Suffering through Romans: Part One

“Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” – Acts 9:15-16

In this series I shall survey this theme in Romans within the wider of context of Pauline theology. This includes the origin and scope of pain, and the appropriate response to suffering in the present. I shall then give some thoughts on application drawn from this thematic exploration. In Part One I shall briefly sketch the historical and socio-cultural backdrop of the Roman Empire, its capital city Rome, and its citizens.

Introduction and Historical Backdrop

It would difficult indeed to make the case that suffering is the chief theme of Romans. Nevertheless, it is an important theme, and one that lies under much of the text. Paul is familiar with suffering, as are those to whom he writes. The problem of pain winds its way through Romans like a scarlet thread. Remove it and the tapestry of Paul’s greatest epistle will begin to unravel.

Few times in Romans does suffering come to the foreground with explicit mention (2:9; 5:4; 8:17-18, 22, 35; 12:12). When it does it delivers to us some great insights. Suffering is more frequently a part of the backdrop of the text. For instance, Paul says in his introduction that he longs[1] or yearns to be with them, in order that “that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (1:11-12) Encouragement is needed for those who have been discouraged and strength is needed for those who have been bent by the winds of trouble.[2]

Suffering does not come as a surprise for Paul’s intended readers: it was a regular and common fact of life. Rome was the capital of an Empire, whose pride was in crushing its opponents underfoot, and whose grandeur was built on the backs of slaves.[3] 90% of the city’s inhabitance would today be considered below the poverty line, and 68% below or scraping at maintaining subsistence level (what they needed for a healthy life).[4] Moreover, the social ladder was steep, being difficult to ascend and tending to disassociate the different strata.[5] The ancient world was cruel, hard and merciless. Consider that capital punishment was not only death, but also a public display of torture.[6] The idea of basic human rights, like public assembly and no discrimination on the basis of race, were unheard of.[7]

Paul knew suffering well, having travelled extensively in the eastern provinces prior to penning his letter to the Romans, and having suffered intensely in the work God had called him to (1 Cor 4:9-13; 15:30-32; 2 Cor 1:8-11; 11:23-27). He also knew something of the suffering of his Roman readership. The Jewish community had at least twice in living memory been expelled from Rome, once by Tiberius in A.D. 19 and again by Claudius c. A.D. 49. In the hostile environment there was a wide range of adversity for the house churches in Rome.[8]


Footnotes:

[1] epipotheo: earnestly desires, intensely craves possession of, lust. The word bears the same sort of intensity the withdrawal symptoms of a heroine addict. Paul takes pains to assure them that his absence from them, with which they have both suffered, will not be for long. We shall see later that the even the call of God to missions caries with it a burden for which we gladly endure suffering.

[2] Verse 16 allows us to speculate that Paul had been made aware of some circumstance in the church at Rome that had impeded their bold witness of the gospel.

[3] Approximately half of Rome’s million inhabitants were slaves. Of these, an estimated forty to fifty-thousand were Jews, in part because Pompeii the Great bought back several thousand Jews after his conquest of Jerusalem in 63 B.C. These slaves were subsequently freed. Not twenty years after Romans was authored 20,000 Jews were bought to Rome after the fall of Jerusalem and put to use building the Coliseum between 72-18 A.D under Emperor Titus.

[4] Accurate distributions of non-elite persons are difficult to arrive at with a lack of data available and differing measurement methods. The elite comprised of approximately 2.8% of the population. See fig. 2.3 “Freisen’s Poverty Scale for the Roman Empire,” in Peter Oaks, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level (Minneapolis, MN.; Fortress Press, 2009), 65, 62-8.

[5] Peter Oaks, Reading Romans in Pompeii, 119-123.

[6] Alternatively, consider that there was no government welfare system and no modern medical healthcare, so even small injuries could mean the difference between life and starvation and death. There was no police force for the vast majority of the population. This meant street gangs were the only source of protection.

[7] For instance sex slaves were a common feature of the Roman backstreet-bar, the owners prostituting their helping hands for a lucrative supplementary income. Nothing odd or terrible was thought of this. See Peter Oaks, Reading Romans in Pompeii, 36-42.

[8] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary (Hermenia; Minneapolos, MN.: Fortress Press, 2007), 513-4.

 

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