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Saul the Pharisee, Paul the Apostle: An Introduction to the Epistle to the Romans
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Saul the Pharisee, Paul the Apostle: An Introduction to the Epistle to the Romans

Esther WeeSydney, Australia

Verses and passages in the Epistle to the Romans are frequently cited as bases for doctrinal and theological positions. While necessary, such selective extraction does not do full justice to Paul’s greatest and most sublime work. In this epistle, a breathtaking diversity of topics fit together neatly and perfectly within Paul’s main thrust, much like how a diverse and changing landscape form the perfect backdrop through which the one mighty river flows. This article provides an introduction to the historical background of both the apostle and the city.

THE CENTRAL MESSAGE OF ROMANS

The Book of Romans comprises sixteen chapters covering topics both theological and pastoral. Despite explanatory excursus, the razor-sharp and disciplined mind of Paul, a former Pharisee trained in the Torah, maintains a firm grasp of the central message, even as he steers the reader along with the requisite flow of logic and argument. And it is a marvelous message indeed! The true God, the God of Israel, had been faithful to His covenantal promises to Israel through and in the work and person of Jesus the Messiah; through His birth, life, death, and resurrection. Both the church in Rome and indeed the whole world would need to hear of the good news.

This covenantal faithfulness of God is still being unveiled to man, even till this day, because of Jesus’ willing faithfulness and obedience. When the good news is met by a response of faith, the power and grace of God works unto the salvation of man, to the Jew first and then to the Greek (Rom 1:1–6, 16–17). The latter representing the Gentiles in the flesh, “being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise,” who are now made members of the reconstituted household of God (Eph 2:11–22). How great the mercy and wisdom of God! How significant a debt owed to the Jewish nation!

THE OCCASION OF THE EPISTLE

Paul probably wrote this epistle around AD 56–57 from Corinth, at the close of his third missionary journey during a three-month sojourn in Greece (Acts 20:2–3), and just before his return to Jerusalem, bringing with him relief and aid from the churches in Achaia and Macedonia (Rom 15:25–26). At that moment of writing, Paul’s host was Gaius (Rom 16:23), whom Paul had baptized in Corinth (1 Cor 1:14).

Paul had long intended to visit Rome and, prospectively, Spain (Rom 1:8–13; Acts 19:21; Rom 15:23–26, 28) but had been hindered (Rom 15:22). So when he learned that Phoebe, a “servant of the church” in Cenchrea[1] (Rom 16:1–2), was going to Rome on her own business and could thus personally deliver his epistle to the Roman church, Paul seized the opportunity to express his desire to visit the Roman brethren and to inform them of his plans.

Besides holding this divine office of the church, Phoebe was also described as “a patron” προστάτις [prostatis][2] of Paul and others like him (Rom 16:2). In ancient Roman society, a Patronus, or benefactor, was a person from a certain social class who used his/her private wealth for public good; necessarily then, a man or woman of substance and honor. Phoebe was thus an ancient—though no less shining—example of one who used her wealth to do good deeds and to serve Christ (1 Tim 6:18); as was Gaius who played the generous host not only to Paul but also to the whole church. These two are one of many exemplars to the modern Christian of how the unheralded acts of charity and hospitality are crucial support to workers in the field. In short, while not everyone can be a Paul, anyone could be a Phoebe or a Gaius.

HISTORICAL BACKDROP

How was the church established in Rome? Second century accounts tell of Peter coming to Rome to announce the Messiah to the sizeable Jewish community of Rome after his miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12). In AD 49, Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome “since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (Suetonius).[3] And that was how Paul met Aquila and Priscilla, a Jewish couple from Rome who had gone to Corinth after their expulsion from Rome (Acts 18:2).

After the Claudian edict, the Roman church would have been left with non-Jewish Christians, god-fearers and former proselytes to Judaism who likely distanced themselves from all things Jewish in the context of the expulsion of Jews. However, when Nero reversed the decree in AD 54, the Jewish Christians who kept the Torah returned, likely, leading to internal tensions. This could have been a contributing factor, but not the sole reason, Paul undertook to write a tome such as the book of Romans.

