By Drew J. Strait, St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute
I don’t know about you, but it feels like I’m adding a new book on Paul to my Amazon wish list every other month. I’m not sure if even Usain Bolt could keep up with the current pace of good books written on the apostle Paul. How is the busy pastor, in particular, to keep up? Unless you are one who can burn the midnight oil regularly—you can’t. This is where spaces like Jesus Creed come into play; spaces where cutting edge Biblical scholarship is divested from the ivory tower to the lived spaces of faith. Pastor-theologians: I write this review for you because I think Joshua Jipp’s new book, Christ is King: Paul’s Royal Ideology, has significant implications for how we articulate the political nature of Christ’s kingship for the watching world.
If the current presidential election in the United States is any indication, humans love to reflect critically on the virtues and vices of the ideal ruler. The world of the New Testament was no different. In fact, by the time of Jesus’s birth, the topic of the ideal ruler was a major theme in public speeches, media, and treatises on kingship among Greco-Roman philosophers and some Jewish authors. What is particularly striking about this literature is the way it portrays the ideal king as a mediator and representation of the divine on earth through law, piety, justice, and benefaction. To what degree, then, does the language and patterns of this ubiquitous kingship-talk influence Paul’s portrayal of Christ the king?
Joshua Jipp sets out to answer this question in a learned study that is sure to stimulate much reflection among Pauline scholars in the coming years. At the outset of this review, I have to say that it is rare for a New Testament scholar to say something genuinely new about Paul’s Letters by appeal to the literary culture of Paul’s own day. Jipp, rather remarkably, has done just that—drawing our attention to the important place of Jewish and Greco-Roman kingship discourse for Paul’s construction of a distinctive royal and messianic Christological language. In what follows I will overview each chapter before raising some more critical questions, reflections, and comments.
In chapter one, Jipp introduces his audience to the significance of kingship discourse in sources from ancient Israel, early Judaism and the Greco-Roman world. By kingship discourse, Jipp means “the specific words and patterns of speech used to talk about the Christ-figure. . .” (3). Although scholars are largely in agreement that Paul draws on Israel’s Scriptures to present Christ as a royal figure, Jipp suggests that ancient kingship discourse has been underdeveloped by scholars as a vital source for understanding Paul’s Christological language. Jipp’s basic argument is that “Paul used, reworked, and applied ancient conceptions of the good king—both Greco-Roman and Jewish—to Christ in order to structure reality or the symbolic universe of his congregations” (9). In so doing, Paul invents an alternative royal ideology “that (re)orders the ultimate allegiances and social relations of the subjects of Christ the king” (13). The chapter concludes with an impressive overview of kingship discourse in Jewish and Greco-Roman primary sources. Pastors and students alike will find much to mull on here.
Chapter two tackles the long-standing conundrum of how to interpret Paul’s positive statements on the Jewish law. Given the seeming antithesis Paul constructs between Christ and law, Jipp asks: “What, then, accounts for Paul’s coining the phrase ‘the law of Christ’ (Gal 6:2), his depiction of Christ bringing the law to completion (Gal 5:14; Rom 8:3-4; 13:8b), and his exhortation to followers of Christ to imitate him in fulfilling the law (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 6:2)?” (45). Jipp’s solution to this question may represent the most original contribution of the study. On the Greco-Roman side of things, Jipp suggests that Paul’s phrase the “law of Christ” draws on the Hellenistic notion of the ideal king as “animate law” (nomos empsychos; alternatively translated “law embodied” or “living law”). The basic premise of this concept, spelled out especially among the neo-Pythagorean philosophers, is that the ideal king is one who imitates divine law in his own persona and thereby becomes law embodied. The result is that the ideal king becomes a living law for subjects to imitate, which then brings harmony to subjects.
On the Jewish side of things, Jipp suggests that Paul draws on the Deuteronomic Law of the King (Deut 17:14-20), with its emphasis on the Israelite monarch as one who internalizes Torah by reading the law daily. Jipp argues that Paul re-works these traditions around neighborly love (Lev 19:18) by portraying Jesus as the ideal king who “embodies Israel’s law even as he reconfigures it through his cruciform pattern of love for neighbor” (63). Jipp closes the chapter with a striking reflection on the ecclesiological implications of reading Paul’s phrase the “law of Christ” alongside Jewish and Greco-Roman notions of the king as living law: “Through walking in love, welcoming one another, and bearing one another’s burdens, the church imitates the pattern of their king with the result that their community is internally harmonious” (75). From my perspective, Jipp’s insights in this chapter are historically insightful and theologically commendable.
