On the Fence about Rome

On the Fence about Rome: A Critical Review of McKnight and Modica’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not Edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica

An edited version of this review appeared in the most recent print edition of Englewood Review of Books, Eastertide 2013, Vol. 03, No. 03, p.40 (“Grappling with the Biblical Concept of Rome”). My thanks to editor Chris Smith for the opportunity to review this book.

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies presents readers with an entry point into an ongoing discussion regarding the New Testament and its engagement with the Roman Empire. The volume is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica and features ten essays exploring the New Testament’s navigation of and engagement with the Roman Empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is primarily a critical reading of leading scholars who, using an interpretive lens known as “imperial criticism,” suggest that the focus of particular New Testament documents is to resist and critique the Roman Empire. As such, this volume reads like one side of an ongoing and lively conversation. This may pose difficulties for readers who have not engaged the scholars with whom the contributors are in dialogue.

For readers familiar with current trends in New Testament scholarship related to postcolonial and imperial criticism, there is significant ambivalence to be found throughout these collected essays as well as in the introduction and conclusion from McKnight and Modica. At times, contributors suggest that various New Testament documents are critical of the dominant imperial order (e.g., Diehl, 38-81; Willitts, 83; Strait, 143; Bird, 161). At other points, even within the same essay, contributors argue that the Empire is not the—or even a—target of a given New Testament composer’s critique (e.g. Pinter, 114; Strait, 141; Bevere, 183ff). Most of the essays offer a balanced approach to the New Testament and Empire, thus supplying helpful correctives to certain postcolonial readings which have overemphasized a focus on Rome. Diehl’s essay on anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament, Willitt’s exploration of Matthew and Empire, Skinner’s treatment of John, Bird’s reading of Romans, and Sheets’ piece on Revelation and the Empire all stand out as helpful, corrective readings of biblical texts and certain imperial critics. These essays are also careful imperial-critical readings of the texts in their own right.

Often when the contributors suggest a given text is not so heavily-focused on Rome, we would do well to accept their helpful attempt at swinging the pendulum from one extreme to a more moderate point. But when the social world of the New Testament is so muted and the argument is made that the gospel has only to do with resistance to Satan, as the editors suggest in their conclusion (McKnight & Modica, 212), the corrective has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Although Modica, who is suspicious of imperial criticism, suggests that it requires certain “hermeneutical gymnastics” (Modica, 20), one wonders what sort of interpretive calisthenics prepared Bevere, for example, to argue that Colossians 2:15 does not brazenly critique Judean client-rulers and their imperial patrons as well (Bevere, 193), or that Paul’s letter to Philemon may not subtly (and brilliantly) subvert the practice of slavery in the Greco-Roman world (Bevere, 194). One wonders also how Luke’s social location is comparable to Josephus, or how Josephus, who inherited the emperor’s former residence in Rome, can in any way be described as writing “from the margins” (Pinter, 103).

Similarly problematic are the editors’ concluding remarks: “To make the claim ‘Jesus is Lord,’ one does not make specific sociopolitical allegiances; rather the claim forthrightly involves repentance and following Jesus” (McKnight & Modica, 212). Here the emphasis is placed squarely on the individualized spiritual experience of the lordship of Jesus while the socio-political dimensions are muted. The editors thus fall into the very trap they caution against by creating a “binary confusion” which requires the lordship of Jesus to be about repentance and discipleship and not about political allegiances. By so spiritualizing the lordship of Jesus, the editors have created a neat bifurcation between “politics” and “religion,” or “social” and “spiritual.” Such a dichotomy is simply anachronistic to the New Testament and its social world. Although the editors later argue that the Kingdom of God is both spiritual and political, by overemphasizing the “stark contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan,” the reader is left to wonder how such a posture towards Satan ‘plays out’ on the stage of early Christian communal life in the Roman Empire (McKnight & Modica, 212-213).

In effect, suggesting that the New Testament is concerned with subverting Satan only pushes the question one step further back. It leads naturally to the question of how the kingdom of Satan impinged upon the world that the earliest Christians inhabited and how the Kingdom of God pushed back against it. The New Testament stands on the shoulders of inherited prophetic and apocalyptic traditions which connect the work of evil and otherworldly powers with the machinations of empires (e.g. Daniel 7-12; portions of 1 Enoch). Skinner, in his essay on the Gospel of John, offers a helpful perspective in a footnote: “Almost continuously from 605 BCE to 192 CE, Israel was under the rule of…foreign empires. […] This series of foreign subjugations no doubt played an important part in Jewish self-identity during the first century CE” (Skinner, 117n1). Add to this the “apocalyptic and messianic narrative” of Paul’s gospel (Bird, 161) and it seems clear that the earliest Jesus followers understood Rome to be one of the functionaries of Satan’s reign, just like the empires which preceded it.

In all, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is a very good collection of essays from diverse perspectives on the New Testament documents and their posture(s) towards the Roman Empire. This diversity of perspective is helpful and allows readers a glimpse of the variety of available readings of the New Testament in its Roman imperial context. A significant lacuna exists, however, in the absence of a chapter on Mark alongside the chapters on Matthew, Luke, and John. Especially with the recent publication of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man[1] and Richard Horsley’s sustained imperial critical reading of Mark throughout much of his work,[2] this is a glaring omission.

Overall, McKnight and Modica’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is a welcome contribution and may serve as a valuable point of entry for those who are not aware that such a discussion about the New Testament and Rome has been taking place among scholars over the last few decades. It would provide excellent fodder for discussion in church bible studies, small groups, and undergraduate settings in Christian colleges.


[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th Anniversary Ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008).

[2] Richard A. Horsley, “The Kingdom of God and the Renewal of Israel: Synoptic Gospels, Jesus Movements, and Apocalypticism,” ed. John J. Collins, The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism: Volume 1: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity (New York: Continuum, 2000); Ibid., Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001); Ibid, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

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