Reviews of

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies

In Empire, InterVarsity Press, Joseph B. MODICA, New Testament, Scot McKnight, Steve Walton on February 20, 2015 at 9:32 pm


2015.02.05 | Scot McKnight & Joseph B. Modica (eds.). Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluation Empire in New Testament Studies. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013.

Review by Professor Steve Walton, St Mary’s University, Twickenham & Tyndale House, Cambridge.

Many thanks to IVP for providing a review copy.

This is a clear, lucid and accessible collection of essays looking at the New Testament in the light of recent discussions about the presence of criticism (implied or explicit) of the Roman empire by the earliest Christians. The book would be good for undergraduates or seminary/theological college students, and provides a helpful ‘way in’ to the topic, with good summaries of key positions and arguments, as well as thoughtful critiques. The overall perspective is fairly sceptical of an anti-imperial view, especially in a form that implies that critique of the Roman empire is central to the purpose of the NT author(s), and that should lead Christians today to be suspicious of all empires (not least, the implied American imperial rule in today’s world).

An introduction by the editors sets out what the book seeks to achieve, and two chapters sketch the Roman imperial setting and the nature of (proposed) anti-imperial rhetoric in the NT. Chapters then follow on Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Philippians, Colossians, and Revelation, before the editors’ conclusion. Each main chapter ends with a valuable introductory bibliography—these are well worth consulting the book, especially for those who teach.

McKnight and Modica valuably begin by sketching what ‘empire criticism’ is, as ‘developing an eye and ear for the presence of Rome and the worship of the emperor in the lines and between the lines of New Testament writings’ (16). They sketch five methods used in such studies: direct criticism of religious practices in the empire (they cite Acts 14:14-18, but is this critique of Lystran, rather than Roman, religion?); use of terms which have ‘distinct and notable uses’ in imperial Roman settings (18); passages where the emperor is commended in a back-handed way, with an implied critique of the emperor overstepping his proper boundaries (e.g. Rom 13); being sensitised to hear imperial echoes (e.g. in Paul’s entrance to Rome, Acts 27); and the danger of a critique of twenty-first century US colonialism being ‘read back’ into the NT.

David Nystrom (ch 1) provides a good overview of the empire’s workings and the role of the imperial cult. He shows how imperial worship, and worship of the empire’s gods, pervaded daily life in the first century. Although he implies that the early Christians and the empire ‘worship’ in different ways, he does not define this crucial term, and to do so would have been helpful.

Judith Diehl (ch 2) gives a helpful review of how scholars read ‘empire’ in the NT. She sketches Roman history, the Roman social setting, and emperor worship, and then looks at the Gospels (esp. Mark), Acts, and Paul (esp. Romans). She valuably surveys approaches through colonialism, Israel’s experiences of empire, the social impact of the gospel, patronage, postcolonialism, and literary approaches (esp. on Revelation). She gets a lot into 38 pages, and it is well summarised, and lucidly and clearly written.

Joel Willetts (ch 3) critiques the work on Matthew of one of the major scholars in the field, Warren Carter. He offers clear analysis of Carter’s method and approach to reading Matthew, and then lucid critique. Although Willetts concedes that a Roman leader who read Matthew would have recognised the challenge to Rome, Willetts’ major criticism of Carter is that Matthew is not primarily criticising Rome, but presenting Jesus as the answer to Israel’s (and the world’s) needs. This is a point which others make. Certainly, it qualifies the anti-empire view, but it need not rule it out entirely, as is clear from Willetts’ concession.

Dean Pinter (ch 4) focuses on Luke’s Gospel and, through drawing a useful parallel between Luke and Josephus, asserts that the polarity for Luke is not Jesus vs. Caesar. Josephus, he notes, ‘snarls sweetly’ at the emperor (a phrase drawn from John Barclay), and is far from uncritical of the empire. Luke, by contrast, does not directly critique the empire, and Pinter argues cogently that Luke would have been free to do so if he had wished. Indeed, for Luke, Caesar can be ‘lord’, but Jesus is ‘Lord of lords’—their ‘lordships’ are in different categories. Luke’s view, Pinter argues, is that Christians could appropriately honour the emperor and pray for him without praying to him.

Christopher Skinner (ch 5) looks at the Fourth Gospel, and engages with three key scholars who argue for an anti-imperial reading, Tom Thatcher, Warren Carter, and Lance Byron Richey. He first rejects two ‘knock down’ arguments against finding anti-imperial rhetoric in John: that John does not explicitly mention Rome, and that John is evidently less interested in Rome than the synoptic Gospels—in both cases, he (rightly) notes that we need to read John on his own terms, and to be open to ways of writing that would necessarily echo imperial Rome for a first-century reader but which might be so recognised today. He then carefully summarises his three dialogue partners’ work as focusing on negative Christology—Jesus presented in comparison to the emperor (Thatcher), the rhetoric of distance—reading John in the context of first-century Ephesus as disturbing his readers’ comfort in that imperial setting (Carter), and the prologue read as anti-Augustan ideology (Richey). In each case, Skinner critiques the views and finds that, while they have recognised under-studied features of John, they have exaggerated their importance: ‘The Roman scenery serves as the realistic backdrop to the wider story, but it is not the story and should not be confused with the story’ (128, my italics).

