How to be Christian Without Being Religious
As the center of the Mediterranean world, Rome was a pivotal city in Paul’s mind. Already during the lifetime of Paul the Roman church, composed largely of Gentiles, was gaining prominence in the Christian world. This motivated Paul to write to it and visit it, so that it would be considered among his spheres of service and aid him in his projected mission to Spain.
With a population of about one million people, the city of Rome in the first century AD drew people from every corner of the Empire and beyond. From at least the third century BC Rome had been a drawing point for people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. It is estimated that there were at least 40,000 Jews in Rome during the first century AD.
It is important to know that Roman religion was closely bound up with the government of Rome. The priests of this state religion served as advisors to the senate. On the hill known as Capitolium a large temple was dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Participation in religious ritual was a way of life for Romans. The possibility of choosing a religion and joining a group defined only for its religious identity was unknown.
Although Christianity first appeared as a sect of Judaism, the Roman church by the time of Paul’s initial visit (AD 60) was beginning to make the break with Judaism. The churches in Rome represented a body of Christianity that Paul could not ignore. Their strategic potential came from their close connection with Jerusalem, their location in the world capital, and their connections with the rest of the empire through people groups represented in Rome’s congregations.
It is generally accepted that Christianity in Rome arose not in a single church but in a plurality of house churches. Because of its likely origin in the synagogues of Rome, Jewish Christianity retained a close connection with its Jewish roots in Jerusalem. Since many Jews first came to Rome as slaves, it is likely that some of the Jews within the Roman churches were of the servile classes.
Though the church in Rome was not founded by an apostle, Paul is associated with its early history. As apostle to the Gentiles, he considered this within his sphere of ministry (Rom. 1:11-15). His relationship with Roman Christianity certainly bore fruit from his presence there and continues to do so through his letter to the Romans.
Paul arrived in Rome c. AD 60 (Acts 28:14-16) in order to stand trial before Nero’s representative, the Praetorian prefect. According to tradition Paul was freed after his first trial. It is then most likely that Paul was arrested and imprisoned again at Rome, where he was executed sometime between AD 64-67.
From “Rome and Roman Christianity” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, InterVarsity Press, 1963