Our initial considerations when beginning study of a book are who wrote it and when was it written. For Romans, we conclude that the Apostle Paul wrote it. The letter itself says so, the style of the letter is Paul’s. The focus of the letter aligns with Paul. There is really no good reason not to think Paul is writing the letter. Of course, there are always those interested in controversy who will construct intricate and futile arguments against Pauline authorship, but even liberal scholars mostly attribute the book to Paul.
When did Paul write this book? Let’s take a quick look at the historical backdrop of Paul’s life. Paul was converted on the road to Damascus around AD 33–34. That was about two years after Jesus had died on the cross and was raised again to life. (For a fuller explanation of the dates of Jesus’s life, see our Matthew series, Part 2.) In Galatians 2:1 we find out that it was 14 years between Paul’s conversion and his trip to Jerusalem to discuss Paul’s mission work in Syria and Cilicia (mentioned in Gal 1:21). We learn in Acts 11 that Paul was already part of the church at Antioch prior to his Gal 2:1 trip to Jerusalem. And it was not long after Paul returned to Antioch again that he embarks on what is known as his first missionary journey with Barnabas to Cyprus and Galatia. Therefore, this first portion of Paul’s Christian life—these 14 to 15 years from AD 34 to AD 48 are marked with a time of learning (Gal 1:18) and ministry in Cilicia and Syria. The second major portion of Paul’s Christian life covers his formal missionary journeys. He had three, as recounted in the book of Acts. The first is highlighted by his visit to Galatia, the second to Corinth, and the third to Ephesus (although, of course, his second included a return trip to Galatia as well as other places, and he also spent time in Corinth during his third journey).
At the end of his third missionary journey, Paul is in a hurry to get back to Jerusalem (despite warnings of arrest and imprisonment—Acts 21). He gets back to Jerusalem around AD 57. Over the next couple or so years, Paul is arrested, conducts defenses of his actions, is plotted against to be murdered, escapes, and appears before Festus and King Agrippa. He finally appeals to Caesar and in around AD 60 heads as captive to Rome. The third and last major section of his life is spent mostly as prisoner in Rome from AD 60 to around AD 67. (The fall of Jerusalem occurs with its siege from 67 to 70.)
The main reason for recounting this history is to find out also when his letters were written. Galatians was his first letter written shortly after his first missionary trip to Galatia. He writes so soon because, as he says, he is “amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you by the grace of Christ” (Gal 1:6). While still on his second missionary journey, after visiting Thessalonica, he writes both letters to the Thessalonians because of their misunderstanding about the timing of Christ’s return. During his third missionary journey, Paul writes both his letters to Corinth as he is ministering in Ephesus. Most of the rest of his letters were written during the last major section of his life—from Rome while under arrest. He writes there the prison epistles of Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians, and also the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus. And that leaves Romans. Romans was written from Corinth toward the end of his third missionary journey.
The importance of determining this time period relates to Paul’s understanding and focus at the time he writes to the Romans. We cannot merely flip the Bible open to a passage and read and interpret based on relationship to our lives’ experiences in this day and age. As we interpret any passage, we must first have foundationally solid the idea of God’s purpose for humankind—the everlasting love relationship he desired to establish with his image bearers. From there we move to understanding literary and historical context, paying careful attention to how God used the people who wrote the Bible books to develop their own experiences to reflect exactly what he wants to say. From there we look at purpose for the book, meaning of the greater context, and meaning of the immediate context, before we settle on the precise passage and its meaning. It should never be the other way around in which we start with the passage, guess at a face-value meaning based on a narrow focus set in our experience, and then try to make it fit if we ever get to looking at its greater contexts, from flow and purpose to history, literary style, and human author intent. Therefore, it is important to understand that Romans was written by Paul at the end of Paul’s third missionary journey.
When Paul wrote Romans, he was about to head back to Jerusalem. His friends did not want him to go. We read in Acts 21 of prophecies of danger and arrest for Paul if he returned. Those warnings have prompted some interpreters (still today) to presume that Paul did wrong to return to Jerusalem, supposedly ignoring the Holy Spirit’s warning of impending danger. But I don’t believe the Bible presents the situation in that light.
