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After a short greeting, the second half or Romans 1 describes people who exchange righteousness for unrighteousness:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Romans 1:19 ESV http://bible.com/59/rom.1.19.ESV

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:21 ESV http://bible.com/59/rom.1.21.ESV

Is Paul referring to people in general, to Gentiles, to a specific locale, or to a categorical group? How would the audience in Rome have understood it?

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Most commentators have that the nations (gentiles) are the ones discussed in the last half of Romans c.1 because of verse 20.

"20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:" (KJV)

All men have the evidence of the creation before their eyes and can know by the things we can see the power of the Creator, the Most High, the Almighty God. By worshiping the created, the things they could see and make with their own hands, they exchanged the worship of the Creator to the idol images.

Now the Hebrews were as guilty of this as the other nations before the Babylonian captivity (I Kings 13:33, Jer. 7:31), but when they came out of the Babylonian captivity they were monotheistic.

The Biblical World, Vol. 37, No. 6 (Jun 1911) p. 375,

"The exile not only changed the organization of Israel's ritual, but it gave Judah a renovated social life. One has but to visit an excavation of an old Palestinian high place like that of Gezer and look upon the obscene emblems without number which were presented as offerings there, and which are themselves witness to the sacrifices of chastity which were continually made in those places is the name of religion, to realize what sinks of corruption every high place in Palestine was down to the year 621. The temple at Jerusalem was no exception to this rule as II Kings 23:7 testifies..... As, however, the new Judah became reorganized and the new law had time to make itself felt, all this was corrected. These old social sores were healed; the fountains of corruption dried up and, while lapses from morality no doubt occurred, as they do in all lands, there was a great difference in the general social level in this respect in the days after the exile. Thus the exile profoundly affected theology, ritual, and morals - the theory of religion, the practice of worship, and the application of religion to life."

The Biblical World, Vol. 37, No. 6 (Jun 1911) , p.376 :

"So deeply did the exile cut into the national life, so wonderful did the resuscitation of the nation seem, that the memory of it lingered long to color with bitterness or thankfulness the sentiments of later years - bitterness if the thought centered on the persecutors, thankfulness if it centered on the gracious deliverance Yahweh had wrought. Happily thoughts of the last-mentioned variety generally prevailed. We have but one psalm like the 137th with its pathetic beginning and bitter ending, while there are several which express the other sentiment." From a Journal Article "Influence of the Babylonian Exile on the Religion of Israel" by George A. Barton. Source: here pp. 370-378.

So, "they" of Romans chap. 1 vs. 19 and 21 was most likely discussing the unrighteous men of the other nations outside of Judea / Palestine.

However, chap. 2 switches over to the judgmental attitude the Jews displayed in condemning the unrighteous gentile while believing God would prefer and absolve the Jew who committed the same sin. See discussion of the Jewish beliefs which Paul addressed in Roman c.2 in the Study and Exposition of Romans 2:1-16 by Greg Herrick here.

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  • Romans was written long before the 7th-century. How is the exile relevant? Sep 22, 2017 at 4:21
  • Did you mean that Romans was written long after the 7th c. BC? The point is that the unrighteous men of Rom. 1 were idolators, whereas the Jews came out of the Babylonian exile monotheistic. So, the Jews were not the "they" of Rom. c. 1. But, they are the subject of Rom. c. 2.
    – Gina
    Sep 22, 2017 at 13:40
  • Sorry, I was thinking AD with the diaspora, but upon re-reading this answer, I realized the time period was specified. Sep 23, 2017 at 3:50
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We find the answer in verse 18:

Romans 1:18

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in unrighteousness: 19 Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them.

It applies generally to anyone who supresses their conscience which dictates to them the truth about God and His just demands. He goes on to name sexual perversity as an example of such people. And even those who encourage others to partake in the same sins as they themselves commit.

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Romans 1:18,19 for revealed is the wrath of God from heaven upon all impiety and unrighteousness of men, holding down the truth in unrighteousness.

