Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Eighty

The remainder of Chapter Twelve (pp. 1300-1319) is in the main devoted to a rebuttal to John Barclay’s critique of Tom’s reading of Paul’s ‘anti-imperial’ rhetoric. There are some significant qualifications along the way, for example, whatever critique Paul would have offered of Roman paganism and the Emperor cult, it is simply a part of the wider and broader critique Jews had always been offering in regard to paganism and polytheism. Just so. The question then becomes whether Paul was convinced that Rome was the evil Empire, the one referred to in Dan. 7 as the fourth empire to be supplanted by the reign of the Son of Man. It is true that Josephus does seem to refer the 4th Empire to Rome, and other Jews in the first century might have done so as well. Paul however nowhere does this explicitly in his letters, and it would be hard to reconcile such a view with what he actually does say explicitly in Rom. 13.1-7. Now it is one thing to say that with his presentation of the Gospel Paul sees Jesus and his kingdom as outflanking (and outranking) the ‘gospel’ of the emperor (p. 1301). It is another thing to say he was about the business of inherently subverting the governing authorities and denying their right to power or rule. Deny their rights to claim deity— absolutely. Deny their rights to legitimate rule, no, Paul does not do that, and so in the latter sense his Gospel, while certainly having social and political implications, is not inherently subversive of the basic notion of human rulers authorized by God, even when the Emperor is Nero!

Tom takes Rom. 13.1-7 as follows: “This passage is not a comment on specifically Roman rule either in general or at the time Paul was writing. It is not a way of saying ‘I have had a good look at the way the Romans are currently running the world, and it has my stamp of approval. It is not, in other words, an ad hoc message which Paul might have altered in other circumstances.” It is not completely clear to me that this is correct. Rom. 13.1-7 seems to be an intended word on target, specifically reminding the audience to pay their taxes, in a situation in Rome where they might have tried to avoid doing so. While in general one say this is a piece of Jewish wisdom teaching believers how to live peacefully under alien rule and yes it does not imply the present system of government is perfect, what it does imply is: 1) the present government is legitimate unless it acts in ways that violate God’s law etc.; 2) the present government is part of God’s wider plan that human rule the world for him, and that broader principle applies even to Rome and its current governors, client kings, and Emperor. Would Paul have said exactly and ONLY this in he had lived after the fire of 64, or during the reign of Domitian, Hadrian, Trajan etc? If for example he had lived when Polycarp (see p. 1313) lived when the Roman government really was dragging in Christians and seeing if they would pledge allegiance to the God Caesar? I don’t think so. He would not have said only this, and I think Tom has made a mistake in suggesting that what was the case with Polycarp already was the case when Paul wrote Rom. 13. So far as I know. By the late 50s no Christian had been forced to pledge allegiance to the Emperor, persecution mostly coming from other quarters and for other reasons. Thus, I would suggest the anti-imperial reading of Philippians offered on pp. 1304-05 likely involves too much reading things into the text.

I would add that I don’t think Tom is right on p. 1306 to say that Paul thought at present that the Gospel of Jesus delegitimized or subverted the Romans claim to rule. Yes, de-legitimatize rulers claims to deity is implied, but this is not the same thing as taking an anti-Roman government stance in general. I do however agree that Paul thought that the crucified Messiah provided a model for a different way to respond to governmental abuses and persecution— namely leaving the vengeance and vindication in the hands of God, rather than becoming a violent revolutionary. This is correct. Paul was not advocating an escape into pietism, or a quasi-Marxist solution to the sin of the abuse of power by legitimate leaders (p. 1307). True enough. But his critique of abuses of power, specifically against Christians is not the same as a critique of use of power to enforce the law, raise taxes etc.

Barclay, as will be familiar to some, takes a very different approach to anti-imperial readings of Paul than Tom does and says this (as quoted on p. 1310)—
“Paul… reframes reality, including political reality, mapping the world in ways that reduce the claims of the imperial cult and of the Roman empire to comparative insignificance…From Paul’s perspective, the Roman Empire never was and never would be a significant actor in the drama of history;its agency was derived and dependent, co-optd by powers (divine or Satanic) far more powerful than itself….Rome did not rule the world, or write the script of history, or constitute anything unique.”

This claim Tom rejects, and I would say it probably pushes things a little bit too far in the opposite direction, but I think it is right to say that since Paul does truly believe Jesus is Lord, and God is sovereign this implies that the rising and falling of any empires, Rome included, pales into insignificance in comparison to the coming kingdom of God. The kingdom of Caesar was not so important that it should be depicted as standing toe to toe in a cage match with God’s kingdom. Not so. This is to give it too much credit. So, at most Paul takes a side swipe at such arrogance, such human vaunting, such idolatry, while getting on with his positive presentation of the real gospel and the real Lord and the real kingdom. The label on the box of Roman Empire cereal has an expiration date in Paul’s view. And no, I do not think Paul saw the Roman empire as then operating as the face of the Beast or monster 666, as John of Patmos later suggested in relationship to Domitian.

I like Tom’s description of Paul on p. 1315 as “the ragamuffin apostle, a strange and wandering Jewish jailbird writing to small and quite possibly muddled groups of people”. Indeed. His focus was on his own people, his own converts, the Christian community, and not on Caesar and his excesses. Had it been after 64, he might have had much more to say about the latter. Thus I mostly agree with the quote of Barclay on p. 1317 (bottom) that “At the deepest level Paul undermines Augustus and his successors not by confronting them in their own terms but by reducing them to bit players in a drama scripted by the cross and resurrection.” Exactly. But what is being undermined is over-reach, and idolatry. Not legitimate governmental rule. And furthermore, it is indeed right to say that the real enemies as far as Paul is concerned are the cosmic powers, and things like sin and death.

So in the end yes— governmental authorities are legitimate and their authorization and power comes from God, yes they will be called to account at the last judgment, when Christ returns. No, it is a misreading of Col. 2.14-15 and 1 Cor, 15 to say “the coming judgment of the one God had already taken place with the result that the ‘powers’ had already been led in shame behind the Messiah in his triumph.” (p. 1319). Victory over the cosmic powers on the cross, yes indeed. Human empires already judged and shamed de facto— not yet. That comes at the second coming which is what texts like 2 Thess. 2 and 1 Thess. 4-5 are all about. Christ’s death is D Day, as Cullmann said long ago, the turning point in the war on evil. It is not V-E day, which awaits the return of Christ. There is not the proper balance between eschatological already and not yet in Tom’s reading of Paul, and it results in an over-reading of the degree to which Paul critiques Empire per se.