I don’t know at one point it happened, but somewhere in the recent history of Christian publishing, more and more people started talking about empires. Some of the more popular authors of our time have taken long-standing titles attributed to Jesus Christ—like “Lord” and “Savior”—and, without denying the spiritual implications of those words, sought to explore how they challenged the rules of the first century as well as our time.
Suddenly, for a lot of us, our gospels became not just about the story of Jesus but also how that story’s main character stood in firm opposition to Caesar. If you’ve read anything recently by people like Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell or Brian McLaren, you’ve seen this argument articulated. You can barely read anything by the admirable N.T. Wright without seeing this argument presented.
So … does it have a point? In IVP Academic’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, editors Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica say yes, but the point isn’t as big as some people make it out to be. They’ve enlisted several authors to examine the various books of the New Testament and the claims of modern theologians to determine to what extent the Scriptures engage in empire criticism, here defined as “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” (16).
The question the book tries to answer is this: are modern readers seeing Rome and Caesar all over the pages of the New Testament because the criticism is actually there, or is this something that they import into the text? The authors and contributors mostly answer that Rome is a concern of the New Testament writers, but those concerns have been overemphasized by modern writers to the point that they see Caesar where Caesar is not.
“Let us make this point crystal clear: We believe that the New Testament writers do indeed address the concerns highlighted by empire criticism. But we also strongly suggest that this is not their primary modus operandi. The New Testament writers are cognizant of Roman occupation, aware of Roman customs and laws, but they fundamentally understand Jesus’ inaugurating of the kingdom of God in direct opposition to and in contrast with the kingdom of Satan (see Mt 12:26; Lk 11:18)” (212).
The book starts with David Nystrom examining the role of the Roman emperor in everyday life and how power and prestige was accorded to that office. Contrary to the writings of some popular Christians, Caesars were not demanding that people worship them as gods. Augustus wasn’t deified until after his death, and Caligula was deemed a madman for his claims to deity. Romans could also worship the acts of an emperor and consider that person to be a genius without attributing divinity to them. A chapter written by Judith A. Diehl highlighting the anti-imperial writings of the New Testament follows and serves to launch the discussion for the rest of the book.
The book sometimes varies on just how anti-imperial the New Testament is. Joel Willitts argues that the gospel of Matthew condemned all empires antithetical to the kingdom of God, not just Rome (and notes that it’s hard to take “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” as a statement against empire). The chapter on anti-imperialism in the New Testament, on the other hand, tends to grant that there were a good number of combative references to Rome. Writing of Paul’s theology in Romans, Michael F. Bird says that while the apostle’s declaration of Jesus as Lord struck at the heart of the empire, Romans is primarily a pastoral letter in which imperial concepts are used to promote a particular theology. That theology has sociopolitical implications, of course, but it is theology, not a political agenda, that is the chief concern of Romans.
Dean Pinter notes that Luke seems more concerned with the abuse of power in general than with the particular vices of Rome. Luke’s gospel uses “king” to describe Jesus more than any other gospel writer, even though it never sets a direct confrontation between Jesus and Caesar. Tax collectors and Roman soldiers are seen in favorable light, while the imperial cult doesn’t even earn a hint or allusion. Luke records the (at that point, future) destruction of Jerusalem as a divine act, not a crime committed by Rome. When Pilate ordered Jesus crucified, he had the sign “King of the Jews” put on his cross—and not, notably, “King of the Empire”, suggesting that Pilate did not consider this rabble-rouser to be a legitimate challenge to the emperor.
It’s true that Jesus contrasted the way the world’s rulers exert their authority with the way that he served others, but this distinction between earthly and heavenly power didn’t single out Caesar.
“… for Luke, the emperors can be vassals of the one true God. They can inadvertently bring about the Bethlehem birth of Jesus and, through their procurators, the fulfillment of the will of God in the death of Jesus. Either Luke is naïve about the imperial cult and the pretensions of the emperor, or he can imagine that relationships with Rome can be developed by working around them” (110).
Drew J. Strait examines Luke’s writings in Acts and also draws the line at anti-imperial rhetoric. There are parallels between the ascension of Jesus to heaven and the apotheosis of a Roman emperor, but it’s also important to note two things: first, Jesus did not require a majority vote in the Roman senate to be deemed a god (as the emperor did), and second, Jesus’ ascension was rooted in Jewish religious beliefs (and supported by biblical passages such as Psalm 110 and Daniel 7).
