IN THE SHADOW OF EMPIRE

There are two recent studies by Biblical scholars that give undergirding to the Dinner Church Movement (DCM). One of them is the work done by the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) subgroup on the first century Greco-Roman Meals. Whether those who are giving leadership to the burgeoning dinner church sites are aware of these academics is not clear to me. But by developing congregations that worship in a full meal setting they portray some of the results of this SBL group, whether they are aware of that scholarship or not.

But the results of the research done by the second SBL group is less evident in what I have seen in the on-line material of DCM sites. To their detriment, I might add. The first study focusses on the internal, community aspect of the faith. My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, has had its purpose statement read something like: “Making disciples for Jesus Christ”. Then they realized they hadn’t specified why they were to create disciples. At a later General Conference they corrected that by adding a phrase so that it now reads: “Making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Likewise, the second SBL study, when understood and used, adds the larger frame, the purpose for which the community meets and worships. For the second study sets the external setting in which the early church existed: the Roman Empire. As Warren Carter, one of the second SBL group puts it, “The Roman Empire is not the background of the New Testament, it is the foreground… 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.”

Since the beginning of this twenty-first century there has been a tsunami of material spelling out the effect of the Empire Study on the New Testament and the New Testament church. I have developed a bibliography of this material and to date it contains over 100 books. For your convenience, I’ll try not to recommend all of the books! I have said elsewhere that there are only two books I know of that cover both the academic studies, Alan Streett’s “Subversive Meals” and Hal Taussig’s “In the Beginning was the Meal”. Personally, I think Street’s book title is brilliant in that in two words it encapsulates the heart of the two SBL studies. The noun, ‘meals’, tells us what was at the center of the early community’s meetings. And the adjective, ‘subversive’, informs us of the relation of that community to the world in which it found itself.

If I were asked to recommend only one book for understanding the Roman Empire, I would name Carter’s book from which the above quotation was taken, “The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide”.

In this posting, though, I’m going to focus on two books which show how the Empire Study affects our reading of the New Testament. The effect of this study on me reminds me of the day I got my first eye glasses. The optometrist’s office was on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa, California. I recall vividly walking westward on the sidewalk, alternately putting on the glasses and looking, saying to myself, “Amazing!” ; taking off the glasses and looking. Putting on the glasses and saying “Amazing”! It was the same world I was looking at, glasses on or glasses off. But with them on I was seeing that world with a new clarity.

So it is in looking at the Bible after reading these books on Empire Study. It makes you see Biblical books and passages in a different way than before, with a new clarity. One of the books to which I want to make reference is from Canada, the other one is from “Southern Canada”, which is a euphemism I sometimes use to refer to the United States.

The first book is “Empire in the New Testament”, and is co-edited by Stanley E. Porter and Cynthia Long Westfall, who both teach at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. The second book, with its full title, is: “In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance”, edited by Richard Horsley. The latter title combines two realities. The first, already stated earlier, is that the New Testament is written and the early Christians lived their lives under the oppression of the Roman Empire. The second reality is that the early Christians were not simply helpless victims of the Empire. With the teaching of Jesus on God’s Kingdom and through the example of his life, death, and Resurrection, they had resources which they used to resist the Empire.

Here we have an example right away of a different view of the New Testament by looking through the lens of their lives lived in the midst of the Roman Empire. When Paul speaks of Christians being “in but not of the world” he was not speaking of a Gospel whose goal was just to transport them to a heavenly world beyond their present time and space. He was telling them that they were to live by values of a different empire in the midst of the Roman Empire. That is what Jesus had asked in his prayer: that God’s Kingdom might come “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Let me set before you the table of contents of the two books to give us a framework for my discussion.

IN THE SHADOW OF EMPIRE (Published: 10-2008)

Introduction: The Bible and Empires  by Richard A. Horsley

  1. Early Israel as an Anti-Imperial Community  by Norman K Gottwald
  2. Faith in the Empire  by Walter Brueggemann
  3. Resistance and Accommodation in the Persian Empire  by Jon L. Berquist
  4. Roman Imperial Theology  by John Dominic Crossan
  5. Jesus and Empire  by Richard A. Horsley
  6. The Apostle Paul and Empire  by Neil Elliott
  7. Matthew Negotiates the Roman Empire  by Warren Carter
  8. Acts of the Apostles: Pro(to)-Imperial Script and Hidden Transcript by Brigitte Kahl
  9. The Book of Revelation as Counter-Imperial Script by Greg Carey

EMPIRE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT (Published: 01-2011)

Introduction: Empire, the New Testament, and Beyond

1.    The Old Testament Context of David’s Costly
       Flirtation with Empire-Building- Douglas K. Stuart
2.    Walking in the Light of Yahweh – Mark J Boda
3.    Matthew and Empire – Warren Carter
4.    King Jesus and His Ambassadors – Craig Evans
5.    “I Have Conquered the World” – Tom Thatcher
6.    Paul Confronts Caesar with the Good News – Stanley E Porter
7.    “This Was Not an Ordinary Death” – Matthew F Lowe
8.    Running the Gamut – Cynthia L Westfall
9.    The Church Fathers and the Roman Empire -Gordon Heath

Both books have an introduction followed by nine chapters. Both cover Old and New Testaments. The first tends to be more thematic; the latter sticks closer to the books of scripture. I’ll begin with Horsley’s book as it was the earlier published.

