Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not—Part Six


The NT was mostly written by early Jews. One possible or likely exception to this rule is Luke, who, nonetheless, shows such a knowledge of the LXX that it is possible he was a God-fearer, and so on the margins of the Jewish community before he became a follower of Jesus. Most NT scholars, including this one, believe that the Gospels were written in the last third of the first century, and that would include Luke’s Gospel, and Acts as well. In other words, these documents were written after the early Jewish world changed irrevocably when Titus captured Jerusalem and sacked and burned the Temple in about A.D. 70. In the wake of this ‘end of the early Jewish world’ as a temple centered religion, the Romans added insult to injury by imposing a tax on Jews to be used to build Roman shrines, which was to be the substitute for paying the half shekel temple tax to the temple in Jerusalem. Previously, Jews had only had to offer prayers or sacrifices on behalf of the Emperor but not TO the Emperor, and so they had avoided any direct connection with the imperial cult. After A.D. 70, Jewish money was going to go to build Roman shrines (see the essay on Luke and Empire by D. Pinter, p. 103). If ever there was to be a provocation for Jews to write coded messages cursing the Empire and the Emperor cult etc. one would think this development would have provided the tipping point.

Oddly, apart from the prophecies about the fall of the Temple by Jesus in the Synoptics, the NT is largely silent on this disastrous turn of events. Indeed, on the basis of this stoney silence, J.A.T. Robinson once wrote a book entitled Redating the NT, suggesting that all the books of the NT must have been written prior to 70 A.D. or surely they would reflect the impact of this major event in some fashion, at least indirectly or by coded language.. Do we see evidence of a critique of Rome, and more particularly of the imperial cult in Luke-Acts?

First of all, as Pinter says, (p. 104) there is no direct mention of the imperial cult at all in Luke-Acts. This is correct. What we do have in abundance of the calling of Jesus Lord (kyrios) in both volumes of Luke’s work, coupled with Luke’s willingness to call Jesus a king—Lk. 1.33;23.2 etc. Does this mean, as Kavin Rowe suggests that Christians inevitably must deny what Caesar claims to be? On the one hand it is true that Christians would and did say that while there were gods many and lords many in the Greco-Roman world, for them Jesus was their lord (see 1 Cor. 8.5-6). The issue here however is more complex that Rowe seems to realize: 1) Christians saw Jesus as the risen Lord, that is, his Lordship was predicated on the fact that God raised him from the dead. Now that is a particular kind of claim, a particular kind of lordship, and no other person in the Greco-Roman world was making that claim, including not even Caesar. 2) just as importantly is the qualifying word ‘our’. The actual sphere of direct lordship on earth that Christians seem to have been claiming was that Christ ruled over believers, and their community. He ruled only indirectly over others who did not confess his lordship, and he ruled over the angelic powers and principalities on behalf of his people as well, but this said nothing about the relationship of those powers to human rulers, one way or another. In other words, while calling Jesus the risen Lord is making a positive claim no one else could make, since no one else was making such a claim, it is hard to see it as also a ‘counter-claim’ to the imperial rhetoric.

Of all the dramatic pendulum swings in NT scholarship in the last hundred or so years, one of the most dramatic is the shift from claiming that Luke was doing apologetics on behalf of Christianity to governing officials, indicating Christianity was not a threat to their political governing, to the claim that we have hidden scripts in Luke-Acts of anti-imperial rhetoric which of course would not exactly win friends and influence officials in their favor. Pinter (p. 109) makes the good point that we have no reason to think Luke was writing under the nose of a Flavian Emperor, like Josephus was, and so a comparison with Josephus’ modus operandi as he does apologetics for Jews in his Jewish Wars and Antiquities at best must be done with extreme caution. Furthermore, “The Roman Empire was not a police state with secret agents ready to intercept written communications of voluntary associations, religious communities, or personal correspondence.” (p. 109). Exactly right. The situation was not like being under the Nazi regime or the dark days of Stalin in Russia.

