A closer look at “In the Shadow of Empire”

Horsley

In the Shadow of Empire, edited by Richard Horsley provides the best book to begin an investigation of the Roman Empire in it’s relation to Scripture. In my previous post I reviewed ‘Shadow’ along with the two other like books, Empire in the New Testament and Introduction to Empire in the New Testament.

Why do I consider it the best of the three?

First, it covers the whole of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. It shows how empire was a constant presence through the course of Biblical history, influencing the lives of not only the writers of the biblical books but also the faithful through the many years that the biblical record covers. The book’s title reminds us that there was always an empire the people of faith had to deal with as they tried to live lives of faith. The metaphor of ‘shadow’ reminds us of the continued pervasiveness of the power and demand of the empire’s political, economic, military, and religious realities.

There was always the shadow of some empire standing between them and God, blocking out the light of the Lord, so they needed to be reminded who was the true light and true power of the universe.

Second, this book is significant in its coverage of a swath of the Bible and in its selection of a significant number of the writers well versed in empire scholarship who cover this new form of biblical criticism. It consists of an introduction and nine chapters.

I believe the subtitle of the book: “Reclaiming the Bible as a history of faithful resistance,” points us toward the role the church needs to play in the 21st century.

Introduction: The Bible and Empires by Richard A. Horsley

Richard Horsley, professor of the study of religion at the University of Massachusetts, has been an early and most prolific writer in the field of relating the Bible to the effect of Empire on the biblical peoples and its writers. He sets the stage for the rest of the book by relating how both the Bible and the idea of America as empire have been central issues to American history from the time of the first settlers until the present day.

1 Early Israel as an Anti-Imperial Community by Norman K Gottwald

Norman Gottwald is the author of a controversial theory concerning the beginnings of Israel. He dismisses the biblical account of a massive exodus of former slaves from Egypt. Instead he posits that Israel arose out of a peasant revolution within Canaan between 1250 and 1050 BCE. In his own words, “Early Israel was born as an anti-imperial resistance movement that broke away from Egyptian and Canaanite domination to become a self-governing community of free peasants.”

I think this is one of the weaker chapters in the book. Though his theory is clearly controversial when it was proposed in the 1970s in his monumental “The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250-1050 B.C.E”, its critique was made at the zenith of the historical critical approach.

2 Faith in the Empire by Walter Brueggemann 

Walter Brueggemann is the major voice in Old Testament in our time. He is the author of over 70 books. In this chapter he reminds us that Israel lived under a succession of ambitious empires which threatened its existence. He spells these out: when it wasn’t the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, it was the memory of slavery under the Egyptians and even oppression under their own Hebrew kings, from David and Solomon on. There was another voice against what he calls the ‘dominant narrative’ of empire power. This was the voice of the prophets who continuously reminded the leaders and the people that they had made covenant with God (YHWH) to be his people and follow his commands for justice and equity.

Applying this to the present day he says: “In the long history of the United States, there has been a much-too-easy equation of “the American dream” and the promises of gospel faith, and they are presently equated in much current religious talk.” The church, he says, must rethink its life in and amidst empire. 1 It must rethink its identity through remembering who it is and Whose it is. 2 It must develop disciplines that help it to stand apart from the empire and not be co-opted. 3 “The church, as a community that stands apart from and over against empire, must recover its public voice that attests to an alternative rule in the world.”

3 Resistance and Accommodation in the Persian Empire by Jon L. Berquist

In my first reading of this book, I passed by this chapter thinking it had less to offer. However, in eventually reading it, I discovered a gap which is in my understanding of the Old Testament and the history of the Jewish religion and Jewish people. This gap is found in other clergy. In our study of the Scriptures we learned about the Hebrew people and how they became the Israelites and we read about the Jews at the time of Jesus.

That gap included the time of the Persian Empire and its affect on the Jews and their religion, the so-called Judaism of the Second Temple. That is a great gap and includes the changes to Judaism over the years in Exile. Before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, their religion was centered in the temple worship, led by the Temple priesthood. During the Exile they began developing their Scripture, certainly the first five books, the Torah, was produced.

But one startling fact was that the period of time that the Jews were under the thumb of the Persian Empire was almost 300 years and the Second Temple, its rebuilding encouraged and to an extent underwritten by that empire, lasted nearly 600 years. Differing from the controlling empires before and after them, the Persians did not require their Jewish subjects to adopt the language, culture, or religion of their Persian overlords.

4 Roman Imperial Theology by John Dominic Crossan

Dom Crossan was the second writer where I encountered the perspective of reading the New Testament through the eyes of Empire, Alan Streett’s Subversive Meals being the first. Crossan’s book, God and Empire is particularly significant in its stressing the empire as a religious alternative to the message both of Jesus and Paul. I will be posting a blog about God and Empire in due time.

“What was most novel in the Roman attitude to their empire was the belief that it was universal and willed by the gods.”

His chapter centers then, not on Roman civilization or mythology, and not even on Roman religion but on Roman ideology. “I understand Roman imperial theology as the ideological glue that held Roman civilization together.” We see this first in terms that are used in reference to Augustus: Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. “When those titles were taken from him, the Roman emperor, and given to a Jewish peasant, it was a case of either low lampoon or high treason.”

No wonder that Jesus was seen as such a great threat to the Roman empire that crucifixion was all but inevitable. Which leads us to Horsley’s chapter.

5 Jesus and Empire by Richard A. Horsley

The prevailing view has been, says Horsley, that Jesus’ crucifixion must have been a mistake. After all, it says that Jesus was really innocent of the charges of being a threat to the Empire. Didn’t he say pay taxes to Caesar? Didn’t he advocate turning the other cheek and loving your enemy? Didn’t Jesus teach a religious message, not a political one?

All of these, says Horsley, are based on our modern conception that religion and state are separate. But if the emperor was divine as well as the head of the empire, and if the ‘chief priests and temple authorities’ were local enforcers for the empire as well as religious leaders, then our fine modern distinctions make no sense for understanding the early centuries. Every action and saying within the empire were seen as having both religious and political implications and were therefore scrutinized by the empire.

Jesus’ opposition is most clearly seen in his choice  of the term ‘kingdom of God’ for his central message. If God is king, Caesar is not, if Caesar is ruler, God is not. “No man can serve two masters.”

“Forty years ago the question of Jesus’ opposition to Roman rule was couched in simplistic terms: if Jesus did not lead or advocate overt forcible rebellion against Rome, he must have been politically quiescent. We now recognize that resistance can take forms other than insurrection…In the earliest Gospel sources Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God means not just the renewal of Israel, but also the renewal of Israel in opposition to the rulers.”

6 The Apostle Paul and Empire by Neil Elliott 

Age of Empire: “Since the 1990s, interpreters have increasingly sought to understand the apostle Paul in the context of Roman imperial culture. This surge in interest is part of a new awareness of the role of empire in biblical studies generally, of which this volume is one expression. Increased attentiveness to the dynamics of empire is not simply the latest academic fashion, however. We have seen a wave of decolonization movements throughout the world in the 1960s and 1970s; the emergence of the United States as an unrivaled superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s; and the exertion by the United States of its great military, economic, and political power throughout the world up to the present day.”

“Taking empire seriously also requires examining how contemporary imperial ideology shapes our perceptions of the interpretative task itself. We must ask to what extent the inexorable logic of global capitalism, designed in the United States and enforced by its military power, determines the priorities of churches. Sociologists of religion call attention to the “production of the sacred” as a market-tailored commodity for consumption. If we ask where and in what ways Paul’s letters are “consumed” today, the answer must include air-conditioned, big-screen suburban mega-churches, comfortable espresso-lounge bookstores, and hushed academic libraries.” 

