Romans – Who is Paul addressing?

, posted by kingswoodhart

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series is chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.

In Romans, Paul is writing to both Jew and Gentile Christians, but is the whole letter aimed at both groups or are parts of the letter aimed at one or the other of the two groups? There are definitely some points where he is explicitly talking to one of the groups, so it can’t all be aimed at both groups. The question then is, Which bits are for one group and which bits are for both? Do the explicit texts apply just to a small local area or does the group in focus carry on until there is an explicit change in focus in the letter? I’ve had a look for any other clues and it seems to me that the focus generally carries on past the explicit bits until there is an explicit change of group, rather than the letter defaulting to being addressed to both groups soon after an explicit bit, without warning. If this is the case, then quite a large chunk of the letter is actually addressed specifically to the Jewish Christians, which may be a surprising conclusion to some. 

Here’s how I think it works out (blue for both, red for Jews, green for Gentiles):

  • 1:1-15 (both)
  • 1:16-11:12 (Jews)
  • 11:13-36 (Gentiles)
  • 12:1-16:27 (both)

The evidence for this is as follows:

  • 1:7 ‘to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints’
  • 1:8 ‘all of you’
  • 1:13 ‘the rest of the Gentiles’ (i.e. the (non-Christian) Gentiles not being written to)
  • 1:16-32 No explicit reference, but it talks about Gentiles in order to set up the charge of hypocrisy to judgemental Jews in chapter 2
  • 2:14 ‘Gentiles’ in the third person – they are a law unto themselves’, but 2:17 if you call yourself a Jew’
  • 3:9 we Jews’
  • 4:1 ‘Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh
  • 7:1 ‘I am speaking to those who know the law
  • 7:4-6 Paul is speaking to those who used to be under the law (i.e. Jewish Christians). e.g. 7:6: ‘but now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code
  • 8:2-4 seems also to be aimed at Jewish Christians. e.g. 8:2: ‘the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death’
  • 9:10 our forefather Isaac’
  • 9:24 us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles’ – he has to add a mention of also from the Gentiles’ in order to expand the ‘us’ in this case to cover Gentiles as well
  • 11:13 ‘now I am speaking to you Gentiles
  • 11:13-24 ‘you’ is used clearly for the Gentiles in various places, with the Jews being ‘they’
  • 11:28 ‘as regards the gospel, they [Jews] are enemies of God for your [Gentiles] sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers’
  • 11:30-31 similar use of ‘they’ and ‘you’
  • 12:1 obviously starts a new section due to 11:33-36
  • 12:3 ‘I say to every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think’
  • 12:1-16:27 It makes sense that Paul brings things together for them both at the end of the letter. I can’t see any clues in this section like those listed above to suggest that only one group is being addressed. Paul also doesn’t associate himself with one side any more.

It seems to me that people often forget to think about questions such as “whom is the author addressing”, especially with the tendency to delve deep into the letter and go through it in small chunks, as the author doesn’t always make it clear in each small chunk whom he is addressing. That’s why taking a look at things like this in a zoomed-out approach can be helpful before zooming in.

Of course, as a Gentile Christian, it doesn’t mean I should ignore the bits that Paul was writing to Jewish Christians. There will be plenty in there for my benefit, but I need to be careful not to read everything there as if it were written directly to me or about me. When reading from these sections, I first need to note that it was written to Jewish Christians, and then work out how I can relate to it. There will be some bits that cover situations that apply to Jews and Gentiles alike, but there will be others that don’t directly apply to me.

It might be a coincidence, but this structure fits quite nicely with Paul in Romans 1:16 referring to ‘the Jew first and also to the Greek, in that he addresses the Christians in this order.

It seems that a/the main focus of the letter is Paul wanting the Jewish and Gentile Christians to be united in the gospel, so he deals with each group in turn in addressing problems each side may have regarding the presence of both Jews and Gentiles in the church, then from chapter 12 explains how to live out this united life together.

While chapters 12-16 are well known as being the instruction part of the letter, there are two other sections of instruction before this. The first is chapter 6, and the second is 11:17-20. Chapter 6 is Paul’s instruction to the Jewish Christians (i.e. ethnic Israelite believers) and 11:17-20 is Paul’s instruction to the Gentile Christians. The Jewish Christians are instructed not to continue sinning, and the Gentile Christians are instructed not to be arrogant towards the Jewish Christians.

In the next post, we will consider the overall structure of the whole letter of Romans.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.