Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove, IVP Academic), 2013. (Amazon.com)
When I saw this book previewed in the IVP catalog a while ago I made sure to ask Adrianna Wright to include me as a reviewer. She did and I received a copy a few weeks ago. This book addresses a topic that interest me. Empire in the New Testament is a field of inquiry that has become increasingly attractive in recent years. Personally, I began to read books like Brian J. Walsh’s and Sylvia C. Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire; Richard J. Horsely’s Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder; and John Dominic Crossan’s and Jonathan L. Reed’s In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom around 2005. It was at a time when I had graduated college quite discouraged by a Christianity that was consumed with either living right to go to heaven or living wickedly to go to hell. Also, I was disillusioned by the rhetoric coming from many Christians during their effort to re-elect President George W. Bush. Finally, I found literature that introduced me to a reading of Scripture that addressed earthy matters, including corrupt world governments and their rulers, which was my impression of the Bush Administration in my early twenties.
Then I kept studying and I realized that the New Testament may be more nuanced that I imagined. The first book to challenge my thinking on this topic was written by Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke, which helped me realize that there may be a third option. It may be that early Christianity was neither accommodating to Rome nor anarchist. Instead, it could be that there is far more nuance and complexity. Since then I have come to appreciate something C. Kavin Rowe suggested in his book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, namely, early Christianity offered an alternative culture, but it wasn’t seditious, necessarily. Sometimes we find stronger anti-imperial language, especially in the Apocalypse, and sometimes we find language that seems a bit more grateful for Rome.
This book edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica is filled with essays by writers who understand this. This book is not an attack on Empire studies. In fact, the editors and authors are very appreciative of those who have helped us better understand the text by studying how it relates to the Roman Empire within which these texts were written. That said, there may have been a pendulum swing that went a tad too far the other direction which this book aims to correct, arguing for a healthy, cautious middle.
Message of the Book
The message is simple. As the editors put it, “This book is an attempt to strike a balance between a postcolonial reading of the New Testament and one that recognizing the contributions of that reading, yet posits a very different view of the ‘kingdom of God (p. 212).'” In other words, “…the New Testament writers affirm that Jesus is Lord, not with the sole intent of debunking Caesar and his empire, but to offer a stark contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.” Now, the Roman Empire may behave in ways that is aligned with the kingdom of Satan, but that doesn’t mean there is a one-for-one correspondance. Rome could do some things well for a temporal, human government.
Summary of the Contents
Andy Crouch begins the book with a Forward that is the written equivalent to an exciting movie trailer. He observes, “We will always have empire (p. 8).” This is true “as long as we have complex human societies (p. 9).” Empires are the result of humans attempting to live as image bearers. We create things and we govern, but Crouch reminds us, “Empires always end (p. 9).” He says that the biblical writers are “surprisingly ambivalent” about the rising and falling of empires (p. 10), noting that even Cyrus can be called “Messiah,” as in Is. 45:1 (p. 11). This is because, “Not all empires are alike (p. 11).” Therefore, “…the question is not really whether we will have empires (we will) or whether they will endure (they will not), but what kind of empires will we have in this time between times (p. 12).”
Then he says the following which captures the point of this boom quite well:
“…to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ does not seem actually to entail saying ‘Caesar is not [Lord].’ Rather, it entails not saying ‘Caesar is Lord.’ This minute grammatical distinction, simply a matter of where the negation is placed, seems to me to explain so much about the New Testament witnesses. The affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’ requires not so much a strident denunciation of earthly lords as a studied silence concerning their pretensions. The answer to Caesar’s inflated claims of significance is further proclamation of Jesus the Messiah’s real significance (p. 13).”
Jesus is Lord, but that doesn’t mean Caesar isn’t lord, even if temporarily. Caesar may be lord, but he is responsible to the Lord. In the meantime, Christians are to proclaim Jesus, the true Lord of lords, and if this results in persecution so be it. If it doesn’t and if like Paul we gain audiences among governing authorities, then we must proclaim Jesus to them as well, and let the Lord be the judge of all lords.
In the Introduction McKnight and Modica say a few things about empire studies as they relate to New Testament studies before outlining what the reader should expect from this book.
Chapter 1: We Have No King But Caesar: Roman Imperial Ideology and the Imperial Cult is written by David Nystrom, an expert on the Roman Empire. He explains how Rome came to power and the ideologies that supported their self-understanding, including the belief that their empire was ordained by the gods. This chapter is extremely helpful because it prevents us from importing back into history our understanding of Roman practices. Nystrom explains things such as patronage, whether worship directly implied divinity, and so forth.
