Counter-Imperial Gospel: Only “One King”

As I read more of Greco-Romans sources, I’m increasingly convinced that the gospel would have been perceived as counter-imperial. Paul’s colleagues in Thessalonica were mobbed because: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7).  This story reminds of an an episode from Caligula’s life described by Suetonius (Caligula 22):

“Upon hearing some kings, who came to the city to pay him court, conversing together at supper, about their illustrious descent, he exclaimed,

Eis koiranos eto, eis basileus.
Let there be but one prince, one king.

He was strongly inclined to assume the diadem, and change the form of government, from imperial to regal; but being told that he far exceeded the grandeur of kings and princes, he began to arrogate to himself a divine majesty. He ordered all the images of the gods, which were famous either for their beauty, or the veneration paid them, among which was that of Jupiter Olympius, to be brought from Greece, that he might take the heads off, and put on his own.”

Evidently, Caligula did not like the idea of their being other kings in other lands. So one must wonder what his response would have been to the first Roman Christians who believed in King Jesus. Would the birth narratives of the Gospels that establish Jesus’ Davidic and Divine credentials be a potential rival to Roman claims about the origins of their Emperors?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Mike, thank you for this post. I think one reason why we in the West find it hard to see this aspect of the gospel is our own Western understanding of religion and politics. Those who have grown up in other parts of the world, where there is rarely true democracy, see the world differently. Often there are social-religious-political powers that rule the country. To claim that there is one Creator God who has sent his Son to be the true King would be counter-cultural. What is equally counter-cultural would, of course, be the fact that the followers of Christ in the New Testament did not intend to overcome power by power. Instead, they seek to follow the crucified Christ and allow the one who raised him from the dead to manifest his power through their weakness.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Mike, thank you for this post. I think one reason why we in the West find it hard to see this aspect of the gospel is our own Western understanding of religion and politics. Those who have grown up in other parts of the world, where there is rarely true democracy, see the world differently. Often there are social-religious-political powers that rule the country. To claim that there is one Creator God who has sent his Son to be the true King would be counter-cultural. What is equally counter-cultural would, of course, be the fact that the followers of Christ in the New Testament did not intend to overcome power by power. Instead, they seek to follow the crucified Christ and allow the one who raised him from the dead to manifest his power through their weakness.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1846284634 Ray Pennoyer

    On this topic, parts of James Edwards’ Is Jesus the Only Savior? are very relevant and quite good.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1846284634 Ray Pennoyer

    On this topic, parts of James Edwards’ Is Jesus the Only Savior? are very relevant and quite good.

  • Alan K

    Always enjoy the blog, Mike. Question (actually Rodney Stark’s question): if the gospel was counter-imperial (which I, not Stark, am open to considering), how is it that the church survived? Would it not have been smashed by Rome if it was perceived as a power competitor?

    • Anonymous

      I’m sure Mike can offer a good answer. But I suggest that we read Revelation to find out what John’s visions have to say about how the church can survive.

    • Mike Bird

      Alan, well, the Roman apparatus did try to destroy all the Christians because it was perceived to be a competitor.

  • Alan K

    Always enjoy the blog, Mike. Question (actually Rodney Stark’s question): if the gospel was counter-imperial (which I, not Stark, am open to considering), how is it that the church survived? Would it not have been smashed by Rome if it was perceived as a power competitor?

    • Anonymous

      I’m sure Mike can offer a good answer. But I suggest that we read Revelation to find out what John’s visions have to say about how the church can survive.

    • Mike Bird

      Alan, well, the Roman apparatus did try to destroy all the Christians because it was perceived to be a competitor.

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  • terri moore

    Joe Fantin wrote a dissertation for Sheffield on this very topic that is quite good. I’m not sure if it is published. I only have a copy on my shelf b/c I’ve never given it back after “borrowing” it about a year ago!

  • terri moore

    Joe Fantin wrote a dissertation for Sheffield on this very topic that is quite good. I’m not sure if it is published. I only have a copy on my shelf b/c I’ve never given it back after “borrowing” it about a year ago!

  • Dumm Sean

    Hello Mike,

    This post reminds me of Crossan & Borg’s The First Paul. Paul relentlessly flouted Rome in his authentic letters, robbing for Christ the Emperor’s sacred title “the Lord”. The “Paul” of 1 Tim and Titus declined to do the same, only daring to call Christ “our Lord”, never “the Lord”.

    Crossan and Borg’s explanation for this discontinuity is of course that Paul did not write 1 Tim and Titus. Perhaps you have a different view?

    Cheers,
    Sean

  • Dumm Sean

    Hello Mike,

    This post reminds me of Crossan & Borg’s The First Paul. Paul relentlessly flouted Rome in his authentic letters, robbing for Christ the Emperor’s sacred title “the Lord”. The “Paul” of 1 Tim and Titus declined to do the same, only daring to call Christ “our Lord”, never “the Lord”.

    Crossan and Borg’s explanation for this discontinuity is of course that Paul did not write 1 Tim and Titus. Perhaps you have a different view?

    Cheers,
    Sean


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