romans.gif (5336 bytes)
Background - Part 1
Rome and Judea

(Last updated 4/10/00)
 
 

JEWS IN 1ST CENTURY ROME

By the time of Yeshua and Paul, the land of Israel (Judea and Samaria) had been part of the Roman Empire for several decades. The first emperor, Julius Caesar, granted rights to Jewish communities because their ancestral laws predated Rome. Jews had legal privileges as a collegia (defined by Roman law as religious & legal entities), giving them the right to assemble, have common meals and property, govern and tax themselves, and enforce their own discipline.

All of this authority was placed under the auspices of the Synagogue and its legal body, the Sanhedrin. The Jews were also given exemption from military service and emperor worship. They were the only non-pagan religious group in the Roman empire to have these rights. Under Roman law, no new religions were allowed and all other religious societies (other than Judaism) were forbidden by Caesar to have presence in the city of Rome. All of these factors led to much resentment and the formation of a social anti-Jewish sentiment among the population. (1)

JEWISH VERSUS ROMAN CULTURE

Anti-Jewish commentaries can be found in many of the writings of popular Roman authors of the time such as; Tacitus, Poseidonius, Apollonius Molon, Damocritus, Apion, Quintilian, Cicero, Plutarch, Philostratus and Aelius Aristeides. Most of their slurs centered around Jewish separatism, the Sabbath, dietary laws and circumcision. (2) The Roman world was pagan and centered around the worship of many gods. Idolatry was woven into Roman life. Basic table fellowship was done with a god as guest of honor or master of ceremonies. Meat and wine were often eaten only in "religious" settings.

Roman society was also centered around "openmindedness", community, and a Hellenistic view of life, emulating the culture and philosophies of the Greeks. In the midst of this was a Jewish society of around 7 million (about 10 percent of the Roman population), a very noticeable minority. (3) The Roman culture stood in great contrast to that of the Jews and their Torah, which taught; moral absolutes, separation from the (pagan) ways of Rome and belief in one God (and living for Him).

The majority of Roman citizens could not comprehend the "strangeness" of the Jews. Beyond that, proselytism was considered an un-Roman act. Jews were despised by the rest of the Roman people for their peculiar religious practices and failure to worship the gods of Rome -- as every other conquered people was forced to do. The "citizen of the Pax Romana" was the antithesis of "a good Jew." (4)

THE SYNAGOGUE

The authority given by the Romans to the Synagogue explains such occurrences as Paul being able to persecute Jewish believers (before his conversion) as mentioned in the book of Acts. (These were Messianic Jewish believers, still under the authority of the Synagogue, even as believers. They were not "Christians" as often taught.) The Synagogue had the right to enforce discipline on anyone who was under their authority. As Scripture points out, Paul was given the "39 lashes" by the Synagogue authorities on more than one occassion (2 Corinthians 6:3-10; Acts 21:21-26; 32).

An important point to note here is that Paul kept himself under the authority of the Synagogue. According to Roman law, he could have used his Roman citizenship to stop this discipline. However, according to Jewish law, he then would have forfeited his right to speak and teach in the Synagogue and possibly been barred from the Temple. (5) As we will see in this study, although Paul is commonly known as "the apostle to the Gentiles," this ministry was for the benefit of Israel (Romans 11:13). (6)

When the "Synagogue" is mentioned in Scripture it is important to note that this is not simply some local religious group or building. The Synagogue was a system made up of groups throughout Judea and out of the land. Each was independent but operated in concert with the others. Although there were varying views, factions and sects, there were key similarities including; Torah observance, Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary halakhah (keeping the kosher laws). There was a hierarchy of authority and all ultimately answered to the Sanhedrin.

The Synagogue was also a social institution around which Jewish community life evolved. Leaders were responsible to school children, provide lodging for travelers and bury their dead. The association of synagogues acted together like the organization and government of a city. Each member was under authority and discipline of the leaders. Their parameters of authority in relation to the Jewish Community included:

  • Religious education
  • Administration, including collection of temple tax and Roman tax
  • Discipline, including judgement and punishment (flogging is mentioned in the Mishnah)

The Jewish society in the city of Rome consisted of a number of synagogue communities. About a dozen have been positively identified, but there were likely many more, due to smaller size of the homes of the Jews, that were mostly located in less affluent sections of Rome. Meetings were often held in the larger homes.

