Rowe, C. Kavin. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
C. Kavin Rowe’s book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age aims to address the nuanced relationship between Luke, the early church, and the Roman Empire. There are many who have proposed that Acts is an apologia aimed at showing Roman authorities that the church is harmless, apolitical, and not anti-Rome. In recent years there has been much writing on anti-empire as relates to the New Testament, so there is a temptation to emphasize aspects of Acts that can be interpreted in that fashion.
Acts goes beyond both approaches. Luke, “…aims at nothing less than the construction of an alternative total way of life—a comprehensive pattern of being—one that runs counter to the life-patterns of the Graeco-Roman world (p. 4).” The church is not anti-Rome, though the confession that “Jesus is Lord” does have serious implications in an empire where allegiance to Caesar was an essential confession. Yet the early church showed no interest in the establishment of Christendom. They were not aiming to overthrow Rome to replace Rome with an empire of Christ.
“To understand Luke’s political vision, therefore, one must examine the way Luke’s narration of God’s apocalypse shapes ecclesiology: theological truth claims and the pattern of life that sustains them—the core practices of Christian communities—are inextricably bound together (p. 4).”
Chapter One: Reading Acts is where Rowe provides the reader with an overview of the forthcoming chapters as well as his presuppositions and methodology. He confesses that the book is an “interdisciplinary project (p. 7).” He aims to introduce “…scholarship on the New Testament and on Graeco Roman antiquity…” to “…contemporary work in political theory, narrative criticism, and constructive theology.” In other words, he wants his historical research and biblical scholarship to say something to people today. He confesses:
“Of course, the danger in any interdisciplinary project is the temptation to spend too much time justifying the “poaching” in other disciplines. Though easily understandable as moves to hedge academic bets, such justifications are finally unnecessary for the simple reason that it is impossible for us to think in non-interdisciplinary ways (pp. 7-8).”
Through the remainder of the chapter he provides a primer on “Acts and the Ancient World,” “Acts and the Reader,” “Acts and Interpretation,” and “Acts and Modern Vocabulary.” For the most part this is an outline of his hermeneutical approach and an introduction to his writing on Acts. He addresses the “cultural encyclopedia of a text,” i.e., the wider culture within which the author lives and writer (contra the idea that words and concepts are timeless and universal, free from their “context”, p. 8). He advocates the aim of Acts as a book written to Christians. He says, “The readers of Acts were not pagan ‘seekers’ or ‘cultured despisers’ of the gospel but Christians for whom such a story told the life of their community/ies (p. 10).” He confesses agnosticism on where the text was written, “for whom,” “at what particular time,” and so forth (p. 10). We can speculate on such things, but our lack of data means we might consider doing our research without placing too much emphasis on the unknown.
Rowe is quite concerned with the amount of secondary literature on Acts so he confesses his primary aim is exegetical: to read Acts. This doesn’t mean he ignores other authors (contrary, on the Kindle edition the pages of content end at 50% and you don’t reach the bibliography through the notes until 84% indicating there is almost as much content in Rowe’s notes that in the body of his work).
Rowe is also concerned with defining the words he uses like “culture,” “pagan,” and “Christian,” realizing the dangers of anachronism and misunderstanding. He “hopes” to avoid a “particular method” but rather to embody “…a multidimensional constructive purpose (p. 15).” So by no means is this book strict history. It has a lot of history, but Rowe happily bridges history to informing the text to providing the message of the text as read in its context in hopes that it will speak to the modern reader as well.
Chapter Two: Collision: Explicating Divine Identityreminds readers that early Christian theology was “…never merely ideation. It is always and inherently a total way of life (p. 17).” He writes,
“Converting to the God of the Christians was not merely an adjustment of this or that aspect of an otherwise unaltered basic cultural pattern; rather, worshipping the God of the Christians simultaneously involved (1)an extraction or removal from constitutive aspects of pagan culture (e.g., sacrifice to the gods), and (2) a concomitant cultural profile that rendered Christians identifiable as a group by outsiders (p. 18).”
He adds, “Taken as a whole, the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles is a rich exposition of this cultural explication of divine identity (p. 18).” In order to explore this “divine identity” Rowe exegetes Acts 14.8-19; 16.16-24; 17.16-34; and 19.18-40. In these passages the Christian mission is displayed in Lystra, Philippi, Athens, and Ephesus. These narratives include interactions with the gods of the world and the rulers too. Figures like Hermes and Zeus, the woman possessed with a demon, the idols of Athens, and the magic arts interfere with people knowing the Creator God. Paul ventures into the pagan world introducing the Christian story to them and this is the part of the book that is most like a commentary as Rowe weaves through these chapters, providing historical background, insight into Graeco-Roman culture, interpretations of the text, and a coherent picture of how fidelity to Israel’s God results in conflict and tension for the apostolic mission.
Chapter Three: Dikaios: Rejecting Statecraft begins by asking, “…does Luke not acknowledge the cultural upheaval engendered by the Christian mission precisely so that he can counter it (p. 53)?” Most New Testament scholars have had a particular answer over the years: “…the dominant trend in NT scholarship has been to read Acts as a document that argues for the political possibility of harmonious, coeval existence between Rome and the early Christian movement (p. 53).” All the trouble and strife caused by the apostolic mission isn’t an insult of Rome or so they say Luke is arguing.
