Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove, IVP Academic), 2013. (Amazon.com)
When I saw this book previewed in the IVP catalog a while ago I made sure to ask Adrianna Wright to include me as a reviewer. She did and I received a copy a few weeks ago. This book addresses a topic that interest me. Empire in the New Testament is a field of inquiry that has become increasingly attractive in recent years. Personally, I began to read books like Brian J. Walsh’s and Sylvia C. Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire; Richard J. Horsely’s Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder; and John Dominic Crossan’s and Jonathan L. Reed’s In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom around 2005. It was at a time when I had graduated college quite discouraged by a Christianity that was consumed with either living right to go to heaven or living wickedly to go to hell. Also, I was disillusioned by the rhetoric coming from many Christians during their effort to re-elect President George W. Bush. Finally, I found literature that introduced me to a reading of Scripture that addressed earthy matters, including corrupt world governments and their rulers, which was my impression of the Bush Administration in my early twenties.
Then I kept studying and I realized that the New Testament may be more nuanced that I imagined. The first book to challenge my thinking on this topic was written by Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke, which helped me realize that there may be a third option. It may be that early Christianity was neither accommodating to Rome nor anarchist. Instead, it could be that there is far more nuance and complexity. Since then I have come to appreciate something C. Kavin Rowe suggested in his book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, namely, early Christianity offered an alternative culture, but it wasn’t seditious, necessarily. Sometimes we find stronger anti-imperial language, especially in the Apocalypse, and sometimes we find language that seems a bit more grateful for Rome.
This book edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica is filled with essays by writers who understand this. This book is not an attack on Empire studies. In fact, the editors and authors are very appreciative of those who have helped us better understand the text by studying how it relates to the Roman Empire within which these texts were written. That said, there may have been a pendulum swing that went a tad too far the other direction which this book aims to correct, arguing for a healthy, cautious middle.
Message of the Book
The message is simple. As the editors put it, “This book is an attempt to strike a balance between a postcolonial reading of the New Testament and one that recognizing the contributions of that reading, yet posits a very different view of the ‘kingdom of God (p. 212).’” In other words, “…the New Testament writers affirm that Jesus is Lord, not with the sole intent of debunking Caesar and his empire, but to offer a stark contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.” Now, the Roman Empire may behave in ways that is aligned with the kingdom of Satan, but that doesn’t mean there is a one-for-one correspondance. Rome could do some things well for a temporal, human government.
Summary of the Contents
Andy Crouch begins the book with a Forward that is the written equivalent to an exciting movie trailer. He observes, “We will always have empire (p. 8).” This is true “as long as we have complex human societies (p. 9).” Empires are the result of humans attempting to live as image bearers. We create things and we govern, but Crouch reminds us, “Empires always end (p. 9).” He says that the biblical writers are “surprisingly ambivalent” about the rising and falling of empires (p. 10), noting that even Cyrus can be called “Messiah,” as in Is. 45:1 (p. 11). This is because, “Not all empires are alike (p. 11).” Therefore, “…the question is not really whether we will have empires (we will) or whether they will endure (they will not), but what kind of empires will we have in this time between times (p. 12).”
Then he says the following which captures the point of this boom quite well:
“…to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ does not seem actually to entail saying ‘Caesar is not [Lord].’ Rather, it entails not saying ‘Caesar is Lord.’ This minute grammatical distinction, simply a matter of where the negation is placed, seems to me to explain so much about the New Testament witnesses. The affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’ requires not so much a strident denunciation of earthly lords as a studied silence concerning their pretensions. The answer to Caesar’s inflated claims of significance is further proclamation of Jesus the Messiah’s real significance (p. 13).”
Jesus is Lord, but that doesn’t mean Caesar isn’t lord, even if temporarily. Caesar may be lord, but he is responsible to the Lord. In the meantime, Christians are to proclaim Jesus, the true Lord of lords, and if this results in persecution so be it. If it doesn’t and if like Paul we gain audiences among governing authorities, then we must proclaim Jesus to them as well, and let the Lord be the judge of all lords.
In the Introduction McKnight and Modica say a few things about empire studies as they relate to New Testament studies before outlining what the reader should expect from this book.
Chapter 1: We Have No King But Caesar: Roman Imperial Ideology and the Imperial Cult is written by David Nystrom, an expert on the Roman Empire. He explains how Rome came to power and the ideologies that supported their self-understanding, including the belief that their empire was ordained by the gods. This chapter is extremely helpful because it prevents us from importing back into history our understanding of Roman practices. Nystrom explains things such as patronage, whether worship directly implied divinity, and so forth.
Chapter 2: Anti-Imperial Rhetoric in the New Testament by Judith A Diehl is partly a survey of modern scholarship on how early Christians related to Rome and partially a presentati0n of how we may think about. For those lacking familiarity with the field this won’t catch you up completely, but it will give you a basic idea of what is being said and who the “movers and shakers” have been.
Chapter 3: Matthew by Joel Wilitts is the first chapter that directly addresses a section of the New Testament. Willits spends most of this chapter interacting with the work of Warren Carter. Rather that reading Matthew as anti-imperial Willits writes, “I don’t think Matthew is anti-imperial at all. Matthew’s problem with empire, if one can even put it that way, was not empire, but which empire (p. 85).” In other words, Matthew advocates the Davidic King and Israel’s empire. Matthew does address Rome, but it is not the primary message of the Gospel. Instead,
“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 (p. 97).”
