Background* Who is Paul?
Every book on Paul or commentary on his writings begin with this question. And rightly so. While it may seem that we have all we need to understand who Paul was since he wasn't shy about giving out personal information, bible scholars are constantly unearthing new information on Paul and the churches he founded.
So let's begin with who Paul was.
Paul was a Jew. He was always a Jew. He never stopped self-identifying with Judaism. Even after his conversion he stayed a Jew. He believed that Christianity was a branch of Judaism. Paul identifies himself as “an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom 11:1) and “...circumcised on my eighth day, Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred” (Phil 3:5).
Dunn says that we need to read Romans in the full knowledge that Paul still considered himself a Jew. In fact, he suggests that we need to read this book as a debate between the pre-conversation Jewish Paul, and the post-Conversation Jewish Paul. Through Romans, it's as if Paul was arguing with himself as these two Pauls. Paul is fighting with his past.
And Paul fought with other Jews. Even other Jewish Christians. Dunn says, “...for Paul the principle of faith had to be taken more radically relativizing and sidelining such distinctly Jewish practices...not just circumcision, but other 'works of the law' were at odds with faith in Christ, since they effectively added a further requirement as part of the 'package' in gentile acceptance of the gospel.”
In other words, Paul was accused of watering down the faith for numerical success. He was charged with betraying the faith of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel, to win over non-Jews. Without these central Jewish practices, Paul's Judaism ceased being Jewish. It had lost its distinctive flavour. This was no small disagreement.
Paul was a Pharisee: Which, according to Dunn, “must have meant a period of study under a Pharisaic – almost certainly in Jerusalem, since Pharisees were not widely dispersed beyond Judea (so Acts 22:3). The Pharisees were not an undifferentiated group at that time, but a common characteristic seems to have been their 'concern or precision or strictness' in interpretation of the Law...Pharisaic concern and dedication to maintain the law is “zeal” which Paul claimed both for himself, before his conversion (Phil 3:6; also Acts 22:3), and for his fellow Jews...Among his fellow (younger) Pharisees, Paul seems to have been particularly “zealous for the ancestral traditions” (Gal 1:14).”
Paul was a Roman Citizen: Paul held a “dual citizenship” as a Diaspora Jew (a Jew not living in Jerusalem, Diaspora means “scattering”). This gets Paul out of a jam (Acts 22:25) Since Paul wrote in Greek is it clear that he was highly educated beyond his pharisaical training. Diaspora Jews were immensely proud of their ethnic identity, which they were allowed to maintain even if they were citizens of the Roman empire. His “dual citizenship” is important to bear in mind as we ponder his sense of mission “to Jew first and also to Greek” (Rom 1:14, 16).
Paul was a Missionary: Following his conversion (Acts 9), his encounter with the risen Christ was as if he had been summoned, appointed, and commissioned by God to take the message of the gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Dunn notes that Paul never talks about his encounter with the Risen Christ as his conversion, but of his calling and commissioning.
This is different from how we normally think of Paul's (or anyone's) experience of faith. For Paul, commissioning and conversion were intertwined. We are not converted and THEN sent out in mission. When God calls us its because God has a job for us to do. Jesus didn't say, “Believe this.” Jesus simply said, “Follow me.”
When Did Paul Write this Letter?
No one can really agree on the date this was written. Dunn places it some time in the 50's AD. Other scholars like to try to EXACTLY pinpoint a date, but then again, who really cares whether it was 51 AD or 54 AD?
Folks place the letter in the 50's because of the timeline mentioned in the book. Paul hadn't yet been to Rome and was on his way to Jerusalem (Rom 15:25) from Corinth.
Who Were These Roman Christians?
Many of the Christians who made up the Roman churches were Jews who were captured and taken to Rome, where they were eventually freed. These Jews then built synagogues where they worshipped and received quite a few gentile converts who adhered to Judaism in varying degrees. It was from the synagogues that the first evangelism efforts bore fruit.
There was no single church in Rome. By the time Paul wrote this letter, Christians were too numerous to worship in one place. Also, their organizational structure was one of a loose-knit smattering of gatherings all around the city, functioning independently. Larger gatherings were unwise because they didn't want to attract attention from the Roman authorities. House churches were the norm.
Most of the Christians came from the lower class (free slaves) but a minority came from the well-to-do. Paul assumes a strong bible knowledge in his letter which (Ch. 4 & 7) which suggests that Jewish folks were dominant.
Why did Paul Write this Letter?
Again, Dunn is helpful. He outlines Paul's purpose in writing the letter to the Romans:
Missionary Purpose: He wanted to reach Rome with the gospel.
Apologetic Purpose: Not in the sense that he was apologizing for his message. But he sought to defend his message against the charges of the other Jewish Christians that he was abandoning the faith. And he was defending himself against those who said he had no authority in the church.
Pastoral Purpose: Some say that the letter was written to ease divisions in the Roman church. Paul was arguing to maintain unity among the Roman Christians, and a call to mutual acceptance (Rom 3:25-26; 4:16; 11:11-32; 15:27).
Others suggest his letter was a summation of teachings that he had learned and wanted to teach to the Roman Christians.
Political Purpose: This is my addition. Paul was writing to Roman “atheists” in that they didn't believe that Caesar was Lord. They believed that Jesus was. Romans, I believe, is a direct confrontation with the very idea of empire. Beginning with the Roman empire. The Roman Christians were a distinct group who were committed to a different message than the state sanctioned one. They were ambassadors of Jesus, not of Caesar. This had tremendous political implications.
*James Dunn's Commentary on Romans was a big help in putting together this intro.