EMPIRE: FOREGROUND OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

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.”
Warren Carter

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 it 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.

WHY EMPIRE SCHOLARSHIP?

SOCIAL LOCATION: The Importance of Recognising Point of View:

In a church group where I was making a presentation about the recent Biblical research on Empire Scholarship, one person raised the question of ‘why’. Why do we have this latest biblical scholarship? What evidence has brought it about?

I’ve read a number of books about Empire Scholarship (or empire critique). I’ve been writing on this subject for the past year and reading about it for much longer. I’ve developed a bibliography of over 100 books produced over the last 25 years that have been written about it. But until his question, I hadn’t found it necessary to answer that ‘why’ question. As a matter of fact, very few of the books on my list deal with it. Maybe only three do. Two of them are books by Adam Winn and Joerg Rieger and are in the Further Reading suggestions below. My third source I can’t remember; I’ll have to put it in later when I find it.

I gave the questioner the usual answer of why scholars have come up with a new approach in looking at the New Testament and the early church. Either some new texts have been found that were written from the first two centuries of the Common Era (C.E.). Or archaeologists have unearthed new material that bears upon that time. Neither of these new material sources were the real reason for the new view. So what has brought about this new approach?

It hasn’t been the uncovering of new material that has brought about the new look at the New Testament. Nor has it been from discovering flaws in the insights of previous Biblical scholars or previous approaches. No, it is something else. It has to do with what scholars call ‘social location’. It is the social location held, in the main, by previous biblical scholars that has come into question.

All people have a social location that is defined by their gender, race, social class, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and geographic location. We cannot escape having a social location. But we can be more or less conscious of our location and how it affects the way we look at our world or a previous one. Here is how a pastor/writer, Brian Zahnd, describes it:

“I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.

I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.”

Biblical scholars and theologians of the 18th to 20th centuries were not aware of their social location. If they were Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, British, French, Dutch, Belgians, or Germans, they were citizens of a country that had colonies in  Asia , Africa, and/or Latin America. They were elites in an empire. But this perspective almost never entered into their writings.

The result is that they saw the Roman Empire in a favorable light. They spoke of the Roman roads which made easier the spread of the Gospel; they saw standardizing of the Greek and Latin languages making communicating the Good News easier across the empire. What they couldn’t empathize with was what it felt like to be at the bottom of the heap in a brutalizing empire.

“Thus the place of privilege held by many interpreters kept them from recognising the primary players in the New Testament for what they actually were, namely, the poor, oppressed, powerless, and dominated people of the Roman Empire. Without recognising the people of the New Testament as a dominated people, there was no real hope of seeing in their writings a critique of the powerful.” (Adam Winn, 2015 page 2)

The social location of Biblical scholars prevented them from recognising the social location of the persons by whom and for whom the New Testament was written, and it therefore made them miss the critique in the New Testament of the oppressive, exploitative Roman Empire from the view of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus had proclaimed. And from the viewpoint of early followers of Jesus who were mostly peasants and slaves of the Roman Empire, not the privileged elite.

According to Rieger. “The problem with empire has to do with forms of top-down control that are established on the back of the empire’s subjects and that do not allow those within its reach to pursue alternative purposes.”

Further, he says, empires are “so overpowering and so pressing that those living under their rule cannot remain neutral. They have no other choice than to develop forms of resistance, however small and insignificant,..”

There are other factors which have contributed to empire scholarship. One of them is a misperception that we share with previous Biblical scholars, differing from those of the first century . We, like early Biblical scholars, tend to see religion and politics as separate arenas. That is because we are post-Enlightenment people. Again, from the same book by Winn:

“Since the New Testament was a religious book and the Western world created a sharp divide between the interests of the state and religion, it was presumed that the New Testament would have little interest in political realities…Thus, by imposing its own dichotomy between religion and state onto the New Testament, the modern Western world was blinded to many ways in which the New Testament might be engaging or responding to Roman imperial realities.”

For Further Reading

Carter, Warren. 2006. The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide. Nashville: Abingdon.

Porter, Stanley E., and Cynthia Long Westfall, eds. 2011. Empire in the New Testament.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Rieger, Joerg  Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, 2007

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

Zahn, Brian My Problem with the Bible, Blog

In my next article I will illustrate how these two factors are found in the New Testament and the early church. If you are interested in being notified when I am posting subsequent writings, you may click the ‘follow’ button either on this blog or, preferably, on my Facebook page, Subversive Church.

Reflections on CAESAR AND THE SACRAMENT

Caesar and Sacrament

 

CAESAR AND THE SACRAMENT- Baptism: A Rite of Resistance
by Alan Streett. (2018)

The major thesis of Streett’s book is that the understanding of baptism in the first century CE is different from its understanding in the twenty-first century. What he implies, but doesn’t spell out in detail, is that returning to the first century understanding would revolutionise today’s church.

This is seen most clearly when we are almost half way through the book. He says that when he is teaching about baptism that his students questions are mostly of a theological nature, such as, “If baptism is required for salvation, doesn’t this mean we are saved by works and not grace?” Street contrasts this theological slant with asking what questions might have been coming from the persons who heard Peter on the Day of Pentecost.

