Is the Gospel necessarily against empires (like, say, even America, he asks sheepishly on the morning of July 4)?

Today is July 4th, and, being independent of oppressive British rule, I chose today, as a free man, to bring to your attention an informative, learned, but utterly readable book published this spring (IVP) and edited by Scot McKnight and by my colleague at Eastern University, Joe Modica: Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies.

This book assembles essays from 10 scholars for the purpose of describing and evaluating “empire criticism.” The essays address those parts of the New Testament where empire criticism is more prevalent. They do a solid job of being even-handed, refraining from overstatement, and laying out clearly how each thinks the New Testament does and does not engage in empire criticism.

Which leads to the question many of you are asking: “What the heck is empire criticism?” It’s an approach to New Testament studies whereby the New Testament’s message is seen primarily as a criticism of the Roman empire. Put another way, the proclamation “Jesus is Lord” is not simple an expression of religious devotion but political subversion, since Caesar was also known as “lord.”

The editors and authors don’t question whether empire criticism is found in the New Testament–it most clearly is. They question whether it is as dominant and central an idea as some say it is. Concerning the latter view, the editors (as do some of the essays) mention especially the work of Warren Carter, N. T. Wright, and Richard Horsley, and Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat).

The example they lead off with in the introduction is a good one–and I use it with my undergrad students to show that the message of the Gospel is about more than morning devotions: Luke 2. Jesus, at his birth, is described as savior and lord, born of God, and whose reign will bring good news and peace.

Hold that thought. Now look at a portion of the famous Priene Calendar Inscription, that laud’s the birth of Caesar Augustus:

Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

Augustus, a god, was sent by “Providence” to bring “good tidings” (= “good news”, i.e., “gospel”; the Greek is the common NT word euangelion) that would benefit all humanity by ending war and “arranging all things.”

It’s hard to read the birth story in Luke and not say, “Wow. That looks like Roman rhetoric. Maybe the birth of Jesus is told in this way to signal that the gospel is anti-Roman, that Jesus is the real Lord and Caesar isn’t.”

That’s the gist of “empire criticism,” and I agree with the observation.

What this book brings to the discussion, however, is the following sober idea, which I would frame as a question: “Is the purpose of the gospel to oppose Rome–or–does the proclamation of the gospel as an alternate ‘empire’ necessarily include the dethroning of Rome and its exaggerated claims as the supreme power in the cosmos?”

Many empire critics would say yes to the first question. McKnight/Modica et al. would say yes to the second. I side with the latter group.

Empire criticism definitely exists in the New Testament and we miss a crucial element of the gospel’s exposition if we aren’t aware of it. Those new to the idea will benefit greatly from the essays in this book that walk you through the relevant portions of the New Testament.

The gospel is inextricably tied the righting of wrongs and stripping bare the false claims of any political regime that poses as the ultimate source of justice and peace–a “false eschatology” as N. T. Wright has put it. And, if I may say as an American on this July 4th, that includes any such claims made by contemporary empires including our own.

But, empire criticism is not to be equated with the gospel message; it is an implication of the gospel. I think this sums up the book pretty well.

Neither does the gospel claim to render irrelevant the world of human politics. Jesus is Lord, yes, but so is Caesar–over something. The issue is that Jesus is Lord of lords, including Ceasar, but that is not to encourage dropping out of society, etc. Jesus himself said “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

If you will indulge me, my own take on passages like Luke 2 (as well as the genealogy that opens up the Gospel of Matthew) are clearly couched in “anti-empire” language, or as I would prefer to say–taking my cue from Walter Brueggemann–”alternate empire” language. In view here is not simply a criticism of the Roman empire but any empire that seeks to rule by force of military might.

That includes Jewish messianic expectations at the time of Jesus’ birth. Segments of Judaism, fueled by the Old Testament vision of the people of Israel eventually dominating the world scene and weary of hundreds of years of foreign rule, were looking for a change. They were expecting at some point, hopefully soon, for God to show up and re-establish the independence of the Jewish state, free from Roman oppression and influence. As long as pagans ruled over God’s chosen people, God’s plan for Israel is on hold.

“Messiah” refers to a military/religious leader who would bring that about through the usual means amply supported by the Old Testament: war. In my opinion, Luke and others present Jesus to their readers by playing off of this sensitive political topic only to subvert it rather quickly.

If you knew nothing of Jesus but did understand both Roman rhetoric and Jewish political expectations of independence, and then read Luke 1-2–Gabriel’s words to Mary, Mary’s song, Zechariah’s prophecy, Simeon’s prophecy, and the angels’ announcement to the shepherds–you would think that this Jesus was destined to liberate Israel from Rome and usher in the “kingdom of God.”

Working off of these expectations, Luke and others quickly subvert them by redefining messianic expectations, which ultimately leads to this messiah, Jesus, in effect losing to Rome (he is crucified) but then raised to usher in a kingdom of a different sort.

Put another way, Luke and others use the theological language available to them from their tradition–the Old Testament idea of Israel as a permanent political entity, which is evidence of God’s favor–but then subverts and transforms that language to speak of a “messiah” and a “kingdom” that Israel’s story was not prepared to articulate.

But that’s just what I think. At any rate, I recommend this book to you. It will make you think about what the gospel is, which is a good thing.


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