Chapter 2: Anti-Imperial Rhetoric in the New Testament by Judith A Diehl is partly a survey of modern scholarship on how early Christians related to Rome and partially a presentati0n of how we may think about. For those lacking familiarity with the field this won’t catch you up completely, but it will give you a basic idea of what is being said and who the “movers and shakers” have been.
Chapter 3: Matthew by Joel Wilitts is the first chapter that directly addresses a section of the New Testament. Willits spends most of this chapter interacting with the work of Warren Carter. Rather that reading Matthew as anti-imperial Willits writes, “I don’t think Matthew is anti-imperial at all. Matthew’s problem with empire, if one can even put it that way, was not empire, but which empire (p. 85).” In other words, Matthew advocates the Davidic King and Israel’s empire. Matthew does address Rome, but it is not the primary message of the Gospel. Instead,
“Matthew was neither critiquing ’empire’ per se nor singling out Rome uniquely. To take this view would be to inappropriately diminish Matthew’s message. Jesus is not only or primarily God’s answer to Rome. Jesus is God’s answer to Israel’s unfulfilled story (p. 97).”
Chapter 4: The Gospel of Luke and the Roman Empire is a fascinating juxtaposition between Luke and Josephus. He compares and contrast their approach to Rome and how their message may have been understood. It is proposed that Josephus was “snarling sweetly” in his writings, not directly opposing Rome, but saying things that defended his people and that were partially critical of Rome all the while writing for his Flavian audience. Similarly, Luke isn’t hiding anything. He isn’t against Rome, but he isn’t ignorant of Rome’s shortcoming either.
Chapter 5: John’s Gospel and the Roman Imperial Context by Christopher W. Skinner attempt to fill a gap in the field. The nature of the Fourth Gospel has led many to neglect it when studying empire. Skinner corrects this addressing a variety of objections to finding empire on John. Then he interacts with the works of Tom Thatcher, Warren Carter, and Lance Byron Richey discussing topics like “negative Christology” (i.e., Johannine Christology is mostly intended to rebuff imperial claims) and “the rhetoric of distance” (i.e., Johannine dualism as relates to the Gospel and Rome). Skinner expresses gratitude for those who have helped us see that the Fourth Gospel does say something about Rome, but he concludes that “…the Fourth Gospel is largely concerned with the incarnate Logos who has come down from above (p. 128).”
Chapter 6: Proclaiming Another King Named Jesus? The Acts of the Apostles and the Roman Imperial Cult(s) by Drew J. Strait contributes to the discussion of Acts’ relationship to Rome (which unlike John’s has been addressed by many over the years). Strait engages several dialogue partners providing helpful caveats and clarifications, one of the most insightful being the reminder that there is not one official imperial cult, but that the imperial cult had many forms. Also, his discussion of apotheosis and the ascension is very informative.
Chapter 7: “One Who Will Arise to Rule the Nations”: Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Roman Empire by Michael Bird addresses one of the most complex documents in the New Testament. One where we may find the most anti-imperial rhetoric mixed with the most caution toward Rome. Bird provides background information on Paul and Rome as well as how this has been discussed in recent scholarship. Then he moves through some of the more complex passages such as 1:1-4; 1:16-17; 13:1-7; and 15:5-13. While Bird’s essay seems the most welcoming to modern trends he does note, “Romans is not a political manifesto. It is pastoral theology, albeit one not divorced from the sociopolitical realities of the Roman Mediterranean (p. 161).”
Chapter 8: Philippians and Empire: Paul’s Engagement with Imperialism and the Imperial Cult by Lynn H. Cohick is a very informative study on Philippi and how Paul’s letter would have been understood there. She provides a background of the imperial cult that clarifies a lot, noting that while the imperial cult did include the living Caesar it would have included Julius Caesar, Augustus, Augustus’ wife Livia, and Claudius. In other words, it isn’t “Jesus v. Caesar” per se. The imperial cult is familial, including even a female member (pp. 169-170). Like Bird’s essay Cohick choses to discuss a few select areas: 1:27; 2:5-11; and 3:20-21, evaluating what has been said about these passages and whether the anti-imperial reading makes the most sense historically. Cohick counters with an “eschatological, anti-pagan” reading.
