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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.

  • Romans was written long before the 7th-century. How is the exile relevant? – Spencer Joplin Sep 22 '17 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 '17 at 13:40
  • Sorry, I was thinking AD with the diaspora, but upon re-reading this answer, I realized the time period was specified. – Spencer Joplin Sep 23 '17 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.

  • 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. – Spencer Joplin Sep 22 '17 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.

  • 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 '17 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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