A (Proposed) Church Manual for Resisting Empire

Four books church manuals

Thanks to those of you who responded to my request for books on practical ministry of the church in a time of empire. Unfortunately, I was too vague to be much help in your being specific. So let me give more specific parameters.

In my request for books on practical ministry of the church in a time of empire, I have discovered that, on the whole, what I am looking for has yet to be written.

I decided to go to the library catalogues on-line to see what I could find. I went first to the Library of Congress and came up with nothing that you or I didn’t already know about. So I tried the British Library. Nada. Harvard Divinity School library. Nope. Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union library. Zip.

Am I looking for what not only doesn’t exist but never will exist? I think the answer is no. My reason for this is if I had been making a search for academic books on “church and New Testament and resistance and empire” 25 years ago there would have been practically none. If you look at the bibliography on my “Subversive Church” blog (https://subversivechurch.blog/bibliography/) you will find well over a hundred books that I have curated so far. If you note their dates of publication, very few existed 25 years ago. They have almost all been written out of the work of biblical scholars since then. If you had, for instance, written a book on Luke and the Roman Empire, it would have been the first one on that subject. The same goes for any of the N T books. Now, if you decided to write about the influence of the empire on Revelation, for instance, you would have to compete with more than a half dozen others completed before your efforts.

Books written to apply recent biblical scholarship to the nature and ministry have always followed after a number of years. These are usually written by pastors who have tried out this new paradigm in their own ministerial setting, and that takes time to happen. So I know I am pushing the envelope. But I’m old and I would like to see this renewal of the church at least begin before I “pop my clogs”, as the British phrase it.

But there are some clerical pioneers who have ventured out into the new century with ideas gained from what we have discovered from the first century followers of Jesus. So let me select some indicators from the four books I have selected by one professor, two ministers and one lay person who are blazing the Way. I shall list the books by publication date. You will note that the oldest of the four is only seven years old.

The Four Books

The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, by Robin R. Meyers  2012
Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions For the Church in a Time of Empire, by Rick Ufford-Chase , Annanda Barclay, et al. 2016
Jesus vs. Caesar: For People Tired of Serving the Wrong God, by Joerg Rieger   2018
Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent, by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli 2018

About the writers/editors

Robin Meyers
Robin is minister of Mayflower United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma where he has served for over 30 years. He is author of seven books and is active in the Jesus Seminar as well of teaching courses on social justice in the philosophy department of Oklahoma City University.

Rick Ufford-Chase
Rick is a lay person in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served as its youngest ever moderator some years ago. He has initiated a number of social justice religious organizations including the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, of which he is executive director. He is also co-director with his wife of Stony Point Center, a conference center of the Presbyterian Church in Stony Point, New York.

JOERG Rieger
Joerg is a German United Methodist. He taught at Perkins School of Theology and is teaching currently at Vanderbilt University. His field is theology as it intersects with current cutting edge social justice issues.

Ginger Gaines-Cirelli
Ginger, another United Methodist, is pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington D C, which is known for being the church of the Clintons and the George W. Bush family, as well as for its involvement in contemporary issues. Sacred Resistance is her first book.

Structure of A Church Manual for Subversive Resistance to Empire

The four books I am highlighting all point toward what I see as the manual the church needs in order to pursue a mission of subversive resistance in a setting of empire. While searching the Library of Congress for such a book, I was impressed with the number of books that have been written to renew the church in different ways and dimensions. There are several thousand of them! Most of them pointed to a need for some kind of spiritual renewal, helping plant new churches, and, God help us, on the Prosperity Gospel.

I have been thinking of what the manual I’m searching for would look like. Here’s my first draft.

I Theoretical/theological dimensions
For the first time in 2000 years of church history and, more particularly, in biblical research, the first century and a half of the church has had light shown upon it. We now have some inkling of what the first meetings of our early forebears looked like, what its structure was, where and when they gathered. That is what I have blogged about with the Dinner Church Movement. But here and for this manual, one needs to focus upon the world those followers of Jesus stepped into when they left their meetings- the world of the oppressive and exploitative Roman Empire. It would have been like the title of Rieger’s book, JESUS vs. CAESAR, Empire vs. Kingdom of God, status quo vs. counter-culture.

