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Do you enjoy reading other people's mail? (Oh, just admit it.)
Then you're going to love the epistles.
That's right. Now that you've gotten past the adventures of Jesus and his disciples, you're about to embark on a completely new type of biblical writing. Epistles, like Romans, are basically just letters. Way back before Twitter (way, way, way, way, way back), there were only a few thousand Christians in the world and they were spread out over the entire Roman Empire. What they wanted more than anything was to talk to each other about their most favorite guy in the world—Jesus. But it would have been silly to strap on a pair of sandals and walk halfway across a continent just to say, "Christ rocks!" That's where an epistle really comes in handy. Think of them as ancient blister prevention.
This particular letter was written to a group of Christians living in Rome around the mid-1st century. They were pretty lucky because its author is one of the bigwigs of the early church—Paul of Tarsus. Ever heard of him? Apostle. Martyr. All-around great guy (once you get to know him). See, Paul was planning a trip to Rome, and so he sent this little letter ahead of him to let the Roman Christians know he'd be there soon. Hey, it's not like he could just go online and book a hotel.
But Paul's letter isn't just, "Hey, what's up? Can you clear out a guest room?" It's actually a theological masterpiece. Paul lays down all kinds of mega-important Christian doctrine—stuff that would influence other Christians big time for millennia to follow. We're talking original sin. Natural law. Justification by faith. It even kind of started the Protestant Reformation.
Yeah. Romans is a pretty big deal.
But we have to warn you: it's also a tough read. Going through it is kind of like listening to one side of a stranger's cell phone conversation. Sure, we can hear all of Paul's lovely thoughts, but we have no clue what anyone else in the ancient world is saying. That's where biblical scholarship comes in. (Yay, biblical scholarship!) It helps us figure out the context. What is going on in Rome? Why is everyone in the church fighting? And why all the talk about penises? (Yup, we said penises.)
So what do you say? Get out your letter opener and let's pry into some personal correspondence.
When you think of the first Christians, do you imagine
• people running through a field of wild flowers with Jesus?
• lions falling in love with lambs?
• guys and gals holding hands skipping down the street?
• everyone sitting in a circle around a fire singing Kumbaya?
Then we're sorry to burst your bubble, but you're in for a pretty big shock. See, the beginnings of Christianity were actually messy. Really, really messy. While everyone mainly agreed that Jesus was awesomesauce, well… that was about all they agreed on.
Romans is all about these big conflicts. After Jesus was crucified and couldn't settle everyone's squabbles for them anymore, Christians pretty much spent the next twenty years or so fighting about everything he said or did. Are the Jews still God's right-hand people? Is it okay to let Gentiles become Christian (because, yuck, Gentiles)? If yes, then do all these gents really have to be circumcised? What day of the week should this church thing go down? And how about keeping kosher? The whole no bacon thing was really a bummer.
Paul spends most of his letter trying to settle all these fights. Basically, his big goal is to have everyone living in peace and harmony and eating delicious ice cream sundaes together. No, the sundaes don't need to be kosher. And, yes, they can actually be eaten on Sunday. Paul is kind of like the head of the Get Along Gang. He just wants to smooth things over so Christians can get on with the most important thing in the world—being faithful to their main squeeze, Jesus.
Did Romans settle all these fights once and for all? Nope. Did Romans actually go on to cause lots of other unrelated arguments? You betcha. Sorry. But really, arguing over whose beliefs are right and whose are wrong is what humans do best. Poor Paul never even had a chance.
St. Paul's Cathedral in London
Named for our favorite biblical author, this is one of the must-see sites in London. The cathedral famously survived bombings during WWII and hosted the wedding of Charles and Diana as well as the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. So yeah, it's kind of a big deal.
The Word of St. Paul
The Word of St. Paul is a term for what happens when an authoritative source, other than the original author, fills in key information about a book, movie, or TV show. Yup, that sounds like Paul all right.
Peter and Paul
A 1981 movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Paul, in conflict with fellow apostle, Peter.
This mini-series follows the story of Paul throughout his entire life. We promise it's still "mini."
This 2005 play portrays Paul as being tricked by Peter and Mary Magdalene into seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus. Hilarity does not ensue.
Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans by Martin Luther
The beginning of Luther's masterful commentary on Romans starts with the line, "This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament." Way to play favorites, Luther.
Smart Guys Talk Romans
Scholars from Yale Divinity School give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of The Epistle to the Romans in the first of eight videos on the subject.
Jesus Confronts Paul
In the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus imagines that he survives the crucifixion and then runs into Paul preaching about him years later. It's kind of awkward.
On the Hunt
Professor John Dominic Crossan talks about his book In Search of Paul on Fresh Air. Oh, smart people.
If They Had a Savior
New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman discusses the lives of three major followers of Christ—Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.
Check out this map of the Roman Empire with all Paul's favorite vacation spots highlighted.
It's All Greek to Us
Here's a page from Romans in the original Greek.
Paul in the Flesh
Yeah, this is neat slash creepy: a facial composite of what Paul might have looked like live and in person.
Church of St. Paul in Tarsus
Located in his birthplace, which is now in modern day Turkey, this church dedicated to Paul hasn't held up quite as well as St. Paul's in London.