Paul may also have intended to use Rome as a base for his evangelistic operations in the western Mediterranean (Rom 15:18–19, 23). However, conscious of the Jew-Gentile tensions in the Roman church, he strove to avert a repeat of the “Antioch incident” (Gal 2). He wanted to avoid any hint of Jewish superiority but needed to dispel any notion that the boat of gentile Christianity could be free of Jewish moorings (Marcionism[4] of the second century). To this end, Paul expounded on how the God of Israel was faithful to His covenant with Abraham and in so doing, showed His righteousness and fulfilled His promises to and, as well, through Israel. His central theme was a very Jewish explanation to the gentile world of a Jewish Messiah who was also the Savior of the gentile world. Paul takes pain to write of the Jewish roots of Christianity—the root supported the branches, not vice versa.

Therefore, to better understand this Pauline epistle and all of the New Testament writings, we must first understand something of Judaism in Paul’s time—known as the period of “Second Temple Judaism”—for this is the historical grid of all New Testament writings.

SECOND TEMPLE JUDAISM

All Second Temple Jews shared some fundamental beliefs and hopes.
First, the basic principle of Judaism—a striking contrast to the pervasive paganisms of the day—was their belief in the God of Israel, the one true God; the first monotheistic faith, a faith of high morals and ethics in keeping with an all holy God.

Second, Israel was the elect people with whom this one true God had entered into a solemn covenant. Israel was given the Law (Torah), which marked them out as the elect people. The Jews recognized that grace preceded covenant and Torah-keeping was the expected and faithful human response to the covenant. There is no evidence that Second Temple Judaism was a self-righteous legalistic scheme of salvation earned through the works of the law. To impose this grid upon the Pauline epistles is to detract from a more accurate understanding of Paul. The apostle to the Gentiles was nonetheless Jewish.

Third, the ancient Jewish prophets spoke of God’s promises for the one future for Israel and the entire world, where God would act to redeem Israel, execute universal judgment, defeat Israel’s enemies, deliver the remnant faithful Israel from oppression, and, to right all wrongs, condemn the sinner and justify (vindicate) the righteous. The land of promise and the whole world would be renewed and restored, and the temple would be cleansed. This would be the new creation (Isa 32:14–20, 35:1–10, 41:17–20; Ezek 40–48). The kingdom of God would finally come on earth as it is in heaven. For those who believed in the resurrection, God would bodily raise the dead to live in the renewed Israel and renewed world—the age to come (Ha Olam Haba). Thus, history was discussed and spoken of in terms of two ages—“this age (Ha Olam Hazeh)” and “the age to come (Ha Olam Haba),” terms that Jesus and Paul clearly used within the Jewish sense (Mt 12:32, 13:40; Lk 20:34–35; Gal 1:4).[5]

The agreement on fundamental beliefs ended here. The bitter reality of Roman rule was everywhere seen and felt, making it painfully evident that the covenantal promises were not yet fulfilled. Judaism itself was far from a state of homogeneity! How to hasten the kingdom of God and the age to come and overthrow the Romans, the erstwhile archetype of God’s enemies? How to know who would be and not be justified and vindicated in the future? Why the delay in the coming of the kingdom of God? Opinions and interpretations of the law and the prophets were sufficiently diverse amongst the sects and groups as to make attainment of their hope—“the age to come”—appear impossible.

First, there was the Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scroll fame who practiced a radical separation from the rest of society. They believed that their version of Torah interpretation and keeping would mark them out as “true Israel” and ensure future vindication.

Second, the Pharisees, whom the Qumran community identified as a dangerous rival group “who seek to smooth things (flatter),[6]” have been variously identified elsewhere with the “faithful ones” (Hasidim),[7] the traditionalists who opposed Greek influence on the Hasmonean dynasty, the “wise” (hakamin)[8] successors of Ezra the scribe who interpreted and expounded on the Torah, and those who adhered to strict rules of purity and kosher laws (haberim).[9] In the reign of Herod the Great, the Pharisees bifurcated into two branches, the Shammaites (“the strictest rigorists”) and the Hillelites (“the more lenient”).[10]

Third, there were the Sadducees who were of priestly descent and the aristocratic circle. They constituted a politically powerful group. Famously, they disagreed with the Pharisees over the question of the resurrection and were more concerned with preserving present political power and privilege. Such people then, as now, are less concerned with revolution or resurrection.

The rest of the population was groaning under the double yoke of Roman tax and military ruthlessness. Brigandage was rife, and rebellion ever simmering under the surface of Pax Romana. Hatred of Rome and heightened expectations of God’s kingdom was a dangerously combustible mixture. Many messiahs declared their hand. The common people were glad to be just left alone to eke out a meager living and to keep the Torah the best they could.