Yet it isn’t as simple. Sure, Luke isn’t anti-empire in the sense many wish to convey, but neither is Acts mere apologetic. Luke has Paul stand before many Jewish and Roman rulers explaining why his message has caused the world to go “upside down.” The Romans seem to see, “…Christian mission is an intra-Jewish argument about “words, names, and… law,” not a matter for Roman legal action (18:14–15; see 23:29; 25:19–20) (p. 54).” Yet this isn’t the most important focus: “…what Acts narrates is not Rome’s perspective of the Christian mission but Luke’s Christian perspective of the church vis-à-vis the Roman state (p. 57).” While the “view” of Rome is presented it is presented by Luke, not the Romans themselves. So we understand the state’s view of Christians as interpreted and narrated by Luke.
Rowe introduces us to figures like Gallio, Claudius Lysias, Felix, Festus, and Herod Agrippa II showing how chapter after chapter Luke depicts these rulers as confused and unsure about Paul’s message and the appropriate response. Obviously it challenges cultural assumptions, it has caused inter-Jewish conflict, and it proclaims a King who is not Caesar, but again and again Paul is depicted as reframing the debate: “It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day (Acts 24.21).”
According to Rowe the twist provided by Luke is that Paul moves the debate away from whether he is a threat to Rome to whether or not the resurrection happened. This is sly. If the resurrection happened the big questions remain. If Jesus is enthroned in heaven what does this mean for the Herods or the Caesars? But the Roman authorities can’t see past the confusing inter-Jewish debate. Some affirm resurrection, some do not, and this debate is about whether one named Jesus is alive today. Is that worthy of sending Paul to Caesar?
Rowe guides the reading brilliantly into follow after Luke’s thoughts on this matter, observing how he uses narrative, and becoming part of the insider network which includes Luke as narrator showing you the reader how Paul has both altered the debate and moved the focus to the heart of his gospel: the resurrection of the dead.
Chapter Four: World Upside Down: Practicing Theological Knowledge is where the shift from historical work to theological work is most apparent. Rowe notes:
“On the one hand, Luke narrates the movement of the Christian mission into the gentile world as a collision with culture-constructing aspects of that world….On the other hand, Luke narrates the threat the Christian mission in such a way as to eliminate the possibility of conceiving it as in direct competition with the Roman government. Of all forms of sedition and treason, Luke tells, Christianity is innocent (p. 91).”
“New culture, yes—coup, no. The tension is thus set (p. 91).”
This is the brilliant and threatening message of Acts. Christians don’t want to replace Rome, but they do want to alter the culture. Their message isn’t straightforward treason, but it isn’t a “live and let live” message either.
In this chapter Luke examines the techniques of Paul’s opponents (another King!) There were three “charges” against the Christians: “The Christians (1) disturb the world, (2) act against the decrees of Caesar, and (3) proclaim another king (p. 96).” Or as Rowe restates it a few sentences later: “…by proclaiming another king, the Christians act against the decrees of Caesar and thereby turn the world upside down. (p. 96).”
The Christians, who proclaim “a contender for the imperial throne, namely, Jesus (p. 97)” is a serious one and it remains hard to avoid even as Luke tells his story. The message is about a King and a Kingdom (to borrow words from Derek Webb). Rowe writes,
“In fact, Luke’s well-crafted final sentence of Acts does nothing if not make explicit the connection between the Kingdom of God and Jesus for the importance of understanding the narrative as a whole: “And he lived [in Rome] for two years … preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ boldly and unhindered” (28:30–31) (p. 100).”
“It is correct to say that Jesus is not a rival to Caesar in the sense that the former does not want the throne of the latter. But Luke would contest that the implication of this kind of politics is that Jesus’s kingdom is entirely elsewhere than on earth (cf. John 18:36) (pp. 100-101).”
In his section “Turning to Practice” Rowe takes these observations to the reader noting:
“The tension we have been exploring is a lived tension, which is to say that Acts narrates the conflict that surrounds its presentation of an alternative way of life as a result of certain practices, or a pattern of life (p. 102).”
Christians are called to “think” and “do” by the Book of Acts. It allows Christian to enter the tension of their ancestors in Rome to ask what it means to live in allegiance to a King, to liver an altered culture, but to avoid a “co-opt” of the state. The confession that “Jesus is Lord” had implications then and it has implications now. Rowe explores this in-depth through much of the chapter.
The claim that “Jesus is Lord” introduced a “mission” like no other. The Jews had done nothing quite like the Christians introducing a movement that took claim on all people everywhere. Rowe gives much attention to the posture of cruciformity and the claim of the resurrection. It suffices to say that I don’t think readers will be disappointing in how Rowe exegetically unearths Luke’s theological message for contemporary readers.
Chapter Five: The Apocalypse of Acts and the Life of Truth continues Rowe’s theological/application project. He discusses how Acts introduces a “new culture” of Christianity. This results in a “collision” with established pagan cultures. There is a lot of sociological investigation here as part of discussing Christian mission. Again, Rowe weaves the past with the present, Acts in the Graeco-Roman context with Acts for contemporary readers, as we move from asking what Christianity looked like in Rome to asking what it looks like in our world.
I could say more but I think I have sufficiently introduced this book and I want to leave some of the fun surprises for those who decide to read it themselves. I guarantee that this book is worth your time. It isn’t all that long in total content (about 176 pages). It has a ton of endnotes for further research. It satisfies the needs of historians and theologians alike (though maybe at different points of the book). If you are interested in studying Luke-Acts considering reading Rowe. This is his speciality and he is a gifted researcher and writer who knows how to handle Luke’s message well.