(Rembrandt: Christ before Pilate 1636)
In the first part of a review of Warren Carter’s The Roman Empire and the New Testament*, the focus was on the Empire. I began with the reality that we were raised thinking the Roman Empire was a “good thing”. Carter made clear this is no longer the case with present biblical scholars. (Compare this with SPQR the book by renowned classics professor of Cambridge University, Mary Beard. With all the careful scholarship she exhibits in her almost 600 page tome, she still reflects the old view of the Roman Empire seen from the lofty chair of an academic elite.)
The core of that previous article was to spell out what the structure of Rome’s empire was. Hence, I titled it Empire: Foreground of the New Testament.
In this article I want to deal with the different views that Carter says can be found the New Testament toward the Empire. So what follows is what he says were the different strategies the different New Testament writers proposed in dealing with the Empire. I’ll conclude with focussing on the role of the church as providing an alternative community to that posited by Empire. In the title I use empire in the plural. My conviction is that, whether they have been faithful to that call, a main mission of the Church has always been to provide a counter to Empire. This should be true today whether we are talking about the Dinner Church or any other current form of the church. This conviction comes not just from reading Carter’s book. In fact, for whatever reason, he seldom uses the word “kingdom”. (A word search showed fewer than 30 references to ‘kingdom’ and over 100 to ’empire’. This is not true of other authors in the section of my bibliography labelled “Kingdom versus the Empire”.
To pick just two examples: on the theological left- J. D. Crossan and J. L. Reed in their book on Paul. They spell it out in their subtitle to the book: In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. On the theological right- Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation, by Ed Setzer.
This blog has been a struggle for me to write. I have finally decided the reason for it is that Carter is not clear about drawing conclusions to help today’s church. But let me put this caveat in context. His view of the reality of Empire for the first century is first rate. Yet after laying out the different evaluations the New Testament writers, his assessment as to which of these can be applied to the contemporary situation and which can’t seems a bit vague. This is partly due to the structure of the book. What should I expect? He spends eight chapters incisively explicating the dark side of the Empire and only one chapter on the several ways the New Testament writers evaluate the Empire!
As I have time, I probably need to check out his other books to find the same meticulous scholarship in this issue as he has done on the nature of the Empire here. And he does, after all, show as he says that: “This book recognizes that Rome’s empire does not disappear or go away when it is not explicitly mentioned. It is always there. It forms the pervasive context of New Testament writings.” That is a trenchant insight.
I will need to delve into more of the books on Empire and the New Testament to spell out the theme of “Kingdom: Alternative to Empires” more clearly. In re-reading Crossan’s “God and Empire” I have found he is more helpful here. His book will be the subject of my next blog post.
I The New Testament’s Evaluations of the Roman Empire
Let’s begin with with the church before it called itself church: the first two centuries.
After his first chapter in which he lays out the nature of the Roman world and its dominating and exploiting Empire (which was covered in the previous blog posting), Carter turns in the second chapter to what he call, “Evaluating Rome’s Empire”. This is not abstract and general. It is evaluating the Empire through the New Testament texts. He finds five different ways the scripture views the Empire. He begins with the most negative and proceeds through to the most benign. According to the different New Testament writers, the Empire is:
1. Under the devil’s control; As one example, “Both accounts (Matthew and Luke) identify the devil as controlling the world’s empires.” Both present the devil, in the Temptation passages, as having the power to allocate the world’s empires as the devil wishes.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms [or empires] of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matt. 4: 8-9)
Hence, the power behind Rome’s throne is the devil. “Jesus asserts God’s claim of sovereignty over the world under Satan’s control and manifested in Rome’s rule.”
Other Gospel passages are similar. Mark identifies the Empire with the devil in his story of the man who is demon possessed by giving the demon a name, ‘legion’, the term used for a unit of the Empire’s military power. (Who says there is no humor in the New Testament?)
2. Under God’s judgment; “Various New Testament texts assert that God will end Rome’s rule by judging and condemning Rome’s world. This declaration counters Rome’s propaganda claim that it is the “eternal city” with an “empire without end.”
The sense of the Empire being under God’s judgment is underscored when the writers employ the idea of two ages, one of which is under the Empire. But the age to come will be under God’s judgment.
