What It Means to be Israel
After the Jews had been expelled from Rome by Claudius Caesar in about AD 49, there were several years when the Roman church necessarily developed along non-Jewish lines. When at his death in AD 54 Claudius was succeeded by Gaius Caesar (Caligula), the edict of exile was rescinded, and Jews who returned to
Rome would have found a
predominantly non-Jewish church. It makes both psychological and literary sense
that a significant part of the Roman letter was intended to address the
resulting tension. Both sides had adjustments to make, and Paul’s discussions
about the role of the Torah and the meaning of Jewishness would have been
We know that among early Christians the meaning of
Israel was an important issue. The
New Testament is replete with the use of traditional Jewish vocabulary to
describe Christians, such as, “the Twelve tribes,” the “Diaspora”, “Israel” and
“the Jews” (e.g., Ga. 6:16; Ja. 1:1; 1 Pe. 1:1; 2:9; Rv. 2:9; 3:9). Christian
churches sometimes still retained the title “synagogue” for their assemblies
(cf. Ja. 2:2, Greek text), and this usage continued into the post-apostolic
period (cf. Shepherd of Hermas, Mandates,
11; Irenaeus, Against Heresies,
III.6.1). 1 Clement, dating from about the turn of the 1st century,
was composed in a typical Jewish format, including a haggadah, while the Epistle of Barnabas, from about the same
period, contains both haggadah (=
lore, story, narrative) and halakah
(= law, how things are done). Clement of Rome sums up this viewpoint succinctly
when he describes Christians as the righteous descendents of the ancient people
of God (1 Clement XLV-XLVI). The question of the meaning of Israel has
occupied the minds of later Christians as well. Some from the Reformed
tradition often adopt a replacement theory, that is, that the Christian church
replaced ancient Israel as
the true Israel.
Dispensationalists, on the other hand, opt for maintaining a tight distinction
between Israel and the church, so much so that it can be properly stated that the distinguishing mark of
dispensationalism is a belief in two peoples of God, separate and distinct.
This question about the meaning of
must have loomed large for the constituents of the Roman church, especially if
Christian Jews had returned to Rome
only to find that the leadership in the Roman church was now composed of those
who were non-Jewish. It may well be that some in the Roman church resented
their return. In any case, the situation sharpened the question about who was
the true Israel?
Earlier in the letter, Paul reprimanded those Jews who claimed spiritual
superiority because they had received the Torah (cf. 2:17ff.). At the same
time, when he posed the question, “What advantage, then, is there in being a
Jew?”, he responded with the emphatic, “Much in every way” (cf. 3:1-2)! Paul
also stated in unambiguous language that the gospel of Jesus Christ was “first
for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (cf. 1:16b). In Romans 9-11, thenn, Paul
takes up the question about Israel in earnest.
Concerning the occasion of the letter to the Roman church, Paul explicitly states his purpose for writing this letter was to prepare for his missionary efforts in Spain and to elicit assistance (probably financial and otherwise) from the Roman congregations.ReplyDelete
But clearly, given the extended nature of Paul’s threefold doctrinal argument (chapters 1–4, 5–8, and 9–11), there are other motives behind Paul’s writing of this letter.
Your historical reconstruction of Jewish-Gentile tensions in the Roman Christian community following the expulsion of the Jews — including the Christ-believing Jews — (Acts 18) and their eventual return to Rome to find congregations that have grown and evolved in their absence is intriguing. Your emphasis on new “leadership” in these congregations — which implies that the Jewish Christians provided the earliest “formal” leadership within these communities — hints at a not-unpredictable struggle for power that could emerge out of such changing circumstances.
But I am not sure that I can buy this historical reconstruction for two reasons. First, I do not read about leadership struggles in Romans like I do in Galatians and the Corinthian correspondence. Second, Romans 16 – Paul’s greetings to his acquaintances in the Roman church — portrays a vibrant diversity of house and tenement assemblies, Jewish and Gentile leadership, and slave and free community members.
From my reading, this textual evidence — which I will further unpack in a future post — does not offer the necessary support for the historical reconstruction of conflict arising from the return of the exiled Jewish Christians.