Who were the Recipients of Romans? The Most Famous Letter in the Bible

Who were the Recipients of Romans? The Most Famous Letter in the Bible September 3, 2022

Towards the end of the most famous letter in the Bible, Romans, the Apostle Paul gives a list of greetings to various people he knows in Rome (Romans 16:3–16). These greetings are designated to friends, colleagues, and fellow believers in Rome. We can learn some things about the recipients of this letter by virtue of these greetings.

Such greetings are typically found as a conventional feature towards the end of his letters (1 Corinthians 16:19–20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; Philippians 4:21–22; Philemon 23-24; Colossians 4:10–14). The greetings section in Romans 16:3–16, however, is unique. By far, it is the longest of Paul’s lists. The apostle employs the word “greet” (aspazomai/ ἀσπάζομαι) 18 times in these verses. The word generally means to salute or welcome warmly, which includes gestures such as kissing, embracing, offering one’s hand, or showing some form of affection.[1]

Here are five things we discover about the people addressed in this letter:

  1. Roman believers are expected to be a large family “in Christ”

Paul identifies the Roman believers with familial and affectionate terms such as “brothers” and “sisters” (16:1, 14, 15; also 17, 24), fellow kin (16:7, 11, also 21), and “beloved” (16:3, 8, 9, 12). Such are affectionate terms that elicit the auditors’ emotions and prompt them to regard fellow believers as though they were family members.

Other identifiers include the gathering of believers as a “church” or ekklesia (16:1, 4, 5, ; also 16, 22), as fellow workers (16:3, 8, ; cf. 16:21), as saints (16:2, 15), and as sharing common solidarity “in Christ” or “in the Lord” (16:2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12[2x], 13; also vv. 18[2x], 27).

  1. Paul greeted many people in Rome, but he did not seem to know all their names

A total of 26 names appear on this list in Romans 16:3–16. This list grows if we included greetings to persons who are mentioned but without Paul giving them a name. These include Rufus’s mother (16:13), Nereus’s sister (16:15), the church members of Prisca and Aquila (16:7), those in the household of Aristobulus (16:10), those in the household of Narcissus (16:11), the unnamed “brothers and sisters” in 16:14, and “all the saints” in 16:15.

Given these many unnamed people, the list would likely be more than double the amount had Paul named them. We may suspect that he does not name them because he did not know their names.

  1. Some of the recipients appear to be slaves, freed persons, couples, and blood-relatives

In this list, six of the names appear to be three married couples (16:3–5, 7, 15). There is also a mother and son (16:13). Others are blood-related, presumably as siblings in 16:9, 12a, 15.

A comparison of all these individuals’ names in 16:3–16 with lexicons that include references to such names from the ancient world reveals that a large number of these names are frequently the names of slaves and freedpersons.[2] It would be hard to deny, then, that at least some of the recipients were themselves slaves and freedpersons.

At the same time, the households mentioned in 16:10–11 may suggest there were some well-to-do members as well. That is, if Aristobulus and Narcissus are even believers. Paul mentions these persons only as the head of their households. Paul wants to greet those in their household, and it is likely that their houses may have been used as “churches” for believers worshipping together.

Three different couples appear to be married (16:3–5, 7, 15). Others individuals are related, presumably siblings in 16:9, 12a, 15, along with a mother and son (16:13).

  1. A congregation with Jews and Gentiles

Some on this list are Jews, such as Aquila, Mariam, Andronicus, Junia, Herodion, and we are probably safe in assuming that Prisca, Apelles, Aristabulos, Rufus, and his mother are Jewish. When Paul uses “my kin” to describe some of these individuals, he most likely means that they are Jews like himself rather than actual blood relatives. This means that of the 26 people greeted, 11 are probably Jewish. The rest as non-Jews would be gentiles.

  1. A congregation with many women

A significant point is that nine women are mentioned in these greetings. Some are faithful workers in the church (Prisca, Mariam, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, Rufus’s mother, and the sister of Nereus). This list does not even include Phoebe whom Paul commends in 16:1–2 and will be sending to the Romans. It is hard to imagine Paul as a misogynist, as some suggest, given that he has so many female friends and colleagues.

***

What we seem to have in the Roman congregation, then, is a diverse group from different walks of life and a surplus of what might be considered marginalized people. We should ask whether our churches today reflect such a community. Also, do we still call fellow church members “brother,” “sister,” and “beloved”? Such language would appear to encourage a family atmosphere.

Why does Paul give this extended greetings in Romans?

Paul is writing to a church body from a city he has never visited before, but he wants to make it clear that he has met quite a number of people that live over there.

Our apostle begins with the names of those he probably knows best—Priscilla and Aquila. They have been his colleagues in the past, when Emperor Claudius banished them, along with other Jews, about eight years earlier (Acts 18:1–3). It is quite plausible that he met several of the individuals he names in Romans 16 after they were expelled from Rome, much like Prisca and Aquila. After Claudius died, they apparently went back to Rome.

It would appear that Paul almost exhausts the amount of Roman believers that he actually knows by name. Those whom he provides descriptors for he apparently knows personally, but the ones whom he simply gives their names but does not say anything more about them he may not know well, or possibly he knows them simply by their reputation (Romans 16:14–15).[3]

What’s his motive for greeting so many people? First, Paul may be attempting to recall every person he has met at one time or another from Rome, so that no one who has met him before feels left out when hearing this letter being read to them.

Second, the more personal connections he could make by naming individuals, the more likely it will be for this congregation as a whole to receive him warmly once he visits them. (He plans to visit them shortly in Romans 15).

Third, since he is sending Phoebe to them with this letter (Romans 16:1–2), perhaps he wants to point out potential supporters and people for Phoebe to connect with.[4]

***

In the next installment, we will start looking at Paul’s female co-workers in more detail.


Notes

[1] See examples in Moises Silva, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1:425.

[2] About two-thirds appear to be slaves or freedmen, according to Peter Lampe in The Romans Debate, (ed. Karl Donfried,  227-29). Also, on the names in Romans 16, see Peter Lampe, From Paul and Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Fortress, 2003).

[3] So Frank Thielman, Romans. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan Academic, 2018), 709.

[4] As mentioned by James D. G. Dunn, Romans, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1988), 2:890.

Image: Hands Teamwork Team-spirit Cheer Up Team People via pixabay.com

About B. J. Oropeza
B. J. Oropeza is a Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University. Among his specialties include Paul and his letters. He has authored many books and articles, include Perspectives on Paul: Five Views (Baker Academic), and Jews, Gentiles, and the Opponents of Paul (Cascade). You can read more about the author here.

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