A closer look at “In the Shadow of Empire”


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.

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