Into this splintered, highly inflamed and inflammable world of Second Temple Judaism, our Lord was born and Paul wrote. We are not to imagine that that age was an age of uniform spiritual clarity. But as God shone His light into the world of darkness at that time, God shines His light into the world through His church today.

SAUL THE PHARISEE—ZEALOUS FOR GOD AND THE TORAH

To which of these Jewish sects did Paul belong? The apostle’s self-description of his religious and intellectual heritage was: “Concerning the law [Torah], a Pharisee” (Phil 3:5). Saul had been trained in and understood the Torah as a Pharisee, the precursor of rabbinical Judaism. His mind was soaked in Torah, his life permeated with it, and he possessed an overwhelming memory of it. His mode of logic and thought was Pharisaic and rabbinical.

He used to sit at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the rabbi of the school of Hillel. This school opposed force of arms and revolution and would accept foreign rule provided they were left alone to study Torah. By the time Stephen was stoned, Saul was clearly under the sway of the school of Shammai, the other Pharisaic school whose interpretation of Torah was stringent and strict. For them, there could be no other king over the land given to Israel except the God of Israel Himself.

“Concerning zeal, persecuting the church” (Phil 3:6): This was no ordinary zeal, which twenty first century believers associate with servitude, prayer, or involvement in divine work. This “zeal” was that of Phinehas who had impaled a spear through the morally offensive couple (Num 25:11; Ps 106:30); of Elijah who defeated and destroyed all the false prophets (1 Kgs 19:14) and latterly, of Judah Maccabeus who waged armed resistance against the Greek Seleucids (I and II Maccabees). This was a revolutionary zeal that would take up arms, if necessary, to eliminate foreign domination and even renegade treacherous Jews (read Christians) in order to hasten the “age to come.” It was a potent mixture of religion and politics. As in those days, so it is now in the holy land. Faithful Jews were defined as those who kept the Torah (according to the respective sect’s interpretation); and only those who displayed such fidelity to the covenantal God would be justified on the day of the last judgment. Paul thought he was of “true Israel,” and he was bent on eliminating all of God’s enemies and to hasten the age to come.

CONCLUSION

To perceive the worldview of Saul the persecutor of the church is to perceive through the prism of historical, religious, and cultural backdrop of Second Temple Judaism. This worldview, that of his former self and of his unbelieving fellow Jews, is what Paul describes as “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2). Proceeding to read the Epistle to the Romans against the grid of Second Temple Judaism and to see how Paul the apostle reinterprets and views afresh the same covenantal promises of the ancient Jewish Scriptures is both exciting and revealing. In addition, it turns out to form a snug fit with the Articles of Faith of the True Jesus Church, reassuring us of “a zeal according to knowledge!”

 



[1] The eastern port city of Corinth.

[2] Feminine form for the masculine προστατης [prostates]; Latin: Patronus.

[3]   Suetonius; The 12 Caesars; Claudius 25:1–5.

[4]   Marcion of Sinope (2nd century AD), held to a dualistic notion of God. The God of the Old Testament was a wrathful and evil god. He rejected the entire Hebrew canon and those of the New Testament writings, which he thought favored the Jews. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, (1982), 62–64.

[5]   Torah, Ne’ vim, Ketuvim and B’rit HaChad’Shah (NT), (The Bible Society in Israel, 1991).

[6]   JC VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, (Second Edition, 2010), 149–151.

[7]   Du Toit et al, Guide to the New Testament, Vol II, The New Testament Milieu; 12.4.1; Logos Bible Software 4. These Hasidim were the early pious Jews and are not to be confused with the Hasidic movement of the 18th century in eastern Europe.

[8]   The Hakamin were the professional wise men (scribes). Many of the Pharisees were scribes and vice versa.

[9]   The Haberim were practitioners of ritual purity who sought to transfer the holiness of the temple to the home. Therefore one must eat secular food as if one were a temple priest; R. Viladesau & MS. Massa, World Religions: A Sourcebook for Students of Christian Theology, (1994), 192–193.

[10] Tyndale Bible Dictionary, 1184; Logos Bible Software 4. Shammai had the reputation for being strict, literal, and rigid in his interpretation and application of the Torah, while Hillel was more liberal and humane in applying the Torah. Shammai was renowned for his hatred of Roman domination.

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Author: Esther Wee
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