Chapter 9: Colossians and the Rhetoric of Empire by Allan R. Bevere is a two part chapter. The first deals with the aforementioned book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Walsh and Keesmaat and the second part discusses Philemon. As much as I enjoyed Colossians Remixed I think this chapter is a strong critique of the book and Bevere provides what seems to me to be a more historical sound reading of the text and the problem addressed by the author (who he suggest is Timothy with Paul’s approval). Bevere is slow to embrace the idea that Paul was requesting Onesimus be released by Philemon in that epistle, noting that the relationship has changed, but that it isn’t obvious to him that Paul is requiring Onesimus be made a free man.
Chapter 10: Something Old, Something New: Revelation and Empire by Dwight D. Sheets revisits what may be the most discussed text in the field. Revelation is presented as the most anti-imperial document of the New Testament. Sheets revisits how we understand the author’s beliefs about Jesus’ return and the nature of apocalyptic discourse. He provides a thoughtful reconsideration of Domitian, which I found to be the most insightful part of the chapter (see pp. 202-205).Through this lens of the imminent return of Christ accompanied by the warning against cultural assimilation Sheets argues that these factors may have been far more influential than merely some theory of anti-empire.
If I were to critique this book in any way it would be this: each chapter needs to be its own book. For those who are attracted to the writings of Carter, Crossan, Horsley, and others this book may bother you because it has to provide a brief rebuttal. This may seem insufficient when we consider how much work these aforementioned authors have put into their anti-imperial readings. That said, if the reader is able to take these brief proposals and then revisit anti-imperial readings with them in mind I think a more fruitful, nuanced vision of how early Christians related to Rome will emerge. Empire studies have benefitted New Testament studies. There is no doubt about that. Yet we need to make sure to avoid a pendulum swing, The New Testament may not be about the “sweet by and by,” but neither is it about revolt or being so anti-Roman that the authors hoped to see Rome collapse some way other than when Christ returns, when all empires will collapse, not just Rome. I highly recommend this book for those who are new to the field or those who have been studying in it a while now.
Seems to me we have sort of a dichotomy. Rome demanded cultic worship of Caesar and Dea Roma, etc.
We were taught not to compromise with that, so the church suffered. The NT teaches that Christ is King and that Caesar ruled only with Christ’s authorization.
In THAT sense, the bible undermined Rome “illegitimate authority”and should undermine modern patriotism, IMO.
Yet, we also were taught to obey the human authorities unless they were in clear opposition to God’s laws, pray for them, not to revolt against them because God authorized them and will change them when He is pleased to. In this way, the bible did not undermine Rome’s “legitimate authority”.
Even with the reign of God having been brought to earth by Christ, we still have to live in these secular, flawed nations until that great day and this is how I think we need to relate to them until then.
I may have missed it, but I didn’t see a chapter in the list above that is focused on the origin of the terminology in question. It seems to me that kurios is simply a Greek word used to translate an Aramaic or Hebrew term used for lord or master between Jews in Judea. I am highly suspicious of the idea that a completely new concept of Lord would be added to Apostalic thought simply because thoughts were being put on paper for Greeks (though more accurately, churches led by Jews of the dispersion in which there were also Greeks). In other words, it seems like scholars are importing the meaning of a term used in a language to translate the original thoughts into theology instead of being careful to understand how the term would be used in the original culture of Judea, assuming they were speaking Aramaic or Hebrew for the most part in Judea. The entire effort seems dubious to me.
In essence, the book aims to recognize this tension that you observe.
There isn’t one chapter dedicated to defining terminology, mostly because each author deals with a different text, and it is not assumed that words have the same meaning (or nuance) for every author. As to whether kurios is aimed to associated Jesus with Israel’s God or with a ruler of the world may be a false dichotomy. It depends on the emphasis, I presume. Sometimes Jesus’ affiliation with kurios may evoke connection to deity and sometimes it may depict a ruler, or both. I think C, Kavin Rowe’s book Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke is a good study as regards calling Jesus “Lord” (which I own, but haven’t read fully because it is in California with most of my books while I am in Texas) as well as work by folk like Hurtado and Bauckham.
I think that while Revelation especially wants to reveal the beastly (violent) nature of the Roman Empire (to churches that are “captivated” by its power and wealth), that the Gospels are more concerned with the conflict between Jesus’ new kingdom and all the kingdoms of the world, beginning with the kingdom of Israel. Thus I don’t agree that Matthew is advocating the Davidic king and Israel’s empire; instead Jesus is inaugurating a new kingdom and teaching his disciples the differences between this kingdom and the kingdom of Israel; and Jesus is constantly in conflict with the scribes and Pharisees, who rule over much of Israel through their authority in the synagogues, interpreting and enforcing the law of Moses. Similar to Revelation, Jesus in Matthew is exposing the evil of ruling authorities in order to turn people (disciples) away from loyalty to them and give exclusive loyalty to Jesus as king.
