Hospitality in the Bible: Romans 12

Hospitality in the Bible: Romans 12 January 8, 2023

Hospitality means philoxenia (φιλοξενία) in Romans 12:13. This combines two words, philos (“friend,” “dear,” “loving”) and xenos (“strange,” “foreign,” “alien,” “stranger”). The idea of a friend of strangers may help capture the sense of the word—the host treats the stranger like a friend. In an earlier blog I brought out a prime example of ancient hospitality through the story of the hunter from the orator, Dio Chrysostom.

Hospitality meal
“Breakfast Orange Juice Loaf Whole Wheat” via

In this piece we focus on this word in relation to Greco-Roman protocols and Romans 12.

Hospitality in light of the Ancient Mediterranean World

Romans 12 is concerned mostly with private hospitality—this is when a host receives into his/her home someone else or their family. Greco-Romans considered this type of hospitality as a moral virtue.

Other forms of hospitality include: 1) Public hospitality: a state supports visitors from another state as part the state’s foreign policy. 2) Temple hospitality: support for those on a pilgrimage to a sacred destination. 3) Commercial hospitality: an inn accepts travelers who pay the inn-keeper for food and lodging. 4) Theoxenic hospitality: hospitality is given to travelling heroes, demi-gods, and full deities.[1]

One example of these other types will suffice. Regarding theoxenic hospitality, the myth of Philemon and Baucis, a Phrygian elderly couple of modest means, took two strangers into their home. Everyone else in the region had rejected the strangers who turn out to be the gods Jupiter and Mars; they bless the couple’s kindness. Afterward, they escape a local flood and become priests in Zeus’s temple, and are later transformed into trees (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.613-70).

Similarly, in Jewish tradition, we find both Abraham and Lot being hospitable to strangers who happen to be angels, one apparently the Lord himself (Genesis 18–19; cf. Hebrews 13:2).

Regarding private hospitality, in Homer’s epics, especially the Odyssey, important characteristics of hospitality include eating a meal together, then finding out the identity and homeland of the guest, exchange of information, entertainment, toasting, participation in libation or sacrifice, bathing, sleeping accommodation, gifts to the guess, farewell, and escorting to the guest at departure (Homer Od. 1.123–24; 3.69–74; 7.226–39; 14.45–47; 16.54–59).[2]

Departures and Violations Related to Hospitality

One interesting ritual appeared to be customary when the strangers departed from the host. The procedure involved breaking a die in two in which the host kept one half and the guest the other half. This ritual guaranteed a mutual friendly relationship between the two households represented, so that “when at any future time they or their descendants met, they had a means of recognising each other, and the hospitable connection was renewed.”[3]

Similar to the broken die of Greeks, the Romans possessed the tessera hospitalis, a small tablet, possibly with Jupiter’s image on it, which guaranteed hospitable treatment among private people. The person receiving hospitality had “claims upon his host which the client had on his patron, but without any degree of the dependence implied” in regular patron-client relationships.[4]

Regarding Roman hospitality, their main deity, Jupiter, functioned for in a similar way that Zeus did for Greeks—Jupiter hospitalis was protector of law of hospitality and avenger of the stranger.[5] To violate or refuse hospitality, then, was to offend the gods and act impiously. Hence, Paris of Troy’s abduction of Helen would be considered among the most egregious violations of hospitality. And perhaps as to be expected, the Greeks eventually destroyed his city in the Trojan War.[6]

Romans 12:13

Paul charges the believers in Romans 12:13 to “contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality.” The New Living Translation more freely translates this as: “When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.” The J. B. Phillips translation has: “Give freely to fellow Christians in want, never grudging a meal or a bed to those who need them.”

In case we suppose that hospitality should only be shown to fellow believers, later on Paul quotes from Proverbs 25:21–22 that if our “enemy is hungry, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink” (12:20). This doubtless extends to outsiders, even as elsewhere Paul encourages believers to do good not only to fellow believers, but to everyone (cf. Galatians 6:10).

Romans 12–15 is a distinct unit in the letter, which is guided by Paul’s appeal for believers to present their bodies as a living, holy, and pleasing sacrifice to God (12:1). More particularly, Romans 12:13 is part of smaller unit within this rubric—Romans 12:9–21.

Here the first verse (12:9) functions as sort of a theme for this section. Believers are to demonstrate unhypocritical love, abhor what is evil, and cling as glue to what is good. One of the many tangible ways of expressing such love and goodness is by being hospitable to others who are in need of assistance. Ancient hosts would bring in the stranger as their guest in their own homes, and feed them as well as provide them with a place to rest.


Hospitality became an important way that missionary work could spread from one city to another. Both Jesus, the apostles, and Paul himself were able to spread the gospel that way (Mark 1:29–31; Matthew 10:9–15; Acts 9:43; 16:15; 21:7, 17; Philemon 22; 3 John 5–8). This is no less true in our day and age. In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, those who exemplify hospitality will be granted entrance to the Kingdom of God (Matthew 25:31–46).


[1] See John T. Fitzgerald, “Hospitality,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 522.

[2] See further, S. Reece, The Stranger’s Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene. Michigan Monographs in Classical Antiquity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993); cited in Fitzgerald, “Hospitality, 522–23.

[3] Leonard Schmitz, “Hospitum,” Dictionary of Greco-Roman Antiquity (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1865), 619–21 (619).

[4] Schmitz, “Hospitum,” 621.

[5] E.g., Homer Od. 9.270–71; Plato Leges 5.729E-730A; Cicero Pro Rege Deiotaro 6.18; Pausanias Descr. Gr. 7.27.4; Livy Hist. 39.51.12.

[6] Cf. Fitzgerald, “Hospitality,” 523.

Image: “Breakfast Orange Juice Loaf Whole Wheat” via

About B. J. Oropeza
B. J. Oropeza is an author and professor whose many works include Practicing Intertextuality: Ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman Exegetical Techniques in the New Testament (Cascade Books, 2021); Perspectives on Paul: Five Views (Baker Academic, 2020); and Scripture, Texts, and Tracings in 2 Corinthians and Philippians (Fortress Academic, 2022). You can read more about the author here.

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