If I’m one of the Christians to whom Paul is writing, what might I notice in these opening verses?
- Paul describes himself as a doulos (‘servant’ in NRSV). On the one hand, no status; on the other, whose slave is he?
- “Jesus the Anointed” (or “Jesus the Messiah”—the phrase is not yet functioning as a proper name), so three words into the letter and we’re already on thin ice politically.
- “Gospel”—that’s the word used for “the announcement of the accession or the birthday of a ruler or emperor” (Wright).
- “…the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”
It takes more than a little chutzpah to write like this to folk in the capital of the empire. There’s more in the same vein, Paul reclaiming words that the emperors liked to use: ‘lord’, ‘son of God,’ and later ‘justice’, ‘salvation’, etc. The letter is not anti-Roman—Paul has bigger fish to fry—it just hasn’t drunk the Roman Kool-Aid. And ‘gospel’, not first about me and what I decide, but about who has authority in and over this world.
While these reflections on Romans owe much to a wide variety of secondary sources, they’re particularly indebted to N. T Wright’s work in both the “Paul for Everyone” series and The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.