“We must note the tremendous cultural distance between the small “tenement churches” that Paul gathered and prosperous congregations meeting today in large, expensive buildings. The Corinthian assembly was made up of “not many” who were powerful or nobly born; they were rather the “low and despised in the world” (1 Cor. 1:26-29). Paul called for mutualism, the ground-level sharing of resources, as “a matter of equality,” where the abundance of some served the needs of others (2 Cor. 8:13-14 RSV). He insisted that the replication of status divisions within the congregation, and the scandalous persistence of hunger among the assembly, disqualified their meals from being “really” the Lord’s Supper We gain one measure of the distance between those first congregations and propertied churches in the global North today by asking whether the observance of the Lord’s Supper, as Paul understood it, is even a contemporary possibility.”

7 Matthew Negotiates the Roman Empire by Warren Carter 

“Matthew’s Gospel portrays the Roman imperial order as standing under divine condemnation. In the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings, as well as in his actions, Matthew’s Jesus outlines practices for an alternative society that his followers are to enact.”

But, says Carter, because of the strong control the empire imposes on its subjects, Jesus’ followers needed “to be self-protective as they negotiate the imperial environment.”

This Gospel is filled with examples of the presence of the power of Rome. At Jesus’ birth Herod, agent of Rome in Palestine, displays his power to dominate in the act of killing the intent children to eliminate a possible future rival. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Antipas uses his Rome given power to rid himself of the gadfly, John the Baptist. During his ministry, Jesus is seen as a threat by the Temple leaders, who act on behalf of Rome for collecting taxes and preventing any sign of revolt. And, of course, at the end of Jesus’ ministry he is brought before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and condemned to die in the way they used for political threats, crucifixion.

The Empire is exploitative as well. Carter estimates that “2 to 3 percent of the empire’s population consumed some 65 percent of its production.” All the rest lived near or on the margin. Hunger and sickness was the lot of the common people and slaves. Hence, it is instructive that feeding and healing were at the centre of Jesus’ ministry.

“Matthew’s Gospel, then, offers Jesus’ followers various strategies for negotiating the elite-dominated sociopolitical Roman imperial order”.

8 Acts of the Apostles: Pro(to)-Imperial Script and Hidden Transcript by Brigitte Kahl 

Luke’s Acts of the Apostles has been for centuries the go-to source for the history of the early Church. It has also been, in effect, our source for what little biographical understanding we have of Paul. But biblical scholars have long been aware of inconsistencies between Luke’s picture of Paul and the picture we get of him from his epistles.

Interestingly, Brigitte Kahl has covered both sides of this. In “Shadow”, she has been chosen to cover the chapter on Acts. She has also written a book on Galatians, which will be the subject of a coming blog post.

The two biblical sources differ on matters such as whether Paul is an Apostle (Paul says he is; Acts never uses that term for him.) Also they differ on what the Jerusalem Council agreed concerning Paul’s mission to the gentiles. But Acts also portrays Paul as a Roman citizen. “His [Luke’s] narrative of Paul’s so-called “Gentile mission,” for example, presents a picture of Paul conforming closely to the Roman imperial order”. “There … seems to be a puzzling ambiguity in Luke’s attitude toward the imperial order.”

Kahl proceeds to explore Luke’s ambiguity through an ‘empire-critical lens’. “We begin with the historical context of Acts in the Empire following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. We then look briefly at some of the literary settings Luke creates to reconcile the pre-70 narrative world of his protagonists, mainly Paul, with the new realities after 70. Finally we consider reading strategies that might help unearth the “hidden transcripts” behind Luke’s pro (or proto)-imperial “script.””

Luke’s portrait of the nascent Christian movement and its expansion among the non-Judean peoples under Roman rule became the foundational document of a pro-empire reading of Paul and the New Testament as a whole. The accommodation to empire articulated in Acts was strongly reinforced three centuries after Luke when the Christian message had finally reached Caesar’s throne, as envisioned in Acts 25:12, and the emperor Constantine converted. Still today the dominant view of Paul comes through the Lukan portrait. Acts thus remains a major stumbling block for those who would be more critical of the Roman Empire in their reading of the New Testament, especially of Paul’s letters. Is there a way to read Acts differently, more subtly? Is Acts more complex and ambiguous in its impact on subsequent history? The rest of her article is concerned with showing there is.

9 The Book of Revelation as Counter-Imperial Script by Greg Carey

Differing from the preceding ones, I didn’t find this chapter too helpful. There was too much space spent on explaining and too little on interpreting. “Empire in the New Testament” covers Revelation along with Hebrews and the General Epistles in a chapter they call “Running the Gamut: The Varied Responses to Empire in Jewish Christianity”. Maybe they felt it was better not handled on its own.

On the positive side, among the many words Carey points out that “Revelation is the most explicitly counter-imperial book in the New Testament. It pronounces God’s condemnation of Rome and its empire and looks for the future establishment of a new society in the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. It calls in the meantime for faithful endurance of persecution by the forces of empire, anticipating that it may lead to martyrdom.

There are seven books on Revelation’s relation to empire in my bibliography. I would suggest reading either Warren Carter’s 2011 book or Howard-Brook and Gwyther’s 2013 one.

A Review of 3 Books on the Roman Empire and the New Testament

 

 

A review of three books on the effects of the Roman Empire on the New Testament and Early Christianity

In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance, Richard Horsley (ed) 2008

Empire in the New Testament, Stanley Porter, Cynthia Westfall (eds) 2011

An Introduction to Empire in the New Testament, Adam Winn (ed) 2016

I have begun this writing project (Subversive Church) with six blog posts of the context of Empire and Kingdom on the New Testament and the earliest followers of Jesus. (See Blog Outline. ) The first 3, blogs 2-4, lay out the effects of Empire, the next three, 5-7, show Jesus’ responded to Caesar’s oppressive, violence-centered empire with his preaching and living the Kingdom of God.

I will write further blogs on these two issues. But I want for the moment to turn from context to text, from Empire to Scripture.

When I began several years ago reading about this recent biblical research, I tried in vain to find a term these scholars agreed on for this new thing they were laying out. I knew it had to do with the effect of the Roman Empire on the New Testament. But ‘empire…’ what? Concurrently I was studying a second body of academic research on the unknown first two centuries of Christianity. But this other group were clear about what their topic was. They were explicating the most common social structure for common people of that period, which classical scholars called “The Greco-Roman Meals’. The weekly/monthly banquet gatherings were called “voluntary associations” .

I finally discovered that some of them, the empire folk, when they bothered giving it a name, called it ‘empire criticism’. I have found that term vague and unhelpful. On one level, there is the problem of the difference of meaning of ‘criticism’ in academic dialogue as compared with vernacular use of the word. Further, are we speaking of a critique of the empire or by the empire? In my writings here so far, I have tended to use the more neutral expression ‘empire scholarship’. I’ll add more to what we might call it as I get to the third book and Adam Winn, its editor.

We might not be sure what to call this topic, but there is no question of who is the pioneer of the field. Richard Horsley, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion at the University of Massachusetts Boston until his retirement in 2007, has been writing on this since the 1980s, when he was a lonely voice. His over 20 books, written or edited, have set the stage for the flood of books by others, who have bought Horsley’s point of the relevance of empire for New Testament studies.

When time came to produce a volume to show the effect of the Roman Empire on the Bible, it was no accident that Westminster John Knox Press chose Horsley to bring it together. His vision for the book was to show that God’s people had lived “In the Shadow of [some] Empire” for just about all their existence: from the grinding labor required of them by the Pharaoh through empire after empire, until and including the time of the New Testament. Thus, his book includes among its nine chapters, three on pre-Roman empires, three on aspects of the Roman Empire, and three on specific books of the N. T. as they are affected by their imperial Roman context.

