Empire: Foreground of the New Testament


Carter RE & NT

(This is the first part of my review of Warren Carter’s book: The Roman Empire and the New Testament.)

“The Bible was written by a minority group that had been conquered by one military superpower after another, so they’re highly suspicious of empires built on wealth and weapons because they’ve been on the receiving end of so much horrific violence,” said Rob Bell, recently an evangelical megachurch pastor and more recently at a lecture given in Atlanta. “So if you’re a citizen of the most powerful global military superpower civilization has ever created, there’s a chance you might miss some of its most central themes.” (From a CNN article July 28, 2017.)

The books written in the last couple decades on the New Testament and the Roman Empire are many. In my bibliography I list nearly a hundred books on the topic. They break down into three main categories. There are books that help us understand what living in the Roman Empire was like. There are those that deal topically, and, generally cover Jesus or Paul in relation to the Empire. The third are those that show the effect of the Empire on the New Testament or on particular books of the New Testament. I’ll be dealing with each of the three categories

In this blog I want to focus on the first issue- understanding the Roman Empire itself. It is impossible to understand Jesus or Paul, or, for that matter any Christian of the first two centuries, or the church of the time period, without understanding the Roman Empire.

Most of us have grown up with basically a benevolent feeling toward the Roman Empire. The English village I’m currently living in produces a publication of news monthly. As this month is August, they have an explanation for the month’s name. It is on the local parish church’s page, so it gives insight not only for the average English person’s view of the Empire; it also shows how the Empire was ‘helpful’ in early church history.

“August is named after Augustus Caesar…(who) brought peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire…The extensive network of Roman roads made travel much easier and thus [helped] the spread of Christianity.”

What the explanation leaves out, as Carter will show, is that this benevolent view of the Empire was held by the 2 or 3 percent of the elites who controlled the Empire, for whom was there ‘peace and prosperity’. The roads were built not for ordinary travel; that was incidental. The roads were built to insure that the Roman legions could travel anywhere there was civil unrest by the oppressed 90 to 98 percent and squelch it. All most all early Christians were non-elites. The peace of the Roman Empire was at the expense of oppression and exploitation of the 90-8 percent.

Other sources of the Empire I have read explain the reason for this benevolent view. Those who wrote the histories and understanding of biblical times in the 17th to 19th centuries were academics who were part of the elite of their day and in projecting themselves back, saw the Empire through the eyes of the elite. They were also academics in a time when their countries controlled empires, German, British, etc., and, of course, their empires were a ‘good thing’, bringing peace and prosperity to the benighted natives. It was because of view through their books and their successors that we miss what it was really like to live in the time of the Empire.

Even one of Rome’s own historians, Tacitus, was more perceptive: “They make a desolation and call it peace”

Interestingly, the epitome of comic cynicism of out time, Monty Python, buy into the benevolent view of Empire. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7tvauOJMHo “What have the Romans ever done for us?” With the sophistication of their humor coming to a great extent because of their first class education at Cambridge University, it is strange to see how they still simply reflect and re-enforce the popular view by perceiving Empire as ‘a good thing’.

For anyone alive in that time, including our religious forebears, the Empire was the ubiquitous, oppressive reality. From when they woke up and ate the meager rations that the Empire’s exploitative economics allowed them, to when they went to bed tired by the work the oppressive Empire required of them, the Empire determined the practicalities of their day-to-day living.

In his book “The Roman Empire and the New Testament”, Warren Carter writes:
This book is not about “Roman backgrounds” to the New Testament, because it understands Rome’s empire to be the foreground…. 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.”

As the focus of this blog posting is Carter’s book, I should tell a bit about him. Warren Carter was born in New Zealand, did his theological training for the Methodist ministry in Australia, and then did his doctoral work in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Following a period of teaching at St Paul School of Theology, a Methodist institution in Kansas City, he became professor at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, a Disciples of Christ seminary. As such, he is almost a neighbor to Dr Alan Streett, author of the important, nay, critical, book, “Subversive Meals’, who teaches in Dallas. Streett is about the only biblical scholar who sees the relevance of this understanding of empire in the context of Christian gathering and worship in the first two centuries.

If scholars are ranked by the number of books they have produced on the Empire and the New Testament topic, Carter would be exceeded only by the prolific Richard Horsley. The books Carter has authored include this book- The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, 2009, and as well these books: John and Empire: Initial Explorations, 2008; Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations, 2001; Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, 2013; The New Testament: Methods and Meanings, 2013; Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World, 2013; What Does Revelation Reveal? Unlocking the Mystery by Warren Carter. 2011.

In addition there are two major books with multiple authors covering a wide number of individual books of Old and New Testament, which I will be subsequently covering in a later blog (In the Shadow of the Empire and Empire in the New Testament). Carter is significant in being the only scholar who has contributed a chapter to each of the two books.

With those kinds of credentials, you might see why it is a book by him that I select for the best understanding of Empire among the number available.

Why is it that the crucial role of the Empire has escaped our recognizing it? Carter says two things contribute toward it.

First: has to do with the relation of religion and politics. Since the Enlightenment we have viewed the two as separate. That concept has values because of problems that had come from centuries of religion and state being fused into one entity. It is epitomized when kings have claimed that their authority came from God. But this fusion of religion and politics had (and has) the effect of kings and clergy enjoying the increase of power that came from it.

But the post-Enlightenment separation of the two has had the effect on Christianity of assigning the role of Jesus to the spiritual realm, safely out of the issues of politics. It turns Jesus into a ‘spiritual’ leader whose kingdom is safely kept separate and pure from the realm of politics. Jesus’ message has often been seen as other-worldly, and the purpose of Christianity is thus seen as removing the Christian from this world and primarily aiming him or her toward a post-death heaven.