II Ecclesial internal dimensions
A The congregation: How does the local church change itself from being an unwitting agent of empire to self-consciously returning its nature and mission to that of the pre-Constantine religious movement of the earliest century? What will its manifesto be (like Meyers spells out in The Underground Church)? (1)

B The new denomination: A Movement of Movements
How will the local church not be overwhelmed with all the issues that come with attempting to subvert empire with kingdom ethics? Ufford-Chase gives us a taste of this variety in his Faithful Resistance, where he touches on such issues as Confronting Empire at the Border, Dismantling White Supremacy, Reimagining Ecological Theology, Learning Nonviolence in a Multifaith World, and Resisting the Seduction of Silence on human rights matters. And these are just a few of the issues ‘out there’.

It seems to me the answer comes in refocussing and restructuring that connectionalism we refer to with the word ‘denomination’. The difference between denominations, which once existed, is no longer the case. My denomination, the United (sic) Methodist Church, is coming apart because our conservatives think that their liberal co-religionists are no longer brothers and sisters. So where do we go to find our connectivity? Perhaps Sacred Resistance shows us the way (sacredresistance.net). Not to ride off in all directions at once, their  Sacred Resistance Ministry team chose three issues (2) to focus on and then looked for movements doing that mission and connected with that movement..

III Missional external dimensions
The last part of the manual would help congregations know about different movements already working on counter-culture issues to connect with. Or it would help them to organize such movements when one does not exist. I’ll flesh Part III out when it is clearer to me.

(1) Manifesto for the Underground Church (from Meyers’ book)

“Those who wish to accept the invitation to join the Underground Church movement can figure out ways to build the Beloved Community in their own time and place, but in particular they will be urged to consider making some or all of the following seven changes in what it means to be truly radical.

1. As often as possible, the Underground Church will celebrate communion by serving an actual meal, before or after the service. It will be provided and served by the members of the community, who bring food and share with all those who come, especially the poor.
2. Membership in the Underground Church is not by “profession of faith” but by the profession of trust in the redemptive power of unconditional love, revealed to the community through the mystery of the incarnation and sustained by that love, not by creeds and doctrines demanding total agreement.
3. Worship styles and music in the Underground Church are to be intentionally diverse, joyful, and meant to bring worshipers into an experience of the divine. Individual communities will decide what music and liturgical forms are most meaningful to them, and the creation of services that reflect both more traditional and less traditional approaches to worship is encouraged. No musical snobs, please.
4. Members of the Underground Church will be committed to mission projects that mark the community off as countercultural and anti-imperial. We will be committed to nonviolence, radical hospitality, collective generosity, and the ministry of encouragement.
5. The Underground Church will give special attention to the stranger, the forgotten, the weak, and the dispossessed. When the Empire marks off certain groups of people as scapegoats or as “enemies,” we will make certain that there is room for them at the table and, if necessary, protect them from persecution.
6. The Underground Church will create its own economic system in the community by requiring a pledge of financial support from all members to support the operation of the church, while encouraging individuals to contribute additional funds to mission projects that they are particularly passionate about. We will not rob Peter to pay Paul; we will pay Peter first so that in the work that truly matters, we can fully fund Paul. We will loan money at no interest and bear one another’s burdens.
7. The Underground Church will seek to work together with all others who share the conviction that it is more important to be loving than to be right. We will not insist that others agree with us on all matters theological—only that we offer each other the benefit of the doubt, mutual respect, and the chance to become the rarest and most precious of all things: a community that declares its loyalty only to love incarnate, not to Caesar.”

(2) Foundry’s three issues for sacred resistance

•opposing governmental actions that tear families apart
and bar entry to this country to immigrants and refugees
solely because of their religious affiliation;

• resisting policies that exploit and destroy natural resources
on the planet we are charged with protecting and
that put short-term economic gain for a few above the
long-term health and survival of the human race; and

• standing up with our voices, our bodies, our money, and
our time to the policies and people who would deny
human rights on the basis of sexual orientation, gender
identity, race, ethnicity, or income level

Do You Know of Any Books?

