Joe Modica and I co-edited a book recently published called Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, and now that we’ve received our copies of the book, I want to say a few things about it. The book evaluates a now quite popular method or approach called “empire criticism.” It is an example of what Tony Thiselton calls “socio-pragmatics,” the reading of the Bible in such a way that an agenda drives the reading and the reading supports the agenda.
The issue here, of course, is that empire criticism needs to be defined:
So what is empire criticism? In short, and this book is devoted to both description and evaluation of this method, it refers to developing an eye and ear for the presence of Rome and the worship of the emperor in the lines and between the lines of New Testament writings. One example here will suffice. A simple reading of Luke 2 reveals Luke using the following terms for Jesus — Savior and Lord, and alongside those terms are the terms “gospel” (good news) and “peace.” Now it so happens that empire critics call to our notice that these are the precise terms used of Caesar in Rome, the very terms broadcast throughout the empire on declarations and in letters and on countless inscriptions visible in all major cities in the empire. The implication of Luke 2, empire critics claim, is that Luke was not just imparting spiritual goods about the Christian faith. Instead, his words were laced with criticism of Rome — to say Jesus was Lord and Savior or to say Jesus was the one who brings peace and is good news is at the same time, in a covert way, to say Caesar was not Lord and not Savior, and that Caesar was neither good news and that his peace was shallow. The language of Luke 2 then was coded for anyone with a good 1st Century ear. It is only our distance and comfort with modern empires that deafens us to the sounds….
But — and this question drives our book — is this a reading “into” or a reading “out of”? We are not naive. No one who reads escapes dimensions of reading “into” but as critical realists we are convinced we can to some degree transcend our contexts and over time and practice approximate more accurate readings of the New Testament texts. For both Joe and me that question lurked behind all we were reading and hearing as empire criticism became vogue.
Which is just the problem: Is it, many are asking, right? Are we reading Rome and Caesar into the New Testament or are we reading what is actually there? If you insert the theme the theme will suddenly appear. Is it just insertion? These are the questions Jesus Lord, Caesar is Not! seeks to answer….
In our opening introduction Joe and I described five methods, or five dimensions of the method.
1. Some statements are overtly anti-empire: Acts 14:14-18.
2. Sometimes words have substantial presence in the Roman empire and makes the sensitive reader alert to an agenda in the text.
3. Sometimes what appears to be pro-empire — Romans 13 — may be, upon closer reading, subtle sabotage.
4. Sometimes the historian of Rome claims to hear things others don’t hear. Is Paul’s entry into Rome in Acts 27 a mocking of Caesar?
5. Sometimes empire criticism sounds like someone’s present politics rather than like ancient texts.
What our book does is examine what imperial cult was all about (David Nystrom), what empire critics are saying (Judy Diehl, a wonderful cataloguer of this new trend in scholarship), and then we various authors examine the claims by empire critics for various books in the New Testament. Andy Crouch, who has a splendid new book on power coming out soon, did us a favor by writing a foreword to this volume.