Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans to a predominantly Gentile Christian church between 56 and 58 A.D. He did not found the church and had never visited. But how is it that there was a vibrant church there at all? Weren’t Christians expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius? Paul met two of those expelled, Priscilla and Aquila, in Corinth.
Oh, this is confusing. In my ignorance before beginning serious Bible study, I assumed the church in Rome was large simply by virtue of its presence in the capital of the Roman empire. Not so.
Here’s the timeline as I now understand it. My sources are The Catholic Study Bible, page 1493; The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 1080; and Erdmaan’s Dictionary of the Bible (entries on “Prisca/Priscilla,” page 1084; and “Romans, Letter to The,” page 1136).
Rome had a large Jewish community. Belief in Jesus likely arrived through merchants’ contacts with Jerusalem. According to Roman historian Suetonius, disturbances “instigated by Chrestus” (Christ) prompted the expulsion edict in 49 A.D.
Priscilla and Aquila were among those forced to leave. She was likely freeborn; her husband was a Jewish tentmaker from Pontus. They met Paul in Corinth and worked alongside him, making tents, for about 18 months. They moved to Ephesus and founded a house church there.
Claudius died in 54 and some of the Jewish Christians returned to Rome. They were surprised to find a large number of Gentile Christians—followers of Jesus had multiplied. Priscilla and Aquila moved back and founded another house church.
So Paul had several friends among the individual Christian churches of Rome. In the last chapter of his letter, he greets them, making special mention of Priscilla and her husband: Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I am grateful but also all the churches of the Gentiles; greet also the church at their house.
As I see it, Paul wasn’t writing to total strangers. He knew his lengthy letter would have a receptive audience in at least some homes.