Here is the outline of the project I am doing. My project’s purpose is first to spell out the current biblical research on the context in which the New Testament is written and the early church begins. Until this research we knew very little about the first two centuries. Part I attempts to help us see the Roman Empire, as Warren Carter puts it, not as just a neutral background but as an ever present foreground.

Part II is a look back at the New Testament as we perceive it anew in an empire context. Part III is an excursus into history where we discover that humans have virtually always lived in the context of one empire or another. Finally, Part IV asks how the church, which has been entwined with empire since Constantine, can free itself from this and return to its mission of being an outpost of God’s kingdom in its empire context.

I Context: Bible and Church in Empire
    A Caesar and his Empire of Rome
         1 Imperial Religion
             a Biographies of Augustus
             b Imperial Religion
             c Histories
        2 Biblical Scholarship on Empire
   B Jesus and his Kingdom of God
II Text: New Testament in the Empire Setting
   A General
   B Specific book(s) of the New Testament
III Empire in history and today
IV Empire context implications for the church today

V Supplementary issues
    A Jesus and the Empire
    B Paul and the Empire
    C Methodology
    D The Powers

“I would like you to do us a favor, though…”

There are more gaps still to be written about the first three parts. But for the moment, I want to ask you help me begin Part IV. Do you know any books that attempt to apply what I term ‘subversive to empire’ principles to the nature and mission of today’s church. If you do, would you go to my Facebook page on Subversive Church (https://www.facebook.com/ChurchSubversive/) and put that information in a comment under this post there? Many thanks, Bud.

IV) Applying Subversive-to-Empire principles in Contemporary Church  bibliography (ones I’m aware of so far)

Books are in order of publishing dates.

Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide, Brian McLaren  2009

The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, Robin Meyers 2012

The Fall of the Church: Roger Haydon Mitchell 2013

Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire, Rick Ufford-Chase 2016

The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating Apostolic Movements, Alan Hirsch 2006, 2016

Underground Church: A Living Example of the Church in Its Most Potent Form, Brian Sanders and Alan Hirsch 2018

Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh  2019

Theo-Biblical Reflections on Important Issues from the Margins: Black Lives Matter, Incarceration, & Resistance to Empire, Tyree Anderson, and Kurt Clark  2019

Subversive Catholicism: Papacy, Liturgy, Church, Martin Mosbach  2019

Resisting Empire in Hebrews: An Interview with Jason Whitlark

(This interview is found at theLAB and the interviewer is Tavis Bohlinger. The book is Resisting Empire: Rethinking the Purpose of the Letter to “the Hebrews”)

TB: What is the question you are seeking to answer about Hebrews in Resisting Empire (RE)?

JW: I was attempting to understand the social context that explained the causes of the community’s suffering for its Christian confession. Moreover, how then does Hebrews address the need for perseverance and resist the attractive alternative that would cause members of the community to give up their commitment and identification with God and his Son through their involvement with other Christ‐followers?

Imperial critical studies have made us aware of the pervasive presence of empire in the lives of Christ‐followers as the gospel message spread throughout the Roman Empire. These studies have also made us aware that resistance to empire takes place along a spectrum with open violent rebellion being just one extreme end of that spectrum. Other strategies by Christians might include redeploying imperial messages that assert the supremacy of God and his Son over against the claims of Rome. Hebrews addresses community suffering that, in part, arises from Roman imperial pressures. I was interested in the ways that Hebrews attempts to address and resist these pressures.

TB: At the time of publication of your book, you mentioned that Hebrews had been mostly ignored in the wave of Imperial resistance studies of the New Testament. Now five years later, would you say that is still the case?

JW: Scholarship on Hebrews has seen a renewed emphasis on the purpose of Hebrews to address suffering and persecution of the community addressed by the sermon. Yet exploration of the Roman Imperial context and resistance to it in Hebrews still remains an underexplored avenue in scholarship on Hebrews.

TB: I found your discussion of method particularly interesting, in that you take a cue from Charles Talbert’s proposed “reading with the authorial audience.” What does that phrase mean in practice, and is it actually possible given the historical gap between the ancient audience and modern‐day readers?

