Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke

Seyoon Kim William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids September 1, 2008
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Kim, professor of New Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary, describes and critiques an anti-imperial interpretation of the New Testament. First, he strongly argues against such a reading for Paul. He discusses views of scholars such as J. R. Harrison, N. T. Wright, and others on 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Romans, and 1 Corinthians. After a discussion of the books themselves Kim briefly discusses method (chap. 3) and reasons why the anti-imperial reading is unlikely (chap. 4).

In light of the controversy surrounding this Pauline interpretation, however, Kim’s critique is inadequate. His brief discussion of the views does not permit detailed interaction with the scholars’ positions. In some cases he uses only a published article (Harrison, Wright) or a popular  book (Wright). These works were not intended to present an entire defense of the scholars’ positions, much less to be representative of an entire, albeit loosely, uniform movement of New Testament interpretation. Much of the controversy comes down to method and how one uses the Roman background material. Unfortunately Kim devotes only six pages to method (pp. 28–33).

Specifically, Kim maintains, these interpreters are guilty of  parallelomania, deduction from assumptions, prooftexting, and/or coding. For example he seems to suggest that scholars who argue that it would be counter-imperial for Paul to use titles for Jesus that were common for emperors (e.g., savior, lord, son of god, etc.) are guilty of parallelomania. It is true that many such titles were common in the Greek Old Testament. However, Kim’s critique involves no interaction with the position. He does not consider whether certain words could be seen as exclusive to the emperor in certain contexts. Nor does he discuss how Greek and Roman audiences who would be familiar with these titles for Caesar would be able to detach themselves from their culture so easily. He merely uncritically cites a brief quotation of a scholar suggesting this would be the case (p. 29). Further he charges that these interpreters use the same method as do older dispensationalists in constructing their eschatological system (p. 32). This charge (with its assumptions and lack of examples and support) is not appropriate in such a volume. Also Kim does not consider whether it is possible that an anti-imperial message is included as part of the fabric of Paul’s message. It may exist without being the only or most important aspect of the message.

In chapter 4 Kim provides helpful observations that argue against a counter-imperial message (e.g., Rom. 13:1–7, no mention of the imperial cult, the absence of this interpretation in the early church). However, this chapter would be more effective if it had interacted more with anti-imperial and other interpreters’ answers to these problems. Essentially Kim provides minimal explanation of the role of the Roman context in Paul’s writings.

Further, Kim provides little room for complex communication. Is it possible for anti-imperial statements to be part of the message without being the only or even the most important aspect of the message? One would think so. This reviewer agrees that Paul was not primarily interested in countering the Roman Empire. He had a more pressing agenda, including his concerns and theological concepts based in the Jewish Scriptures. Nevertheless at times his concerns for Christ’s role in the Christian’s life was directly at odds with the empire. If Kim is arguing only against those who see an anti-imperial message in Paul and nothing else, he has a case and is probably correct.

However, such readings likely reflect a minority position. Many of the authors he cites (e.g., Harrison and Wright) are not so limited in their readings. Yes, the Roman context is very important for them. Yes, Paul was challenging Caesar and the empire with his message. However, they would not say this is the only aspect of the message. For these authors the message of Paul involves a challenge to anything, including the emperor, that makes claims on the Christian that are at odds with the exclusive role of Christ. Given the importance of the emperor in the Roman world and the pervasiveness of imperial ideology, it is not unreasonable that New Testament authors would include counterimperial messages in their writings, messages that encouraged their readers to be singularly devoted to Christ. For writers who see only an anti-imperial message in Paul, it may have been more helpful for Kim to review their books and journal articles.

Kim’s discussion of Luke is longer and more helpful. He carefully considers Luke and Acts in their Roman context. Some may feel he underestimates the potential for a Roman challenge in Luke and Acts. However, he does provide a reading that highlights the books in their Roman context. His focus is on redemption. This is a good theme with which to discuss the existence of a counterimperial message because it was clearly a concern for many in the empire. For example the first- and second-century Jews attempted to gain deliverance by revolt. Throughout this discussion Kim acknowledges that the empire had influenced Luke, evidenced by the way he arranged his material. However, Kim convincingly demonstrates that Luke’s main concern is not to counter the empire. Despite the imperial context Luke is not concerned primarily with deliverance from the empire. Rather, it is the unseen and more sinister empire of Satan from which deliverance is necessary. It is primarily this empire over which Christ is victorious.

The final chapter, a summary and conclusion, includes a brief discussion of the books of Revelation and Hebrews. Although Revelation clearly has Roman imperial imagery, the explicit message is not one of overthrowing the empire. Hebrews has a high-priestly Christology; however, there is no contrast or polemic against Caesar. Kim concludes with a brief epilogue that discusses present implications of the study, an eleven-page bibliography, an index of modern authors, and an index of Scripture and other ancient texts.

The issue Kim deals with in this volume is essentially this: How should readers use the material from the Roman world in their study of the New Testament? Those who see a counterimperial message in Paul understand the apostle in his Roman context in a more active way than those who do not. They are open to drawing conclusions based on evidence from the culture that may provide implied information on the meaning of the text. There certainly is a danger in this approach. One’s conclusions are only as good as one’s interpretation of the sources and one’s method of using them. However, there is also a danger in not using the sources. One might overlook important evidence, the lack of which would make a reading of Paul less complete and/or less accurate. A careful use of the material is the best approach.

Kim provides a timely volume. Although his section on Paul is insufficient, it nevertheless introduces the reader to the issues involved in Pauline scholarship. His discussion of Luke is helpful and will enhance one’s reading of Luke and Acts.

—Joseph D. Fantin

July 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2010 vol. 167 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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