Empire in the New Testament

  • Stanley E. Porter, Cynthia Long Westfall
  • Sep 10, 2012
  • Series: Volume 15 - 2012

Stanley E. Porter and Cynthia Long Westfall, eds. Empire in the New Testament. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011.  Hardback, $35.00.  305 pp.  ISBN: 978-1-60899-599-8.

EmpireintheNewTestamentThe twelfth installment of MacMaster Divinity School’s ‘New Testament Studies Series’ broaches a school of interpretation that has been burgeoning within New Testament exegesis recently, and especially in the last fifteen years. Scholars like Richard Horsley and Neil Elliot have been evaluating Paul’s relationship to the Roman Empire for some time now; however, their assessment, along with many others who have been exploring the New Testament authors’ relationship to empire, are in overtly postcolonial terms. Only recently have scholars approached this relationship from the more ‘historical’ project of biblical exegesis. In 2008, Seyoon Kim produced a monograph entitled Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke from this very perspective; however, he is less convinced that empire directly influenced either the Pauline or Lukan corpora. Empire in the New Testament may be the first publication bringing together a variegated assessment of empire’s influence on the writings of the New Testament from a ‘historical’ approach to New Testament exegesis (though, as we will see, some of the scholars in this compilation are still indebted to both postcolonial and poststructuralist thought).

The collection consists of nine explorations of empire’s relationship to various biblical texts. Though it is entitled Empire in the New Testament, the first two articles are concerned with an imperial context of the Old Testament. These articles serve to establish a cultural and religious backdrop that the New Testament authors inherited from their literary predecessors. Douglas K. Stuart attempts to accomplish this in regards to an Ancient Near Eastern mentality towards empire, alongside an Old Testament mentality to empire, a task he admits is overly ambitious for the length of his article. While Stuart’s overview is certainly sweeping, its strength is in his heavy dependence on primary texts to establish these dispositions towards empire: the ANE’s was positive, while the OT’s was negative. He concludes his article assessing how these two mentalities coalesced in David’s efforts at empire building; though David understood the proper disposition towards empire as laid out in the OT, he was lured into the ANE’s outlook.

In the second article concerning the OT’s relationship to empire, Mark J. Boda demonstrates that Isaiah discloses Judah’s first interaction with empire in the prophetic literature. For Boda, the book of Isaiah was the primary text that would “shape Judah’s response to empire.” (57) Boda establishes Judah’s response to three different empires in Isaiah: the Assyrian (Isaiah 6-39), the Babylonian (Isaiah 40-55), and the Persian (Isaiah 55-66). Each empire threatens the Zion tradition presented in Isaiah as a whole, but especially established in Isaiah 1-5; Boda argues that the entire book ought to be read through this Zionist, counter-imperialist lens.

In the first article overtly examining a New Testament text, Warren Carter offers a counter-imperial interpretation for the gospel of Matthew. He argues that many exegetical methods have obscured the gospel’s interaction with the political world and offers a corrective by bringing the Roman Empire to the foreground, rather than relegating it to one of many backgrounds. While Carter employs historical criticism here, he is also directly dependent on poststructuralist Julia Kristeva’s notion of ‘cultural intertextuality’ and his own experience of growing up in a former British colony, an unmistakably postcolonial move. In a reversal of conventional expectation, this ‘new’ methodology is actually the forerunner to historical-critical explorations of imperial discourse and the New Testament. Using this multi-faceted approach, Carter continues to explore Matthew’s plot, Christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology within an imperial framework.

Craig Evans, in ‘King Jesus and His Ambassadors’, takes a more holistic approach to early Christianity’s relationship to empire. Evans presents the argument that in all four gospels Jesus is a king in direct contradiction to Caesar. This notion would continue into the subsequent generations of early Christianity, as Jesus’s followers served as the ambassadors for him as potentate. He does this by exploring primary texts, such as The Martyrdom of Polycarp, alongside epigraphic evidence. Using social-scientific criticism, Evans offers connections with and insight into the phenomenon of the patron-client relationship so prevalent in the Greco-Roman world.