JW: The method employed in my book is an attempt to lessen the historical gap between the modern readers and the original audience of Hebrews. The authorial audience is the audience that the author anticipated would receive his communication. This audience is constructed from considering the larger historical and social contexts of the audience. We can construct this audience from consideration of both relevant textual and material culture. Constructing this audience sensitizes us to the ways such an audience would have heard a text like Hebrews. The audience of Hebrews experienced its Christian commitment in the first‐century world that was ruled by Rome. I attempted to make a reasonable case for locating the audience in the imperial capital post‐70 CE, though not all my arguments depend upon this since Roman rule and propaganda extended beyond the confines of the capital city. Thus, any study of Hebrews should take into account the rule of Rome when thinking about how the audience, anticipated by the author of Hebrews, would have received his “word of exhortation.”

TB: What are “rhetorical expectations,” and how do those factor into your argument regarding Hebrews?

JW: Besides the Roman Imperial context of the audience, that audience was also part of a world where rhetoric was central to public life. It was central to education. There was an extensive and dynamic classical rhetorical tradition in the Greco‐Roman world. This tradition gives us a very helpful meta‐discourse on how one would write and speak in particular situations. It helps us to understand what an audience might anticipate when hearing a speech. What kinds of topics would the author use to make his or her arguments? How might the author arrange his or her discourse? In the case of this book, how might an author be expected to critique authorities, especially absolutizing authority? Rhetorical studies have been fruitfully applied to Hebrews demonstrating the author’s rhetorical sophistication. This study looks at an overlooked—but commonly practiced—aspect of ancient rhetoric, namely, figured speech/critique.

TB: Finally, what is the greatest impact you could imagine your book having on the church today and into the future, both in regards to its understanding of Hebrews and the lessons therein?

Hebrews is a majestic and disturbing Christian speech that calls its audience to perseverance in its Christian identity amidst powerful counter-narratives and varying levels of pressure to quit the community, whether that is shaming, confiscation of property, imprisonment, torture, or threat of death. Hebrews takes those pressures head-on by both putting forward the better cosmic hope the audience has in Jesus and strongly warning them against abandonment of that hope. He calls the community to watch over one another and to continue to love one another with good deeds.

By putting Hebrews in dialogue with Roman imperialism, I think Western Christians can be better sensitized to a covenant faithfulness that does not worship the powers of this age. Also, many Christians throughout the world continue to deal with the kinds of “imperial” pressures (shame, confiscation, imprisonment, torture, death) that the audience of Hebrews experienced. While Hebrews still calls them today to faithfulness that looks to Jesus Christ as the author and perfecter of faith, it calls us to weigh our own allegiance and commitment to the hope God gives us in Christ. Moreover, it calls to us to prayer for and solidarity with those Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering in some of the same ways as the audience of Hebrews.

Whitlark’s book, Resisting Empire, is part of the 29-volume T&T Clark LNTS (2016) series, which can currently be bid on Pre-Pub, only on Logos.

Crossan: I Empire and the Barbarism of Civilization

Along with Richard Horsley and Warren Carter, John Dominic Crossan is one of the major thinkers contributing to Empire Scholarship. (For more information on him including videos of lectures, see the listing for him in my blog, Net Prophets.)

I will be posting several blogs which will be based on his “God and Empire”. However, there are two more of his books which are relevant to the issue of empire in the bibliography of my Subversive Church blog.

The first chapter of Crossan’s book raises the question: “Since the Old Roman Empire crucified our Lord Jesus Christ, how can we be his faithful followers in America as the New Roman Empire?”

My answer to his question is the reason for this project I’m working on: Subversive Church. However we decide among the choices for what writers refer to as “Empire” today- the American Empire  (J D Crossan), global capitalism (David Korten), multi-national corporations/fossil-fuel industry (Naomi Klein), the Totalism (Walter Brueggemann), the predator class (my daughter, Mary), the response of the church needs to be resistance to whatever power that would currently dominate us. What would be your choice? The Church’s alternative to empire is, of course, provided by Jesus’ central message, the Kingdom of God.

Under that question, Crossan raises others: What is the relationship of empire to civilization? Is there a civilisation where there is not also empire? If empire is normative does this mean that it is inevitable? Does our human nature require empire?

