Does the New Testament offer a critique the empire of its day? Of ours? These are some of the many questions under review in the recently released Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Paper, Kindle). The book is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica and has received a lot of attention since its release. And well it should; it combines, after all, two topics of perennial interest – religion and politics. The book is an evaluation of what has come to be known as empire criticism, and it is composed of contributions from a number of New Testament scholars, several of whom are also engaged in pastoral ministry. I’m excited about this opportunity to offer a review and grateful to the team at IVP for sending along a review copy. We’ll start by defining the field of empire criticism. Then we’ll take a look at the content of the book before concluding with a few reflections on the usefulness of empire criticism.
What is empire criticism?
For several decades some New Testament scholars have devoted significant energy to analyzing the extent to which the New Testament critiques or subverts the Roman Empire and the Imperial Cult. They tend to point out that some of the most important titles for Jesus (e.g. lord, savior) were first used by the Caesars. The word “gospel” was used to describe Caesar’s birthday and conquests before it was used to describe God’s power for salvation through the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. The question is this: by using this sort of imperial language with reference to Jesus, does the New Testament subvert or perhaps even critique the Roman Empire? To be sure, the emperor was not accustomed to sharing his titles. By attributing these titles to Jesus, the early church was insisting, to paraphrase one well-known scholar, that “Jesus was the reality of which Caesar was only a parody.” Those who are favorable toward empire criticism will want to nuance their arguments in a variety of ways, and the specific claims are certainly more detailed and complex, but that should give you a general sense of the argument. So, McKnight and Modica explain empire criticism as referring
“to developing an eye and ear for the presence of Rome and the worship of the emperor in the lines and between the lines of the New Testament writings…empire criticism asks us to listen closer to the sounds of the empire and the sounds of challenging empire at work in the pages of the New Testament” (16-17).
That said, there are some passages in the New Testament that seem to portray Jesus a direct challenger to the claims of the emperor (e.g. Acts 17:7). Other passages, however, seem to suggest that early Christians should lay low, live their lives, and do their best to stay off the imperial radar (e.g. Romans 13:1-7). But this apparent range of attitudes is what makes the questions so interesting. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need a book evaluating this thing called empire criticism.
What’s in the book?
The first two chapters orient the reader to the field of empire criticism by surveying the ancient context and the contemporary debate. If you are going to raise the question as to whether the New Testament takes on the Roman Empire, you need to know something about the Roman Empire. David Nystrom opens the book with an excellent and accessible survey of Roman ideology, religion, and the imperial cult. Chapter two by Judith A. Diehl surveys some of the key scholars who have advanced the discussion both in terms of historical study and contemporary appropriation. The rest of the book is comprised of studies on individual books of the New Testament: Joel Willits (Matthew), Dean Pinter (Luke), Christopher W. Skinner (John), Drew J. Straight (Acts), Michael F. Bird (Romans), Lynn H. Cohick (Philippians), Allan R. Bevere (Colossians), and Dwight Sheets (Revelation). The contributors each offer thoughtful evaluations of their assigned texts and interact carefully with those who advance empire critical readings of the texts. At the risk of painting with a broad brush, the consensus among the contributors seems to be that while a critique of Caesar and his regime crops up from time to time, it is by no means the primary interest of the New Testament authors. From the standpoint of content, the book would have been stronger had it included a response essay from a scholar more sympathetic to empire criticism.
What’s the verdict?
While I might quibble over this or that point, I stand in general agreement with the editors: “We believe that the New Testament writers do indeed address the concerns highlighted by empire criticism. But we also strongly suggest that this is not their primary modus operandi” (212). We might say that the New Testament is not about the Roman Empire, but it does sometimes apply to the empire. The apostles and the early church were not out to overthrow Caesar; they had bigger fish to fry. As Paul himself wrote, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). The New Testament writers were concerned with the powers that lay behind the abuses of Rome and of all oppressive regimes. This shows up with more force in some passages than in others. I tend to read Revelation as dropping a rather severe blow on the Empire, but only because the beast-like Empire was a manifestation the dragon’s power, and the ultimate goal of Revelation’s critique is the strengthening of persecuted churches. In the end, the New Testament is about the overthrow of sin, death, and Satan; and when that conquest is fully implemented, the only empire left will be the good and righteous Empire of Christ. The editors and contributors of Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not do an excellent job of drawing our attention to this all-important focus of the New Testament.