Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Expulsion of Jews from Rome

Walter Wiefel's hypothesis is that Romans should be understood against the backdrop of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 CE and their return at the accession of Nero in 54 CE which significantly effected the contours of Roman Christianity in the mid-50s. I have made use of this myself in lecturing, preaching, and writing on Romans. In my mind, Romans is essentially a fund raising letter and Paul wants to outline his apostolic message, assuage reservations about his stance vis-a-vis Israel and the Torah, but he also wants to make a positive impact upon Christian groupings there in order to address a potenially fractious cosmopolitan community on the verges of being Balkanized (or Galatianized!) over matters pertaining to Torah observance. I have always wondered, however, that if the Roman expulsion was part of the ocassion of Romans then why does Paul not explicitly mention it? Is it kind of like the grandmother in the sitting room that everybody knows about but never talks about?

In an article review of Bob Jewett's Romans commentary (JSNT 31.1 [2008]: 91-94), John Barlcay questions the evidence for and relevance of the expulsion for interpreting Romans. Barclay makes a good point about how little we really know about Judaism in Rome in the 40s. Dio Cassius' account of Claudius' clamp down on synagogue meetings in 41 CE is of a piece with Claudius' general suppression of meetings in clubs and taverns and not necessarily due to intra-Jewish debates about Jesus, Messianism, and Torah. Suetonius' reference to the impulsore Chresto is not necessarily a faulty latinism of Christus. The name Chrestus was an extremely common Roman name and Suetonius knew that Christians were called Christianoi so he would be unlikely to get them confused if he knew of the Christianoi and their Christus. Furthermore, Paul makes no mention of changes in leadership or shifts from synagogues to house churches as the new meeting places for Jesus believers,which one might expect if seismic ecclesial shifts have transpired among the Roman Christian communities.

Even so, I'm a little more sanguine about the relevance of the expulsion for when Paul writes Romans ca. 55-56 CE. Any study of Judaism and Christianity in Rome in the first and second centuries must take into account Peter Lampe's astute study which provides more detailed evidence and hypotheses about the emergence of Christianity in Rome. Also, there is enough evidence from Tacitus, Tertullian, and textual variants to suggest that mistaking Christus for Chrestus was common place. The evidence from Acts 18.2 about Priscilla and Aquila's journey to Corinth from Rome because of the expulsion is further proof of the expulsion and also Paul's contact with Roman Christianity suffering effects of the expulsion. Like Jewett, I find Barlcay's conclusion that Priscilla and Aquila may not have been converted until after they left Rome unconvincing. Finally, Romans 14-15 looks very much like Paul using prior theological debates (i.e. 1 Corinthians 8-10) as the basis of exhortations to unity and mutual acceptance among the Roman Christians.


Richard Fellows said...

Thanks, Michael.

Have you come across any discussion about whether the disturbance that led to the expulsion had an economic dimension? I am struck by the fact that Prisca and Aquila were benefactors. Also, the expulsion may well have happened during a time of high food prices, for Suetonius Claud. 18 mentions "long continued droughts (see also Tacitus Ann. XII). Was there a conflict between the Christian and the non-Christian Jews concerning benefactorion obligations? Is this why Paul says, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them" (Rom 12:20)? Prisca and Aquila later moved from Corinth to Ephesus and this was arguably because the synagogue Jews in Corinth did not permit benefaction towards the church.

Bill said...

Michael, thanks for posting on background material. Can you please tell me who Walter Wiefel is? I've not heard that name before and Google & Amazon both turn up nothing aside from this post. I'd like to know more about where you're coming from and what else he had to say about the topic to begin with.

Geoff Hudson said...

On pages 386-9 of Rome and Jerusalem, Martin Goodman favours the idea that the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 19 CE and 49 CE was 'symbolic'. In relation to 19, Goodman wrote: “Jews were pushed out in 19, but they were present again in the late 20s.” With regard to 49, he wrote: "That the exile of Jews was indeed symbolic seems confirmed by the evidence for a sizeable Jewish community in the city at the time of Nero."

Now 'symbolic expulsions' are close to no expulsions. One can suspect Flavian cover-up of who was being expelled from where and why. Tacitus and Suetonius were influenced by Flavians. I believe that the expulsions were not of Jews from the city of Rome, but of prophets from the city of Jerusalem to Judea.

Tacitus and Suetonius only connect the expulsion of Jews from Rome with their apparent refusal to serve in the Roman army. But (Goodman again): “Josephus, who (unlike Tacitus and Suetonius) alleged that the expulsion of the Jews followed a specific scandal, the embezzlement by four Jewish scoundrels of money donated to the Jerusalem Temple by a high ranking proselyte called Fulvia, added that ‘a good many’ of these conscripts were punished because they ‘refused to serve for fear of breaking the ancestral law.’ “ I suggest that refusal to serve in the Roman army was pure Flavian dissimulation and had nothing to do with any expulsion of Jews, but what Goodman describes as a ‘scandal’ does give some possible clues to the expulsion of prophets from the city of Jerusalem, not Rome.

Geoff Hudson said...

Thus I further suggest that the meeting of 'Paul' with Aquila and Priscilla was in a synagogue in Rome, not Corinth. Aquila and Priscilla had recently come TO Italy (not from Italy) because Ananias (not Claudius) had ordered all prophets (not Jews) to leave Jerusalem (not Rome) (Acts 18:2). Of course Aquila was a prophet, not a 'tentmaker' as the editor would have us believe.(Acts 18:3). And Aquila was a prophet as we (not they) were - Acts was originally an 'I' and 'we' document. The essene/ prophetic tradition was that hosts would provide accomodation for visiting essenes/prophets. Thus Aquila and Priscilla stayed with us (the writer and his fellow prophets) in Rome.

ounbbl said...


Briefly heard 'expulsion of Jews in 19 CE' as a background of Paul's Romans in an interview Douglas Campbell: Understanding the Book of Romans (audio - 27 min).

His book is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (2009 Eerdmans)