NT Wright, Empire Criticism, and a Brief Response

Empire and the Echo Chamber
IBR Short Paper
22 Oct 2013

Joe Modica and I are co-editors of Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, a book that evaluates how current New Testament scholars utilize “empire criticism” to discover the anti-imperial message in the gospel of Jesus and the apostles. In other words, that when Jesus or the apostles say “Jesus is Lord” they explicitly are opposing and subverting the rule of Caesar. Joe and I asked a bundle of scholars to evaluate how NT scholars do this. We are grateful that Daniel Smith of St Louis University made our book an entire session at IBR. Beside having some of the authors present for short papers (Modica, Willitts, Cohick, Diehl, McKnight) two respondents presented: Peter Oakes, a Roman historian/NT scholar at Manchester and Sylvia Keesmaat, author along with her husband, Brian Walsh, of the widely read Colossians Remixed. In some ways the focus of our book was on the sort of things that are found in Walsh-Keesmaat, so I (for one) was not surprised that Sylvia did not like our book much and offered sharper criticisms. When the questions went public, Brian was the first to speak up with a question and an observation — namely he asked if we (authors, editors) learned anything from the Bush years (which very political and presentist observation confirmed the point of our book) and then he observed that he thought the whole book was politics (which did the same, and did not take into consideration the political orientations of the authors or editors of the book, who are across the spectrum — from socialist leaning to libertarian leaning, though we did not ask any of the authors to identify their politics). I’m not suggesting that politics don’t factor into one’s readings, but I’m arguing the authors did their best to transcend their own politics by examining the hermeneutics of empire critics. Anyway, here is my paper, now only slightly edited.

Somewhere Joe Modica and I got to talking, one of observed the rise of empire criticism in New Testament studies, one of us commented that it was noteworthy that it arose during the presidency of George W. Bush, one of us also wondered aloud if the two might be related, and so our conversation began. The oddity is that both of us, at some level, were both sympathetic to the conclusions of empire critics at the same time mostly unconvinced the case was clear Jesus, Peter and Paul thought the way the critics were saying. So the birth of the volume in which we solicited authors to respond to how empire critics were making their case. A few observations about our volume before I turn to a brief response to N.T. Wright’s most recent sketch of Paul and Caesar. First, I want to draw your attention to the important essay by David Nystrom, a classicist, in which he sketches Roman imperial ideology, story and religion. And I wish for all to spend some time reading the nuanced essay by Judy Diehl who has spent far more time pondering empire critics than, I dare say, anyone in this room. These two essays set the context for an assortment of scholars, none of whom were asked to achieve any conclusion. Rather, each was asked to examine how empire critics were doing their business and whether their conclusions followed from the evidence. It is unfair to draw attention to one but I will anyway because it hails from the youngest kid on the block: Drew Strait is both doing a dissertation on how Jewish literature in 2d Temple Judaism critiqued Rome and seeing how that Jewish context helps us comprehend the New Testament witnesses. Keep your eye not only on Drew’s chapter but on the work he is producing.

Many in our circles don’t give either Dom Crossan or Dick Horsley much of a read, and they have clearly enunciated strong versions of early Christian figures standing boldly in subversive postures over against Rome. But they do read N.T. Wright and Wright’s earliest adumbrations of this anti-empire theme sounded enough like Crossan and Horsley that more than a few of us took notice. I first became aware of Tom’s posture here when he sent me unsolicited an offprint of his Gore lecture in 2002. I recall reading his line, “Paul intended his gospel to subvert not merely paganism in general but the imperial cult in particular.”[1] And that was just the beginning of what Tom would eventually call the “fresh” perspective on Paul. I paid attention to Wright on this theme and think he developed in his thinking, but just how and how much Wright has developed in this matter is too broad for our time today. Instead, to continue in line with our book I want to evaluate what Tom says in his newest book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Nor do we even have time for a full summary, so I will restrict myself to a few observations. Which begin with this: Tom is a friend but, to quote William Hazlitt, “I like a friend the better for having faults that one can talk about.”[2] I shall, then, restrict myself mostly to what I think are his faults and leave it to the record of history that we agree on most things (some of the time).

Storied Context

            First, in company with most empire critics, N.T. Wright tells a storied context in order to make sense of the evidence of the New Testament. In Tom’s case this is both a Roman story and a Jewish story. For the former Wright wrote a 100 page, non-summarizable sketch in the first part of PFG.[3] For the second, the Jewish story of two prominent side-by-side and non-exclusive theme, here is how he put it:

The two biblical positions belong in fact within the same narrative: (i) at the moment, God has given the pagan rulers sovereignty, and Israel must navigate its way to a seeking of the welfare of the city which does not compromise its ultimate loyalty, but (ii) the time will come when God will overthrow the wicked pagans, not only rescuing Israel but setting it up as the new, alternative world kingdom. Eschatology is all: the key question is, ‘what time is it?’ As we saw in chapter 7, once you understand the story, the apparently different positions make sense.

