Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower

Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower

Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower

Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower

Synopsis

At the end of the 20th century, "postcolonialism" described the effort to understand the experience of those who had lived under colonial rule. This kind of thinking has inevitably brought about a reexamination of the rise of Christianity, which took place under Roman colonial rule. How didRome look from the viewpoint of an ordinary Galilean in the first century of the Christian era? What should this mean for our own understanding of and relationship to Jesus of Nazareth? In the past, Jesus was often "depoliticized," treated as a religious teacher imparting timeless truths for allpeople. Now, however, many scholars see Jesus as a political leader whose goal was independence from Roman rule so that the people could renew their traditional way of life under the rule of God. In Render to Caesar, Christopher Bryan reexamines the attitude of the early Church toward imperial Rome. Choosing a middle road, he asserts that Jesus and the early Christians did indeed have a critique of the Roman superpower -- a critique that was broadly in line with the entire biblical and prophetic tradition. One cannot worship the biblical God, the God of Israel, he argues, and not be concernedabout justice in the here and now. On the other hand, the biblical tradition does not challenge human power structures by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other power structures. Instead, Jesus' message consistently confronts such structures with the truth about their origin andpurpose. Their origin is that God permits them. Their purpose is to promote God's peace and justice. Power is understood as a gift from God, a gift that it is to be used to serve God's will and a gift that can be taken away by God when misused. Render to Caesar transforms our understanding ofearly Christians and their relationship to Rome and demonstrates how Jesus' teaching continues to challenge those who live under structures of government quite different from those that would have been envisaged by the authors of the New Testament.

Excerpt

By virtue of the law, that a people which becomes a state
absorbs its neighbours who are in political infancy, and a
civilized people absorbs its neighbours who are in intellec
tual infancy—by virtue of this law, which is universally
valid and as much a law of nature as the law of gravity—
the Italian nation (the only one in antiquity to combine a
superior political development and a superior civilization,
though it presented the latter only in an imperfect and ex
ternal manner) was entitled to reduce to subjection the
Greek states of the east which were ripe for destruction,
and to dispossess the peoples of lowest grades of culture in
the west—Libyans, Iberians, Celts, Germans—by means of
its settlers. … It is the imperishable glory of the Roman
democracy or monarchy—for the two coincide—to have
correctly apprehended and vigorously realized this its high
est destination.
—Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome

Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
(credo equidem), vivos ducent de marmore vultus,
orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus
escribent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.
[Others, I doubt not, shall with softer mould beat out the
breathing bronze, coax from the marble features to the life,
plead cases with greater eloquence and with a pointer trace
heaven's motions and predict the rising of the stars; you,
Roman, be sure to rule the world (be these your arts), to . . .

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