The Historical Background of Romans 9:6-13

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Last week I presented three views of the election refered to in this passage, and concluded that God’s election to be determinative of the eternal destiny of individuals.  If this view is to be accepted then it must be able to stand up to the exegetical data.  This post, and several others in the future, will look at several areas of exegesis and the pertinent data that comes from these areas of exegesis.  The exegetical data presented will not be exhaustive, however it will be sufficient enough to conclude what kind of election Paul is referring to in Romans 9:11.

Understanding the historical background of the book of Romans is an important step in developing one’s interpretation of 9:6-13.  In this case it is particularly helpful because it reveals why Paul wrote what he wrote. In Romans 1:7 he identifies the recipients of his epistle as “all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints.”  However, the question that arises with respect to the church in Rome is what was the make up of the church?  Specifically, was the Roman church predominately Jewish or Gentile?  Based on several pieces of evidence it seems as though the church in Rome was initially made up of mostly Jews.  Mounce estimates “that by the first century B.C. there were some fifty thousand Jews in Rome grouped in several synagogues.”[1]  We also know that a large number of these Jews had converted to Christianity because in A.D. 49 Claudius “expelled from Rome Jews who were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”[2]  Presumably Chrestus is a misspelling of the Greek Christos, and is referring to Christ.  This is confirmed in Acts 18:2 where Aquila and Priscilla’s expulsion from Rome is recorded.  From this it can be assumed that the church in Rome began as a predominately Jewish church, but later became a predominately Gentile Church as a result of Claudius’ expulsion. 

After Claudius’ reign, and Nero’s ascension, the Jewish population slowly returned to the city and to the church.  Despite this return, it must be assumed that Paul wrote the book of Romans to a church of predominately Gentile Christians.  This assumption is confirmed by the internal evidence found in the book of Romans.  In 1:5-6 Paul writes, “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are called of Jesus Christ.”  In 1:13 Paul expresses his desire to “obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.”  In 11:13 Paul says that he is “speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles….”   

            If, as it has been assumed, Paul wrote the book of Romans to a predominately Gentile church then Paul also wrote chapters 9-11 to a predominately Gentile church. The question is why did Paul write this section, which is about Israel, to a Gentile audience?  Paul seems to be dealing with questions that could have arisen after the Gentile believers read chapters 1-8.  Paul concludes chapter 8 by saying that nothing is “able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  After reading this the Gentile believers may have wondered how this could be true in light of the many Jews who had been cut off from Christ.  Paul responded to this objection in 9:6 when he said that “the word of God has not failed.”  Paul then defended this response in 9:6b-13 by reminding His readers that God has always chosen His people sovereignly apart from their own works.  And because chapter 8 focuses on individual salvation and the objection that is said to have been raised was that the Jews had been cut off from salvation it logically follows that Paul’s response would have been focused on the issue of individual salvation.

[1]Robert H. Mounce, vol. 27, Romans, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1995), 24.

[2]Life of Claudius 25.2