The Gospel of John has not been as ripe for imperial interpretation due to the prevalent notion that it is more patently theological than the Synoptic Gospels. Tom Thatcher offers a crucial corrective in his article “I Have Conquered the World’: The Death of Jesus and the End of Empire in the Gospel of John”. Thatcher overviews crucifixion in the Roman world and argues that John’s portrayal of the crucifixion can be understood as a reversal of power: “Caesar and his agents [become] helpless victims of the Christ who conquered the world” (140). Like Carter, Thatcher is dependent on methodologies that go beyond the historical-critical approach to exegesis. Specifically, he evokes postmodern philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘countermemory’ in order to demonstrate how John’s portrayal of the crucifixion subverts Roman imperial power.

Stanley Porter and Matthew Forrest Lowe take on the apostle Paul’s relationship to the Roman Empire in articles six and seven; both argue that Paul devalues the Empire in light of his theological presuppositions. Porter is primarily concerned with the emperor cult and how its vocabulary in various inscriptions is re-appropriated in regards to the Lordship of Jesus in the major Pauline works of Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians. One of the most compelling facets of Porter’s article is his willingness to take on Romans 13:1-7, a pericope often viewed as problematic for counter-imperial interpretations, arguing that is does not teach “unqualified obedience to the state.” (185) Lowe examines the minor Pauline epistles, utilizing a presupposition of unified Pauline authorship throughout the corpus.  Paul’s ideology of atonement was essentially counter-imperial: in the face of imperial death, atonement offers crucified and resurrected life.

Cynthia Long Westfall surveys the Jewish-Christian literature in the NT and how each of these writings responds to a different feature of imperial discourse. She avers, “each one of the texts of early Jewish Christianity…has a tendency to negotiate one aspect of empire more distinctively than others” (14). Given that Jewish literature is prone to being overtly opposed to empire, the corpora Westfall examines demonstrate a general resistance to empire that is more direct than the Pauline corpus or the gospels. In this way, for Westfall, the anti-imperial transcripts are not as hidden in these texts as they are elsewhere in the literature of the New Testament.

The collection closes with a response from Gordon Heath. Heath advises the interpreter to look towards the early Christian writers who followed upon the New Testament authors, warning that they do not appear to be unquestionably anti-imperial. For Heath, to refuse the declaration that ‘Caesar is Lord’ does not mean that the NT authors were scathingly opposed to the Roman Empire. While the New Testament may certainly contain anti-imperial rhetoric, the interpreter needs to approach these methodologies and interpretations cautiously, as they often relegate authorial intent as a minimal concern. Heath’s critique is incisive and echoes that of Seyoon Kim from 2008 in Christ and Caesar: counter-imperial interpretations are often based on a fallacy dubbed “parallelomania” (28). In this fallacy, interpreters recognize buzzwords that are counter-imperial in one context and interpret every text containing those buzzwords from a counter-imperial perspective, despite the absence of other counter-imperial elements. Certainly this is a pressing concern when any new field burgeons, and those practicing counter-imperial interpretations should be wary of it. However, avoiding this fallacy does not eliminate all counter-imperial elements that appear to be present in the New Testament; the task of this rising school will be to continue to recognize and exegete these elements from an imperial perspective.

The other direction counter-imperial scholarship rooted in historical interpretive methods must pursue is that of a modern hermeneutic for these anti-imperial interpretations. While postcolonial scholarship often provides direction in this regard, not one of the articles in this collection explores an extended modern Christian application in regards to the exegesis offered. If an interpreter presents a cogent anti-imperial explication of a text, a number of readers, especially those living in an imperial context, will want a Christian hermeneutic in response to the exegesis offered. This is a direction both the church and the academy have failed to entertain in light of this new school of interpretation. Nonetheless, the discussion must begin somewhere and Empire in the New Testament offers a suitable starting point.

Nick Elder M.A.
September 2012

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