Up against Caesar: Jesus and Paul versus the Empire

Article excerpt

THE "KINGDOM" OF God and "gospel" are usually thought of as terms unique to Christianity. And who else but Jesus was called not only "the son of God" but 'also "Lord" and "Savior"?

In fact, say biblical experts, these terms and concepts were already familiar to residents of the Roman Empire who knew them as references to the authority and divinity of the emperors, beginning notably with Caesar Augustus before the dawn of the first century.

Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC. When a comet was later visible on July nights, Octavius, the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar, promoted the idea that it was a sign that the divine Caesar was on his way to heaven. When Roman law in 42 BC deified Julius Caesar, the status of Octavius, who took the name Augustus, was strengthened by adding the phrase "son of God." Poets celebrated the divinity associated with Augustus, and across the empire coins, monuments, temples and artwork promoted the cult of Augustus and other emperors who adopted Caesar as an honorific title.

To many in the empire, Roman civilization brought stability and wealth. And the people were urged to have "faith" in their "Lord," the emperor, who would preserve peace and increase wealth. "In the Roman imperial world, the 'gospel' was the good news of Caesar's having established peace and security for the world," wrote Richard A. Horsley in Jesus and Empire.

Christians gave secular words associated with the empire a new meaning. The Greek word parousia referred to the triumphant arrivals of emperors into cities. In churches it meant the expected return, or second coming, of the heavenly exalted Christ. Churches, literally "assemblies," were the Christian counterparts to the Roman ekklesiai where Caesar was celebrated, according to Horsley, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "Caesar was the 'Savior' who had brought 'salvation' to the whole world."

In that context, the Christmas passage in the Gospel of Luke has a subversive tone, says Horsley. Angels bring "good news" of joy "to all the people," because of the birth of a "Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." A heavenly multitude joins the angels in proclaiming "on earth peace among those whom he favors." For the Romans, peace was the militarily imposed Pax Romana, and it was already guaranteed by Rome.

Horsley has been a pioneer among biblical scholars who have emphasized the anti-imperial, political strategies of the Jesus movement. He has been joined in recent years by a growing number of colleagues, including prolific authors N. T. Wright and John Dominic Crossan. The latter's latest book, coauthored with Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul, is subtitled: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom.

About seven years ago, Horsley edited an influential book, Paul and Empire, and started a "Paul and Politics Group" that met at annual sessions of the Society of Biblical Literature. "We launched a serious consideration of Paul as [being] opposed to the Roman Empire," he said. "But I think it was 9/11 and the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq that really provoked interest.'" At last November's SBL meeting, a new program on Jesus and the Roman imperial world attracted ten speakers and required overflow rooms, Horsley reported.

The escalating attention to the biblical-era empire has been amplified by the open lament of some ethicists, church leaders and politicians that the U.S. has assumed aspects of an empire--complete with religious imagery to assure skeptics of its benevolent motives. Despite the many differences between ancient Rome and present-day Washington, a growing number of critics are eager to draw comparisons and note the historical irony--whereas the early church reconceptualized the meaning of empire, current leaders have invoked Christian language to support the American empire.

In October about 200 Christian ethicists issued a statement "about the erroneous use of Christian rhetoric to support the policies of empire," as it was put by one signer, Glen Stassen, who holds an endowed chair at Fuller Theological Seminary. …