More important is the theme of Wright’s Paul work, namely that everything Paul touched revised everything he knew about the covenant God had made with Israel. Monotheism was revised by Christology and pneumatology, and the powers of this age are revised by the same. So here is his own expression of that revision:[4]

First, he reaffirmed (in line with most other Jews of his day) that all earthly powers were indeed created by the One God, and he added (as the specifically Christian modification of this) that they were created in, through and for the Messiah himself; they were, that is, intended to serve his purposes. Paul did not follow this through in the explicitly revolutionary way some might like, at least in his extant writings, but the position was a coherent modification of his starting-point. Second, he saw that 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 (however paradoxical this must have seemed, as Paul wrote from prison!). The Messiah himself was already ruling the world, and would go on reigning until the ‘last enemy’, death itself, was defeated.

When Paul places Rome and Caesar on this cosmic map he is indeed cutting them down to size. He is mocking their own global and cosmic boasts.

I see in this an attenuated form of his earlier expressions with the word “subversion” figuring more prominently while in this newer rendition of how he sees Paul and Caesar I see a chastened form of subversion. This makes a difference.

Echo Chamber

What makes Wright typical in the empire critics is that he sees these stories clashing with one another and that Paul intentionally wants the stories to clash. What makes Wright atypical is his skill in writing, not least – to use one of his favorite subordinating introductions – in his clever idea that Paul’s “story” is the “echo chamber” in which all of Paul’s writings must be read. His construction of the chamber in which he sets off the music that echoes is used constantly to read and re-read Paul’s letters in such a way that the longer one stays in the echo chamber the more one will hear echoes of Rome bouncing off the Pauline walls.

He assumes, rightly I think, that the Romans would have had their own echo chamber, one in which the music of their favorite story tellers echoed down through history. That is, their Old Testament was Homer’s Odyssey while their New Testament was Virgil’s Aeneid. Those two stories are then read into or used to frame what we see in Paul’s letters.  Here is one of Wright’s classic ways of letting us sit in his echo chamber:[5]

The great claims of Rome, especially under Augustus, to have brought salvation to the world and thereby to have instantiated justice and peace (and, indeed, to have discovered those two as divinities), inaugurating a golden age of prosperity – all this finds an echo in Romans, as Paul announces and develops his main theme. The ‘gospel’ of the ‘son of God’ provides the apocalyptic unveiling of the divine justice, through which salvation comes to all who believe (1.16– 17); this results in ‘peace’ (5.1), and in the ultimate new world when the whole creation will be set free from its slavery to corruption (8.19–21). There is no need to develop this theme further. Either the point is made with these passages or it will never be heard at all.

A common pushback is that the level knob for the music in Wright’s echo chamber is set too loud so that if one sees “son of God” or “gospel” or “savior” or “peace” or “justice” one may hear anti-Caesar tones only if the Roman music drowns out the Jewish music. Wright, responding as he has to in this volume to Jon Barclay, contends it is not the words but even more the surrounding contexts of each word. Which leads me to a pointed criticism: as is the case with many empire critics, when the empire temptation presents itself with one or more terms, the Jewish music is turned down or off so the Roman music can be given full play. In this section, in spite of Wright’s clear two-themed Jewish story and which gets full play, the themes that are now heard is what Jews mean by these same terms – son of God, gospel, savior, justice and peace. Yes, perhaps resonance from Rome but also resonance from Israel, and only after we have compared the echoes of each kind of music are we prepared to discern if the primary echo is Jewish or Roman.

Hearing the Echoes

Though Wright’s contextualizing takes up most of the pages in this nearly 50 page chapter, Tom delves into four texts, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians and Romans, with a nod to recent research on Galatians. When it comes to 2 Thessalonians, the logic is clear, compelling and I think accurate: there is apocalyptic stuff here, apocalyptic stuff is all about politics, therefore the language about Gaius Caligula and his successors, whoever they may be. Thus, “the one who set himself against every so-called god or cult object, and usurps their role, so that he installs himself in God’s temple, and makes himself to be a god” (2 Thess 2:1-5) – this is the emperor and, because of his echo chamber, he can claim everyone would have known that. I suspect Wright’s right here.

