SNAPSHOT OF: “The Roman Empire and the New Testament” W. Carter

SNAPSHOT OF: “The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide,  Warren Carter  2009

From publisher:

An indispensable introduction to Roman society, culture, law, politics, religion, and daily life as they relate to the study of the New Testament. The Roman Empire formed the central context in which the New Testament was written. Anyone who wishes to understand the New Testament texts must become familiar with the political, economic, societal, cultural, and religious aspects of Roman rule. Much of the New Testament deals with enabling its readers to negotiate, in an array of different manners, this pervasive imperial context. This book will help the reader see how social structures and daily practices in the Roman world illumine so much of the content of the New Testament message. For example, to grasp what Paul was saying about food offered to idols one must understand that temples in the Roman world were not “churches,” and that they functioned as political, economic, and gastronomic centers, whose religious dealings were embedded within these other functions.Brief in presentation yet broad in scope, Roman Backgrounds to the New Testament will introduce students to the information and ideas essential to coming to grips with the world in which early Christianity was born.

Table of Contents

1 The Roman Imperial world

2 Evaluating Rome’s Empire (through texts)

3 Ruling faces of the Empire

4 Spaces of the Empire: urban and rural

5 Temples and religious/political personnel

6 Imperial theology: a clash of theological and social claims

7  Economics food and health

8 Further dynamics of resistance


The early Xn were politically powerless and economically oppressed.

At first glance, most of what the N T deals with does not seem to refer to the Roman Empire.

Throughout this book two issues will concern us.

The first involves recognizing that the New Testament texts assume and engage Rome’s world in every chapter. Even when the New Testament texts seem to us to be silent about Rome’s empire, it is, nevertheless, ever present.

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.

And second, we will see that New Testament writers evaluate and engage Rome’s empire in different ways.

At least two factors hide this Roman imperial world from us as twenty-first-century readers.

The first factor concerns the relationship between religion and politics. We often think of religion and politics as separate and distinct. Religion is personal, individual, private.

The second factor recognizes that as twenty-first-century readers, we often lack knowledge of Rome’s imperial world.

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. Ex: fishing part of Roman economy and taxation.

It is reasonable to expect first-century folk to supply the information that 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.

As a first step toward gaining some of this assumed knowledge,

I will sketch the structure of the Roman Empire.

In the next chapter, I will describe some of the ways that the New Testament texts evaluate Rome’s empire. In subsequent chapters I will elaborate specific aspects of Rome’s world and ways in which the New Testament writers negotiate it.

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.

The empire was very hierarchical, with vast disparities of power and wealth. For the small ruling elite, 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.

The Roman Empire was an hierarchical empire. This term means that a small elite of about 2 to 3 percent of the population ruled. They shaped the social experience of the empire’s inhabitants, determined the “quality” of life, exercised power, controlled wealth, and enjoyed high status.

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 of its production.

Pyramid from Kuhn: “The Kingdom According to Luke and Acts”

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.

In addition, the elite controlled various forms of communication or “media,” such as the designs of coins, the building of monuments, and construction of various buildings. (What we today would call Propaganda)

It is this hierarchy and control that Jesus describes negatively, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Matt. 20: 25).

“coercive diplomacy” (the presence of the legions throughout the empire and the threat of military action) ensured submission and cooperation.

Elite Alliances

Emperors ruled in relationship with the elite, both in Rome and in the provinces’ leading cities. Rome made alliances with client kings, like King Herod, who ruled with Rome’s permission and promoted Rome’s interests. The elite, with wealth from land and trade, provided the personnel that filled various civic and military positions throughout the empire, such as provincial governors, magistrates and officials, and members of local city councils. These positions maintained the empire’s order and hierarchical structure that benefited the elite so much.

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.

The gods’ continuing sanction for emperors was both recognized and sought in what is known as the imperial cult, which was celebrated throughout the empire. The “imperial cult” refers to a vast array of temples, images, rituals, personnel, and theological claims that honored the emperor.

Elite Values

With the emperor, members of the elites created, maintained, and exercised power, wealth, and prestige through crucial roles: warrior, tax collector, administrator, patron, judge, priest.

Elites exhibited contempt for productive and manual labor. Elites did not perform manual labor but they depended on and benefited from the work of others such as peasant farmers and artisans. Slaves were an integral part of the Roman system.

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. Most non-elite adults died by age thirty or forty. Elite life spans were longer. Urban life for non-elites was crowded, dirty, smelly, and subject to numerous dangers.

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.

How did non-elites negotiate this world? One practical approach was to cooperate with deferential and submissive behavior.

whenever dominating power is asserted, there is resistance. Fed by anger and resentment, this resistance can take various forms.

Occasionally it comprises violent revolt such as the revolt in Judea against Rome in 66-70 CE. Usually, though, such revolts were quickly and harshly crushed. The absence of violent revolt, however, does not mean the absence of protest. Sometimes protests took more public forms such as pilfering elite property, evading taxes, working slowly, refusing to work at all, or attacking a symbol of domination. More often, since direct confrontations that are violent or defiant provoke harsh retaliation, protests among dominated groups are hidden or “offstage.” Apparently compliant behavior can be ambiguous. It can mask and conceal nonviolent acts of protest.