Second: because we have not thought of the Roman Empire affecting the New Testament or early Christians, we haven’t bothered to become familiar with it. We know very little about its oppressive and exploitative role on the lives of those of the first couple centuries, especially.

“The texts don’t stop to explain it to us. They don’t spell it out for us. Instead we are expected to supply the relevant knowledge the texts assume, since these folk shared the same world as the authors. But it is difficult for us who read them some two millennia later and in a vastly different world. Without understanding the Roman imperial world, we will find it hard to understand the New Testament texts.”

With the exception of the second one, subsequent chapters of the book attempt to give us detailed knowledge of the Empire. That second chapter recognizes that there are different ways to deal with the Empire. It lays out those different ways and the discusses how the different writers negotiate the empire.

The Roman Imperial World

What then was the structure of the Roman imperial world?

“In the first century, Rome dominated the territory and people around the Mediterranean Sea. Its empire extended from Britain in the northwest, through (present-day) France and Spain to the west, across Europe to Turkey and Syria in the east, and along North Africa to the south. Rome ruled an estimated 60 to 65 million people of diverse ethnicities and cultures.”

“The empire was very hierarchical, with vast disparities of power and wealth. For the small ruling elite, life was quite comfortable. For the majority non-elite, it was at best livable and at worst very miserable. There was no middle class, little opportunity to improve one’s lot, and few safety nets in adversity.”

The Roman Empire was an aristocratic empire. This term means that a small elite of about 2 to 3 percent of the population ruled. They shaped the social experience of the empire’s inhabitants, determined the “quality” of life, exercised power, controlled wealth, and enjoyed high status”.

“The Roman Empire was also an agrarian empire. Its wealth and power were based in land. The elite did not rule by democratic elections. In part they ruled by hereditary control of the empire’s primary resources of land and labor. They owned its land and consumed some 65 percent of its production.”

The Roman Empire was also a legionary empire. In addition to controlling resources, the elite ruled this agrarian empire by coercion. The dominant means of coercion was the much vaunted Roman army.” The presence of the legions throughout the empire and the threat of military action ensured submission and cooperation.

Divine Sanction
In addition to ownership of resources, military force, and working relationships with the elite, emperors secured their power by claiming the favor of the gods. Their imperial theology proclaimed that Rome was chosen by the gods, notably Jupiter, to rule an “empire without end” (Virgil, Aeneid 1.278-79). Rome was chosen to manifest the gods’ rule, presence, and favor throughout the world. Religious observances at civic occasions were an integral part of Rome’s civic, economic, and political life.”

The Non-elite
“This is the world that most of the population, the non-elite, negotiated every day. Since the non-elite comprised about 97 percent of the population, it is not surprising that most early Christians belonged to this group. An enormous gap separated the non-elite from  the elite’s power, wealth, and status. There was no middle class and little opportunity for improving one’s lot. More often it was a matter of survival. There was no “Roman dream” of pulling oneself up by one’s sandal straps. Degrees of poverty marked the non-elite. There was little safety net. Many knew regular periods of food shortages. Poor health was pervasive. Infant mortality was high, with perhaps up to 50 percent not reaching age ten. Most non-elite adults died by age thirty or forty. Elite life spans were longer. Urban life for non-elites was crowded, dirty, smelly, and subject to numerous dangers.”

Domination and Resistance
“Elites exercised material domination over non-elites, appropriating their agricultural production and labor. The hard manual work of non-elites and the coerced extractions of production sustained the elite’s extravagant and elegant way of life. There was a further, more personal, cost to non-elites. Domination deeply influences personal well-being and feelings. It deprives people of dignity. It is degrading and humiliating. It exacts not only agricultural production but an enormous personal toll of anger, resentment, and learned inferiority.”

I found this pyramid graph from Karl Allen Kuhn’s book, “The Kingdom According to Luke and Acts”, helpful in understanding the Empire.

Kuhn Pyramid

As mentioned earlier, Carter’s is not the only book covering the centrality of the Empire to understanding the New Testament and the early church

To give another example, John Dominic Crossan in Chapter 1 of his “God and Empire” delineated four characteristics:

Rome’s military power was based on the legions, each with six thousand fighting engineers at full complement. They were stationed along the Rhine, the Danube, the Euphrates, and the North African frontiers. The twenty-eight (and then only twenty-five) legions built well-paved all-weather roads (no mud) and high-arched all-weather bridges (no flood); with this infrastructure, they could move with all their baggage and equipment at a guaranteed fifteen miles a day to crush any rebellion anywhere. It was not nation-building but province-building, and the idea that such was not the military’s job would have seemed ludicrous to the legions.

Rome’s economic power grew along and upon that same infrastructure. Built for military use, it was thereafter available for travel and trade, contact and commerce. Furthermore, the cash payments to the legions along the frontiers helped to monetize the periphery. After military conquest, the imperial program was Romanization by urbanization for commercialization. And of course, those who oppose your globalization, then and now, come violently or nonviolently against you along the global arteries you have created.

Rome’s political power was established through a self-consciously Romanized aristocracy created across the entire empire that allowed some high local elites to be members of the Roman Senate. It was even eventually possible for a Romanized provincial to become emperor. “The Roman landholding elite,” concludes Michael Mann, “was about as ‘class-like’ as any group in any known society, past or present”. Local elites saw very clearly what they got in return for imperial loyalty.

Rome’s ideological power was created by Roman imperial theology, and it is not possible to overestimate its importance. Military power certainly secured the empire’s external frontiers, but ideological power sustained its internal relations. Do not think of it as propaganda enforced by believing elites upon unbelieving masses. Think of it as persuasive advertising accepted very swiftly by all sides. I return later to look at the content of that theology—in written text and on carved inscription—and at how it worked as the ideological glue that held the Roman world together.

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