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 157 by Greg Carey

Three years later, another like compendium came out. This time the origin was McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Its editors are Stanley Porter, president of the seminary, and Cynthia Long Westfall, a N. T. professor at McMaster. The book, like “In the Shadow of Empire”, contains nine chapters.

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

Only two chapters are devoted to the effect of pre-Roman empires on God’s people. No chapters are focused on the nature of imperial Rome. This leaves 7 chapters to cover N. T. books and even beyond into the church Fathers. Note that both books’ editors have one overlapping writer. In both, the Gospel of Matthew is covered by Warren Carter, a N. T. scholar from New Zealand who teaches at Brite Seminary in Dallas.

Five years after “Empire in the N T”, comes a third compendium. Editor, Adam Winn teaches at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary, giving the imprimatur of the evangelical community to this new field of study. For purpose of naming this ‘empire thing’, not only are they comfortable with ‘empire studies’ and ‘empire theory’ as terms, Winn’s introductory chapter lays out a rationale for new readers to this subject a recent history to understand empire studies as a matter to be taken seriously.

AN INTRODUCTION TO EMPIRE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT (Published 6- 2016)

Contents A Brief Word of Introduction and Acknowledgment
1. Striking Back at the Empire: Empire Theory and Responses to Empire in the New Testament, Adam Winn.
2. Peace, Security, and Propaganda: Advertisement and Reality in the Early Roman Empire, Bruce W. Longenecker
3. Jesus-in-Movement and the Roman Imperial (Dis)order, Richard A. Horsley
4. An Imperial-Critical Reading of Matthew, Warren Carter
5.The Gospel of Mark: A Response to Imperial Propaganda, Adam Winn
6. Crafting Colonial Identities: Hybridity and the Roman Empire in Luke-Acts, Eric D. Barreto
7. 
The Fourth Gospel, Romanization, and the Role of Women, Beth M. Sheppard.
8. Paul and Empire 1: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Neil Elliot
9. Colossians, Ephesians, and Empire, Harry O. Maier
10. Construing and Containing an Imperial Paul: Rhetoric and the Politics of Representation in the Pastoral Epistles, Deborah Krause
11. Resisting Empire in Hebrews, Jason A. Whitlark
12. Empire in James: The Crown of Life, Matthew Ryan Hauge
13.Confronting Roman Imperial Claims: Following the Footsteps of 1 Peter’s Eschatological Davidic Shepherd, Kelly D. Liebengood
14. Victory and Visibility: Revelation’s Imperial Textures and Monumental Logics, Davina C. Lopez

This book’s layout is longer, and includes fourteen chapters. As mentioned earlier, this recognition of the role of the Roman Empire has progressed to where the editor, Winn, devotes a chapter to spelling out this new concentration on the Roman Empire. Speaking of the prior role of the empire on scripture impact he writes: “But few interpreters considered the way in which the Roman Empire and its ubiquitous power and influence might be a foreground for understanding Christian theological expression, mission, and practice. Few New Testament interpreters considered ways in which New Testament texts might be critiquing the evils of the Roman Empire. The prevailing assumption was that the writings of the New Testament were apolitical.”

There follow two chapters which look at the empire; one of these is written by Richard Horsley. A full eleven chapters cover books of the N.T., which encompasses quite a sweep of them. As in the previous volumes, Warren Carter is once again called upon to write on Matthew’s Gospel. Uniquely, three chapters are devoted to the Pauline epistles. The chapters differentiate those letters which are considered by Paul himself or by later more conservative persons who write under Paul’s name. This is like Borg and Crossan scheme in their “The First Paul” with the radical Paul, the conservative Paul and the reactionary Paul. Each ‘Paul’ is more accommodating to the empire than the previous one.

My purpose for writing this review of these three books is not that I am recommending you need to purchase all three. Each of these does an overview in its own way. My purpose is to lay out the similarities and differences so that you might decide which of the three most fits your interests. If you want the full panorama of the effect of empire on the whole of Biblical history, then “In the Shadow of Empire” is your book. If you want to drill down on empire’s effect on the writing of the N. T. books, then “An Introduction to Empire in the New Testament” is what you want. Porter’s book, “”Empire in the New Testament” holds the middle ground between the other two.

And, if all three of these are too generalised for your taste, you may want to look at the more than 30 books on specific N. T. books I list in my bibliography. They are found in Section II B Specific book(s) of the New Testament.

Baptism as a Politically Subversive Act

Caesar and Sacrament

Jesus and his followers, both Jews and Gentiles, did not live in a sociopolitical vacuum. They were subjects of an ever-expanding and oppressive empire that conquered and controlled nations. Operating as a political domination system, Rome knew how to keep people in their place and had the means necessary to succeed at the task.

See Also: Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism, A Rite of Resistance (Cascade Books, 2018).

By R. Alan Streett
Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology
Criswell College, Dallas, Texas
December 2018

(This is an article reprinted by permission from the publication
The Bible and Interpretation
https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/baptism-politically-subversive-act)

The Birth of an Empire

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, and with the Republic in turmoil, a struggle for power ensued between Marc Antony (Caesar’s trusted young lieutenant) and Gaius Octavian (Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted son). In a stroke of genius, Octavian sought support from a neglected and weakened Senate. Emboldened by his deference to them, the Senate gave Octavian their backing and named Antony an “Enemy of the State.” Antony fled for his life. Octavian pursued and finally defeated him in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.

The good news (euangelion) of his victory moved the masses to proclaim Octavian their savior (soter) who singlehandedly brought “peace and security” to Rome.

In 27 BCE Octavian symbolically returned power to the Senate and took the title princeps, meaning “first among equals.” The Senate, in appreciation of his magnanimity, named him “Augustus” or magnificent one. Despite his apparent self-effacement, he gladly accepted the moniker. Claiming Rome had a manifest destiny to rule the earth on behalf of the gods, Octavian “Augustus” Caesar assumed complete power over all Roman territories.

Rome became an imperial juggernaut. Historians generally agree that Augustus transformed Rome into an “empire” (Latin, imperium) and reigned as its first “emperor” (Latin, imperator). As “king of kings” he ruled over all client kings of conquered countries who, in turn, pledged their total allegiance to Octavian. Any challenge to his rule was considered an act of sedition and punishable by death. He was Lord and master of all. When the Senate bestowed divine status on Julius Caesar posthumously (Divus Iulius), Augustus assumed the title “Son of God.”

Rome as a Domination System

In the Empire only two classes of people existed: ruling elites and the ruled, dominators and the dominated. The latter had no say in governmental decisions. A pyramid-like social structure with the emperor and his cronies at the top and the lowliest and marginalized at the bottom guaranteed that all wealth worked its way upward—the rest lived at a subsistence level. Everyone knew their place in the societal pecking order. The majority kept their heads down in public, submitted to authority, worked from dawn to dusk, paid taxes, kept a low profile, and went about their business. They rarely challenged the official Roman narrative. They formed patron-client relationships and paid homage to Caesar.

Rome utilized forced labor, excessive taxes, land confiscation, social stratification, patronage, political collaborators, civic religion (emperor worship), and military might to exploit and keep people in line.

On behalf of their emperor Roman generals and their troops marched to the edges of the Empire and offered “peace and security” (pax Romana) to any nation that submitted and pledged loyalty to Caesar. Rome invaded, conquered, and enslaved those nations that refused.

