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by Albert Barnes
Introduction to Romans
This Epistle has been, with great uniformity, attributed to the apostle Paul and received as a part of the sacred canon. In the church it has never been called into question as a genuine, inspired book, except by three of the ancient sects deemed heretical - the Ebionites, the Encratites, and Cerinthians. However, even they did not deny that it was written by the apostle Paul. They rejected it because they could not make its doctrines harmonize with their views of other parts of the Scriptures. Their rejecting it, therefore, does not militate against its genuineness. That is a question to be settled historically, like the genuineness of any other ancient writing. On this point the testimony of antiquity is uniform. The proof on this subject may be seen at length in Lardner’s works. The internal evidence that this was written by Paul is stated in a most ingenious and masterly manner by Dr. Paley in his Horae Pauline.
It is agreed by all, that this Epistle was written in Greek. Though addressed to a people whose language was Latin, yet this Epistle to them, like those to other churches, was in Greek. On this point, there is also no debate. The reasons why this language was chosen were probably the following:
(1) The Epistle was designed doubtless to be read by other churches as well as the Roman congregation; compare Colossians 4:16. Yet the Greek language, being more generally known and spoken, was more adapted for this purpose than the Latin tongue.
(2) The Greek language was then understood at Rome and extensively spoken. It was a part of polite education to learn it. The Roman youth were taught it; and it was the fashion of the times to study it, even so much so as to make it a matter of complaint that the Latin was neglected for it by the Roman youth. Thus, Cicero (Pro Arch.) says, “The Greek language is spoken in almost all nations; the Latin is confined to our comparatively narrow borders.” Tacitus (Orator 29) says, “An infant born now is committed to a Greek nurse.” Juvenal (vi. 185) speaks of its being considered as an indispensable part of polite education, to be acquainted with the Greek.
(3) It is not impossible that the Jews at Rome, who constituted a separate colony, were better acquainted with the Greek than the Latin. They had a Greek translation (the Septuagint), but no Latin translation of the Scriptures (as yet), and it is very possible that they used the language in which they were accustomed to read their Scriptures and which was extensively spoken by their brethren throughout the world.
(4) The apostle was himself probably more familiar with the Greek than the Latin. He was a native of Cilicia, where the Greek was doubtless spoken, and he not infrequently quotes the Greek poets in his addresses and epistles Acts 21:37; Acts 17:28; Tit 1:12; 1 Corinthians 15:33.
This Epistle is placed first among Paul’s epistles, not because it was the first written, but because of the length and importance of the Epistle itself, as well as the importance of the church in the imperial city. It has uniformly had this place in the sacred canon, though there is reason to believe that the Epistle to the Galatians, the first to the Corinthians, and perhaps the two letters to the Thessalonians were written before this.
Of the time when it was written, there can be little doubt. About the year 52 or 54 a.d. the Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from Rome. In Acts 18:2, we have an account of the first acquaintance of Paul with Aquila and Priscilla who had departed from Rome in consequence of that decree. This acquaintance was formed in Corinth; and we are told that Paul stayed with them and worked at the same occupation Acts 18:3. In Romans 16:3-4, Paul directs the church to greet Priscilla and Aquila, who had for his life laid down their own necks. This service which they rendered to Paul must have been therefore after the decree of Claudius; and of course the Epistle must have been written after the year 52 ad.
In Acts 18:19, we are told that Paul left Aquila and Priscilla at Ephesus. Paul made a journey through the neighboring regions, and then returned to Ephesus Acts 19:1. Paul remained at Ephesus at least two years Acts 19:8, Acts 19:9, Acts 19:10, and while here probably wrote the First Epistle to the Corinthians. In that Epistle 1 Corinthians 16:19 he sends the salutation of Priscilla and Aquila, who were, of course, still at Ephesus. The Epistle to the Romans, therefore, in which Paul sends his salutation to Aquila and Priscilla, as being then at Rome, could not be written until after they had left Ephesus and returned to Rome; that is, until three years at least after the decree of Claudius in 52 or 54 ad.
Still further, when Paul wrote this Epistle of Romans, he was about to depart for Jerusalem to convey a collection which had been made for the poor saints there, by the churches in Macedonia and Achaia; Romans 15:25-26. When he had done this, he intended to go to Rome; Romans 15:28. Now, by looking at the Acts of the Apostles, we can determine when this occurred. At this time, he sent Timothy and Erastus ahead of him into Macedonia, while he remained in Asia for a season Acts 19:22. After this Acts 20:1-2, Paul himself went into Macedonia, passed through Greece, and remained about three months there. In this journey it is almost certain that Paul went to Corinth, the capital of Achaia, at which time it is supposed that Romans was written. From this place he set out for Jerusalem where he was made a prisoner, and after remaining a prisoner for two years Acts 24:27, he was sent to Rome about 60 a.d. Allowing for the time of his traveling and his imprisonment, it must have been about three years from the time that he purposed to go to Jerusalem; that is, from the time that he finished Romans Romans 15:25-29 to the time when he actually reached Rome, and thus the Epistle to the Romans must have been written about 57 ad.
