The trend of identifying anti-imperial themes, rhetoric and messages in the New Testament is pretty hot right now – post-colonial readings of Scripture as well. I recently got ‘Jesus is Lord, Caeser is Not’, and spent a minute studying up on anti-imperial/post-colonial ideas regarding the New Testament, and here’s a few unsystematic thoughts. I should probably edit this down but I’m too tired.
– The basic thrust of the book? ‘Slow down there, sonny. There’s more to it than that.’ Empire critical/postcolonial studies have done a great deal of good in highlighting the dynamics of society, power, etc in the New Testament. Painting anti-imperialism as the actual main point of the NT, however, is misguided.
– The basic thrust of empire criticism? That saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ entails saying and believing that ‘Caesar is not’. A weakness here lies in the rather obvious fact that such an antithesis is never explicitly made in the NT. While this doesn’t mean that it’s an implicit antithesis, arguing from the implicit to the explicit can be a bit tricky.
– The dynamics of power, government etc are far more fluid than simple antitheses.
– The main culprit here is the imperial cult. There’s a problem here already, though, because to monolith-ize (my new term) something like the imperial cult doesn’t do justice to a movement/pattern of religion/pattern of thought that was actually fairly diverse and dynamic.
– The imperial cult, surprisingly, was more or less a grassroots movement, and not imposed from the top down.
– The deification of the emperor was less strict than one might imagine – deification shouldn’t be imagined to be so much of an ontological status (a man became divine) so much as, with regards to normal people, the emperor was divine, though with regard to the gods, he was still very much a mortal.
– Other aspects of the imperial cult that prevent it from being a monolithic kind of thing: benefaction and patronage, which reflect a real patron/client relationship aspect of ancient Hellenic society.
– There is a real oppositon between Jesus and the powers and principalites, however – but I don’t see it being between Jesus and Rome/Caesar qua Rome/Caeser. Neither is power or power structures – the critiques leveled against Rome in the NT are about rulership, ruler worship and the mode in which the power is exercised.
– Worship is to be offered only to God/Jesus/Holy Spirit – this is a big point in NT critiques of Caeser.
– Instead of an empire built by war, political intruige, with power in the hands of the elite, the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed is seen to be a kingdom in which the way that the world does power is inverted. Peace, love and the the last being first are the order of the day in the Kingdom.
– The contrasts drawn between Jesus and Caeser aren’t, then, so much about how evil Rome is and how Rome is the real topic of the New Testament, but moreso about the overthrow of the present fallen order under which Rome is a servant of the powers and principalities.
– The opposition of Jesus and Caeser must always be seen in terms of the story of Israel, which is more often than not concerned with a contest between YHWH and the pagan gods.
– The narrative of Israel provides an anchoring for the opposition of Jesus to Caeser – consider Romans 1:3, where Paul refers to the Davidic king – and then consider Romans 15:12, where Paul refers to the root of Jesse. The Davidic kingship, one of peace, is set against the powers of the world, which operate by force, corruption, etc.
– Jesus must be seen as the climax of salvation-history, which is a thoroughly Jewish history. This is and must be a first principle.