An Oath of Allegiance

Caesar required certain individuals as well as nations to make a public vow of faithfulness. This oath of allegiance was called a sacramentum. According to Van Slyke, there are 150 extant references to sacramentum in ancient Roman literature.[1]

Roman dictator Julius Caesar was the first to use sacramentum in a military sense (Caesar, BellGall. 6.1; Bell. Civ. 1.86; 2.28). He described it as a voluntary oath taken by soldiers upon entering the Roman army.

Livy (ca 59 BCE‒17 CE) likewise noted that sacramentum was used during the Republic era as a soldier’s oath of obedience, administered by a consul, which obligated a soldier to obey his superiors and not to abandon his comrades-in-arms. The verbalized ritual thus served as a covenant or agreement between officers and soldiers, and was a required to serve in the military (Livy, Hist. 22.38). Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE‒43 BCE) wrote that when General Popilius chose to disband one of his Legions, young Cato wanted to continue serving in the army. His father said the general “should swear him into service with a new oath of allegiance,” since his original sacramentum was no longer legally binding (Cicero, Off.1.11.36).

According to Roman senator and historian Tacitus (56 CE‒117 CE) sacramentum was defined during the Empire era as the verbal pledge of allegiance a soldier gave to his emperor. Tacitus also spoke of “receiving the sacrament” (sacramentum acciperent) because the oath was being administered to the soldier on behalf of the emperor (Tacitus, Hist. 1.56). Soldiers were generally required to take the sacrament only once during their career, although the object of their oath changed from one Caesar to the next (Tacitus, Ann. 1).[2]

Because a sacramentum was considered sacred and taken in front of witnesses—both humans and deities—it was irrevocable. Those breaking faith faced penalties ranging from shame to death (Livy, Hist. 28.27).

A Counter-Imperial Sacramentum

Christ-followers borrowed the term sacramentum and used it to express their fealty to Christ and his kingdom.

Tertullian (160 CE‒225 CE) identified baptism specifically as the Christian sacramentum and contrasted it to a Roman soldier’s pledge of loyalty to the Emperor and Empire (Tertullian, Bapt. 4.4–5; Idol. 19.2). Just as a soldier upon his oath of allegiance was inducted into Caesar’s army, so a believer was initiated by the sacrament of baptism into God’s kingdom. Each vowed faithful service to his god and kingdom.

Baptism cannot be properly understood apart from locating it within the context of the Roman Empire and in relationship to Roman power.

As the locus and earthly manifestation of God’s restored kingdom, the church in the first century was the very antithesis of the Roman Empire. When Christ-followers submitted to baptism and pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar, they participated in a politically subversive act. Through the sacramentum of baptism they joined a movement that rejected Rome’s public narrative, ideology, hierarchical social order, and Caesar’s claim to be Lord over all.

From its inception, the Jesus Movement was a threat to the social order of the Empire..

As a sacramentum, baptism was a “boundary crossing ritual,”[3] a proverbial line drawn in the sand. When crossed, it meant breaking formal ties with the past, declaring fealty to another Lord, and accepting a new and alternative identity—that of a Christ-follower. Hence, baptism was a political act of subversion, a rite of resistance against the prevailing power structures that often led to persecution and even death.

Baptism as a Rite of Resistance

The Gospel writers trace the beginning of the Jesus Movement to the ministry of John the Baptizer, whose priestly father was part of the Temple establishment. Breaking with family tradition John donned the garb of a prophet and publicly announced the imminent arrival of God’s reign. The kingdom of God would be restored to Israel and extend outward until it encompassed the world. To prepare for the kingdom, John called on God’s people to: 1) “Repent,” i.e. abandon former allegiances and turn to covenant faithfulness, and 2) “be baptized,” i.e. submit to a sin-cleansing water ritual. Many heeded the call, but Jewish leaders—those forsaking the covenant and walking hand-in-hand with Rome—refused.

When Jesus aligned himself with the coming kingdom by submitting to John’s sacrament of baptism, it triggered a heavenly response. A voice identified Jesus as the “Son of God” and the Spirit descended, empowering Jesus to heal, cast out demons, and speak for God.

As John and Jesus preached a counter-narrative to the State’s official public transcript, they found themselves in direct conflict with State authorities and paid for that stance with their lives.

According to the sanctioned Roman account, Jesus’ death ended his mission. But the Gospel writers present an alternative ending to the story—that Jesus emerged from the grave as he had from the baptismal waters. They claimed that God vindicated Jesus and gave him all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18), i.e. over Caesar, his client kings, and the demonic powers behind the throne.

The Gospel of Matthew chronicles that the resurrected Jesus commanded his loyal apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations” (v19). These were the same nations conquered and controlled by Rome. Their assignment was clear, but it was also controversial. It included calling the converts to adhere to the Mosaic Covenant as explained by Jesus (Matt 5‒7) and summonsing them to make a sacramentum to God and his authorized king: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:20).[4]

In the Lukan account, Jesus instructs his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for God to pour out his Spirit on them before launching out. Imbued with power from on high, they were to spread the good news of kingdom renewal throughout “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).[5]Theirs would be a long-term and arduous assignment. To call on Caesar’s subjects to transfer their allegiance to another by means of a sacramentum meant danger was ahead. Their task was as much political as it was religious.

What price did Jews and Gentiles pay for making a sacramentum to Christ? Although circumstances varied, few if any Christ-followers escaped persecution. For the purposes of this short essay, we will look at three case scenarios—one Jewish and two Gentile.

Jews and the Sacramentum

Upon the arrival of the Spirit, Peter stood on the steps of the Temple and proclaimed to the visiting pilgrims, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him (Jesus) whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (2:28). He then exhorted them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (v 41).

Cut to the heart they cried out, “What should we do?”

Peter’s answer was clear and unequivocal, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).

Turning their backs on former allegiances (repentance) and making their sacramentum (baptism) to the one whom Rome and its Jewish collaborators executed as an enemy of the State, they joined the kingdom restoration movement. But at what cost?

Since baptized Jewish-Christ followers were still considered Jews, they likely escaped direct persecution from Roman authorities, based on an agreement with General Pompey in 64 BCE, that Jews had the right to practice their religion as long as they did not seek to proselytize Gentiles. However, Jewish devotees surely faced pushback in the synagogue from fellow non-messianic Jews and possibly from native retainers (Acts 4:1‒4; 7:58‒59; 9:23; 12:1‒5; 13:50; 14:19; 16:19‒24; 17:5‒9).[6]

Gentiles and the Sacramentum

As the good news of the kingdom reached Gentiles, how did their pledge of faith to Christ affect their social and political fortunes?

Unlike Jewish believers associated with the synagogue, Gentiles had no religious protection. New Gentile Christ-followers were forbidden from sharing in cultic meals, worshiping family deities, or making a sacrifice to Caesar. Their sacramentum to a Lord other than Caesar might be viewed as seditious. They stood out like a sore thumb. As a result, they faced ostracism from family and friends, lost client status with their patrons, and were marked as atheists and subversives.

Imagine the adverse reaction to the Philippian jailer after his conversion. As a resident of a Roman colony, he was likely a retired soldier who for years had kept inviolate his sacramentum to Caesar. He had been rewarded with citizenship and a nice government job. What did it mean for him to turn his back on the source of his livelihood and pledge loyalty to an alternative kingdom and embrace a counter-imperial ethic based on neighborly love, egalitarianism, and mercy? One can only imagine what it was like for the jailer and his family to join the kingdom community in Lydia’s home, eat a meal in Jesus’ name and sing praises to the one . . .

Who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited [grasped],

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself and became obedient                                                                                      to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:5‒11).

This song contains strong anti-imperial language. Consider the ramifications for the jailer and his family if a fellow citizen saw him worshipping and singing this hymn.[7]

Or take the case of the Gentile Christ-followers dispersed throughout “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” who are addressed in 1 Peter 1:1.