“In the Shadow of Empire” devotes three chapters to the experience of empire by the Israelites. That is followed by three, one each on the Roman Empire, Jesus and Paul. It ends with three chapters on N T books, a Gospel: Matthew, the book of Acts, and, finally, Revelation.

“Empire in the New Testament”, perhaps building upon but not including subjects covered in ‘Shadow’ hews more closely to covering specific Biblical books. After covering one chapter on the Hebrew empire: David, the next chapter matches the three sections in Isaiah with Israel’s periods under foreign empires. The last seven chapters cover sections of the N T and beyond: Ch. 3, Matthews Gospel (Here we find the only overlap of authors in the two books with Warren Carter repeating his research of Matthew); Ch. 4 Luke-Acts; Ch. 5 John’s Gospel; Ch. 6 Paul and Empire, more specifically his letters to Rome and Corinth; Ch. 7 Paul on atonement and empire in Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Titus and Timothy, and Philemon; Ch. 8 includes a number more of N T books, the General Epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation. Finally, Ch 9 serves as a responses and interaction with the previous chapters by making use of the early church fathers’ reaction to the Roman Empire. Thus, the theme of Empire is related to the O T in a more general way but covers most of the N T.

The two books are, to a great extent, complementary. The first was published first and gives a more general introduction to empires and their effects on the Old- and New Testaments. The second book zeros in more specifically to the relation between empire and particular scripture books. Depending upon what your own need and interest, you may find one of the books to more helpful than the other. But if you are tempted by both, you can own them in the Kindle format for slightly under $20.00.

There is so much material in the two books that could serve to function as source for the content of the symposium segment of the dinner meetings. You will recall in other postings where I have focussed on the structure of the early Christian gatherings that their evening had two parts: the deipnon or the meal proper, and the symposium. The latter included readings, prayer, singing, and conversation. I could see an evening focussed on a chapter or part of chapter from these two books. Let me choose one of the chapters to show what I mean.

I’m going to choose the eighth chapter in “Empire and the New Testament” by Cynthia Westfall. The first reason for this chapter is the intriguing fact that, with the many books covering a segment of the New Testament for showing how they can be read in light of an Empire setting, no other book or writer has covered this particular section of the Scripture. I have seen, for instance, about a half dozen books that cover the Gospel of Luke or Luke-Acts.

The second reason is that Westfall includes some questions to be asked that are appropriate to hone in on this new perspective of seeing the N T through the lens of Empire. I have a personal reason for finding her questions relevant. For the last decade I have lived half the year in England. As such, I have become part of a congregation of English Methodists. The church is in a town half way between the university city of Oxford and the major science research facility in the United Kingdom called Harwell. It means having a group of new friends whose educations and professions have shaped them to ask questions about any new approach.

So when I have presented a program on this new approach to the N T, to the mens’ group for instance, there is a good deal of rational skepticism. “We’ve spent years hearing sermons without mention of the Empire setting. Why this change and why now?” One dear friend, who I’m sure votes Conservative, cringes every time I use the word ’subversive’!

At the outset, Westfall presents three questions that ask readers to consider.

  1. “Did the author intend to interact with the Roman Empire either in accommodation or confrontation in what is written?”
  2. “Would the recipients read a given passage or phrase as a negotiation or confrontation of empire?”
  3. “Would the Roman authorities perceive a passage or phrase to be addressing empire; especially, would a given statement offend the authorities or be considered subversive to the empire?”
          (Empire in the New Testament (Kindle Locations 5805-5809).)

Beginning with those questions, Westfall’s chapter is begging to be made into a series of discussions. Her material could begin with an analysis of the interaction between the New Testament church with the Roman Empire. It would then be easy to pivot and reflect on the conflict that the church of today needs to consider in relating to contemporary aspects of empire.

For instance: the book of James and the Economic Control of the Empire

“Its scathing critique of economic conditions under the Roman Empire is consistent with the tensions among the peasants in Palestine that eventually provoked the war against Rome and preceded the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.”

One needs only to read the news today to see articles speaking about the effects of the free market economy, or the Citizen’s United court decision on money influencing elections, or see the influence of the gun lobby stifling any reform, or the wealth inequality and the collapse of the middle class. What a need there is for the church to lift up a different Kingdom with its focus on economic justice and on the poor!

I could go on, but hopefully, these two books, “In the Shadow of Empire”, and “Empire in the New Testament” will help you see the necessity of seeing the New Testament books through the lens of the early Christians living out their lives in the omnipresent, oppressive Roman Empire.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s