WHO WERE THE ROMAN CHRISTIANS to whom St Paul wrote his epistle? We know that the first believers in Jesus were Jews, even in the foreign cities where they had settled. For hundreds of years there had been Jews living in the commercial centers of the Roman Empire. The Jews in these places spoke Greek and adapted to the civic life of the Empire but retained the worship of the one God. As a result, the Romans knew something about Jewish religion and culture; some, attracted by their monotheism, followed the Torah.
Most of the Churches to which St Paul wrote his epistles were communities which he had founded. The Christians in Rome were different. According to Ambrosiaster, an otherwise unknown fourth-century Latin writer, the Roman Church did not owe its existence to any of the apostles, but to unnamed Jews – perhaps traveling merchants – who had brought word of Jesus to the Jews in Rome and through them to the Gentiles. Ambrosiaster writes, “It is established that there were Jews living in Rome in the times of the Apostles, and that those Jews who had believed [in Christ] passed on to the Romans the tradition that they ought to profess Christ but keep the law [Torah] … One ought not to condemn the Romans, but to praise their faith, because without seeing any signs or miracles and without seeing any of the apostles, they nevertheless accepted faith in Christ, although according to a Jewish rite” (Commentary on Romans, 3).
If Ambrosiaster was right and the earliest Roman Christians were observing Jewish ritual practices, it would explain why St Paul devotes the attention that he does to the matter of the Jews and their covenant with God. The Church upholds his teaching as normative while realizing that it has been invoked to justify some destructive and unchristian practices over the centuries.
The Teaching of Romans 3:9-11
The passage read at this Sunday’s Divine Liturgy is part of a longer section in which St Paul makes the following points concerning the Torah and the Jews themselves:
- God is Faithful –
- Although many Jews have not honored God’s covenant with them, His love for them remains. “What if some were unfaithful? Will their infidelity nullify the fidelity of God?” (Romans 3:3)
- There Is a New Covenant –
- This covenant in Christ was seen from afar in the Jewish Scriptures but “now…has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe… for God is one and will justify the circumcised and the uncircumcised on the basis of faith” (Romans 3:21-23).
- Most Jews Did Not Accept It –
- The Jews relied on their observance of the Old Covenant practices rather than putting their trust in Christ. “… they have zeal for God, but it is not discerning. For, in their unawareness of the righteousness that comes from God and their attempt to establish their own [righteousness], they did not submit to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:2, 3).
- God Has Not Rejected the Jews –
- The Jews remain the Covenant People of God. The Church is built on the most faithful Jews, the “elect” – those who accepted Christ – to which the believing Gentiles have been added.
- This Does Not Justify Despising the Jews –
- “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place and have come to share in the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. If you do boast, consider that you do not support the root; the root supports you” (Romans 11:17,18).
- Israel Will Ultimately Accept Christ –
- When “the full number of the Gentiles comes in,” then the entire People of Israel will be saved, “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:25,29).
As Origen noted, “What ‘all Israel’ means or what ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ will be only God knows along with His only-begotten Son and perhaps a few of His friends, as He said: ‘I no longer call you servants but friends, for I have made known to you everything which I have heard from my Father’” (Commentary on Romans, 4). Since this passage refers to something which will take place in God’s time, not ours, the Fathers refrained from trying to explain it.
Jews and Christians in History
At first Jewish Christians continued to frequent the temple (cf., [reference-pericope]Acts 3-5[/reference-pericope]) and pray in the synagogues. Even St Paul offered temple sacrifice (cf., [reference-pericope]Acts 21:26[/reference-pericope]). Since righteousness before God stems from faith, the ritual precepts of the Torah like the temple sacrifices and circumcision had been rendered obsolete by Christ. Jewish Christians who practiced them might do so out of devotion but could not impose them on others as necessary for salvation. In any case, by the end of the first century Jewish believers in the Lord Jesus had been expelled from the synagogues and an absolute separation between Jews and Christians enforced.
In Contemporary Thought
When the Second Vatican Council was convened in 1962 memories of World War II and the Holocaust were still fresh. The resulting statement on the Jews called for toleration and acceptance on a human level, while upholding St Paul’s theology: “As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews, in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading. Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues – such is the witness of the Apostle. In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’” (Zephaniah 3:9).
On November 17, 1980 Pope John Paul II cited Romans 11:29, speaking of the Old Covenant as “never revoked by God.” Supporters of this idea have interpreted this idea to mean that God still calls the Jews to observe the Torah, not the Gospel. Many feel that therefore Jews need not be brought to Christ, calling their novel teaching a development “in the spirit of Vatican II.”
While God still has a covenant relationship with Israel, the terms of that covenant have changed. The Jews, like the Gentiles, will receive God’s mercy when they too accept the new terms of the covenant. St Paul continues: “Just as you [Gentiles] once disobeyed God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now disobeyed in order that, by virtue of the mercy shown to you, they too may receive mercy. For God delivered all to disobedi-ence, that He might have mercy upon all” (vv.30-32). God’s plan for the Jews will climax with Israel’s acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.
For if that first covenant had been faultless, no place would have been sought for a second one. But he finds fault with them and says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will conclude a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers…When he speaks of a “new” covenant, he declares the first one obsolete. And what has become obsolete and has grown old is close to disappearing.