there from Israel, others had grandparents who had immigrated there from Israel, and those parents and grandparents were orthodox Jews who kept the Jewish traditions. Thus, their adult children were not integrated into the pagan Roman culture.

But for many or most of the others, they had been integrated into the local culture, politics, business, religion, society, legal and moral systems.

Into this multi-faceted Roman society came the Gospel. How? What happened next? That’s all the Lord told me. It’s as if He was smiling, knowing my love of Bible study and innate curiosity would take over from there. And of course it has.

So this morning I looked in my NIV at Paul’s introduction to the book of Romans, to see who he addressed and why he said he was writing. That gave me a little information — he didn’t know these people but he planned to come there for a visit. He wanted to impart some spiritual gift to them, to make them strong, and for them to mutually encourage each other. He also wanted a harvest from among them, I assume he meant new believers.

Of course, he wanted them to know who he was before he arrived, and what he believed, so they would know he was legitimate. Okay, so far, so good.

But those introductory verses didn’t describe the Roman believers to me very well, so I went to the internet to see if I could find a bit of historical information. I did, and this information will help me understand why Paul included all he did in his Epistle to the Romans as I begin a new read and study of it.

If you like history too, keep reading. The following is from the online Catholic Encyclopedia, April 11, 2008:

“ROME

After the sixth decade B.C. many Hebrews had settled at Rome, in the Trastevere quarter and that of the Porta Capena, and soon they became a financial power. They were incessantly making proselytes, especially among the women of the upper classes. The names of thirteen synagogues are known as existing (though not all at the same time) at Rome during the Imperial Period. Thus was the way prepared for the Gospel, whereby Rome, already mistress of the world, was to be given a new sublimer and more lasting, title to that dominion — the dominion over the souls of all mankind.

Even on the Day of Pentecost, “Roman strangers” (advenœ Romani, Acts 2:10) were present at Jerusalem, and they surely must have carried the good news to their fellow-citizens at Rome.

Ancient tradition assigns to the year 42 the first coming of St. Peter to Rome, though, according to the pseudo-Clementine Epistles, St. Barnabas was the first to preach the Gospel in the Eternal City. Under Claudius (c. A.D. 50), the name of Christ had become such an occasion of discord among the Hebrews of Rome that the emperor drove them all out of the city, though they were not long in returning. About ten years later Paul also arrived, a prisoner, and exercised a vigorous apostolate during his sojourn. The Christians were numerous at that time, even at the imperial Court. The burning of the city — by order of Nero, who wished to effect a thorough renovation — was the pretext for the first official persecution of the Christian name. Moreover, it was very natural that persecution, which had been occasional, should in course of time have become general and systematic; hence it is unnecessary to transfer the date of the Apostles’ martyrdom from the year 67, assigned by tradition, to the year 64 (see PETER, SAINT; PAUL, SAINT). Domitian’s reign took its victims both from among the opponents of absolutism and from the Christians; among them some who were of very exalted rank — Titus Flavius Clemens, Acilius Glabrio (Cemetery of Priscilla), and Flavia Domitilla, a relative of the emperor. It must have been then, too, that St. John, according to a very ancient legend (Tertullian), was brought to Rome.”