To help answer these questions Crossan turns to two authors to assist him. The first, Michael Mann, is to help Crossan understand the nature of power; the second, Ronald Wright, is to help him understand the nature of civilization.

Michael Mann, Professor of Sociology at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, has written a four-volume study on The Sources of Social Power. The first volume, “A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760”, is Crossan’s main source. In it, Mann looks at power first in prehistoric peoples where it does not reside permanently in any person or institution but is taken back when a threat to the tribe desists. (In the Old Testament, the period of Judges typifies this.) From there he moves to look at empires from the earliest in Mesopotamia to those at the time of the Industrial Revolution (1760) in his first volume.

Within the book’s 16 chapters, the Roman Empire is found in the center of the book. Mann refers to it as “one of the most successful conquering states in all history, but it was the most successful retainer of conquests.” It was the first empire to impress its power over the all the territories it conquered for an extensive period of time.

Mann has distinguished four types of power that, together constitute the sources of power in human society They are:

1 military power, the monopoly or control of force and violence;

2 economic power, the monopoly or control of labor and production;

3 political power, the monopoly or control of organization and institution; and 

4 ideological power, the monopoly or control of interpretation and meaning.

It might be helpful knowing that sociologists commonly refer to the latter three as the sources of social power. Mann’s particular contribution is in removing military power from political power and giving it an equality with the other three. In an empire, military power is used to conquer new territory, but then it serves also to prevent internal questioning of the empire’s right to continuing domination of the political and economic spheres. The ideological power provides a softer form of persuasion, that those who rule have a divine mandate to do so. Crossan comments, “Think of it as persuasive advertising accepted very swiftly by all sides.”

Crossan has one major disagreement with Mann’s analysis of social power. “Since there is always a military component to power for Mann, he presumes a basis of force and violence—that is, of power-as-violent. He never considers nonviolent power—the power not of force and violence but of persuasion and attraction. I always find power ambiguous until it becomes clear whether we are dealing with the violent power of domination or the nonviolent power of persuasion. “Throughout the rest of this book, I probe that second mode of power.”

The distinction is significant for us as Crossan creates a space for the contribution of Jesus: non-violent persuasion. Jesus (and his followers) do not oppose the empire with military, political, or economic power. Jesus before Pilate says, ““My kingdom, is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36 KJV).

Crossan comments, “I emphasize that contrast between Pilate’s Kingdom of Rome as violent repression and Jesus’s Kingdom of God as nonviolent resistance because that juxtaposition is the heart of this book.”

This underscores for me the essential nature of non-violence and non-violent resistance for followers of Jesus. It is not just an option in the toolbox of social methods for Christians. There is never a justification for people of the Kingdom of God to use violence. It is not just that violence doesn’t work, as Walter Wink points out in his “Myth of Redemptive Violence”. Like oil and water, there is no mixing of love with violence in God’s world. Period.

Perhaps you may recall that Crossan provided a chapter for “In the Shadow of Empire” and he was asked to cover the Roman Imperial Theology. Here he tells us two reasons for emphasizing ideological power among the four.

“First, Rome spoke of itself in transcendental terms as an empire divinely mandated to rule without limits of time or place. It did not simply proclaim dominion around the Mediterranean Sea. It announced world conquest, global rule, and eternal sovereignty.

Second, when Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, and John of Patmos came against the Roman Empire, they did so not with military, economic, or political power but exclusively with ideological power.”

This  is a good point to end my investigation of Crossan’s chapter. He continues by  talking about the intricate relationship of empire to civilisation. But I will deal with that at a later time. The reason for stopping after covering Crossan’s explication of the social sources of power will become evident in my next blog post, The Church and Resistance.

A closer look at “In the Shadow of Empire”


In the Shadow of Empire, edited by Richard Horsley provides the best book to begin an investigation of the Roman Empire in it’s relation to Scripture. In my previous post I reviewed ‘Shadow’ along with the two other like books, Empire in the New Testament and Introduction to Empire in the New Testament.

Why do I consider it the best of the three?

