We know from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that Aquila and Priscilla had already left Corinth, returned to Rome, and reopened their home as an oratory (Rom 16:5). Peter is not mentioned by name nor does Paul address any formal leader of the Roman Church. However, Paul’s epistle reveals that something magnificent had occurred over the last several years. The Gentile Christian population in Rome had grown greatly under the absence of the quarrelsome Jewish debates over “Chrestus.” We get the impression from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that the Church in Rome is a flourishing community, whose “faith is proclaimed throughout the world” (Rom 1:8).
The Jewish Christians returning to Rome in A.D. 56 have returned to discover a very different kind of church in the imperial city of Rome. It seems that when the nascent Gentile Christians in Rome converged with the Jewish Christians returning from exile under the Edict of Claudius, new problems surfaced for the church. The debate of Christ in Rome was no longer an inter-Jewish debate but a debate between Jewish followers of Christ and Gentile followers of Christ. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans seems to address this debate with respect to two problems in particular.
The first problem was one that we might expect as the Jewish Christians returned to Rome in the years following A.D. 56. The Jewish Christians came back to their home and were presenting themselves as the old guard of Roman Christianity against the newly evangelized Gentile upstarts. In doing so they were “passing judgment on the brethren” (Rom 14:10) on matters of kosher laws (14:2; 21) and the observance of Jewish holy days (14:5-6). The returning Jewish Christians to Rome also seemed to believe that circumcision and the Mosaic law should be retained (Rom 2; 4-10), if not for all Christians, then at least for the Christians of Jewish ethnicity. The Jewish party also accused the Gentiles of following an alleged teaching of Paul that promoted immorality. Referring to this false rumor, the Apostle writes: “And not rather (as we are slandered, and as some affirm that we say) let us do evil, that there may come good? whose damnation is just” (Rom 3:8). Paul dismisses this characterization outright and demonstrates how faith in Christ leads to the sanctification of the believer.
In any manner, the Jewish party considered themselves to be first-class Christians on account of their Jewish ancestry, circumcision, and legal obedience. They viewed the Gentile members of the Church as second-class Christians who had faith, but none of the other ornaments of the Abrahamic tradition. Paul’s long and steady argument, climaxing in the tenth chapter of Romans, demonstrates that the true heritage of Abraham is found in the patriarch’s profound faith—not in circumcision or in the Law of Moses, which were subsequent to Abraham’s faith. According to Paul, Jews and Gentiles stood on level ground because both groups were composed of sinners and both were justified through faith in Christ. They are brothers in Christ, not competitors for Christ.
The second problem in Rome had to do with the pride of the Gentile Christians. Paul imagines the Gentile Christians observing all the Jewish Christians returning to Rome and saying to one another, “What advantage has the Jew?” (Rom 2:1). The second chapter of Romans addresses the great privilege of the Jewish people in the context of the plan of salvation. In the eleventh and twelfth chapters of Romans, we find Paul’s sober warning against the haughty attitude of the Gentile Christians toward the Jewish Christians. “For if God did not spare the natural branches [the Jews], neither will he spare you!” (Rom 12:21).
Apparently the Gentile Christians were flaunting their freedom in Christ and scandalizing the Jewish Christians. One might imagine a Gentile Christian inviting a Jewish Christian for dinner and serving him pork! Paul exhorts the Gentiles to respect the consciences of the Jewish Christians in his fourteenth chapter:
Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make others fall by what he eats; it is not right to eat meat or drink wine or do anything makes your brother stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God (Rom 14:19-22).
As one reads the thirteenth chapter of Romans, one cannot help but see a concern in Paul’s mind about the tenuous state of the Roman Church in relationship to Imperial Rome. Once already the emperor had exiled all Jews from the city on account of “Chrestus.” Perhaps Paul was worried that the then currently reigning emperor, who at this time was Nero Caesar, might again hear rumors that “Chrestus” was once again stirring up rebellion in the imperial city—this time not only among the Jews but also among the non-Jews. Paul therefore exhorts the Roman Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities,” and to honor the Roman Caesar in things pertaining to civic duties (Rom 13:3-7).
It may seem rather odd that Paul does not mention Peter’s name in his Epistle to the Romans. Protestant scholars are quick to use Peter’s absence in the Epistle to prove Peter’s absence in Rome, with an argument such as this: “If Peter had practiced his apostolic ministry in Rome, Paul would have referred to it. Since Paul did not mention Peter’s apostolic ministry in Rome, it must be the case that Peter had not been in Rome.”
Contrary to this claim let me affirm that Paul did in fact refer to Peter in his Epistle to the Romans though not by name. This should not come as a surprise to us because Paul elsewhere avoids the proper names of important people. This is the “principle of anonymity”. The New Testament authors show a general reluctance to name names concerning certain subjects. The general pattern found in the New Testament is that if anything relates to the Roman Empire, do not be specific. This was a way to protect the Church from imperial persecution. Thus Rome is referred to as “Babylon” and “another place” and “the Beast”. For example, in his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle refers to Nero Caesar a number of times, but not once does he refer to Nero by name. Paul refers to Nero repeatedly as an “authority”, “ruler”, “servant of God”, and even as a “minister” (Rom 13:2-6). Anyone who knows the diabolical character of Nero, may be surprised by these flattering titles, but there is no doubt that Paul speaks of the current emperor of his day—Nero Caesar.
In a similar fashion, Paul refers to Peter as the mysterious and apostolic “other man” of the Church of Rome. Paul states that “another man” has already laid the foundation of the Church of Rome. Paul further explains why he has not yet come to Rome: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on the foundation of another man” (Rom 15:20-21). The implication is that Paul has no need to come to Rome because “another man” has already built the foundation of the Church in Rome. The sufficiency of this other man’s Apostleship is manifest by Paul’s doctrine that the Apostles are the only men capable of laying the foundation of the Church in Christ (Gal 1:11-24). Thus, Paul had no desire to establish the Church in Rome because he saw the Church of Rome as perfectly established by “another man” with Apostolic credentials.
Tradition identifies this “other man” as none other than Peter himself. This would explain the rather obscure reason given by Paul for his being “hindered very much” from coming to Rome (Rom 15:22). Paul was aware of his controversial status in the Church. If the Jews of Rome were rioting because of Peter, Paul would have driven them into hysteria! It would not have been appropriate for Paul to go to Rome. Paul’s affirmation that Rome is fully established under Apostolic authority is seen in his desire merely “to pass through” Rome and “enjoy your company for a little” as he travels to Spain (Rom 15:24).