It is clear also, that the Epistle to the Romans was written from Corinth. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe, a member of the church at Cenchrea, is commended to the Roman Christians. She probably had charge of the letter, or she accompanied those who had it. Cenchrea was the port of the city of Corinth, about seven or eight miles from the city. In Romans 16:23, Gaius is spoken of as the host of Paul, or he of whose hospitality Paul partook, but Gaius was baptized by Paul at Corinth, and Corinth was manifestly his place of residence; 1 Corinthians 1:14. Erastus is also mentioned as the chamberlain of the city where the Epistle to the Romans was written; but this Erastus is mentioned as having his home at Corinth; 2 Timothy 4:20. From all this it is manifest that Romans was written at Corinth about the year 57 ad.
Concerning the state of the church at Rome at that time, it is not easy to form a precise opinion. From this Epistle it is evident that it was composed of Jews and Gentiles and that one purpose of writing to it was to reconcile their jarring opinions, particularly about the obligation of the Jewish law, the advantage of the Jew, and the way of justification. It is probable that the two parties in the church were endeavoring to defend each their special opinions, and that the apostle took this opportunity and mode to state to his converted countrymen the great doctrines of Christianity, and the relation of the Law of Moses to the Christian system. The Epistle itself is full proof that the church to whom it was addressed was composed of Jews and Gentiles. No small part of it is an argument expressly with the Jews; Romans 2:0; Romans 3:0; Romans 4:0; Romans 9:0; Romans 10:0; Romans 11:0. And no small part of the Epistle is also designed to state the true doctrine about the character of the Gentiles and the way in which they could be justified before God.
At this time, there was a large number of Jews at Rome. When Pompey the Great overran Judea, he sent a large number of Jewish prisoners to Rome to be sold as slaves, but it was not easy to control them. The Jews persevered resolutely and obstinately in adhering to the rites of their nation, in keeping the Sabbath, etc. So, the Romans eventually chose to give them their freedom and assigned them a place in the vicinity of the city across the Tiber River. Here a town was built, which was principally inhabited by Jews. Josephus mentions that 4,000 Jews were banished from Rome at one time to Sardinia, and that a still greater number were punished who were unwilling to become soldiers; Ant. book 18, chapter 3, section 5. Philo (Legat. a.d. Caium) says, that many of the Jews at Rome had obtained their freedom; for, says “he, being made captive in war, and brought into Italy, they were set at liberty by their masters, neither were they compelled to change the rites of their fathers;” see also Josephus, Antiq. book 17, chapter 2, section 1; Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius, 36, and the notes at Acts 6:9. From that large number of Jews, together with those converted from the Gentiles, the church at Rome was collected, and it is easy to see that in that church there would be a great diversity of sentiment, and, no doubt, warm discussions about the authority of the Mosaic Law.
At what time, or by whom, the gospel was first preached at Rome has been a matter of controversy. The Roman Catholic Church has always maintained that it was founded by Peter, and they have thence drawn an argument for their high claims and infallibility. On this subject they make a confident appeal to some of the fathers. There is strong evidence to be derived from this Epistle itself, and from the Acts , that Paul did not regard Peter as having any such primacy and ascendency in the Roman church as are claimed for him by the Papists.
(1) In this whole Epistle, there is no mention of Peter at all! It is not suggested that he had been or was then in Rome. If he had been, and the church had been founded by him, it is incredible that Paul did not make mention of that fact. This is the more striking, as it was done in other cases where churches had been founded by other men; see 1 Corinthians 1:12-15. Peter (Cephas) is especially mentioned repeatedly by the apostle Paul in his other epistles 1 Corinthians 3:22; 1 Corinthians 9:5; 1 Corinthians 15:5; Galatians 2:9; Galatians 1:18; Galatians 2:7-8, Galatians 2:14. In these places Peter is mentioned in connection with the churches at Corinth and Galatia, yet never there as appealing to his authority, but in regard to the latter, expressly calling it into question. Now, it is incredible that if Peter had been then at Rome, and had founded the church there, and was regarded as invested with any unique authority over it, that Paul would never once have even suggested Peter’s name!