Drew J. Strait (ch 6) considers Acts and offers a thoughtful analysis which recognises that there is material critical of Caesar and the empire in Acts, but also that this is a secondary theme of Acts. The primary theme of Acts—that Jesus is Lord of all—is offered in contradistinction from what Strait considers to be Luke’s belief that Satan rules the world (he reads the Satanic assertion of Luke 4:6 as Luke’s view, which is at least debatable, 140-41). He notes that criticisms of the Christian preachers come from Jews, not Romans, although he acknowledges that Paul spends much of his time in Roman custody. He also recognises that there is positive material about imperial servants, such as the conversions of Sergius Paulus (13:12) and Cornelius (10:1–11:18). He sums up, ‘Does Luke openly critique Caesar? No. Does Luke subtly critique Caesar? Sure, but this is hardly Luke’s main purpose in writing Acts’ (144, my italics). Strait thus makes a similar rhetorical move to Skinner, in recognising the presence of some material which at least relativizes the empire, but claiming that this is not the author’s main point.

Michael F. Bird (ch 7) takes us into Romans and offers a typically lively and engaging discussion. After a succinct and clear sketch of key issues in debate over Paul’s view of the empire (146-49), Bird considers eight scholars who argue for an anti-imperial reading of Romans before going on to read key passages. Here Bird is at his strongest, giving lucid exposition of the texts and relating them well to an imperial setting. He engages with Rom 1:1-4, 16-17; 13:1-7; 15:5-13. The discussion of 13:1-7—a key passage in this debate—is especially helpful, noting that Paul’s language is ‘saturated’ with talk of God’s rule over the world, that nothing about the rule of the ‘powers that be’ gainsays Jesus’ lordship, and that Paul’s words about rulers need to be read in the setting of Paul’s apocalyptic message that all powers will be overthrown at Jesus’ return. Bird’s conclusion reflects the trend to relativize the empire which we have seen in earlier chapters: he says that Paul’s message is ‘tacitly counterimperial’ (161), but thereby implies it is not Paul’s major thrust or emphasis.

Lynn Cohick (ch  8) engages with the debate whether Philippians is anti-imperial. After sketching the evidence for an imperial cult in Philippi, and noting that the cult did not exclusively worship Caesar, but also other members of the imperial family, including Augustus’ wife, Livia. She then outlines how those seeing anti-imperialism read three key passages: 1:27 (using πολιτεύεσθε, frequently understood as having ‘political’ implications); 2:5-11 (the proclamation of Jesus as Lord); and 3:20-21 (using the terms πολίτευμα and σωτήρ, which are claimed to use imperial language for Jesus). Cohick cites N. T. Wright, Erik Heen, John Reumann, and Warren Carter as advocates of this perspective, but (surprisingly) not Peter Oakes (whose work appears influential on his PhD supervisor, N. T. Wright). She then critiques their reading of the key passages by arguing that: (i) the anti-imperial reading fails to recognise that imperial benefaction was a root of the imperial cult—and that the cult was not only of a man, but included at least one woman (and thus there is not a simple ‘Christ or Caesar’ polarity); (ii) the argument depends on interpretation of silence, for there is no direct critique of the emperor or the imperial cult—indeed, the crucial post-colonial assumption (typified by Heen) that the 95% of non-elite people were seething with resentment about their situation while frightened to say anything, lacks evidence and, moreover, that the 5% of elite were not blindly supportive of the Roman empire’s way of operating; (iii) there is evidence in Philippians that Paul is unworried by the empire: although he is in an imperial prison, his greater concern is that the gospel is spreading, including among the elite imperial guard, and his letter is not a ‘private’ document, for it would be read aloud among believers in relatively open meetings (Cohick cites Thiselton’s reading of 1 Corinthians as evidence for this); (iv) the key passages should be read as addressing Jewish concerns about the believing communities, rather than Judaism being used in ‘code’ for the empire (as anti-imperial approaches claim)—Paul was concerned that the Torah would be pressed on his Gentile believers in Philippi and wanted to avoid this. Cohick goes on to argue that the ‘imperialist’ reading of Paul here, that Paul himself acts as an authority, imposing his will on the believers (Joseph Marchal), neglects the close relationship between Paul and the Philippian believers which is evident in the letter, and is ultimately anarchist, denying the role of any authority at all. Cohick, finally, proposes that the language identified by the anti-imperial readings should rather be heard in the context of opponents of Paul within the believing communities, especially those coming from a very traditional Jewish perspective.