In 1 Thessalonians 5, we find Paul writing: “1 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
3. In the meantime, the Empire is needing transformation; “A third evaluation refuses to accept Rome’s imperial order as the way that God intends the world to be structured and urges followers of Jesus to adopt practices of (limited) transformation shaped by God’s purposes. Luke presents Jesus’ public ministry as one of transformation”
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Lk. 4
4. In the meantime, shaping alternative communities with alternative practices; In the Empire the political life was closely controlled and those who lived in it. had no means to affect issues or make any significant changes. “There were no opportunities to intervene in the political process, to put amendments on ballots, to form political parties, to sign petitions, or to lead mass reform movements. And the elite was certainly not going to surrender its power and wealth voluntarily.”
Therefore, New Testament writers often urge readers to form alternative communities with practices that provide life-giving alternatives to the empire’s ways. Hal Taussig in his In the Beginning Was the Meal adds an additional dimension of what the alternative community could contribute to its participants. No where else in the closely controlled hierarchical empire could individuals receive personal affirmation. They were pretty much reduced to being cogs in a well oiled machine. In their community they were affirmed as children of a caring God.
5. To be submitted to and honored; “The so-called Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, and letters such as Colossians and Ephesians, generally take an accommodationist approach to society, imitating cultural practices like patriarchal-dominated households where women are required to submit to their husbands.” Crossan and Borg in their The First Paul distinguish the epistles of the original Paul from the later epistles. The earlier ‘Paul’ affirms the equal value of persons- in Christ Jews and gentiles, male and female, slave and free are all of worth. The later epistles, not written by Paul, reflect the empire’s hierarchical values which see persons having different worth.
“The hierarchical social interactions and exploitative structures of the Roman Empire fostered social resentment, anger, and hostility. There were no democratic processes of reform. Instead, New Testament writers offer, as we have seen, various ways of negotiating Rome’s empire.”
Parenthetically, I should note that Carter’s schema of the five approaches of New Testament writers reminds me of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, where Niebuhr, as a historian and sociologist of religion, finds five different ways that theology has evaluated culture.
II Relevance for today.
In what he calls a Postscript, Carter reflects on how this study of the Roman Empire and the New Testament might have relevance for our own time.
- The New Testament Is a Very Political Document “Our discussion of numerous New Testament texts shows how deeply intertwined are matters of religion and politics. We cannot dismiss the questions of how we live in a world of empire. We cannot ignore these questions by claiming that following Jesus concerns religion, not politics.”
With this affirmation, Carter joins just about every biblical scholar who has a book in my bibliography. The understanding of Jesus as a religious, spiritual leader does not find much support especially among contemporary scholars of Scripture that take seriously the role of the Empire in the life of the early church. In the Empire, crucifixion was only used on those who were guilty of crimes against the state, such as sedition.
2. Negotiating Empires Is Complicated
“If we want a single formula to fit all situations, we won’t find it in the New Testament… These writings from early Christians show how difficult it is to live in/ with/ under/ against empires. My choice of four prepositions in this last sentence alone hints at the diverse negotiation that is needed to be faithful. The difficulty with empire arises in part because empires often make totalizing claims. They claim to exert complete sovereignty.” Further: “They have the means to accomplish their will regardless of what anyone else thinks… They cannot tolerate dissent.”
3. Unquestioning Submission Is Not the Bible’s Only Way
4. Constant Opposition Is Not the Bible’s Only Way
In academic fashion, Carter contends that the Bible does not speak with a single voice nor does it opt always for the extremes.There is validity here, in that the Empire did not allow for the non-elite to have much voice in their lives. The top elite decided; the non-elite were expected to obey.
5. Active Nonviolence, Not Violence
“But the absence of violence does not mean the absence of dissent and opposition. The third way comprises active, nonviolent, calculated interventions that reverse the destructive impact of empire. These emphases raise huge questions about the use of military violence in our contemporary world as an instrument of empire.”
6. Alternative Worldviews and Communities
“Perhaps this element forms the most frequent recurring theme throughout this study of the New Testament texts. The New Testament writers offer followers of Jesus an alternative understanding of the world as belonging not to an empire or political party or system, but as belonging to God.”
“They challenge and invite and shape Christian communities to become places that embody God’s purposes and that embody an alternative way of being human in the midst of the empire. These strategies of reconceptualization and of alternative social experiences and relationships result, in part, from the early Christians not having any access to power and no opportunity to make systemic changes.”
I will be exploring the theme if Kingdom: Alternative to Empires further. I will be using the thought of John Dominic Crossan in his book God and Empire to do this.
*The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (at Amazon here)