First, it covers the whole of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. It shows how empire was a constant presence through the course of Biblical history, influencing the lives of not only the writers of the biblical books but also the faithful through the many years that the biblical record covers. The book’s title reminds us that there was always an empire the people of faith had to deal with as they tried to live lives of faith. The metaphor of ‘shadow’ reminds us of the continued pervasiveness of the power and demand of the empire’s political, economic, military, and religious realities.

There was always the shadow of some empire standing between them and God, blocking out the light of the Lord, so they needed to be reminded who was the true light and true power of the universe.

Second, this book is significant in its coverage of a swath of the Bible and in its selection of a significant number of the writers well versed in empire scholarship who cover this new form of biblical criticism. It consists of an introduction and nine chapters.

I believe the subtitle of the book: “Reclaiming the Bible as a history of faithful resistance,” points us toward the role the church needs to play in the 21st century.

Introduction: The Bible and Empires by Richard A. Horsley

Richard Horsley, professor of the study of religion at the University of Massachusetts, has been an early and most prolific writer in the field of relating the Bible to the effect of Empire on the biblical peoples and its writers. He sets the stage for the rest of the book by relating how both the Bible and the idea of America as empire have been central issues to American history from the time of the first settlers until the present day.

1 Early Israel as an Anti-Imperial Community by Norman K Gottwald

Norman Gottwald is the author of a controversial theory concerning the beginnings of Israel. He dismisses the biblical account of a massive exodus of former slaves from Egypt. Instead he posits that Israel arose out of a peasant revolution within Canaan between 1250 and 1050 BCE. In his own words, “Early Israel was born as an anti-imperial resistance movement that broke away from Egyptian and Canaanite domination to become a self-governing community of free peasants.”

I think this is one of the weaker chapters in the book. Though his theory is clearly controversial when it was proposed in the 1970s in his monumental “The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250-1050 B.C.E”, its critique was made at the zenith of the historical critical approach.

2 Faith in the Empire by Walter Brueggemann 

Walter Brueggemann is the major voice in Old Testament in our time. He is the author of over 70 books. In this chapter he reminds us that Israel lived under a succession of ambitious empires which threatened its existence. He spells these out: when it wasn’t the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, it was the memory of slavery under the Egyptians and even oppression under their own Hebrew kings, from David and Solomon on. There was another voice against what he calls the ‘dominant narrative’ of empire power. This was the voice of the prophets who continuously reminded the leaders and the people that they had made covenant with God (YHWH) to be his people and follow his commands for justice and equity.

Applying this to the present day he says: “In the long history of the United States, there has been a much-too-easy equation of “the American dream” and the promises of gospel faith, and they are presently equated in much current religious talk.” The church, he says, must rethink its life in and amidst empire. 1 It must rethink its identity through remembering who it is and Whose it is. 2 It must develop disciplines that help it to stand apart from the empire and not be co-opted. 3 “The church, as a community that stands apart from and over against empire, must recover its public voice that attests to an alternative rule in the world.”

3 Resistance and Accommodation in the Persian Empire by Jon L. Berquist

In my first reading of this book, I passed by this chapter thinking it had less to offer. However, in eventually reading it, I discovered a gap which is in my understanding of the Old Testament and the history of the Jewish religion and Jewish people. This gap is found in other clergy. In our study of the Scriptures we learned about the Hebrew people and how they became the Israelites and we read about the Jews at the time of Jesus.

That gap included the time of the Persian Empire and its affect on the Jews and their religion, the so-called Judaism of the Second Temple. That is a great gap and includes the changes to Judaism over the years in Exile. Before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, their religion was centered in the temple worship, led by the Temple priesthood. During the Exile they began developing their Scripture, certainly the first five books, the Torah, was produced.

But one startling fact was that the period of time that the Jews were under the thumb of the Persian Empire was almost 300 years and the Second Temple, its rebuilding encouraged and to an extent underwritten by that empire, lasted nearly 600 years. Differing from the controlling empires before and after them, the Persians did not require their Jewish subjects to adopt the language, culture, or religion of their Persian overlords.

4 Roman Imperial Theology by John Dominic Crossan

Dom Crossan was the second writer where I encountered the perspective of reading the New Testament through the eyes of Empire, Alan Streett’s Subversive Meals being the first. Crossan’s book, God and Empire is particularly significant in its stressing the empire as a religious alternative to the message both of Jesus and Paul. I will be posting a blog about God and Empire in due time.