Chapter 4: The Gospel of Luke and the Roman Empire is a fascinating juxtaposition between Luke and Josephus. He compares and contrast their approach to Rome and how their message may have been understood. It is proposed that Josephus was “snarling sweetly” in his writings, not directly opposing Rome, but saying things that defended his people and that were partially critical of Rome all the while writing for his Flavian audience. Similarly, Luke isn’t hiding anything. He isn’t against Rome, but he isn’t ignorant of Rome’s shortcoming either.
Chapter 5: John’s Gospel and the Roman Imperial Context by Christopher W. Skinner attempt to fill a gap in the field. The nature of the Fourth Gospel has led many to neglect it when studying empire. Skinner corrects this addressing a variety of objections to finding empire on John. Then he interacts with the works of Tom Thatcher, Warren Carter, and Lance Byron Richey discussing topics like “negative Christology” (i.e., Johannine Christology is mostly intended to rebuff imperial claims) and “the rhetoric of distance” (i.e., Johannine dualism as relates to the Gospel and Rome). Skinner expresses gratitude for those who have helped us see that the Fourth Gospel does say something about Rome, but he concludes that “…the Fourth Gospel is largely concerned with the incarnate Logos who has come down from above (p. 128).”
Chapter 6: Proclaiming Another King Named Jesus? The Acts of the Apostles and the Roman Imperial Cult(s) by Drew J. Strait contributes to the discussion of Acts’ relationship to Rome (which unlike John’s has been addressed by many over the years). Strait engages several dialogue partners providing helpful caveats and clarifications, one of the most insightful being the reminder that there is not one official imperial cult, but that the imperial cult had many forms. Also, his discussion of apotheosis and the ascension is very informative.
Chapter 7: “One Who Will Arise to Rule the Nations”: Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Roman Empire by Michael Bird addresses one of the most complex documents in the New Testament. One where we may find the most anti-imperial rhetoric mixed with the most caution toward Rome. Bird provides background information on Paul and Rome as well as how this has been discussed in recent scholarship. Then he moves through some of the more complex passages such as 1:1-4; 1:16-17; 13:1-7; and 15:5-13. While Bird’s essay seems the most welcoming to modern trends he does note, “Romans is not a political manifesto. It is pastoral theology, albeit one not divorced from the sociopolitical realities of the Roman Mediterranean (p. 161).”
Chapter 8: Philippians and Empire: Paul’s Engagement with Imperialism and the Imperial Cult by Lynn H. Cohick is a very informative study on Philippi and how Paul’s letter would have been understood there. She provides a background of the imperial cult that clarifies a lot, noting that while the imperial cult did include the living Caesar it would have included Julius Caesar, Augustus, Augustus’ wife Livia, and Claudius. In other words, it isn’t “Jesus v. Caesar” per se. The imperial cult is familial, including even a female member (pp. 169-170). Like Bird’s essay Cohick choses to discuss a few select areas: 1:27; 2:5-11; and 3:20-21, evaluating what has been said about these passages and whether the anti-imperial reading makes the most sense historically. Cohick counters with an “eschatological, anti-pagan” reading.
Chapter 9: Colossians and the Rhetoric of Empire by Allan R. Bevere is a two part chapter. The first deals with the aforementioned book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Walsh and Keesmaat and the second part discusses Philemon. As much as I enjoyed Colossians Remixed I think this chapter is a strong critique of the book and Bevere provides what seems to me to be a more historical sound reading of the text and the problem addressed by the author (who he suggest is Timothy with Paul’s approval). Bevere is slow to embrace the idea that Paul was requesting Onesimus be released by Philemon in that epistle, noting that the relationship has changed, but that it isn’t obvious to him that Paul is requiring Onesimus be made a free man.
Chapter 10: Something Old, Something New: Revelation and Empire by Dwight D. Sheets revisits what may be the most discussed text in the field. Revelation is presented as the most anti-imperial document of the New Testament. Sheets revisits how we understand the author’s beliefs about Jesus’ return and the nature of apocalyptic discourse. He provides a thoughtful reconsideration of Domitian, which I found to be the most insightful part of the chapter (see pp. 202-205).Through this lens of the imminent return of Christ accompanied by the warning against cultural assimilation Sheets argues that these factors may have been far more influential than merely some theory of anti-empire.
If I were to critique this book in any way it would be this: each chapter needs to be its own book. For those who are attracted to the writings of Carter, Crossan, Horsley, and others this book may bother you because it has to provide a brief rebuttal. This may seem insufficient when we consider how much work these aforementioned authors have put into their anti-imperial readings. That said, if the reader is able to take these brief proposals and then revisit anti-imperial readings with them in mind I think a more fruitful, nuanced vision of how early Christians related to Rome will emerge. Empire studies have benefitted New Testament studies. There is no doubt about that. Yet we need to make sure to avoid a pendulum swing, The New Testament may not be about the “sweet by and by,” but neither is it about revolt or being so anti-Roman that the authors hoped to see Rome collapse some way other than when Christ returns, when all empires will collapse, not just Rome. I highly recommend this book for those who are new to the field or those who have been studying in it a while now.