If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not April 26, 2013

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.


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  • This looks really good, Scot! Nice.

  • Tim Atwater

    Scot, I hope you blog through this book.

    thanks for this post.

  • Scot,
    I agree with the premise of yours and Joe’s book. But this should not be confused with those who see validity in “Empire” political theory itself which began with Hardt and Negri’s boom 15 years ago. This critique of global economy reveals much about the political assumptions which taken over the West and of course, and in the process, much of American church. When the church itself plays by the rules which feed Empire, it loses its own identity and of course no longer becomes the harbinger of the Kingdom. The discussion of “political formation” in the church in the age of Empire has never been needed more.
    But I still agree, that Empire studies have read their assumptions too often into Scripture. Bravo for the book!

  • scotmcknight

    David, Yes on the need for empire studies today; Caution for seeing empire criticism in the early Christian writings.

    Furthermore, in theologizing, we can extrapolate from NT texts toward critiquing the empires of our world today. But that does not mean those texts were doing what we are doing.

  • Congratulations on publication Scot! Look forward to reading it.

  • Phil Miller

    Cool! I look forward to reading it, too.

  • Sounds like a book I will be adding to my growing reading list… 🙂

  • Michael

    Look forward to this! It is amazing how empire critics, also preoccupie with “situatedness,” blatantly disregard grammatical-historical exegesis making for some 21st Century progressive sounding apostles enmeshed with identity politics.
    Look forward to this more robust, academic approach.

  • Wes Howard-Brook

    The central problem in this approach is the artificially narrow definition of the premise of empire criticism. For example, in my books, as well as those of Horsley, Myers, and and Carter, the question isn’t merely emperor worship, but what I call the “religion of empire”: a whole way of life legitimized by the divine. There is enormous evidence in the NT for resistance to this.

  • scotmcknight

    Wes, a little strong in accusation, no?
    Check out the book. We have a classicist sketch imperial religion and ideology; we have a sketch of scholarship by Judy Diehl who has written a 3part article in Currents in Biblical Research on empire criticism; and we have individual scholars examine with their own freedom to define empire and empire criticism various approaches as shaped by a given canonical book. It is, in my judgment, uncharitable to say this is an “artificially narrow definition.”
    Except to this say: when everything becomes empire nothing is empire. Or when “empire” is the new term for “idolatry” then we aren’t moving forward; we’re just swapping terms.

  • rdhudgens

    Glad to see a broadening of the dialogue about “empire crit”. A few observations:
    1. Clearly we must distinguish between what the original authors were doing and what we are doing with what they were doing. (The NT authors are already utlizing OT texts in ways that would have surprised their original authors).
    2. However determining (to the degree that we can) what the original authors were doing does not predetermine what we should be doing.
    3. We are often/sometimes/always called to engage/confront/critique/submit-to situations either never or only marginalized addressed by the original authors. That contemporary “empire” manifests itself in ways different from those confronted by biblical authors is not surprising.
    4. What is surprising is how much assistance, insight, guidance, and prophetic critique the Bible provides for our imperial situation when we actually look for it.
    5. There is always the suspicious that our uneasiness with empire crit is a reflection of our political assimilation by the very empire that wants to repel our examined, Spirit-led critiques. If eisegesis is the “reading into” then there should be a word for the practice of “reading over” things that are really there but to which we have been blind because of our imperial enslavement.

  • Looking forward to reading the book. I haven’t focused as intently on this literature as much as I would like. Part of what has turned me off to the whole critique is the hue and cry by many of the most vocal proponents about America as empire while Bush was president, but when Obama and progressives took control, carrying on a great many of the same policies, I hear not a word. It strikes me that there is merit in the empire critique but too much of it sounds to me like progressives trying to baptize their ideology as the one true faith.

  • rdhudgens

    Michael W Kruse, I would suspect you are looking in the wrong places. Critiques of Obama have been plentiful, vociferous, and unrelenting given his expansion of US drone warfare, his continued support for the Guantano detentions, his waffling on the Keystone XL pipeline, et al. A source like Democracy Now (which I’m only referencing as one example) is enough to document this.

