A (Sort of) Book Review: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

“Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not”

McKnight, Scot and Joseph B. Modica (eds). Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2013

I was quite excited to pick up this book. Scot McKnight has become one of my favourite authors lately. He is well known for his work on the New Testament and the Apostolic proclamation. He is the author of a dizzying number of books, including the recent book TheKing Jesus Gospel which made some waves. He is also the author several commentaries (his commentary on Galatians in the NIVAC is stellar), and an editor of the IVP Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (the IVP Dictionary set is a must have resource in my humble opinion). McKnight and his colleague (whom I admittedly haven’t read) Joseph Modica (Eastern University) have edited this volume of essays on the topic of Empire Criticism in New Testament studies. They gathered several authors to contribute essays on specific books of the New Testament (plus one which is an introductory survey of the whole New Testament, and another which is an introduction to the Roman Imperial Cult).

So, for those not familiar, what is Empire Criticism? In his review of the same book, Peter Enns suggests it is “an approach to New Testament studies whereby the New Testament’s message is seen primarily as a criticism of the Roman empire. Put another way, the proclamation ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not simple an expression of religious devotion but political subversion, since Caesar was also known as ‘lord.’” In other words, scholars using this approach assume that the primary thrust of the New Testament is depicting Jesus and the True Lord and Caesar as the false lord, and the text of the New Testament is designed to challenge the Emperor and Empire’s claims by exalting Jesus as the foil to Caesar.

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, is designed to probe the findings of the scholars who see Empire criticism everywhere in the New Testament and scrutinize these claims, and see if they hold any real weight. Is the claim that the New Testament is first and foremost Anti-Roman rhetoric valid?

The contributors are an interesting group. I have to admit, I was not familiar with several. They have a variety of research interests, but broadly, they all have made prior contributions in terms of the social world of the New Testament, and so were familiar with the sources using the Empire criticism approach to New Testament interpretation. But as can be expected with most essay collections, some essays will catch the reader more than others. Same can be said of this book and its reader; I found a spectrum of feeling captivated at times and not so much at other time by the various contributions. This may simply be my own biases as a reader. I found some essays riveting, and others somewhat dull and disappointing.

Overall their conclusions are similar. Most of the authors (and the editors in their conclusion chapter) agree that most Empire criticism goes far beyond what the text allows for; although there are hints of Empire in some places, and some of the statements about God in Christ have implications for the Imperial Cult, the motivation of New Testament authors are not specifically targeting Caesar or the Empire. The New testament is concerned first a foremost with demonstrating that Jesus is Lord. That Caesar is not, is of secondary importance (see for instance Bevere’s introduction to his essay on Colossians and Philemon). The notable exceptions to this (not contrary, but simply seeing more interaction with imperialism and the imperial cult) are Michael Bird’s superb essay on Romans, and Dwight Sheets’ brief but engaging assessment of the book of Revelation. These authors do not suggest that the main concern is critique of Empire, but that in both cases there are definite declarations that Christians cannot give to Rome the type of allegiance and credit Rome may demand.

So the overall “thesis” (if can say a collection of essays has one unified thesis) is that while the New Testament contains material which colours how Early Christians were to navigate life in the Roman Empire, but overall, Empire criticism goes into the process of eisegesis (a “reading into the text” something which is not necessarily there) and proper exegesis cannot support the extent of the claims of advocates of Empire criticism.

The Good

I’d love to get into each of the contributions individually as they each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but doing that would be excessive and I’m sure most of my readers would drop off pretty quickly and not finish that post which would be very, very long. So I will only highlight some particular highlights from a few of the contributions.

As a whole, the contributions are quite strong, but Michael Bird’s essay on Romans in probably the stand out for me. It does argue that Empire is certainly there in the text, and Bird argues that Paul is trying to help the Christians in the Imperial Capital live in that context. There is a clear push by Paul there (and elsewhere in his letters, e.g. Philippians) to recognize that Jesus is Lord over all other powers, which does indeed mean Roman claims to supremacy over all the earth are false. However, Bird does also emphasize that Paul is not first and foremost anti-Empire, but pro-Jesus. He writes, “Romans is not a political manifesto. It is pastoral theology, albeit one not divorced from the sociopolitical realities of the Roman Mediterranean. The universal vision of Paul’s gospel clearly competes with Roman vision for its universal reign.” (161). This take, I believe is helpful.

Other particularly strong tidbits deserve recognition. David Nystrom’s introduction to the Imperial Cult and Roman ideology is very helpful to get the reader situated. That essay is brief, but solid in terms of content (effective use of written space, which is always to be commended). For readers not well versed in Imperial Cult or Roman Imperial history, this is very helpful. My own background in history made this essay not completely foreign, but nevertheless, this was very helpful to reestablish my understanding of the context for the Empire criticism discussion.

Judith Diehl’s overview of Anti-Empire Rhetoric in the New Testament, although long (especially given that many of the New Testament books would be covered in subsequent chapters) was very well done. Diehl provides some wonderful insights into what New Testament texts would look like within the sociopolitical milieu of the first century, as well as covering the tricky business of persecution in the first century, which is not quite what many have assumed. Little evidence exists to suggest widespread government back persecution of Christians during the time of the New Testament’s composition. However, social marginalization and local persecutions do seem to be evident for some congregations. Keeping this in mind clarifies some statements which can be read as condemnation of Caesar and the Imperial power.

Dwight Sheets short, concise and less technical essay on Revelation was a fun read. Any academic contribution featuring a Star Wars analogy is worth highlight. Kudos to Sheets for making such a risky choice for an academic contribution. Overall the essay was convincing but not as intense as the other contributions. It features a shorter bibliography, fewer pages and a more “broad strokes” approach, which I found odd given the fact that Revelation arguably contains the greatest amount of interaction with the authority of Rome. But Sheets effectively condenses the material and covers only the most relevant material. With all the comments on Revelation available, wading through this is difficult but Sheets manoeuvres well.

