Book Review: Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in NT Studies

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (March 28, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830839917
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830839919
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • IVP Academic
  • Amazon.com

Many thanks to IVP Academic for this review copy of Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies.

I was first introduced to “Empire in the New Testament” through my reading of N.T. Wright, “For the New Testament writers to say that ‘Jesus is Lord’ is to also say that Caesar is not,” then Wright would begin to flesh this out.

An Overview

According to its subtitle, this work is an evaluation of Empire in New Testament studies.  The work is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica and features ten essays by ten different contributors.  The first two essays are introductory, orienting the reader to “Roman Imperial Ideology and Imperial Cult” and “Anti-imperial Rhetoric in the New Testament” of the New Testament world, while the remaining eight essays evaluate the writings of the leading ant-imperial scholars on various New Testament documents.

For the ant-imperial critics, they believe the New Testament writers employed subversively ant-imperial rhetoric, often in hidden codes.  For example, in his “Matthew” essay Joel Willitts cites Warren Carter, one of the leading ant-imperial critics: “My argument is that the Roman Empire comprises not the New Testament background but its foreground.  Matthew and Mark are works of imperial negotiation.  They tell the story of Jesus crucified by the Empire because he challenges its power, yet he is raised by God thereby revealing the limits of Roman power and the sovereign power of God.”  This same rhetoric by Carter is seen applied the the rest of the New Testament documents in innovative ways.  But what Christopher Skinner says in his essay “John’s Gospel and the Roman Imperial Context” may be said of Carter and other ant-imperial critics: “To give Rome too much attention, though, is to major on minor issue.  It is too reductionistic to focus on John’s meager presentation of Rome, while neglecting more implicit and seemingly more important points of emphasis.”

Dwight D. Sheets essay on “Revelation and Empire” is something of a treat.  According to Sheets, “Most also agree that the clearest anti-empire themes in the New Testament writings are found in Revelation.  This idea is not new.  From the earliest era of church history commentators have recognized Rome as the referent behind Revelation’s visions.”  But rather than viewing Revelation as a paradigm for subversive anti-imperialism, which according to Sheets, “must be seen as an issue that reflects more the modern reader’s concerns than the author of the apocalypse.  One may be more true to the message of Revelation by seeking to understand the ways in which the concerns of accommodation and spiritual apostasy are part of the church’s contemporary experience.”

In summary, both the editors and contributors seem to agree that “The New Testament conviction that Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not, is not a direct assault on the Roman Empire or even a veiled attempt to usurp it.”  And the reader must wonder, according to Michael Bird in his essay “Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Roman Empire,” if “these so-called anti-imperial readings coming at a time when anti-American sentiment (and anti-conservative American politics) is experiencing a cultural spike in the academy… is really a veiled critique of American foreign policy by left-leaning academics.”

Conclusion

If you’re New Testament leaning in your studies like I am, you will find this collection of evaluating essays on Empire in New Testament studies, in the words of McKnight and Modica, “convincing if not also compelling.”  The contributors interaction with primary literature is quite evident.  And if the reader wishes to explore the subject further, a bibliography is found at the end of each essay.

(You may find another helpful review here.)

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5 Responses to Book Review: Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in NT Studies

  1. Lon says:

    I can’t say I agree with this line of reasoning. I would say that empire focus is incidental and accidental to historical setting, while the jewishness and Old Testament fulfillment focus is the primary backdrop of the New Testament. To press the metaphor a bit more, The Old Testament set the stage. Jesus and his work/message/implications are center stage, while one of the implications of reference to the empire is back/side stage with a non-speaking part.

  2. DaveJ says:

    Having grown up in the former Roman city if Deva (present day Chester, UK), I can only add that the Romans always seemed to push the following on the people they ruled:
    – Caesar is the Savior of the World (see we are saving you from all these barbarian raids)
    – Rome offers you its Peace (Pax Romana)
    – Caesar is the son of god (divi filius) (see also “Son of God” entry on Wikipedia)
    You may also want to check the “Imperial Cult” entry on Wikipedia and read it from the perspective of a non-christian subject of the roman empire just before you first heard the Gospel message preached by Paul.
    A key line might be “The Imperial cult was inseparable from that of Rome’s official deities, whose cult was essential to Rome’s survival and whose neglect was therefore treasonous.”
    The vast majority of those who were considered treasonous in this regard were these new upstart Christians who incomprehensibly seemed peaceful enough but would not submit to the expectation to sacrifice to idols and hail the the Emperor as their lord and savior.

    I would tend to trust those born and raised in UK (or elsewhere in the former roman empire in areas not predominantly Roman Catholic) on this as they tended to learn the history of their (imperial) roman past at school and would have first read the New Testament with their local Roman History as a foreground. Most North Americans would not have first read the New Testament in parallel with learning Roman History outside the NT context.

  3. TC says:

    DaveJ, thanks for this. You’re correct that we Americans will not readily appreciate this Roman history outside of the NT context. Yes, Imperial cult, Caesar as titles, apotheosis (becoming god), hegemony (domination by consent), and so on, are explored to a degree.

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