Concerning Colossians and Philemon, Allan R. Bevere (ch 8) seeks to critique the popular-level reading of the letters by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat, Colossians Re-mixed, in which they argue for a strongly anti-imperial reading of those letters. Bevere identifies three key themes in Walsh and Keesmat’s work: the difficulty of reconstructing the Colossian philosophy which Colossians attacks, which allows them to claim that it is broad and includes the evil of empire; the exodus language (1:14), and the Christ hymn (1:15-20), which they read as signalling an attack on the Roman empire (echoing the Egyptian power from which the Israelites escaped), and a relativisation of imperial claims (the ‘thrones, dominions and powers’) by Christ’s lordship; and the march of triumph (2:15), which subverts the imperial triumphal march through Rome to celebrate military victory, and places Christ as carrying along the empire in his wake. In each case Bevere argues that the issues in the background to Colossians involve some kind of Jewish beliefs or practices, noting the language of circumcision, exodus, etc., and thus he asserts that the target of the critique is not the Roman empire, but Judaism or a Jewish-influenced philosophy. Bevere goes on to criticise the view that Philemon is implicitly anti-imperial by calling on Philemon to free his slave Onesimus. A little surprisingly, after asserting that what is going on in the letter is ‘not at all clear’ (194), by the bottom of the same page, Bevere is very clear that the letter is focused on persuading Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ. That said, his claim that the empire is not centrally in view in Philemon, is well made.

Dwight D. Sheets contributes the final substantive chapter, on the book of Revelation (ch 9). Revelation has been one of the places where it is widely agreed that there is a critique of the Roman empire, and Sheets notes this without dissent. His principal concern is to argue that this does not mean that critiquing the Roman empire is the central thrust of Revelation, that to offer critique in some places does not mean that the book is negative about all results of the empire (such as the pax Romana), and that criticising the Roman empire need not imply criticism of all empires (for the rule of Jesus is presenting using imperial language in places). Like others in the book, Sheets argues that Revelation’s principal concerns are not about empire, but (in this case) eschatological, asserting that Jesus will come soon and calling readers to be ready. (Note the recent thoughtful blog post by Ian Paul, who is himself writing a commentary on Revelation, criticising such a view by arguing that ‘soon’ is the wrong translation—rather, we should translate ‘suddenly’:

The editors close the volume with a crisp summary of the book’s arguments, noting particularly, ‘We believe that the New Testament writers do indeed address the concerns highlighted by empire criticism. But we also strongly suggest that this is not their primary modus operandi…that they fundamentally understand Jesus’ inaugurating of the kingdom of God in direct opposition to and in contrast with the kingdom of Satan’ (212). Thus their concluding note is that the New Testament authors offer their readers strategies for negotiating life in the Roman empire, but do not regard all forms of empire as necessarily oppressive and negative.

This is a good book, generally well-written and readable, and I have summarised the arguments at such length because there is frequent lack of nuance in many of the arguments both for and against anti-imperial readings of the New Testament documents—and these authors, in my view, provide nuance and thoughtful reading of the texts. I shall recommend this book warmly to students and others, for it is thorough without overloading the reader with too much detail.

I approached the volume as one with some sympathy for anti-imperial readings, and I go away from it still thinking there is material in the New Testament which provides the raw material for a cogent Christian critique both of the first-century Roman empire and any later empire which claims supremacy and universality for itself. I go away with my views nuanced, for I agree that in numerous places it is not the Roman empire which is the primary target or primary focus of the argument. I also go away encouraged that (as I myself have argued[1]) that the picture of the Roman empire is not uniformly positive or negative, but mixed—and that the variety of perspectives and approaches found classically in Romans 13 (the call to obey rulers for Christ’s sake) and Revelation 13 (the empire as the beast rising from the sea to attack God’s people) merit and receive attention in different ways by the New Testament authors to give guidance to the people of God in living in situations under a variety of empires and rulers.

[1] Steve Walton, ‘The State They Were In: Luke’s View of the Roman Empire’, in Peter Oakes (ed.) Rome in the Bible and the Early Church (Carlisle: Paternoster/Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 1-41.

  1. The review of this book hints that this book may offer a refutation of the “Jesus vs. Caesar” assertions made by Borg & Crossan. If so, IMO, this could only in part as the author of Luke-Acts still seeks to posit a polarity and a choice between the Roman empire, and the empire of God. It should also be pointed out that Caesar referred to himself as “lord of lords” – and for the author of Luke-Acts, only Jesus could wear that title.

    Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like chrisitianity

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