If like me you’re a Christian layperson and an armchair theologian at best, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that “empire criticism” in New Testament studies is actually a thing, much less why a substantial number of extremely smart people in the halls of academia are devoting their time and mental energies to it. I’m with you. The term was new to me when I picked up Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (IVP Academic), edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica. But I had a hunch it was a consequential topic, nonetheless, and after reading it I’m even more convinced.
First, a word about the editors and contributors. McKnight is of course familiar to many for his helpful and accessible books The Jesus Creed (and blog of the same name), The King Jesus Gospel, and (for my money) especially A Community Called Atonement. Joe Modica is less well known to most, but he’s familiar to me from my days at Eastern, where he serves as chaplain and teaches biblical studies.
Together McKnight and Modica have assembled contributions from ten different biblical scholars, each focused on exploring empire criticism in reference to a different New Testament book. Rather than tracing the history of empire criticism or providing biographies of its proponents, the authors simply dive right in, engaging with prominent scholars in the field and evaluating specific biblical passages that feature prominently in their work.
Before I go any further, I should probably clarify what is actually meant by empire criticism. Theologian and scholar Pete Enns defines it well, I think, as “an approach to New Testament studies whereby the New Testament’s message is seen primarily as a criticism of the Roman empire. Put another way, the proclamation ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not simple an expression of religious devotion but political subversion, since Caesar was also known as ‘lord.’”
None of the contributors would question the statement, “Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.” The biblical authors make that clear, and these scholars affirm it. Likewise, there’s little doubt that in any society, but especially those in the shadow of empire, such affirmations have political consequences.
But here’s the big question: is the false lordship of Caesar the primary thing biblical authors are out to negate in affirming the true lordship of Jesus? To that, the contributors would rightly be unified in saying no.
Abraham Maslow is famously credited with saying that for those who have a hammer, everything begins to resemble a nail. Similarly, for those inclined to see the world primarily through the lenses of imperialism and colonialism, those categories will start to inform everything they encounter, the Bible not excluded. But this of course raises the question of exegesis and eisegesis – those fancy but important Greek words having to do with whether we are “reading into” or “reading out of” what scripture actually says. This book is a careful exploration of that very question, and it’s a good exercise for us all, scholar and armchair theologian alike.
My conclusion, which I generally share with this book’s contributors, is that empire criticism has an unfortunate tendency to overreach by implying that the New Testament authors were primarily concerned with pitting Jesus and his kingdom against Caesar and the Roman empire. In actual fact, it seems they’re primarily concerned with pointing to Jesus as the true king, one without any earthly rivals, and that we await the coming of the incorruptible kingdom of God. This is in opposition not primarily to Caesar, but to the claims of Satan, whose kingdom is surely doomed, but who is nonetheless for now an enemy far greater than any mortal emperor.
At the same time, though some pay undue attention to empire, it’s still very worthwhile to engage with the thinking of empire criticism for the simple reason that it does raise important questions about context and biblical subplots, and by doing so it helps us understand important (and sometimes overlooked) aspects of the New Testament. Suffice it to say that sociopolitical realities are in no way irrelevant to our lives as followers of Christ, or for that matter, as humans.
The editors and contributors should be commended for showing the complexity of the context of the New Testament writings, accounting for the important sociopolitical realities of the Roman empire, yet recognizing the New Testament audience was – and still is! – one with concerns than run even deeper.
What I love the most about this book is that, without exception, the contributors do a fine job of showing that when it comes to the New Testament books and the postcolonial interpretations of them, simplistic and reactionary readings will not do. The Bible, and the real world – both then and now – are simply too complex for that.
[Image: Statue of Augustus via Wikimedia Commons]
This book was provided to me from the publisher for free in exchange for my honest thoughts.