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 : 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.