I have one minor quip about Jipp’s appeal to the nomos empsychos ideal. Jipp reads the concept of embodied law ontologically: “he [the king] is the actual embodiment of law” (49). While we have evidence of this kind of thinking, the purpose of the nomos empsychos ideal among the philosophers was not to make a statement about the king’s ontological status in absolute terms but, rather, to empower the king to conform his behavior to the patterns and nature of both civic and divine law (and thereby proscribe the king from becoming lawless in the form of a political tyrant). Philosophers knew that full-assimilation to divine law was rare—hence, why so many of their reflections on the ideal king are an act of circumvention by focusing on regal figures from the past rather than the present (e.g., a typical trope is to reflect on the virtues and vices of the Persian king or, in Jewish literary culture, Moses, Joseph, Solomon or dead emperors rather than the contemporary Roman emperor in power [e.g., Dio Chrysostom, Or. 6; Philo Decal. 61; Legat. 138, 139-53, 157-58, 310-11; Mos. 1.148-62; Ios. 9, 32-36; 40-53; Wis 7]). Even Philo can eulogize the dead Augustus as the ideal ruler to illustrate the shortcomings of the lawless Gaius Caligula (even though Augustus’s impact on Alexandrian Jewish rights was profoundly negative [cf. Legat. 143-153]). Thus, when discussing the relationship between the king and living law, I think it is helpful to employ the descriptors “imitation,” and/or “association,” which helps to qualify the king’s subordinate status to divine law (that is, the king doesn’t stand above it through full-assimilation—a license for tyranny). Through postures of association with divine will and/or imitation of divine law, the king internalizes law and reflects the nature of the divine economy to subjects. My critique here does not lessen the impact of Jipp’s argument. Rather, I think it strengthens it: Paul suggests that Jesus is no mere imitator of divine law, but rather is the very incarnation of it (a point that, from my perspective, departs from and intensifies the ontological aspects of living law in both Jewish and Greco-Roman sources).
Chapter three investigates the widespread phenomenon in both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture of singing hymns to gods and kings in response to their benefaction. Much could be said about this chapter. In fact, I thought it could have been expanded into a book itself! The chapter opens with an encyclopedic overview of the primary sources related to hymning to Greco-Roman warrior kings and, in the Jewish context, the Davidic kings. Jipp contends that the overlapping language of divine honors and royal ideology in these hymns influences Paul’s divine Christology in the hymns to Christ in Col 1:15-20 and Phil 2:6-11.
While much has been said about the imperial overtones of Phil 2:6-11 among scholars, Jipp makes a persuasive case that Col 1:15-20 is dependent on kingship discourse. To take one example, Jipp reads Col 1:20—”And through him to reconcile all things to himself, by making peace through the blood of his cross, whether the things on earth or the things in heaven”—through the lens of Hellenistic and Roman imperial pacification of subjects through military victory (122-26). In contrast to numerous primary sources that depict the king pacifying subjects through war, Jipp provocatively argues that “the royal victory and conquest of evil powers occurs, then, not through violent wars but through the king’s death” (127). One of the payoffs of reading Paul’s hymns to Christ alongside the overlapping language used to honor gods and kings, according to Jipp, is that we can better account for how Jesus became worshiped alongside God (135). In Jipp’s own words, “. . . the journey to Nicaea where Jesus is confessed as one substance with God and yet fully human must traverse through kingship discourse. . . .” (137).
Chapter four explores Paul’s participatory soteriology. The chapter is long (71 pp.) and provides a dense discussion of primary sources. Jipp defines Paul’s participatory soteriology as Christ’s people “sharing in the rule and royal benefits of the king” (140). The chapter begins with an overview of how the Christ-hymns of Colossians and Philippians function rhetorically to socialize Paul’s churches into a realm where (a) Christ is supreme, and (b) worshipers of Christ participate in his rule and benefits (148). For Jipp, two controlling royal narratives from the Old Testament shape Paul’s participatory soteriology. The first is Yahweh’s election, anointing, and exaltation of David to participate in God’s divine kingship (150-60). The second is the function of the Davidic king as a representative of the people as one who embodies Torah-obedience and brings righteousness, cosmic peace, and benefaction to subjects (160-65). These two royal motifs, participation and representation, provide the hermeneutical framework for how Paul conceptualizes Jesus as Israel’s representative Messiah and Son of God from the seed of David (150-66).
The logic of Christ’s Messianic identity, according to Jipp, is spelled out most clearly in the Christological confessions of Rom 1:3-4 and 1 Cor 15:1-5. Paul, then, takes the identity of the Messiah in these Christological confessions and “maps it, by virtue of the Spirit’s powerful work, onto those who are ‘in Christ'” (166). Jipp argues that this hermeneutical move is most clearly articulated in Rom 5-8, where Christ’s kingship, messianic identity, and resurrection by the Spirit “are cosmically reworked by Paul as royal events in which humanity participates” (180). Although Paul does not employ Jesus’s message of the kingdom of God in a significant way in his letters, Jipp convincingly shows that the scripts of kingship discourse are reworked by Paul to portray believers participating in the rule and benefits of Christ’s kingship. Indeed, for Jipp, “Paul’s participatory soteriology is royal discourse” (166).
