A Summary of Chapter 4 of Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright

1. Introduction

This chapter is entitled “Gospel and Empire” and is meant to show how Paul’s message subverted the ideology of the Roman empire. Before diving in, Wright reminds us of a couple of facts. First, Paul should be placed on the map of political opinion that existed in second-Temple Judaism and not on a map of modern political opinion. Second, the notion of separating theology and society or religion and politics was unknown to Paul and his contemporaries.

2. Caesar’s Empire and Its Ideology

Wright sums up the ideology of the empire as follows:

  1. Rome and its people were the natural home of freedom.
  2. Rome prided itself on its justice.
  3. Augustus brought peace to the empire and its people.
  4. Augustus was the savior of Rome from civil strife and its enemies.
  5. Poets and historians (e.g., Virgil, Horace, Livy) created a grand narrative of how the empire had reached its climax.
  6. After their deaths, the emperors from Julius Caesar on down were generally divinized. The new emperor took the title “son of god” even though this sonship was usually adoptive. The emperor-cult was the fastest growing religion in the eastern Mediterranean world.

3. Jewish Critique of Pagan Empire

In summarizing biblical material from Samuel, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Esther, and Daniel, N.T. Wright states (p. 66):

The Jewish political belief we find in books like this was based on a strong theology of creation, fall and providence: the one God had in fact created all the world, including all rulers, and though they were often exceedingly wicked God was overruling their whims for his own strange and often hidden purposes, and would judge them in their turn. This meant that a classic Jewish position, which echoes well into the Christianity of the second and third centuries, seems to us today to play from both ends of the spectrum at once. The rulers are wicked and will be judged, especially when they persecute God’s people. But God wants the world to be ruled, rather than to descend into anarchy and chaos, and his people must learn to live under pagan rule even though it means constant vigilance against compromise with paganism itself.

This political belief can be found in second-Temple texts such as the Wisdom of Solomon, the War Scroll (1QM), 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch.

4. Paul’s Counter-Imperial Theology

In Paul’s mind, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.  Since Jesus is Israel’s Messiah he is the world’s true Lord.  Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated God’s new world (e.g., Romans 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 2:5-11; 3:20-21).

What then of Romans 13:1-7?  Wright sees Paul as being in line with second-Temple Jewish ideas.  First, personal vengeance is forbidden but government officials have the duty to keep order and punish wrongdoers.  Second, Roman rule is “demoted” because it is shown to be accountable to the one true God and not to be divine, which is counter to imperial rhetoric.  Third, Paul wants to disabuse Christians of the notion that they can usher in God’s kingdom through violence and hatred.

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