  • scotmcknight

    rdhudgens, I would agree with your comments that we need to distinguish the two and that the prophetic critique has value for criticizing empire today. In my case, I find myself agreeing with modern day criticisms quite often (though this critical approach did arise in biblical studies under Bush and toned down after him, though it did not get eliminated under Obama, but the Europeans still think of this whole approach as largely an American phenomenon; see Jimmy Dunn’s Beginning from Jerusalem section where he comes to conclusions similar to our books general drift), but what concerned me was how much empire criticism specific scholars were seeing in places that for many of us simply wasn’t present.

  • Kenton


    A couple of questions:

    1. How accessible is the book? Can a layperson get into it, or is it more at the pastor or academic level?

    2. It sounds from this post like you’re resisting the empire criticism reading, and I’m trying to figure out if that’s a case of preserving the status quo or something else. Is that fair?

  • scotmcknight


    We worked hard to make this book accessible. All it takes to comprehend it is a desire to understand this topic.

    “Resisting” is too strong, as I have personally said at times I see the anti-empire critique at work, e.g., Luke 2 seems to me quite probable. As I have said, I’m a bit of an anomaly here. I like the implications of anti-empire criticism for today but I am unpersuaded that calling Jesus “Lord” necessarily entails “Caesar is not” at the conscious level. Of course, if Jesus is Lord Caesar is not. But that’s little more than monotheistic faith. What needs to be demonstrated, and that’s what this book subjects to evaluation, is how conscious the implication was for NT authors and figures.

  • Scot,

    Three precursors;

    1. I’m an adjunct professor at Cornerstone University and just finished two sections of N.T. Lit & history
    2. I just bought your book and gave it to a graduating senior heading to Fuller for an Mdiv
    3. My two sections (80 students) had to write a paper entitled, “What is the Gospel?” analyzing at least 30 textual occurrences of “good news/gospel” in Old & New Testament among a few other approaches. Analyzing The King Jesus Gospel was a part of their research.

    On the last day of class, we went over the Revelation of John and I ended with chapter 4’s accolade of Jesus as “Worthy.” I follow Grant Osborne’s reading of that word and it’s use never occurring in the O.T. (though maybe in the Apocrypha) or N.T. prior to this occurrence. Essentially then it looks like it is being hi-jacked from the Imperial Court scene of the Roman Empire in a polemic/challenge sort of way.

    I am guessing you deal with that in your book, but it remains that it is quite remarkable what Dr. Osborne points out. That this is a first occurrence of its kind and that John would be intending to use it as contra-Empire writing for both the church’s liturgy and subversion seems very plausible.

    I have another question about the Lukan genre being a lot like famous writers of the first century who wrote in favor of Caesar in their writings, but I’ll try and get to the book after my grading.

  • I’m wondering if the shortcut term “anti-Empire” is too narrow an idea for what you’re trying to describe? First of all, characterizing anything with a negative too easily minimizes a thing (like “homelessness” does). Secondly, it’s more like an alternative to Empire that Jesus was offering, and so while there’s definitely Empire criticism, it serves the purpose of putting forward a Kingdom of God alternative, which is presented positively by contrast. Thirdly, let’s be clear about what was at stake in both the writing, courier delivery, and reading in an “ekklesia” meeting of this kind of –well, frankly, seditious literature. Anyone found to be involved in such a process is in danger of imprisonment, torture or death, and these prospects were very real for the early Christians. And so the “veiling of the language and its message” is simply part and parcel of the natural caution against speaking too provocatively in that cultural milieu. And by the time you get to the visions given in Revelation, the political cartoons there employed symbols and referents which were easily understandable to the common people of the day, while not being as overtly seditious as plain messages would be. As such, they are a lot like the children’s rhymes which used to be sung in the streets which, nevertheless, offered critical social commentary, even as the King’s carriage passed, for which there could be no punishment. Looks like a good read, Scot, and I’ll go looking for it. Thanks!