Christ is King is a major contribution to the field of New Testament studies. This book is frighteningly learned; the appeal to primary sources and grasp of the secondary literature is impressive. With that said, I think Jipp has opened up the door for both New Testament scholars and pastor-theologians to do more work on kingship discourse. I have three critical reflections and suggestions for further research.
First, Jipp repeatedly appeals to the word “ideology” throughout the book in the form of “royal ideology,” “kingship ideology,” and “imperial ideology.” The word ideology is employed frequently among New Testament scholars. However, it is rarely defined. Although Jipp does mention Clifford Ando’s important work on imperial ideology in a footnote (12 n. 45), nowhere—at least that I see—does he define what he means by this important term. I think further studies on kingship discourse would benefit from a robust definition of ideology, and how ideological discourses of power function in society (particularly in the relationship between subject and ruler, along with how ideology functions in boundary- and culture-making).
Second, Christ is King reads as a work of political theology. Jipp argues that Paul re-works the scripts of kingship discourse to articulate the exclusive rule of Christ the king. But how exclusive is Christ’s reign in a world of other competing allegiances to gods and human political authorities and institutions? Jipp seems to understand Christ’s kingship exclusively. For example, Jipp writes that Christ is “absolutely set apart from and superior to any other ruler” (10); “Christ is the king; (11); “[Christ is] the singular embodiment of the ideal king” (12); “Christ the perfect king is totalizing in that its supremacy, power, benefactions, and justice brook no competitors” (14); “He [Christ] is, for Paul, the only game in town” (14); “Paul’s reworking of kingship discourse to create the concept of ‘Christ the king’ has as its primary purpose the creation of . . . a new locus of absolute power that subsumes all other alternative possibilities or scenarios” (15); “This new royal ideology . . . functions as a totalizing alternative to any other competing claim to supreme rule and power” (16); “[Christ counters] every other competing claim to rulership” (81); “[Christ is] the sole king and ruler of the universe” (141); “Christ is supreme over every competitor” (145); “Paul’s creative invention of this new royal ideology helps . . . Paul’s churches in the midst of other competing religious alternatives in the ancient Mediterranean world . . . This totalizing and hegemonic ideology of Christ the King works to justify the obedience and allegiance of Paul’s churches to the resurrected and enthroned ruler of the world” (276); and “This new Pauline ideological construct of ‘Christ the king’ has resulted in a new worldview, a new locus of absolute power that subsumes all other alternative possibilities for Paul’s churches” (281).
With Jipp’s claims of Christ’s exclusive rule in mind, what does Paul’s royal ideology mean for the contemporary church whose political imagination is often co-opted by competing allegiances to the nation-state through civil religion, American exceptionalism, partisan politics, and militarism? As I read Jipp’s work I couldn’t help but think of Bill Cavanaugh’s book, Migrations of the Holy (Fortress, 2011), where Cavanaugh explores Christians’ transfer of devotion from the church to the nation-state. Cavanaugh suggests that a de-politicized church has produced Christians who appeal to the nation-state for hope and cosmic harmony (rather than to the church); this has propelled liturgies of nationalism where Christian subjects sacrifice/kill for the nation-state’s self-interests (indeed, in the words of Cavanaugh, subjects “kill for the telephone company”). And here is my deeper question: Can Jipp’s work on Paul’s royal ideology help us reverse the church’s migration toward the nation-state by sparking new insight into (1) early Christianity’s exclusive allegiance to Christ the king as the supreme cosmic benefactor of salvation, hope, and intra-ethnic harmony; and (2) the church as the primary political platform for bearing witness to the law of Christ, the righteousness/justice of God, and Christ’s powerful work of reconciling humans to God and humans to one another through the cross? My sense is that it can. Jipp has, in my mind, carved out an exegetical path for us to de-colonize the church’s political imagination by reconsidering Paul’s alter-cultural Christology and ecclesiology wherein Christ-followers perform and participate in the cruciform reign and rule of God’s representative Son of God here on earth. Of course, this is where we need pastor-theologians to read Jipp’s book and help us determine what all this means on the ground!
