Roman Empire in the Mid-1st Century
Romans is a tricky one when it comes to setting. The title kind of makes it seem like the letter will refer to Rome left and right. But the letter writer, Paul, has actually never set foot in that neck of the woods. He's probably sitting in Corinth, near the southern end of Greece, as he writes the whole thing. Maybe he's even enjoying a non-kosher gyro while he thinks.
Instead, Paul is writing to a situation in the Roman church around the middle of the 1st century. It's not exactly clear what's happening in this church because Paul doesn't address it head on, but his letter does give us some clues. Let's investigate.
Time and Place
Romans was written around the middle of the 1st century, sometime between 55 CE and 58 CE. It's the oldest of Paul's authentic letters, but it also predates the Gospel of Mark (the earliest gospel) by at least twelve years (source, 1039). That makes it one of the oldest pieces of writing in the New Testament. Impressive.
Paul and the recipients of his letter are residents of the Roman Empire. The Romans were pretty much the top dog at that time in the world. You didn't mess with them. Well, you could, but then they'd probably just crush you like a tiny bug. They didn't handle dissent very well.
As far as religion goes, the Romans had what's been called an imperial theology in place. This included all kinds of different gods that Roman citizens were expected to pay homage to. It was for the greater good and all that jazz. Roman religion was also kind of interesting because it declared that the emperor was the Son of God, Lord, and Savior of the world who had brought peace to earth (source, 94). Naturally, Christians had some other ideas about who could better fill out these titles.
The first followers of Jesus lived their entire lives under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Paul was no different. And the Christians he's writing to are in the same boat. In fact, they live in the capital city—Rome.
By the time Paul was writing to the Romans, their church had already become a prominent one. We don't know how the church was founded. It certainly wasn't by Peter and Paul as Christians later claimed (Paul himself says in his letter that he's never been there). But somehow a group of Christians had sprung up there and seemed to carry some weight with other Christians (source, 1084).
That doesn't mean their church was trouble-free though. No way.
In 49 CE, all the Jewish folks were kicked out of the city of Rome. One ancient source said this was because "the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus" (source, 1084). Some scholars think that this may be referring to Jesus Christ and that the trouble could have been disturbances caused by fighting between non-Christian Jews and Jewish-Christians. It's a rumble in Roma.
Back then, if someone got on your nerves and you were the Emperor of Rome, you just kicked them out of the city. Or had them put to death. So all Jews were expelled from Rome and weren't able to return to the city until the Emperor Claudius finally died in 54 CE and Nero ascended to the throne. Nero would go on to cause more trouble for Christians later. So, there was that to look forward to (source, 1039.)
When the Jewish-Christians came back to mix with their Gentile brethren after five years in exile, we can assume things didn't go too smoothly. The Jewish-Christians would have seen themselves as direct heirs to the message of Jesus, the Jewish messiah. Meanwhile, the Gentiles would have seen the Jewish people as predominately rejecting Christ and therefore being passed over as God's favorites. It was awkward, to say the least.
Much of what Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans is about Jewish and Gentile relations, both inside and outside of Christianity. So it's possible that there's some tension between Christians of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds that he's heard about and decided to take on. Oh, that Paul. He's always trying to mend fences.
Headed for the Holy Land
It's also possible that Paul is a little nervous about his upcoming trip to Jerusalem. Some scholars think that Romans is kind of a practice run for the kind of arguments he'll have to be making once he gets to Judea (source, 1040). We bet Paul would really like to take one vacation where he didn't get in a huge fight with someone.
He may also be trying to shore up some support in Rome in case he runs into trouble in Jerusalem. And indeed, when he does, he's arrested and shipped off to Rome where we're told he lived for several years on his own, preaching and teaching around the city. Fingers crossed that it helped a little.
He's Got Connections
It's clear from the end of Paul's letter that he knows a ton of people in Rome. He name drops twenty-six all together. We're guessing it's probably because he wants to recommend himself to the community and invite those people he named to go ahead and vouch for him. Hopefully they were willing.
The first person he names, Phoebe, would have been the one to physically carry the letter to Rome. She would have then been responsible for reading it aloud when the church was gathered and even answering questions about it or explaining some of the more difficult passages (source, 157). We're thinking she had her work cut out for her. After all, Romans ain't easy.