This was a ‘relatively’ easy essay in that the sources were quite straight forward. What really stuck me was just how much I have been a dualist – you know, its either ‘right’ or its ‘wrong’. So, I’d thought Paul must have either totally gone along with the Roman Empire, or totally not!
The more I read the more wonderfully subversive Paul became – he was a low grade anarchist, of sorts, and he knew how to play the system… I am stuck by just how conservative the church has become and I for one need to adopt the astuteness of the ‘Political Paul‘ and by inference the ‘Political Jesus’.
Paul and Empire
In order to more fully understand Paul’s writings we have to attempt understand the culture of his time. In this essay I will show how the Roman Empire, which was all pervasive in the area that Paul was operating in, is reflected in his letters. We will see that he makes frequent use of imperial language, and that he both accommodates and subverts Caesar and his empire. Paul sees the claims of Caesar to parody those of the Messiah, but that God’s covenantal fulfilment in Christ is the genuine article. He gives guidance to his readers on how to live under the empire, but with a different Lord to the one being offered.
Recent scholarship has been working to understand the political dimensions of Paul’s letters. It is surprisingly that this has been downplayed in Pauline studies and Carter explains this by saying that the political and imperial content of Paul’s letters has been hidden lost to us as a result of the late eighteenth century’s separation of church and state. Elliott remarks that Paul’s ‘supposed debate with Judaism’ has taken centre stage and so the ‘interaction on [Paul’s] part with the ideology of empire’ has been at least partially ignored.
I begin by describing a few key features of the Roman Empire and then move into a brief overview of Paul’s theology. From there I unpack some key passages and then consider some of the implications of this for us today.
Key Features of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire at the time of Paul controlled the Mediterranean basin and beyond, taking in England to Africa, Syria to Spain, and encompassing one in four people. The empire was thus very diverse, including many different cultures and religions, and its systems of administration – its roads, government, laws, coinage, justice and so forth are justly famous.
Just prior to the first century Rome was a republic that was in a state of unrest as the leaders jostled for power. Octavian was to become the first emperor, and in 31 B.C the Roman Senate named him ‘Augustus’ – ‘revered one,’ and ‘honoured by the gods.’ Octavian was seen as the ‘saviour’ of the people and the ‘incarnation of divine good news for the whole world.’ This ‘Roman Peace’ – pax Romana’ that Augustus built upon, and which has become synonymous with the empire, was maintained by force and has been described as ‘peace through war.’ The roman elite and army were maintained by taxes and tributes and whilst they did not invent crucifixion they made great use of it to enforce the pax.
The emperor was seen as the father, with the empire as one large family further ruled by a tiny elite. There was no real middle class and the elite often acted as patrons for the poor as a way to obtain both their loyalty and their honour.
Although the Romans were quite tolerant towards other religions, the empire acted to unify the subjugated peoples. The emperor’s many titles included ‘chief priest, saviour, lord, and son of god’ and he was thought to be the ‘divinely chosen bringer of salvation,’ which was understood to mean ‘guarantor of peace and security.’ Salvation for the Romans had a very ‘this worldly’ focus, and centred on themes such as peace, prosperity, guidance and protection. The main ‘gospel’ that Paul would have heard concerned Caesar, and this salvation was the emperors ‘good news’ or gospel (euangelicon/euangelia’).
In Paul’s time most cities had temples, often with cultic practices honouring the ‘immortal spirit and guardian deity’ of the emperor. There were many statues of the emperor which were even sometimes placed within the temples of other religions. However, the citizens were mostly tolerant, and fused the different gods as they saw fit. Jews, and probably the very earliest Christians too, were able to excuse themselves from the imperial cult although anything that appeared to threaten the emperor’s status was viewed very negatively (Acts 17:1-9).
In summary the emperor had become divine, and with him came the pax Romana, which whilst often being an improvement on the existing situations, was brutal and over-powering. There was a gigantic propaganda machine that sustained the empire’s practices and institutions which Horsley, describes as the ‘gospel of imperial salvation’ by which the emperor brought salvation and the people responded by honouring their saviour.
A Very Brief introduction to Paul’s theology
Now that some of the Roman context of Paul is clear we can begin to look at his theology. Paul’s Jewish roots had led him to believe that the saving work of God would be expressed by his putting all to rights, and by rescuing his people from pagan oppression. This is the lens of understanding that Paul used as he became convinced that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah figure. Paul’s messianic theology, and God’s resurrection of Jesus meant that Jesus was saviour and therefore Kyrios, Lord. Using Kyrios for Lord not only spoke of his Jewish roots, but also the challenge to the Roman Empire. Put simply, ‘Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.’