Pinter complains, I think rightly, that James Scott’s work on hidden transcripts has been misapplied to the NT, because Scott’s approach presupposes that the documents were public documents. Furthermore, if Luke was a code writer, his proclaiming openly that Jesus was Lord and King would show him to be a poor one and if he is going to be bold enough to do that, then it becomes quite surprising there is no open critique of Empire or Emperor cult. In fact, it should be stressed that it is Luke who presents us with Paul the Roman citizen who is proud of his Roman citizenship since birth and uses it as a trump card, a get out of jail free card, when he needs to.

Pinter suggests (p. 110) that perhaps like Philo in dealing even with Caligula (whom he calls master and lord and benefactor and savior, while calling Israel’s God God the benefactor of all and the savior of Israel–Embassy to Gaius 118-290), Luke thought that “the relationship between two holders of the same title need not be antagonistic.” In a religiously and politically pluralistic culture, what’s one more lord and savior on the block? Pinter adds “Luke seems capable of imagining…different kinds of power relationships at work in the life and ministry of Jesus than simply portraying the emperor and his agents as the enemy. “It appears that for Luke, Jesus’ lordship and Caesar’s lordship are categorically different.” (p. 111). Perhaps an analogy will be appropos here…

Picture two boats both sailing on the same sea. One boat is much larger than the other, and has many more people on board, and its captain claims not only to be captain but lord and master of the seas, and those who are ‘on board’ with him, benefiting from his commerce have no problems in affirming his claims, even if it involves some hyperbolic rhetoric. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,you flatter it. However, what that captain does not know is that his boat is full of holes, and it will eventually inevitably sink, like all such Titanic sized boats. The captain thought it was invulnerable because of its size, manpower, weaponry, and because of who he was, but in fact it could sink in a day, even in an hour (see Revelation). Nevertheless, this giant grain freighter sails on directly across the Mediterranean even out of due season for such voyages, so great is the ruler’s hubris and belief in his and his boat’s abilities an so little does he fear some negative divine intervention. After all, the captain said to himself, I not only have the gods on my side, I am one of them.

Now contrast this with a much smaller boat, a fisherman’s boat. This boat sails point to point along the coast and seems to be just another boat. It has various people in it, mostly non-elite people, but in the back of the boat is a master and lord actually worthy of the name. He has recent had a miraculous thing happen to him— he was raised from the dead and is better than ever. Now this boat is newly made, and it has its own journey to pursue, and it is not really concerned with the giant grain freighter that goes by it on its way back to Rome. All the captain and crew of this boat is interested in is picking up more passengers who believe in this captain and master, and continuing to sail toward a very different kingdom than Rome, one that will outlast Rome and does not need to compete with Rome or do polemics against Rome in particular to do so. It simply needs to be itself and believe in the sovereignty of God who rules over all large boats and small ones, and by whose hands even large boats rise and fall and small ones can make it safely into port one day. I suggest this is how early Christians actually viewed their world.

Rowe suggests that Luke is saying not that Jesus is a rising rival to Caesar,but rather that Caesar is the rival to the real Lord. Pinter rightly points to Lk. 22.25-27 in which Jesus suggests a leadership model that is an alternative to all human rulers and kings’ extant models. “there is nothing to indicate that the alternative to Jesus is narrowly Caesar and the power he wields” (p. 111). Pinter goes on to show that Luke paints some Roman officials in a positive light (see Lk. 7.5, the centurion). The agents of Rome can be good and useful servants (see Zacchaeus in Lk. 19.8-9). And Luke categorizes the destruction of Jerusalem, by Roman armies, as God’s judgment, just as Josephus did. Further, Luke depicts a Pilate who doesn’t want to judge Jesus, does not see him deserving execution, dismisses political charges leveled by others does not construe the claim to be king of the Jews as a threat to Caesar, king of the Jews is a local claim, not the same as king of the Empire and he shows that the claim that Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews was made neither by Jesus nor by Pilate but by the Jewish authorities. Pinter goes on to point to the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10, and the Roman officials like Gallio in Acts 18 or Felix in Acts 24 who are either in favor of the Gospel, or see its representatives as not committing a crime against Rome. Note that later Tacitus Annals 15.44-45 concluded that neither Jesus nor his followers were seditious or dangerous.

I commend Pinter’s judicious summary of things on pp. 113-14. Since Jesus is Lord of all, Caesar is simply a temporary, subordinate human ruler. It is not a rivalry or contest then or now, and one day the real Lord will be the judge of all.