Because that which is known of God is manifest among them, for God did manifest [it] to them,

Matthew 21:12,13 And Jesus entered into the temple of God, and did cast forth all those selling and buying in the temple, and the tables of the money-changers he overturned, and the seats of those selling the doves, and he saith to them, `It hath been written, My house a house of prayer shall be called, but ye did make it a den of robbers

They are the ones Christ drives out of the temple.

Matthew 21:40, 41 whenever therefore the lord of the vineyard may come, what will he do to these husbandmen?

They say to him, `Evil men -- he will evilly destroy them, and the vineyard will give out to other husbandmen, who will give back to him the fruits in their seasons.

They are the wicked husband men and the curse comes out of their own mouth.

Matthew 22:4-7 Again he sent forth other servants, saying, Say to those who have been called: Lo, my dinner I prepared, my oxen and the fatlings have been killed, and all things [are] ready, come ye to the marriage-feasts;

and they, having disregarded [it], went away, the one to his own field, and the other to his merchandise;

and the rest, having laid hold on his servants, did insult and slay [them].

And the king having heard, was wroth, and having sent forth his soldiers, he destroyed those murderers, and their city he set on fire

They are the ones that laid hold of his servants and killed them.

Matthew 23:33-36 Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna?

Because of this, lo, I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes, and of them ye will kill and crucify, and of them ye will scourge in your synagogues, and will pursue from city to city;

that on you may come all the righteous blood being poured out on the earth from the blood of Abel the righteous, unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the sanctuary and the altar:

verily I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation

They are serpents a brood of Vipers.

Matthew 24:9 then they shall deliver you up to tribulation, and shall kill you, and ye shall be hated by all the nations because of my name;

They are the ones who killed the Saints.

John 19:14,15 and it was the preparation of the passover, and as it were the sixth hour, and he saith to the Jews, `Lo, your king!

;and they cried out, Take away, take away, crucify him; Pilate saith to them,Your king shall I crucify?the chief priests answered, `We have no king except Caesar.

They are the ones who say we have no King but Caesar.

Acts 3:22,23 For Moses, indeed, unto the fathers said -- A prophet to you shall the Lord your God raise up out of your brethren, like to me; him shall ye hear in all things, as many as he may speak unto you;

and it shall be, every soul that may not hear that prophet shall be utterly destroyed out of the people

God would give them 40 years to receive Christ as their King but they would not and God would destroy them from among his people.

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  • This is a collection of (poorly formatted) quotes. A complete answer would include direct answers to the two-pronged question and explanations of how each quote supports the answer. Sep 22, 2017 at 4:29
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Gina, your perspective could very well be right but the text quoted in the biblical world, volume, 37, number 6(Jun 1911 ) page 376 by George Barton, on page 370 is a misinterpretation a scripture. George Barton says " little more than a century before Isaiah had declared that Jerusalem was necessary to the worship of Yaweh and that he would defend it ( Isaiah 31:5). Jeremiah on that contrary declared thatYaweh would himself destroy the Holy City(see 22:1-12)" There is nothing contrary in scripture, and these are both prophetic events not just applied to the captivity in Babylon but to the fallen creation and Gods new creation. Isaiah 31:5 this is Gods new heavens Gods new creation of which all of Gods children are born from. Isaiah 22:1-12 on the other hand, this is to the Fallen creation of which God would destroy the first century. I find this a common mistake and when the commentator misapplies scripture interpretation is at risk.

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  • I know, Michael. But, I was pointing out the relevant history of the monotheistic nature after the exile. So, maybe I should have just referenced pp. 375-376.
    – Gina
    Sep 22, 2017 at 13:42
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Like much of the scriptures, Romans is a polemic aka a "war of words". His opponent, though not identified by name, is described by Paul:

Rom 2:1 NLT - 1 You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things.

