Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not— Part Three

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not— Part Three October 12, 2014


The article by Judith Diehl (pp. 38-81, the longest article in the book) is a condensation of several survey articles she has done on the subject of the NT and the Imperial Cult. It is a very useful piece of summarizing and evaluating, but it has some surprising lacunae– for example where is the treatment of Chris Bryan’s important Render unto Caesar book? Nevertheless, you can’t cover everything in one Reader’s Digest sort of article, and what it does give us, including the biblio is excellent.

As Nicolaus of Damascus was to say— imperial cult worship was a response to imperial benefaction. The question is, did this sort of phenomena cause Christians to write all sort of hidden or coded messages into their documents, critizing the Emperor cult? (see p. 40). There is a further question— did the Christians writing the NT see their faith as inherently subversive in character, in a way that Judaism was not? To be sure, Emperors could be paranoid—after all from 14 B.C. to 96 A.D. only one out of ten Emperors died a natural death, but were they concerned with rooting out Christianity in some systematic way which could have produced a strong response of criticism from the NT writers?

As for the systematic’rooting’ out question, the answer seems to be no, especially not before the mid-60s, and even thereafter persecution tended to be sporadic, local, not Empire wide, and only rarely sponsored by an Emperor– like Nero or Domitian. Tacitus, writing later, is clear enough that the actions of Nero did not begin an Empire wide critique or persecution of Christians.

It is true that direct anti-Emperor and anti-Empire rhetoric could prove dangerous to anyone, of any religion, or no religion. (p. 43). It is also clear from the NT that there was some pressure, prosecution, and persecution of Christians in the NT, sometimes instigated by Jews, sometimes by pagans, but did it have anything to do with criticism of the imperial cult? That’s the question.

As Diehl points out (p. 45), “Participation in the imperial cult in local feasts, festivals, and celebrations was not obligatory for most people.” It was most crucial for the elite males, so, it could have caused problems for a Christian such as Erastus the city treasurer in Corinth (see Rom. 16) but frankly most Christians were not among the local elites in these towns. Where it really might have mattered would be in a place like Corinth or Philippi which were Roman colony cities.

It is important that we not read the situation on the ground in the 2nd century back into the first century. In the famous letter from Pliny to Trajan, and later in 155 at the time of the martyrdom of Polycarp, it is clear that some Christians were turned in to the Roman authorities, asked to do the loyalty test to the Emperor which involved swearing by the ‘genius’ of the reigning Emperor, and perhaps forswearing their faith in Christ (see Pliny), but clearly enough, Pliny would not be asking the Emperor how to proceed if there had already been a long standing Roman practice and protocol for how to handle Christians who seemed possibly seditious.

Arguments from silence are dangerous, and Diehl seems to succumb to such an approach on p. 48 where we are told that Mark likely deliberately avoids calling Jesus kyrios or soter because these were titles Nero arrogated to himself. Yes, but other client kings and rulers and indeed various gods were called kyrios, right along side the Emperor, and the Emperor doesn’t seem to have minded or found that seditious. Why should Christian writers be frightened enough to avoid such language when it was common language, applied to a variety of persons and deities during the Empire? A better suggestion would be that Mark is emphasizing what he learned from the testimony of Peter, and therefore prefers more Jewish titles such as messiah or son of man.

It needs to be stressed that when it comes to the Imperial cult vs. Christ cult argument, there is a whole range of opinions from minimalist to maximalist. Richard Horsley is rightly characterized as at the latter end of the spectrum. As Diehl says, he even argues that the imperial cult is the main force that is shaping the world of Paul!(p. 53). The arguments of a Horsley need to be backed up with concrete evidence.

As Diehl goes on to point out: 1) it appears that the adoption of the imperial cult did not develop as rapidly as Horsley seems to think. There is a lack of evidence of extensive dispersion of the imperial cult in the cities known to Paul according to Colin Miller (p. 54). It is not clear even in Philippi that the imperial cult existed before the second century, according to Diehl. On the other hand, we have confirmation in Ephesus, Corinth, and Psidian Antioch. It is interesting however that according to Acts 19-20, where there was an imperial cult, it is the cult of Artemis, and criticism of it, that get’s Paul in trouble.

It has been suggested, and Tom Wright repeats the suggestion, that perhaps Paul was trying to plant the flag of Christ in the cities where the imperial cult already existed— a sort of in your face Caesar move, as Dom Crossan likes to put it. I find this suggestion without much merit, since most the cities Paul visited and planted churches in did not have the imperial cult yet, or it had not had any kind of pervasive influence on the city yet. Had we the letter to the Aphrodisians with reasonably clear imperial cult criticism in it, that would be one thing. But we don’t.

Diehl deals with the suggestions of a post-colonial approach to the reading of the NT, perhaps especially Paul’s letters. To a large extent, this whole approach assumes that hidden transcripts or codes must have been used in writing the NT documents because Christians were an oppressed people fearful of having their mail read by imperial overlords, or those friendly to them. One of the major problems with this, is what we actually find in the NT is rather overt criticism of idolatry in various forms, and there is nothing subtle at all about the direct proclamation of a crucified Jew as the means of salvation. Paul tells us that the proclamation was seen as scandalous and folly to Jews and Gentiles (1 Cor. 1).

Are we to believe that while the evangelism was overt and clear, that the communication between Christians required hidden transcripts for fear of the authorities? But these are in-house documents. And when abuse of governmental power was in evidence, Paul was capable of writing 2 Thess. 2, and the author of Revelation was perfectly capable of direct, in cartoon style, criticism of the Emperor and Rome.

There is also a difference between using language in a transferred sense, and directly or indirectly subversive language. Let’s consider an example. In the famous discussion between Pilate and Jesus in John 18-19, Jesus is asked if he is a king, and Jesus replies, famously, ‘my kingdom is not of this world, if it were my followers would act like an army and fight for it’. Pilate’s reaction to this is that Jesus is a harmless dreamer or a madman, but not chargeable with treason! Jesus uses the term kingdom in a very different sense than Pilate would, a sense which is not directly political in character in any normal sense of that term.

Jesus does not say there are no other kings or kingdoms. What he does say is that Pilate only ultimately has authority from above, which presumably means from the one God! In other words, Jesus sees human governments much the same way Paul does in Rom. 13— as having some power and authority granted from above.

This does not give the human governor or government the authority to: 1) pretend to be a deity; 2) abuse the power they have; 3) prosecute Jews or Christians for bad faith, or infidelity. But it does give them, within limits, the right to bear the sword, to raise taxes etc. In other words, justice and peace and order are their limited tasks. In short, the Kingdom of God is higher and more important than human kingdoms, not least because they are on the clock, and time is running out for them. One day God’s kingdom will fully come on earth, and in the meantime the human institutions of this world have an expiration date. When they engage in over-reach and abuse and idolatry, the NT writers critique them. When they do not, there is no hidden criticism of them, no coded language about them in the NT. They have a temporary and limited legitimacy.

In short this sort of commentary on government was not inherently subversive and it did not involve coded language, something Christians did not need to use when simply talking with other Christians. Especially problematic are the readings of Warren Carter of the Gospels in regard to the hidden transcripts issue.

The review by Diehl of the NT evidence and arguments for anti-imperial rhetoric is helpful, but her critique of the claims about anti-imperial rhetoric in the NT is not strong enough.

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