(2) It is clear that Peter was not there when Paul wrote this Epistle. If he had been, he could not have failed to have sent him a salutation, amid the numbers that he saluted in Romans 16:0.
(3) In the Acts of the Apostles, there is no mention of Peter’s having been at Rome, but the presumption from that history is almost conclusive that he had not been. In Acts 12:3-4, we have an account of his having been imprisoned by Herod Agrippa near the close of his reign (compare Acts 5:23). This occurred about the third or fourth year of the reign of Claudius, who began to reign 41 a.d. It is altogether improbable that he had been at Rome before this. Claudius had not reigned more than three years, and all the testimony that the church fathers give is that Peter came to Rome sometime during Claudius’ reign.
(4) Peter was still in Jerusalem in the 9th or 10th year of the reign of Claudius; Acts 15:6, etc. Nor is there any mention made then of his having been at Rome.
(5) Paul went to Rome about 60 a.d. There is no mention made then of Peter’s being with him or being there. If he had been, it could hardly have failed to have been recorded. This is especially remarkable when Paul’s meeting with the brethren is expressly mentioned Acts 28:14-15, and when it is recorded that he met the Jews, and stayed with them, and spent no less than two years in Rome. If Peter had been there, such a fact could not fail to have been recorded or alluded to, either in the Book of Acts or in the Epistle to the Romans.
(6) The Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, to Philemon, and the Second Epistle to Timothy (Lardner, vi. 235) were written from Rome during the residence of Paul as a prisoner; and the Epistle to the Hebrews probably also while he was still in Italy. In none of these epistles is there any hint that Peter was then or had been at Rome; a fact that cannot be accounted for if Peter were truly regarded as the founder of that church, and especially if he were then in that city. Yet in those epistles there are the salutations of a number to those churches. In particular, Epaphras, Luke the beloved physician Colossians 4:12, Colossians 4:14, and the saints of the household of Caesar are mentioned Philippians 4:22. In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul expressly affirms that only Luke was with him, a declaration utterly irreconcilable with the supposition that Peter was then in Rome.
(7) If Peter was ever in Rome, therefore, of which indeed there is no reason to doubt, he must have come there after Paul; at what time is unknown. That he was there cannot be doubted without calling into question the truth of all history.
When or by whom the gospel was preached first at Rome, it is not easy, perhaps not possible, to determine. In the account of the day of Pentecost Acts 2:10, we find, among others, that there were present strangers of Rome, and it is not improbable that they carried back the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and they became the founders of the Roman congregation. One design and effect of that miracle was doubtless to spread the knowledge of the Saviour among all nations; see the notes at Acts 2:0. In the list of persons who are mentioned in Romans 16:0 it is not improbable that some of those early converts are included; and that Paul thus intended to show honor to their early conversion and zeal in the cause of Christianity. Thus, Romans 16:7, he designates Andronicus and Junia, his kinsmen and fellow-prisoners who were distinguished among the apostles and who had been converted before Paul, that is, before 34 a.d., at least eight years before it was ever pretended that Peter was in Rome. Other persons are also mentioned as distinguished, and it is not improbable that they were the early founders of the church at Rome (Romans 16:12-13, etc.)
That the church at Rome was founded early is evident from the celebrity status which it had acquired. At the time when Paul wrote this Epistle (57 a.d.), their faith was spoken of throughout the world Romans 1:8. The character of the church at Rome cannot be clearly ascertained. Yet it is clear that it was not made up merely of the lower classes of the community. In Philippians 4:22, it appears that the gospel had made its way into the family of Caesar, and that a part of his household had been converted to the Christian faith. Some of the church fathers affirm that Nero himself in the beginning of his reign was favorably impressed with regard to Christianity, and it is possible that this might have been through the instrumentality of his family. But little on this subject can be known. While it is probable that the great mass of believers in all the early churches was of obscure and plebeian origin, it is also certain that some who were rich, and noble, and learned, became members of the church of Christ (see 1Ti 2:9; 1 Peter 3:3; 1 Timothy 6:20; Colossians 2:8; 1 Corinthians 1:26; Acts 17:34).
This Epistle has been usually deemed the most difficult of interpretation of any part of the New Testament; and no small part of the controversies in the Christian church have grown out of discussions about its meaning. Early in the history of the church, even before the death of the apostles, we learn from 2 Peter 3:16, that the writings of Paul were some of them regarded as being “hard to be understood”; and that “the unlearned and unstable wrested them to their own destruction.” It is probable that Peter has reference here to the high and mysterious doctrines about justification and the sovereignty of God, and the doctrines of election and decrees. From the Epistle of James, it would seem probable also, that already the apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith had been perverted and abused. It seems to have been inferred that good works were unnecessary; and here was the beginning of the cheerless and withering system of Antinomianism - than which a more destructive or pestilential heresy never found its way into the Christian church. Several reasons might be assigned for the controversies which have grown out of this Epistle:
(1) The very structure of the argument, and the uniqueness of the apostle’s manner of writing. Paul is rapid, mighty, profound, often involved, readily following a new thought, leaving the regular subject, and returning again after a considerable interval. Hence, his writings abound with parentheses and with complicated paragraphs.
