King Jesus v. the Emperor: a book review

The influence of post-colonial approaches to biblical hermeneutics and other recent scholarship has meant that the New Testament has been read with an eye  towards its sociopolitical implications. Modern authors as diverse as Warren Carter, John Dominic Crossan, Richard Horsley, and N.T. Wright have observed that declaring that Jesus was the Son of God and Lord in a first century Roman context, offered an implicit critique of the emperor. If Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not.

Jesus is Lord Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B Modica

While these readings have been insightful and instructive, Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica have gathered a team of scholars who offer a chastened view of the empire-critical approach.  All of the essays in Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not acknowledge that the Lordship of Christ would cause some degree of enmity with Imperial Rome.  So nowhere do the authors of this book suggest that there are not political implications to believing the gospel; yet they do point out  where the contemporary case against the emperor, waged in the academy, goes beyond the bounds of the New Testament witness.  An exclusively political reading of the Bible obscures other dimensions of the gospel proclamation.

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not divides into ten chapters. The forward, introduction and first couple of chapters look at the broad theme of empire and the New Testament. The remaining chapters examine various New Testament books assessing what they say (and do not say) about empire and recent literature. Andy Crouch‘s forward teases out some of the implications of this study and sums up its insights. After a brief introduction by McKnight and Modica, David  Nystrom opens the book with a look at the Roman imperial cult and ideology.   Nystrom is a specialist in Roman History and examines how the Emperor used the imperial cult to consolidate his power and  re-enforced  the ‘entire compass of Roman civilization (36). Nystorm’s chapter illuminates the first century context, reveals some scholarly missteps (i.e. reading a contemporary context back into the text), and shows us where the gospel does challenge imperial authority. Judith Diehl‘s essay examines the Anti-imperial rhetoric of the New Testament and surveys recent discussions and approaches. Social scientific, post colonial and literary approaches reveals an imperial critique which until recently remained obscure.

Joel Willitts examines Matthew’s gospel. Willitts suggests that Matthew was not anti-imperial as such but describes how Jesus is the Messiah. Willitts writes:

 Matthew was hailing the coming of Israel’s Davidic Messiah and announcing the concomitant restoration of the kingdom of Israel. To the extent  that Israel’s restoration would be an assault on any earthly kingdom, Matthew’s gospel opposed Rome. But, and this is a significant point, Matthew was neither critiquing “empire” per se nor singling out Rome uniquely. To take this view would be to inappropriately diminish Matthew’s message. Jesus is not only or primarily God’s answer to Rome. Jesus is God’s answer to Israel’s unfulfilled story. A story, as it turns out, not only about Israel. It is a story that encompasses all the kingdoms and nations of the world (Mt. 4:8; 28:19-20)(97).

Dean Pinter‘s examination of Luke and recent scholarly literature reveals that the gospel is not simply a ‘pro-empire’ text. However he cautions that “questions of empire should not set the primary agenda for reading the Gospel of Luke either” (112).  There are points where Luke is critical of Imperial policy but he does not write ‘against Rome’ either.  Pinter writes,

Luke is a political thinker but the question is whether his primary polarity is between Jesus as Lord and Caesar as Lord. A more appropriate polarity would be construed this way: Luke is interested in social inequalities and how they are intertwined with demonic powers and their challenge against God’s sovereignty in the larger cosmic battles (113).

This allows for a much more nuanced view of Luke’s critique of Roman culture.

Similarly Christopher Skinner‘s exploration of John shows that its author is primarily concerned with the incarnate Logos. Nevertheless he goes to great pains to suggest that John does speak to the realm of Empire and contains an implicit critique of Rome. This is interesting because John’s gospel is not typically a ‘anti-imperial’ go-to text.

Drew Strait discusses Acts. Of particular interest is his discussion of the political implications of the Ascension. In the Greco-Roman world ascension into heaven accompanied the process of becoming a god (134).  Caesar Augustus himself  took advantage of the political ramifications f Julius Caesar’s ascent (proclaimed by Augustus at games held in Julius Caesar’s honor). While Strait cautions that you  cannot separate the ascension from its Judaic roots, he acknowledges that for Luke’s audience to make the association between Christ’s ascension and Caesar’s was thoroughly plausible (135).  Throughout Acts, Strait wants us to hear the implications of  Jesus lordship, but he suggests this is more a theological than revolutionary claim and in the first century and would be more offensive to Jewish listeners than Caesar’s agents (144).

Michael Bird‘s chapter is the standout essay of the volume. In discussion Romans, he demonstrates that while  Paul wrote his book more as a ‘pastoral theology’ than a ‘political manifesto,’ Paul was thoroughly cognizant of the sociopolitical realities of the Roman Empire (161).  Paul’s gospel was the antithesis of  all Rome stood for. Bird’s essay appears to give the most credence to empire criticism :

Paul’s euangelion is the Royal announcement that God’s dikaiosyne avails for believing Jews and Greeks, but bad news for the powers because of the concurrent revelation of God’s wrath against idolatry and wickedness (Romans 1:8).  Paul’s letter to the Romans is delivered to the heart of the empire with a bold thesis that there is only one true Lord, Jesus Christ. The violence of Roman military power and the foolishness of Roman religion will all collapse under the weight of the kingdom of Christ. Should a Roman official have read Romans, the letter would have appeared to be the ravings of a fanatical Eastern superstition, politically malicious at best and seditious at worst.

Two other chapters discuss the Pauline epistles relationship to Empire. Lynn Cohick examines Philippians and empire while Allan Bevere discusses Colossians (and Philemon). Cohick gives some great information on the imperial cult (the practice included the worship of Caesar’s ancestors not simply the living Caesar) but like other authors in this volume, she questions the assumption that the political reading (i.e. Empire criticism) does full justice to the eschatological dimensions to the text.  Bevere offers a stinging critique of Walsh and Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed Certainly there are aspects of Colossians that call the Empire into question, but Walsh and Keesmaat also gloss over aspects of Colossians which do not cohere with their empire-critical reading (i.e. Jewish elements in the Colossian philosophy). I have read and enjoyed Walsh and Keesmaat’s text several times, but I think that Bevere’s critique carries some freight.

Dwight Sheet discusses Revelation, an apocalyptic book which has been read for its explicit critique of the  Roman Empire (likely during the time of Domitian).  Sheet argues that the language of Revelation  indicates an expectation of Christ’s imminent return.

Mcknight and Modica sum up the insights of this book with three observations:

  1. The reality of the Roman Empire needs to be reckoned with in New Testament studies.
  2. The Kingdom of God is not in opposition to the Roman Empire but the Kingdom of Satan.
  3. The New Testament writers show readers how to live in the ‘already but not yet’  daily realities of empire (212-3).

This is a worthwhile read and I found it challenging and insightful. I am personally sympathetic and enamored with many of the empire-critical approaches to New Testament studies.  I think the gospel does call into question the Emperor and the ruling hegemony, both in the first century and in the twenty-first. However reading the Bible with an agenda  obscures its message.  The New Testament is not uniformly critical of Empire and the authors have other concerns besides the imperial cult.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the sociopolitical implications of the Bible. These authors are even-handed in their presentation and demonstrate that Jesus’ Lordship does indeed call into question the Lordship of Caesar, at least in the ultimate sense. However the Kingdom of God is far richer and more interesting than a critique of earthly political regimes.  This book will enrich your study of the New Testament and help you evaluate current academic trends. I give this book ★★★★.

Thank you to InterVarsity Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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