by Gordon Franz (continued)
The Apostle Paul Sends Instructions to Greet Various Saints in the Church in Rome. 16:3-16
Before we look at the names of the people in the church at Rome, we should look at the formation of the church in the “eternal city.” When did the gospel first arrive in Rome and what was the ethnic and religious makeup of the early church in the city? The gospel most likely came to Rome soon after Shavuot (Pentecost) of AD 30. There were “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:10) that were in Jerusalem for the thrice annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Some may have heard Peter’s heart piercing sermon and placed their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. They would have returned to their family and friends in Rome and shared the good news of salvation by faith alone in the Lord Jesus.
According to church tradition, Peter, along with Silvanus and John Mark, visited Rome in the second year of Emperor Claudius in AD 42. The nucleus of believers in the earliest church meeting in Rome would have been Jewish. In AD 49, the Jews were expelled from Rome. It was at this time that Aquila and Priscilla departed the city, even though they were believers in the Lord Jesus (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Claudius 25:4; LCL 2: 53; Slingerland 1989: 305-322). The church that was left in Rome was mostly Gentiles and probably of the lower class. After the death of Claudius in AD 54, Nero apparently reversed the decree and Jews returned to Rome, most likely Jewish believers in the Lord Jesus returned as well, including Aquila and Priscilla.
Peter Lampe published a monumental study on the early church in Rome entitled Die stadtromischen Christen in den ersten beiden Jahrhunderten: Studien zur Sozialgeschichte (1987; for an English summary, see Lampe 1991 and 2003). In his studies he “showed that two of the most likely areas for early Christian house churches were in Trastevere, [on the west bank of the Tiber River] and the section on the Appian Way around the Porta Capena inhabited by the immigrants” (Jewett 1993: 27). He also suggested two other areas, Marsfield and the Aventine Hill with “potentially higher social status” than the other two areas (cited in Jewett 1993: 28).
In verses 3-16, Paul commands an unnamed group in the Roman church to greet 28 people on his behalf. The verb “to greet” does not merely mean to greet, like “Hi, how are you?” and wave your hand. The verb has the idea of wrapping one’s arms around and embracing someone. Paul admonishes them to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (16:16). Ben Witherington III points out: “[This] amounts to a command to treat those named as family, to welcome them into one’s own home and circle. Paul is going all out to create a new social situation in Rome, overcoming the obstacles to unity and concord dealt with in chapters 14-15. His arguments have intended to deconstruct the social stratification in the Roman church, creating a leveling effect by making all debtors to the grace and mercy of God, so the Gentile majority will treat the Jewish Christian minority as equals and with respect” (2004: 380). I would also add women and slaves to Witherington’s comments.
The hint from Romans 14 is that the church was divided over what was served at the love feast, or agape meal. This section (16:3-16) begins with a group of Jewish believers meeting in the home (probably a villa) of Aquila and Pricilla (16:3-5a), and ends with a church of Jewish believers who are slaves meeting in a tenement building, or apartment (16:15).
There is a Roman receipt book entitled Apicius which gives the receipts for standard Roman meals. They include such non-kosher items as shell fish (lobsters, mussels and crawfish), pork, blood sausage, ostrich, rabbit, octopus and squid and receipts that mix milk and meat (Grocock and Grainger 2006; Grainger 2006). Having a meal of pork sacrificed in a pagan shrine in Rome, or blood sausage, would be completely appalling to any Jewish believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul had never been to Rome, yet he already knew about 28 people in the church in that city. Some he knew from personal contact. He either worked with them or led them to the Lord. Others he knew only by reputation from what others had told him.
Greetings to Pricilla and Aquila – 16:3-5a
The first individuals that Paul encourages the church in Rome to greet is a Jewish couple named Priscilla and Aquila who had come to faith in the Lord Jesus as their Messiah. Aquila was originally from Pontus on the south shore of the Black Sea, called the Euxine Sea during the Roman period (Acts 18:2). Where Priscilla is from, we are not told. She could have been from Rome and Aquila met and married her in the Eternal City.