In Rom. 12:14-13:10 Paul also contrasts the nonviolent response to evil of those who follow Jesus in loving enemies over against letting their enemies (who persecute them) be subject to the punishment of the ruling authorities. God can use even Roman authorities to punish persecutors of Christians (as they did sometimes when rescuing Paul from Jewish persecution). While such authorities can thus be used as instruments of God’s wrath, they are in general themselves given up to God’s wrath, as in Rom. 1:18-32, due to their ungodliness and wickedness, including making images resembling mortal man (statues of dead divine Caesars) and being filled with all manner of murder and strife.
This is not a cautious “balance,” or “tension;” it is a strong prophetic stand against the evil kingdoms of earth and their heartless and ruthless rulers. And it exposes such evil in order to call people to join Jesus’ international kingdom of disciples, who obey him as the true righteous king.
Definitely, there are places in the NT where the authority Rome is challenged. All of the authors make that point, but their contention is that Rome is more background than foreground in most of the NT. As to your comment about Jesus’ relationship to the Davidic Kingdom I understand your emphasis, but we may have a false dichotomy here. Matthew’s genealogy begins with the effort to connect Jesus to David. That doesn’t mean the Kingdom would be manifest in a fashion expected by many of Jesus’ contemporaries, but neither should we divorce Jesus’ Kingdom from that Davidic Covenant.
In case you haven’t come across it before, I would also commend to you the following collection of essays related to some of these issues: Jeffrey Brodd and Jonathan Reed (eds.), Rome and Religion: A Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue on the Imperial Cult (SBL Press, 2011).
This book is a particular breath of fresh air since several of its contributors are primarily scholars of Rome, Roman history, and Roman religion — as opposed to NT scholars who have tried to pick up some “background” in Roman religion. Others (e.g., Steven Friesen) have written on NT related matters, but have truly contributed original research in areas related to Roman religion too.
Why do you think that various Hebrew/Aramaic words or “concepts” essentially underlie the New Testament writings we have? For example, and choosing the earliest NT writings we think we have, do you have evidence from Paul’s letters that he actually knew Hebrew and that presupposing such knowledge truly unlocks what he’s saying more? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating the Paul’s Gospel vs. Caesar approach. I just don’t see the usefulness of emphasizing some essentially “Hebrew” content of what Paul is saying since that makes almost no sense historically and it looks like a remnant of traditional apologetics claims (i.e., Christianity is essentially Jewish and thus sealed off from any true “pagan” “influences;” and the related idea that “Jewish” necessarily means non-Greek/Roman).
Also, why do you presume that “the original culture” of/behind the NT writings is “Judea”? What evidence do you have that any NT writings originated in or by authors from Judea? I guess that is possible, but which ones and why do you think this? Also, do you have evidence that “the culture of Judea” was also somehow a bounded entity separate from the broader Greco-Roman world too? Perhaps I have misunderstood you.
I haven’t heard of that book, but thanks for bringing it to my attention!
Brian wrote “The first book to challenge my thinking on this topic was written by Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke, which helped me realize that there may be a third option. It may be that early Christianity was neither accommodating to Rome nor anarchist. Instead, it could be that there is far more nuance and complexity.”
Yes, that third option is called the ‘Kingdom of God’. The trick is being a solid citizen of that Kingdom while balancing the requirements of its citizenship against those imposed upon you by a nation-state that will ultimately pass away (even if not in your life time).
Wise perspective, you’ve got there Brian.
“Christ and The Caesars” by Ethelbert (yep, Ethelbert) Stauffer is also a fantastic work. Different than Kim’s work, Stauffer’s demonstrates how much of the revelation’s comments were mimics of Caesar’s.
Jesus in that work is at war with the Caesar, demonstrating He, not Caesar, can do this and that.
Some of the details are identical, Domitian would “wear the 7 stars/planets” on his necklace, Jesus “holds them in MY hand”, etc. So, whose the boss here?
The early church was born into a pagan world that worshipped leaders and/or gods that the leaders had allegedly developed their power from. That fact we must bear in mind.