It is also important for this study to note that such gatherings were also considered to be held under Jewish synagogue authority as they were the only religious group allowed to do this by law. There were no "Christian house churches," as is often incorrectly taught. Not only would have been illegal to hold such meetings, but Christianity as a separate sect did not exist at the time of Paul's letter to Rome. Acts 15 shows that decisions regarding gentiles were being made by their Jewish leadership, who stated that the gentiles would learn more as they continued attending Synagogue (Acts 15:21).

GENTILES WITHIN JUDAISM

Gentiles have always had the option to follow the minimal requirements of God or to become involved with the faith of Israel, and even fully convert. They were also welcome in the Synagogue, as long as they acted appropriately. There was no "corner bookstore" for them to purchase a Bible and go home and read it. The only place they could hear the Scriptures read was in the Synagogue (or the actual Temple if in Jerusalem).

Judaism had long established standards for gentile God-followers who were welcome in synagogue (re: Isaiah 56:6-7). Such gentiles were regarded as "potential" Jews in different stages of development. There were minimal requirements for gentiles who were righteous without becoming Jews, and others for gentiles in process of conversion to Judaism. Cornelius, a Roman mentioned in Acts, is an example of a gentile who had taken on some of the ways of Judaism.

These standards were in a constant state of evolution and discussion within Judaism. The rules also varied between gentiles living in the land of Israel, versus those among the Jewish diaspora. As such, Acts 15:19-32, 16:1-5 and 21:25 reflects the minimum standards for gentile followers of Yeshua, living among Jews in a diaspora setting at that time. This was not a strict or stagnant definition, as these gentile believers were to continue learning and taking on more of the Torah as they went to Synagogue (Acts 15:21). This was nothing new -- Paul's view on this issue is also seen in Ephesians 2:10-12, where he tells gentiles that now they are part of the faith of Israel, including its Torah.

This is another important point - which stands in contrast to standard Christian doctine. Although gentiles were not required to take on all the Torah as a prerequisite to salvation, the Torah has always been God's guideline for all his "called out ones" to live by -- be they Jew or gentile. This will be discussed in detail in a later section.

THE CONGREGATION AT ROME

The congregation at Rome had a very important distinction to the other Messianic congregations mentioned in the "New Testament." It was the only one not directly founded by one of the apostles. It would seem that at the time of the events of Acts 2, some of the Jews who came from Rome to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot, became believers. They returned to their city and began a congregation. By the time of Paul's letter, the congregational makeup most likely had a gentile majority, though the leadership probably was still in Jewish hands.

Unfortunately, the congregation was not properly established by apostolic authority and had developed internal problems. This is the purpose for which Paul wrote the book of Romans. As we will see, much of the difficulty the congregation was experiencing was caused by a great influx of gentiles. Most of these gentiles were not previously regular Synagogue attendees with an appreciation of the faith of Israel (as compared to those in Jerusalem for example). Rather, they entered their "new faith" directly from the pagan Roman world, full of its anti-Jewish prejudices, as outlined above. As new "believers," they knew very little about God and His Messiah, and virtually nothing of the Torah. Beyond that, they had no respect for Jewish customs and Synagogue regulations.


  1. The Mystery of Romans, Mark Nanos, 1996, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, pp. 43-46.
  2. Jew & Gentile in the Ancient World, Louis H. Feldman, 1993, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, pp. 123-176
  3. Caesar and Christ, Will Durant, 1944, Simon and Schuster, New York, p. 546.
  4. The Mystery of Romans, Mark Nanos, 1996, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, pp. 64-68.
  5. ibid.
  6. Romans - A Shorter Commentary, C.E.B. Cranfield, 1985, William B. Eerdmans publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 275-276.


RETURN TO THE ROMANS INDEX