Some scholars suggest First Peter was written as a baptismal homily or a set of instructions offered to newly baptized believers at the time of their admission into church membership. Whether or not this is so, we are certain that the letter is addressed to baptized believers, who after pledging their fidelity to the exalted Lord Jesus, faced persecution and possibly even death (3:13‒17; 4:12‒19). Over twenty times the author mentions they suffered for their faith. Since no national persecution was underway at the time of the writing, one suspects that they faced castigation and torment at the hands of local Gentiles.

For Gentiles to reject local and national deities and align with a religion that had no visible gods was an egregious offense. The writer warns the readers not to renounce their faith when faced with persecution or use inappropriate means to withstand satanic attack. Instead they were to emulate Christ who suffered and died at the hands of Rome (1:19; 2:21–25; 3:18). As they embraced and followed the alternative ethics of God’s kingdom, they fulfilled their baptismal vows.

In the genre of a Testament, the author admonishes his readers that upon his death they must remain faithful to Christ regardless of cost. He reminds them of their baptismal vow and calls it their “pledge (eperotema) to God from a good conscience” (3:15), thus making it synonymous with sacramentum.[8]

To convey the serious danger Gentile Christ-followers in the region faced, we need look no farther than the letter of Pliny the Younger (61‒113 CE) to Emperor Trajan. As governor of Bithynia, Pliny voices his concern over the Jesus Movement, which he calls a “contagion.”

Pliny reports that he interrogated those identified as Christians who “pledge themselves by a sacramentum.” If, after three cross-examinations, they denied Christ, willingly prayed to the Roman gods, and presented a drink offering to the image of Caesar, the recanters were freed. On the other hand, those who persisted in the faith were executed. Roman citizens found guilty were sent to Rome for trial (Pliny, Ep. 10.96).

The Times They Are a Changing

The church in the first century, as the locus and earthly manifestation of God’s reign, was the antithesis of the Roman Empire. When the first Christ-followers submitted to baptism in the name of Jesus they joined a revolution that Rome perceived as a threat to the accepted social order. The earliest believers embraced an egalitarian ethic in which social justice and neighborly love were the hallmarks of the movement. The sacrament of baptism was the first step in radically redefining one’s life in accord with covenantal kingdom principles. To break with the predominant culture and follow Christ was often costly.

With the passing of time the lines became blurred between Church and culture. The meaning of baptism as a counter-imperial sacrament faded from sight. During the age of Constantinian Christianity baptism morphed into a sign of respectability and cultural acceptability.

The church in the twenty-first century, especially in the West, still suffers from amnesia. It has lost consciousness of baptism as a rite of resistance. It has forgotten its kingdom mandate to embrace and exhibit an alternative ethic in the midst of a culture of domination.

Baptism’s subversive significance has long been muted. It is not uncommon for a newly baptized individual to discover that the church s/he joins is powerful, wealthy, and operates like a Fortune 500 company. The church has exchanged its camel hair for a scarlet robe, and its prophetic voice has ceased as it seeks a place at the table with other powerbrokers.

The time has come for scholars and clerics to reexamine and recapture the original sacramental meaning of baptism as a rite of resistance. We must go back in order the impact the future. The appeal to be baptized must again become a call for a transformed public life that reflects Christ-likeness in the midst of a culture of violence and human oppression.

 

References

DeMaris, Richard E. The New Testament in its Ritual World. London: Routledge, 2008.

Reicke, Bo. The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude. The Anchor Bible 37. New York: Doubleday, 1964.

Streett, R. Alan. Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism, a Rite of Resistance. Eugene: Cascade, 2018.

Van Slyke, Daniel G. “The Changing Meanings of Sacramentum: Historical Sketches.” Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal 11.3 (2007).

________.“Sacramentum in Ancient Non-Christian Authors.” Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal 9.2 (2005).

 

[1] Van Slyke, “Sacramentum in Ancient Non-Christian Authors,” 167.

[2] An exception to this practice occurred only in case of an extreme emergency when masses of soldiers had to be recruited and deployed at a moment’s notice. In such times soldiers either took the oath en masse or skipped it entirely. (Tacitus, Hist. 1.55).

[3] DeMaris, New Testament, 102.

[4] The Trinitarian baptism formula likely reflects the church’s understanding of baptism at the time Matthew was written (ca 86 CE).

[5] The first disciples likely interpreted this to mean they were to take the message of Jesus to Jews scattered throughout the Empire. By the time Luke’s Gospel is distributed (ca 86 CE), the readers understand the command to include Gentiles as well.

[6] A divide between messianic and non-messianic Jews occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE and reached a breaking point in 135 CE.

[7] Many commentators miss the strong anti-imperial language which characterizes this song because they approach it from a theological perspective and give little attention to its socio-historical context. When one considers that the opening phrase “equality with God” was used to describe the Roman emperor, the song becomes a political statement. To Romans, no one deserved the same status as the emperor. According to the hymn, Jesus, unlike Caesar, does not exploit his divine position but chose to live humbly, accepting the status of a slave. Even when facing crucifixion he did not exercise his authority or use force to defeat his adversaries and free himself, but rather trusted God for deliverance. In fact, the song speaks of his death as an act of obedience to God (v 8).

The second stanza begins with the word “therefore,” and shows that because Jesus chose the path of obedient submission, God vindicated and exalted him above his adversaries to the rank of Lord, a position he did not seek (vv 9‒11). To assert that “Jesus is Lord” meant that Caesar was not! This pronouncement was a slap in Rome’s imperial face. The one Rome crucified as a criminal, God ironically gives “a name that is above every name” (v 9).

The hymn goes on to say “every knee” will bow to him and “every tongue” (including those of Caesar and Roman senators, along with Roman and native elites) will confess “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

When the hymn is interpreted in this way, the jailer and his family committed a subversive act against the Empire.

[8] Reicke, Epistles of James, 106–7, 139.

HELP!

The last twenty years has seen new insights from biblical scholars, opening the first two centuries of Christianity in a way that was unknown to previous scholars, ministers, and lay persons.

One aspect of this new information is the realisation of the importance of the Roman Empire to New Testament writings. Adam Winn, editor of “An Introduction to Empire in the New Testament” writes that,

“As will become evident throughout this volume of essays, the Roman Empire dominated and pervaded virtually every aspect of life in the ancient Mediterranean world. Though Christianity was birthed under the power of this empire and every page of Christian Scripture was written under its shadow, the Roman Empire has played a relatively insignificant role in the history of modern New Testament scholarship.”

Another aspect is found in the way we look at history. Putting that another way: how we understand history depends upon whose eyes we look through to assess what happened. Dennis Janz, editor of a seven volume new series, “A People’s History of Christianity” writes,

“What had always been left out of the story, of course, was the vast majority of human beings: almost all women, obviously, but then too all those who could be counted among the socially inferior, the economically distressed, the politically marginalized, the educationally deprived, or the culturally unrefined.”

As those who wrote were part of the elite, the top five percent or so who were literate, and this includes the New Testament writers, we know very little about the lives of the ordinary early Christians. Significantly, the first communities of Jesus’ followers were made up of the other, the ninety five percent.

A third aspect derives from the tendency in our time to separate “church and state”. This has resulted in our dividing what was NOT divided in the first centuries: religion and politics and economics. If these areas are divided, then Jesus is seen simply as a religious leader, a spiritual person. The New Testament thus would not be concerned about matters political or economic. According to Richard A. Horsley in his “Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder”, this view would picture Jesus as

“a depoliticized individual teacher uttering isolated aphorisms that pertain only to an individual counter-cultural lifestyle in no particular political-economic context and with no political implications. It is difficult to understand why the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, would have bothered to crucify such a figure.”