Luke recounts for us numerous occasions in Acts when Paul showed sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s leading—being redirected from intent in Acts 16:6, 7, and 8–10, and obviously in 16:25–27. Further, Paul discerned the working of evil spirits as well (Acts 13:9–10 and 16:18). Of course, Paul was human and could still stumble, yet every mention of him in Acts shows determination to follow the leading of the Spirit, not otherwise.
It is also true that when dangerous situations presented themselves, Paul did not stubbornly and cavalierly walk into the situations of danger, but rather, when warned, took measures to avoid such confrontation (Acts 9:23–25; 17:5–10; 19:21–30). Even in Acts 21 when the prophecies of danger are spoken and his friends urge Paul to take a different course, Paul doesn’t dismiss their concern out of hand, but rather cries out to them, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart?” Why is Paul’s heart breaking? It is breaking because he knows he must—by the Holy Spirit’s direction—continue to Jerusalem.
Paul didn’t discount the prophecies of danger and arrest; he knew that was what was facing him. Consider the previous chapter in Acts, before those prophecies were given, when Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders. He told them in 20:25, “And now I know that none of you will ever see my face again—everyone I went about preaching the kingdom to.” Already Paul knew his ministry was at an end. Already he had been told by the Holy Spirit that chains awaited him. And yet he went on, not in stubborn self-will, but rather because he trusted in God and submitted his spirit. His friends even recognized that submission as they also submitted in Acts 21:14, saying not that Paul’s will be done, but rather “The Lord’s will be done!”
Jesus also validates Paul’s decision. After being arrested, threatened, and in danger for his life, Jesus appears to him, reminding him that Paul need not fear for God would get him to Rome to preach his gospel (Acts 23:11). Not one word is spoken by Paul of regret for going to Jerusalem, nor by God of correction or rebuke for Paul’s decision.
What is interesting is that we have a clue that Paul may have known of his impending arrest, not just from the prophecies in Acts 21 and not only before that on the way to Jerusalem (Acts 20:25), but even before he left to go to Jerusalem. Paul wrote Romans back in Corinth before embarking on the trip to Jerusalem. And in the first chapter of Romans, Paul writes, “Now I want you to know, brothers, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now)” (1:13). Paul understood as he penned that opening that he was no longer prevented from going to Rome. I believe it was even as early as this when Paul recognized he would soon be going to Rome as a prisoner.
The importance, then, of finding out when Paul wrote this letter shows itself in part in the knowledge Paul had of his missionary work ending and his imprisonment beginning. As we approach the why—the reason—for his writing Romans, this fact of impending imprisonment must factor in both his decision to write and what he would be saying.
When Paul entered any city, during his missionary travels, he always went first to the synagogue to explain the fulfillment of God’s promises through the Jews. He helped the Jews understand that relationship with God didn’t depend on those signs—those works—that marked them as Jews (e.g., circumcision, sacrifices, and performing works of the Law). Those things were mere signs pointing toward perfect fulfillment in Christ in which faith in God’s Word was key. It had always been that way from the fall. It was especially evident in the covenant relationship based on Abraham’s faith. And now with the full revelation complete by the Word becoming flesh, faith was fulfilled in the atonement brought by Christ. This message was the gospel Paul preached.
Now imagine Paul in Corinth, knowing he would be going to another city where he had never been. According to his practice he probably would find synagogues in which he could declare this gospel to the Jew first (Rom 1:16). But Paul knew something else: he would not enter Rome as a free man. He would be under arrest, not able to move about as he had elsewhere. And so Paul decides that he must fulfill delivery of his message, as he always did in every other city, not by word of mouth, but rather by letter. What we have in Romans—this most doctrinal of his doctrinal epistles—contains, I believe, his opening messages that he had been accustomed to preaching throughout the Greek world in his travels.
Now, everyone recognizes that the book of Romans has much to say about salvation. But there is also perspective we must understand on this point. Paul was not writing to the unsaved. Verses 6 and 7 of chapter 1 very definitely indicate that his message was to Christians. Thus, the perspective of salvation he writes about is not to get people saved, but rather to have them understand their relationship with God because of salvation. It is that perspective that we need to come to grips with more if we are to understand Paul’s logical progression correctly as we move into the book.