In very heart of his epistle to the Church in Rome, the Apostle Paul devotes three entire chapters to the relationship between Israel and Gentile Christians. Yet his teachings on Israel go well beyond chapters 9 to 11, and can be found throughout the book of Romans.
In chapter 1, verse 16, Paul immediately proclaims that the gospel is “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” In chapter 2, he addresses the issue of Jewish identity and the benefit of circumcision. Then in chapter 3, Paul twice poses the question whether there is any advantage left in being Jewish, which he answers in the affirmative. Chapter 4 explains how Abraham – the first Hebrew Patriarch – attained unto righteousness. Later in chapter 14, Paul deals with Jewish dietary laws and in Chapter 15 he explains Israel-Church relations according to Old Testament prophecies and Christian responsibility towards Israel. Finally in chapter 16, Paul closes his epistle in amazement at the long-hidden mystery of the gospel which “has been made known to all the gentiles, leading to their obedience of faith.”
Israel is therefore a theme which resonates throughout his message to the Roman believers, more so than any of his other letters to the churches of Asia Minor. This raises the question: Why did Paul write more on this subject to the Roman church? The reason can be found in an often overlooked passage: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 16:3)
The Expulsion from Rome
Priscilla and Aquila had been co-workers with Paul for a number of years. In the Book of Acts, we meet this devout couple for the first time when Paul arrives in the Greek city of Corinth.
“After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome).” (Acts 18:1-2)
The couple helped Paul to establish the church in Corinth and moved on with him to Ephesus, where they remained actively involved in church planting alongside Paul. Like him, they were followers of Jesus of Jewish descent. In Acts, it is stated that they were forced to leave Rome because the Emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome.
The Roman historian Suetonius confirms this event and the early church historian Orosius gives the date as the year 49 AD. Others even place it as early as 41 AD. This expulsion was no isolated case. Only a few decades earlier, Tiberius had expelled all Jews from Rome to the island of Sardinia.
Suetonius explains the expulsion came about because of the “disturbances and riots among the Jews at the instigation of Chrestus.” Most church historians today agree that this refers to Christ. Christians were also frequently referred to as “Chrestianoi.” Apparently, there was an internal dispute among the Jewish residents of Rome over the Messianic claims of Jesus, as had happened in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), Antioch (Acts 15:50); Iconium (Act 14:1-7), Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17), and elsewhere. But Claudius had little tolerance for their debate and expelled all the Jews.
This included Priscilla and Aquila, who fled to Corinth where they met up with Paul. For several years, they joined his ministry team, moving with him to Ephesus. But when a new emperor arose in Rome named Nero, he allowed the Jews to return in 54 AD. Priscilla and Aquila returned around this time, which is why Paul greets them at the end of his letter.
The first gentile church
The expulsion of Jews from Rome is therefore of central importance in understanding Paul’s message to the church there. The church in Rome had existed long before Paul ever arrived there. Like other churches in those early decades of the movement, many of the congregants and undoubtedly most of the teachers were Jewish. They were the most versed in the Holy Scriptures, which at that time consisted of only the writings of the Old Testament. Thus when Claudius decided to expel the Jews from Rome, including those who believed in Jesus, this meant the church in Rome was probably the first one entirely made up of Gentiles. This must have presented a great challenge. All the teachers and elders who instructed them every Sabbath were gone!
Yet the Holy Spirit was also with them and the Gentile believers managed to keep the church in Rome intact and growing on their own for a season. This likely brought a new sense of confidence, as they discovered the church could still operate without the Jews.
Tensions with the return to Rome
But then the Emperor Nero allowed the Jews to return, and no doubt tensions developed. Priscilla and Aquila were among those who came back to their home congregation, where they probably encountered a changed attitude towards them and their fellow Jewish believers.
The historic context strongly suggests that Paul wrote to the church in Rome to set things in order and resolve the tensions between the new Gentile leadership and the returning Jewish congregants.
For instance, we see Paul firmly admonishing the Gentiles not to forget their spiritual roots are in Judaism. This begins even in his initial greeting, where he reminds them that Jesus “was born of the seed of David according to the flesh.” But in chapter 2, he also advises the returning Jews to lead more through example than by words. And in chapter 14, he addresses questions regarding Jewish dietary laws which seem to have arisen.
Still, the main thrust of the letter is directed towards Gentile believers and their need to respect the Jewish roots of their faith. Paul stressed that the oracles, covenants and redemptive purpose of God began centuries earlier with the Jewish people. In addition, he made clear that the Messiah was not a Roman citizen but descended from King David’s royal lineage.
The Roman church found itself in a conflict between Jew and Gentile from which it may never have recovered. Eventually, we find Priscilla and Aquila back in Ephesus, where Paul greets them again in 2 Timothy 4:19. Meanwhile, several decades later, the church at Rome became the breeding ground for Replacement theology, as one of the greatest heretics of the early Church – Marcion – arose from the fellowship in Rome.
He taught there from 137 until 144 AD, and maintained that the God of the Old Testament was one of vengeance and wrath, whereas the God of the New Testament was a different Deity, one of love and mercy. And even some of the books of the New Testament were too “Jewish” for him.
Marcion was finally expelled from the church, but would end up taking large numbers of Gentile Christians with him. The impact of his erroneous doctrines, based on the rejection of our Jewish roots because Israel largely rejected Jesus, is felt to this day.
Dr. Buehler is international director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org/
This commentary was first published in the May 2010 issue of The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition
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