There are other aspects that help create this new insight: the uncovering of a multitude of ancient inscriptions by archaeologists, the insights coming from what is called postcolonial studies… But this is enough, hopefully, to tell you we are blessed with knowledge of the Biblical world that would make an Augustine of Hippo, or Thomas Aquinas, or Martin Luther, or Jack Finegan my New Testament professor of fifty years ago, envious of the time in which we live.

There is a question our modern academics have not answered, though: What difference do these new insights make for today’s congregations?

I’m writing this post for a purpose. It is my contention that within this new scholarship is the possibility for the transformation of the church. That transformation would be grounded on returning our congregations to being alternative communities, whose loyalty is to Christ and the Kingdom he taught, and not to the empire of his day or ours. Subversive is what they were before the church began the long collusion at the time of and with Constantine.

Of course, not all readers of the current biblical scholarship will see what I see. McKnight and Modica in “Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies” see it differently.

“The affirmation “Jesus is Lord” requires not so much a strident denunciation of earthly lords as a studied silence concerning their pretensions.” They follow a brand of individualistic evangelicalism which is concerned with gaining personal salvation. A “studied silence” has often been the approach of the colluding church.

But McKnight and Modica’s stance is different from the great majority of current biblical scholars. Just one more example. Walter Brueggemann refers to what he calls the “totalism”. In “Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture” he writes,  “Power, whenever and wherever it can, will present itself as a totalizing system, the wishful thinking of every empire, every regime, and every orthodoxy. Such totalizing claims, as best they can, answer all questions, provide all resources, guarantee all futures, and deny the possibility that anything meaningful or valuable can fall outside of the totalizing ideology.”

In order for us to move toward becoming a subversive church I see four areas needing to be covered. They are found on my blog under ‘Blog Outline in the main menu. The first two areas focus on the 1st century church, and the last two focus on the 21st century church:

I Context: Empire and Kingdom in the First Century

II Text: The New Testament in the Empire Setting

III Empire in history and today

IV Empire context implications for the church today

I feel comfortable in dealing with the first three areas, laying out the academic material found in the 100+ books in my bibliography. But when it comes to the fourth- what would this look like in our congregations today- I’m going to need a lot of help.

To include you in the process I have begun a new Facebook page, “Subversive Church Dialogue.” I know there are persons out there who are either already involved with or would like to be involved in this project. Some of you may be involving the reality of empire in your preaching; some of you may be trying to edge your congregations toward being alternative communities, like the first century congregations were.

If you want to join with me in the process, would you either click the ‘like’ or ‘follow’ button on the Dialogue Facebook page. (I really don’t know what Facebook’s difference is between like or follow.) This dialogue page gives the option for persons to make comments directly. Please take advantage of this. Lastly, if you have written something more lengthy, I would be happy to consider it as a guest post on my blog.

Kingdom- Alternative to Empire: II In Richard Horsley

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 2.59.55 pm

In my last posting, I quoted from my seminary New Testament professor, Georgia Harkness, to the effect that “There is general agreement that the kingdom of God is at the heart of the message of Jesus.” As the core of my thesis on this project is that the kingdom of God as Jesus preached and lived is absolutely key to understanding the alternative choice the earliest followers of Jesus faced while living in the Roman Empire, I have decided that I need to put meat on the bones of Dr. Harkness’s quote. As she wrote those words over 50 years ago, it is incumbent upon me to show that the kingdom is still seen in the central role to understanding Jesus today.

It thus seems appropriate to turn to one of the contemporary N T scholars in my bibliography. Who should I choose? There is none who has written earlier and more frequently on the topic of Jesus and Empire than Richard Horsley. If you do a search of my bibliography it will reveal that, of the 100+ books listed, his name comes up 14 times. That, still, is less than half the number he has written or edited. (See the whole list of his books to date in the Wikipedia article on him.

 

This posting draws from his “Jesus and Empire:” The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. I focus mostly on Chapter 3 ‘Toward a Relational Approach to Jesus’ because it is here that he zooms in on the centrality of kingdom to understand Jesus. I’m going to zero in on the outlines he developed for understanding kingdom as central in both the life and the teachings of Jesus. This follows a section where he critiques much of current N T scholarship on the Historical Jesus. It is easy to see he is not in sympathy with the work of the Jesus Seminar.

As most of you will know, the Jesus Seminar is notorious for its study asking which sayings of Jesus in the Gospels are likely his words. Their method was to give each seminar fellow beads in color ranging from red to pink to grey to black in terms of whether each saying was thought to be probably, not as probably, probably not, definitely not a saying of Jesus.

Horsley, with some validity, says that you can’t judge Jesus’ sayings individually. They were not likely said on their own. Further, you can’t really understand what someone is saying unless you know the context in which it is said. It would be like trying to understand Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address without knowledge of the context of slavery and the Civil War.

A subsection in this chapter is titled “Taking the Gospel Whole”. How he does this is to use all of Mark’s Gospel to follow the life of Jesus. and he uses what he calls the Q document to follow the teachings of Jesus. You likely know that Q is a theoretical document. It is what N T scholars give name to of words of Jesus that are common to Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels which are not found in Mark’s Gospel. One needs to ferret out then where he finds the Q sayings. One finds the answer in a footnote at the end of the book where he says he uses the ‘Q’ passages, that is the sayings passages, in Luke.

Now, most of the rest of this posting consists of major chunks of material of outlines of Mark and of ‘Q’. by Horsley. So it is a bit heavier reading. But it answers the question as to whether contemporary N T scholars still find the kingdom of God central in understanding the Historical Jesus. Horsley nicely shows that it is central to both the narrative and the sayings of Jesus.

He writes, “Mark’s story portrays Jesus carrying out a renewal of Israel over against (and in condemnation of) the rulers of Israel and their Roman patrons.”

He follows that with an outline of Mark,

“GOSPEL OF MARK AS STORY OF RENEWAL OF ISRAEL OVER AGAINST ITS RULERS”

John announces coming of prophet like Moses/Elijah (1:1-13)

Jesus (as prophet) proclaims that kingdom of God is at hand (1:14-15)

Jesus (as prophet) campaigns in Galilee, healing, forgiving, and exorcising as manifestations of God’s rule, and calling and constituting the Twelve as representatives of renewed Israel (1:16-3:35)

Jesus teaches mystery of kingdom in parables (4:1-34)

Jesus (as prophet) like Moses and Elijah enacting renewal of Israel in sea crossings, exorcisms, healings, wilderness feedings, and insisting on covenantal commandments (4:35-8:22/26)

Jesus (as prophet) like Moses and Elijah teaching renewed covenantal principles as criteria for entering kingdom of God, with his own suffering fering as positive example juxtaposed with twelve disciples as negative examples (8:22/26-10:45/52)

Jesus (as prophet) proclaims judgment of Temple, high priests (11:1-13:1-2)

Jesus’ (as prophet’s) speech about future exhorting solidarity and not being misled (13:3-37)

Jesus (as prophet) renews covenant, anticipating kingdom of God; is arrested rested and tried by high priests, then crucified by Romans (14-15)

Jesus rises and leads way to Galilee (for continuation of movement) (16:1-8)

He follows up, helpful to my purpose, with what he terms as:

“KINGDOM OF GOD AS THEME OF GOSPEL OF MARK “

1:15-kingdom of God is at hand, theme of whole story
(3:22-27-kingdom of God is implicit, declared happening in Jesus’ exorcisms)
4:11-secret of kingdom of God; plus parables of kingdom of God, 4:26, 30
9:1-kingdom of God coming in power
9:47-enter kingdom of God
10:14-15-belong to/receive kingdom of God
10:23, 24, 25 enter kingdom of God
(11:10 coming kingdom of David)
12:34-not far from kingdom of God
14:25-drink cup of renewed covenant in kingdom of God
15:43–waiting expectantly for kingdom of God

“Even from this summary outline, but especially from a reading/hearing of the whole story, it is clear that the dominant theme running throughout out the Gospel is (the presence of) the kingdom of God.”