(2) Objections are often introduced, so that it requires close attention to determine their precise bearing. Though Paul employs no small part of the Epistle in answering objections, yet an objector is never once formally introduced or mentioned.
(3) Many of Paul’s expressions and phrases are liable to be misunderstood, and capable of perversion. Of this class are such expressions as “the righteousness of faith,” “the righteousness of God,” etc.
(4) The doctrines themselves are high and mysterious. They are those subjects upon which the most profound minds have been in all ages exercised in vain. On them there has been, and always will be a difference of opinion. Even with the most honest intentions that people ever have, they find it difficult or impossible to approach the investigation of them without the bias of early education or the prejudice of previous opinion. In this world, it is not given to human beings to fully understand these great doctrines. And it is not wonderful that the discussion of them has given rise to endless controversies: and that they who have:
Of Providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate;
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
Have found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
(5) It cannot be denied that one reason why the epistles of Paul have been regarded as so difficult has been an unwillingness to admit the truth of the plain doctrines which he teaches. The heart is by nature opposed to them and comes to believe them with great reluctance. This feeling will account for no small part of the difficulties felt in regard to this Epistle. There is one great maxim in interpreting the Scriptures that can never be departed from. It is, that people can never understand them aright, until they are willing to allow them to speak out their fair and proper meaning. When people are determined not to find certain doctrines in the Bible, nothing is more natural than that they should find difficulties in it, and complain much of its great obscurity and mystery. I add,
(6) That one principal reason why so much difficulty has been felt here, has been an unwillingness to stop where the apostle does. People have desired to advance further, and penetrate the mysteries which the Spirit of inspiration has not disclosed. Where Paul states a simple fact, people often advance a theory. The fact may be clear and plain; their theory is obscure, involved, mysterious, or absurd. By degrees they learn to unite the fact and the theory. They regard their explanation as the only possible one; and, since the fact in question has the authority of divine revelation, so they insensibly come to regard their theory in the same light; and the one who calls into question their speculation about the cause, or the mode, is set down as heretical, and as denying the doctrine of the apostle. A melancholy instance of this we have in the account which the apostle gives Romans 5:0 about the effect of the sin of Adam. The simple fact is stated that that sin was followed by the sin and ruin of all his posterity.
Yet he offers no explanation of the fact. He leaves it as indubitable; and as not demanding an explanation in his argument - perhaps as not admitting it. This is the whole of his doctrine on that subject. Yet people have not been satisfied with that. They have sought for a theory to account for it. And many suppose that they have found it in the doctrine that the sin of Adam is imputed, or set over by an arbitrary arrangement to Beings otherwise innocent, and that they are held to be responsible for a deed committed by a man thousands of years before they were born. This is the theory; and people insensibly forget that it is mere theory, and they blend that and the fact which the apostle states together; and deem the denial of the one, heresy as much as the denial of the other, i. e., they make it as impious to call into question their philosophy, as to doubt the facts stated on the authority of the apostle Paul. If people desire to understand the epistles of Paul, and avoid difficulties, they should be willing to leave it where he does; and this single rule would have made useless several years and entire volumes of controversy.
Perhaps, on the whole, there is no book of the New Testament that demands more a humble, docile, and prayerful disposition in its interpretation than this Epistle. Its profound doctrines, its abstruse inquiries, and the opposition of many of those doctrines to the views of the unrenewed and unsubdued heart of man, make a spirit of docility and prayer especially necessary in its investigation. No one has ever understood the reasonings and views of the apostle Paul except under the influence of elevated piety. No one has ever found opposition to his doctrines recede, and difficulties vanish, who did not bring the mind in an humble frame to receive all that has been revealed; and that, in a spirit of humble prayer, did not purpose to lay aside all bias and open the heart to the full influence of the elevated truths which the apostle Paul inculcates. Where there is a willingness that God should reign and do all His pleasure, this Epistle to the Romans may, in its general character, be easily understood. Where this is something lacking, it will appear full of mystery and perplexity; the mind will be embarrassed, and the heart dissatisfied with its doctrines; and the unhumbled spirit will rise from its study only confused, irritated, perplexed, and dissatisfied.
the Fifth Week after Easter