How to Think Paul’s Implied Audience in Romans

When reading Romans, it’s pretty common practice to read the letter as addressed to both Jews and gentiles.1

Certainly, there were Jewish Jesus followers in and around Rome at the time Paul wrote. Those included among the individuals whom Paul asks his audience to greet in Rom 16 are prime examples (e.g., vv. 3, 7, 11; cf. Acts 18:2).2

But Does Paul Have to Talk to Everyone?

At the same time, simply because Jewish Jesus followers were around doesn’t necessarily mean Paul wrote Romans to them. Jewish Jesus followers might even have been present when the letter first being read. But as a growing amount of recent work suggests, even that fact doesn’t particularly tell the letter’s later interpreters who Paul was writing to.3

For a rough analogy, one might take a slight caricature of typical sermon topics for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in any number of churches. On Mother’s Day, the sermon gets preached to the mothers about what a wonderful blessing mothers are (and they are! 🙂 ). On Father’s Day, the sermon gets preached to the fathers about how fathers need to be just as good at fathering as mothers are at mothering.

The mothers may overhear the Father’s Day sermon. But it isn’t addressed to them. The fathers may overhear the Mother’s Day sermon. But it isn’t addressed to them.

And recent work on Romans has raised the question whether something similar might be happening there. Might Paul address the letter only to the gentile Jesus followers at Rome, irrespective of whatever Jewish Jesus followers might also be around?

Rethinking Romans’s Implied Audience

For a long time, I didn’t think so. Surely, the presence of Jewish Jesus followers at Rome seals the deal, right? How could one conceive of Paul writing to Rome without writing to them as much as (or maybe more than) he was writing to the gentile Jesus followers?

Those factors notwithstanding, I’ve been grateful particularly to Rafael Rodríguez for pushing back on some of the assumptions I’d been making about what different texts in the letter imply about its audience.

At the same time, I wasn’t satisfied with the existing analyses. So, I started structuring my Romans seminar around the question of the letter’s implied audience. In doing so, my students and I have been looking closely at whether any given text in the letter says anything definitive about the audience and, if so, what that is.

How Romans 1:13–14 Implies the Audience Is Gentiles Only

That project is still very much ongoing. But the Tyndale Bulletin has kindly published an essay of mine on how Rom 1:13–14 in particular characterizes the letter’s intended audience as gentiles only.4

This essay supports the thesis that Romans has an exclusively gentile implied audience. But it also critiques how Rom 1:13–14 has been handled by proponents of both the mixed and gentile-only audience hypotheses.

In short, the mixed audience hypothesis has trouble accounting for the connections between vv. 13 and 14 (and sometimes simply bypasses this question). On the other hand, proponents of the gentile-only hypothesis haven’t generally pressed their argument as far as it seems to need to go with these verses.

Instead, this essay argues that the hypothesis of an implied audience containing both Jews and gentiles becomes unsustainable when confronted with the

  1. case of the elements Paul unites with the τὲ καί (“namely … and”) constructions in v. 14,
  2. variety of complements Paul elsewhere gives to ὀφειλέτης (“debtor”; v. 14),
  3. explanatory relationship that v. 14 has to v. 13, and
  4. clearly personal focus of the language in v. 14.

Conclusion

This essay will hardly be anything like the last word in the discussion. But hopefully, it will prove to be a helpful contribution to it.

And one of the upsides of the piece being carried by the Tyndale Bulletin is that it’s already openly accessible. So, you can get a copy for yourself directly from the Tyndale Bulletin website. Or drop your name and email in the form below, and I’ll send you a copy of this article from the Tyndale Bulletin and a few others besides.


  1. Header image provided by Alex Suprun

  2. E.g., see Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007), 953; Eckhard J. Schnabel, Der Brief des Paulus an die Römer, vol. 1, HTA (Witten: Brockhaus, 2015), 124. 

  3. E.g., see A. Andrew Das, Solving the Romans Debate (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007); Rafael Rodríguez, If You Call Yourself a Jew: Reappraising Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014); Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Paul’s Interlocutor in Romans 2: Function and Identity in the Context of Ancient Epistolography, ConBNT 40 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2003; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015). 

  4. Problems and Prospects with Romans 1:13-14 and the Letter’s Implication of a Gentile Audience,” TynBul 73 (2022): 45–69. 

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