Another question for me anyway is how should I relate to my own modern secular state? They don’t demand worship, but, should I (A)owe allegiance to it or just (B)live here within the laws to the extent I can w/o compromise? I’m leaning to option (B)
“Allegiance” is a complicated word. I know a few Christians who won’t pledge allegiance to the United States because it is argued that allegiance to the nation is incompatible with allegiance to the Kingdom of God. It would be like “serving God and mammon.” I don’t embrace this perspective. I think it is possible to pledge allegiance meaning something like “I will do nothing to harm those neighbors with whom I share a government, an immediate economy, a overarching culture, land, and other possessions. I will do my best to live for the benefit of the city, state, and nation in which I live as long as this doesn’t contradict my allegiance to the Kingdom of God.” Thoughts?
The primary crisis that is going on in the New Testament is the conversion from the Old Covenant given to Israel by Moses to the New Covenant implemented by Christ. This crisis is based on the application of the Song of Moses of Deuteronomy 32 to that generation of Israelites (or Jews). The enemies of the church throughout the text until just the last few years of the narrative are the Jews who were attempting to either put down the Christian movement directly (Saul’s work in persecuting Jewish Christians) or who were attempting to subvert Christianity by making Chrisitans join the Mosaic Covenant nation in order to access Christ (the Judaizers Paul is speaking against in Galatians and Romans). The Romans played a key part in the story at the very end of the narrative as they were being prepared by God to be the instrument of destruction of the Old Covenant nation (just as the Assyrians had been used against the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonians had been used against the Southern Kingdom).
This history is important because it is the skeleton on which the narrative of the New Testament is built. It’s a history of Jews (Peter and the other 12 Apostles and Paul) trying to reach Jews and Israelites in the dispersion first (they were the ones the promises of the New Covenant were made to), with evangelism of the barbarians starting to come into the story towards the very end. Still, as late as Paul’s legal hearings he says that he teaching nothing but what Moses and the Law taught about a future resurrection of the nation and transition to a new covenant. I don’t think there is any direct evidence that Paul was terribly interested in the Roman empire or religion other than that he eventually started telling some of the non-Jews how to take advantage of the New Covenant offered to Israel.
From what I’ve read over the years, those who are interested in how Paul or Jesus challeneged Rome place very little emphasis on the narrative of the New Testament as reflected by the historical sketch above. They are usually more interested in how Roman power was being challenged or Gnosticism was being addressed by the New Testament writers. But, the most current approach to defining Gnosticism questions whether it even existed before about 115AD (Yamauchi, Smith). The sideshow of looking for gnostics in the New Testament text and the attempt to make the narrative focus on confrontation with Rome, as opposed to the Jewish leadership who were leading people to destruction in the first century, is a mistake in my opinion. It tends to lead to an ahistorical Christianity that can’t figure out why there really needed to be an Old Testament narrative.
The reason that it’s commonly accepted that Matthew might have originally been written in Hebrew and the reason that the Church of the East (in whose territory almost all of the 12 Disciples ministered and were martyred) has always maintained that their Aramaic New Testament texts were the original manuscripts is that the people of Judea and the Jews in the dispersion had a much closer connection to their linguisitc and cultural roots then we have been led to believe. Since Islam has dropped a sort of iron curtain over the region over the last 1,200 years I can see why this might happen. But, recent archeology and engagement with leadership of the Church of the East in the last 100 years has changed things. Most western Christian academics have ignored this.
This is getting too long, so I’ll stop for now.
FYI: I thought your question was worth highlighting so I wrote a post dedicated to exploring it which is linked directly above.
I think you’re point is largely accurate. I would disagree though when we get to The Revelation. There seem strong counters from Christ to Caesar there.
There is also reference back to the non believing Jewish opposition in The Revelation in a couple of instances.
I tend to think Revelation is an all encompassing text recalling the entire narrative via allusions, gezerazawa technique(SIC), etc as well as a polemic showing the 1 st century saints that even though it appears Caesar rules and the church is losing, from God’s view this is a mirage and false.
To be honest, I think it also demonstrates an alliance between pagan Rome and unbelieving Jerusalem to destroy The Body of Christ.
In my opinion, Revelation is almost completely about God’s judgment on Israel under the Mosaic Covenant. See Chilton’s “Days of Vengeance”. Rome is involved because it was the instrument used to execute that judgment (the composite beast was the four nations identified in Daniel, with Rome being the active one in that generation) , but Jerusalem and its leadership was target of the judgment (the Mystery Whore of Babylon). She was riding the beast, but at some point the beast turned on her and killed her.
Doug, while I mostly agree with your perspective on Revelation, would point out that it wasn’t only ‘Mosaic Covenant’, but indeed extends into Israel’s redemption in the New Covenant as well.
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