Paul gets to the heart of the matter by pointing out that simply having been given the Torah/Instruction does not mean that they are complying with the Torah. He teaches:

  • though God gave the Torah to Jews it does not mean that he doesn't hold gentile accountable

  • though God gave the Torah to the Jews it does not mean that they are any more unrighteous than the gentiles

  • Abraham was justified by faith, prior to receiving the Torah and rather than the Torah condemning him circumcision vindicated his justification by faith

  • the law was given hundreds of years after Abraham's justification and could not annul it

So his point in Romans 2:20 is that despite not having been given the Torah, the gentiles will answer to God because they have a different manifestation of the Torah/Instruction, and that is "written on the heart".

So the referent is the gentiles.

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Gentiles, at that time, referred to anyone who wasn’t Jewish and therefore was not given the word of the Lord. If you look at the descendants of the very Romans Paul spoke to in the Bible, it all becomes apparent who is being spoken to.

Even in the Roman Catholic Church, the wickedness and sin that plagued the Gentiles of Rome, still endure, dare I say are upholder by the very Church itself. Their actions on Earth is their punishment for denying God the glory of his creation. This is why people can not agree on whether Jesus was white or black, even though racial categories like this did not even exist during Jesus’ time.

When you look at the pattern of Roman-descendant behavior (racism, or hatred for fellow mankind, homosexuality and pedophilia which were common in ancient Roman culture, bestiality, and murder) these sins and the glory that these people take in committing them has already been prophesied in Romans 1:18-32:

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved. Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. (‭‭Romans‬ ‭1:18-32‬ ‭NLT‬‬)

World history makes a lot more sense when you see it has been dictated by people who abandoned God and therefore were abandoned in return. Racism and racial prejudice, white supremacy, homosexuality, pedophilia, are all manifestations of the hate, sin, greed, envy, and wickedness that is within all man . . . but to those who are destined to give in to their lustful hearts . . . It is not a coincidence that these Catholic priests have continued to practice Pagan traditions while the Pope turns a blind eye. They are literally suppressing the truth of God with their wickedness.

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    – agarza
    Sep 3, 2021 at 13:10
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I believe "they" are Jews who are resident in Rome but aren't part of the church. Rom 1:19-20 Seems to me to be general and applies to every human being on the planet but v21 then emphasizes the Jews.

I will use what I call the "cake on the table" analogy. Greg finds a cake on the kitchen table. Greg can make assumptions about its origin, purpose and destination but one thing he knows as a fact is that there is a creator or in this case, a baker even if he does not know who it is for a fact.

The Gentiles know there is a creator because of the evidence of creation even if they do not know who that creator is as seen by the inscription on the altar in Acts 17:23.

If Greg finds a note that explains the origins, purpose and destination, he now has knowledge and whatever he does thereafter cannot be chalked up to ignorance. V21 states that although they KNEW GOD, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him..". The Jews had history with YHWH and "KNEW" Him. They would have grown up with all the OT accounts probably inculcated from childhood. Just as the people under Moses in the wilderness started having blatant disregard for YHWH and His statutes or Solomon led astray by his women, the Jews in Rome "became futile in their thinking and darkened in their foolish hearts.".

Rom 2 then brings the focus on the Jews in the church.

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In general, verse 18 defines them as "...men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;".

I believe as he continues, he is more specifically referring to Moses' church in the wilderness and/or Sodom and Gomorrah (based on the specifics of their doings beginning in verse 21). He does say to the Corinthians that the things that Israel did (who should have known better as they were the ones who "knew God") were for our "example".

1 Corinthians 10:1-11

Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 And did all eat the same spiritual meat; 4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. 5 But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6 Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. 7 Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. 8 Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand. 9 Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. 10 Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

I then do not believe that he is specifically describing Gentiles only, as they were actually "without God" as being outsiders of God's covenant promises with Israel (until Paul was commissioned by Christ ascended to be the apostle to the Gentiles):

Ephesians 2:12-15

That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: 13 But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; 15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;

Romans 11:13

For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:

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