Bevere’s article on Colossians deserves mention for being the most upfront, and decisive piece. Bevere gives his overall assessment in the first couple of sentences, tipping his hand right away, which I appreciate in this type of context. Some authors like to tip-toe around, but Bevere cuts to the chase. There is no wasted space in his contribution, and he doesn’t use nuanced language to give a complex thesis. He simply says Colossians is not Empire focused, but has implications for Empire.

Overall, the scholarship is impeccable and extensive. The research poured into this publication is top-notch. The extensive bibliographies and references indicate a detailed reading of proponents of Empire criticism and a few other relevant works. I was thrilled to see Empire in the New Testament (McMaster New Testament Studies) pop up regularly. It’s always an uplifting experience to see folks who taught you and studied with you getting recognition (the contributors to that volume are largely connected to McMaster Divinity College where I studied).

On a note I often harp on, I was thrilled to see in this work the use of footnotes and not endnotes. Thank you to IVP and the editors and contributors for sticking to this. It is very much appreciated by this reader.

The Not-So-Good

As I found the argument(s) compelling, and hard to critique in any significant way (a few minor details which I might take issue with, but not anything in terms of the overall argument) the most notable issues to make note of are merely structural not content related. Overall the conclusions are solid, the research is meticulous and hard to find any problems with (perhaps a biblical scholar would be more capable of engaging on that level than myself), so that leaves less to critique.

One issue which arises for me is the vastly different amounts of space given to one contribution over another. Some of the articles are significantly longer and more detailed, while others are brief, with less thorough interaction with the other written material. For example, Bird’s bibliography is three pages, whereas Sheets’ is only eight sources. The unbalance there is obvious. I would assume Revelation would have more to go on and would perhaps warrant a more detailed and extensive treatment, and more source material to go on than some others. I would have loved to have seen Sheets go deeper, and perhaps Willits’ offering on Matthew trimmed. Willits’ essay on Matthew’s gospel was the only article I would call a disappointment (although that term seems a bit harsh). I found his article a bit tedious and dry (not to pick on Willits who is an exceptional scholar, I just had trouble getting into his work here which mainly critiques the work of Warren Carter who has written several works on Anti-Empire rhetoric in the New Testament).

The only other thing to make serious note of the fact that I really wanted McKnight and Modica to lend their voices more. The intro and conclusion were very brief, and didn’t feel like the lent much to the overall impact of the book. While the introduction does dip into some of the issues of overlapping terminology (kyrios, soter, euangellion which are used in both New Testament and imperial rhetoric), I would have liked to see these two gentlemen offer up more of their own to the discussion.

Overall

Having read a lot of NT Wright lately, who does not go as far as other proponents of Empire criticism but nevertheless makes a point of declaring that the Gospel proclamation of Jesus is Lord is at it’s core also a condemnation of the claims of Caesar, I found this counterpoint refreshing. This book serves as a helpful balancing out of the readings which may push too far in one direction. While I don’t read much of the Empire criticism material out there, I am at lease aware that it’s there, and through NT Wright is coming into a broader readership, so this publication is timely. The discourse of of the academics often needs voices bringing the discussion back from getting too far in one direction. The New Testament was written by people living in the Empire. That context inevitably colours their understanding and writing. But to what extent? That is why this book is needed. It strikes a balance I think. While the majority of the content leans towards limiting the Empire’s direct influence on the New Testament, Bird and Sheets make it clear that the early Church’s proclamation was in fact a challenge to the claims of the Imperial cult. Dean Pinter (who writes on Luke’s gospel) and Drew Strait (Acts) reveal the way that Luke writes in a way which is not entirely Anti-Empire, but encourages his readers to carefully navigate the Empire carefully. Caesar may demand allegiance, but Jesus is Lord of all. Caesar may be a king, but God is King of kings (114, 144-5). So, Strait concludes that Luke may “subtly critique Caesar” but not directly. Bevere sees similar content in Colossians, that although Paul is not writing a piece of anti-Roman propaganda, his proclamation of Christ has indirect consequences for the Christians’ relationship to Rome.

The overall value of this book is somewhat specific. It speaks to a specific discussion within the academic field. So it may not appeal to a large audience. But the overall reception from the reviews I’ve seen are generally positive, and I also would lend a positive assessment to this collection. As a pastor, this book may not generate a lot of help for sermon writing, but is helpful for solidifying a careful hermeneutic. How we read Scripture matters, and we have to be careful to try to take from the text what is really there, and not impose on the text what doesn’t belong. Several authors refer to the growth in Empire criticism as a result of pot-colonialism, and that contemporary context colours our own readings of the text. We see anti-Imperialism in the New Testament because so many see American foreign policy imposing on others.

This collection is a good reminder that Rome is part of the context of the New Testament, but it is not the main point of the New Testament, which instead points to Jesus, the promised Messiah of YHWH, who overcame death at the hands of Rome. The New Testament is not written to promote anti-Roman sentiment, but to encourage the people of God that YHWH is above all powers. It proclaims that the promises the God of Israel are fulfilled in Jesus. The language used to talk about Jesus is borrowed from the Scriptures of Israel, and have implications for Caesar, but are not specifically a subversive attack.

McKnight and Modica have created here a helpful contribution to the world of New Testament studies. The contributors have all presented with rigourous research, and have effectively demonstrated what they set out to do- to put the conclusions and methods of Empire criticism under close scrutiny to see if they hold up. And they have found the discipline lacking.

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2 Responses to A (Sort of) Book Review: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

  1. Thanks Shane, appreciate you taking the time to interact with this.

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