BMCR 2009.09.27

Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke

, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008. xvi, 228. ISBN 978-0-8028-6008-8. $24.00 (pb).

In this volume, Seyoon Kim, professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena California, describes and critiques an aspect of New Testament studies that has arisen out of a renewed interest in the Roman context of the New Testament. Specifically, Kim is interested in recent interpretations which suggest that some New Testament authors, here Paul and Luke, include in their writings a challenge to Caesar and his empire. With respect to Paul, this is a particularly timely study. A number of recent books have been published in this area and there is a group that meets at the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature entitled Paul and Politics devoted to this controversial topic.1 Kim’s book contributes to the debate, but it is less successful with Paul than it is with Luke.

The book is divided into two main parts, the first of which is devoted to Paul. In chapters one and two, Kim describes arguments by authors who see counter-imperial messages in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, Philippians, Romans, and 1 Corinthians. The description also includes critical evaluations of the works described. Chapter three is short and describes what the author believes to be methodological problems with these interpretations. In chapter four, Kim provides his reasons why the counter-imperial approach is a misreading of Paul: the lack of specific critique of the Roman empire, no reference to the imperial cult, the absence of an anti-imperial interpretation in the early church, and the role which eschatological passages contribute to Paul’s message, since Paul expects the end to come soon. Kim discusses Philippians 1:19-26, in which Paul reveals his attitude towards the Roman court (he was a prisoner at the time Philippians was written), and Romans 13:1-7, a passage seemingly favorable to Rome. Chapter five includes a conclusion which summarizes the previous chapters. Kim believes that this anti-imperial interpretation arises from a misreading of Paul, which ultimately goes back to a flawed method.

The second part is devoted to the Lukan writings, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter six is a brief (two-page) introduction to Luke and Acts, which among other things notes that Roman officials such as Pilate, Felix, and Festus saw no anti-imperial message in the teachings of Jesus or Paul. In chapter seven, Kim describes Jesus as Messiah and King and concludes the chapter by asking the question, “how does Luke think of Jesus’ Davidic kingship vis-à-vis Caesar?” (p. 93). In chapters eight through ten, Kim answers this question by describing Jesus’ and the Apostles’ ministry of redemption. He demonstrates that Jesus’ ministry was not focused on deliverance from an earthly Roman kingdom but rather deliverance from Satan’s kingdom. In chapter eleven, Kim suggests a number of reasons why Luke is not concerned with political redemption. First, Kim includes an interesting discussion of the differing views of Luke’s eschatology. Did Luke, like Paul, expect an imminent end to the present age? Or, was he reacting to a delay in this event? Kim concludes that Luke believed the end was not too distant but may have been delayed. Following this, Kim makes observations and provides other reasons why Luke is not concerned with political redemption. These include approaches to Luke’s writings that are seen as either apologies of the church to the empire or of the empire to the church. Other observations from these texts which make an anti-imperial message unlikely include: political realism, an appreciation of the Pax Romana, and the fact that the current Roman authorities were not yet as offensive to the church as they would become later in the century, as reflected in the book of Revelation. Kim is cautious and notes that individually these arguments are not persuasive, but, with the eschatology described above, they can explain why Luke was not concerned with a political message. Chapter twelve includes a summary and conclusion. A brief discussion of the books of Revelation and Hebrews is presented here. Although Revelation clearly has Roman imperial imagery, the explicit message is not one of overthrowing the empire. Hebrews has a high-priestly Christology; however, there is no contrast or polemic against Caesar.

The book concludes with a brief epilogue discussing present implications of the study, an eleven-page select bibliography, an index of modern authors, and an index of scripture and other ancient texts.

In the preface of the volume, Kim notes that the book arose out of research for a commentary on Paul’s Thessalonian epistles (p. xi) and acknowledges its limited scope. This is clearly evident in his section on Paul: he devotes only seventy one pages to Paul—in comparison to about 124 to Luke—and only twenty-seven to Paul’s alleged counter-imperial views. The remaining pages are devoted to method and counter-argument. In view of the controversial nature of the Pauline material (much more so than the Lukan), this lack of emphasis is puzzling. Furthermore, the works on Paul with which Kim interacts are minimal and include few major works. Among those who are seriously challenged in this section are J. R. Harrison and N. T. Wright, important proponents of the counter-imperial interpretation of Paul. However, they are challenged mainly on the grounds of a single article each and a book by Wright that is aimed at a general not a scholarly audience.2 To some extent, Kim is a victim of unfortunate timing. Harrison is completing a full length monograph on Paul and the Roman empire3 and Wright has a planned major volume on Paul.4 Also, an important monograph was released this year on imperial cults and Galatians which Kim could not use.5

