To understand the new view on Romans, and its bedfellow the new view on Paul, one must understand the old view (“of course it wasn’t called that at the time”). Prior to the work of Sanders, Dunn (who coined the term), and Wright for four hundred years a special position accorded to Paul’s letter to the Romans has shaped the dominant view of Pauline theology.
The early reformers looked to the New Testament in order to find a foundation for their, rightful, critique of late medieval/renaissance Catholicism and saw in Romans a letter that seemed heaven-sent for their context. Forgetting that the New Testament was written for them but not to them they embraced Romans as expositing true Christian theology contra the Roman perversion. They saw the catholic view of salvation based on meritous works in the judaizer/jewish view Paul was condemning as trusting in “works of the law”.
This lead to the aforementioned 400 years of viewing Romans as special. Romans was supposed to be a systematic, propositional treatise on the nature of Christianity divorced from any context, situation, or occasion; after all Paul had not previously visited Rome, he was writing to make sure that this major church understood everything. Paul intended to visit them but wanted to make sure that they were on the same page when he showed up. Therefore this is an exposition of salvation, grace, and election1.
We must remember that the scriptures are written for us but not to us. The new perspective on Romans maintains that the reformers didn’t just pull some verses out of context in their proof-texting efforts but an entire book.
Sanders, Dunn, and Wright write: to understand Romans we must approach it not with the questions that we want answered but with the questions and context of the original occasion. Thankfully we now have a better understanding of the occasion and situation of the letter.
Broadly the context is tied to the new perspective on Paul. First century Judaism was not a legalistic religion (for the most part
marginal Jews like the Qumran community were legalists who seemed to think they could merit salvation 2, just as some throughout the history Christianity have been legalists). Judaism was a religion of grace and grateful obedience, for the elect (that is the nation of Israel). Surveys of first century Judaism show that God’s choosing Israel was seen as an act of grace, God’s gift of the Torah was seen as an act of grace, God’s repeated deliverance of Israel from its enemies was seen as an act of Grace, God’s system of animal sacrifice for sin was seen as an act of Grace. The same surveys show that obedience to the law was seen as an expression of gratitude, and most importantly to distinguish the chosen nation from others. The works of the law are not considered to be good deeds meriting salvation but ethnic boundary markers.
Bringing the context into focus on Rome in the middle of the first century highlights the occasional nature of the letter.
Seutonius writes in his account of the life of Claudius that Claudius expelled the Jews at the instigation of one “Chrestus”3 in 49 AD. The church in Rome was seemingly well established at the time, perhaps having been founded by penitent Jewish Christians who had received the Gospel from Peter at Pentecost, but Roman authorities were not yet distinguishing between Christians and Jews. While Rome did not contain as much of the diaspora as Alexandria did, a significant number of Jews were expelled by the order4. Among those expelled were the Jewish Christians including Priscilla and Aquilla.
Roman edicts such as this seem not to have been to long lasting and only enforced so long as the issuing Emperor was still in power. When Claudius died in 54 AD those Jews and Jewish Christians who had been expelled returned to Rome. When the Jewish Christians came back they were uncomfortable with what they found.
The five year period without Jewish direction of the Roman church meant an accelerated rate of change towards a gentile flavored church. When the Jews returned they insisted on Jew first, Christian second.
The new perspective maintains that Jew first means enforcing the old ethnic boundary markers, the “works of the law”. This new view of Romans meshes nicely with Galatians, the “little Romans” in the old view, which deals more explicitly with circumcision as a demarcation of group affiliation.
The old proposition that this is not a situational letter but a treatise demands an answer to the question “even if we now know what was going on at the time that Paul wrote Romans how could he gain knowledge sufficient to address their needs?” Contrary to the idea that Paul had no idea of the internal strife, divisions, and problems in the Roman church his acquaintance, during and after the time when Claudius edict was enforced, with Priscilla and Aquilla and others from the Roman church mentioned in his closing remarks at the end of Romans would have informed him of the pastoral needs of the Roman Church.
As a libertarian I find the new view of Romans especially enlightening regarding the “pro-government” passages in chapter 13 within Paul’s prescriptions of chapters 12-14. Given that the Jews were expelled from Rome because of “Chrestus”, that is Christ, Paul is concerned that the actions of the Jewish Christians, now that they have returned, might bring further shame upon the name of Christ. Therefore Paul’s writing about the Christians relationship to the Roman state is occasional as well.
Thus Romans is really about the nature of the covenant, submission to christ (faith) versus submission to ethnic boundary markers (works of the law). Further Paul insists that gentiles are fully Christian and not subordinate like they had been under the old system. Finally he insists there should be no boasting on either side. All of this occasioned by the specific needs of a Roman church suffering from a clash of cultures.
Criticism of the new view comes mainly from Lutheran/Calvinist/Reformed circles who don’t want to see their foundation go.
But in the new view of Romans all letters of paul are respected. There is no longer a two tier system of Pauline writings: Romans and Galatians versus everything else; everything else treated as mere criticisms and encouragement with not much to offer to our theological understanding.
The new view has elevated the position of Paul’s other letters, not demoted Romans.