Having dealt with kingdom in the narratives of the life of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel he turns to the kingdom as found in the words of Jesus. This outline he labels:

Q= SEQUENCE OF JESUS-SPEECHES (WITH KINGDOM OF GOD THEME) ADDRESSING JESUS MOVEMENT ISSUES

(The numbers in italics within parentheses signifies the number of times the expression ‘kingdom’ is used in each section.)

3:7-9, 16-17 John (as prophet) announces coming prophet to baptize with Holy Spirit and fire

6:20-49 Jesus (as prophet) announces kingdom of God as covenant renewal (20)

7:18-35 Jesus (as successor to John) is indeed coming prophet bringing renewal = kingdom of God  (28)

9:57-10:16 (9:60, 62; 10:9, 11) Jesus sends envoys to heal and curse = kingdom of God as renewal and judgment

11:2-4, 9-13-prayer for kingdom of God, which is renewal, but with testing (2)

11:14-20 Jesus’ (as prophet’s) exorcisms = manifestations of kingdom of God (implied judgment of critics) (20)

11:29-32 Jesus (as prophet) declares something greater than Jonah or Solomon is here

11:39-52 Jesus (as prophet) utters woes against Pharisees

12:2-12-Jesus exhorts hold confession when hauled before authorities

12:22-31 Jesus reassures that subsistence materializes in single-minded minded pursuit of kingdom of God (31)

12:49-59 Jesus’ (as prophet’s) fiery mission (crisis) means divisions, but resolves conflicts

13:18-21 (18, 20)-Jesus (as prophet) declares two kingdom of God parables

13:28-29, 34-35 + 14:16-24 Jesus (as prophet) pronounces kingdom of God banquet, both positive and judgmental (29)

16:16-Jesus (as prophet) says kingdom of God suffers violence

17:22-37 Jesus (as prophet) warns of day- of Son of Man = judgment positive and negative

22:28-30-Jesus (as prophet) constitutes twelve representatives realizing justice for Israel in banquet of kingdom of God (30)

I think we clearly find here in Horsley that one can make a case for the Kingdom of God being central to Jesus, both in life and in word.

Kingdom: Alternative to Empire: I Introduction

Appian Way and camperbus

Note on the photo: A number of years ago, finding frustration in the ministry and with the church, I took a sabbatical during which I spent eight months travelling in Europe and North Africa in a VW camperbus with my family. Having in those years a warm feeling about the Roman Empire, we spent a good period of time exploring the city of Rome. This photo shows us on the Appian Way (on a segment where cars were allowed). If you look closely, you can see my two children peering out the back window.

 

My thesis for this project: Contemporary Empire Scholarship tells us that the Roman Empire was of central importance to the context of the early Jesus communities. (Blog post one) The Empire was not the background of the first two centuries for Jesus followers; it was the “foreground of the New Testament”. (Blog posts two and three.) We have known from previous Biblical scholarship that the primary teaching of Jesus focussed on the Kingdom of God. This was the central issue in the text that community was developing, namely, the New Testament. The intersection of Kingdom and Empire is the primary issue for the first century Christians. Knowing that, we are left with the question “How, then should the issue of Empire be relevant to the twenty-first century Church?” Hence, the title of my blog and Facebook page: Subversive Church.

Having posted several times on the Empire aspect, I’ll turn now to the other part of the equation for Jesus’s earliest followers: the Kingdom of God.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

For the last several years I have been studying our Christian origins. More specifically, I have been researching two aspects of the origin of the church covering what two different groups of Biblical scholars have written about in the last decade and a half.

Both of these fields have discovered new knowledge about how the church operated in the century and a half after the death and resurrection of Jesus. One of them is related to the external setting with which early followers of Jesus had to contend. The other relates to the internal setting of the earliest community gathering of the church. (The aspect of the internal can be found on the Facebook page I started, the Dinner Church Movement.)

Perhaps I ought to say ‘Jesus communities’, as one discovery scholars have made is that there never was a single unified early community where all were led by Apostles who agreed with one another and taught their disciples that one message. The Golden Age- when there was one church in which all agreed- never existed.

External setting: One group of scholars have developed what has come to be called “Empire Criticism”, or, what I call simply Empire Scholarship. What they mean is that one cannot understand the early church or the NT without taking into serious account the Roman Empire. Trying to understand the world of the early church without taking account of the Empire is like trying to understand the American Civil War without taking into account the slave plantations.

Pushing that analogy a bit further, the men (and they were all men) who began developing what we call Biblical Criticism were the contemporaries of the plantation owners in the 17th and 18th centuries. They, the early biblical scholars, were citizens of European countries who had colonies in foreign lands, which colonies oppressed the natives, just as did the American plantation owners, and just as the elite oppressed and exploited the non-elite in the Roman Empire. So it is no wonder that, until recently, the Roman Empire was seen, by descendants of those original Biblical scholars, as a “good thing”. The Romans brought civilization to the barbarians, didn’t they? (See segment from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)

It was with a sense of awe, while touring Rome, that I explored the Forum- standing near the rostrum where Shakespeare has Julius Caesar for his “Friends, Romans, countrymen..” speech. I marvelled at the Titus Triumphal Arch. It was not till doing this recent research that I found out that the objects depicted being carried by the soldiers on the arch were loot confiscated from the Temple in Jerusalem. The funds from that loot would make possible the building of the Colosseum I so admired. To be in the remains of the ancient Roman Empire was like a religious experience. I just hadn’t realized it was of the wrong religion!

I have previously shown how the recent Biblical scholars agree that we had been looking at the Roman Empire from the perspective held, not by the common empire person’s view but from the viewpoint of the empire’s privileged few. Neither Jesus nor the disciples were the privileged. Nor were most of the early followers or the NT writers. They certainly would not have had the beneficent view of the Roman Empire that early Biblical scholars had, which I and probably many of you inherited.

The empire was far from a paradise for our spiritual ancestors in the first century. The Appian Way not built for their use. Like other Roman roads, it was built to move the legions quickly to where an uprising needed to be stopped. On the contrary, the empire was a roadblock to a good life for them. Warren Carter encapsulates the reality:  “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.”

Jesus’ central message: If my NT seminary professors got the value of the Roman Empire wrong, they did get the central message of Jesus right. One of my most beloved professors was Dr. Georgia Harkness. In a time when the men in my seminary, Pacific School of Religion, were studying to be ministers there were women students. They couldn’t be ministers, so they were studying to be teachers of Religious Education in the churches. (Today, the majority of students- at that seminary and many others- studying for the ministry are women.) But in my day, here was one of the earliest women teaching theology. In her book on Understanding the Kingdom of God, she writes:

“There is general agreement that the kingdom of God is at the heart of the message of Jesus. Try to extract it from the words recorded in the Synoptic Gospels as spoken by him, and nearly everything else goes with it. People may differ as to how to combine the apparently contradictory things on this subject ascribed to him, but nobody who reads the New Testament can doubt that the kingdom was at the center of the thinking and speaking of Jesus.” http://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/introduction-8/

Throughout the Gospels Jesus proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Matthew, of course, as a good Jew was reticent about using the name of G-d, and instead wrote about the Kingdom of Heaven. A word search reveals that the four Gospels make 85 references to the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven and only 3 mentions of ‘church’, with most of those being found in Matthew.