This message, ‘Jesus is Lord’ became the ‘gospel’ ( Gal 1:7, Col 1:5, 1 Thess 1:5) which Paul preached and we can see straight away that Paul is using the same technical term for ‘news of victory’ here that the Romans used for the good news about Caesar in what appears to be a deliberately undermining manner. We will see that this deliberate picking up of imperial language is by no means unique as Paul over and over discusses empire themes. We now turn to just a few of these.
Philippians 2:5-11 and 12
This passage is a famous poem which describes what Jesus has done and the results thereof – the ‘euangelicon’ in a nutshell. Wright suggests that there are is a ‘parallel between the overall narrative of the poem and the regular rhetoric in which Caesar’s rule was legitimated.’ In vs 7 we read that Jesus ‘made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant’ and thus rejecting the ‘elite quest for honour.’ It was believed that Caesar was the servant of the state, by his patronage, maintenance of the pax Romana and his military victories. Paul here is laying side by side Jesus, the real servant, and Caesar who really is a parody of what a servant is. It’s a clear, critical comparison and unlikely to be misunderstood.
Throughout the poem Paul references Isaiah 40-55 which critiques pagan empire, and declares Jewish monotheism. In order to decode this the reader would need to have a good knowledge of the old testament, making this is a more subtle subversion of Caesar and empire. By contrast, towards the end of the poem Paul says God has exalted Jesus, and that at the Name of Jesus every knee will bow – and whilst the reference to Isaiah might be missed, the meaning is crystal clear, as is Paul’s use of the imperial word ‘Lord’ at the poem’s end. Carter summarises that ‘God raises and exalts the crucified Christ as a counter emperor.’
Verse 8 tells us ‘[Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’, which being located in the middle of the poem receives natural emphasis. The subjugated peoples of the empire were well aware what the cross stood for – shame, defeat, and despair. Paul effectively takes such a devastating symbol and reworks it, such that it means the inauguration of God’s new, superior kingdom. Wright brilliantly sums this up by saying ‘it took genius to see that the symbol which had spoken of Caesar’s naked might now spoke of God’s naked love.’ A similar point is made by Paul in 1 Cor 1:18-31 where he says that the cross is the power of God in that it demonstrates the foolishness of the wisdom of this world. In other word he is repeating that the Emperor’s wisdom is a parody of the true wisdom of God.
This understanding of the poem now enables us to shed light on the mysterious subsequent verse – ‘Therefore, my beloved … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.’ (Phil 2:12) The Philippians lived in a world where emperor’s roman salvation was effectively forced upon them offering, as we saw, peace, prosperity and the like – at a cost. Paul is exhorting them to remember that they have a different saviour, the Messiah, and that they now need to work out exactly what it means to walk under a different Lordship to the one they are used to. Naturally, this would not be easy as they were still living within the empire, and could lead to many and varied conflicts; hence the expectation of fear.
Towards the end of this brief passage Paul writes to the believers at Philippi saying:
‘for our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body, according to the working by which he is able to subdue all things to himself.’ Phil 3:20,21
Wright says of this passage that it ‘corresponds closely to the available and knowable imperial themes in the culture’ implying that the Philippians would not have missed Paul’s referencing of Caesar. Wright is therefore suggesting that Paul is subverting those imperial themes of his day, his culture, and reworking them around the Messianic theme of Jesus. The sovereignty of Jesus is being expressed in the classic Caesar titles – saviour, Lord and even with the emphasis on us being lowly and Jesus/Caesar being glorious. It does not end there though because our bodies are going to be transformed into something glorious, which includes an element of sovereignty thereby undermining the roman societal structure based on elitism. Ending the passage, Paul does not leave any room for questions about who is superior though – Jesus is able to subdue all things, including Caesar himself. This is a powerfully, political passage that is not only rooted in a high Christology, but in the everyday lives of the Philippians.
In the light of this explanation of vs 20,21 we can now offer an explanation of vs 17 where Paul writes ‘join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.’ Most of these people could not easily imitate Paul since they did not have his education, his apocalyptic encounter with Jesus, and probably were not Jewish either. Since Philippi had been a roman outpost for over 100 years the inhabitants could rely on Rome to restore the pax Romana should the need arise, to protect them and to give them the privileges that their position would entitle them to. Paul is challenging them to rework their allegiance, moving it away from ‘Caesar is Lord and Saviour’ that is offered them, towards Jesus as the true Lord and Saviour. This is how Paul walked, and he is encouraging the Philippians to do the same.