  • Wes Howard-Brook

    Thanks for replying to my comment. I certainly didn’t intend anything uncharitable by my comment. I do certainly intend to read the book. What I’m aiming to note here is that arguing that “empire criticism” is primarily focused on whether the NT aims to reject “emperor worship” as such does not do justice to what many of us are seeking to do: provide a disciplined, researched, and thoughtful reading of how systematically the Gospel writers and the authentic Paul present the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a counter-narrative to the Gospel of the Roman Empire. I couldn’t agree more that if “everything is empire than nothing is empire.” In “Come Out, My People!,” one of my first tasks is, using the work of political scientists, to provide a framework (not a “definition”) within which we can name a socioeconomic formation as “empire.”

    Ironically, it was the “Church Fathers” who aimed much of their critique at “emperor worship,” while largely embracing, in the name of Jesus, the “religion of empire,” such as the patronage system, the use of imperial violence, and the rhetorically violent denigration of their opponents, mostly fellow “Christians.”

  • Marshall

    Shall we distinguish the imperial cult from a practical theory of government? The NT a number of places recognizes secular authority, eg 1 Peter 2:13 and Jesus himself in Matthew 2:21. But as Paul says, we should seek to be free.

    I think one could argue that there is an American cult, but it doesn’t involve the deification of individuals … something more abstract. It certainly doesn’t involve Obama-worship; rdhudgens is exact, he talked a good talk but he isn’t walking the walk, and he has pretty much lost the left (as opposed to the marginally informed center). The surprising thing is that his policies aren’t more appreciated by the right, but that’s politics.

  • michael

    Reading a preview chapter from google books, it appears that this book is fair and balanced in that it allows Grammatical-critical-historical exegesis of Holy Scripture to adjudicate between competing camps.
    Reading the comments, it is also of note that empire criticism has sounded a lot like post-colonial crit, especially in its hey-day of the Bush Admin. I’m ALL for critical traditions (eg. form, source, socio-rhetorical, etc), but if it is divorced from a thoroughgoing gramm-hist exegesis it will only occasion the next critical fad sweeping academia to come along and anachronistically deconstruct it from it’s paradigm…. but then Scot can edit another book!

  • scotmcknight

    Wes, our book does not simply focus on empire worship but on empire criticism’s claims.

  • scotmcknight

    I’ve got other demands on my schedule, but here’s a big picture:

    Tony Thiselton grouped much of this sort of criticism in socio-pragmatics. The issue for us is whether what we are claiming in the text is more socio-pragmatics or the intention of the text in the context of 1st Century Christianity. That is, is it the use of the text or the intention of the text. Of course, “intention” is a big-game word but give the point to see the point.

  • TJJ

    I am glad to see a book such as this published. I do think balance and critique is and has been needed, and by me will be welcomed. I especially think many use this method to read current politics back into the text. Though the notion that there is no political agenda in the NT seems to be also misguided.

  • scotmcknight

    TJJ, I don’t think you’ll find anyone in this volume who think there is no political agenda in the NT.

  • I am excited for this book! It sounds very ‘Yoder’ish. 🙂

  • Ken Braun

    Great, once again my book allowance takes a hit…, kidding aside, I am looking forward to tracking this down and reading it. This subject has been at the center of an ongoing discussion I have been having with a few collegues, often along the lines of how much are we reading out and how much are we reading into the N.T.
    Scot one question, from my very limited understanding of this subject matter, does the book trace out some of the development of ligitimate Empire themes according to a time line of N.T. writings? For me this is important, one can see clearly that John is quite imersed in Empire realities in Revelation, but much of that has to do with what I think to be the further development of Empire Worship that occurs over the later part of the 1st Century.

  • May your (pl. “you”!) work help to cut the church free from the unholy patriotism web too many Christians have been trapped in, Scot, Joe, David, Judy & other authors! I’m really looking forward to getting my focus back on texts such as this one.

  • scotmcknight

    Ken, in a word No. These are separable chps, each of which evaluates claims made by empire critics to see if the claims meet the test of the evidence, and not a construction of how this all developed.

  • Patrick Coleman

    Do you engage with Christopher Bryan’s “Render to Caesar”, which I recall as having a good analysis of empire criticism?