“What was most novel in the Roman attitude to their empire was the belief that it was universal and willed by the gods.”

His chapter centers then, not on Roman civilization or mythology, and not even on Roman religion but on Roman ideology. “I understand Roman imperial theology as the ideological glue that held Roman civilization together.” We see this first in terms that are used in reference to Augustus: Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. “When those titles were taken from him, the Roman emperor, and given to a Jewish peasant, it was a case of either low lampoon or high treason.”

No wonder that Jesus was seen as such a great threat to the Roman empire that crucifixion was all but inevitable. Which leads us to Horsley’s chapter.

5 Jesus and Empire by Richard A. Horsley

The prevailing view has been, says Horsley, that Jesus’ crucifixion must have been a mistake. After all, it says that Jesus was really innocent of the charges of being a threat to the Empire. Didn’t he say pay taxes to Caesar? Didn’t he advocate turning the other cheek and loving your enemy? Didn’t Jesus teach a religious message, not a political one?

All of these, says Horsley, are based on our modern conception that religion and state are separate. But if the emperor was divine as well as the head of the empire, and if the ‘chief priests and temple authorities’ were local enforcers for the empire as well as religious leaders, then our fine modern distinctions make no sense for understanding the early centuries. Every action and saying within the empire were seen as having both religious and political implications and were therefore scrutinized by the empire.

Jesus’ opposition is most clearly seen in his choice  of the term ‘kingdom of God’ for his central message. If God is king, Caesar is not, if Caesar is ruler, God is not. “No man can serve two masters.”

“Forty years ago the question of Jesus’ opposition to Roman rule was couched in simplistic terms: if Jesus did not lead or advocate overt forcible rebellion against Rome, he must have been politically quiescent. We now recognize that resistance can take forms other than insurrection…In the earliest Gospel sources Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God means not just the renewal of Israel, but also the renewal of Israel in opposition to the rulers.”

6 The Apostle Paul and Empire by Neil Elliott 

Age of Empire: “Since the 1990s, interpreters have increasingly sought to understand the apostle Paul in the context of Roman imperial culture. This surge in interest is part of a new awareness of the role of empire in biblical studies generally, of which this volume is one expression. Increased attentiveness to the dynamics of empire is not simply the latest academic fashion, however. We have seen a wave of decolonization movements throughout the world in the 1960s and 1970s; the emergence of the United States as an unrivaled superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s; and the exertion by the United States of its great military, economic, and political power throughout the world up to the present day.”

“Taking empire seriously also requires examining how contemporary imperial ideology shapes our perceptions of the interpretative task itself. We must ask to what extent the inexorable logic of global capitalism, designed in the United States and enforced by its military power, determines the priorities of churches. Sociologists of religion call attention to the “production of the sacred” as a market-tailored commodity for consumption. If we ask where and in what ways Paul’s letters are “consumed” today, the answer must include air-conditioned, big-screen suburban mega-churches, comfortable espresso-lounge bookstores, and hushed academic libraries.” 

“We must note the tremendous cultural distance between the small “tenement churches” that Paul gathered and prosperous congregations meeting today in large, expensive buildings. The Corinthian assembly was made up of “not many” who were powerful or nobly born; they were rather the “low and despised in the world” (1 Cor. 1:26-29). Paul called for mutualism, the ground-level sharing of resources, as “a matter of equality,” where the abundance of some served the needs of others (2 Cor. 8:13-14 RSV). He insisted that the replication of status divisions within the congregation, and the scandalous persistence of hunger among the assembly, disqualified their meals from being “really” the Lord’s Supper We gain one measure of the distance between those first congregations and propertied churches in the global North today by asking whether the observance of the Lord’s Supper, as Paul understood it, is even a contemporary possibility.”

7 Matthew Negotiates the Roman Empire by Warren Carter 

“Matthew’s Gospel portrays the Roman imperial order as standing under divine condemnation. In the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings, as well as in his actions, Matthew’s Jesus outlines practices for an alternative society that his followers are to enact.”