The content of chapters three and four are essential for Kim’s argument against a counter-imperial reading of Paul. However, chapter three, on method, is only six pages long. Kim introduces important topics such as parallelomania, deduction from assumptions, proof-texting, and coding. For example, Kim seems to suggest that scholars who argue that it would be counter-imperial for Paul to use titles for Jesus that were common for emperors (e.g., savior, lord, son of god, etc.) are guilty of parallelomania. It is true many such titles were common in the Greek Old Testament, but it is difficult to maintain that Greek and Roman audiences would be able to detach themselves from their culture. Kim does not consider whether some terms can be so culturally significant that they would be seen as a challenge to the emperor or that certain terms in specific contexts would be generally restricted to the emperor so their use for Christ in some contexts could be seen as polemical.6 I agree with Kim that coding was an unlikely general method for Paul. It makes little sense for Paul to be hiding his message if one maintains that certain statements are counter-imperial. Chapter four is more detailed than chapter three. However, most of Kim’s arguments against the counter-imperial position have been discussed in various ways by those criticized by Kim and by others who do not share an anti-imperial agenda.7 Unfortunately, Kim does not interact with these arguments in any meaningful way. I must agree that Paul (like Luke) is not primarily interested in countering the empire. Paul has strong concerns and theological concepts that are based in the Jewish scriptures. Nevertheless, Paul is part of a Roman empire and his concerns for Christ’s role in the Christian’s life are at times directly at odds with the Roman imperial government’s policies. If Kim is arguing only against those who see an anti-imperial message in Paul and nothing else, he has a case. However, such readings likely reflect a minority position. Many of the authors he cites (e.g., Harrison and Wright) are not so limited in their readings. Yes, the Roman context is very important for them. Yes, Paul is challenging the emperor and the empire with his message. However, they would not say this is the only aspect of the message. For these authors, the message of Paul is such that it involves a challenge to everything, including the emperor, who makes claims on every Christian which are at odds with the exclusive role of Christ. Given the importance of the emperor in the Roman world and the pervasiveness of imperial ideology, it is not unreasonable that New Testament authors would include counter-imperial messages in their writings which encourage their readers to a single devotion to Christ.

Further work needs to be done on the use of background material in the interpretation of ancient literature. The material from the ancient world is significant, both in quantity and potential impact. Kim’s volume contributes by helping the reader see the value of this material. This is especially true for Luke. Kim also highlights possible dangers if this material is misused. However, for Paul, he seems to be too cautious and fails to account for the Roman context of which Paul and his letters are a part. A more nuanced approach is needed with additional interaction with proponents of the approach he is critiquing. Nevertheless, this is a helpful volume introducing the reader to some of the important issues involved.

Table of Contents: 1. Reading 1 and 2 Thessalonians in terms of the imperial cult 3
2. Anti-imperial interpretation of other Pauline epistles 11
3. The problems of the method 28
4. Factors that make an anti-imperial interpretation difficult 34
5. Summary and conclusion 65
6. The Gospel charged as anti-imperial 75
7. Jesus the Davidic Messiah and universal lord, and his liberation of Israel 77
8. Jesus’ redemption: it is not a deliverance from the Roman Empire 94
9. Jesus redemption: it is a deliverance from the kingdom of Satan 114
10. The apostles’ campaign against the kingdom of Satan and witness to the kingdom of God 151
11. Reasons for lack of concern for the political materialization of redemption 161
12. Summary and conclusion 191
Epilogue: Some implications for today 200
Select bibliography 204
Index of modern authors 215
Index of scripture and other ancient texts 218


1. For example, among recent works, three collections of articles have come out of the Paul and Politics group: Richard A. Horsley (ed.), Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA, 1997); Richard A. Horsley (ed.), Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation. Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl (Harrisburg, PA, 2000); and Richard A. Horsley (ed.), Paul and the Roman Imperial Order (Harrisburg, PA, 2004), of which the former, Paul and Empire, is primarily abbreviated selections from works which have influenced those who work in this area.

2. J. R. Harrison, “Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessaloniki,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 25 (2002): 71-96; N. T. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Horsley, Paul and Politics (see n. 1)), 160-83; and N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, 2005).

3. J. R. Harrison, Paul and the Imperial Authorities At Thessalonica and Rome: A Study in the Conflict of the Ideology of Rule (Tübingen, forthcoming).

4. A volume on Paul is planned for Wright’s series, Christian Origins and the Question of God (SPCK [London] and Fortress Press (Minneapolis]). I am unaware of any publication date for this volume.

5. Justin K. Hardin, Galatians and the Imperial Cult: A Critical Analysis of the First-Century Social Context of Paul’s Letter (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2, 237; Tübingen, 2008). Although this published volume was not available for Kim to use, it was available as a PhD thesis completed at the University of Cambridge, 2006.

6. Using insights from communication theory, I have argued that in certain contexts, the term κύριος for Jesus would be considered a challenge to the living Caesar. Communication is too complex to make simple statements about such propositions (“The Lord of the Entire World: Lord Jesus, a Challenge to Lord Caesar ?” Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 2007 [forthcoming under the same title to be published by Sheffield Phoenix Press (Sheffield, UK)]).

7. See for example the work of Mark Nanos, who views the authorities discussed in Romans 13 as Jewish synagogue authorities ( The Mystery of Romans [Minneapolis, 1996], 289-336).