It may employ coded talk with secret messages of freedom (” the reign of God”) or “double-talk” that seems to submit to elites (” Pay to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”) but contains, for those with ears to hear, a subversive message (” and to God the things that are God’s”).

It may create communities that affirm practices and social interactions that differ from domination patterns.

This web of protest has been called a “hidden transcript.” (from James C Scott)

The New Testament writings can, in part, be thought of as “hidden transcripts.” They are not public writings targeted to the elite or addressed to any person who wants to read them. They are written from and for communities of followers of Jesus crucified by the empire. The New Testament writings assist followers of Jesus in negotiating Rome’s world. Because of their commitment to Jesus’ teaching and actions, they frequently dissent from Rome’s way of organizing society. Often, though not always, they seek to shape alternative ways of being human and participating in human community that reflect God’s purposes.

More notes

Warren Carter summarizes his first chapter in this way:

“In chapter 1, I described the hierarchical structure of the Roman Empire, which benefited the ruling elite at the expense of the nonelite. I also identified a number of ways in which this elite secured and enhanced its power, status, and wealth:

1. Political office. Elites controlled all political office, including civic and military positions, for their own benefit, not for the common good.

2. Land ownership. Elites controlled large areas of land. Land was basic for wealth. Elites also participated in trade by sea and land.

3. Cheap labor, whether slaves, day laborers, artisans, or peasant farmers, produced goods largely for elite consumption.

4. Taxes, tributes, and rents, usually paid in goods (and not by check or credit card), literally transferred wealth from the nonelite to the elite.

5. Military power gained territory, extended domination, and enforced compliance. Its rumored efficiency or brutality deterred revolts.”

He then elucidates five other ways the system benefitted the elite: Patron-client relations, Imperial theology, Rhetoric, Legal systems, and Cities controlling the countryside.

Carter’s second chapter is helpful for those who say: “If the Roman Empire is significant for the New Testament writers and readers, why do I find so little reference to empire when I read my Bible?”

Confrontation with empire did not begin with the Romans. Prior to this, the Hebrew people were under the thumb of one empire after another: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek. That is not even counting the Egyptians early on. They were under subjugation for most of their history, including their own kings, if you read 1 Samuel 8. So, much of the Hebrew Scriptures deals with subjugation. This is most clearly seen in the books of Daniel and Enoch.

“In chapter 2, I described five different ways in which New Testament texts evaluated Rome’s world:”

1. Under the devil’s control;

2. Under God’s judgment;

3. Needing transformation;

4. Shaping alternative communities and alternative practices;

5. To be submitted to and honored.

The hierarchical social interactions and exploitative structures of the Roman Empire fostered social resentment, anger, and hostility. There were no democratic processes of reform. Instead, New Testament writers offer, as we have seen, various ways of negotiating Rome’s empire. We have analyzed this diverse negotiation as it involves

the empire’s hierarchical structure (chapter 1);

different evaluations of the empire (chapter 2);

ruling faces of the empire (chapter 3);

places of the empire, including city, countryside, and temples (chapters 4-5);

imperial theology (chapter 6);

economics, food, and sickness and healing (chapter 7).

This concluding chapter looks further at some dynamics involved in resisting Rome’s rule. In this chapter I will discuss three expressions of resistance:

imagining Rome’s violent overthrow,

employing disguised and ambiguous protest,

and using flattery.


Here I will make six brief comments as a small contribution toward much more extensive conversation and inquiry. I readily recognize that the issues are much more complex and need much more attention than my all-too-brief remarks here.

1. The New Testament Is a Very Political Document “Our discussion of numerous New Testament texts shows how deeply intertwined are matters of religion and politics. We cannot dismiss the questions of how we live in a world of empire. We cannot ignore these questions by claiming that following Jesus concerns religion, not politics.”

2. Negotiating Empires Is Complicated

“If we want a single formula to fit all situations, we won’t find it in the New Testament… These writings from early Christians show how difficult it is to live in/ with/ under/ against empires. My choice of four prepositions in this last sentence alone hints at the diverse negotiation that is needed to be faithful. The difficulty with empire arises in part because empires often make totalizing claims. They claim to exert complete sovereignty. They claim unrivaled power. They claim to know best. They have the means to accomplish their will regardless of what anyone else thinks. They demand allegiance. They sanction their actions with religious talk (” God bless America”). They cannot tolerate dissent.”

3. Unquestioning Submission Is Not the Bible’s Only Way

4. Constant Opposition Is Not the Bible’s Only Way

5. Active Nonviolence, Not Violence

“But the absence of violence does not mean the absence of dissent and opposition. The third way comprises active, nonviolent, calculated interventions that reverse the destructive impact of empire. These emphases raise huge questions about the use of military violence in our contemporary world as an instrument of empire.”

6. Alternative Worldviews and Communities

“Perhaps this element forms the most frequent recurring theme throughout this study of the New Testament texts. The New Testament writers offer followers of Jesus an alternative understanding of the world as belonging not to an empire or political party or system, but as belonging to God.”

“They challenge and invite and shape Christian communities to become places that embody God’s purposes and that embody an alternative way of being human in the midst of the empire. These strategies of reconceptualization and of alternative social experiences and relationships result, in part, from the early Christians not having any access to power and no opportunity to make systemic changes.”

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