The anti-imperial Paul “coalition” — John Barclay’s response to N.T. Wright

I was just listening to John Barclay’s excellent talk from this year’s SBL that has been posted (as an mp3) by Andy Rowell. Now I’m wishing I had been at the talk itself. Not without humour, Barclay discusses what he calls the anti-imperial Paul “coalition” (including N.T. Wright and Richard Horsley and his group). In recent years, it has become very popular within scholarship to approach Paul as clearly anti-imperial and to see this figure as having clear intentions (however hidden in code) of taking stabs at the emperors (whether as rulers or as gods) throughout his letters. It seems to me that Barclay has, in this talk, clearly pinpointed the major fault-lines in the coalition’s approach to Paul and the methodological problems in imagining we can decode some hidden code in Paul’s letters. So do listen to that talk!

I would like to clearly position myself in these “battles” within scholarship over Paul and politics. As for my views on this matter, which clearly intersect with Barclay’s, I will quote an earlier post of mine that I wrote following on the SBL in Vienna in the summer:

[Christopher D. Stanley’s helpful paper on past research into “Postcolonial Perspectives on Paul”] inspired me to ask him his opinion regarding the ways in which post-colonial theory has already heavily influenced studies by scholars such as Richard Horsley and some others involved in the Paul and Politics group of the SBL. In particular, I find that post-colonial theory has played a major role not in critical analysis but in pre-conceptions of what will be found in Paul’s letters. There is now a very common trend among those who study Paul and imperial issues to assume Paul’s anti-imperial stance rather than establishing it.

To generalize my take on it, there is an assumption (based on post-colonial or liberation theology ideas) that Paul MUST be anti-imperial. There is no need to establish whether he was. Instead, some scholars begin with this idea that he was anti-imperial and then focus on micro-details and terminology in Paul that CAN be interpreted as anti-imperial if one were to assume that he was. In this approach, there is no need to find explicit references to empire in order to assess Paul’s views. On the other hand, there are some interesting interpretive acrobatics with one of the very few explicit references to emperors and imperial matters, Romans 13 (with its seemingly positive statements on the relation between followers of Paul and the empire).

This method might be conducive to producing a good number more articles, books and dissertations on Paul’s supposed anti-imperialism (one needs more topics to study in such a well covered area as Pauline studies), but it is highly problematic in understanding the nuances of Paul’s “political” views, in my view. Stanley agreed with some aspects of my comments. He did agree that post-colonial analysis has indeed influenced the assumptions (rather than self-conscious method) of some scholarly work in this area and that there have been a number of problematic studies of anti-imperialism and Paul. We’ll have to wait for his forthcoming studies to see the details of Stanley’s findings.

As much as I agree with a modern perspective that would want Paul to be anti-imperial (I would characterize myself as anti-imperial now), I do see major problems in allowing our own modern political or theological views be the guiding principle in interpreting ancient documents, such as Paul’s letters. Enough on one of my pet peeves regarding modern scholarship on Paul and politics. (You can read more of my views and critique of such scholarship in my book, if you like.)

Much of my book on Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations was likewise focussed on deconstructing previous approaches to the study of imperial aspects of Greco-Roman society. In particular, I argued against the tendency to over-emphasize imperial cults and to interpret all of early Christianity through the lenses of the anti-imperial Apocalypse of John: “Although imperial cults [worship of the emperors] were among the issues facing Christians and diaspora Jews, these cults were not in and of themselves a key issue behind group-society tensions, nor a pivotal causal factor in the persecution of Christians” (p. 242). Quite often scholars project John the seer’s counter-imperialism onto other authors such as Paul, as though all early Christians agreed on such matters. Things were far more diverse, as I argued in that book.

The anti-imperial Paul coalition’s position on Paul is based, in part, on misinterpretations and misunderstandings of imperial cults. Here is an excerpt from my book on how imperial cults have been misused in scholarship on early Christianity (pp. 241-243), some of which clearly pertain to views espoused by Richard Horsley, N.T. Wright and others:

Scholars tend to overplay the significance of imperial cults–distinguished from religious life generally–in connection with diaspora Judaism and, even more so, early Christianity. . . . [There is a] common emphasis on the centrality of imperial cults per se for our understanding of Christian assemblies’ relations to society, particularly with regard to persecutions. Thus we find frequent references within scholarship to the antagonism or “clash” between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar, the latter being singled out from religious life generally (cf. Deissmann 1995 [1908]:338-78; Cuss 1974:35). Donald L. Jones (1980:1023), for instance, can begin his paper on Christianity and the imperial cult with the statement that: “From the perspective of early Christianity, the worst abuse in the Roman Empire was the imperial cult.” . . . An important basis of this view is the assumption that we can take the hostile viewpoints and futuristic scenarios of John’s Apocalypse as representative of the real situations and perspectives of most Christians, or even as a reliable commentary on the nature of imperial cults.