My third question/suggestion for further research builds upon my second point: if Christ’s reign is exclusive over other competing allegiances, then to what degree is Paul’s kingship discourse polemical? Put differently, if Christ’s reign brooks no competitors then what is Paul’s larger “attitude” toward the religions of Rome, including emperor worship? Jipp does attempt to cover his backside on this point. For example, Jipp draws on the recent proposals by John M. G. Barclay, Michael Thate and Christoph Heilig to suggest that Paul’s evocation of imperial motifs does not translate to an antithetical dichotomy between Christ and Caesar (14-15). In the same breath, though, Jipp seems to suggest that the very discourses of cosmic power underlying the emperor cult play a major role in Paul’s construction of an alternative royal ideology—an ideology that is, according to Jipp, “totalizing” (15). Is it possible, then, for Paul to reconfigure the scripts and topoi of kingship discourse to exalt the resurrected Christ as the rightful ruler of this world without an object of resistance? This question is especially apt since Paul re-contextualizes kingship discourse in a missional context that calls worshipers of gods and kings to repentance (1 Thess 1:9). Indeed, Jipp’s appeal to Paul’s “alternative royal ideology” raises the question: An alternative to what?
We know that Philo re-contextualizes kingship discourse antithetically (see above); we also see this strategy of resistance in the Wisdom of Solomon (Wis 7:1-9:18) and especially in Dio Chrysostom (Or. 1-4, 6). My point here is not to suggest that Paul’s kingship discourse is a call for sedition or is anti-imperial per se; rather, it is to suggest that the very circumstances that wrought reflections on the ideal ruler were polemical and, at times, an act of discursive resistance. If Paul is indeed drawing on kingship discourse, then it seems to me that Paul’s persuasive strategies are more polemical than Jipp acknowledges. An interrelated and equally pressing question is this: Is Paul’s silence on Rome a reliable indicator for discerning Paul’s purported lack of interest in critiquing the ruling power? It is worth observing that the primary rhetorical medium for criticizing the ruling power in the Greco-Roman world literarily was not blunt speech (παρρησία) but, rather, figuring one’s speech with hidden criticism through “ambiguity of expression” (Quintilian, Inst. 9.2.66-67). Thus, not critiquing the emperor cult explicitly is exactly what one would expect from a subject wishing to critique the ruling power artfully and covertly (pace Barclay, who Jipp seems to follow). Still, the rhetorical strategy of figured speech is a far cry from the synthetic and predominantly non-literary forms of resistance called “hidden transcripts” popularized among NT scholars (here I am in strong agreement with Jipp that scholarly appeal to James C. Scott’s theory of hidden transcripts has, at times, been mishandled [41 n. 198]).
On the one hand, I appreciate Jipp’s desire to not overcook a direct antithetical dichotomy between Christ and Caesar, and to avoid narrowly pinning down an individual emperor as the referent of Paul’s polemic (15 n. 61; 133). On the other hand, the evidence Jipp marshals, in my mind, articulates a polyvalent/universal critique of objects of power that distort the proper knowledge of God revealed in Christ the king. How, then, can we describe the antithesis between Christ and other competing theo-political allegiances without anachronistically reading our own a priori sentiments toward empire into Paul’s kingship discourse? In the words of Thate, are we reading for the text’s “political potential” or the political “that is present within the historical?” In search for the latter, Jipp’s study is exemplar in that it animates Paul’s kingship discourse by appeal to Paul’s own literary culture. However, further investigation of the intrinsic polemical nature of kingship discourse may shed further light on the Paul and politics debate. Much more could be said about this important topic. I will conclude with one final thought. In an attempt to describe the attitude of Paul’s kingship discourse toward the religions of Rome, I wonder if Jipp’s project would profit from Anathea Portier-Young’s descriptor “counter-cosmology”? That is to say, Paul’s kingship discourse counters the religions of Rome with an alternative cosmology that reorients faith (that is, “believing allegiance” to borrow a phrase from Michael Gorman) away from temple, image, and sacrifice toward “another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:7). As Steven Friesen has argued, cosmology was the primary religious concern of the Roman imperial cults. Paul, too, is deeply concerned with the cosmic order of things: to be a follower of Jesus is to embody an alter-cultural relationship to God, kingship, and ethnicity. To animate the new cosmic reality birthed in Christ, Jipp persuasively shows that Paul employs kingship discourse “to transform, reorder, and stabilize the world of the king’s subjects by relating them to the resurrected and living body of the enthroned king” (12). This latter point deserves serious consideration for pastor-theologians wishing to mediate and preach the presence of Christ the king to the church.
Joshua Jipp has done us a serious service in writing this book. I sincerely hope that the second volume of this book is written out in the lives of Christ’s followers in the church. If we can live as if Christ is king, and embody the Messianic ethic of neighborly love and non-retaliation espoused by Jipp, then maybe we can reclaim the point in fact that the crucified Messiah is not only the ideal king, but is the king.
 Michael Thate, “Politics and Paul: Reviewing N. T. Wright’s Political Apostle,” The Marginalia Review of Books (January 6, 2015), http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/politics-paul-reviewing-n-t-wrights-political-apostle-michael-thate/.