Theological Conference 9 – Religion and Politics: A Fresh Look at the Imperial Overtones in the New Testament

Click here to listen to Religion and Politics: A Fresh Look at Imperial Overtones in the New Testament presented by Dustin Smith, Apr 29th 2008, Atlanta Georgia. Commentary by John Obelenus

The thesis of Dustin’s paper is that Paul is using specific phrases and words traditionally used in the context of the Caesar cult (the worship of the Roman emperor as a divine figure in the pantheon) that are re-appropriated for use in the preaching of Jesus as the Messiah, God’s representative.

A startling fact is shared: “If one were asked, what is the biggest and fastest growing religion in the Mediterranean world during Paul’s lifetime, one may be quick to think of the Christians as is described in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. What may come to most a a surprise is that archeology, inscriptions, Greek writers, and historians all confirm that the Roman Caesar cult was the fastest growing phenomenon of the time.”

“In Paul’s lifetime Roman emperors were deemed divine, and, first and foremost, Augustus was called Son of God, God, God of God. He was Lord, Redeemer, and Savior of the World. People know that both verbally from Latin authors like Virgil, Horace, and Ovid and visually from coins, cups, statues, alters, temples, and forums; from ports, roads, bridges, and aqueducts; from landscapes transformed and cities established. It was all around them everywhere, just as advertising is all around us today. Without seeing the archeology of Roman imperial theology, you cannot understand any exegesis of Pauline Christian theology.” – John Dominic Crossan

He reminds us that in the first century there is no political/religious divide. There is no separation of church and state. A religious claim has a mirror political claim. A political claim has a mirroring religious claim as well. In the first century, religious and political rhetoric support one another.

Dustin asserts: “Rome declared that the emperor had conquered the entire world and was now reigning as lord. Paul, understanding this concept well, tried emphatically to make the point to his readers that it was Jesus Christ, not Caesar, who had defeated the powers (via the resurrection) and was there the true lord of the world!”

I am reminded in particular of the way in which we now think, ontologically (the essence of things), rather than the way first century people thought, functionally (what a thing does, or it’s purpose). Caesar was declared to be the one who brings peace to the world. In truth that Roman ‘peace’ was brought by violence. Rather Jesus, as a functional replacement of Caesar, is the one who really brings peace. Caesar was declared to be divine. Jesus is notably missing the title ‘God of God’ in the New Testament (by not in the creeds). Paul is not suggesting that Jesus is divine (ontologically) as Caesar is claiming, but rather that Jesus functionally replaces Caesar as the Savior of the World.

In regards to Phil 3:20 (”For our citizenship is in heaven…”) Dustin tells us: “Philippi was a Roman colony… The agreement was that those who moved out of Rome into this colony would continue to maintain their cherished citizenship.. So what Paul is explaining to hi church is that they should not await their salvation from their [so called] citizenship in Rome, but rather from heaven.” NT Wright: “the point of having ‘citizenship in heaven’ is not that one might eventually retire and go home to the mother city… if things were getting difficult in one’s colonial setting, the emperor would come from the mother city to rescue and liberate his loyal subjects, transforming their situation from danger to safety.” Dustin emphatically agrees that Citizenship should not be confused with the believer’s hope.

1 Thes 4.15 – Parousia was associated with Roman rulers as well, “the evidence points to a long awaited ruler who comes to inaugurate a new era/age of peace. It is elsewhere described as the beginning of a particular Caesar’s rule.”

1 Thes 4.17 – “we will meet the lord in the air”. Based on Roman writings from the time, the word ‘apantesis’ (meet), was used to declare the actions of loyal subject to Rome exiting the city to meet the arriving Caesar and would escort him back to the city. The intended meaning is not that we will go to heaven, but in fact escort Jesus to the earth.

One of the biggest points that strengthens this case is Acts 17:7 where the crowds says: “there is another king other than Caesar, namely Jesus.” Was Paul entirely unaware of his own statements and use of vocabulary? Highly unlikely.

Dustin concludes by asking us several questions, one of which is particularly practical in our lives from Philippians. Paul uses himself as an example, by leaving his Jewish heritage behind. He uses Jesus as an example in the hymn in chapter 2 about leaving behind his status. For his immediate audience, he encourages them to leave behind the Caesar cult. What does that mean for us today, what do we leave behind?


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