He concludes that Peter’s issues were of a “socio-political versus a theological approach to baptism”. (page 93) “He [Peter] was not teaching about regeneration of the individual, but regeneration of a nation. He was not talking about going to heaven when we die, but about calling his audience to pledge their loyalty to God’s kingdom. Repentance was turning their backs on former alliances. It was the first step of resistance.” Wow! Can you imagine how different your congregation would be if it operated like the first century church? Can you imagine a congregation that sees itself as bound to a loyalty that is clearly subversive of today’s powers that be?

I like Streett’s making a distinction between two ways of seeing baptism. But I think I would phrase it differently from how he does. His dichotomy is between a “socio-political” and a “theological” understanding of baptism. I think both realities are theological. The first is what I would call a socio-political theology. The latter I would call a doctrinal theology. The first is based upon the Faith as a way of life; the latter is based upon the Faith as belief centered.

In his book Streett does lay a firm foundation upon which a subversive church can be built. His gift in this book and his previous “Subversive Meals” is to translate and meld two strands of recent Biblical scholarship so they are more accessible to ministers and congregations.

One strand of the latest biblical historical scholarship emphasises the overwhelming presence of the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the church. I have nearly 100 books in a bibliography I have compiled on the subject that have been written in the last two decades on the effect of the Empire on the early church and the New Testament writings. Warren Carter, author of several books on this topic, writes that the Roman Empire was not the background of the New Testament and the early church. “This book [“The Roman Empire and the New Testament”] is not about ‘Roman backgrounds’ to the New Testament, because it understands Rome’s empire to be the foreground”!

In his forward to Streett’s book, Walter Brueggemann underscores how the issue of the Empire is central in the author’s approach. “While Streett is a very fine reader of texts, he begins his study not with the text, but with context.”

With all the many books covering differing aspects of the Empire’s effect on early followers of Jesus, none of them deals with the place of baptism in this constant interaction between the demands of loyalty to the Empire and the call of God’s Kingdom. This is Streett’s unique contribution, not only to biblical scholarship, but also to the contemporary church’s self-understanding. For any of you who have not yet encountered writings on the omnipresence of the Empire on the daily life of first century followers of The Way, do not fear. Streett covers this topic well in his book.

A key contribution by Streett is in showing how early Christians took over language used by the Empire, but used it in their own way. He shows how the word that was used by the Empire to speak of the oath that their dreaded soldiers pledged to Caesar, sacramentum, was appropriated by the early church. “Just as Roman soldiers pledged their allegiance to Caesar and Empire, so soldiers of the cross vowed their fealty to Christ and his kingdom.” In later times this word, sacrament, would have its use ascribed to other rituals of the church, like the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper.

Because the promises made in baptism were contrary to the use by soldiers and others to Caesar and the Empire, one can see why Streett writes that a socio-political understanding of baptism would be subversive and that taking those vows would be an act of resistance directly opposing the Empire and its values. “The earliest believers in Christ had to find ways to navigate a socio-political system that insisted that Caesar alone was Lord, while maintaining their baptismal/ sacramental loyalty to Jesus as Lord. This was not an easy task.” Again: “Christian baptism was an intensely political act that symbolized one’s death to the present world order and allegiance to the all-encompassing kingdom of God.”

Street’s book doesn’t answer the question of “Where do we see today’s empire that demands our loyalty?” This is a loyalty that is over against our loyalty to Christ and the Empire (Kingdom) about which Jesus was constantly preaching. Streett doesn’t hesitate to infer the need to raise the question. The title of his book is “Caesar and [read versus] the Sacrament”. The subtitle is even clearer: “Baptism: Rite of Resistance”. We must be honest and say he is not the first academic who lays out the biblical and theological aspects of his subject but does not move into the pastoral implications of his insights. I had an email exchange with another academic asking him what were the practical implications of his book, which was on Christian Origins. His response was, in effect, I do the academic stuff and I leave it to others to draw out the implications.

So where do we go from here? How can we use Streett’s insights to move the Church and, more specifically, congregations toward being a subversive church, points of resistance to today’s Empire?  It is not like we begin from scratch. There are already congregations that see themselves as outposts of the Kingdom. The most obvious one I am aware of is Mayflower UCC in Oklahoma City, whose lead minister is Robin Meyers. He has written several books, the most helpful of which is “The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus”

My own modest contribution is that I have begun a Blog and a Facebook page which I call “Subversive Church”.( here and here) My goals are threefold: 1. Identify and archive congregations that presently see themselves as subversive to empire. 2. Identify tools that help congregations understand what it means to be subversive and materials for education toward being a subversive church, beginning with this book by Alan Streett. 3. Explore the issue of where we see Empire today. I solicit your contributions toward these three.

One can’t help but agree with Brueggemann’s conclusion: “The implications of Streett’s work are immense; at the end of Christendom we might recover this ancient act that is a gateway to a more excellent way in the world.”