On the surface Paul seems centered elsewhere. He uses the term ‘church’ 67 times and that of the ‘Kingdom of God’ only 11 times. The words that many Protestant ministers focus on with Paul’s central message are ‘justified’ (17 occurrences) and ‘justification’ (7 occurrences). However, recent biblical scholars indicate that the equivalence for Kingdom in Paul is his expression “in Christ”. I was surprised to find that in the 13 epistles that claim to be attributed to Paul the expression is used 214 times. If you restrict the number of usages to the 7 epistles that are by consensus thought to be by Paul, it is still 143 times. I will cover this Pauline aspect later when I look at Galatians Reimagined by Brigitte Kahl. Let me contend for the moment that when Paul writes about being “in Christ” he is referring to the same present reality for Christians as Jesus did when he speaks about the Kingdom.

One of the mistakes that can be made about the Kingdom is to view it only as primarily a future reality. There are swaths of Christians who see their faith as a means for getting a ticket for the next life. All of this earthly life is seen as the realm of the devil and therefore to be shunned in favour of being with Jesus in heaven.

In the Methodist Church in California where I grew up, the evening service was more ‘spiritual’ than the morning service. Sometimes our youth group joined them. I recall one of the hymns, Sweet Hour of Prayer” that ended with the words

Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”

I’ll be expanding on the concept of the Kingdom of God in my next two postings. The first will looking at the Kingdom with the help of the writings of Walter Brueggemann, the premier scholar today on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. The second will use a recent book by New Testament scholar, Joerg Rieger, Jesus Vs Caesar to delve further into an understanding of the Kingdom of God.

The Roman Imperial World

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 12.45.47 pm(This is the second blog based on Warren Carter’s book, “The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, 2009”. The first blog was “EMPIRE: FOREGROUND OF THE NEW TESTAMENT”)

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.”

Hierarchical

The empire was very hierarchical, with vast disparities of power and wealth. For the small ruling elite, somewhere between 3 and 5 percent, life was quite comfortable. For the majority non-elite, it was at best liveable and at worst very miserable. There was no middle class, little opportunity to improve one’s lot, and few safety nets in adversity.

Carter has a chapter in Christian Origins (People’s History of Christianity)  2006. This book attempts to write a history of Christianity from the bottom up. History is usually written by the elite. After all, it is mainly the elite who are literate. Few of the lower 95% are thus capable of giving their views. So most histories tell us about the kings, the wealthy, the bishops, the philosophers- basically those who have power.

As in two other compendiums of Biblical scholars, here again, Carter is called upon to write about Matthew’s gospel. Here he tells us about “Matthew’s People”.

“Most inhabitants of Antioch lived in atrocious and cramped conditions marked by noise, filth, squalor, garbage, human excrement, animals, disease, fire risk, crime, social and ethnic conflicts, malnutrition, natural disasters (especially flooding), and unstable dwellings (Seneca, Ep. 56; Martial, Epig. 12.57). Fear and despair were pervasive. The life expectancy for non-elites was low: for men twenty-five to forty years, less for women. Infant mortality was high: about 28 percent born alive in Rome died within a year; 50 percent did not survive a decade.”

He concludes with, “The poor comprised Matthew’s people.”

Agrarian

“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 or more of its production.”

In Christian Origins he gives an example of wealth disparity. “While Cato the Younger, by one estimate, enjoyed revenues of 550 to 600 sesterces a day from property valued at 4 million sesterces, an unskilled skilled laborer earned 1 to 3 sesterces (Matt. 20:2).”

Rodney Stark, a social scientist, in Cities of God estimates that about 5-10% of the population of the Empire lived in cities. The other 90-95% were rural dwellers.

Roman Empire structure Carter

This chart, used by Carter, is based upon Gerhard Lenski’s Model of Agrarian-Aristocratic Empires

Legionary

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.”

Because of their monotheism, devotion to a single god, while others in the Empire could worship any or many gods, the Jews were allowed some exemption by the rulers from worshipping the imperial cult. They could pray FOR the Emperor, but not TO the Emperor. But this exemption was not always upheld. Jesus, followers were seen as a sect of the Jews in the early centuries, and shared the same ambiguous exemption.

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.”

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.”

So one of the factors provided by the early meetings of the Jesus people was to give persons a place where their personal identity, not affirmed in the Roman world was given worth. How important it must have been for those seen as ‘nobodies’ by the elite to be called children of God.


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. At the risk of repeating while showing similar views by other biblical scholars, I’ll include characteristics from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan

Marcus Borg in his book, “Convictions” in Chapter 8 also covers the characteristics of the Empire. For him there were four major facets:

They were ruled by a few- 

typically by a monarch, ranging from petty kings to emperors, and an aristocracy. Commonly called “ruling elites of power and wealth,” they, with their extended families, constituted about 2 percent of the population. Just below them was a class commonly called “retainers,” people employed by the elites to run the system: administrators, bureaucrats, high-ranking military commanders, stewards, scribes, and others, perhaps 5 percent of the population. Ordinary people— 90 percent or more— had no voice in how the system was structured.

They were economically exploitative

The ruling elites shaped the economic system in their own self-interests and did so to an extraordinary degree, typically acquiring half to two-thirds of the annual production of wealth. Wealth was largely the product of the peasant class (which included not only agricultural workers but also other manual laborers). The consequences for the peasant class were dire: systemic poverty, inadequate nourishment, marginal shelter, little sanitation, and a life expectancy about half that of the ruling class.

They were chronically violent

The ruling class used violence and the threat of violence to keep their own population subservient. There was also the violence of war. Because land was the primary source of wealth, war was about one group of ruling elites wanting to increase their wealth by going to war against another group of ruling elites in order to acquire more land.

They were legitimated by religion

Kings were crowned in the name of God and said to rule by divine right. Elite religion proclaimed that the way things were, the social order, reflected the will of God. God put it together this way. Thus those who objected to the domination system were disobeying God.

“This is the world of the Bible, the large historical context in which it came into existence. It is the world of Egypt. It is the world of the monarchy in Israel. It is the world of the foreign empires, beginning with Babylon, that ruled the Jewish people almost continuously from the exile of the sixth century BCE onward. It is the world of Rome in the time of Jesus and early Christianity. The Bible from beginning to end is a sustained protest against the domination systems of the ancient world.” [Italics mine.]


Also, 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.

“People got crucified not because they were spiritual, but because they posed a threat to the Roman system. Early Christians and New Testament writers engaged the empire largely ‘from below’ as the powerless and oppressed who had no access to channels of power, no voice, and no hope of changing the imperial system.”

“Even when the New Testament texts seem to us to be silent about Rome’s empire, it is, nevertheless, ever present. It has not gone away. The Roman empire provides the ever present political, economic, societal, and religious framework and context for the New Testament’s claims, language, structures,personnel, and scenes. The New Testament texts guide first century followers of Jesus in negotiating Rome’s power that crucified Jesus”

“In the first century Roman world, no one pretended religion and politics were separate. Rome claimed its empire was ordained by the gods. Those whom we think of as religious leaders in Jerusalem, such as chief priests and scribes, were actually the political leaders of Judea and allies of Rome.”

“Understanding Rome’s world, though, matters for reading the New Testament texts because these texts assume that readers know how the Roman world was structured and what it was like. 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.”

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What resources did the life and teachings of Jesus provide for his earliest followers? For my next blog or two I want to spell out what these are. Will it require a ‘spoiler alert’ to reveal that Jesus’ focus on teaching about the Kingdom of God is central.