Shifts in Audience in the Letter to the Romans

Shifts in Audience in the Letter to the Romans

In order to stabilize and strengthen the church members at Rome with their radically divergent backgrounds, Paul shifts in the audience addressed alternatively between all the people in the Roman church as a whole, the Jew-born believers in the church, and the Gentile-born believers. The focus on a new audience does not mean that others of another background cannot benefit in several ways, but allows Paul to deal with special matters of concern principally for that ethnic background. This makes considerable difference in interpretation. In general, we see the following, but perhaps other shifts can be found:

1. All people in the Roman church appear to be addressed in chapter 1.

2. In chapter 2 through 11:12, it appears that Jew-born Roman believers are particularly addressed. You read such things as “if you bear the name Jew and rely upon the Law”, “You who boast in the Law” “indeed circumcision is value if you practice the Law,” in chapter 2. Or, “are we better than they,” in ch 3. Or, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh has found?” in ch 4. Consider also “Or do you not know, brethren (for I’m speaking to those who know the law)” and all the other talk about Law, in 7 (a Law the Gentiles were never under).

3. In 11:13 (or somewhere close) to 12:13 it appears to shift to Gentiles as the main listeners. In 11:13 he says, “But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles” and “You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I [the Gentile] might be grafted in” and “you stand by your faith” and many other clear Gentile audience markers throughout the chapter.

4. In 12:1-15:14 Paul seems to change to an emphasis on all the believers, Jew-born or Gentile-born.

5. The he shifts back to the Jew-born in 15:14-33 in which he says such things as: “And concerning you, my brethren” in vs 14, indicating a change from his previous audience. His emphasis is on Gentiles in the third person after this. This section I’m less confident about, but think it is to the Jew-born.

6. In ch 16, Paul appears to speak to all believers in the church, Jew-born or Gentile-born.

Again, it does not mean there are no benefits for each background to pay close attention to all of it. For instance, when in chapters 6 and 7 there is a strong unit of thought built around four questions of principal concern for the Jews. All are formed in a similar manner and are answered with “Absolutely not!” Each question is about the Law, and each represent questions Jew-born people would be concerned about. However, the positive statements about the nature of a true believer which are found within are all true for Jew-born or Gentile born.

I hope this at least gives something to keep in mind as you read this amazing letter. Other epistles by Paul have similar markers which need to be considered. Sometimes these directional markers are very clear, but at other times less clear. It brings us a new interpretive handle on a difficult book if you have not worked with this concept before. Try it on!