Along with such views comes a common, but highly questionable, depiction of imperial cults. One often reads of how emperor worship (particularly though not solely under emperors like Domitian) was “enforced” by Roman authorities or that there was considerable “pressure” or “demands” on Christians in their daily lives to conform to the obligational practices of imperial cults specifically (cf. Cuss 1974; Schüssler Fiorenza 1985:192-99; Hemer 1986:7-12; Winter 1994:124-43; Kraybill 1996; Slater 1998; Beale 1999:5-15, 712-14). Moreover, in this perspective, Rome took an active role in promoting such cults in the provinces and neglecting to participate could be taken as the equivalent of political disloyalty or treason, especially since imperial cults were merely political. Imperial cults stood out as a central factor leading to the persecution of Christians both by the inhabitants in the cities and by the imperial regime itself, especially in the time of Domitian when Christians were faced with death if they did not participate in such cults and acknowledge him as “lord and god.” . . .

This traditional view regarding the significance of imperial cults for Judaism and Christianity falters on several inter-related points concerning the actual character of these cults in Asia Minor. Although imperial cults were among the issues facing Christians and diaspora Jews, these cults were not in and of themselves a key issue behind group-society tensions, nor a pivotal causal factor in the persecution of Christians (cf. de Ste. Croix 1963:10; Millar 1973; Price 1984:15, 220-22). First of all, . . . cultic honors for the emperors were not an imposed feature of cultural life in Roman Asia. Rather, they were a natural outgrowth and spontaneous response on the part of civic communities and inhabitants in relation to imperial power. . . Most emperors and officials were not concerned whether the living emperor was worshiped so long as they were shown respect and honor (in whatever form) indicative of a situation in which order and peace could be maintained in the provinces. In fact, quite often these religious honors exceeded what the emperors themselves would expect or desire, at least in the case of emperors who wanted to keep in line with some Republican and Augustan traditions (cf. Suetonius, Divine Augustus 52).

Secondly, in contrast to a popular tradition within scholarship, . . . imperial cults in Roman Asia were not in fact solely political phenomena devoid of religious dimensions. If imperial cults were indeed merely political then we could understand the Christians’ non-participation as the equivalent of disloyalty or treason, in which case this would be a central cause of the persecution of Christians. However, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Fergus Millar, and others show the inadequacies of such political explanations of the persecutions, which had more to do with broader though interconnected religious and social issues. That is, persecution was often linked to the failure of Christians to fully participate in religious activities (especially sacrifice) in honor of the Greco-Roman gods generally.

Thirdly, far from being totally distinct phenomena in the eyes of most inhabitants in Asia, imperial cults were thoroughly integrated within religious life at various levels of civic and provincial society. . . [G]roups and communities reflecting various social strata integrated the emperors and imperial power within their cultural framework. The forms of honors or rituals addressed to “the revered gods” (emperors and imperial family) were not fundamentally different from those offered to traditional deities. This integration is a key to understanding the actual significance of the imperial cults for both Judaism and Christianity.

The imperial cults and the gods they honored were an issue for group-society relations only insofar as they were part and parcel of religious life in the cities. Failure to fully participate in appropriately honoring the gods (imperial deities included) in cultic contexts was one of the sources of negative attitudes towards both Jews and Christians among some civic inhabitants. Jewish and Christian “atheism” could then be perceived by some as lack of concern for others (“misanthropy”) and, potentially, as a cause of those natural disasters and other circumstances by which the gods punished individuals, groups, and communities that failed to give them their due (cf. Tertullian, Apology 40.1-5). This is why we find inhabitants of western Asia Minor, on one occasion, protesting that “if the Jews were to be their fellows, they should worship the Ionians’ gods” (Josephus, Antiquities 12.126; c. 16-13 BCE; cf. Against Apion 2.65-67; Apollonios Molon of Rhodes in Stern 1976:1.148-56). This issue which is broader than, though inclusive of, imperial cults is also a key to understanding sporadic outbreaks of persecution against Christians in Asia Minor.

It is time for scholars, particularly those of the “coalition”, to take more care in their study of Paul within the broader context of the Roman empire. It is time to stop reading into Paul (and other ancient authors) what we wish he had thought and said. Or, to quote Barclay’s appropriate critique of the “coalition”: “once you start looking for code in Paul, you can end up just about anywhere you want.” Paul said very little about imperial cults or the empire and its emperors, so let’s face that and move on to studying what he and other Greeks, Romans, Judeans, and others did say, think, or do.

4 thoughts on “The anti-imperial Paul “coalition” — John Barclay’s response to N.T. Wright

  1. Robert Holmen

    I found your blog after purchasing the recent work of Borg and Crossan in which they apparently buy into the Paul as anti-imperialist school.

    It seems to me that a missing factor in the discussion is the timing of Paul’s activities vis a vis Imperial policy. For the key period of Pauline theological growth (42-54 CE), the emperor was Claudius and official imperial policy was rather benign toward the Jews (Edict of Claudius). Thus, the situation on the ground was vastly different than it may have been under Domitian half a century later.

    What do you think?

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The First Paul by Borg and Crossan (Part 3) | Spirit of a Liberal

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The First Paul by Borg and Crossan (Part 3) « A Wretched Man Novel

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