Friday, January 8, 2010

Christ vs. Caesar?

One of the hottest trends in New Testament Studies is to see the gospel proclamation in the New Testament as being explicitly anti-imperial. Jesus was called 'lord' and 'savior' in the New Testament. The proclamation about him is called, 'the gospel.' Interestingly, Caesar was also called 'savior' and 'lord.' And proclamations about him were sometimes called 'gospel.' Does this (and other evidence) suggest, though, that the gospel was explicitly anti-imperial?

Not to be a downer, but I think some of the enthusiasm about the anti-imperial nature of the gospel should be tempered. That's not to say that there's no critique of the Roman empire present, but, in my opinion, two things mitigate against this now very popular understanding of the background against which the gospel is supposedly best understood.

First is that the book of Acts repeatedly stresses that the gospel isn't anti-imperial. Notice in many cases, blame for being driven out of the city is placed on some Jews who stirred up trouble. There's also the notable case in Corinth where the magistrate declares that Paul's teaching was not seditious (Acts 18:1-14); I could bring up other instances from Acts as well. Some suggest that Philippians should be understood an anti-imperialist letter, but I don't see how that does justice to the text. Even at first glance, how could Paul be so confident of his acquittal before Caesar if his gospel was an attack on him (Phil. 1:19-26)?

What, too, do we make of the trial and crucifixion narratives? Specifically I have in mind Matthew 27:11-26. It seems obvious that even while Jesus admits to Pilate that he is king of the Jews, Pilate doesn't see this act as seditious!

I don't want to swing too far the other way and say that there is no critique of the Roman empire and Caesar in the New Testament or in a correct understanding of the gospel. I just do not see it as a primary category for aiding us in understanding the gospel or the early Christian movement. I believe that the Old Testament still forms the primary source from which the early church took its terms for proclaiming the truth about Jesus.


  1. Bro, you're speaking my language here. I've toyed with writing about this for a while, but haven't gotten around to it. I agree that there may be a certain anti-Imperial element to the NT writings, but to see it as a dominant theme is reading far too much into it.

    Have you heard the debate from the SBL meeting a couple years back between John Barclay and N T Wright over this? Barclay, in my opinion, knocks some huge holes in Christ vs Caesar argument. Wright's response did enough to salvage seeing some of the anti-imperial rhetoric in Paul's letters, but not nearly enough to outdo Barclay's case.

    For what it's worth, I read from someone who was present at the debate that it was the only time he had ever seen Wright flustered. When you listen to the audio, you can understand why.

  2. I have not heard the audio before. I'll dig around and see if I can find it. Thanks!

    A helpful book for me was Christ and Caesar by Seyoon Kim. He overstates his case at times, but he does bring up some helpful critiques.


    Here is a link to the audio. Scroll down and you'll find it.

  4. Sorry, I don't know how to do a link on these comments. I really need to get with the techno-times.

  5. Thanks for the link. It looks like there's other good stuff on that page too.