It’s true that attributing titles to Jesus such as “Savior” and “Lord” would have contrasted him to Caesar, but in Luke’s gospel, important figures such as Paul run into more trouble with Jewish synagogues and Greek businessmen than he does with the imperial cult. And when Luke records a mob as complaining that Christians preached Jesus as a rival king to Caesar (in Acts 17:6–7), Strait rightly notes that the charge comes from a Jewish mob and that Paul is assisted by Roman soldiers. In Acts, Luke sees the nations as under the control of Satan, even as he continues to believe that God can use imperial agents to help the church. The end of Acts, after all, tells us that Paul preached the gospel in Rome without restraint.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t tension between Christian thought in Acts and the Roman government:
“Luke understands the enemies of God more holistically than is often acknowledged. Caesar and his agents are one piece in a much larger puzzle of human rebellion against God. Even so, God transcends the ‘powers that be’ and carries out his divine plan of redemption for the world” (14).
Evaluating John’s anti-imperialism, Christopher W. Skinner argues Rome is present in the fourth gospel but is not the chief concern of the writer himself. John’s concerns are largely Jewish. His Christology in John 1 is situated within a Jewish mindset, and he later sees Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s story and feasts. When Jesus is contrasted with a notable figure, he is distinguished from Moses, not Caesar. Writes Skinner:
“… it seems inadvisable to downplay the significance of Jewish elements in John, while placing pronounced emphasis on the Roman context. As stated earlier, readers should assume that Rome is lurking in the background of the narrative. To give Rome too much attention, though, is to major on a minor issue. … Apart from Jesus’ trial and interaction with Pilate, Rome is present mostly in signs and shadows, not on a neon billboard” (122).
Reviewing whether Paul was anti-imperial in Philippians, Lynn H. Cohick points out that the imperial cult didn’t just honor the emperor but also his family. Augustus’ wife, for instance, was also deified. The line from “Jesus is Lord” to “Caesar is not” is, at least in this letter, not as straight as people might think. Allan R. Bevere likewise sees anti-imperial interpretations of Colossians and Philemon to be looking for things in the text that aren’t there.
The chapter on Revelation was especially interesting, because if there’s any one book in the New Testament that’s taken to be anti-Rome, it’s that one. But Dwight D. Sheets points out some things that I hadn’t considered before. Responding to the widely held belief that the writer John was exiled to Patmos for preaching the gospel, he notes that there’s no evidence that Patmos was a penal colony. He also writes that despite the conflict language found in Revelation—language that is typical of books of that genre, anyway—it’s unclear whether Christians at this time were actually undergoing hardship.
That’s not to say that John didn’t see conflict coming. In Revelation 13:15, the writer appears to sense a coming confrontation between the imperial cult and the Christians who would refuse to participate in it. That said, John’s concerns also center around the apostasy of believers and the destruction of the Jewish temple, which was supposed to be destroyed by a particularly evil ruler. Both events were supposed to precede the return of Christ, but 20 years after the Temple was destroyed, Jesus hadn’t returned. The details of that destruction only partially matched Jesus’ prophecies in the gospels, so John redeveloped his understanding of the “eschatological antagonist” by looking to Rome.
“John was concerned with the emperor cult; he was concerned that believers had accommodated themselves to its way of life; he was concerned with the fact that participation with the emperor cult was more and more becoming a matter of compulsion. But Revelation is not primarily about whether empires are evil or even whether it is wrong for them to impose their authority on other peoples. These developments were primarily important for John because they pointed to the soon coming of Jesus” (209).
I feel comfortable summing up the book as this: the New Testament varies in its criticism of Rome. Sometimes, the challenges are subtle; in other places, they are more explicit. One thing they are not is uniform. In that world, it simply wasn’t possible to insist that Jesus is the king of the world without also wondering how that claim related to Caesar and Rome. But that theological claim does not mean that anti-imperialism was at the forefront of the minds of the people who claimed Jesus as Lord. (To give another example: if I claim that George R.R. Martin is the best writer in the world, that subtly says that Stephen King is not, even if I wasn’t thinking of King when I made the claim.)
If you’re looking for a good foil to the claims in some popular Christian writings that I mentioned above, then Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is worth your time.