Jesus Is Lord, Casear Is Not

June 13, 2013 — Leave a comment

51UaYOuaK2LIn early April, IVP Academic sent me a copy of Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. I don’t think I formally requested it since it is a bit more of a niche NT book than I would normally read. But I was definitely intrigued, especially after reading Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast. You can read my review of that book here. I was more interested in it for its discussion of the biblical theology of empires and how America relates to it. This collection of essays, edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica, is focused more on what kind of concerns with the Roman Empire may lay behind many New Testament texts. Moreover, the concern is that for certain scholars holding an empire polemic hammer, every NT text starts to look like a nail. Hence the subtitle, “Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies,” as in, “how relevant is Empire as a backdrop to New Testament exegesis?”

The short answer is that it is relevant, but to varying degrees, and probably not to such an extent as some scholars make it out to be. After a lengthy (and insightful) foreword by Andy Crouch, McKnight and Modica raise the question of whether we are “reading Rome and Caesar into the New Testament” rather than “reading what is actually there” (17). The problem of seeing the theme everywhere once it is inserted is what this volume aims to address. They then offer the five methods at work in empire criticism (17-19):

  • Looking for statements that overtly and directly anti-empire and anti-imperial worship
  • Looking for passages that use more than one term that has distinct and notable usage in Roman imperial ideology
  • Looking for texts that have hidden empire criticism
  • Listening to claims made my sensitive historians to then see connections in the NT
  • Using empire criticism as a vehicle for advancing progressive, left-wing, neo-Marxist, or whatever, politics

McKnight and Modica wholeheartedly affirm the first two methods, but then point out that things get trickier with the last 3, and most obviously, with the last one. It is finding “hidden” critiques of empire, seeing latent connections, and then misusing empire criticism to advance political concerns that this volume seeks to most address.

To do so, the opening chapter by David Nystrom explains some of the background to Roman imperial ideology and the imperial cult. Then, Judith Diehl offers the lengthiest chapter in the book, which focuses on anti-imperial rhetoric in the NT. With two foundational chapters in place, the remaining chapters focus on key individual books and assesses the state of empire scholarship related to that book and offers constructive criticism where necessary. The NT books covered are Matthew (Joel Willitts), Luke (Dean Pinter), John (Christopher Skinner), Acts (Drew Strait), Romans (Michael Bird), Philippian (Lynn Cohick), Colossians (Allan Bevere), and Revelation (Dwight Sheets), the last of which is the most clearly connected to empire criticism.

McKnight and Modica wrap up with a brief conclusion that highlights three principles that emerged from the study (212-213):

  • The reality of the Roman Empire needs to be reckoned with in the New Testament
  • The purpose of the kingdom of God i not to replace, so to speak, the Roman Empire; rather it is to overcome the kingdom of Satan
  • The New Testament writers show the earliest followers of Jesus how to live in the “already but not yet” day-to-day realities of the empire

For readers who are interested in New Testament exegesis, this volume definitely belongs on your shelf. It offers a thoughtful critique of a method of New Testament criticism that can tend to be excessive. It accomplishes this critique in a way that does not discount the legitimate insights the tool offers. For readers who may not even be familiar with what empire criticism is, this book will offer a good overview of the methods as well as essays that interact with the main scholars employing those methods. All of this is done in a way that is not overly technical so Bible school students will be able to take and read if their interest suits them.

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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