The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire

By Bargh, Peter | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire


Bargh, Peter, Anglican Theological Review


The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire. By Neil Elliott. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2008. 223 pp. $22.00 (paper).

In The Arrogance of Nations Neil Elliott notes the parallels between ancient Roman imperialism and the imperialism of the contemporary context, "the global military supremacy that is official U.S. policy and the globalizing capitalism that it serves" (p. 7). Elliott acknowledges the anachronism between the two situations and largely leaves this comparison in the background throughout the rest of the text. Despite this comparative lens not being in the foreground, it is clear that he deliberately reads Paul's letter to the Romans in the light of it. In order to analyze questions of justice, Elliott intentionally employs rhetorical and ideological critical approaches to explicitly read Romans politically.

Elliott explores the groans of the Spirit in terms of topoi (categories or aspects) of imperial ideology and rhetorical criticism in order to identify Romans as Paul's challenge to Roman imperialism. In doing this Elliott rails against the ineffective interpretations of the "New Perspective" and brings the political ramifications of Romans to the fore. His political reading provides for more comprehensive understandings of aspects of Romans than theological readings can; dogmatic readings domesticate and limit Paul's message to personal salvation, whereas Elliott draws wider meanings exploring the justice of God against human injustice. He guides his readers through the reasons why the ideological space of the public forum constrained the discourses of both the powerful and the subordinate. This means that having ail historical appreciation for the context of a particular contested public space, tempered with an understanding of relevant theory, can allow the reader to discern hidden transcripts and read against the grain according to the lenses which they employ. Most of the book entails Elliott examining Romans within the framework of five selected imperial topoi to demonstrate how Paul was speaking politically.

Helpfully, Elliott makes the suggestion that the reason the plain meanings in Romans are missed is that contemporary readers do not share Paul's perceptions on God's wrath which underpin Paul's appreciation for God's justice. Elliott posits that there have been a series of misinterpretations based upon the prejudices of the interpreters around issues, such as the various positions churches have taken on homosexuality based on Romans as well as Questions about Judaism. In exploring the contextualized political ramifications of these passages Elliott provides an alternative to the limited religious scope of other Christianizing interpretations. …

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