On 1 Thessalonians 5:3, when Paul speaks of “peace and security” he can only have the trumpeted claims of Caesar in mind and these are claims Paul subverts because he counter claims that Jesus will bring that peace and security. He turns then to Philippians 3:18-21 where we find terms like “citizenship” and “heaven” and “Savior” and the “Lord King Jesus.” This Jesus is the one how has power, not Caesar. “We can be morally sure,” Tom says, “that 1 Thessalonians 5 is referring, dismissively and thereby all the more powerfully, to the imperial boast of ‘protection’ which the inhabitants of northern Greece would know only all too well.”[6]

Wright plays the recent empire criticism music about Galatians in his echo chamber, but he turns that music to a late evening dinner option by signing off with the observation that much more work needs to be done. Indeed, I’d say so too.

The Pauline Music

 Wright routinely observes that Paul plays a new music in the echo chamber and this music subverts the music of Rome and revises the music of Judaism. To the Romans Paul’s music is that in Christ God has acted in power through the ignominy and paradoxical power of a crucifixion and the might of a resurrection, both leading to Jesus on the throne right now over all the powers and principalities. They have been defeated by the lorldly rule of King Jesus. So Paul subverts by way of turning everything Roman upside down.

He turns everything Jewish inside out to find that this old story of creational and covenant monotheism has been revised by a Trinitarian revelation of Father, Son, and Spirit – not exactly Tom’s terms but since he’s a bishop I can say that of him – in which Israel’s Story comes to fulfillment in that God has restored the fortunes of Israel when God entered Zion in the Son, who in spite of a death was raised by God to the throne of God.

Tom’s way of putting this cruciform story is often with the word love, so I will conclude with his words at the end of this chapter.[7]

The power and pretensions of Rome are downgraded, outflanked, subverted and rendered impotent by the power of love: the love of the One God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and Caesar’s lord.

The meaning of subversion

I have one big question, because I confess that in reading Wright I was left a bit confused: What does he mean by subversion? Empire critics, and here I think of Warren Carter and Dick Horsley especially, are not saying what Tom is saying: for them Jesus and Paul were thoroughgoing political theologians if theologians at all. In Wright’s typology of the positions,[8] from the enthusiast for Rome to the political opponent of Rome (Horsley, Crossan) to the Paul who thinks Rome is insignificant (Jon Barclay), in this taxonomy Wright places himself with Horsley and Crossan with a major proviso. Again, Horsley and Crossan, in the words of Wright, are “seeking to subvert the rule of Rome and challenge its claim to hegemony” and that their major thrusts are that Paul’s message was one of “social and political protest.” So why does Wright place himself here? “Some of us,” he observes and I call attention to that us, “have tried to offer a modified and nuanced version of Horsley’s position, in which an implicit critique of Rome and Caesar would be integrated within (rather than set over against) Paul’s ‘theology’.” Again, there is in this view no necessary incompatibility between affirming that the creator God intends human government and, at the same time, sharp critique of what those leaders do.

Wright has offered us a new version of his empire approach and I see here no longer a political theologian but a theologian whose theology runs supreme but it has political implications. I do think his readings of some texts in Paul have more political echoes than many of us but I don’t know the politics of Paul he offers is much different than what many of us have believed all along. If Jesus is Lord, then certainly Caesar is not. But empire criticism is far more forceful than this. The issue for us is how intentional and how central that cultural, social and political negation is. I’m not hearing in this recent version of Wright’s all I was hearing before. Mabye I was reading too much in the older versions.

I began by quoting that great English essayist, William Hazlitt. I shall conclude farther north, in Scotland. When I got Tom’s two-volume, 1660-page door stop of a book, I relished time to bask in what I was sure would be a great adventure into a new view of Paul. I felt like Robert Louis Stevenson reflecting on a boy’s summer vacation: “There was nothing,” he observed, “to mar your days… but the embarrassment of pleasure.”[9] That’s how I see reading Tom’s Paul – the embarrassment of pleasure. I said I’d end in Scotland, but let’s return to England, to G.K. Chesterton, and with this I’ll be done. “Once I planned to write a book of poems,” that big man once said, “entirely about the things in my pocket. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.”[10] Ah, I say, Wright’s pockets are big indeed and the time for an epic is evidently back.


[1] N.T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 231. For what follows, see N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 1271–1319.

[2] In Phillip Lopate, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1994), 194.

[3] Wright, PFG, 246–347.

[4] Ibid., 1319.

[5] Ibid., 1301.

[6] Ibid., 1291–1292.

[7] Ibid., 1319.

[8] All from 1273.

[9] Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay, 214.

[10] Ibid., 249.

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