There are at least four possibilities as to when and how they came to faith in the Lord Jesus. First, he could have heard the preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem in AD 30 (Acts 2:9) and then returned to his home in Pontus (in the Diaspora). Second, he and his wife could have been in Rome in AD 30 and were part of the Jewish and proselyte delegation that visited Jerusalem for Pentecost in AD 30 (Acts 2:10). Third, he could have heard the preaching of Peter on his missionary trip through Pontus in AD 40-42 (cf. I Peter 1:1. Acts 12:17). Jerome, one of the early church fathers, states: “Simon Peter … after having been bishop of the church in Antioch and having preached to the Dispersion – the believers in circumcision, in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia – pushed on to Rome in the second year of Claudius” (1994: 3: 361). Fourth, if they were in Rome in AD 42, they could have heard Peter preach then.
These possible scenarios raise some interesting questions. Did Peter go to Pontus at the request of Aquila as a follow-up visit? Does Peter take Aquila as a disciple to Rome with him when he ventures to the city after his missionary journey? The latter would account for how he got to Rome. Was Aquila one of the leaders in the “pro-Cephas” faction in the church at Corinth (cf. I Cor. 1:12; 3:22)? He was being loyal to the one who led him to the Lord and mentored him. These are questions that can be asked, but Scripture is silent on the answers.
Scripture does state that Aquila and Priscilla were expelled from Rome by a decree during the days of Emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2). Most scholars date this decree to AD 49. After the expulsion, Aquila and Priscilla went to the Roman colony of Corinth. There they practiced their trade of tentmaking. In AD 52, Paul appears in Corinth to begin the work of evangelism. Silas and Timothy soon joined Paul in the work. One of the things that attracted these three was the Isthmian Games that were held near Corinth (Acts 18:2-5).
After 18 months of ministering in Corinth, Paul decided to move to Ephesus. He took Aquila and Priscilla with him to this major trading center on the west coast of Asia Minor (Acts 18:18, 19). Paul left them there as he journeyed on to Jerusalem. While in Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla had the opportunity to teach Apollos, from Alexandria, the finer points of the Word of God and his salvation (Acts 18: 26). They were also able to establish a church that met in their house (I Cor. 16:19).
The next time we see Aquila and Priscilla in Scripture, they are in Rome when the epistle to the Romans arrives in AD 58 (Rom. 16:3-5). Rome, not Corinth or Ephesus, was home for them, so they returned sometime after the death of Claudius and the reversal of his decree of expulsion. Paul indicates that there is a church meeting in their home (Rom. 16:5a). Tradition has it that the house church was on the Aventine Hill, on Via Prisca (Platner 1929: 65-67). This site was excavated by the Augustinian monks of St. Prisca between 1934 and 1958. Underneath the church they found a Mithraeum with an altar dating to the 2nd century AD with statues of Oceanus Saturnus and Mithras killing the bull.
The church had been meeting in the home of Aquila and Priscilla for nearly 10 years when tragedy struck. The Great Fire of July 19, AD 64, probably started by Nero, destroyed the homes on the Aventine Hill leaving Aquila and Priscilla homeless, along with thousands of other Romans. Perhaps they saw the handwriting on the wall. There were rumors that Nero had started the fire so he could engage in some urban renewal. He quickly blamed the Christians for starting the fire and the persecution of the Christians soon followed. Aquila and Priscilla, being homeless and fearing the persecutions, escaped to Ephesus. The last mention of this couple is in II Tim. 4:19, written in AD 67.
When Paul instructs the church at Rome to greet Priscilla and Aquila on his behalf, he describes them as his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also, all the churches of the Gentiles” (16:3b, 4). Paul had labored with them in Corinth and the beginning of the work at Ephesus. Paul mentions an event that is unrecorded in the book of Acts, but this couple put their life on the line for the Apostle Paul. What it was, we do not know, but it must have been heroic because the Gentile church gave thanks. Why does Paul mention this event? The majority of Gentile believers in the church in Rome apparently marginalized this couple and the house meeting in their home. Paul says to greet them (give them a big hug) and thank them for risking their lives for his sake. He says that even their fellow Gentiles in churches in the east have been thankful for their testimony. Paul is trying to unify the Church. (For a full discussion of this couple, see Hiebert 1992: 23-35).