Elliott writes that ‘the letter to the Romans is nothing less than a direct challenge to the ritual and ceremony of empire.’ I will look at just a few, brief passages.
Romans 1:3-7,16,17 contain many seemingly obvious counter-imperial messages. Jesus is described as being God’s son, from a long and ancient royal family who claims obedience from all the nations, and has power to match. In vs 16,17 Paul goes onto say that this is the ‘gospel of God to salvation’ and that the righteousness/justice (dikaiosynē) of God has been revealed. Whilst Caesar is never mentioned the implications are clear since the readers, being romans, would understand that the emperor was the son of god, came from a royal family bringing a gospel of power, justice and salvation, and demanding the allegiance of all nations. In this short passage Paul is saying that the Caesar is taking the titles and attributes that rightfully belong to the Messiah.
Romans 8:18-23 speaks about how creation is waiting for its glorious liberation from the ‘bondage of corruption.’ Whilst again using imperial terminology (sons of God, glorious, liberty), the inference is clear that despite the so called salvation bought by the Emperor and his empire the world is still subjected to futility. Paul is really saying that the ‘glories’ of the Roman Empire amount to futility. In modern parlance he is saying ‘don’t believe the hype.’
Romans 13:1-7 is traditionally taken as Paul supporting centre right obedience to authority and acceptance of what we might consider societal evils for the sake of a ‘quietest theology.’ It must be remembered that we cannot look back with our simple, dualistic mind-set, since Jewish and early Christian people could, as Wright says, ‘play at both ends of the spectrum at the same time’ as evidenced by Daniel both subverting and serving the ruler of Babylon.
It is important to realise that this passage is in fact severely diminishing the power that Caesar would have taken to himself as Paul starts by writing ‘…there is no authority except from God.’ (vs 1) Under Paul’s covenantal theology evil rulers, especially those who persecute God’s people, will be judged but without rulers the world’s political systems dissolve into chaos. We see this in recent events around the world where stable, and ‘despotic’ leadership has been removed. Paul appears to be reminding Jesus’ followers that they are not exempt from the day to day structures of everyday life, a point which might have escaped some of the more ‘overexcited’ early Christians who perhaps thought that since they had a new Kyrios, they need not obey the old one. On the other hand we have already seen that taken as a whole, Paul’s theology suggests that the Christians must live under Caesar, whilst giving allegiance to the new saviour and Lord, a situation that could clearly led to conflict.
A brief look at Ephesians, Colossians and Thessalonians
Ephesians presents a broad picture of the dominion of Jesus over all creation, in which Paul states that he is ‘far all principalities and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but in the age to come.’ (1:21) Once again, in a clearly counter-imperial message, Paul is repeating his central claim that in reality ‘Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.’
Paul similarly writes in Col 1:15-20 of how the preeminent Jesus has reconciled all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross. The Roman Empire liked to ‘reconcile’ all kingdoms to itself, bringing them under the pax Roman and giving them justice and salvation. Of course they did it through fear and domination, whereas God did it through the seemingly foolish cross, which was a complete antithesis to the roman mind. (1 Cor 1:23)
1 Thes 4:13-18 speaks of the return of Jesus and uses the term ‘parousia’ which was diplomatic language for the arrival of a king carrying both a sense of threat and promise. For Paul, the real parousia has to do with the return of Jesus, when he will take full control of the world, raise the dead and judge the nations. Paul’s parousia too carries both promise and threat, and pales Caesar’s into insignificance.
‘Peace and security’ was a common imperial propaganda phrase, which we see Paul taking up in 1Thess 5:3 when he describes the sudden onset of destruction. Wright suggests that this vision is directed ‘not least at the Roman Empire in its power and pretension.’ Given the unstable history of the empire Paul is clearly comparing the salvation offered by Jesus and Caesar.
Nature, Extent and Significance of Paul for Today
At the start of this section it is worth remarking with Elliott that we will not find in a Paul a fully ‘pro-Roman’ or ‘anti-Roman’ position. It’s more nuanced than that, so that in some cases such as the divine nature of Caesar Paul is anti, whereas it seems he can see the benefit of some of the social structures. Paul realises that these leaders are appointed by God, and so urges us to pray for them (1 Tim 2:1-4).
