Paul and the Heritage of Israel— Part Six

Richard Pervo’s contribution to the Paul and the Heritage of Israel volume, entitled “(Not) Appealing to the Emperor” is a valuable one. For one thing, it is a mistake to lump attitudes about the Empire, attitudes about a particular Emperor (say Nero) and attitudes about the growing Imperial cult together. One could be anti-Imperial cult without reservation and at the same time say something like we find in Rom. 13. Pervo’s purview is to sort of Luke’s view, and he begins with a crucial point— you can’t date a document very adequately on the apparent attitudes it reflects to these three aforementioned inter-related matters. He is right that until A.D. 250 Emperors were not the main enemies of concern for the Christians. (p. 166). He is also quite right that there are no unequivocally pro-imperial Christian writers in the first three centuries of Christian history. Most Christians saw both pros and cons in the Emperor and the Empire and all things Roman, unless and until they were persecuted by the Roman authorities. As Pervo stresses it doesn’t help to over-stress the pros at the expense of the cons, or vice versa. A more balanced approach is needed. In the assessing of Luke-Acts there are advocates who suggest a more pro position, and those which more recently suggest a con position (cf the assessment of K. Rowe), but the point is there is evidence in this almost one third of the NT to support both arguments.

Interestingly, Pervo feels compelled to deal with Rom. 13.1-7 first. He points out quite rightly that early Christian use of this passage shows that the powers in question were assumed to be earthly, not angelic or heavenly, though Irenaeus apparently knew of some Christians who had argued the latter case and he felt a need to refute it (Ad Haer. 5.24.1). Paul, as Pervo points out, is standing in a long line of Jewish tradition in what he says in Rom. 13, especially more recently the Wisdom tradition, the basic point of which was that monarchs rule at God’s pleasure and all real authority comes from God (cf. 2 Sam. 12.8; Jer. 27.5-6;Dan. 2.21-38; 4.17-32, 5.21; Wis. Sol. 6.3; 1 Enoch 46.5; Josephus Wars 2.140). 1 Clement 60.4-61.1 makes reasonably clear that Rom. 13 is known by Christians in Rome in the latter part of the first century, and agreed with. It is possible, but uncertain that 1 Peter 2.13-17 reflects a knowledge of what Paul says in Romans 13 (and compare 1 Tim. 2.1-3; Tit. 3.1-3,8). The prayer for the Emperor in 1 Clement, namely for the Emperor to do the right thing, shows that obedience could be qualified in some respects, especially if the Emperor was persecuting Christians. Still, there is a difference between an illegitimate Emperor, and a legitimate one behaving badly. Even martyrs like Polycarp talking about praying for the Emperor and even persecutors (Phil. 12.3). Justin (1 Apol. 17) talks about Christians willingly paying taxes.

Pervo (p. 170) points to a very interesting passage in Martyrdom of Polycarp 10.2 where Polycarp, speaking to a proconsul,talks about having been taught to respect the governing authorities appointed by God (a probable allusion to Rom. 13 and perhaps 1 Peter) “as long as it does us no harm…”

Pervo then points to the somewhat revolutionary material in Lk. 1-2 particularly Lk. 1.68-79 and 1.46-55 contrasting with the arrival of a new savior who brings peace (2.11-14). So as Pervo says “Luke thought that God could do better than the Roman Empire, which was not, for that reason, wicked. [But] “The same material that makes Jesus a rival of Augustus (and Trajan) is also willing to see the emperor and empire as tools of Providence: Lk. 2.1-7.” (p. 171). Luke’s work is not like the later Acts of the Scillitan martyrs who take a radical stance and refuse not only to swear by the ‘genius’ of the Emperor but also refuse to pray for his welfare. This dates to A.D. 180, and shows a change in attitude to earlier Christian literature.

Acts of Paul 14 stands in contrast to earlier NT literature that deals with the subject, here, as Pervo points out, Paul is depicted as refusing any recognition of the Emperor’s earthly power or of his legal criminal jurisdiction. (p. 172). The importance of the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) is in part that it sees itself as a continuation of Acts 28, telling the rest of the story. But as Pervo notes, the attitude towards the governing authorities has changed from Acts to Acts of Paul 14. Pervo thinks that there are linguistic traces of knowing the Pastorals in Acts of Paul 14, though he argues that the attitude towards government is very different. There are some important resources listed in this article as well, for example the classic study by E.J. Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War (1919 was the original publication date), and on Christians serving in the Roman military J. Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine,” in ANRW II.23.1 (1979) pp. 724-834 and also W. Rordorf, “Tertullians Beurteilung des Soldatenstandes,” in Lex orandi, lex credenda (Freiburg: Universitatsverlag, 1993), pp. 263-99 with bibliography.

It is typical of the reasoning which insists on the Pastorals being post-Pauline and perhaps very post-Pauline that when Pervo finds echoes of the Pastorals in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, he mentions the notion that Polycarp is the author of the Pastorals as well as his own letter. But if both the Acts of Paul and Polycarp reflect knowledge of the Pastorals, this more likely suggests that the Pastorals preceded both such sources.

Pervo concludes his helpful study, remarking “One purpose of this paper has been an attempt to demonstrate that the attitude towards the Roman Empire, by which one must mean ‘attitudes’, is not a valid criterion for dating texts. The chronological table that begins with the radical apocalyptic c. 30 CE and ends with the church as chaplain to the establishment c 330 CE is utter nonsense. The millenarian Orosius, for example, belonged to the early fifth century.” (p. 179). This is an important point. Different early Christians reacted differently to Roman authority during the period leading up to Constantine, and even thereafter. As for Luke “The Way he envisioned was amenable to Greco-Roman culture and to imperial rule, but it was neither married to it nor overly concerned with defending it, although it could help make some improvements.” (p. 179). Luke according to Pervo assumes the posture of a reformer, not one that wants the existing governmental structure knocked down necessarily. (p. 179).

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