“This book is not about “Roman backgrounds” to the New Testament, because it understands Rome’s empire to be the foreground…. This book recognizes that Rome’s empire does not disappear or go away when it is not explicitly mentioned. It is always there. It forms the pervasive context of New Testament writings.”
EMPIRE: FOREGROUND OF NEW TESTAMENT
The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, by Warren Carter 2009
“The Bible was written by a minority group that had been conquered by one military superpower after another, so they’re highly suspicious of empires built on wealth and weapons because they’ve been on the receiving end of so much horrific violence,” said Rob Bell, recently an evangelical megachurch pastor and more recently at a lecture given in Atlanta. “So if you’re a citizen of the most powerful global military superpower civilization has ever created, there’s a chance you might miss some of its most central themes.” (From a CNN article July 28, 2017.)
The books written in the last couple decades on the New Testament and the Roman Empire are many. In my bibliography I list nearly a hundred books on the topic. They break down into three main categories. There are books that help us understand what living in the Roman Empire was like. There are those that deal topically, and, generally cover Jesus or Paul in relation to the Empire. The third are those that show the effect of the Empire on the New Testament as a whole or on particular books of the New Testament. I’ll be dealing with each of the three categories. You can find the structure within which I’ll be writing these blogs here.
In this blog I want to focus on the first issue- understanding the Roman Empire itself. It is impossible to understand Jesus or Paul, or, for that matter any Christian of the first two centuries, or the church of the time period, or the New Testament writers without understanding the Roman Empire.
Most of us have grown up with basically a benevolent feeling toward the Roman Empire. The English village I’m currently living in produces a publication of news monthly. As this month is August, they have an explanation for the month’s name. It is on the local parish church’s page, so it gives insight not only for the average English person’s view of the Empire; it also shows how the Empire was ‘helpful’ in early church history.
“August is named after Augustus Caesar…[who] brought peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire…
The extensive network of Roman roads made travel much easier and thus [helped] the spread of Christianity.”
What the explanation leaves out, as Carter will show, is that this benevolent view of the Empire was held by the 2 or 3 percent of the elites who controlled the Empire. For whom was there ‘peace and prosperity’? The roads were built not for ordinary travel; that was incidental. The roads were built to insure that the Roman legions could travel anywhere there was civil unrest by the oppressed 97 percent and squelch it. All most all early Christians were non-elites. The peace of the Roman Empire was at the expense of oppression and exploitation of that 97 percent.
Other sources of the Empire I have read explain the reason for this benevolent view. Those who wrote the histories and understanding of biblical times in the 17th to 19th centuries were academics, both those in Biblical studies and those who were in the field of classics, who were part of the elite of their day and in projecting themselves back, saw the Empire through the eyes of the elite. They were also academics in a time when their countries controlled empires, German, British, etc., and, of course, their empires were a ‘good thing’, bringing peace and prosperity to the benighted natives. It was what we saw through their books that makes us miss what it was really like to live in the time of the Empire. Even one of Rome’s own historians, Tacitus, was more perceptive: “They make a desolation and call it peace”
Interestingly, the epitome of comic cynicism of out time, Monty Python, buy into the benevolent view of Empire. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7tvauOJMHo “What have the Romans ever done for us?” With the sophistication of their humor coming to a great extent because of their first class education at Cambridge University, it is strange to see how they still simply reflect the popular view by perceiving empire as what they might call ‘a good thing’.
For anyone alive in the time, including our religious forebears, the Empire was the ubiquitous oppressive reality. From when they woke up and ate the meager rations that the Empire’s exploitative economics allowed them, to when they went to bed tired by the work the oppressive Empire required of them, the Empire determined the practicalities of their day-to-day living.
In his book “The Roman Empire and the New Testament”, Warren Carter writes: “this book is not about church state relations as that term has conventionally been understood. Books dealing with that topic usually discuss a few passages that refer to rulers and emperors. This book recognizes that Rome’s empire does not disappear or go away when it is not explicitly mentioned. It is always there. It forms the pervasive context of New Testament writings.”
As the focus of this blog posting and the next one is Carter’s book, I should tell a bit about him. Warren Carter was born in New Zealand, did his theological training for the Methodist ministry in Australia, and then did his doctoral work in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Following a period of teaching at St Paul School of Theology, a Methodist institution in Kansas City, he became professor at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, a Disciples of Christ seminary. As such, he is almost a neighbor to Dr Alan Streett, author of the important, nay, critical, book, “Subversive Meals’, who teaches in Dallas. Streett is about the only biblical scholar who sees the relevance of this understanding of empire in the context of Christian gathering and worship in the first two centuries.
If scholars are ranked by the number of books they have produced on the Empire and the New Testament topic, Carter would probably be exceeded only by the prolific Richard Horsley. The books Carter has authored include this book- The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, 2009, and as well these books: John and Empire: Initial Explorations, 2008; Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations, 2001; Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, 2013; The New Testament: Methods and Meanings, 2013; Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World, 2013; What Does Revelation Reveal? Unlocking the Mystery by Warren Carter. 2011.
In addition there are two major books with multiple authors covering a wide number of individual books of Old and New Testament, which I will be subsequently covering in later blogs (In the Shadow of the Empire and Empire in the New Testament). Carter is significant in being the only scholar who has contributed a chapter to each of those two books.
With those kinds of credentials, you might see why it is a book by him that I select for the best understanding of Empire among the number available.
Why is it that the crucial role of the Empire has escaped our recognizing it? Carter says two things contribute toward it.
First: has to do with the relation of religion and politics. Since the Enlightenment we have viewed the two as separate. Its development of the concept of separation of church and state. That concept has values because of problems that had come from centuries of religion and state being fused into one entity. It is epitomized when kings have claimed that their authority came from God. But this fusion of religion and politics had (and has) the effect of kings and clergy enjoying the increase of power that came from it.
The post-Enlightenment separation of the two has had the effect on Christianity of assigning the role of Jesus to the spiritual realm, safely out of the realm of politics. It turns Jesus into a ‘spiritual’ leader whose kingdom is safely kept separate and pure from the realm of politics. Jesus’ message has often been seen as (only) other-worldly, and the purpose of Christianity is thus seen as removing the Christian from this world and aiming him or her toward a post-death heaven. But Carter says, “People got crucified not because they were spiritual, but because they posed a threat to the Roman system.”
Second: because we have not thought of the Roman Empire affecting the New Testament or early Christians, we haven’t bothered to become familiar with it. We know very little about its oppressive and exploitative role on the lives of those of the first couple centuries, especially.
“The texts don’t stop to explain it to us. They don’t spell it out for us. Instead we are expected to supply the relevant knowledge the texts assume, since these folk shared the same world as the authors. But it is difficult for us who read them some two millennia later and in a vastly different world. Without understanding the Roman imperial world, we will find it hard to understand the New Testament texts.”
With the exception of the chapter two, subsequent chapters of the book attempt to give us detailed knowledge of the Empire. That second chapter recognizes that there are different ways to deal with the Empire. It lays out those different ways (between the poles of accommodation and resistance), and then discusses how the different New Testament writers negotiate the empire.
My next blog, in a couple of weeks, “The Roman Imperial System” will go into more detail on what the Roman imperial world looked like. Warren Carter’s work will provide my central focus, but I will include supplementing material from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.
I like dialogue. So if you have any questions or comments, please leave them on my Subversive Church Facebook page, which can be found here.