Paul has been read to support a quietist theology of social conservatism which has been further enforced by our tendency to be dualistic in our attitude towards the secular and the religious. This, with notable exceptions, has meant that Christians have let the state get on with its work, whilst we get on with ours. This subversive, anti-Caesar and Imperialism reading of Paul presented in this essay tends to suggest that this needs to be re-examined. According to Paul’s example those who think the church should stay out of politics are in error.
Paul had a vision of an ‘oikouméné’ of nations, which carried a sense a universe inhabited by a unified church in obedience to one Lord. Elliott states that this ‘relies upon … Roman, political ideology.’ Perhaps Paul saw a veiled suggestion of something good here, albeit that the basic idea had been badly perverted by human sin. The Roman Empire, despite all its zealous propaganda, was rotten to the core compared to the glorious vision of God’s kingdom.
At the centre of Paul’s theology are questions concerning how we should live in a world dominated by evil powers, and it is just as relevant now as it was then. It was a common theme for the Romans to equate their success with the blessing of the gods. Cicero wrote that ‘dominion has been granted by Nature to everything that is best, to the great advantage of what is weak.’ (De republica 3:37) Whilst this kind of blatant propaganda is disturbing to our minds, the question needs to be asked to what extent is that imperialistic, reward-based attitude still at work today? The Romans felt that their ability to subjugate others was a gift from the gods to enable them to bring the pax Romana to the ‘savages’ whilst plundering their resources, turning a blind eye to the violence and assimilating them into their culture. This all sounds frighteningly up to date when you consider recent world events, nationalism, trading blocks, large corporations… the list goes on. Paul’s presentation of a ruler in Jesus whose power comes from his humility, a saviour who acts as a servant and is exalted by God is just as counter cultural now as it was to the Roman Empire.
Carter, in his summary of recent scholarship on Paul and empire, raises the question that much of Pauline studies has been carried out by European and American elite males who unwittingly have assumed their interests and attitudes to be universal and have thus silenced the voices of all others. This observation, if true, opens the doorway to new interpretations of Paul, for example by migrants or modern day slaves whose experiences of empire may well have more in common with Paul than ours do. Horsley summarises this by saying that Pauline studies needs to ‘identify oppressive formulations as well as potentially liberative visions … to recover their unfulfilled historical possibilities.’ This is very exciting potentially, and opens the way to great insight onto what have been ‘sites of struggle’ within the letters.
Horsley states that Paul’s communities, ekklesai, are a political assembly of the people in juxtaposition with the official city assembly (also ekklesai). Paul saw his communities as being politically counter-imperial in their inclusive nature and because of their allegiance to a different Kyrios. Since a nation is always a political entity, what does this say about the Christian’s attitude toward nationalism? It would seem that this is another example of trying to force our dualistic attitudes onto a question, and most likely Paul would have a situational response.
The patronage of the Roman system meant that the elite stayed that way, and the poor were to be loyal and indebted. Again, Paul’s ekklesai, are politically subversive suggesting that there should be just rewards for services rendered. So in other words, poor people are not there for the benefit of elite. Not only then is there equality within the churches, but Callahan believes that in 1 Cor 7 Paul also suggests that community should purchase the freedom of Christian slaves. Paul therefore invites us to reconsider our attitude to the power structures of our day.
I have shown that the language and ideology of the Roman Empire occur repeatedly within Paul’s writings. At times Paul is accommodating towards the empire, and he can be both overt and subtle in his subversive language. He contrasts Jesus and Caesar, believing that Caesar has taken titles and attributes that belong rightly to the Messiah, and says that the empire is a parody of God’s kingdom despite all its pretensions of glory, justice and salvation. I have shown several examples of where this empire based reading of Paul could benefit us in our understanding and application today. I would suggest that today we still have empires and emperors by different names, and so this re-reading of Paul is very relevant to us.
Carter, Warren. “Paul and Roman Empire: Recent Perspectives,” in Mark D. Given, ed., Paul Unbound: Other Perspectives on the Apostle. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010.
Elliott, Neil. “Paul and the Politics of Empire: Problems and Prospects,” in Richard A Horsley ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israle, Imperium, Interpretation. Harrisburg, Press International, 2000.
Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Cruucified Christ: An Theological Introduction To Paul and His Letters. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004.
PBS. The Roman Empire in the First Century. 2006. <http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/index.html> (15 December 2013).
Wright, N T. “Paul and Empire.” in The Blackwell Companion to Paul. Edited by Stephen Westerholm. MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Wright, N T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. London: SPCK, 2005.
Wright, N T. “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire.” Center of Theological Inquiry Reflections 2. New Jersey: Centre of Theological Inquiry, 1999.