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.


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
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

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.



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.


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 (that is, McKnight and Modica) 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,


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:


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:


(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.

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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.”


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.”


“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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.”