But, says Carter, because of the strong control the empire imposes on its subjects, Jesus’ followers needed “to be self-protective as they negotiate the imperial environment.”

This Gospel is filled with examples of the presence of the power of Rome. At Jesus’ birth Herod, agent of Rome in Palestine, displays his power to dominate in the act of killing the intent children to eliminate a possible future rival. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Antipas uses his Rome given power to rid himself of the gadfly, John the Baptist. During his ministry, Jesus is seen as a threat by the Temple leaders, who act on behalf of Rome for collecting taxes and preventing any sign of revolt. And, of course, at the end of Jesus’ ministry he is brought before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and condemned to die in the way they used for political threats, crucifixion.

The Empire is exploitative as well. Carter estimates that “2 to 3 percent of the empire’s population consumed some 65 percent of its production.” All the rest lived near or on the margin. Hunger and sickness was the lot of the common people and slaves. Hence, it is instructive that feeding and healing were at the centre of Jesus’ ministry.

“Matthew’s Gospel, then, offers Jesus’ followers various strategies for negotiating the elite-dominated sociopolitical Roman imperial order”.

8 Acts of the Apostles: Pro(to)-Imperial Script and Hidden Transcript by Brigitte Kahl 

Luke’s Acts of the Apostles has been for centuries the go-to source for the history of the early Church. It has also been, in effect, our source for what little biographical understanding we have of Paul. But biblical scholars have long been aware of inconsistencies between Luke’s picture of Paul and the picture we get of him from his epistles.

Interestingly, Brigitte Kahl has covered both sides of this. In “Shadow”, she has been chosen to cover the chapter on Acts. She has also written a book on Galatians, which will be the subject of a coming blog post.

The two biblical sources differ on matters such as whether Paul is an Apostle (Paul says he is; Acts never uses that term for him.) Also they differ on what the Jerusalem Council agreed concerning Paul’s mission to the gentiles. But Acts also portrays Paul as a Roman citizen. “His [Luke’s] narrative of Paul’s so-called “Gentile mission,” for example, presents a picture of Paul conforming closely to the Roman imperial order”. “There … seems to be a puzzling ambiguity in Luke’s attitude toward the imperial order.”

Kahl proceeds to explore Luke’s ambiguity through an ‘empire-critical lens’. “We begin with the historical context of Acts in the Empire following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. We then look briefly at some of the literary settings Luke creates to reconcile the pre-70 narrative world of his protagonists, mainly Paul, with the new realities after 70. Finally we consider reading strategies that might help unearth the “hidden transcripts” behind Luke’s pro (or proto)-imperial “script.””

Luke’s portrait of the nascent Christian movement and its expansion among the non-Judean peoples under Roman rule became the foundational document of a pro-empire reading of Paul and the New Testament as a whole. The accommodation to empire articulated in Acts was strongly reinforced three centuries after Luke when the Christian message had finally reached Caesar’s throne, as envisioned in Acts 25:12, and the emperor Constantine converted. Still today the dominant view of Paul comes through the Lukan portrait. Acts thus remains a major stumbling block for those who would be more critical of the Roman Empire in their reading of the New Testament, especially of Paul’s letters. Is there a way to read Acts differently, more subtly? Is Acts more complex and ambiguous in its impact on subsequent history? The rest of her article is concerned with showing there is.

9 The Book of Revelation as Counter-Imperial Script by Greg Carey

Differing from the preceding ones, I didn’t find this chapter too helpful. There was too much space spent on explaining and too little on interpreting. “Empire in the New Testament” covers Revelation along with Hebrews and the General Epistles in a chapter they call “Running the Gamut: The Varied Responses to Empire in Jewish Christianity”. Maybe they felt it was better not handled on its own.

On the positive side, among the many words Carey points out that “Revelation is the most explicitly counter-imperial book in the New Testament. It pronounces God’s condemnation of Rome and its empire and looks for the future establishment of a new society in the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. It calls in the meantime for faithful endurance of persecution by the forces of empire, anticipating that it may lead to martyrdom.

There are seven books on Revelation’s relation to empire in my bibliography. I would suggest reading either Warren Carter’s 2011 book or Howard-Brook and Gwyther’s 2013 one.

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

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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.